No question about it, staring down Pablo Picasso across an interrogation table would not have been easy — even for the interrogator. As portrayed by Jaguar Bennett in the thoughtful play “A Picasso,” which continues through June 25 at the Broken Leg Stage, the unbridled, double-barreled impact of this intriguing historical figure comes through: bullish, full of himself, intimidating, ready to wield his own swollen ego in self-defense.
Yet there’s a more vulnerable side to Picasso revealed in this production from The New Ensemble, courtesy of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s imagined encounter between the great artist and a Nazi cultural official (portrayed in this two-character drama by Chelsea Bonilla). He has a soft spot for his art, it seems. And as details of his childhood emerge, you sense that his tempestuous yet tender inner child has never really grown up.
I’m attracted to the whimsy of pieces such as this: the playwright taking a deep, educated breath and hurling himself into the realm of historical conjecture. In this case, Picasso — scratching out something of a morose existence in 1941 Nazi-occupied Paris — finds himself hauled into an interrogation room. Miss Fischer, the culture official, informs him that she’s asked him here to authenticate paintings seized from others who are attributed to him. What she’s after, it seems, is “a Picasso” — hence, the title.
The reason for her request is an important plot development, so I won’t reveal it here, but suffice it to say that Picasso’s interaction with Miss Fischer develops into an extended cat-and-mouse intrigue. Hatcher’s script uses the structure as a way to showcase some of the many facets of Picasso, from obstinate old curmudgeon to randy flirt. Along the way, a flurry of philosophical queries fills the air: Can art actually be more powerful than bombs? How far should one go in preserving an original work of art? Is there ever a case when a masterpiece could be worth more than a human life?
Director Heather Parish uses the small Broken Leg space to good effect, giving the setting — a cluttered, utilitarian office strewn with artworks — a gritty, rough-hewn feel. (Original paintings by local artist Aileen Imperatrice add a nice touch.) The Broken Leg always feels a little subterranean, anyway, and this production takes advantage of that underground feel. The look of the show is sparse but smart, and Bonilla’s gorgeous hat and dress — she gets the costume credit — add to the impact.
Bennett seems to relish puffing up as Picasso, and it’s a fun portrayal to watch. (His accent tends to wander a bit between Spanish, French and Tower District — in a case such as this, I wonder if it would have been better just to skip the accent and stick to Bennett’s distinctive vocal patterns.) Bonilla has by far the harder character to nail, and there are moments early in the show in which her portrayal is a little hard to latch onto. (Her German accent is precise but feels confining.) The character of MIss Fischer displays a complex mix of bluster, awe, anger and sadness, and I found it hard at times with Bonilla to differentiate between them. (We need to be able to read her face — there are times when her expression hardens into an inscrutable shell.) That said, there’s a lot of gusto in Bonilla’s performance, and I really felt her pain in the show’s climactic moments.
Parish makes this “Picasso” brisk, which is almost always a good thing — especially with two-character, one-setting plays. There were several points near the end of the opening-night performance, however, where that brisk pace could have been reined in a bit. Important revelations and meaningful moments deserve a little breathing space.
Still, “A Picasso” is a compelling chunk of theater. It’d be nice to see crowds of Fresno artists (visual ones especially) trooping out to see the show, if only to muse a little on deeper issues. What they’ll find is a blend of history, philosophy and the always fascinating Picasso.