SAN DIEGO — Some people can look at a Picasso and be awed by his clarity. Most look and are intrigued by the colors, moved by the bold designs, but are not always quite sure what is going on. They feel gratitude for whatever background notes and explanation are provided.
This group will feel the same way about "Desire Caught by the Tail" and "The Four Little Girls," two one-act plays by Pablo Picasso now playing through Feb. 21 at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse. These plays, the only ones Picasso ever wrote, are imaginatively and provokingly staged. They also give valuable insight into Picasso's state of mind at the time they were written. Still, they may leave the uninitiated hungering for program notes.
Of the two plays, "Desire Caught by the Tail" is by far the easier to follow.
Written in 1941, during the German occupation of France, "Desire" presents nine characters with curious names like "Round Piece," "Onion," "Bow Wow," "Big Foot" and "Tart," who strive to satisfy their desires but are thwarted at every turn by two men lounging at either side of the curtain like bored police. The men's names are "Little Curtain of Iron" and "Big Blonde Curtain."
In the first of the six acts in this 50-minute play, the members of the company are "eating" big, brightly colored pieces of cardboard painted to look like fish and turkey legs. Their dress is vivid and their spirits are high as they laugh and joke--a grass skirt here, a shimmering red outfit there, a patch of blue, a swatch of yellow and a woman with a great white bow from which orange hair stands upright.
After several minutes, the Little Curtain of Iron, whose dark hair and mustache suggest Adolph Hitler, blows the whistle--literally--and the Big Blonde Curtain marches into the company like Hitler's Aryan ideal of a good soldier, taking the food from the actors' hands and flipping it so that we can see that on the other side of each piece of food is a weapon. The back of the fish, for instance, is held, fins up, like a missile. The tableau freezes. The curtain closes.
In succeeding acts, the players express their desires for sex, love, art and money. In one funny sequence, they spin for big, green construction paper dollars on a game show, only to have the Big Blonde Curtain take the bills and give them to the Little Curtain of Iron, who at first crumples, then smoothes them out slowly. In between the acts, the losses continue. Each time the curtain opens, the players, with the exception of the Curtains, have fewer clothes. As the company's clothing gets closer to the skin, they become more vulnerable--at once more desperate, more caring, quicker to say "you" than "me" and more innocent.
The acting is overall a pleasure of conviction and enunciation. You may not always understand why the actors are saying what they are saying, but the language is so lovely and they say it so beautifully, you may not mind. "When I listen at the ear of silence . . . I light the candles of sin with the match of her charms," says Big Foot of his beloved Tart. Peter A. Tavares plays Big Foot with an assurance that makes of the symbol a living and breathing man. In contrast, Lois Warburton's Tart is a wooden interpretation, more like that of a schoolteacher reciting a paragraph she doesn't particularly like to her class.
"The Four Little Girls" is a far more abstract play. Written in 1946, when Picasso fell in love with the young Francoise Gilot, it explores the movement of four little girls from a point where they are almost indistinguishable to a point where they break away, show their individuality and then come back together again, laughing, just at the threshold of young womanhood.
It is also a 50-minute play, but is divided into nine acts.
The four little girls, Devon Leigh, Mindy Hull, Susan Brislin and Jenny Gray, do a nice job with the parts and with the dances which they created for themselves, but there isn't as much to do here as there is in "Desire."
The direction and the stage design by Robert Black are done with taste and care. He never forgets that Picasso was, first and last, an artist. In every scene, he constructs tableaux of color and form that are visually pleasing. He takes many chances that work--from the food as weapons to a scene in which the Big Blonde Curtain covers the cast of "Desire" with gift boxes that have bows shaped like swastikas.
Black's decision to have a narrator read the stage directions not only saves him the expense of such props as winged horses and the like, but also saves an innocent audience from what could be excruciating boredom. When Tart turns her back on the audience and the narrator says, "And this goes on for 20 minutes," it is much appreciated that the 20 minutes are not acted out. This is an avant-garde play that can laugh at itself.