Rob Pawlikowski and Marguerite Foster are both well known veterans of area stages including Town Players of Newtown’s Little Theater, but in the current production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s A Picasso, director Ruth Anne Baumgartner has gotten remarkable performances from the pair of them.
Hatcher’s play, set in Occupied Paris in 1941, entails an intense psychological struggle between two strong and implacable characters: Picasso is shown at the height of his powers — a 59-year old genius recognized as the most important modern artist of his time, even as Europe is embroiled in war, and France has been conquered and occupied by Germany.
The elegant Fraulein Fischer is a cultural affairs representative of the Nazi government, who has come on an ambiguous mission: She has brought three paintings that Picasso must verify as having been painted by him. Why? Where did she get them? What does she want them for?
At first she suggests that they are to be part of an exhibition. What comes out gradually is that they have been taken from their Jewish owners, and will be burned as examples of decadent art, just as the Nazis burned books written by decadent authors, i.e. Jews, Communists, or anyone critical of Hitler and fascism.
When Picasso protests, she warns that her request is backed up by serious threats. Should he refuse, there could be arrest, interrogation by the Gestapo, prison, and even death. What then ensues is a cat and mouse game of negotiation and tactics. Perhaps he could claim two of the paintings to be forgeries (in which case they would not be Picassos, and so burning them would be meaningless) and just let her have the remaining one…
But for an artist, his paintings are like his children, and he can’t bear to see any of them destroyed. Fraulein Fischer holds all the power cards, but Picasso is a clever and seductive personality. What transpires is a riveting discussion about the circumstances and significance of the three paintings, each of which was done in a different style, at a different stage of Picasso’s life — from his childhood, when he was praying to God to save his baby sister, to the early stages of his career when he betrayed a friend, to a more recent time when he was involved in an adulterous triangle.
As he tells each story he reveals hidden aspects of his character, even as he stresses his indifference to politics in the world around him. All he cares about, he says, is art. And yet in the course of their argument this becomes much less certain, while Fraulein Fischer’s arrogant adherence to the Nazi party line begins to weaken, and in spite of herself her deepest feelings are revealed.
In the background of their debate over the relationship between art and politics stands a reproduction of Picasso’s most famous and important work, the mural “Guernica,” which he painted in response to the destruction of the Basque town by German bombs in support of Franco in 1937. Although he had lived in Paris for most of his adult life, it was this anguished protest over what was done to Spain, that showed his true allegiance and concern.
Pawlikowski is a wonderful Picasso — pouchy, puffy-eyed, cagey and magnetic at the same time as he fights for his paintings even as he works his seductive wiles on a younger woman. Foster is a perfect antagonist for him, a tightly buttoned beauty whose resolve to carry out her mission is complicated by a genuine interest in the artwork.
The argument over the role of art in the face of political evil, is woven into a seductive dance between a notorious womanizer and a confident woman. Hatcher is a skilled playwright and Baumgartner is a fine director. The result is an excellent piece of serious theater that deserves a good audience. If you want to enjoy the show and learn something at the same time, this is definitely worth going to see.
(Performances continue weekends until August 3, including Sunday matinees on July 21 and 28. The Little Theatre is at 18 Orchard Hill Road in Newtown.
Call 203-270-9144 or visit www.NewtownPlayers.org for details or reservations.)