A guy walks into a bar. But even though this guy is a fairly nondescript mid-20s patent clerk, it would be a mistake to assume he's ordinary. He's got some radical ideas brewing about the nature of space and time, and in the coming year — which is to say, 1905 — they're about to upend how humankind conceives of the cosmos and its place in it.
Another guy walks into a bar. The very same Parisian bar, coincidentally, where the patent clerk occupies a seat. This guy, also in his 20s, is already well known among not only the bar's patrons but the city's cultural trendsetters, too. He's made a name for himself as a forward-looking, up-and-coming artist, even if he's still a few years away from depicting a quintet of prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. That painting will become a formative work in the cubist movement and modern art as a whole.
The bar is the Lapin Agile, and the two guys who've strolled into it on this fateful (and fictional) evening are Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. Their chance encounter and the lively debate that ensues form the central conceit of Steve Martin's 1993 play about creativity, commercialism, genius and aesthetics. With what one assumes to be deliberate understatement, it's titled simply Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
"The concept itself is that it's 1904, and we've got Einstein hanging out with Picasso, but no one understands the import. [Einstein] tries to explain that he's written this book and that he hopes it will be important. But they're like, 'Does it have pictures? Because pictures sell books,'" says Tracey Vaughan, director of a new staged reading of Lapin Agile this weekend.
"While he's presenting all these heady concepts, it's also just really down-to-earth humor. This woman [Picasso is] interacting with has hopes of spending time with him and has this drawing that he gave her. And she's like, 'I'll never part with this.' But when he basically acts like a womanizing jerk to her, she's like, 'OK, 50 bucks, who wants it?' So there are these moments that are just classic Steve Martin."
Vaughan has years of involvement with organizations like Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, North Idaho College and Lake City Playhouse, but she's directing Lapin Agile for a brand-new nonprofit, Drawn Together Arts (DTA). The organization emerged out of casual conversations between Blair Williams, who owns the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene, and Duncan Clark Menzies, a local actor who recently moved back to the area and works at the gallery.
"Blair would talk about creative placemaking and how we give platforms to artists and other people to generate energy into spaces," Menzies says. "She came to me with those ideas, and I came to her with my ideas about performance and what I want to do with experimental theater. We came up with this idea of Drawn Together Arts.
"The mission is to produce small shows and devised cabaret that thematically intersect the fine arts in a curated, interactive, theatrical experience. And what it's also branching into is professional development for artists—creating a safe space for people to come together and explore new ideas and concepts."
DTA intends to make good on that mission through regular artist salons. On the third Wednesday of each month, Art Spirit plans to host after-hours gatherings where sculptors, dancers, painters, actors and representatives from other disciplines will discuss a specific topic. The first salon in October took up the subject of attention and why artists would or indeed should work to captivate their audiences.
Another recurring event coming up is devised cabaret, melding collaborative storytelling with songs and music; that series will start in mid-February with a four-day run themed around Valentine's Day. Works on display at Art Spirit will be incorporated into the performance.
As the DTA's inaugural production, Lapin Agile will also exist in a dialogue of sorts with the venue where it takes place.
"You're surrounded by art, and we're exploring art in the piece itself," Menzies says. "And it's curated also in the sense that it's intersecting with things at the gallery. Specifically for Lapin Agile, we have a piece on consignment that's a Picasso print. It's a way to connect the work with other work that is being shown in the space."
For the sake of this staged reading, Art Spirit has also brought in a cubism-inspired piece by Ernest Lothar, a Vienna-born artist and contemporary of Picasso.
"It adds an extra layer," Vaughan says. "The play already makes self-references and breaks the fourth wall with the audience. We're going to be able to do that even more as kind of a tongue-in-cheek response to the fact that we're in an art gallery and the play is all about discussing art."
"Steve Martin's sense of humor as a writer is almost better than his sense of humor as an actor. The absurd quality and the existential are all part of the fun."
Martin's high-low comedy calls for 11 characters. In addition to Einstein (played by Michael Schmidt) and Picasso (Oskar Owens), there's bartender Freddie (Leeja Junker), waitress Germaine (Aubrey Shimek Davis) and curmudgeonly barfly Gaston (Rick Ibarra-Rivera). Sarah Junette Dahmen plays three characters, among them Suzanne, Picasso's jilted lover; and the countess, Einstein's love interest. Menzies is playing multiple roles, too, including the avaricious art dealer Sagot and a mysterious visitor from the future.
"He's never referred to by his actual name," Vaughan says of the time-traveler. "He talks about how he writes songs about love. I'm not sure how to tease it without giving it all away, but he basically waxes philosophical with Einstein and Picasso about the future and their roles in it. It's kind of a nod to pop culture, and all of the characters have this absurdist conversation about the future of pop culture."
Between the reflexive contrivances already in the play and its unconventional gallery setting, this production of Lapin Agile takes on, in Menzies' words, a particular "meta" quality, even — or especially — when real life offers an exception to art's commentary on it.
"I just think of one reference in the play where the art dealer is talking about how pictures of Jesus and sheep never sell," he says. "In the gallery, we have multiple artists who solely paint sheep, and they sell very well." ♦
Picasso at the Lapin Agile • Fri-Sun, Nov. 12-14, at 7:30 pm • $20 • The Art Spirit Gallery • 415 Sherman Ave, Coeur d'Alene • drawntogetherarts.com • 208-765-6006