Pablo Picasso is one of the most scrutinized and studied artists in history, and he is the subject of the American Theatre Company's most recent production.
Jeffrey Hatcher's A Picasso is a smartly written, fast-paced play steeped in history. Ed Durnal directs the play, set in 1941 Nazi-occupied Paris. Picasso, having already achieved worldwide fame and notoriety, is played by Craig Walter.
He has been captured by the Gestapo and undergoes an interrogation by Miss Fischer, played by Susan Dergoul, an attaché from Germany's cultural ministry. The play opens with Picasso alone in a dark bunker, nervously tapping his knee.
Fischer, a cold, stern woman, enters. She begins the interrogation by asking him a series of personal questions, his birth date, the names of his children, lovers and managers, but she seems to know quite a bit about him already.
The interrogation room, small and cramped, is filled with canvases, works "confiscated" by Nazi soldiers because they were seen as a direct threat to Germany and/or the Nazi regime.
Fischer has three sketches, presumably by Picasso, that she needs authenticated before they can be "exhibited" in a group show with other degenerate artists. Picasso affirms that all three are his, but once Miss Fischer lets slip that the show isn't as much an exhibition as it is a burning, Picasso immediately refutes his earlier affirmation.
Miss Fischer's job, and her life, depends on her ability to present her superiors with a Picasso. She strikes up a deal with her detainee: He will walk out with two of the sketches if he will agree to forfeit one.
He agrees, and sets about denying his work. Buoyed by her trust, Picasso reveals the intimate details behind his work and then provides reasons why they cannot possibly be his. The play is almost a study on Picasso, reveling in the details of the life of a man oft examined but rarely understood.
Hatcher explores the role of politics in art and vice versa, presenting more questions than he attempts to answer. The point is probably best illustrated when Miss Fischer exasperatedly asks Picasso how he can claim to not be "a political man" if art is "about the people and the culture?"
Throughout the dialogue, the atmosphere between Picasso and Fischer varies from disgust and disdain to sympathy to near-friendship.
A Picasso is nicely paced and finely acted by two of Tulsa's best. Picasso and Fischer are complicated, complex characters. Picasso is a narcissistic philanderer, but Walter gives him more depth. At times he mocks Germany's dictatorship and at others he genuinely fears the regime and its power.
While he regards Miss Fischer most often with a sneer or sarcastic smirk, there are moments of quiet sincerity, offering the man depth, if not explaining the motives behind his actions.
Dergoul, as Miss Fischer, does a good job of disguising herself as an unfeeling product of her regime. But she, too, reveals a more vulnerable side, despairingly asking Picasso what good art is if there won't be anyone left to see it.
The play is at once entertaining and provocative, clever and poignant. While it examines the charged politics of Nazi Europe and what effect ideology can (or should) have on art and expression, it remains evident throughout the hour-long play that these themes are still pertinent today.
Knowing that A Picasso is a two-man play centering on an interrogation, I wondered whether or not the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Williams Theatre would provide the intimacy the setting required. The Williams Theatre is the largest of the PAC's three small theaters.
My seat's close proximity to the stage and the very small number of people in attendance at last Sunday's production helped, but scenic designer Richard Ellis' choice to thrust the set forward on the apron of the stage made it feel surprisingly small, which was perfect for this show.
A Picasso continues this weekend, May 1 and 2, at 8pm at 110 E. Second St. Tickets are $24-$35, with discounts for students and seniors, and are available at myticketoffice.com or by calling 596-7111. The play is recommended for ages 13 and up.
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