Age of Innocence

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole: Davis Schulner plays the artist as a vain genius in Picasso at the Lapine Agile

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Hidden Theatre

Measure for Measure
Ten Thousand Things

"I never thought the 20th century would be handed to me so casually," Albert Einstein muses to the audience as he stares at the sketch in his hand, "scratched out in pencil on a piece of paper." The spotlight fades, Einstein's reverie ends, and the characters seated at the tables around him break their freeze. We're in the Lapin Agile, Paris, circa 1904--or at least Steve Martin's version thereof. The drawing that led to this rupture in the theatrical space-time continuum was a sketch by a patron of this bar, a young artist named Pablo Picasso, who is just "nuts about blue."

At least for now. Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, produced by Hidden Theatre, dates the end of the 19th century at this imagined meeting between two geniuses. A 25-year-old Albert Einstein (Brian Baumgartner) comes in to drink while working on his first book, A Special Theory of Relativity. ("Is it funny?" waitress Germaine asks. "Because if it's funny, you can sell a lot of books.") And Picasso is months away from putting blue paint aside to introduce cubism to the world.

Amid the bar banter that night floats an aura of anticipation. While characters talk about sex, wine, and sex, the subject inevitably returns to Picasso, and what he promises to do. Art dealer Sagot (Rick Logan) comes in, brags a bit about a new Matisse, and educates everyone on the perils of Jesus paintings. But when he sees the sketch Einstein has held, he inhales sharply. "Was he here tonight?"

Speak of the devil: Picasso (David Schulner) enters the room and promptly pronounces, "I have been thinking about sex all day." He stands sprawled across the doorway. "Can't get it out of my mind!" He struts, chest exposed, flinging a long gray scarf; hair's in a thickly jelled Clooney. "How do I look? Be honest." Turn to the left, turn to the right. Sashay. Schulner growls and paws at the ground, poses and prances, attacking the role with the same rubbery physicality that a Jerk-era Martin might have employed.

As this Picasso shows, genius may come from strange places, but it's genius all the same. (If Schulner's and Baumgartner's costumes are any indication, genius always wears cranberry.) Martin's meditation is wistful: In Einstein's and Picasso's speeches on the joys of creation, you can feel the playwright's yearning to affect his audience the way they affected theirs. Director Brian Baumgartner and his fine cast (standouts include Richard Fleischman and Tracey Maloney) make the serious parts of the script light and the comedic parts weighty so as to allows the playwright's genius to come through. Who else but Steve Martin could compose an elegy to a bygone century and at the same time realize the great comic potential of the name "Schmendiman?"

Less amiable by half is Ten Thousand Things' production of Measure by Measure, a Shakespeare work which puts the "problem" in "problem play" as it examines the different between law and justice, virtue and goodness. It's a case study of abuse of power that has a particularly contemporary resonance (which echoes in the prisons and shelters where the company stages its productions).

There's a new leader in town. The Duke (the venerable Barbara Kingsley) has taken leave, placing Lord Angelo (Steve Hendrickson) in charge. Angelo assumes his position behind the Duke's desk a little too readily, using his new authority to dust off some blue laws, including one that makes sex before marriage a capital crime.

The first to be sentenced is young Claudio (Matt Sciple) whose sin swells in the belly of his fiancée. Few local actors exude more natural virtue than Sciple; as Claudio is led away on a retractable dog leash, we know that Angelo's justice is unjust. Claudio's terror spurs his friend Lucio (Zach Curtis, giddily less virtuous) to head to the convent--depicted here as a doorway with a simple sign: NO MEN--to find Claudio's sister Isabella (Signe Albertson). His goal: to convince her to entreat Angelo for her brother's life because, Lucio explains, "When maidens kneel/Men give like gods."

Director Michelle Hensley tells the complicated plot with the simplest of stuff. Three wrought-iron doorways form peaks bordering the in-the-round stage. Actors move the set pieces around between scenes to the anticipatory pounding of drums. Patterns in the gold-black costumes reflect the shapes of the set pieces...all laying the groundwork for the moment when Lucio pushes Isabella into Angelo's office. Albertson's young Isabella stands strong but desperate at center stage as Lucio, Angelo, and a soldier enclose her in a triangle. They watch her. We watch them watching her.

Angelo becomes drunk on power as Lucio goads Isabella into becoming more pliant. Hendrickson's Angelo stares with the shoulders-hunched stance of insecure authority: He is the law. As the woman pleads, we watch Mr. Starr''s self-righteousness fall away. His breath catches; he trembles ever so slightly. "Why don't you come again tomorrow," he murmurs, surveying her form. He stares at us, caught between desire and shame, and slowly intones, "She speaks, and 'tis such sense/My sense breeds with it."

After Angelo lays down his most immodest proposal, Isabella threatens, "I'll tell what kind of man thou art." But Hendrickson's Angelo is hooked on power. His joy is palpable as he calmly responds, "Who will believe you?" But Angelo is no pure villain in this world where no character can claim to be a hero, and we're left wondering whether there is any goodness at all. At the play's end, Isabella is left bewildered, desperate, and angry, crying, "Justice! Justice! Justice!" We want justice for all, too, but by the time this play is through, justice seems less possible than before.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile plays at the Theater Garage through December 13; 339-4949. Measure for Measure will run at Spacespace through November 16 and at various locations through November 23; 724-4494.

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