Staff Writer/Fact Checker/Editor
After Seven Siblings Theatre’s 2015 run with their production of Fever/Dream, the company returns to Toronto with a play by a certain comedian who most people probably wouldn’t otherwise associate with playwriting – Steve Martin himself.
You indeed read correctly. Oct. 13, 1993 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Illinois marked the first performance of Martin’s debut full-length play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and it later found success in Los Angeles and New York City. It eventually made its way to Ontario around the early 2000s, with shows at Grand Theatre, Theatre Aquarius and Canadian Stage.
Making her inaugural appearance in Toronto as a director, Seven Siblings company manager Erika Downie is excited to revive this piece as a result of, quite honestly, pure coincidence.
“When we had moved up to Toronto, we all sat down to figure out what we’d like to do as a season. (Producer) Madryn McCabe and (Artistic Director) Will King had both said (they’d) like to do Picasso, and I had just bought the play a month ago, so it was kind of written in the stars, so to speak,” explains Downie. “We did it and very quickly got the rights to it, and it just became the centerpiece of my first year in Toronto as an artist and director.”
Regardless, she says she absolutely needed to purchase the play, as she finds it “highly passionate” and “will-centered,” and she greatly admires Martin’s work.
“His style and delivery of comedy (are) just wonderful,” she says, adding that, “It’s a rare thing to see nowadays. He still has a lot of that old school, pun and slapstick sense of humor, except there’s no slapstick in the moment. The way he approaches things is just so wholesome.”
Downie also reveals her belief in what concepts about science and art Martin is trying to convey through the play’s premise. It is a hypothetical conversation between artist Pablo Picasso and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein about the meaning of the universe and its relationship to art.
Downie says she understands this scenario as a glimpse into the moment before history, where two young geniuses are coming from two very separate realms of the 20th century, an era during which a lot of historical events shifted the way people think and act. She says these two key figures “almost find that axis, that crossbeam, and that (comes) from just needing to find the awe and what that (means) to them.”
Set in a bar, the play offers ideas about the lives of the two masterminds prior to creating their respective brainchildren. The moment before is either “the most exciting or troubling part,” says Downie, because “nobody in the bar knew what was going to happen, (and) it made Picasso and Einstein who they were.”
“(Audiences) should expect to see really amazing relationships on stage, and be challenged to become part of those relationships,” Downie says, maintaining that the best way to strengthen the actor-audience dynamic is to situate the performance, quite literally, in a bar space, staying true to the play’s original setting, but also enhancing the immersion.
“Putting theatre into an intimate space challenges the audience to become a character and it challenges the actors to treat audiences like characters. If you put up a wall, then they have the safety and comfort of saying they’re not involved," she says. "You break that down, and you make the audience accountable for what they’re watching. Then, you get a conversation between the actor and the audience."
Downie adds she has her “glorious” cast to thank for their vast dynamism.
“Each one of the actors brings such a mosaic to their character. (It’s) very much like putting a stained-glass piece together, and (by) the end of it you have this beautiful, refractive piece of art that has been so gorgeously nurtured by the actors,” she says.
As for the humor, Downie says she anticipates laughter, although not at the moments that the audience would normally deem humorous.
“There’s going to be funny moments that come out of nowhere. They should expect puns, to see archetypes and stereotypes of people in their own lives, not just Picasso and Einstein living their lives," she says. "They should expect to be educated and evaluate the way they look at science and art, and the way they look at human relationships and what drives people to do what they do.”
Picasso at the Lapin Agile will open on Feb. 18 at the Round, located on 152A Augusta. For more information, visit sevensiblingstheatre.ca.