Vail Valley Theater Company performs Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."
By Melanie Wong
So Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein walk into a bar…
That’s the premise of the Vail Valley Theatre Company’s latest production, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a comedy written by Steve Martin that opens this weekend in Avon.
The play revolves around a hypothetical meeting between two geniuses – namely, Picasso the artist and Einstein the scientist –in a Parisian bar, and the exchange of ideas (as well as insults and underhanded jabs) that would ensue. The play, directed by VVTC board president Kaylee Brennard, is set in 1904, shortly before both young men made major breakthroughs in their respective fields.
“They question each other’s scientific and artistic values, and what the meaning of genius is,” says actor and VVTC board member Bart Garton, who plays a surprise character in the show. “There’s a lot of verbal banter – it’s intellectual, but funny.”
In real life, no one is sure the two men ever really met, but they could have – the Lapin Agile is a real bar that Picasso frequented and painted, according to actor Lance Schoeber, who plays the artist.
The two geniuses are also accompanied by the bar regulars, including the barmaid and her barkeeper boyfriend, the ladies’ man and the bar crazy, all of whom aren’t afraid to pipe in with their two cents.
Community theater at its best
While other VVTC shows like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” were accompanied by lights and music, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” will be performed on an entirely different, minimalist set. The “stage” is at Montaña’s After Dark, the Avon restaurant’s upstairs bar and nightclub, and won’t be performed with microphones or special lighting and sound.
It’s a setting that departs from VVTC’s usual comfort zone, and allows the audience to feel like they’re right there in the bar with the characters.
“I love those intimate personal venues where the audience is right there, and its almost interactive – both for them and for the performers who feed off the audience,” Schoeber says.
The performance is truly an example of community theater in action, featuring a cast of local residents. With the exception of Schoeber, none of the actors have worked in professional theater, and the audience has the opportunity to watch their local government officials, realtors and neighbors on stage. But what the play has in grassroots ambience, it doesn’t lack in professional quality. Most of the cast and crew have extensive experience in theater. For example, director Brennand has worked in both theater and production for years, and stage manager Dean Davis does the same as his “day job” at the Vilar Performing Arts Center.
Garton, whom some might remember as Rocky from “Rocky Horror,” has been involved in theater since high school, when he starred in “Li’l Abner” and even wrote and performed his own tongue-in-cheek comedy. He says he’s been incredibly impressed by the quality of the “Picasso” cast and pace of production – from casting to opening day, the crew prepares the performance in about a month.
“It’s kind of the ‘A-list’ of the theater community in the valley,” Garton says. “There’s a lot of talent in this valley.”
Playing a genius
VVTC newcomer JD Lemon plays Einstein. Like many company actors, he had also been involved in high school and college theater, and his interest was sparked when he saw casting calls for the play.
“I showed up, we read from the script. I told them I was open to whatever part,” Lemon says. “It happened to be Einstein – I was actually surprised and real excited. I was honored to work alongside guys like Lance and Bart, who have been on stage for awhile.”
He started preparing for his role by researching Einstein, and one cast member even gave him a physics book, which he admits has been a tough read. The character is “incredibly nerdy” and opinionated, especially in the presence of another genius, he says.
“At this point, Einstein is 25 years old, just on the cusp of realizing he’s a genius,” Lemon says. “He’s very earnest and not cynical at all, but he takes the world as it is. He’s very passionate about what he does. However, he can be misread – he can be very excited when he thinks something has to do with physics or science, but then is let down when he realizes that they aren’t talking about that at all.”
Lemon has enjoyed the experience and the challenges of the part so far, and adds that the verbal sparring between his character and Picasso is hysterical.
“It’s renewed that spark for me in theater. I might try my hand at a musical or another play down the road,” he says.
Schoeber, on the other hand, has been preparing for the role of the egotistical, confident and passionate artist. Picasso’s life and art centered on his passions, which Schoeber sums up as “his pets, women and art.”
As a sculptor and jeweler, Schoeber says he can relate to Picasso’s love for art, and jokes that both he and Picasso own dachshunds. (Picasso’s dachshund, Lump, made an appearance in his painting “Las Meninas.”)
“Playing someone like that is a lot of fun,” Schoeber says. “His life was all about him, and usually people don’t get to live like that. Most people live their life for someone else, but Picasso lived for his passions.”
The presence of newer actors to the company has brought a breath of fresh air, he adds.
“The chemistry between me and JD is amazing,” Schoeber says. “He’s got this new energy, and he’s a younger actor. We’re playing really well off of each other. It’s great to get new blood, and as an actor you always want to work with new people.”