Exploring the value of art

Friday, May 18

A not-so-funny thing happened to Pablo Picasso on his way to an appointment.

On a late October day in Paris in 1941, he is accosted by two men in raincoats as he is leaving a cafe after lunch on his way to an appointment and told to go with them.

He is taken to an underground vault and left in a cheerless grey room with a woman known only as Miss Fischer, a representative of the occupying German government's Ministry of Culture. She wants Picasso to authenticate three paintings — portraits — attributed to him. The paintings, she says, are going to be displayed in a special private exhibition. The truth, it turns out, is far more disturbing. As the cat-and-mouse game between Picasso and Miss Fischer unfolds, it becomes clear to Picasso that if he is to continue his work, he will have to prove at least one of three paintings is authentic.

And so begins Jeffrey Hatcher's intermissionless play, "A Picasso," which has been previewing since Wednesday at Berkshire Athenaeum. Press opening is Sunday afternoon at 3.

"A Picasso" is the first production of Barrington Stage Company's 2007 season which includes Main Stage productions of "West Side Story" and "Uncle Vanya," the rerturn of Music Theatre Lab, and a Stage II presentation of a new musical, "Calvin Berger," a retelling of "Cyrano de Bergerac" set in a high school.

"A Picasso" was developed at Philadelphia Theatre Company, where it had its premiere in May 2003. The play's New York premiere came two years later, in April 2005, at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Hatcher's "Three Viewings" was produced by BSC in its second season. Another of his plays, "Murderers," is running at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn., and "Tuesdays With Morrie," which Hatcher co-wrote with Mitch Albom, ends a run at Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vt., on Sunday. Among Hatcher's other plays are "Scotland Road" and "Turn of the Screw."

Hatcher uses the situation he has created, says director Tyler Marchant, as the framework for a discussion about the value of art and what one is willing to sacrifice for it. "A Picasso" also is about choices. It also is about survival — in terms of a work of art, in terms of a life.

"She (Miss Fischer) thinks that under these circumstances, she's doing the best she can to protect artists," Marchant said during a recent pre-rehearsal interview in BSC's rehearsal hall on the top floor of the former Women's Services Building on First Street. He was joined by his cast — Gretchen Egolf and Thom Christopher.

"Within this hardened exterior, she's doing the best she can. Her own future is at stake. Her family's life is at stake."

"One of the issues here is whether you work inside a system to change it or do you buck the system," said Egolf, who is making her BSC debut with this production but who spent two seasons at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, where she appeared on the Main Stage with Joanne Woodward in "Hay Fever" and the Unicorn in "Keely and Du," "The Illusion," and "Four Dogs and a Bone."

"Here's Picasso living outside the system, challenging the rules," Egolf said. "Miss Fischer is doing what she has to do to get Picasso to authenticate three of his paintings, which will be shown, she tells him, in an exhibit of degenerate art.

"She has a great love for art, we learn, and for Picasso's art, but she has to do her job."

"These are two people from different cultures, different countries who are put into this boxing ring and they explode," said Christopher, who also is making his BSC debut in this production. Berkshires theatergoers may recognize him from his appearances at Williamstown Theatre Festival, his title-role performance as "Zorba" in Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of that Kander and Ebb musical, and in the television soap operas "One Life to Love," "The Edge of Night," "Guiding Light" and "Loving."

"There is a saying that the wheel of life gives back to you what you give to it," said Christopher, who played Picasso in the first reading of "A Picasso" in Philadelphia. "Picasso knew how to balance cruelty with humility, which cannot help but create the greatness it created.

"Miss Fischer forces him to think."

"I think they both do," Egolf said. "I think she comes to like him, enjoys the repartee between them."

"One of my favorite lines from Miss Fischer is 'never has there been a time when art has meant so little,' " Marchant said. "She's telling Picasso that with people dying every day in the war, she needs to leave the room with just one of his paintings authenticated so he can continue the rest of his work.

"If the audience follows this play, and I think they will, they'll be on each of these characters' sides over the course of the play."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached by telephone at (413) 496-6212 or by e-mail at jborak@berkshireeagle.com.


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