Albert and Pablo, those two wild and crazy guys.
Pablo Picasso created his famous painting Au Lapin Agile in 1905. Nearly 90 years later, playwright Steve Martin imagined the great artist inside the walls of the historic Parisian cabaret (“lapin agile,” loosely translated, means “nimble rabbit”).
And Martin, the famous actor and comedian, injected more than a bit of nimbleness into the proceedings by giving the Spanish master somebody to talk to: The brilliant German physicist Albert Einstein.
This is the setup of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the first of Martin’s many plays and ostensibly the opening bell of his “smart” period, the long and winding road from Saturday Night Live and The Jerk to Shopgirl and Only Murders in the Building.
Kari Goetz is directing the play – a purely Martin-esque blend of the absurd and the intellectual – for Tampa’s Jobsite Theater. It opens tonight and will run through Oct. 9 at the Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse.
“Like some of Martin’s earliest work, it has the meta awareness of itself,” Goetz explains. “It’s highly aware. The actors are instructed to break the fourth wall. They are very much aware throughout the process that they are in a play. I think it’s built to be a vehicle for how Steve Martin’s mind works.”
Historians disagree as to whether these two 20th century titans ever met, but it’s long been noted that relativity (see Einstein) and cubism (see Picasso) have similar attributes.
None of this, of course, stopped Steve Martin. The play, according to Goetz, explores the idea of “What inspires genius? He does this in a philosophical way, with whimsy. So what you see is Picasso and Einstein dismantling each other, trying to distill down that which makes the other tick.”
It’s a battle of gargantuan egos, done with good-natured ribbing, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes supportive. The bar, it should be noted, contains another half-dozen or so characters who get inextricably involved in the proceedings.
If this all sounds rather lofty, it’s not. Remember who the author is.
“It is critically important,” Goetz observes, “that no actor take themselves or the work so seriously as to lose the fun and the whimsy that Martin intends. We spent a lot of time looking at the play as a whole.
“It is not unlike Picasso’s paintings. You have to take the image as a whole, because if you look at it any closer, it’s just a bunch of lines.”
There is a pretty hefty precedent for this. During a 2013, Goetz-directed run at Jobsite, Picasso at the Lapine Agile became the company’s first-ever show to sell out every single performance.
Will lightning strike twice?
Goetz believes that 2013 audiences were taken back by Martin’s semi-highbrow work; now, she thinks, everyone knows what he’s capable of. Therefore, it’s time for another generation to take a look at Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
As the director, she has made several pointed changes this time around.
“I wanted to have actors as close to the actual ages of Picasso and Einstein, if I could find actors who were up to the task.”
(She did; their names are Robert Spence Gabriel and Blake Smallen, as Picasso and Einstein, respectively.)
“That is exciting for me, because I think they do bring a youthful energy, an exuberance and a fearlessness that we didn’t get to have in the first production.
“And one of the things I really tried to focus on was the absurdity, and so there is some gender-bending casting, and there’s some against-type casting. I definitely leaned it.”
Picasso at the Lapin Agile is the kickoff show of a post-pandemic season that includes Dracula, Misery, Hamlet, Lizzie The Musical and others – a combination of familiar favorites and name-recognition titles.
“This is the season where Jobsite is truly trying to make theater as accessible as possible,” Goetz explains, “as more and more are coming back out and starting to find their old habits, their old rituals.”
Tickets and info can be found here.