It's been more than a decade since Actors Bridge Ensemble first brought Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile to Nashville theater audiences. The famous funnyman's comic 1993 fantasy is getting another look courtesy of Boiler Room Theatre, and under the mostly steady direction of Laura Skaug their production handily entertains—except when it's sidetracked by the occasional authorial (and actorly) self-indulgence.
Picasso is Martin's first stage play, and its quaintly charming setting is a Paris cafe in 1904, "where artists talk about manifestos." Here the young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, both on the verge of greatness, mix with the local citizenry, the force of their personalities and explosive ideas commanding the constant verbal exchanges. Martin gives us fanciful characterizations, comical musings on the projected wonders of the 20th century, debate on science vs. art, and the idiosyncratic wordplay that is his stock in trade as both performer and comic essayist. The playwright even manages an algebra joke—which, like other aspects of his dialogue, channels some of the off-the-wall topicality and rhythms of his vintage stand-up.
For the most part, the cast of nine makes the silliness (and the successfully faux French accents) work—especially Nate Eppler, who as Einstein grasps the play's tongue-in-cheek intent with immediate subtlety and delivers an artful performance. BRT newcomer Wilhelm Peters as Picasso is more broad, but as the wild, youthful artist-roué he needn't be too subtle. Lane Wright and Kay Ayers-Sowell, as the cafe owners, are funny and warm, and Jennifer Richmond, in three roles representing the geniuses' spurious love interests, provides a vibrant feminine presence. Alan Lee and Pat Reilly are fine as two older gents, and Mike Baum neatly executes his surprise entrance as a time-traveling icon from the future while resisting overkill.
More problematic is Douglas Goodman as Schmendiman, a fictional inventor who insists that he too will join Picasso and Einstein as a critical figure in the new century. It's been suggested that this character represents impending crass commercialism, and in that regard—crassness—Goodman succeeds only too well. But he also goes too far in his cartoonish, attention-seeking portrayal, ensuring that we all but miss his symbolic importance to the play's historical extrapolations.
Sometimes Martin can't resist sleeve-tugging cleverness for its own sake, and the bon mots that result are generally throwaways. On balance, however, his script exudes a playful intellectual wit and a keen appreciation for the surreal, and it serves as a likable vehicle for Boiler Room's mostly in-synch players. Nearing its 20th birthday, Martin's Lapin Agile is still pretty damn quick.
Much ado about something
The second annual Tennessee Shakespeare Festival opened last weekend in Bell Buckle with a remounting of last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream, scheduled for additional performances July 2-3 & 5. Then the festival opens a second production, Romeo and Juliet, presented July 10–12 & 16–19. That's 14 performances in four weeks, a significant boost in activity from the fest's 2008 debut.
"We probably could've run longer last year given the reception we got," says artistic director Lane Davies. "We expect to continue to draw from Nashville, the Franklin area and Rutherford and Bedford counties." The festival offers seating for 250 under its main tent, with virtually unlimited seating nearby on the grassy grounds of Webb School, the TSF's host—which continues its staunch support with other in-kind donations including rehearsal space and housing for personnel.
"This year we have a sense that we're ahead of the curve," says Davies. "I think having done it once before helps tremendously. We've been able to mark out the minefields ahead of time. Plus a generous donation from a private Nashville family foundation has put us in a position where we're not robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Davies—a former MTSU theater major and for many years a Los Angeles-based television and stage actor—is directing both productions. "I'm working a lot harder at my age than I ever thought I would," he says. "But having an A-list cast makes my job a lot easier."
Like the 2008 fest, this year's productions feature performers familiar to Nashville theatergoers, including Bobby Wyckoff, David Wilkerson, Eric Pasto-Crosby, Kahle Reardon, Patrick Waller and Samuel Whited, plus Davies himself and his collegial festival co-founder, the very talented Ruth Cordell. Noted actor David Alford is also on board, and he shows up in Romeo and Juliet in a role that would definitely seem to go against type.
The versatile cast, numbering more than 30, is filled out by MTSU students, Middle Tennessee community players and theater summer-campers from Webb School. As for the stagings, the Midsummer production reprises last year's Southern Gothic/Civil War theme, while Davies' new take on Romeo and Juliet was inspired by Michael Mann's film version of The Last of the Mohicans.
"We've got Mercutio in buckskin, Redcoats and an Apothecary played as an Indian medicine man," Davies says. "The Bard's intact, but we've trimmed the text judiciously, so visitors can do the Bell Buckle shops, enjoy the play and still get home at a reasonable hour."
For more information, visit tennesseeshakespearefestival.com.
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