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'Picasso' has a word or two for fanaticism

A fictional tale of the artist resisting Nazi censorship delves into basic human survival.

February 14, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

In a time of rising political and cultural intolerance, it's edifying to ponder just how potentially destructive moral absolutism can be. Who, after all, will dictate what is pure and proper? Blaise Pascal summed it up best when he wrote: "He who would act the angel becomes the beast."

In their attempts to sanitize society, the Nazis promulgated some of the greatest evils of the 20th century. This century is still young, but discouraging parallels can already be drawn. In "A Picasso," playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has much to say about artistic repression in a time of political fanaticism, and he makes his point not by grinding an ax, but by wielding a carefully concealed stiletto.

The play's deceptively simple premise posits a fictionalized meeting between Pablo Picasso (Peter Michael Goetz) and Miss Fischer (Roma Downey), a Nazi interrogator who has been charged with forcing Picasso to authenticate at least one of his works for an upcoming "exhibition" -- i.e., a public burning of "degenerate art." Oh, the fact that Miss Fischer happens to be a beautiful former art critic may strike some as a bit of a stretch. Yet there's a canny method behind Hatcher's ostensibly contrived device.

When one thinks of Picasso, it's typically in terms of his outsize talent and prodigious appetites. Hatcher points out the artist's raw courage in refusing to leave Paris during the Nazi occupation. Considering that he had painted the fiercely anti-Fascist masterpiece "Guernica" just a few years previously, Picasso's known defiance of the Nazi regime was as brazen as it was risky. He remained a thorn in the Nazis' boot throughout the occupation, emerging as an unlikely symbol of the French resistance.

In his unembellished, beautifully measured staging at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, director Gilbert Cates amplifies Hatcher's themes to richly humanistic effect. The audience files into the theater and is seated on opposing sides of a forbidding looking cubicle, screened by metal shutters. Those shutters rise to reveal the play's setting -- "A vault below the streets of Paris."

You won't find here the obvious horrors of Hugo's sewers. On the contrary, the creepy orderliness of Francois-Pierre Couture's scenic design belies the fact that this space is a de facto torture chamber where very bad things happen to helpless people. Daniel Ionazzi's subtly glaring lighting and Jon Gottlieb's echoing sound, especially the distant rattling of the Paris Metro, emphasize the locale's fittingly subterranean depths.

Robust and demonstrative, Goetz is a marvel as Picasso, while anyone familiar with Downey solely through her role on the television series "Touched by an Angel" will find her performance here a revelation. Picasso is an outlandishly egotistical force of nature who is constitutionally incapable of keeping a low profile, even when his very life is at stake. In contrast to Picasso's Dionysian presence, Downey's Miss Fischer is prim and repressed, the epitome of Apollonian rationalism. We assume that she is a dedicated ideologue and a willing exponent of her Nazi "masters." But as the play progresses, we learn that she, too, is engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.

The interchanges between Picasso and Miss Fischer are full of sexual tension, pathos and innuendo.

Yet what eventually emerges is an impassioned dialectic about the dangers of compromise and the ethnical nature of art. An ardently apolitical man, Picasso combated the Nazi scourge not through propaganda, but by remaining true to his artistic mandate. His art -- and Hatcher's timely play -- shed light on a dark and deadly period.


`A Picasso'

Where: Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8:30 p.m. Fridays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 25. $55

Contact: (310) 208-5454

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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