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Photograph by Dana Glover
SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLES: Elvis (Travis Leland) provides some inspiration for Einstein (Mikey Schott, left) and Picasso (Tony DiCorti) in Northside Theatre's new show.

Agile Comedy

Northside revisits Steve Martin's comedy about genius 20th-century style

By Marianne Messina

WRITTEN in 1993, Steve Martin's play Picasso at the Lapin Agile celebrates the 20th century, in which "the accomplishments of the artists and the scientists outshone the accomplishments of the politicians and the governors." In this kindly, if not occasionally silly, look at the century's seminal geniuses, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso meet in a famous French pub, the Lapin Agile, in 1904. At Northside Theatre Company, the meeting begins in mistrust and challenges: "Maybe you're a fake," says Picasso (Tony DiCorti). "Maybe you're an idiot savant," says Einstein (Mikey Schott), "hold the savant." But the two ultimately find they are "brothers" because both are creating a new way of looking at the world: "You dream the impossible and put it into effect."

Set designer Richard T. Orlando's arrangement of doily-covered tables on two levels, crowned by a bar, evokes the sense of salon, a bustling place where philosophical "manifestos" foment and where patrons are "fascinating"—according to Freddy the pub proprietor (Bryan Freeman)—simply because they express opinions. It would seem that people are also fascinating because they have oddball mannerisms. Schott is a an eye-rolling, twitching Einstein; DiCorti's egotistical, Christian Bale–like Picasso is histrionic and demonstrative, signing his name by flourishing his free arm in the air like a bullfighter. A genius, goes the stereotype, is a social misfit. 

From realism to hyperbole, from humorous anachronistic irony to juvenile "No, you aren't—Yes, I am" dueling, Martin's humor is a nightmare of quicksilver tone shifts, treating the subject matter with a conflicted mélange of respect, nostalgia and cynicism. The production has mixed success exerting control over these subtleties, which occasionally leads to bits that feel disjunct or forced, and to actors that wander in and out of their element. To be fair, the audience on opening night was utterly riotous in its response.

Lucinda Dobinson, in particular, consistently delivers as the proprietress, lustily enticing her husband or making pantomime wagers behind Picasso and Einstein as they debate. The company has devoted thought and detail to the elements. Orlando's furniture in threes is a likely nod to a cafe discussion that most things come in threes. Sound designer Adam Weinstein has found brilliant accordion arrangements of key songs to deliver both humor and Parisian atmosphere. And costume designer Rita Foster has dressed the redheaded countess (Rebecca Wallace) in the colors and feathers of the redhead next to Harlequin in Picasso's Lapin Agile painting.

One of the biggest tonal challenges comes when a "Visitor" arrives to bring Picasso the moment of illumination that drives him out of his "blue period." Suddenly the play asks the audience to shift from seeing conceptual breakthrough as self-aggrandizing jibber jabber to looking at it with awe. The production ushers in the shift by rotating Picasso's seminal work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon into view. In a solid directorial choice by Angie Higgins, Travis Leland's "Visitor"—obviously Elvis in very blue shoes and overloaded hair pile—is played straight, sans hyperbolic twitches and shimmies. As Leland's evocative Elvis tells Picasso "I had my moment of perfection," he sets the emotional ground for wonder. He's a ghost channeling breakthroughs, embodying the play's contention that "ideas come from the future."

PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm, with no show July 4, through July 13 at 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)

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