Smaller in scope and more conversational in tone than last season's effort by the Denver Center Theatre Company, the Avenue Theatre's production of Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile proves nearly as amusing and, at times, more affecting. More than anything else, though, John Ashton's environmental approach enlivens and personalizes the comedian/movie star/playwright's polemic about art and science by eliminating most of the barriers that typically separate artist from audience.
Strangely enough, though, Ashton's cabaret-style version, which is being presented in a vacant bar/restaurant space (the former Mike Berardi's), fails to capitalize on some of the play's theatrical in-jokes and one-liners. That's mostly because the ultra-realistic confines presuppose the idea that theatrical artifice is necessary. From the minute spectators enter the inviting space (credit designers Joan and Nick Cimyotte for the handsome transformation from defunct eatery to Parisian watering hole), spectators are more or less asked to believe that they are patronizing the artist's hangout of the play's title, which translates as "agile rabbit." After having the chance to order drinks at the bar, theatergoers/customers take their seats within a few feet of a ceramic-tile playing area that consists of a couple of rustic wooden tables, some chairs and the darkly stained bar itself. Given Ashton and company's painstaking attempts to create a ringingly authentic atmosphere, Martin's occasional gibes at the machinations of dramatic contrivance don't always come through with crystal clarity.
Still, on the strength of Charles Dean Packard's evocative lighting scheme, some cleverly placed special effects and a handful of convincing portrayals, the site-specific show yields rich rewards. In fact, the performers' collective artistry keeps the 85-minute pastiche from becoming an intellectual exercise fervently whispered in close quarters. They might not make ideal, quasi-Stoppardian ideologues, but most of the actors imbue their characters with a greater warmth and humanity than might be found in a traditionally staged production.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, through December 18 at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925
That's especially true of Elizabeth Rose's intriguing portrait of Suzanne, a young woman who frequents the Lapin Agile in the hope that she might turn her recent fiery one-night stand with Pablo Picasso into a more meaningful and permanent relationship. Rather than simply emphasize Suzanne's wounded naivete or understandably embittered nature, Rose delivers a mature portrait that shows us Picasso's near-godlike influence on others long before the famous painter strides through the tavern's front door. When she talks of his penetrating gaze or the meeting of the spirits that took place when she freely surrendered her body to his, her admiration seems both heartfelt and well-reasoned. She also appears to have been tempered by the acerbic artist's morning-after rejection: She's well-aware that Picasso is a notorious womanizer and absinthe-swilling lout, but she's willing to put up with that beastly behavior -- and challenge him to temporarily toss it aside -- for the chance to take their boudoir-shaking experience to a more lasting, transformational level. Following her mid-play exit as Suzanne, Rose contributes a few tongue-in-cheek touches to her subsequent cameo roles as a countess and female admirer.
Her appealing turn is humorously counter- balanced by John Arp's quirky take on the disheveled, 25-year-old Albert Einstein, who, playwright Martin postulates, could have met up with the 23-year-old Picasso when both were in Paris in 1904. Whether he's dorkily chuckling over an esoteric math joke, working at quantum speed to calculate a convoluted bar bill, delightfully navigating his way through a lecture about letter-shaped pies or waxing poetic when handed one of Picasso's pencil drawings, Arp is eminently likable and believably absentminded. His explanations of scientific theories ("We're not so much going to change the century as bend it") are perfectly underscored by Ashton's three-quarter-round staging -- as is Jordan Leigh Gurner's quietly rapturous delivery of Picasso's monologue about artistic inspiration. Although their arguing about art and science never takes on the tone of an arch debate, their exchanges seem spontaneous and genuine. And the discoveries onto which they inevitably stumble (with the help of Eric Lawrence's well-played time-traveling visitor) are thought-provoking and true to life.
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The strong supporting cast is led by Karen Erickson's straight-shooting barmaid and Brian Thompson's equally phlegmatic and sometimes devilishly nonplussed barkeep/husband. Louis Schaefer is endearing as the bladder-challenged barfly Gaston, and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo is serviceable as the art dealer Sagot. The evening's lone disappointment is the intentionally abrasive character of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a personification of middlebrow cultural values who, as ineptly rendered by David Nickle, simply gets in the way of a clever story instead of lending it another layer of surreal commentary. Thankfully, his appearance is brief and, all things considered, scarcely detracts from Ashton and company's intimate if not always immaculate conception.