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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Picasso’ an artful production

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

staging madness From top, clockwise: genius Albert Einstein (Dave Benger) dances with Pablo Picasso’s salacious paramour, Suzanne (Briana Bensenouci); Picasso (Yoni Bronstein) ponders one of his own sketches; and mediocre inventor Charles Darbernow Schmediman (Jordan Warsoff) finds himself a little offbalance.
Photos by Nate Rosenbloom/The Hoot

When I walked into the Shapiro Campus Center Theater last Friday night to witness the Brandeis Players’ staging of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” I was immediately awed by the sight of the production’s massive and magnificent construction of the famed eponymous bar. It seemed far more cavernous than a tiny bar had any right to be, but I soon realized that it was about to serve as a backdrop for Everything—science, art, the universe and all its workings.

“Picasso” imagines a chance barroom encounter between two of the 20th century’s biggest luminaries—Albert Einstein (Dave Benger ’14) and Pablo Picasso (Yoni Bronstein ’13). Picasso is a regular, already known among the bar’s clientele for his artistic genius and voracious sexual appetite. Einstein, meanwhile, simply wanders into the bar, awaiting the arrival of a date.

Instead Einstein discovers something like true love in Picasso’s artwork, in which he finds the visual counterpart of his own revolutionary ideas. Of course, when Picasso does finally appear, things aren’t exactly rosy between the two: Picasso distrusts Einstein’s science, while Einstein finds Picasso to be something of a pompous jackass (which he is, truthfully). Ultimately they come together in a symphony of talent and genius, envisioning the part their work will play in shaping the upcoming century … and the universe.

With a script by Steve Martin, “Picasso” is undeniably funny, but it also tackles some pretty heady material, as it reflects on the power of genius and the way it can shape the course of history. Taking place in 1904, it presents us with a world on the cusp of a future that may very well have turned out differently. What would have happened, after all, if there had been no Einstein or Picasso? Genius isn’t enough; it has to be expertly timed—just ask a time traveling Elvis Presley (Justy Kosek ’14), who also happens to drop by the Lapin Agile and feels distinctly out of place despite his own brand of genius.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the world may forego talent and favor something more commercial and capitalistic. Another patron of the bar, Charles Dabernow Schmediman (Jordan Warsoff ’11), concocts his own genius invention—a building material “made from equal parts asbestos, kitten paws and radium.” We recognize him as a charlatan because we know history is on Picasso and Einstein’s side, but other characters seem to put more credence in his “inventiveness.” He even attracts a groupie.

Picasso’s work, meanwhile, gains him notoriety in part due to the influence of Sagot (Stephen Badras ’13), an art dealer seemingly more interested in the novelty of Picasso’s work than in its intrinsic cultural value.

For all of that, however, Martin’s script feels a little surface level—there’s nothing especially provocative or unusual in what he expresses through “Picasso.”

Luckily, “Picasso” is about much more than just The Point, so to speak. It’s filled with wonderful one-liners and an absurdist style of humor. It uses comic stereotypes to its advantage, portraying Einstein as The Little Man with Big Ideas and Picasso as The Libidinous Artiste; in doing so, it takes two unknowable, nebulous men and transforms them into people who are familiar and relatable.

The play also humorously explores the dynamic between men and women. Picasso and Einstein may be singular geniuses, but they too crave human relationships. Picasso romances woman after woman, while Einstein mingles with the Countess (Lydia Flier ’11), a woman with a “sexy” knowledge of physics.

The play goes beyond them, however, as dealing with love is an everyday affair, something that intertwines and consumes everyone and everything. Barmaid Germaine (Abigail Clarke ’13) finds herself more or less content with her husband, Freddy (Ben Gold ’14), despite his lack of creativity or originality. Lapin Agile regular Gaston (Nati Peleg ’13), meanwhile, obsesses over sex, but he’s too inert to pursue it.

Of course, the success of any production requires much more than a solid script and concept. Director Tess Suchoff ’13 brought the show beautifully to life, overseeing both a strong cast and great technical work.

In the acting department, both Benger and Bronstein brought their respective geniuses vividly to life. Benger imbued his Einstein with an astounding kinetic energy. Bronstein, meanwhile, maintained just the right degree of pompousness throughout. Both clearly have a knack for comic timing and keeping the audience’s attention.

The show also sported a great supporting cast. In particular, Briana Bensenouci ’12 stood out as Suzanne, one of Picasso’s many conquests; to her, “the word no was like a Polish village—unpronounceable.” She’s a kind of salacious proto-groupie. Another highlight was Badras, who supplied his art dealer character with the quick-tempoed voice of an old salesman.

Of the bar regulars, Gold did well in capturing the earnestness of his barkeep, while Clarke imbued his counterpart with a kind of wry awareness of the zany characters that surrounded her. Peleg, meanwhile, enlivened the show with his pathetically funny asides as a “newly old” man.

The production also proved visually striking, though I’ve always been surprised by the ingenuity of the craftspeople involved with Brandeis productions. The aforementioned bar set built for this production was especially impressive, creating a dynamic dramatic space that was inventively used.

The costumes, too, felt very much of the time and place, both appealing visually and appropriate for each character’s personality.

While the story of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” hasn’t quite stuck with me to the same degree that other Brandeis productions have, it was easily one of the most handsomely mounted productions I’ve seen at Brandeis, both in terms of its craft and its cast. I certainly anticipate the next production of the Brandeis Players, whatever it may be.