What is there to hate about a century? Wasn’t the 20th century the grandest that had yet to come in its time? The century where no political movement will be as glorious as the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind; that century is captured in The Salem Players 2014 production of Picasso at the Lapine Agile. A brilliantly poignant comic play written by Steve Martin, the play marks area actor Daniel Douek’s Directorial debut. A true punch line of comedy if ever there was one; the play starts in a café in France in 1904 featuring Einstein and Picasso in a bar. Add in Elvis for good measure and you’ve got history’s greatest joke waiting to happen.
Director Daniel Douek also serves as the show’s Set Designer. The antique bar is a gleaming focal point for the performance’s setting; a great deal of action happening around it. The purple walls are a nice local touch of color, a hidden homage to the Baltimore roots of the performance community involved therein. It’s Douek’s work with Special Effects Designer Tim Van Sant that keeps the production intriguing. The photographic metamorphosis as well as the whirling slide show of images that overwhelms the senses at the end of the production is a symbolic representation of the way the 20th century came crashing into mankind; an overwhelming escapade for which we were not quite yet ready.
Douek’s Directorial debut is not without its problems, but does come with surprising control over the cast, really getting the more dynamic emotions in broad strokes from the actors. The biggest issue with the performance is pacing. Although the show appears to move fast, coming in just around the 90 minute marker, there are scenes particularly when dialogue is meant to be gaining momentum where the pacing crawls along. This happens most often when two or more characters are meant to be involved in a dialogue exchange and the natural flow of heated debate or intense conversation becomes stifled.
Douek commands solid performances out of the cast. The emotional stakes which are present throughout the performance are raw and unrelenting, particularly from first time performer Felix Hernandez, who takes on the title role of Picasso. Hernandez has a great deal of fiery passion that he brings to the portrayal of the infuriating painter, his raw talent easily detectable in the connections he makes with the other characters on stage. Douek drives a great deal of intensity from Hernandez’ performance but needs to balance this against moments of stillness and silence so that his explosive moments of over-the-top emblazoned passion are able to feel that much more ferocious.
Other exceptional performances in the production include that of Harris Allgeier, playing Albert Einstein. Allgeier has Einstein’s facial expressions mapped down to a fine science and executes them with precision madness. It’s his accent that stands out the most; a true muddled blend of what we think Einstein sounded like and what his background indicated he ought to have sounded like. There are a good half dozen moments when Allgeier steals the scene with his whooping holler of a laugh or his bombastic outbursts, generally geared toward Picasso. Allgeier gives an impressive rendition of the theorist balancing the expectation of such an iconic figure against his own unique interpretation quite impressively.
Scene stealing, however, is the game of Ashley Gerhardt playing the saucy yet sly Germaine. One might go so far as to call her Saint Germaine if it weren’t for the obvious horns holding up her halo in this particular character portrayal. Gerhardt’s ability to drive a comic bit while simultaneously playing the moment for truth is astounding. This happens repeatedly throughout the performance but never quite so noticeable as during the ‘book pitch scene’ with Allgeier. The pièce de rèsistance of her performance is her ‘future predictions scene’ a true moment in the spotlight in all her talented glory. Balancing the tenacious side of her character against her husband Freddy (Christopher Carothers) and the subtly seductive side against Picasso, Gerhardt gives a sensationally dynamic portrayal in this production.
Suzanne (Gemma Daviness) is a delicate lusting flower that turns on the charm and sex appeal for every man present. Gaston (Scott Graham) is a doddering dirty old man who can hardly resist her. When Daviness waxes poetic in her dreamy wispy voice over her encounter with Picasso, Graham’s responses are comic brilliance. And let’s not forget our “Special Visitor” (Orbie Shively) who shows up with pelvis-poppin’ moves fit for a king. Though his accent smacks more toward the man in black, his lip curl and physicality would make for a good show down in the jungle room.
The message twined into the comedy in this production is a great one to ruminate on; a solid piece of mentally provocative theatre guised under the mask of true comedy; a thoroughly enjoyable evening out.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission
Picasso at the Lapine Agile plays through October 26, 2014 at The Salem Players— Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church at 905 Frederick Road in Catonsville, MD. For tickets call (410) 747-0720 or purchase them online.