Einstein and Picasso walk in a bar….
The year is 1904. Albert Einstein, a 25-year-old patent clerk, has yet to transform physics with his theory of relativity. Pablo Picasso, a 23-year-old painter coming to the end of his Blue Period, has yet to set the art world afire with his Cubist style.
The bar is the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit), a real Paris establishment in the historic Montmartre district that, by the turn of the 20th century, had become a popular watering hole for would-be geniuses and struggling artists.
It’s there that – in the mind of accomplished actor, comedian, writer, producer, musician and genius in his own right, Steve Martin (“LA Story,” “Roxanne”) – the two cocky unknowns meet and spend an evening sparring with the regulars and each other about art, science, love and the promise of the 20th century.
As historic fiction goes, Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” plays fast and loose with the facts – even going so far as to time-warp in a surprise visitor from a later era – but the meeting of these minds is the foundation of the Martin’s 1993 absurdist comedy that will be performed this weekend at the Tullahoma Arts Center.
Director Will “Wt” Prater said that one of the things that appealed to him when selecting the script is that while the show will make people laugh, it will also make them think. It’s for people, he said, who go to the theater “to be challenged just a little bit.”
“People are going to laugh so hard at this show, because of Steve Martin. He wrote such an incredibly funny piece,” he said. “But, also, this is one of those pieces that has gems of historical pieces in it.”
Those gems, he said, are both entertaining and educational and will inspire the audience to ponder the philosophies that shape their understanding of the world and the roles science and art play in their lives.
“Einstein and Picasso have this giant debate about ‘what is art?’” he said. “They are both passionate about what they do. I love that feel of the big questions – what is art, what is passion, why are we here, what are we doing?”
The one-act play is delightfully self-aware, employing a technique known in the theater as “breaking the fourth wall.”
Most often in theater, the audience peers into a closed room through an unseen wall that separates them from the world of the play. When an actor breaks through that imagined barrier to engage the audience, he invites them into that world.
It’s a technique Martin uses repeatedly.
“We’re capitalizing on that,” Prater said, “We’re transforming the upstairs gallery of the Art Center into a café-slash-bar for the evening.”
To be clear, the entire gallery will be transformed, not simply the playing area. Audience members will be seated inside the environment of the play – as patrons of the Lapin Agile – sharing the playing area with the actors. This Environmental Theater staging technique works best in small spaces with no fixed seating, which Prater said was “one of the reasons we chose to do it at the art center.”
Of course, he said, it doesn’t hurt that the subject matter is also a good fit for the venue.
Crash Course Theater
Martin’s play is being produced by Prater’s own burgeoning theater company, Crash Course Theater. The company was formed last year to produce the “Hamiltunes” project, a karaoke-style singalong production for devoted fans of the Tony-winning hit show “Hamilton.”
The concept, which originated in Los Angeles in 2015, was officially endorsed by the show’s producers for nationwide licensing in June. Since August, Crash Course Theater has taken the project from Tullahoma’s South Jackson Civic Center to a monthly engagement at Nashville’s Music Valley Events Center.
And it’s that kind of theatrical mobility that Prater sees as the goal for his company, which he said will continue to select shows that are both entertaining and educational but which do not rely on deep-pocket production values.
“The ultimate ideal is for Crash Course to become a touring theater company,” he said. “It’s not about lights, it’s not about sets, it’s not about costuming – it’s about actors on stage presenting a show to an audience.”
When Prater speaks of touring, he’s not talking about launching national productions, but rather taking a locally produced show to multiple venues throughout Middle Tennessee. And, he said, he hopes to eventually position Crash Course as a semiprofessional company, offering profit-sharing stipends to the cast and crew working those area tours. That, at least, is the goal of his five-year plan.
For now, however, Crash Course Theater is not keeping any of the profits from the plays it produces. Instead, Prater said, “Any of the shows we do, at least for the next year or two, will be a fundraiser for various projects.”
The Paired Project
With “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Crash Course Theater is raising funds for the Art Center’s Paired Project.
The Tullahoma Art Center recently received a $2,325 matching grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission to teach youth ages 10 to 18 basic sewing techniques by having them make two pillowcases – one to keep and one to share.
The “one to share” is sewn as a gift to children living in temporary foster care. That gift, according to the Arts Center, provides displaced children with a personal item and proof that someone cares.
“Being a foster parent, that is something that is very, very close to my heart,” Prater said. He and his wife Julie became foster parents at the beginning of last year.
The pillowcases will be distributed by the United Way of Coffee and Moore Counties to Nashville’s Safe Haven shelter on behalf of the children they serve.
Playing Albert Einstein is Addison Womack, a relative newcomer to the stage who, according to Prater, began performing with the “Hamiltunes” project and is now tackling his first nonmusical role.
Playing opposite Womack as Pablo Picasso is Sammy Delovich, who has previously appeared on both Motlow College and Community Playhouse stages.
“When you see Sammy on stage, you’ll understand why she was picked to be Picasso,” Prater said, addressing the choice to cast a female as the notoriously promiscuous Spanish artist. “Even though she is super feminine she is also phenomenal playing a male.”
Delovich isn’t the only example of gender-blind casting in the production. The role of Sagot, an art dealer who represents both Picasso and his lifelong rival Henri Matisse, is written as a male character but will be played as a female by Audrey Parsons Yates.
“If there’s a way to make a role gender fluid, where a female can take this role,” Prater said, “I’m going to do it.”
Joining them at the Lapin Agile are a handful of supporting characters from the turn of the century and beyond, including the bartender Freddy (Jon Rubke) and his mistress Germaine (Savannah Hunter). The former is a nod to cabaret owner Frédé Gerard. The latter is a nod to Picasso’s former lover Germaine Pichot. Both are depicted with the artist in his 1905 painting “Au Lapin Agile.”
There’s also a hint of Picasso’s longtime lover Fernande Oliver in Picasso’s date for the evening, Suzanne (Nichole Adams) who subtly represents the artist’s 1904 transition into his Rose Period.
There’s another hint to true events in Einstein’s companion, the Countess (Beth Thames). Though Albert Einstein – already married to his first wife by 1904 – did not go for countesses, the character calls to mind the “Red Countess,” a well-known propagandist whose association with Einstein in 1920 nearly cost him a special visiting professorship at Leiden University until it was revealed she was in truth attached to German writer and revolutionist Carl Einstein.
Rounding out the cast are the elderly philosopher, Gaston (Rex Brown), a misguided inventor named Schmendiman (Trevor Ivey-Bodman) and the surprise visitor from another era (Luke Sanders).
“I’m honestly so incredibly blessed by the people who are in this show,” Prater said. “They’ve been so good about digging into this script.”
Dates, Times and Tickets
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” will be performed at the Tullahoma Art Center, 401 S. Jackson St., on Friday, Feb. 16 and Saturday, Feb. 17.
The show begins at 7:30 each night.
Tickets are $10 in person and $11 via PayPal at www.tullahomaart.org.
Payments can also be made by phone during the Art Center’s regular business hours: from 1-5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday.
All proceeds will go to the Art Center’s Paired Project.
Due to the content of the play, all audience members must be 18 or older. IDs will be checked at the door.
“It’s just going to be a very different experience,” Prater said.
Or, perhaps, it will be a similar one. The experience of art is, after all, relative.
Kelly Lapczynski may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.