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Review: ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ at The Keegan Theatre

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Like the popular E.L. Doctorow novel, Ragtime, the Keegan Theatre’s whimsical and bouncy new production of Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile is an intricate, quasi-historical journey as seen through the prism of historical figures (Einstein and Picasso in this instance — with a surprise contemporary guest from the future and numerous references to Matisse) at the dawning of a new age of creativity and vision.

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Bradley Foster Smith as Albert Einstein. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Riding in on a slender ninety minutes (minus an intermission), comedian and playwright Steve Martin’s play is a delicious mixture of themes — primarily, the visionary, and often complex quest for fulfillment and vision whether in Science (as represented by Albert Einstein) or in Art (represented by Pablo Picasso). Other themes that merrily percolate throughout this comic and charming play (set in a bar in France bearing the name “Lapin Agile “or —, in English — “The Nimble Rabbit”) are the themes of illusion versus reality, commerce versus artistic merit, traditionalism versus modernism and fatalism versus idealism. All these themes are explored via Martin’s clever and sly writing; Martin’s thematic concerns are heightened with the use of highly verbal and intricate puns, anecdotes, and highly-charged wordplay. Martin’s artistic palette combines elements of surreal humor, deadpan retorts, and idealistic brio all under the umbrella of the conundrum that constitutes the “ever ongoing” quest to wed the mind’s idea to produce new paradigms in Art and Science.

Director Chris Stezin does a superlative job of blending all of the textual, acting, and technical elements of this intriguing play. Stezin keeps the pacing bouncy and sharp yet, concurrently, presents themes in a relaxed and charming “matter –of-fact” manner (in keeping with the setting of a comforting bar in Montmartre, France). As author Martin embraces a mixture of tone in his writing, so does Stezin embrace the myriad tones with his inherent understanding of how to stage this fascinating piece. Rarely have I seen such superb physical movement and placement of actors on the stage –especially considering that this is a fairly large ensemble of actors.

The earthy mooring points of the play are the characters of Freddy the barkeeper (Brandon McCoy) and Gaston –the elderly tavern visitor with a fatalistic sense of humor (Kevin Adams). Both McCoy and Adams handle their roles with an unstudied and natural command of the stage.

As one of Picasso’s flames, the character of Suzanne is embodied by Amanda Forstrom with flair and obvious relish. Forstrom pushes theatrical élan and posing to its limit — but her bold acting style pays off with her pitch-perfect timing and nimble physical agility. Forstrom’s monologue as she reminisces about Picasso while the “Au Claire de Lune” plays in the background is incandescent and moving.

The character of Germaine (Allison Leigh Corke) is another practical anchor to this quasi-elusively written play. Corke plays her role with just the right touch of nonchalance and earthiness.

The sagacious character of Sagot (Lee Liebeskind) is a wry delight throughout the play. Liebeskind’s performance is marvelously subtle and comically deadpan especially when musing on the merits of Matisse.

A decided highlight of this production is the adrenaline-charged performance of Michael Innocenti as the hilarious Charles Dabernow Schmendiman. In a very limited amount of stage time, Innocenti evokes the perfect timing and shtick of Groucho Marx to a tee.

Another acting highlight among many is that of Mike Kozemchak as a very recognizable Visitor from the future. Kozemchak’s “over–the–top” performance works with broad appeal to spare.

Now we proceed to the two pivotal roles: As Pablo Picasso, Matthew J. Keenan moves with agility and plays up the sensual and womanizing aspect of his character with gusto.

Bradley Foster Smith as Albert Einstein is so sublime and at ease in his role that comparison or analysis seems pointless. Smith can express multitudes with one dazed look; his ability to mumble and talk to himself while evoking laughter shows expert comic timing. His lithe grace and quirky aplomb is a joy to watch. Smith’s Einstein is an utterly audacious and original creation.

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Bradley Foster Smith (Albert Einstein) and Lee Liebeskind (Pablo Picasso). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The set design by Matthew J. Keenan is simply stunning. Floating “Calder-esque” mobiles hang from the rafters (and these floating panels double as witty, striking visuals for the wonderful Projection Design by Patrick Lord). Abstract techniques are contrasted against more traditional art. An extended rear stage dining area and cozy café tables and bar add to the comforting look of the décor. Chandeliers in traditional brass add to the ambience.

Lighting Design by G. Ryan Smith is appropriately breezy and captivating. The costumes by Erin Nugent are colorful and attractive.

Subtle hints of Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park with George pervade as the moving finale stresses that what matters above all is the ability to draw a line or express an idea. As I watched the visionary ending with the stars shining overhead, I realized that there was, indeed, an emotional wallop underneath the comedy of this innovative play.

Kudos to Keegan Theatre! Do not miss this unique and moving production!

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Picasso at Lapin Agile plays through February 13, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265 – 3767, or purchase them online.

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