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In the current North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre community-theater presentation of Steve Martin’s hilarious Off-Broadway hit Picasso at the Lapin Agile, directed with considerable comic brio by Nick Karner, two real-life characters and giants of the 20th century — Spanish Cubist painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) — square off in a fictional battle of wits — and laughs.
In Martin’s whimsical account of this imaginary confrontation of two very different types of genius, set in a seedy Paris bar in 1904, Einstein (played by Tom McKelvy) is only 25 and still months away from publication of a paper on his first important scientific breakthrough, but he already acts like an absent-minded professor, showing up in the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit) to keep a date with a gorgeous hot-blooded redheaded Countess (Lisa Binion) that he is supposed to meet at the Bar Rouge. Picasso (K. Sridhar) is only 23, still in his Blue Period, and also on the cusp of being becoming a household name; but he is already an inveterate womanizer on the prowl for new mademoiselles to dazzle — and seduce — with his doodles.
Tom McKelvy is highly amusing as the soon-to-be-world famous physicist; and K. Sridhar has an accent that is, at times, so thick that it makes some of his words unintelligible, but he also has just the right swagger as the peacock-proud painter and self-proclaimed God’s gift to Parisian women. Lisa Binion is a delight in the dual roles of the bar-hopping Countess on the make and Suzanne, Picasso’s perturbed latest conquest who expected more than wham-bam-thank you, ma’am from her charismatic seducer.
Bob McKelvy is funny as the aging roué Gaston, whose peanut bladder necessitates frequent trips to the men’s room; David Corns and Debbie West are amusing as bartender Freddy and barmaid Germaine, who may live together but are often kilometers apart in their thinking; Tom Tuckey is a hoot as boorish American manufacturer and self-styled genius Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, crackpot inventor of a revolutionary fragile and inflexible building material that he calls Schmendimite; and John Farrell cuts a fine figure as a famous — and instantly recognizable — visitor from another time and place, whose unexpected appearance near the end of the play must remain a surprise.
Samuel Winston and Samantha West, who play the wily art impresario Sagot and a Female Admirer of Picasso, complete the cast.
Director/set designer Nick Karner stages these madcap proceedings with pizzazz on a nice reproduction of the bar of the Lapin Agile. Thanks to Karner’s efforts and the comic characterizations of the cast, the show — which is performed without intermission — runs about 87 minutes of unadulterated fun for mature audiences.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents Picasso at the Lapin Agile Friday-Saturday, Sept. Sept. 30-Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 2, at 3 p.m. at NRACT in the Greystone Shopping Center, 7713-51 Leadmine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 (reserved seats) and $10 (general admission) Friday-Saturday and $8 (all seats) Sunday. 919/866-0228. North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre: http://www.nract.org [inactive 10/05]/. Steve Martin: http://www.stevemartin.com/ and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000188/.
Emmy Award-winning white-haired comedian/comedy writer/actor Steve Martin, that wild-and-crazy guy from the Golden Age of NBC TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” added the title of playwright to his already impressive resume in 1993, when he wrote the Off-Broadway hit Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which opens tonight at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.
“I was in London, directing a film, and, being an avid reader, picked up a book on Pablo Picasso by Norman Mailer,” recalls director Nick Karner. It chronicled his early life and all of his obsessions, women, eccentricities, etc. The book ended at the pivotal moment where Picasso paints Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, the painting that would mark the turning point in his career. Fascinated, I set out to write a play about Picasso’s early days.”
A chagrined Karner adds, “During my research, I was shocked to discover that there were already several scripts that had been written which revolved around Picasso. Why write an original play about someone when it’s already been done? There’s the fascinating Picasso’s Women by Brian McAvera; and many other plays, [such as] Picasso and Guernica, that did not necessarily have an actor playing Picasso; but the plays were inspired by his work.
“Among the plays I read, I discovered a gem,” Karner claims, “a debut play by one ‘wild ‘n’ crazy guy.’ Steve Martin’s wacked-out and hilarious Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It was one of the most unique and bizarre works I’d ever read. Fast, crazy, and completely unpredictable, [it takes] these real-life characters and creates a fictional exploration of what really makes a genius.”
