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More great art comes to HART

Steve Martins play continues on stage through March 2


“In the 20th century, no movement will be as beautiful as the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind.” Thus does bartender Freddy express the central theme of HART Theatre’s current production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

However, author Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) modestly omits from this triad of the 20th century’s dominant cultural influences a fourth, equally powerful and subversive force — the force of comedy.

Director Peter Stein has a clear grasp of the importance of humor in captivating and enlightening his audience, and he has assembled a formidable cast to express his vision.

The play is set in Paris, 1904. What if Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso had turned up at the same Montmarte watering hole, the Lapin Agile? The answer (at least in the hands of a comic and philosopher like Martin) is simple — lots of absurd stuff that somehow manages to express a whole bunch of profundity. Want to know more? Go see this play.

While the show is defined by the relationship of creativity and genius at the dawn of a new century, it is anchored by the common man and woman — Freddy the bartender, played by Dan Kroon; Germaine the waitress, played by Ilana Watson; and Gaston the regular customer, played by Carl Coughlan.

Kroon and Watson are citizen philosophers of a type often found in depictions of working class Parisians — not overly well-educated, but still willing to trade philosophical banter with their esoteric clientele. Their timing and delivery do full justice to Martin’s witty dialogue, and the characters they create are appealing and believable, even given the absurdist tone of the entire play.

Coughlan’s portrayal of the newly old Gaston is consistently funny — his mobile eyes convey a wealth of commentary on the passing scene even when he is silent, and his clear delivery ensures we do not miss a thing.

Portland newcomer Trinka is a delight in each of her three roles as Suzanne (one of Picasso’s lovers), the Countess (a friend and confidante of Einstein), and “the admirer.” She’s cute, slightly elfin and flexible enough to shift from spitfire lover to intellectual soulmate to uninhibited groupie with little more than the switch of a wig.

Damien Siemer shows admirable restraint and superb timing in his depiction of a young Albert Einstein. He is by turns abstracted and engaged, but he does not succumb to the urge to overplay his character’s Teutonic genius. By contrast, Seth Rue’s Picasso is painted in broad strokes. Like the character he plays, Rue is an uninhibited extrovert whose energy mines the role for its full comic potential.

Rounding out the cast are cynical art dealer Sagot, played by Patrick Brassell, and his assistant, Andre, played by Greg Baysans, whose quirky characterization adds a lot to the surreal ambience of the show.

Aaron Morrow, who plays Charles Dabernow Shmendiman, and Jake Beaver, who plays the Visitor, provide an anachronistic contrast to the rest of the show’s characters. Shmendiman, the egotistical and bombastic — but utterly clueless — inventor, is an expression of the author’s contempt for industrialism. Morrow gives the role a horrifyingly comical ugly American flair. Beaver’s Visitor captures the self-effacing humility of an unnamed, mid-century rock star, along with his pompadour hairdo and blue suede shoes. Where Shmendiman is in the wrong place at the right time, the Visitor is in the right place with other cultural icons, but at the wrong time.

The set and costumes are up to the H.A.R.T.’s usual high standards — detailed, appropriate, attractive and functional. The complex lighting and special effects are equally impressive, and contribute a great deal to the exposition of the show’s themes.

A minor opening-night problem was audibility — a few of the lines were lost because of a lack of vocal projection, especially when there was music in the background. There are no throwaway lines in the show and the audience deserves to hear every word.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is playing at Hillsboro’s H.A.R.T. Theatre, 185 S.E. Washington St., through March 2. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays.

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