note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has captivated audiences with his plays, “The Turn of the Screw,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Murder by Poe,” and “Tuesdays with Morrie,” among others; but he hit a mother lode with his two-person suspense play, “A Picasso,” currently appearing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, starring Mark Zeisler and Kate Udall.
Merrimack Rep Artistic Director has orchestrated Hatcher’s carefully constructed, well-balanced, verbal duel between internationally famous artist Pablo Picasso and a regimented, unyielding female Nazi administrator of the Reich’s Ministry of Culture, set in October 1941, in a dismal, underground hidden vault in the bowels of Paris.
Hatcher doesn’t merely entertain us with a battle of wits and words. He pits two strong personalities against each other - a fearless, bon vivant artist and threatening agent of the Third Reich. They’re wary adversaries who are staunchly resistant and determined to win.
Zeisler exudes the charm, charisma, wit, and ego one can only imagine as the infamous Picasso, while Udall proves to be a worthy adversary as tall officer, Miss Fischer. Picasso’s expensive casual garb contrasts Fisher’s stiff, militaristic dark blue suit, her voice, tone and manner as clipped and taut as her outfit.
Campbell Baird’s dreary set, a Parisian underground storage vault/warehouse, where Fischer can conduct her interrogations with impunity, is a threatening tomblike enclosure, where one could be snuffed out without notice.
Picasso has been taken to this godforsaken lair to authenticate three confiscated paintings he created. When he asks Fischer what the Nazis intend to do with them, if they’re authentic, she reluctantly tells him the truth.
They’ll be publicly burned in a huge bonfire, along with other works the Reich considers as “degenerate, decadent” or politically inflammatory art.
Declaring himself apolitical, Picasso adds, “If you burn a Picasso, you burn Picasso.”
Their discourse unfurls like a spool of ribbon, raising unexpected wrinkles along the way. As she shows him each painting, he says they’re fake, to spare them from the pyre. He points to artistic details, revealing formative, biographic milestones, including his real name, then pretends to find flaws.
She insists she must have a Picasso to destroy, or it could mean his life, or hers. As her pitch intensifies, his voice remains modulated, his attitude relaxed.
The two are like a verbal, exquisitely-choreographed ballet, rising, falling, hitting emotional crescendoes, then ebbing. They reveal inner vulnerabilities, edging closer to mutual admiration and understanding, trying to help each other.
Towers, Udall and Keisler delight in balancing this emotional nail-biter that satisfyingly ends with a wry surprise, in which everyone wins - the antagonist, the protagonist, and the audience.
BOX INFO: One-act, 85-minute play, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, appearing through May 15 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; post-show forum, May 12. Tickets start at $25; group, senior, student discounts. Call 978-654-4678 or visit www.MerrimackRep.org.