City Circle - “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That phrase was spoken by more than one audience member at the end of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Although it does follow the convention of having a beginning, middle, and end — all set nicely in the framework of “when the lights go down” to “when the lights go up” — somewhere in the middle it turns and veers and becomes somewhat absurd, although not in an inaccessible way. It is the fictional story of a chance meeting between Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and an unnamed but immediately recognizable Visitor in the Lapin Agile bar in France in 1903. The play provides some food for thought along with many laughs, though it is a deeper piece than one might expect from a man who first became famous while wearing an arrow through his head.
There are no small parts in theatre, of course, and even those with fewer lines have important roles to play. Rachel Korach Howell plays no fewer than three characters. I don’t know if this is by design of the playwright or by economy of the director, but she manages to infuse each one with a different sensibility simply by changing her demeanor from the sultry Suzanne, to the brash Countess, and to the flibbertigibbet female admirer. Lorin Ditzler embodies Germaine, the only other woman in the show, who holds her own as the waitress at the bar. Her petite frame makes an excellent physical counterpoint to her boyfriend the bartender, Jaret Morlan’s Freddy. There’s a fun bit of business during a fight these two have, about whether her romanticism is neo- or post-, when they are pointing fingers at one another and he points a finger straight down at her head.
Nick Ostrem’s appearance Schmendiman is brief but memorable; I think these Ostrem kids are definitely ones to watch for in the future. Jay Stein’s Gaston is the anchor character of the play; the foil against which Einstein and Picasso riposte. He embodies the part of the exasperated old Gaston with overexaggerated movements and sighs, allowing the audience to feel his frustration with the way old age is treating him.
Eric Burchett’s Visitor is the perfect embodiment of his character; someone whom I’d rather not name as it would take away from the surprise of the play. When you see him, you’ll understand. Michael Stokes’ is the perfect art dealer; a combination of marketing schmooze and artistic ego-stroking familiar to agents even today.
The true stars of the show, of course, are Brad Quinn’s Einstein and Matthew James’ Picasso. Brad makes a wonderfully believable Einstein; his hair even does an admirable job of looking pretty much like a young Einstein’s. (Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his mustache.) He speaks with the physicist’s German accent, and you wholeheartedly believe him when he spouts off figures and formulas.
Matthew James is on fire as Picasso, commanding the attention of not only everyone on stage but everyone in the room. He employs a Spanish accent to great effect, both to woo lovers and to put down fellow artists. I suspect nearly every woman in the audience wished he would turn his artist’s Lothario eye on her.
The costumes for the characters were spot on, from Germaine’s bosomy barmaid dress to Picasso’s slouchy artist look. The set is simple, a bar with a couple of tables and a few stools, and a very large picture of pastoral sheep — a painting that’s integral to the plot.
City Circle is producing this show as part of their first ever repertory season, alternating it with the play Rabbit Hole and including a reading of Sarah Shattered, written by a member of the University of Iowa theatre community. The show is on the third floor of the Iowa Realty Building on the Coralville strip—a delightfully empty warehouse of a room, comfortably appointed with padded folding chairs and temperature controlled. It is useful to have a large empty room like this as a theatre space, but as with any space without an elevated stage or raked seating, there are bound to be sightline troubles. Though I was able to procure a seat in the front row, I did occasionally miss some bit of action on the stage because the actors were cheated towards the other side of the audience, or because crowding of the actors prevented me from seeing every detail.
Theatre goers and theatre newbies will thoroughly enjoy Martin’s play and our own local actors in it. I encourage everyone to take it in.
Sharon Falduto has been involved with theatre for many years. Notable roles include Corrie in Barefoot in the Park with Dreamwell and Myra in Hay Fever with ICCT. She has directed God for the now defunct student group, West Side Players, and Of Mice and Men for Dreamwell. She is currently out of the theatre scene, as she is busy directing the lives of Rachel, Samantha, and Piper at her home in Coralville. She still enjoys the stage, however, and hopes to trod the boards again in the future.