Tacoma Little Theatre’s current show, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” is a quirky little comedy written by Steve Martin and directed by Rick Hornor that cleverly skews history and makes fun of theatrical traditions by breaking the fourth wall in unexpected ways.
The writing is outstanding, and full of surprises, most of which I can’t mention without spoiling it. I can’t even tell you who some of the characters are without spoiling it — but I will give one hint. Chad Russell comes on stage like a rock star from a most unexpected place — literally and figuratively. He is billed as “a visitor (from another era),” and like “Star Trek” characters messing with the space-time continuum, he changes history.
The Lapin Agile is an actual bar that was famous as a hangout for artists and other creative types at the turn of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso (Bryce Smith) and Albert Einstein (Rodman Bolek) meet at the Lapin Agile and exchange witty barbs. It is 1904, two years before the then-23-year-old Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and a year before Einstein published his “Special Theory of Relativity.”
In addition to these two geniuses, the bar is populated by a number of eccentric characters, including Gaston (played with great nuance by John Saunders), an old man who has to go to the bathroom every few minutes; Suzanne (Ana Bury), Picasso’s latest conquest; and an inventor named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Dan Lysne), an outlandish character who brings to mind any number of the wild and crazy characters Martin created on “Saturday Night Live.” Martin hilariously got away with such over-the-top acting. Lysne does as well, but barely.
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Bolek is outstanding as Einstein, parodying rather than copying the look and gestures of the famously eccentric genius. Smith’s takeoff on Picasso does not work as well. I don’t know if it was Smith or the director who decided to portray Picasso in such an oddly lethargic manner, but Picasso was generally known to be energetic and explosive, not the lackadaisical character portrayed here.
Jacob Tice is outstanding as the owner and bartender, Freddy. He and his waitress/girlfriend, Germaine (Colleen Bjurstrom), are likeable and down to earth. Tara Jensen is comic gold in a couple of small roles, as the Countess and an unnamed fan of Picasso.
The set designed by Blake York, lighting by Pavlina Morris, with set dressing and props by Jeffery Weaver, are simply marvelous. The dark brown colors of old wood, the paintings on the walls, the many knick-knacks on the shelves behind the bar, and the elaborately carved bar with brass foot rails create a warm and comfortable atmosphere. I’ve never seen the real Lapin Agile, but I believed that these characters would frequent a bar like this. The only thing missing might have been chess players at a corner table, and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald arguing literature.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is an adult comedy recommended for those 13 and older.