By JOHN DeMERS
The success, or at least the persuasiveness, of any one-person show hinges on how well its creator addresses one question at the start: Who is this guy and why is he talking to us?
The father of the modern genre, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight, found the simplest and most perfect point of entry in Twain’s real-life speaking tours. Just be that Twain, talking to yet another full house in yet another town, thinking, reacting, reading from famous stories, and of course smoking lots of cigars. The ever-changing play was pretty much infallible, and Holbrook was able to take up the role between other projects for something like 40 years.
I know all about answering that initial question, if about little else, since I wrote and performed two one-man shows of my own – one about the apostle Paul, the other about Thomas Jefferson. I often joked that I’d like to play them at the same time, but that was only a joke. I also wrote a show about Henriette de Lille, an African-American woman. To my credit as a white male, I found an actual African-American woman to play her.
Memories of all those evenings of magic (and not-so-magic) flooded over me last night watching Herbert Siguenza become the most tumultuous artist of the 20th century in the Alley’s A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. And while Siguenza’s answer to that initial question is less than convincing – we in the audience are “spies” sent by his agent to make sure he gets a last-minute, big-bucks commission done at his home in the South of France – much that happens in between the bookends is immensely satisfying.
There isn’t much drama in this no-intermission visit, and even less true suspense. What there is is Picasso at his most bombastic, discoursing on art, love, sex, art, politics, and art and art and art, meaning the meaning of it all. Constructed of Picasso’s actual words, and convincingly true to his ideas, the result is a tangled, non-linear wander through the artist’s past and present. Bringing that interior to the exterior is helped mightily by the scenic and costume design by Giulio Cesare Perrone, the lighting by Clint Allen and especially by the orgiastic projections by Victoria Petrovich.
Details of Picasso’s life as a reclusive celebrity on the Riviera are particularly endearing – the virtual barnyard of pets that surrounds him, the fresh bread delivered to his back door, the telephone that interrupts always, the coffee, cigarettes and what appears to be pastisse. Siguenza, a longtime member of the Culture Clash Hispanic theater/comedy troupe who brought the Mexican film star Cantinflas to life at the Alley some years ago, is masterful with every one of those little things.
Not so masterful are what appear to be the master’s dreams: nightmares of wartime along the lines of his famous painting Guernica, plus a wildly sexualized vision of himself strutting and thrusting about the stage as a bull. Picasso’s rendered thoughts on the need to paint people with genitalia are not only discomforting but, oddly, not very interesting. Far more successful is a kind of fantasy near the end in which Picasso faces a blank canvas in the style of a matador in the bullring, complete with bits of that costume and loud cheering. This was a metaphor that worked entirely, whether we’re pondering Picasso as the living soul of Spain or as the artist who feels life only by facing something of death each time he picks up a brush.
Siguenza is, finally, one of the few performers who could handle this role – a nifty version of job security. He has filled the script with Picasso actually painting, and happily this actor and playwright is more trained in that than in anything else. With brilliant sleights of hand that allow canvases to be flipped and instantly appear finished – or in one case, a lowered clear glass that he paints before our eyes in reverse – the actor and his art make believers of us all. Long stretches passed during this “weekend,” in fact, when I forgot Picasso died in 1973.
Photos by Jann Whaley: Herbert Siguenza as Pablo Picasso