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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Picasso’

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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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Picasso’"

Bethany says:

This one looks good. Can’t wait to see it.

Stephen says:

Excellent script. I’m with you regarding whimsy pieces like this. I really like the plot and creative ideas and interjected comedy of this script. Really one of the better scripts, and I’m really happy the New Ensemble is finding fairly obscure pieces like this to showcase.

I have many complaints about the piece, but I agree completely with the positives of the show, all of which you enumerated.

Donald, also make time to check out A Lonely Planet at The Voice Shop. I wish these two new companies could have scheduled a bit better so they don’t compete with each other. It’s almost time for Fresno to adopt what Cincinatti has, a theatre consortium, a governing body (that doesn’t govern, but rather acts as liaison) which brings all the companies together, helps with fundraising (more profitable companies help the less-able) and ensures everyone gets along great.

Maybe this is something for Creative Fresno?

Anyways, I’m glad I was able to catch both shows.

Kristin C says:

I definitely enjoyed the opening night of this show and it sounds like the Thursday night ‘cheap seats’ is going to be sold out! Way to go Fresno theatre.

I do want to point out that ‘A Picasso’ has been set at these dates for months, and the scheduling conflict came about because ‘Lonely Planet’ had to do a re-schedule. While it’s unfortunate, scheduling problems do happen, as was the case this spring with ‘Piazza’, ‘Mermaid’ and ‘I Love You…’.

Perhaps Stephen, since you are not involved with the actual planning and producing of theatre lately, you are unaware that this is a kind of golden moment. It feels to me like a lot of folks involved in the execution of local theatre are in a rare time of support and cooperation. I hope the love continues for years to come, it definitely makes being an actor a lot more comfortable.

I’m pleased my art could be part of this thought provoking play and well acted performance.

Mike Gish says:

I was transfixed on Saturday night’s performance; woke up several times thinking about it!…What happened to sweet Chelsea and where did this passionate Nazi bitch come from…(said with affection)….My immediate impression was how believable Chelsea was as a Nazi inquisitor/oppressor and how quickly I was brought into the moment; the illusion was completed with your believable German accent. The cramped-small-austere venue lent to where I would’ve imagined such an interrogation would’ve taken place; cold-threatening-unpredictable…our forced focus on the dynamics gave it a hyper real existence where we were sucked into the moment…Chelsea and “Picassoâ€� (Bennett) not remaining seated or static made the whole production come to life, especially with her animated body language; moving about, flailing of arms increased the emotional tension that I believe would’ve surrounded that moment; Chelsea’s intensity, sensuality, passion; all were believable!!! Very much so!! I am now anxious to read more about what parts of the play were factual and what was not…though all of the production made it very real to me and the time flew by…thank you for great and especially memorable entertainment and for letting us know you were performing!

Sincerely,
Mike Gish

gjthelin says:

Considering the talent of the cast and director I am not surprised that this show is receiving such praise. I truly hope I can get a chance to see it before it closes.

And kudos to Heather Parish for bringing more plays which are “off the beaten track” to Fresno!

-gj

Stephen says:

Kristen is right, I should have made it more clear that my ‘blame’ had to skew to ‘Lonely Planet,’ who I wish could have waited just one more week at least so both productions didn’t open the same weekend, because I hope all the folks who support small theatre stuff get to see both shows.

I love the ‘cheap seats’ idea and I also applaud all theatre shows that have off-night performances (such as Mondays, when all other theatres are dark).

I think the world of Heather Parrish as manager of theatre companies – she is creative, thoughtful, detailed and absolutely the epitome of professionalism. Here’s to a very long run with her company.

Kristin C says:

Stephen, please do not put words in my mouth, I laid no ‘blame’ at the feet of Cali Public.

Stephen says:

MY blame. Not yours.

Carolyn B. says:

I have highly recommended this show since I attended on its first Saturday evening. Jaguar Bennett was, as said in the review, very entertaining to watch. Absorbing, even. However, I thought Chelsea Bonilla’s performance consistent, full of immediacy, and very brave. The fact that we could see her character struggle against her emotions, and at times succumb to them, revealed her talent and willingness to show the audience a full character rather than hide behind an actor’s mask. Both of them did a great job creating an individual character.

In another thread a commenter talked about “directorial flaws and unreasoned acting choices”. I don’t see that. Sure, the staging is difficult from the perspective of the audience seated at the side of the action, but that’s the only blatent “flaw” I can see, and it seems dictated by the limits of the space. The director’s influence over the actors seems right on and on Saturday night the pacing seemed just right. The actors’ actions and reactions made perfect sense to me, and even revealed a few unexpected things about the characters. I was with them intellectually and emotionally the whole way. And at the end of the performance, I felt victorious for Picasso and sadness for Miss Fischer.

I thought about ideas and I felt something about two unique characters, which to me makes for a terrific piece of theater. Based on this show and The Pillowman last January, I’m officially a fan of The New Ensemble.

randy morris says:

the play was absolutely outstanding, costumes were period, drama great, personalities came out, character development excellent, script well written . it was like watching a chess game. bravo. one of the best shows ive seen at broken leg. i feel proud that fresno has wonderful independent theatre. randy morris