Play: "A Picasso"
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 755 Union Blvd.
Dates: October 1, 2, 3
Tickets: $18; contact 314-367-0025 or westendplayers.org
Story: Hitler’s Third Reich has overtaken France in its march across Europe, leaving the ‘City of Light,’ Paris, occupied and subdued. As part of its crusade against ‘decadence,’ the Nazis plan to hold a public burning of art treasures considered impure by the German command, including a representative work by legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Residing in Paris, the painter is called to an underground vault in October 1941 to meet with Miss Fischer, a beautiful but dry cultural official who has been assigned the task of determining which of three confiscated paintings suspected to be ‘a Picasso’ is an original and not a forgery.
She interrogates Picasso with the goal of obtaining verification of one of the three works as authentic and thus ideal to be included in the conflagration. The bombastic and egocentric artist is at first annoyed by this intrusion into his life, but then devises a wily plan to save any of his creations from destruction. He also learns some surprising aspects of his interrogator’s own life and ambitions, as the two of them seek a resolution to their individual dilemmas.
Highlights: West End Players Guild began presenting plays back in 1911 as The Players. To usher in their centennial season they’ve chosen an intelligent, thought-provoking, one-act drama by Jeffrey Hatcher that explores the very nature of art and its vibrancy in the minds of its audience. Under the shrewd and measured direction of Steve Callahan and the inspired work of his two performers, the result is a pensive and provocative presentation that combines mystery with imagination and theatrical flair.
Kevin Beyer offers an accomplished and satisfying interpretation of the legendary Picasso, providing poignant glimpses into a troubled childhood that shaped not only his artistic bent but also his self-centered, philosophical view of the world. He is at times brutish, at other times sophisticated but always cognizant of the complexities of life around him, despite his steady protestations against politics and his carefully crafted public persona.
Beyer is a recognized talent and delivers his usual impeccable portrayal. The true delight of the production, however, is Maggie Murphy. As the stoic and icily assured Miss Fischer, she actually upstages her veteran counterpart with a marvelous portrayal of a German official at war with her own conscience and identity in her powerful governmental position. It’s fascinating to watch Murphy’s cool emotions gradually erode in the company of a man who she views as superior in both artistic and sexual terms. Both Beyer and Murphy are adept at capturing the cat-and-mouse mosaic of Hatcher’s clever plot, particularly as they address the history behind Picasso’s masterwork, Guernica, his paean to the beautiful Basque city destroyed by the Germans in support of Hitler’s ally, Francisco Franco, in the Spanish Civil War.
Callahan’s nifty production is bolstered by an atmospheric set designed by Mark Wilson that conveys the clutter and claustrophobia of the vault, which in turn is scrutinized by Amy Ruprecht-Belt’s penetrating lights. Russ Bettlach’s costumes fit the no-nonsense style of the interrogator as well as the painter’s shirt-and-tie deference to his subjugated situation.
Smoothly paced, tautly performed and intellectually challenging, A Picasso is a most fitting tribute to this venerable company’s 100th anniversary season.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.