Jumping off at the notion that Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are the same age and meet in 1904 in a bar in Paris, comedian, film star and playwright Steve Martin presents an imaginative and funny account of what the brilliant scientist and celebrated painter discuss on the fateful evening.
“It’s a fast, fun and furious story,” says Valerie Rachelle, artistic director at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
Martin’s 1993 absurdist comedy “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” pitches the men together just before Einstein transforms physics with his theory of relativity and Picasso turns the art world (almost literally) on its head with his technique called cubism.
“Humor is so implicit in Martin’s language,” Rachelle says. “His comedy comes from his use of language and timing. He’s also very smart and so very silly, so his humor is accessible to audiences. He’s also very physical. So along with wit and quickness, there are fun, physical things in this play.
“It’s not all silliness. Along with it’s laugh-out-loud moments, there is substance, and some meaty moments about art, science and beauty,” she says.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” opens Friday, Sept. 21, and runs through Nov. 11 at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, First and Hargadine streets, Ashland. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays, and select Wednesdays; and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $36, with limited $22 seating. Reservations are required for pre-show dinner and brunch. Tickets and reservations are available at oregoncabaret.com or by calling 541-488-2902. Appetizers, beverages and desserts are available without reservations.
Tension builds as Einstein and Picasso talk about the achievements and probabilities the 20th century will bring, the nature of genius, and the intersection of art and science. At one point, they face off and draw pencils to go toe-to-toe on cocktail napkins.
“There is drama as they compete with each other at first,” Rachelle says. “Before they realize that art and science are the same. That every human expression, whether it’s through math, visual art or music, is beautiful and has its place in our world.
“It’s almost hope for our future,” she says. “That human beings are full of beauty and will always be full of beauty, even in the darkest times.”
Other characters at the bar include bartender Freddy and his mistress; Picasso’s date; elderly philosopher Charles Dabernow Schmendiman; and an unsuccessful inventor who all lend additional humor to the show. A charismatic young singer from a later era makes a surprise visit to the Lapin Agile, which translates to “nimble rabbit.”
Martin toys with references to the play. Picasso tells a woman he’ll see her “when the play is over.” Freddy actually sends Einstein offstage because he is supposed to be fourth in the order of appearance, not third. To prove it, he borrows a program from a someone in the front row of the audience and shows the actor the lineup.
“You have to keep in mind that Steve Martin is a genius in his own right,” Rachelle says. “He can get away with stuff like that.”
Martin’s newest play, “Meteor Shower,” premiered in 2017 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway in a production starring Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key, Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti and Jeremy Shamos, and directed by four-time Tony Award-winner Jerry Zaks.
Stephen Kline plays Einstein, and Stefan Espinosa plays Picasso in OCT’s production of “Lapin Agile.”
“Kline is so good at timing and fully embodying characters,” Rachelle says. “We cast him in large comedic roles like ‘Baskerville’ and ‘The 39 Steps.’ He played six or seven characters in each of those shows. The transitions were back to back, instant and physical. He’s a good comedian and an amazing actor. I find him akin to Robin Williams, just maybe not quite so zany. As an actor, he’s able to get fast and deep into character shifts. You’d think you’re meeting Einstein, a fantasy version of Einstein Martin has created, in this show.
“Espinosa is a buoyant, light, sweet-natured, helpful, generous human being, and he gets to bring out the passionate, angry, brooding artist that is in Picasso,” she adds. “It’s so opposite of is own personality.”
Rachelle’s husband and OCT general director Rick Robinson plays Freddy.
“He’s got a liquor license because he manages the restaurant here at the theater,” Rachelle says. “So he’ll be serving beverages in full costume just before the show.”
Robinson is no stranger to Martin’s play. He was cast four times as Einstein at a repertory theater in Southern California.
Rachelle directs the OCT show. Galloway Stevens plays art dealer Sagot, Sierra Wells is Suzanne, and Paul Michael Garcia is Schmendiman. Karen Jean Olds plays Germaine, Paul Jones is Gaston, and John Alan Hurlbert is the mystery visitor. Pianist William Eckart performs at 6:30 before the evening shows.
Set design is by Brian Redfern, lighting by Chris Sackett, sound is by Elizabeth Weidner, and costumes are by Mallory Prucha.