I will never forget the first time — many years ago now — I walked into a retrospective exhibition of the artist Picasso. Paintings such as the emaciated guitar player and circus mountebank all in haunting shades of blue, conjuring themes of poverty and solitude, gave way to what critics call the artist’s Rose Period, when blues were banished, replaced by warmer tones and solid-as-pink, granite-like figures. Then I remember coming upon and experiencing with shock the real deal of his experiments in cubism. These were disorienting encounters. Here was an artist who asked us to look at and look around corners at the same time. And the man never stopped reinventing art and himself as an artist and phenom.
This weekend at GALA Theatre, a GALita show for children and their families introduces another generation to Picasso through the medium of theater.
Playwright Cornelia Cody doesn’t try to follow a chronology of the great and complex 20th-century artistic giant. Instead, she offers up a lighthearted tour of some of the man’s thinking about art-making, given by an actor, who introduces himself as Picasso at 90. He banishes any discussion about dates and time and insists that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” He proceeds to entice and invite the audience into Picasso’s imaginative leaps of transformational visions.
Even before the action begins, the world presented by the set (Mariana C. Fernandez) and lighting (Halley LaRoe) creates a space that comfortably holds the tools of an artist’s studio, where imagination and curiosity are given equal rein to play. I especially liked the solution of panels of simple white flats, which are repeatedly reconfigured like blank canvases, becoming surfaces for projections of some of Picasso’s iconic paintings, coming together then breaking apart, then twirled out of sight by a chorus of helpers.
Camilo Linares as Picasso shares the stage with a quartet of lithe and expressive actor-dancers, who change personas as needed. Delbis Cardona, Marimer Espíritu, Kiana King, and Lenny Mendez made up the chorus the afternoon I saw the show and were especially successful in scenes like the circus. We are taken “behind the scenes,” because Picasso clearly liked to draw back the curtain and show us acrobats practicing. Our quartet obliged, working out on a series of hoops and trapeze bars and building foundations for human pyramids. It’s the effort and momentary hesitation of an actor-clown like Cardona who faces a balance board on a rollerball that gets our heart racing and rooting for him. (Clearly, his background doing workouts with the seriously physical Synetic Theater shows.)
The entertainment also works exceedingly well when audience members are invited to participate. One brave young man gets to go up on stage and stand in front of an easel and is given tools to paint whatever he wishes. In another scene, a front-row audience member gets a lesson in how to face a bull in the ring but instead of a great cape is given a tiny red handkerchief, and much merriment ensues as he tries to mirror then invent matador choreography.
The text moves smoothly between Spanish and English, and no one in the audience need miss a beat in the action.
Occasionally, the same thematic lines return unnecessarily, pronounced by Picasso dropping some knowledge, almost as “favorite hits.” At other moments, I thought the actors were directed a little too heavily to “act like children.” They’re trying too hard and therefore missing stage truth, I thought. However, Elena Velasco, a veteran director of not only theater of social action but movement-driven theater for children kept many vignettes spinning like plates in the air, building a circus atmosphere with famous Picasso paintings appearing then dissolving to create ever-evolving stage pictures. She kept the attention of young audiences and their adults’ willing suspension of dramatic unities.
At one point, the play asks the audience, “Who sees the true face? — The mirror? The photographer? Or the artist?” The answer should be obvious. No one showed us the truth of loneliness and solitude, the contradictory complexity of personality, the horrific brokenness of war, and the sheer “Why not?” playfulness of art-making as did Picasso.
As if to make the point crystal clear, GALA’s Executive Director Rebecca Medrano was on hand with her grandsons, who passed out paper and crayons, and there was time for young audience members to respond to the colors and ideas in the show by making their own pictures, which were then celebrated along with the artists in a series of lobby photos with cast members.
Picasso is a treat and, I might suggest, a cultural duty to share the great Picasso’s legacy by way of introducing him to the next generation of creatives in this most entertaining of ways.
Running Time: One hour without intermission.
Picasso plays through October 21, 2023, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($12, adult; $10, child) online. For more information, visit galatheatre.org or call (202) 234-7174. Tickets are also available on Goldstar and TodayTix.
GALA has four wheelchair-accessible spaces and an elevator to transport people from the entrance to the lobby, and to the house. Parking is available at a $4 flat rate in the Giant garage on Park Road, NW (must validate parking ticket at theater lobby for discount). Metro station Columbia Heights (Green/Yellow lines).
COVID Safety: All performances are mask-optional. See GALA’s complete COVID-19 Safety Policy.
Written by Cornelia Cody
Directed by Elena Velasco