Imagine Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in their 20s, meeting at a bar in France in 1904, bonding and sparring over drinks, before they became famous as, respectively, an artist and a physicist.
TOSS IN Elvis Presley, plus a loud American with his own groupies, and the result is actor and author Steve Martin's wild and crazy comedy, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."
That's French for "nimble rabbit," the name of the bar where the play's action takes place. In real life, though, it's being presented by the Keegan Theatre at the Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Seventeen performances will be offered between July 27-Aug. 19.
Showtimes are Thursday-Saturday, July 27, 28, 29; Aug. 3, 4, 5; Aug. 10, 11, 12; and Aug. 17, 18, 19, at 8 p.m. Matinees will be presented Saturday, July 29 and Aug. 5 at 2 p.m., and Sunday, July 30, Aug. 6 and Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25, adults; $20, students/seniors. Call 703-892-0202, ext. 2 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Westfield High Theatre Director Scott Pafumi is directing the show, and June WHS grad Brian Randall plays the loud American. Other Westfield grads, Helen Lynn and Megan Thrift, are stage manager and assistant stage manager, and Centreville resident Maria Vetsch is costume designer. Mark Rhea and Eric Lucas, Keegan founding directors, portray Picasso and Einstein, respectively.
Although different for Pafumi to direct professional actors, things are going well. "Out of the cast of 12, seven have been working together for years," he said. "So there's already an established camaraderie and chemistry with each other."
It's his first time directing this company, but his wife Helen has acted in three Keegan shows and Pafumi's taken his students to their productions. Rhea asked him to direct, and Pafumi chose this play and pre-cast several of the parts. Assistant director is Sarah Bever, Herndon High's theatre director.
"It's a smart play about the connection between art, science and philosophy, and it's got a lot of great comic bits and lines," said Pafumi. "And I think the audience will really enjoy the writing and the comic send-up of the characters."
IT'S SAID that things often come in threes so, naturally, the play ponders who'll be the third superperson to bond with Einstein and Picasso — the musician or the fool. And it all unfolds with lots of laughter, dancing, dreaming and even some romance.
Rhea, of Arlington, describes his Picasso as complicated. "At the beginning of the play, he's brooding and frustrated — stuck in his Blue Period," said Rhea. "But he's still a lady's man and has a lot of control — a raw, gutsy way of being — while poetic. When Picasso's painting, 'Three Ladies in a Mask,' comes down in the bar, it gets him thinking about his future."
Rhea said the role's fun on many, different levels. "I like playing someone who's hard-edged and not a nice guy because I'm not that in real life," he said. "And I'm acting with my wife and best friend, Susan, on stage [she plays Germain] and also pulling the young kids into the professional world and letting them see what it's like."
He's also pleased with the energy between himself and Lucas (Einstein) during the play and advises audience members to "just enjoy the experience, instead of analyzing" what happens. If so, said Rhea, they'll be delighted by "the comedic timing and wittiness of Martin's writing."
Lucas, of Washington, D.C., says his Einstein, 25, is "a clerk in a patent office, but has ideas about everything and was writing his theory of relativity at the time. Picasso has Spanish bravado; Einstein has more etiquette."
He loves the part because Einstein has "lots of good, joke lines and is a nice guy. He's observant and listens to everything. He and Picasso are antagonistic about their art and have battles of will and wit until they discover their approach to science and art is common ground. Then they become brothers; their beliefs are the same, just coming from opposite ends."
The toughest part, said Lucas, is "giving something new to everyone's concept of Einstein before he became the rock star of science and was just a person." But he especially likes "the intelligence of the character and the script. It's a fun ride, and it gets all the heady issues out there, but it's painless."
Westfield grad Brian Randall, 19 — who'll major in theater education at East Carolina University — wears a loud plaid sportcoat, clashing plaid knickers and argyle socks to play Schmendiman. "He's the American shill, like an obnoxious car salesman," said Randall. "He has no concept of how people see him; he's just an explosion and is absurdly ridiculous."
Schmendiman invented a building material that breaks easily, but made lots of money, so he's visiting Europe since, in the early 1900s, said Randall, that was a "rich thing to do. He goes to all the bars telling everyone what a genius he is. Picasso and Einstein are looking for a third genius, but realize there's no way it could be him."
RANDALL, TOO, loves his role. "When Westfield did this show, a few years back, Kevin Knickerbocker did this role and was so funny," he said. "But this is a totally different show, working with professional actors, and I've learned a lot from them.
Now, said Randall, he's working with people who act for a living, so rehearsals are faster-paced and "everyone's more mature." He's also excited to meet the challenge of acting in 17 shows, compared to four in high-school productions. He's also having fun talking to these thespians about their theater experiences.
Calling his character "high-energy, over-the-top," Randall said he's honored and appreciative of Pafumi casting him in this part. "He's given me all the opportunities I've ever had, and I'm going to college with this on my resumé, and that's awesome."
Randall said Pafumi taught him theater ethics and a standard of professionalism that carries over into his work with Keegan. As for the play, he said, "If you just read the show, you'd laugh out loud, so it's really good, right off the bat. The script is genius — Steve Martin is the man. "
Herndon High grads Katie Loughnane and Jackie Reed play Schmendiman's groupies. "We play off each other as teen-age girls, giggling and screaming like Beatle fans," said Loughnane, 18. "[Initially], we mistake Picasso for Schmendiman and are upset when we realize it's not him. We later come into the bar as arm candy for Schmendiman."
"We follow him around Europe," said Reed, 18. "We think he's a genius, but he's not, so we're part of his absurdness. When we come, people see that he's got a fan club."
"It's awesome to be that ridiculous and experience a whole, new level of being a girl," said Loughnane. "We're ditzy, and my voice rises a couple notches," added Reed. "She and I like each other, but I can become unscrupulous trying to get Schmendiman for myself. I love it; doing the part with Katie makes it twice as fun."
Reed called it a can't-miss comedy that reminds her of Woody Allen's movie, "Bullets over Broadway," and said Schmendiman and the teens represent "anti-intelligence." Loughnane noted the comedy's many levels. "It's clever," she said. "There are slapstick moments and also deeper, philosophical, intelligent laughs."
Playing Suzanne is Alexandria's Jennifer Richter. "She's one of the many women Picasso sleeps with, but she's just 19 and, to her, he's everything," said Richter. "She's poor and a bit promiscuous and she falls in love with him. It's the first time she's experienced love and she builds him up to everyone as a wonderful, passionate man. Then he comes into the bar, makes a rude comment and at first doesn't remember her."
RICHTER'S PLAYED a "sassy, young girl" before, but says Suzanne has depth and an "unguarded presence." Furthermore, she said, "It's intimidating to be that sexually open, so it's been interesting to just let go and have fun with this role."
Alexandria's Mike Kozemchak plays the visitor. "Though he's never named explicitly, he's supposed to be Elvis, visiting from the future to help Picasso out of his Blue Period," he explained. "Elvis has been made into such a caricature over the years, so this goes with it. I shake my hips a bit and do some hand motions, and the [groupies] like Elvis, too."
Overall, he said, it's a cool role. "I arrive in a cloud of smoke and blue lights at the bar while they're looking for the third genius," said Kozemchak. When the stars in the sky later align themselves into Picasso's and Einstein's names, Elvis' is above theirs — three times larger.
"That's a statement about how celebrity outshone both of them in the 20th century," said Kozemchak. "What's popular gets everyone's attention." As for the show, he said the audience will really "get a kick out of the quirky characters that inhabit this bar."