Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1999
As cynical New York humor writer Fran Lebowitz once put it, “Original thought is like original sin. Both happened before you were born to people you could not possibly have met.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine. And that’s just what Steve Martin did. The accomplished comedian, actor, screenwriter and art collector made his playwriting debut in 1993 by dreaming up a fanciful meeting between two wild and crazy guys: Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. He set his “serious comedy” in a small, bohemian bistro, the Lapin Agile (translation: nimble rabbit), which was, in fact, frequented by Picasso –- and his painting, “Au Lapin Agile,” which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was one of Martin’s inspirations. When it premiered in New York, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” won Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Play and Best Playwright.
It’s set in 1904, one year before the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” and three years before Picasso’s groundbreaking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” These two twenty-something wunderkinder, full of promise, ideas and themselves, meet to boast, compare and compete. Juxtaposing physics and esthetics with generous doses of humor, as Big Issues butt up against one-liners, Martin takes a sweeping, if not deep, look at the 20th century, underscoring the similar thought processes in science and art, and posing the following Important Question: Ultimately, which domain had the greatest effect on our lives in this century: art, science, politics or commerce? The play is an excellent choice on the threshold of the millennium (San Diego Repertory Theatre; May 8-June 13).
“We’re not so much going to change the century as bend it,” says Einstein, in typically Physic-al fashion. “I want an idea to take them at light-speed to the edge of the universe.” And Picasso expresses his desire in artistic terms: “I want them to see the thousand years of tenderness in a woman combing her hair.” Both men were more or less granted their wish. But they never figured in the significance of a time-traveling mystery guest, who appears late in the 90-minute play to add stardom to the trinity of profound societal influences.
Now, it’s the job of guest director Joan Schirle to make it all come alive onstage. As artistic director and founding member of the 20 year-old Dell’Arte Players (of Blue Lake, California) and director of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (where she teaches commedia dell’arte, mask performance, movement and gesture), she’s an ideal choice for this piece. Her primary modus operandi is creation by collaboration, which should serve her well with her impressive cast at the San Diego Rep: Ron Campbell (Einstein), L.A.’s Mikael Salazar (Picasso), Jonathan McMurtry, Duane Daniels, Julie Jacobs, Tim Irving, Deborah van Valkenburgh, Michael Hummel and Jeff Blak.
Her style of “heightened physicality,” linking the great popular theater forms, including melodrama and commedia dell’arte, makes for a good match with Martin’s play, which is as silly as it is serious. You don’t have to be a member of Mensa to enjoy it, but a little knowledge goes a long way. Take this:
The inventor/schmendrick Schmendiman to Picasso: “Picasso. I’ve heard of you… nice work. If you like blue.”
Bartender’s girlfriend to the callow Picasso and Einstein:
“I say the only reason you got into physics and art in the first place is to meet girls.
Einstein: “You actually think I said to myself, ‘How can I meet a lot of girls; I know. I’ll develop a unified field theory?”
“Commedia,” Schirle says of the broad comedy style of 16th century Italy, “deals with exaggerated characters. And these characters are exaggerated. They’re not realistic, though the actors must play them as if they are. I hope to create a non-fourth-wall experience for the audience, so they also feel like they’re sitting in the Lapin Agile. The challenge is trying to find the rhythm of the play, so people who are antsy for something to happen will be swept away in the enjoyment of the words and the interaction of the characters.
“It’s not a typical comic play structure, and it’s not a play where a lot happens. It’s a kind of ‘vaudeville of the mind,’ a play of ideas. As the character Gaston puts it, ‘You take a couple of geniuses, put them in a room together, and wow.’
“What Martin has done,” Schirle continues, “is take some heady stuff, like relativity, and make it funny. There’s a lot of sheer fun, and the characters have a kind of wackiness, though this doesn’t fit the sitcom formula as do so many plays coming down the pike. And though it’s set in a bar, it isn’t ‘Cheers.’ It leaves much more to imagination and speculation; it doesn’t tell you what to look at, or when to laugh, or what to think. I’m so thrilled with its success. It shows you there’s an appetite in the theater audience for a theater of ideas. My job is to make it so entertaining that even if the stuff is flying over your head, you’ll enjoy it.
“I’d like the audience to come away saying, ‘Golly, I just saw a wonderful entertaining, incredibly funny piece of theater that was full of ideas that gave me and my friends something to talk about for days.”
“Picasso! Einstein!” exclaims the artist, applauding the twosome’s newfound camaraderie. “Picasso! Einstein! My only regret is that we’ll be in different volumes of the encyclopedia.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc