Jill Eikenberry and Dennis Boutsikaris in A Picasso
(Photo Joan Marcus)
Jill Eikenberry and Dennis Boutsikaris in A Picasso
(Photo Joan Marcus)
In 1937, Pablo Picasso painted "Guernica." It was inspired by the brutal destruction of a small town in Spain, which fascist leader Francisco Franco allowed the Nazis to use for bombing practice. The painting is now widely regarded as a masterpiece showing the horrors of war -- and yet, for most of his career, Picasso eschewed politics. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, he remained in the city. In A Picasso, Jeffrey Hatcher offers a provocative theatrical speculation on how the famous artist might have interacted with the Nazi regime there; he also explores issues of artistic inspiration and censorship.

The play is set in October 1941. Picasso (Dennis Boutsikaris) has been detained beneath the streets of Paris in a vault that seems to be in use as a storage facility for various paintings and other art objects. Miss Fischer (Jill Eikenberry) enters and introduces herself as an emissary from the Ministry of Culture; she wants Picasso to tell her whether or not three portraits that the Nazis have confiscated were indeed painted by him. At first, Picasso acknowledges the portraits to be his own, but he then discovers that the Nazis intend to burn them as part of a display denouncing "degenerate art." Miss Fischer, who is not unsympathetic to Picasso's outrage, says her superiors insist that a Picasso be included in the burning. Latching on to the indefinite article, Picasso argues that "a" means one and that Fischer already has three times that many paintings of his in her possession. So, the question becomes: Which one shall burn?

Hatcher has concocted a plot that allows him to explore both the life and art of Picasso. As the two characters in his play discuss each art work, the audience is treated to historical details of the artist's background as well as insights into what may have sparked Picasso to create the three endangered pieces. Although the play appears to be well researched, it never comes across as merely a history lesson.

The two-hander is brilliantly performed. Boutsikaris exudes both charisma and arrogance as Picasso; neither he nor playwright Hatcher are afraid to show us the artist's negative qualities, such as his rampant misogyny and his overblown ego. Eikenberry is equally good at capturing her character's contradictions. Miss Fischer is fiercely intelligent, with a seemingly hard exterior, yet she is emotionally vulnerable. She may be a Nazi, but she's deeply conflicted about the work she does; the more we learn about her, the more she becomes a sympathetic figure. She's both drawn to and repelled by Picasso, and their interaction has sexual undertones that add to the crackling dynamic of their relationship.

Hatcher's dialogue is full of humor, passion, and insight. Despite Picasso's insistence that he is "not a political man," the playwright's version of the artist can't resist baiting Fischer with pointed remarks, such as the following:

PICASSO: Every few weeks, a pair of Germans shows up at my studio to see if any Jews are hiding in the kiln. Sometimes they look at my paintings, ask about the price, but... my work doesn't suit them. Germans want kittens and dogs... and Poland.

MISS FISCHER: The Führer paints, you know. He does landscapes.

PICASSO: Yes, but he has problems with the borders.

While Picasso's boldness may seem to stretch credulity -- especially since it appears that Miss Fischer has the power to determine whether or not he'll survive their meeting -- this early exchange sets the tone for their dialogue. Despite the danger that he's in, Picasso doesn't exhibit overwhelming fear. It probably helps that his interrogator is a woman, whom the sexist Picasso therefore considers inferior. As they continue to interact, the stakes become higher for both characters, and the balance of power between them constantly shifts.

In the background of their conversation, there is always "Guernica." When that painting is first mentioned, you can practically feel Picasso's panic as he contemplates the danger in which he's placed himself by creating it. Of the three pieces that Fischer shows to Picasso, two are intensely personal while the third could be interpreted as political. As Picasso struggles to decide which if any of these works he can bear to be destroyed, the play also raises the issue of whether a work of art should be valued more than a human life.

The 70-minute, intermissionless production is tautly paced by director John Tillinger. All of the design elements -- Allen Moyer's sets, Jane Greenwood's costumes, Duane Schuler's lights, and Scott Killian's sound -- support the play. The events depicted in A Picasso may not have actually occurred, but Hatcher makes them so compelling that you may feel they did.