We've had a few theatrical art lessons around here recently. And not so recently. Red, at Curious Theatre Company last year, revealed Mark Rothko's genius, insecurity and narcissism as he bullied his assistant and gave urgent instructions about how he wanted his work viewed. Then there was the Miners Alley production of The Pitmen Painters, which promoted the admirable idea that making art is as much the province of working stiffs as it is of the highly educated elite. Before that, also at Miners, we had Yasmin Reza's Art, a wry comedy about a wealthy man's purchase of an all-white painting and the reactions — bemused, downright angry — of his friends. And way, way back, there was perhaps my favorite play ever about art: Inventing Van Gogh at Curious, which combined a cunning plot with an unforgettable portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.
Now there's Herbert Siguenza's one-man piece, A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. In this homage to the artist, Picasso comes across just as arrogant as Rothko, but a whole lot more fun to be around. The play is set in 1957, and Picasso is in his seventies; he has already put his life and art into perspective and is well aware that he's a legend. The play takes place over a weekend, during which he produces six paintings and three sculptures, all on commission. For Picasso, art is play, and Siguenza clearly loves demonstrating this. He arranges discarded objects into unexpected sculptures, uses a fish skeleton to decorate a plate, dons a red nose to play the clown and a cowboy hat to demonstrate his love of Gary Cooper. He pretends to be a bull at a bullfight. And he shows an attitude toward women as cavalier as we know the real Picasso to have been.
There's a thread of sadness underlying all this. Picasso was deeply affected by the Spanish Civil War, which inspired his famous painting, "Guernica," about the German bombing of that city. He remained in Paris during the Second World War and continued working on his art — though he wasn't allowed to show it. In 1944, he joined the French Communist Party. It was, he wrote, "a logical step in my life, my work, and gives them meaning. Through design and color, I have tried to penetrate deeper into a knowledge of the world and of men so that this knowledge might free us.... But during the oppression and the insurrection, I felt that that was not enough, that I had to fight not only with painting, but with my whole being." The Soviet Union's bloody invasion of Hungary in 1956 disturbed him deeply, but he didn't leave the Communist Party. Siguenza covers all this, but he does it with a light touch.
A Weekend With Pablo Picasso
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 28, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Siguenza is one of the founders of Culture Clash, a theater group whose smart, hilarious American Night was one of the Denver Center's most successful recent offerings. Like Picasso, he is dedicated to his art, and he is a painter as well as an actor and director. We get to see him paint skillfully on stage, and he whips out a sketch of a man in the front row in a mere minute or two. Siguenza says he was inspired to create the play by a book of photographs he stumbled on when he was seven, which "showed Picasso painting and eating and playing with his children in his chateau. To me that was the image of an artist, someone who was an artist 24/7. I went to art college, and then I began to act. So this is a play where I am able to combine my two loves. There's a line in the play where Picasso draws this lady in three minutes, and she's like, 'I'm not going to pay you for that. It took you only three minutes.' And he said, 'No. It took me all my life.' All the knowledge I have in art and acting is in this play."
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Siguenza is a charming, vital and energetic presence on stage, and he makes A Weekend With Pablo Picasso a true celebration of life and art.