A masterpiece in the making

The Baltimore Sun

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which opened at Chesapeake Arts Center's Studio Theatre Friday, offers exciting entertainment to amuse and often bemuse.

Of the many plays I've seen at the Brooklyn Park facility, this one stands out for its ability to transport audiences into a distinctive environment: a striking European cafe-bar.

Here at the Cafe Lapin Agile, in comedian Steve Martin's debut as a playwright, is where 23-year-old artist Pablo Picasso and a 25-year-old patent office clerk named Albert Einstein meet by chance in Paris' Montmartre section in 1904.

Picasso is emerging from his "blue period," and Einstein is finishing his paper The Special Theory of Relativity.

In his 1993 play, Martin often inserts current reality into dialogue given these two 20th-century geniuses. These time shifts work brilliantly in part because of the central characters' grasp of abstract concepts.

Witticisms fly at a breakneck pace between profound reflections on art and science. Martin even refers to the play itself, at one point having bartender Freddy tell Einstein that he's arrived out of sequence because he's listed third in the program.

In CAC's production we meet Picasso's art dealer Sagot, played by Chris Homberg, and his 19-year-old admirer Suzanne (Lindsey Nixon), whom he seduced and seems to have momentarily forgotten.

We also meet an older man, Gaston, played by Rob Yochem, and young inventor Charles Schmendiman (John Lasher), a countess (Jess Angell) and a visitor from the future who outshines both Picasso and Einstein, having gained greater mid-20th-century fame as an icon.

Director Jayme Killburn says in her program notes that Martin was committed to historical accuracy: The Lapin Agile was a real Montmartre bar frequented by Picasso, and Picasso painted this cafe, portraying bar owner Frede and his friend Germaine, along with Sagot, who had worked as a clown before promoting Picasso's work.

Having just completed an art class with a segment on Picasso, I found Killburn's notes fascinating.

In addition to the her fine work, the efforts of Gary Adamsen, who recently joined CAC's staff and serves here as stage manager, must be recognized. Adamsen brings impressive credits and talents to CAC, recently working long hours to help create the set's fabulous floors, and he has made the most innovative use of the entire theater space that I can recall seeing at the Studio Theatre since its opening in January 2001.

The creativity and meticulous attention to detail of Andrew Mannion as set designer is another essential element in the overall excellence of the production.

Among standout performances are Russ Addis, who brings a raw energy, passion and sensuality to his performance as Picasso, Robert Scott Hitcho, who gives substance and subtle humor to his characterization of Einstein, and C. J. Crowe, who brings wit, seductiveness, pragmatism and innate believability to her portrayal of Germaine.

Minor criticisms include players' mispronouncing Lapin, at least twice calling the caf?, "La-pawn," which presumably will be corrected by this weekend.

Still, this play sets a new standard for CAC's Studio Theatre that I hope reflects an exciting new trend.

Performances continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 1. Tickets are $12 for members and $15 for non-members and may be purchased by calling 410-636-6597 or at www.chesapeakearts.org.

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