Review: In Tampa, Jobsite’s ‘Picasso’ will leave you laughing your head off

The work still raises many philosophical questions in the ping pong of ideas.

click to enlarge (L-R) Sydney Reddish, Brian Matthew Shea (Freddy), Blake Smallen (Einstein), and Jada Canty (Germaine) in 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile' at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida through Oct. 5, 2022. - Photo by Pritchard Photography c/o Jobsite Theater
Photo by Pritchard Photography c/o Jobsite Theater
(L-R) Sydney Reddish, Brian Matthew Shea (Freddy), Blake Smallen (Einstein), and Jada Canty (Germaine) in 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile' at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida through Oct. 5, 2022.
Director Kari Goetz skillfully guides our expectations for Jobsite Theater’s hilarious “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” by that “wild and crazy guy,” Steve Martin. It’s a comedy; “an amuse bouche of the bohemian era.”

As I laughed my head off with the sold-out crowd, I kept wondering where it was going. Serious philosophical questions arise—accompanied by sound designer Jeremy Douglass’ aural quotation marks. It’s a laugh-a-minute romp built upon a fictional meeting of potential geniuses in a Montmartre bar as the Belle Époque crosses into the 20th century.

Paris’s Lapin Agile (“Nimble Rabbit”) is real; a beloved watering hole for struggling artists and would-be geniuses. In this case, two 20th Century giants Pablo Picasso (Robert Spence Gabriel) and Albert Einstein (Blake Smallen), who spar over the nature of genius vs. talent, art vs. science. But Einstein the clerk has yet to publish his "Special Theory of Relativity" and painter Picasso is still a few years away from the proto-cubist, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” Picasso is a womanizer who has hooked up with everybody: “I meant every word I said that night; I just forgot who I said them to.”

UPDATE: Due to illness showings of Jobsite's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" have been rescheduled. See an updated schedule and statement from Jobsite at the bottom of this review.

As one might expect from a comedian like Martin, all the characters are a bit delirious. As the play begins, two of the region’s most reliable character actors set the tone. Ned Averill-Snell perfectly embodies Martin’s caricature of an old mustachioed Frenchman with a thick “Inspector Clouseau” accent. The incontinent old guy hops instead of strides as he waxes eloquent about sex and booze. Absurd barkeep Freddy (Brian Matthew Shea) breaks the fourth wall to align the action with the printed program and has his pithy moment of philosophical musing that people are made more interesting by having opinions, no matter how misguided. And isn’t that ridiculous?

Jada Canty plays Freddy’s girlfriend (who has slept with Picasso) and whose costume and raven locks echo Bizet’s Carmen. Sydney Reddish is a quick-change object of desire ranging from a corseted, bare-shouldered blonde (who has slept with Picasso) to a mysterious, buttoned up cerebral redheaded Countess who excites Einstein to, finally, a female admirer with a surprising object of lust. Anne Acosta’s costumes capture the era and characters with telling detail.

Gaston theorizes that there must be a third genius to change the century, and Martin introduces the absurd inventor Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, creator of Schmendimite "an inflexible and very brittle building material.” To add to the lunacy, Goetz has cast the voluptuous Jonelle M. Meyer as a man—to help remind us that anything goes. The script is, after all, highly self-aware and the characters acknowledge throughout the process that they are in a play.

While there are constant verbal and physical gags, you don’t realize that charismatic effervescence is lacking until Ms. Meyer arrives like an electric shock Groucho. Her brief moments onstage are so lunatic and energizing, that there’s a natural letdown when the play returns to its normal—albeit madcap—state. Martin also throws in Sagot (Danny Mora) as Picasso (and Matisse’s) profit-obsessed agent bedecked with top hat, red-lined floor-length cape, and an enormous box camera plus tripod, which of course Picasso marvels at how small it is (rim shot). There’s more than a smidge of painful irony every time the hopeful patrons toast the wondrous new century unleashed by the progress of industrialization. Surely the world can’t help but be a better place for all. In our position looking back on the century, we can’t help but laugh (and wince) recalling WWI, WWII and our ongoing failure to address systemic racism and gun violence adequately. At least we came away with air travel, the telephone and TV.

Martin raises many philosophical questions in the ping pong of ideas and just when you wonder how he might land his script, he pulls out a dramatic device from the 5th century BCE Greek playwright, Euripides (pronounced à la Martin—“you-rip-a-deez”). A deus-ex-machina descends in the form of “A Visitor” from the future (Donovan Whitney). It’s another charismatic jolt with all the right moves. To say more would spoil the surprise, but it becomes clear that whatever we might have concluded about genius, what our culture really worships is celebrity. When you realize that the play was penned in 1993 well before the rise of social media, it’s mind-boggling just how prescient Martin was. There’s also a painful reminder, both verbal and visual, of white mid-century musicians co-opting Black culture.

Brian Smallheer’s set floats windows and a front door glass that mimics the harlequin pattern from Picasso’s “Au Lapin Agile” canvas. Both sides of the stage feature huge circles that evoke images of of transparent bubble wrap bagels which make no sense until it turns out they transform into intergalactic solar systems when Einstein and lighting designer Jo Averill-Snell take us on a flight of fancy out into the infinite void of a star-studded universe. It is written in the stars who shall have top billing. But, in this age of political cults, shameless stunts by our governor, and an upcoming election where democracy collides with authoritarianism, what we really need more than anything is to simply laugh.

Sept. 18 update on "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" from Jobsite Theater

Because of illness, this week’s (Sep. 22-25) performances of Picasso at the Lapin Agile must unfortunately be paused and rescheduled. Yesterday’s performance, Sep. 18, will also be rescheduled. Folks who had tickets to Sep. 22-25 will be automatically moved into the corresponding day of the next week (Sep. 29 - Oct. 2). For instance, if someone had tickets to Thu., Sep. 22, they will automatically be moved to Thu., Sep. 29. If the new performance date agrees with the customer, no further action is required. If they need to schedule an alternate date/time or require a refund, email [email protected] and a member of the Straz box office team will call or write back to take care of them.

In an attempt to make up for this significant loss of revenue (all impacted performances were either sold out or only had a few seats remaining), we have also added the following performances to the remaining schedule that will all go on sale today at 5pm:

Wed Sep 28 8pm
Sat Oct 1 4pm
Sun Oct 2 7:30pm
Wed Oct 5 8pm
Sat Oct 8 4pm

For clarity, the complete remaining schedule for Picasso at the Lapin Agile is:

Wed Sep 28 8pm
Thu Sep 29 8pm
Fri Sep 30 8pm
Sat Oct 1 4pm
Sat Oct 1 8pm
Sun Oct 2 4pm
Sun Oct 2 7:30pm

Wed Oct 5 8pm
Thu Oct 6 8pm
Fri Oct 7 8pm
Sat Oct 8 4pm
Sat Oct 8 8pm
Sun Oct 9 2pm