A Picasso by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Tyler Marchant.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"How stupid do you want me to be?"
Thom Christopher as Picasso and Gretchen Egolf as Miss Fischer; photo: Kevin Sprague
Gretchen Egolf; photo: Kevin Sprague
Midway through Jeffrey Hatcherís one-act play, A Picasso, the drama which opens the 13th Barrington Stage Company season, painter Pablo Picasso and his Nazi interrogator Miss Fischer come to grips with one of the major issues of the play, the role of the critic. It is essential that Picasso begin to think like one in order to determine which of three sketches, allegedly his own, will be destroyed in a public burning of decadent art. Told to think like a German, so he will understand their motivations, then to react to his work like a critic so that she can take back evidence of decisions to her superiors, he reacts: "First I have to think like a German, now I have to think like a Critic? How stupid do you want me to be?"
It is crucial that the audience understand the artistís political conscience and the depth of his understanding of the unnatural power being wielded in his direction in the tiny room in which he has been held for questioning. It is 1941. Paris. Picasso has come face to face with his past, has come abruptly upon his present situation and his inability to master it. His charm wonít work. His talent has no place in this dark, grey basement under the Paris streets. It seems quite probable that he may not have a future. And then...the role of the critic comes into play.
Reacting critically to many aspects of his own life seems to be a natural source of inspiration to the ex-patriot Spaniard. It turns out that his questioner is also a critic, her specialty: Picasso. Two minds set to the same exploration of purpose, inspiration and communication glance off one another like steel swords in an Erroll Flynn swashbuckler movie. Tyler Marchant, directing this battle of minds, moves his two bodies around the small, central stage with the grace of caged tigers in a circus arena. There is animal magnetism aplenty when these two titans engage. There is a remarkable intensity and the audience, like flies on the wall in this case, are the only safe creatures in the cellar.
Thom Christopher and Gretchen Egolf as the participants in this meshing of minds and bodies are kegs of dynamite, each of them ready to ignite at a momentís notice. When their eyes lock it is almost too dangerous to watch them. She is tall, slender, blonde, wide-eyed and sullen-mouthed. He is broad, angry, bald, tense and coiled. Even pleasantries come out of their mouths with barbs attached. Throughout the play we are held suspended over the emotional heads of these two as they each battle for supremacy in their encounter. Both actors are brilliant, both shine in their self-centered superiority. I cannot conceive of a finer cast for this play.
On a surprisingly well-proportioned set, in this theater in the round experience, designed by Brian Prather, the antagonists circle and employ corners as needed. The monotone of grey offsets the colors that each bring to their meeting, he in brown with a touch of bright colors at the throat, she in a uniform that matches the space, until she reveals the brightness of a pale, off-white satin, the beige of a lacy undergarment. The use of color here in the costumes designed by Guy Lee Bailey reflect the sepia of Picassoís painting Guernica, a subject which occupies the two characters for at least five minutes. As lit by Jeff Davis in a stark and remarkably focused way, nothing ever distracts us from the faces of Fischer and Picasso. We may pay attention to a detail here and there, but it is their two faces that remain in the center of our line of vision.
Nazis not your thing? It wonít matter, for here we deal with critics. Picasso, the artist and manipulator of women, of little interest in your life? It wonít matter for here we deal with concepts of art and life. And critics. Donít care about critics? "Third person superior" is how Picasso describes the work of critics. What can be said in their defense after seeing this play is that they sometimes save what is important in spite of themselves. This play, at the companyís second stage in the lower depths of the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, calls into question one single item of conflict: the value we place on ourselves and the rights of others to determine that value.
That is your job, to determine the value of this play. For myself, I place that value high. This is a remarkable work of art.