Friday, October 1, 2004

'A Picasso' is heady, clever

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

The Gestapo wants "a Picasso." Not necessarily two or three. One will be enough.

That's the premise of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's nifty A Picasso, which is a sort of heady cousin to Casablanca and a fine date night for grown-ups at Playhouse in the Park.

The lights go down and we hear the unmistakable wail of French police sirens - ah, so we're in Paris. The lights come up on the Shelterhouse stage and we're in a vault somewhere below Paris.

Picasso (Allen Fitzpatrick) is front and center, in a small, cold-looking brick cavern surrounded by stacks of wrapped canvases and sculpture.

He, and we, soon learn why with the arrival of Miss (not Fraulein?) Fischer (Priscilla Shanks), a coolly glam blonde with a husky voice and an Ingrid Bergman outfit.

Hatcher has chosen the one brief period in the life of the 20th century's most famous artist about which not much is known - his time in Paris during the French occupation - to fashion an entertainment that is constructed of art, politics, mystery, banter, history lesson, and other tasty ingredients.

The part that is history lesson was the plot's starting point: an exhibition of "degenerate" art followed by a bonfire in the Tuileries by the Germans. "A" Picasso was noted, in newspaper accounts, to be among the works by artists that included Klee, Miro and Leger.

The conceit here is that Picasso is invited to choose among a trio of works - which of his artistic children will die in the flames? All he has to do is authenticate one and proclaim the others fakes and he can save two. Call it Pablo's Choice.

Fitzpatrick has a high old time as flamboyant Picasso, taking each of three self-portraits in turn - one from Picasso's boyhood, another from his 30s and one freshly minted - and telling stories.

The fraulein has plenty of secrets and motives of her own, not least of which is that she's - horrors! - an art critic.

One of the pleasures of A Picasso is that, as always, Hatcher is a master of clever dialogue. He sets up the battleground and Picasso and Fischer spend the better part of 85 intermission-less minutes verbally dueling.

The balance shifts - she has the power of the state, he undercuts her with purposefully crude language. She regains her upper hand with an understanding of his work that's a bit too close for comfort - but he has one trump card that is unarguable. This is, after all, Picasso.

They jab at each other over art and politics with an intelligence that would sit well on the lips of Tracy and Hepburn or Powell and Loy, although with none of the charm - this isn't about particularly liking either of them.

There are occasional bits of conversation that ring false, but Hatcher has written the show at a clip and director Michael Haney perfectly understands the nature of the evening's fun, and smartly keeps the male-female face-off taut and provocative.

A Picasso, through Oct. 24, Playhouse in the Park, Thompson Shelterhouse, (513) 421-3888.


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