• by Sarah Teach •
Picasso sits alone in a dingy brick basement with the trappings of an interrogation room. Cold concrete floors. Bare light bulbs. A single table flanked by upright chairs, designed for discomfort. But the oddity of this interrogation room is that stacks of paintings line both sides of it. This is no ordinary detention area; something weird is about to happen. Even in Nazi-occupied Paris, 1941, Picasso was busy being Picasso. Singular, sarcastic, misogynistic. His large dark eyes bored into the objects of his gaze with legendary intensity. He was privileged to be an artist whose greatness was discovered during his lifetime rather than after it; and accordingly, he took no issue with being a king of the 20th century art world. But will the king’s crown topple if he is cornered in a dungeon by a Nazi officer who aims to either destroy his art or take his life?
Theatre Workshop of Nantucket presents A Picasso, a 2005 play by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, known for his screenplay adaptations of others’ works (Tuesdays with Morrie) and also his own (Stage Beauty). Based loosely on real events, Hatcher’s story brings us to a time when “Germans are not used to hearing the word ‘no.’” Picasso’s interrogator arrives: Miss Fischer, whose crisp gray suit and coiffed hair belies any humanity that may lie beneath her Aryan features. The tension heightens almost immediately, and explodes when Fischer admits she needs a Picasso for a formal art burning by the Third Reich. She has called Picasso to the dungeon to authenticate three works that her government has acquired. Of course, the artist is outraged at the idea that his work would be destroyed, and he scrapes and claws to salvage it. Fischer and Picasso do psychological battle, stealing power back and forth from one another, and giving the story several arcs of varying intensities. Five or six times throughout the play, the tension is palpable. The audience falls totally still. We are initially uncomfortable believing that the tension between detainee and captor could be sexual, but Picasso quickly lets us know that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. He is, after all, Picasso.
The script isn’t perfect, and has moments of implausibility; but it is still an interesting rendering at an oft-depicted figure. The upshot of the character’s personal diatribes is that one does not need to be a Picasso scholar in order to enjoy this play; Hatcher paints the artist’s life for us. On the other hand, if you are a Picasso scholar, you will be enthralled by the art references. For example, Hatcher offers a unique perspective on how Picasso may have thought about Guernica, which depicted the Nazi bombing of a Basque town. Biographer John Richardson wrote, “[Picasso] was a vampire in that he took everybody’s energy and worked off that. You would feel drained. Then he would work all night.” Hatcher captured that element of the man, who slowly draws the strength from his detainer like he’s pulling a rope that inevitably has an end. Director Kate Splaine describes the story as a “cage match” wherein the characters take turns wielding the upper hand. I felt Fischer held the power the entire time, but the person next to me felt the opposite was true.
This play has been performed for almost a decade, but not all actors have been as well cast as they are by TWN. With dark hair slicked back, TWN newcomer Alexander Cook is a handsome Picasso who embodies both the bravado and brilliance of the famous artist. Cook’s Spanish accent is quite convincing. Katie Croyle, who we’ve seen most recently at TWN in Dracula, is Fischer. Splaine cast an actor more young and beautiful than many who have played Fischer in other productions of this play. Perhaps the director wished to coax the situation closer to reality, as Picasso was quite accustomed to interacting with women decades younger than he.
Peter Waldron did a great job designing the set. Sandra Galley actually used those bare light bulbs in Waldron’s interrogation room, giving them both visual and functional value. Kudos to Anne Breeding and her assistant Karina Meijs for giving fitting outfits to each character. The duo, also responsible for set decoration, brought in works of art that are not explicitly seen, but we still believe they are truly products of the period’s masters.
A Picasso is approximately 75 minutes, and it flies by. Due to adult content, this is not a family show. A Picasso is playing at Centre Stage, 2 Centre Street, through October 10. Tickets are $30 at TheatreWorkshop.com. See the website for show times.