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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Blank Canvas Theatre
Review by Mark Horning

Also see Mark's review of Really Really


Evan Martin
Photo by Andy Dudik
Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Charles Dabernow Schmendiman walk into a bar in 1904 Paris ... while the premise looks promising with the pre-show hype describing "a magical look into an imagined conversation between two minds that had a powerful impact on the shape of the 20th century," Picasso at the Lapin Agile by comic genius Steve Martin and directed at Bank Canvas theatre by Jonathan Kronenberger falls as flat as the old bar joke.

This is not the fault of the cast, who try their best to breathe life into the shallowly drawn characters; despite their heroic efforts, the play falls short on many levels. While attempts are made to bring about highbrow discussions, the silliness and unnecessary antics get in the way. In short, this is a play that is not sure what it wants to be.

Freddy (John Busser) is the first to arrive at his Montmartre establishment Lapin Agile (or for us non-Parisians "Nimble Rabbit"). Next comes Gaston (Rich Stimac), who describes himself as "newly elderly" and whose sphere of reality is limited to two subjects, sex and drinking. They are joined by a young Albert Einstein (Robert Kowalewski), who has told a young woman (The Countess) to meet him at another bar but who because they think alike she will also come to the Lapin Agile to join him. Freddy points out to Einstein that he has arrived too soon and, breaking the fourth wall, acquires a program from a first row audience member in order to prove the point, noting that the "cast is in order of appearance" and he is fourth on the list. Albert leaves.

Waitress Germaine (Carla Petroski) enters to be scolded by Freddy for being late, but she manages to romance him sweetly in order to help him forget the oversight. Next on the scene is the return (this time in proper order) of Einstein, followed by Suzanne, who immediately takes off her top (revealing a sexy black bra) and puts on a short black jacket that, along with her tight red patterned dress, accents her femininity to its full advantage. She is hoping to hook up once more with Pablo Picasso, having already slept with him twice for which he gave her a simple unsigned sketch.

Art dealer Sagot arrives with a miniature Matisse; he explains that up close the painting overpowers the back of the bar where Freddy has set it but further out the bar overpowers the painting. Pablo Picasso arrives and does not remember meeting Suzanne saying, "I meant every word I said that night; I just forgot who I said them to."

Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Ronnie Thompson) arrives. He is an inventor who has deluded himself into thinking that he is the third genius in the room and whose "brittle asbestos based building material" of his invention will make his name a household word. The Countess arrives (she is Alfred's existential date) followed by a Female Admirer (Becca Ciamacco) who mistakes Picasso as Schmendiman and, realizing her mistakes, spurns the artist in favor of Charles (figure that one out). Last to appear is The Singer (Evan Martin) as the one and only Elvis (from the future).

If the discussion of post-romanticist vs. neo-romanticist, art vs. intellect, the 1903 predictions for the future, Gaston's prostrate problems, and Elvis's arrival don't have you scratching your head, the drawing showdown between Einstein and Picasso (while the strains of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly play in the background) certainly will have you wondering what form of reality was Steve Martin aiming for in this: Comical? Dramatic? Existentialistic? Neo-whatever hodge-podge of silliness?

As for the actors, John Busser as Freddy outshines all the others on stage, which is troublesome since the play is not called "Freddy at the Lapin Agile." Rich Stimac tried too hard to be funny as Gaston and we all know the dangers of that (enough with the repetitive prostate joke). Carla Petroski's Germaine plays a pivotal role, especially during her arguments with Freddy and her predictions of the future. Her little facial asides about her affair with Picasso are priceless.

Robert Kowalewski as Albert Einstein gets high marks for the accent (in spite of the strange mustache) but could have played the role a bit more mentally pre-occupied and with a less neat appearance. It is said that Einstein wore the same combination of clothes (changed daily) so he would not have to think about what to wear, thus losing precious thought processes needed for other work. He was also a messy person in both personal appearance and at his office. At the onset of the play, Einstein musses his hair so that the people in the bar can recognize him.

Becca Ciamacco does a fair job as Suzanne (Picasso's latest conquest) but relies more on body language than speech to convey her sensual side, especially when recalling her first two nights with the artist. Greg Mandryk does a wonderful job as Sago, the art dealer, expressing in just a few lines the truth—that the painting and the environment it is shown in must be a marriage of sorts and that perception is the basis of all art prices.

Roderick Cardwell II seems out of his element as Pablo Picasso. Historically, Picasso was a man of high passion who was married numerous times and had countless affairs even into his 80s. He had huge expressive eyes that could hypnotize mere mortals and an unbelievably overactive libido. It is also said that Picasso would absorb the life energy from friends and acquaintances, using that energy to paint through the night. None of this is evident with this portrayal.

As Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, Ronnie Thompson makes an attempt to counter-balance the brilliance of Einstein and Picasso. Schmendiman is a man absorbed in the delusion of his faux brilliance but is soon found out. Thompson does a fine job peeling away the layers of the character in a short time. Britta Will as The Countess (Einstein's date) is an inside existentialist joke, arriving at the wrong bar simply because she knew that Albert would be there also. Becca Ciamacco returns to the stage for a short time redressed as the Female Admirer of Picasso.

Then we have Evan Martin as The Singer (aka Elvis Presley), who admits to being from the future and drops various lines of pop tunes from his collection of hits. This is where the play takes a strong departure from reality, to which one may ask one's self "Wha?" Steve Martin's style of humor is heavily evident.

The set and lighting by Patrick Ciamacco is perfect for a believable Paris bistro interior. High marks for the painting switch in the later portions of the show. In the small confines of the theater sound is never a problem with a BCT production. Although it was warm in the theater it was not unbearable.

At times gently humorous, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a great idea in a desperate search of a solid identity (imagine Hamlet as an underdone madcap comedy). In short, it seems to be a tongue in cheek look at the pretentiousness of the intellectual community. It is a work that could easily be viewed with one eye closed if indeed you're willing to put forth that much effort. While the acting is for the most part competent, some of the matchups are off-kilter. Buy a ticket and see for yourself.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile will be on stage through June 24, 2017. For tickets and times information, visit www.blankcanvastheatre.com or call (440) 941-0458.


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