A PICASSO at San Jose Rep reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith



Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle


The San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting what could easily be recognized as its greatest production of the new millennium: A PICASSO, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Jonathan Moscone.


Before you lose interest in reading a prolix review, let it be stated unequivocally: DO NOT MISS THIS PLAY–now then, we return to the regularly scheduled review.


While a great cast cannot rescue a weak script, a great cast and superlative director can certainly augment even the best of scripts.


James Carpenter (Picasso) and Carrie Paff  (Fraulein Fischer) are that great cast, and Jonathan Moscone–the Artistic Director for the California Shakespeare Theater–is that superlative director.


Search as you may, you will not find a more auspicious confluence of theatrical talent west of the Monongahela River.


Were James Carpenter a New Yorker, to display his Tony Awards, he would need two fireplaces: each with an eight-foot mantle.


In New York, he would have his own table at Sardi's and a second at Elaine's; in the bay area, he remains James Carpenter.


As film critic, Andrew Gumbel of the Los Angeles Independent once said of a great actor: " . . . he gave the impression that he was not acting at all, a feat that won him particular admiration from his fellow performers on stage and screen. His technique, at its best, was not only flawless, it was flawlessly hidden."


James Carpenter is proof that acting is not about the actor: it is about the character.


Having watched Carpenter in dozens of plays throughout the bay area, this indeed one is his greatest scripts and one of his finest achievements (surely, plied with sufficient Vinoptima Gewurztraminer, Carpenter would reluctantly admit it).


The play is set in Paris; the year is 1941; the Nazi's have annexed France and made an Ottoman out of Paris: Rick, Sam, Ilsa and Victor have all scurried to a gin joint in Casablanca.


In Paris, Picasso has been summoned to a basement vault filled with looted art; Fraulein Fischer trenchantly descends to the basement shortly after the Gestapo goons have deposited Picasso there.


Fischer–who in antebellum Germany fashioned herself as an Art Critic–is now just one more stooge lubricating the cogs of the fascist machinery: a lackey for the Nazis.


Like everyone under the Nazi pale, she is treading water: merely doing her duty for the sake of her and her parent's survival: subconsciously, she rehearses her Nuremberg defense.


Fischer asks Picasso to authenticate three drawings allegedly drawn by Picasso.


The Germans, ever searching for that elusive moral high ground, have added the works of Picasso to the list of Entartete Kunst which is not a spelling error but German for Degenerate Art: Picasso, as Rick would say, has been added to "their roll of honor."


Tyrants hate ambiguity: they fear it will cause people to think: e.g. the Soviets banded American Jazz; the Nazis banded Chagall, Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Kandisky and Munch; the Americans banded the Pueblo Indians' Buffalo Dance, James Joyce's Ulysses, Wilhelm Reich's Orgonotic Energy Accumulator; and the US Army banded Black Pearl by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates.


Possibly it was his mural Guernica that elevated Picasso to the realm of degenerate art; Guernica was a Basque city in Northern Spain.


To break the spirit of Basque resistance, Generalissimo Franco contracted Hitler for an air strike; Hitler saw it as a training exercise.


The New York Times on April 28 of 1937 reported, "Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the center of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed . . . by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town . . . occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aero planes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 pounds downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pound aluminum incendiary projectiles we dropped. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the center of the town to machine gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.


In Guernica Picasso vividly detailed the carnage unleashed by Franco and Hitler that afternoon.


Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has researched his subject well: the play is generously seeded with anecdotes from Picasso's life in Paris.


Once a gruff Gestapo Officer, routinely harassing Picasso at his Paris studio, pointed to the mural Gernica and asked accusingly: "Did you do that?"


Picasso responded curtly, "No, you did."


Ironically, as early as 1968, Generalissimo Franco audaciously expressed interest in having Guernica returned to Spain–it was housed at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).


As a seasoned dictator, nuance was completely lost on a thug like Franco.


Picasso personally insisted that Guernica NOT be transported to Spain until the Spanish people enjoyed the freedom of a republic.


In 1978 Spain ratified a new constitution, officially becoming a democratic constitutional monarchy.


Although the terms of the new constitution were not entirely aligned with specifications in Picasso's will, MOMA reluctantly gave up one of its greatest treasures: it ceded Guernica to Spain in 1981.


This brilliant script by Jeffrey Hatcher and the high energy verbal sparing do fitting justice to this tragic turbid period of European history.


The play exposes the moral contradictions of life, war and survival: within and without the totalitarian state.


The play is a must: it is not to be missed.


It runs through February 22.


For tickets, call the San Jose Box Office at 408-367-7255.

Jeffrey R Smith
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

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