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April 01, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, April 01, 2005

A meeting of the minds A meeting of the minds (April 01, 2005)

'Picasso at the Lapin Agile' delights at Bus Barn

By Jeanie Forte

Comedian Steve Martin's first foray into playwriting, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," has proved very successful and become a popular offering at community theaters across the country -- and with good reason.

It's a savvy play, with just enough intellectual interest for the theater-going set, wrapped in Martin's signature wit and served with a dollop of sex jokes for good measure. It's popular in part because it's hard to hurt; its clever premise and writing almost ensure success.

The production currently playing at the Bus Barn Stage Company in Los Altos fills the bill and then some, giving its audience an amiable and charming evening of laughter mingled with a hint of philosophy.

The premise is pure Martin: what if Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, who were contemporaries in 1904 (in time, if not in location), happened to meet in a Parisian cafe and were able to compare notes?

This playful examination of the intersection of art and physics generates some interesting musings as well as gentle, satirical poking at these larger-than-life personalities. Throw in assorted bar habitues, a contending inventor and an avaricious art dealer, and you have a perfect platform for amusing antics.

When Einstein (Thorvald Aagaard) and Picasso (Michael Navarra) realize at some point that they are but two of the three great influences on the emerging 20th century, much speculation ensues about who might be the third influence. I won't spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that the third person, someone you will recognize, adds tremendously to the fun and the laughter.

The script bogs down somewhat in the last section, trying to make too much of its own device but it remains entertaining to the end, staying on the right side of avoiding pretension in favor of enjoyment.

Bus Barn has assembled a solid cast of talented locals to bring the comedy to life. John Baldwin deadpans his way casually through the play as the philosophical but clueless barkeep Freddy, contrasted by the flirtatious friskiness of his wife, Germaine, played by Sondra Putnam. She's a bit slender for the role, with a slightly appalling wig but makes up for it with saucy passion and comedic skills. Bus Barn regular Jim Johnson gets a role perfectly suited to his particular comic gifts, as the very funny "newly-old" bar patron, Gaston.

Ed Robinson does a great job strutting and prating with greedy glee as the art dealer Sagot, while Shannon Stowe has the delicious fun of playing three different voluptuous females, mesmerizing the men with blatant sexual wiles and guiles -- this is, after all, Paris. Bill D'Agostino (a former Voice reporter), as fraudulent inventor Schmendiman, seems somewhat misdirected. His characterization is a bit forced at times, but when he is funny he reminds me of Groucho Marx -- without the cigar.

The show really belongs to the excellent acting of Aagaard and Navarra in the two leads. They're obviously quite talented and hit just the right balance between serious and zany. Thankfully, they never go over the top in their characterizations, never get cartoon-ish, as tempting as that might be with this brand of comedy. I'd love to see more of them on South Bay stages.

They are joined by Scott Daniel as the unnamed third person. Daniel does a superb job impersonating a well-known celebrity with admirable understatement.

Attractive production values are a challenge for this show -- like turning a mundane painting into an avant-garde vision or making walls disappear. Don Cate's open set design invites us into the bar's amusing ambience and facilitates the blurring of the fourth wall that happens occasionally in the play. Costumes are suited to character and gaily suggestive of the period.

I was, however, mystified by the sound design -- the pre-show music was quite obtrusive and odd, given what we were about to see, and when it comes back during the play it seems overblown and out of sync.

But these are minor distractions, the kind that don't detract from the overall production. The show as a whole is delightful and engaging, well worth the time for those in search of an enjoyable evening's entertainment.
Information

What: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," presented by Bus Barn Stage Company. Where: Bus Barn Theatre, 97 Hillview Ave. in Los Altos. When: Through April 16. Performances will take place Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m. and April 10 at 7 p.m. Cost: Tickets are $18-$28. Call: 941-0551 or visit www.busbarn.org


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