Karner says, “I had never worked on, nor seen, the play before; but I felt that this was a positive element because it would be my singular vision and no one else’s. For all of my plays, I try to imbue my own nutty persona; so this will definitely be a very different version of Lapin Agile than any others that have been produced.”
He adds, “I love the irreverent madness of it all. It’s a very tightly constructed play that is extremely funny at one moment, and then deeply moving the next. In the small space of 71 pages, there is a plethora of goodies to choose from; and I’ve definitely gone for the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle. I wanted to direct it because of my adoration for Steve Martin and my love of art and comedy.”
In Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Karner says, “Art and science meet over wine [in] Paris [in] 1904 [at] The Lapin Agile [which means ‘The Nimble Rabbit’ in French], a bar inhabited by artists, poets, writers, and the general riff-raff of France. Albert Einstein (Tom McKelvy) and Pablo Picasso (K. Sridhar) have a chance meeting. Neither of them ha[s] achieved the great success that awaits them. Einstein has yet to publish his book on the Theory of Relativity, and Picasso is wasting away romancing women and sketching what he himself describes as ‘Piss! It’s piss I tell you!’ They and the other patrons of the Lapin Agile spend the evening debating art, science, genius, sex, death, and — of course — novelty pies. A strange Visitor (John Farrell) arrives, and their lives will never be the same again.”
Karner says, “Luckily, this play is written to have a very simplistic set design. I don’t believe in spoon-feeding my actors specific blocking. I want them to be creative in their performances, and that means allowing them the freedom to experiment in the early stages of the production.
“After they’ve had a little fun,” Karner says, “I set to work tightening and tweaking their movements to resolve any problematic staging issues. In fact, my only real challenges were the special effects the script called for. A painting on the wall is supposed to magically change into a completely new portrait. Not only was this a daunting task to achieve, I found it rather boring and bland to simply change the picture and carry on with the action. I had to make it fun and exciting.”
Karner says, “I cannot give away how I make this change, but let’s just say that it’s pure “rock ‘n’ roll.
“Another difficult effect the script called for was the roof actually opening up above the actor’s heads and stars coming out,” Karner says. “We discussed all kinds of possibilities. Glow-in-the-dark stars, painting silver stars all over the set, ordering special lighting equipment, etc. Sometimes, it’s the simplest solution that is the best. I remembered a touring production of Beauty and the Beast that I was in where the director used a disco ball to ‘wow’ the audience at a particular moment in the show. With all of the lights off, my team and I began to experiment with lights and a small disco ball, and it was beautiful.”
In addition to director Nick Karner and producer Michael West, who doubles as the show’s set designers, the NRACT production team includes lighting designer Samantha West. Nick Karner also serves as sound designer, which features the music of Ennio Morricone and, Karner says, “There is one more song that is being used in the show. However, if I give that away, it will spoil the surprise.”
Karner says, “I wanted this play to be all about the actors, so I opted for a very simplistic set design. A long bar at center stage, and a table on stage right and stage left. I’ve painted the backdrop half-yellow and half gray to accent the actor’s features.
“For the first three quarters of the play,” he adds, “there is no special lighting. It is not needed. However, by the end of the play, things begin to heat up. Wild and irreverent lighting usher in the Visitor. In the final scene, the roof above the bar disappears and a soft blue hue fills the stage. Stars come up all around the walls and the sky.”
Nick Karner says, “I allowed the actors the freedom of finding their own costumes. Save for one particular character, all of the costumes are set in the period the play takes place. The first decade of the 20th century, 1904.”
Karner invites Triangle theatergoers to “Just come in, relax, and enjoy yourself. That’s what theater is all about,” he claims. “Let this wonderful comedy take you away for 80 minutes and you’ll know that you’ve seen something completely new and exciting.”
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents Picasso at the Lapin Agile Friday-Saturday, Sept. 16-17 and 23-24, and Sept. 30-Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 18 and 25 and Oct. 2, at 3 p.m. at NRACT in the Greystone Shopping Center, 7713-51 Leadmine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 (reserved seats) and $10 (general admission) Friday-Saturday and $8 (all seats) Sunday. 919/866-0228. North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre: http://www.nract.org/ [inactive 10/05]. Steve Martin: http://www.stevemartin.com/ and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000188/.