IF YOU GO
What: Pablo Picasso and a Nazi art expert face off in a battle of wills
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through April 14
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
Something else: Play is 75 minutes, no intermission
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — The Naples Players pulled the wrapping off intense art world thriller "A Picasso" Wednesday. While the script feels more like a hasty drawing doodled on a napkin during lunch than a vivid Picasso canvas, the show does illustrate the passion, intensity and power of art to move the soul.
Jeffrey Hatcher's thin character sketch takes place in the autumn of 1941. Paris has fallen to the Germans, with the Nazis confiscating and burning "degenerate" art. Pablo Picasso sits a storage vault beneath the city, awaiting interrogation.
The 75-minute play features Picasso (David Gardner) facing off against Nazi Ministry of Culture functionary Miss Fischer (Bonnie Knapp) in a cat-and-mouse game over three sketches. The Germans intend to burn dozens of paintings to demonstrate their cultural (and military) superiority; Picasso would rather sacrifice a child than see his work consigned to the flames.
The play wants to make a statement about how art can make a difference even in the face of an overwhelming horror, like war. There are repeated references to one of Picasso's most famous works, "Guernica," (read the Wikipedia entry) which was created as a response to the bombing of a Spanish village by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. As Picasso and Fischer debate the sketches, his monologues point to art's ability to transcend sickness, violence, death and even the violent occupation of Paris itself.
Miss Fisher's steel-spined Nazi represents the "art is worthless" half of the argument. One of the play's best moments comes when Knapp sniffs, turns up her nose and utters "Art is Schubert played while bombs fall. Bombs win." Yet, "A Picasso" forges ahead to demand that art can - and will - survive. Why does Picasso paint? Gardner answers: "I paint ... because I know it will be a great painting."
"A Picasso" stumbles in the execution. Director Theresa Bill, much like in last year's "The Art of Murder," seems to have little grasp of her play's rhythms. Picasso's life is at stake. The Nazis could put a bullet in his head - and there's zero tension on stage. For all the talk of art igniting passion in the dialogue, there's precious little intensity on display.
The show rarely engages the audience. The ideas themselves are interesting, but there is little evidence that the actors were asked to emphasize some of the subtle dark humor that comes from a man being confronted by a powerful, icy woman. Worse, the timing feels hurried in some places and too slow in others. Few of the show's barbed laugh lines, which require specific beats or pauses, land with force.
Hatcher's script also features several long monologues that allow Gardner's Picasso to "perform." While these give the actor a chance to showcase his skills (and accent), Bill's staging often feels lifeless and dull, with just the two characters talking to each other while seated at a table.
The script itself does the show no favors. "Guernica," while acclaimed, is perhaps not as instantly recognizable to the casual viewer as da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," or Edvard Munch's "The Scream." In failing to describe the painting - much less its impact - Hatcher denies the audience an understanding of its importance. At least a casual knowledge of art history and world history might be helpful too in understanding the names, dates and places that are thrown around so casually.
There are bright spots, even great ones, especially when veteran amateur actors Gardner and Knapp go with their instincts and appear to abandon the inconsistent direction. The chemistry appears fairly sharp; the pair acted opposite each other in last fall's "Later Life" and look comfortable on stage together.
"Showy" moments fare best. Gardner gives his Picasso a sneering, confident charm. Tension flares as Picasso suddenly strikes a match, holds it close to Knapp's face and rattles off a description of how he would draw with the brittle ashes of an extinguished flame without letting the paper burn. The spare sentences and sudden fiery burst of passion perfectly demonstrate the play's ability to ignite friction and showcase the ephemeral fragility of art.
At other times, Knapp's cold Nazi warrior stalks Picasso, question by question across forms, documents, sketches and drawings. Her dry manner serves a contrast to Gardner's ebullient Picasso. "You put Picasso where he cannot paint, you might as well put a bullet in my head!" Knapp's Miss Fisher simply looks down her nose and coldly utters "Yes, well, there is that too."
The play's topsy-turvy conclusion, borne out of the "art can change the world" message, doesn't land with the impact it should because the tense buildup never happens. Yet, the duo does their level best to give the scene the attention it needs and deserves. When the inevitable power shift happens, Gardner plays the moment well, grabbing a pencil and paper to do what all artists do best - create art. Hopefully, it can change Miss Fischer, and thus the world.
Jason Sherwood's set feels like a vault inside an art storage treasure room. One wall of the Tobye Studio features racks of canvasses tucked away beneath the streets of the City of Light. More racks jut out overhead and over the doorway where patrons enter with boxes containing hidden treasures stolen from owners and gobbled up by the rapacious Reich. Period light fixtures add a signature touch.
"A Picasso" offers an interesting, if narrow, peek inside the conditions artists faced during World War II. While the script and direction don't always measure up, a vivid, world-building set and a pair of solid performances from two veteran actors make the show worth watching. Look for David Gardner's whimsical take on the Iberian Picasso and look for Knapp as biting, sarcastic and quick-witted Miss Fischer.