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Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Review by Sean McQuaid

It’s ironic, but increasingly undeniable: the most eclectic and prolific producer of consistently high-quality live theatre in Prince Edward Island these days is Theatre New Brunswick. TNB has been bringing its touring productions to Summerside, PEI for several years now, and has treated Islanders to some great shows. The latest and possibly greatest of these offerings is Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which launched the current TNB season in October.

Scripted by celebrated writer, actor and comedian Steve Martin in 1993, PATLA is set in the Lapin Agile, a friendly little bar frequented by assorted eccentrics—among them brilliant artist Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Monro), who on this particular evening happens to encounter his equally brilliant contemporary, scientific theorist Albert Einstein (Matt Baram). A series of fascinating and funny conversations regarding the quality of genius and the nature of humanity ensue, and it all climaxes in a mind-blowing collective epiphany facilitated by a mysterious Visitor (Edward Belanger), apparently a time-spanning Elvis Presley.

Director David Sherren has fashioned a gorgeous gem of a production, with a glittering ensemble cast and polished support personnel. Set and costume designer Patrick Clark and lighting designer Chris Saad provide a handsome, homily detailed and warmly lit setting, and the show’s visuals also boast some modest but striking special effects, such as a transforming painting, fall-away walls and an instant starfield. There are occasional projection problems among the actors (nothing serious), and some of the parts are played a bit caricaturishly, but the latter seems appropriate to the often dream like and larger-than-life properties of the story and the situation. Lines are well-timed and well-delivered for the most part, and the cast seem conscientiously mindful of both audience reaction and each other—a well-directed bunch, apparently.

Monro captures the seedier aspects of Picasso nicely, but seldom manages to convey the sense of transcendence one associates with genius—there are flashes of it, though, most especially after he experiences a vision of one of his future masterpieces. The quirkily funny Baram, by comparison, gives a more eccentric and endearing performance as Einstein—and while it is perhaps less realistic than Monro’s Picasso, it better captures the sense of wonder one might expect from a brilliant mind, stealing many a scene. As the Visitor, Belanger is something of a cartoon as opposed to a fleshed-out character sketch, but this portrayal suits the role.

Similarly, Richard Cronin’s performance as grandiosely self aggrandizing nobody Charles Dabernow Schmendiman is gratingly caricaturish but potently amusing, and utterly appropriate for the part he plays. Aviva Hoffman imbues several small parts with vivacious sparkle, Pam Halstead gives a commanding and convincing performance as the cynical barmaid Germaine, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by three veteran character actors well-known to Island audiences: Walter Learning and Hank Stinson fill their parts as curmudgeonly elder Gaston and self-important art dealer Sagot as comfortably as a pair of old shoes, and Ed Rashed makes his TNB debut as Freddy the bartender. On-stage longer than any other character, Freddy serves as a sort of everyman counterpoint to the play’s assorted eccentrics. The role requires Rashed to serve as observer or straight man for much of the show, but he invests Freddy with a sort of rough-hewn dignity that makes him endearingly memorable, and Rashed makes the most of any opportunities the script and direction give him to exercise his considerable comedic flair. It’s a mature and nuanced performance, one of his best.

While acknowledging that humans can be petty, selfish and banal, Picasso at the Lapin Agile celebrates the fact that they are also capable of creating and appreciating incredible beauty—a moving and thought-provoking message, delivered playfully rather than preachily. The result is a clever, charming show that is every bit as entertaining as it is insightful, and its TNB incarnation is one of the finest productions staged on Prince Edward Island in a long time.

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