The lives of artists, truly great artists, are fascinating to us all. Apparently, so are the lives they never led. Ariel Dorfman’s new play, Picasso’s Closet, examines the 1944 murder of Picasso in Nazi-occupied Paris—despite the fact that Picasso died in Mougins, France, on April 8th, 1973. Dorfman offers a startling and brilliant portrait of this murder that never happened, while attempting to portray the real Picasso; perhaps to show the behaviors that allowed Picasso to survive a regime that killed so many of his colleagues.
Dorfman swirls real people and fictional characters together in his deconstructed history. The most prominent is Dora Maar (Katherine Clarvoe), Picasso’s erstwhile mistress, famous for her photographs of Picasso painting Guernica (1937). Maar is hounded by Charlene Petrossian (Kathleen Coons), an American journalist seeking insight into Picasso in preparation for a pseudo-biography of the artist: she plans to write a book chronicling the fictional next 30 years of Picasso’s life.
Other figures from Picasso’s Paris years emerge periodically, including Max Jacob (a compelling Bill Hamlin) and and Jaime Sabartes (Lawrence Redmond.) And in the midst of it all is Picasso (doppelganger Mitchell Hebert), a cold but captivating figure, petulant and brilliant. When Picasso needs money, he signs something and sells it; anything bearing his signature is instantly valuable. Picasso’s faults are repugnant, particularly his constant manipulation of the fragile Dora, but he also possesses the irresistable magnetism of genius. Dorfman’s fictional focuses attention on the fact that Picasso did survive the Nazi occupation, and forces one to ask why. Picasso was protected by virtue of his genius, but did nothing to save his friends, nothing that might put him in danger. Was this path of non resistance acceptable because it saved Picasso; is any genius so important? Dorfman does not answer these questions—-he only raises them.
And always there is Albert Lucht (Saxon Palmer), a sinister Nazi officer obsessed with killing Picasso—both because he is offended by his work, and because he wants to be connected to the life of a genius somehow, even by ending it. Director John Dillon has Lucht always watching, hiding behind bookshelves or in the shadow of Picasso’s famous stove, eavesdropping on the life an artist lives.
Lewis Folden’s set design is a bohemian dream of an artist’s studio, a swirl of greens and diagonal lines flaked by bursting shelves and an enormous woodstove. The fourth floor apartment never seems to receive natural light; instead glowing under an amber lamp that illuminates the deep colors and patterns that infuse Folden’s design.
Though Dorfman’s adventure into historical fantasy is beautifully executed, the premise falters occasionally during the play’s three acts; slowing enough for an audience to wonder why history that never happened merits telling. But this is a gamble worth taking; Dorfman’s seemingly bizarre proposition eventually explicates Picasso’s life and character better than a straightforward retelling ever could.