February 9th, 2010

Stages Repertory Theatre – A Picasso: A Pretty Picture, But What Does It Mean

Arguably the greatest painter of the last century, and without a doubt one of the biggest characters of his time, Pablo Picasso makes an appearance in the 21st – on stage rather than in a gallery. However, the question remains to be asked: why?

Jeffrey Hatcher’s A Picasso opened at Stages Repertory Theatre with great anticipation, due to the Alley Theatre letting one of its coveted workhorses out of the pens – Alley Company Artist, James Belcher, plays the title role in this intimate play. Set in a dank basement in Nazi-occupied Paris, A Picasso continues to play on our current run of WWII nostalgia/rewrites/entertainment (see films Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie, or Daniel Goldfarb’s recent play The Retributionists).

Any discussion of this play must begin with Picasso himself and Mr. Belcher’s performance is one of particular note. His ability and grasp of the character is evident from the moment the lights come up on him. The character (as is referenced in the script ad nauseam) is a bull. Clearly it is a role that could get the best of a less experienced actor, but Mr. Belcher corrals the vivacious Spaniard and brings him to life for us, without getting gored.

The hot moments in the play, when Picasso’s passions get the best of him (as they so often did in life), are Mr. Belcher’s highlights. Notably, his impassioned speech about his most famous of paintings, Guernica, held the audience breathless as he described the Nazi eradication of that small Spanish town. However, since neither dramaturgical nor director’s notes were provided, it is difficult to determine if, indeed, this was how Pablo Picasso actually felt on the topic.

In a play distinctly not about her character (she doesn’t even get a first name!), and as the lone counterpart to Picasso, Carolyn Johnson manages a strong performance in the role of Miss Fischer. She plays the clichéd role of “Nazi with a heart” as well as any person could – only giving into the prescribed melodrama on a couple of occasions.

Ms. Johnson’s best moment came when Miss Fischer explains that she has had a lifelong love of Picasso’s work, and despite being a minion of the Nazi regime, holds enormous respect for him. It was a moment that rang true on stage and came as close to a surprise as the script would permit.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s script is one that unfortunately follows a profoundly uninteresting path. The play is inherently an art history lesson sprinkled with a handful of quips that Picasso doles out from time to time to spice up things. It seems as though Mr. Hatcher began the script as a series of witticisms and one-liners and built it from there. There is little to speak of in the way of drama, and as mentioned, surprises in the plot were essentially non-existent. If Mr. Hatcher had wished to resurrect Pablo Picasso, he need only have directed us to the nearest art gallery.

Matt Huff’s direction was very clean and he did an excellent job of getting out of the actors’ way. The actors had excellent grasps of their respective accent work (all the way down to Picasso’s Castilian pronunciation of “Barthelona”), and at all times seemed comfortable on the stage.

Mr. Huff, however, didn’t play against the grain of the story enough as was needed to cover up its substantial shortcomings. By playing further away from what is so painfully mechanical and obvious, it would have masked some of the blatant predictability of the story.

Despite its faults and overall lack of punch, A Picasso is, at its heart, an entertaining production that is carried by a pair of stalwart performances from its actors. It is also a rare opportunity to see one of Houston’s finest actors perform beyond the Alley’s walls.

by George Sims

[A Picasso will run until February 21st]


A Picasso
By Jeffrey Hatcher
Director: Matt Huff
Set, Prop, Costume & Sound Design: Jodi Bobrovsky
Lighting Design: John Smetak
Production Stage Manager: Julie Marie Pare
Dramaturg: Michael Evenden
Dialect Coach: Jim Johnson
Featuring: James Belcher (Picasso) Carolyn Johnson (Miss Fischer)

Presented by Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway
Houston, TX 77019
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