Blank Canvas Theatre
Steve Martin. Depending how old you are, hearing this name conjures different visions.
Back at his insane beginnings with incredibly silly humor that you couldn’t ignore whether you liked it or not. Then came the movie phase, which included Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau, and penning many film comedies. Currently, known for writing the book and music for Bright Star on Broadway.
Behind every brilliant comedian, there is usually a brilliant mind. In Martin’s case, true intelligentsia. In 2009, Steve Martin wrote “Focusing on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso’s master painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science”. That play is Picasso at the Lapin Agile, currently on stage at Blank Canvas Theatre directed by Jonathan Kronenberger. The play is without intermission and runs around 80 minutes.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a magical look into an imagined conversation between two minds that had a powerful impact on the shape of the 20th century, and those lucky enough to have been there to witness it in a neighborhood bar in Paris in 1903. It brings to life Einstein and Picasso, still in their early twenties, as they debate the meaning of art, the power of thought and the essence of everything. Einstein is still toiling in his job at the patent office, but is looking for a publisher for his Theory of Relativity, and Picasso is on the verge of painting his revolutionary Les Demoiselles dAvignon.
When I take a look at this cast, this is one hell of a collection of characters. The beautiful thing as well, is they are all talented performers. Including some incredibly seasoned performers. Since the play enjoys the cast being in the order of appearance, I thought I would maintain that course.
First we meet Freddy (John Busser). He is the owner and bartender of the Lapin Agile. He seems to be a simple-minded man, but occasionally says something truly stunning. Busser plays this role with everyman realness, a solid actor, but needed more energy presenting his calculation problem to Einstein. Enter Gaston (Rich Stimac). He is an abrupt and direct character with prostate problems, who only seems to care about sex and drinking. Stimac plays his character big and broad. He is very funny, but seems to be a tad disconnected within the play, since his energy is not matched by those around him. And I have to say, when he goes in for the prostate gold at one point, I immediately texted the bar for a shot.
Then the delightful Carla Petroski enters as Germaine. A waitress at the Lapin Agile. She is Freddy’s girlfriend, and has many ideas of what the 20th century will be like. Oh, and she banged Picasso. Petroski is a delight. The queen of the phrase “never mind.”
Einstein (Robert Kowalewski) – A 25-year-old genius scientist with big aspirations, with a book on the way called The Special Theory of Relativity. He often finds himself having to explain his theories and thoughts in a simpler manner to the patrons for them to understand his thoughts. Kowalewski gets one of the biggest laughs in the show when his hair isn’t recognized, and he makes an Einstein transition. That is a fun way to start a run. Sure comedic gold. His character is well formed, and he is a delight to watch as he takes on the crowd around him. He has a solid characterization, and confidence. The only hindrance is the German accent that is hard to understand at times, especially when blocked to talk upstage.
Becca Ciamacco as Suzanne – Her character is infatuated with Picasso. Suzanne and Picasso have already slept together, and she is left hurt and angry when he doesn’t remember her. And let’s just say, from her beautiful looks and artistic choices, Ciamacco turns her face into throwing some shade that would bring jilted women around the world to their feet. Great job. She also returns at the end as a female admirer to give us some perky”crazy ex girlfriend, if I don’t get laid tonight I’m going to die.” Sagot (Greg Mandryk) is Picasso’s art dealer, who is obsessed with finding and selling great pieces of art for profit. Mandryk turns in a perfect strong performance. Engaging, funny, and electric.
Pablo Picasso (Roderick Cardwell II) is talented and charismatic 23-year-old painter. Extremely egotistical and self-confident, he is a serial womanizer and master of manipulation. Cardwell fits the physical bill, and moves with ease through scenes with confidence. However, he needs more of a spark in his character to energize his chicanery.
Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Ronnie Thompson) is a young inventor with huge dreams and little knowledge. Although he is hardworking, he is overshadowed by the genius and talent of Einstein and Picasso. He just tries TOO hard. Thompson is full of energy, and is a manic delight. But I think audiences will be hit and miss, since this character represents the crazier younger Steve Martin with an arrow through his head. The Countess is played by the brilliant comedian Britta Will. She takes on being Einstein’s sidepiece with perfect reserved finesse. She knows her man for sure.
The Visitor (Evan Martin) is polite and talented country-boy time-traveler, who adds another dimension and point of view to Einstein’s and Picasso’s debate. As he magically enters, he moves around stage as if he was on a bed of fog. Martin gives this character much suspense and intrigue, and his looks are haunting. I felt like I was about to see an episode of True Blood, and Twin Peaks. Interesting performance, delivering fascinating observations.
Overall, my guess is that the reaction to this show will be 50/50. Watch it on the right night, where the cast is full of vibrant energy, and the audience is there for this Steve Martin delight, and things will go very well. The night I saw it, I felt the evening lacked something. There were laughs, but not enough. Director Kronenberger took some chances on casting, and not all of those worked out to the benefit of the total product. If this production is not crisp, it withers.
Patrick Ciamacco came through strongly with his Lighting, Sound and Set Design. Luke Scattergood costumes a beautiful show that highlights each character. Joy DeMarco provided great Stage Managment. Noah Hrbek and Pat Miller serve up some fabulous replications of priceless work. Hrbek recreated The Red Beach by Matisse, and Miller recreated Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. Even Wolfgang Beltracchi would have been proud. And to round things off, Hrbek displays his passion for sheep by the original landscape Le Mouton d’Avignon, which is not half baaaaaaad. Thank you.
Photo credit: Andy Dudik
This show is rated PG-13.
$18 General Admission
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Blank Canvas Theatre
78th Street Studios
1305 West 80th Street, Suite 211
Cleveland, OH 44102