‘Picasso at the Lapine Agile’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse by Manda Gunther

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Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar. Add in a couple more cleverly conceived curious characters and you’ve got a recipe for ridiculous comedy that will tickle your funny bone until your sides are sore. Laurel Mill Playhouse is bringing a true comic gem to the stage with its production of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapine Agile. Directed by Stephen M. Deininger, this absurd comedy puts the truth of the 20th century into perspective: no political movement was greater than the music, science, and art that arose from it. With brilliant comic moments that carry the show through to its extremely breathtaking and awe-striking conclusion, this is one show you won’t want to miss in this nippy winter weather.

Pablo Picasso (left- Matthew Purpora) and Albert Einstein (right- Joseph Coracle). Photo by John Cholod.
Pablo Picasso (left- Matthew Purpora) and Albert Einstein (right- Joseph Coracle). Photo by John Cholod.

There is something deliciously inviting about a Parisian café at the turn of the century and Set Designer James Raymond, with Stephen M. Deininger assisting, has captured the essence of its charm and mystery in the lovely interior set upon the stage. The iconic paintings littered about the wall in a classy yet casual fashion create a slightly edgy atmosphere; one that today might be referred to as ‘quaintly hipster’ but for the time period is perfectly elegant. Raymond and Deininger’s color scheme lets a tranquil liveliness radiate from the space; blending the chaos of the characters that inhabit the play with the curious notion of the plot into a tangible sensation that slips over the walls and out into the audience.

Costume Designer Kat McKerrow brings a blend of post and neo romantic styling to the outfits for the cast; from corsets to suits there is something enchanting about each outfit and the way it is perfectly suited for the vibrant characters that it clothes. McKerrow hones in on the quirks of each character’s personality and produces matching threads accordingly so that the little nuances of these people are augmented in their fashion statements.

No truer fact in theatrical performance than that which speaks to the material of a comedy being funny over the performers, and this fact is proven by Director Stephen M. Deininger and his cast of incredibly talented character actors. Playing their scenes for honest truth showcases their knowledge of how to handle and deliver comedy, even when they come charging at the fourth wall like a heard of rampaging bulls and smash through it with the force of Mjölnir. Deininger’s ensemble-esque approach to this witty comedy makes it approachable and relatable for all audiences, keeping the pace moving while allowing the laughs to land easily on the audience’s ears.

The play’s strongest focal point is the rich character profiles that populate the action and Deininger has done an exceptional job of making each one pop off the stage and into the mind’s, and occasionally the laps, of the audience. Each performer brings their own unique quirks and qualities to the show, creating a cornucopia of vivacious characters, each like a wild and blinding stroke of genius in a living, moving painting; the perfect amalgamation of story evolving around its tellers.

Even minor characters that appear briefly or say little, as in the case of The Countess (Luba Hansen) or Freddy (Damien Gibbons) every detail is sharply focused making this people a key component of operational unity in this production. Hansen splits her roles between the briefly encountered eccentric countess-love interest of Einstein; a well-articulated yet subtle accent distinguishing this character from her overzealous and frighteningly annoying ‘fan girl’ character. Gibbons maintains a delicately grounded persona for his slightly stoic character, keeping the majority of his actions in silent mocking facial gestures.

Embodying a world of mystery and intrigue; the pinnacle characteristics of a woman at the turn of the century is Kat McKerrow in her portrayal of Germaine. Lover or fighter she handles it all with swift delivery and a versatility that makes her character multifaceted and engaging. McKerrow’s most intense moments are shared in passionate torment and also freakish clairvoyance; a combination that when mastered in one performance are truly exceptional.

The defining characteristic for several of the performers in this production is the cadence that they apply to their character’s vocalizations and physicality. This is particularly true of Stephen M. Deininger’s portrayal of Gaston, the slightly doddering and lascivious old man. It’s the way that Deininger infuses an older sound and slower speed into his spoken words and shuffling about that truly make the character convincing. The same can be said of Samantha McEwen’s portrayal of the ditzy Suzanne. McEwen adapts her voice with an airy quality and a fevered pace to keep her sounding simple in the blondest sense of the word.

Crafting a clearly defined sound for a character is as important as having a complete look and both of these factors are heavily in play for Sagot (Kevin James Logan) and ‘The Visitor’ (Jed Duvall). One a flamboyantly arrogant art critic and the other a legend that will rock your heart and roll you over with his cameo appearance, the pair have a keen mastery of how to deliver this heightened stereotypes. Logan articulates the mannerisms and affectations of his esoteric character with a natural flare, delivering his cadence and movements with vim and vigor. Duvall presents an honest understanding of his character’s country roots and humility of a star who burned out too brightly before his time was through. Without spoiling it for the audience, it is safe to say that Duvall’s epic cameo role is surely one of kingly proportions and the honest sincerity with which he approaches the character makes you want to love him tender.

There are characters, as mentioned above, and then there are characters, as mentioned just here. The scene-stealing, rambunctious, completely insane sort, as witnessed in Charles Dabernow Schmendimann (Zach Pajak). Unapologetically and wholeheartedly, Pajak embraces the ostentatious nature of this quirky cameo role with a spastic bombacity that will leave your ears ringing and your sides sore from laughing so hard. Though his appearance is brief ever second his boisterous character is on the stage, Pajak is stealing every ounce of breathable air and all eyes are on him. It’s an electrocution of hilarity in this already uproarious production.

Gaston (Stephen M. Deininger). Photo by John Cholod.
Gaston (Stephen M. Deininger). Photo by John Cholod.

It is always fascinating to encounter historical icons as living, breathing characters upon the stage in plays such as this, but when they done as sensationally well as they are in this production it is that much more incredible. Experiencing Albert Einstein (Joseph Coracle) at the peak of his genius is a refreshing moment to behold. Coracle portrays the maddened scientific genius with a raw passion that speaks volumes for the inert love of theory when it comes to things bigger than the universe. Finding balance in the calmer moments and juxtaposing those moments of near serenity against the jittery explosions of organic orgasmic delight becomes an art form for Coracle, one that he has perfected.

It’s the stunning moments of unifying bliss shared between Einstein and Picasso (Matthew Purpora) that draw poignant moments of evocative reality from this comedy. When science and art gel together as one magnificent entity and realize that they are in fact not so different in their creative genius, it is truly a touching and rather intense moment to behold. Coracle and Purpora have a driving chemistry between them that really ignites a blaze beneath the story line as the play shoots toward its starry-eyed conclusion.

Purpora is an unruly burst of Bohemian energy that erupts onto the stage in a fevered explosion of unrestrained sexual tension and tremulous creativity. His sexual tension and creative drive is wound tightly into this enigmatic man of vision; a wild approach to the visionary artist. There is an intense insanity and an insane intensity behind Purpora’s portrayal that will leave you weak in the knees, mouth agape, and overall just so stricken by him that you won’t know what hit you. His moments of suave, albeit chauvinistic, charm are disarming. Purpora masterfully blends sex, creativity, and madness into the portrayal of the title character, the result of which is nothing short of phenomenal.

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There are truly defining moments of life well-bound into this production; moments that should not be missed. Picasso at the Lapine Agile is a reflective and innovative comedy with poignant and touching moments performed by a sensational and dedicated cast. This is the best show I have seen this season and is a ‘must-see’ down at the Laurel Mill Playhouse.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Picasso at the Lapine Agile plays through March 9, 2014 at The Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations call the box office at (301) 617-9906.