It was an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to once again visit an old friend, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
My first encounter with this play took place in 1993 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre where I served as the lighting designer for the play’s world premiere. Between 1994 and 1997, the production went on a national tour that stopped in a number of theatres including in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In 1997, I had the opportunity to design the scenery and the lighting for the first regional theatre production of the play at the Alley Theatre in Houston, where I had recently become the Associate Director/Design.
Twenty one years later, I am once again reveling in the brilliance of Steve Martin’s theatrical depiction of 20th century icons. I find it interesting that our society’s fixation on celebrity has grown deeper in the intervening twenty one years. The play’s take on celebrity and the intersection between art and fame is more poignant today than when I first experienced the play. When I first designed for the play, it appeared to be a celebration of great lives. Now, it strikes me as more about great images and how those images are spun.
In the context of today’s world, the play successfully mirrors the way fame and art intermingle. The shaggy dog comedy of 1993 has matured into a sad but profound statement. The visitor’s closing lines are as, or even more, relevant today: “Say goodbye to the age of indifference, and say hello to the age of regret… this century, the accomplishments of artists and scientists, outshone the accomplishments of politicians and governments.”
My approach to the play’s reincarnation remained close to my original design for the 1997 Alley production, but I made small tweaks to take advantage of the intimacy of our recently redesigned and renovated theatre. I pushed the primary action space downstage on the thrust. I tweaked the color palette a bit, opting for a more saturated color scheme. I detached the the bar from the walls of the set to make it more of an island, which improved the traffic flow around the bar. I also added more detail to the back bar to better capture the history of this bar as a hangout for artists.
Scenically, the biggest change I made was to add a 60 inch wide translucent drop upstage of the set that completely encircles the walls. The drop had the feel of the image from Star Trek when the Starship Enterprise went into warp speed with galaxies of stars flying by. The effect was meant to transport the audience from earth to the stars, from the known to the unknown and the universe of our imagination.
There is a moment, just after the visitor arrives, when Steve Martin asks that the set pull away revealing a sky of stars. For this moment, I had hundreds of stars light up behind the set which became visible because the set walls were scrim fabric. Then, the stars rearrange themselves, the translucent drop is illuminated, and we are carried into deep space. Just as quickly as the set is deconstructed, it returns back to the present in the bar.
I also added a 20th century rocking-out with the full company on vocals and instruments of their choice to the curtain call of Jailhouse Rock. What could be a more fitting end to the celebration of ideas, music, and culture than Einstein on the sousaphone?