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My pick tonight: ‘Freud’s Last Session’

I’m a big fan of The New Ensemble Theater Group’s play-reading series. If you’ve never experienced one, a play reading might sound like a dry-as-dust time suck that will have you fidgeting in your seat after 15 minutes. But when they’re done right, like with The New Ensemble, they can be an invigorating way to absorb a new play. Don’t worry: the actors don’t read the script cold. They’re as invested in developing their characters as if they were in a full-fledged production.

The company’s latest offering in its Hot Off the Stages series is Mark St. Germain’s hit Off Broadway play “Freud’s Last Session.” Can a Christian and an atheist have a frank discussion about the existence of God and still respect each other in the end? Jaguar Bennett and James Sherrill star.

The reading is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Revue Cafe,  620 E. Olive Ave. Admission is free with purchase of snack or beverage.

“Freud’s Last Session,” an Off-Broadway hit, is receiving its West Coast debut at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Feb. 10. Who knows? If you like the reading enough, you could make a road trip to see Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh in the leading roles.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pillowman’

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There’s no gentle place here to rest your weary head for an hour or two of unthinking repose.

Watching “The Pillowman,” Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and trippy play at the Broken Leg Stage — and given a rousing if slightly uneven production by Fresno’s New Ensemble theater company — is more like washing down a couple of No-Doz with a cup of coffee and buzzing through the evening as you toy with big ideas and chuckle at the darkest humor you can imagine.

Director Heather Parish has crafted a keen, insightful production pumped up by stellar performances from James Sherrill and Landon Weiszbrod, two brothers living in an unnamed totalitarian state interrogated about a series of bizarre child murders. Sherrill plays Katurian, a struggling writer whose odd, and frequently violent, short stories mean the world to him. Weiszbrod is Michal, his “slow” sibling, who lives with him.

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