Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Ghostlight Ensemble
At the start of his career as a comedian, Steve Martin was known for silly visual gags like an arrow through the head and his novelty tune “King Tut.” But as a playwright, his taste has been more to the absurdist and cerebral. His most well-known play by far is Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now playing at the Otherworld Theatre in a Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble production. The play, described in the program as “a light comedy about art. Life, and the theory of relativity,” brings such luminaries as Picasso and Einstein together on one evening in 1904 at a small bar in Paris.
The production is excellent in every degree. The simple set by Sam Gribben takes advantage of the intimate space by using the entire theatre, right down to the walls behind the audience, and seating them as if they were just dictionaries apron of the bar on this specific evening. Prior to the show (which, true to Martin’s sillier sensibilities, is often self-referential, blending his own genius with those of Picasso and Einstein into a pastiche of brilliance), patrons are invited to add their own art to the bar’s walls, taking advantage of empty frames and chalk. From before the start, then, we become a part of the play.
Director Holly Robinson has wrung outstanding performances from her ensemble cast. Real-life husband and wife Tim Lee and Miona Lee play Freddy and Germaine, who run the Lapin Agile. (I knew there was a reason that their “couple” dynamic was so outstanding; I just didn’t know what it was until reading the program later.) Einstein is portrayed by Zach Finch. (There’s a wonderful bit early one when Freddy calls him out, saying he can’t be Einstein, and Finch reaches up and musses his hair to prove his identity.) Sebastian Summers is a marvelous Picasso on the cusp of developing cubism but focusing at the moment on seduction. The object of his affection is Alejandra Vivanco’s Suzanne; he had a one-night stand with her and now she’s come back to find him. A bar regular named Gaston, whose bladder is way too weak for a heavy drinker, is played by Sean Harklerode. Kat Moranos, Maggie Antonijevic, Joe Dougherty (playing a surprise addition to the bar’s ensemble) and Norman J. Burt (bigger than life playing a self-declared genius named Schmendiman) round out the ensemble, but the focus of the evening is on Picasso and Einstein.
Martin’s playful focus here is to uncover the creative similarities between the genius painter and the genius physicist just before each of them has a major breakthrough. (Einstein would publish his Special Theory of Relativity the next year and Picasso would paint his iconic “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907.) Schmendiman, who knows how to market ideas but not how to have them, inserts another prong of 20th Century commercial success into the mix, and Dougherty’s “visitor” adds yet another near the end of the play.
Robinson and Ghostlight have created a very strong production. Anyone who enjoys cerebral games like Cranium should find this play to their liking. But it isn’t all brainiac stuff and that is why the play really works. It appeals on many levels, not the least of which is the sense of wonder about the universe we live in and the minds of those who create. It may be true that not everyone can be a genius, but anyone can appreciate what geniuses create. Martin has created a little gift for actors, and Robinson has honed it into a gift for audiences as well. But it is a gift that won’t last long, as it closes on Nov 4. See it quickly.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a Ghostlight Theatre production now playing at the Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark, Chicago until Nov 4. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.