'Picasso's Closet': An Artist With No Place to Hide

Theater J's production of Ariel Dorfman's play stars Mitchell Hebert as the artist, Katherine Clarvoe as his mistress and Saxon Palmer.
Theater J's production of Ariel Dorfman's play stars Mitchell Hebert as the artist, Katherine Clarvoe as his mistress and Saxon Palmer. (By Stan Barouh -- Theater J)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Nazi officer, sickened by the depiction of prostitution in a famous painting, seeks the artist's head. A fiercely possessive lover desires the artist's undivided affection. An old friend, swept up in a Gestapo dragnet, needs the artist's help in avoiding the concentration camps.

And so Picasso bides his time in a Paris atelier, dodging, weaving, tap-dancing, weighing his options and, most of all, inveighing against the pressures of being a vulnerable, venerated figure in a time of madness. "Why the hell does everyone want a piece of me?" he wonders in "Picasso's Closet," Ariel Dorfman's intriguing if emotionally opaque drama, which examines the plight of a petulant iconoclast living under the Third Reich's fastidiously malignant thumb.

Dorfman, a poet, teacher and playwright, knows firsthand about the brutal fist of repression: He was an official in the government of Salvador Allende when the popular Chilean president was overthrown in a 1973 military coup. Dorfman's stage work, steeped in themes of retaliation and redemption, draws potency from the idea that the pain of totalitarian trauma is more chronic than acute. His most celebrated play, the 1992 "Death and the Maiden," tells the table-turning tale of a victim who exacts revenge on the man who raped and tortured her.

"Picasso's Closet," receiving its world premiere at Theater J, offers another take on the impact of state terror. The questions concern the role of art and the responsibility of the artist: Is Picasso's survival worth sustaining at any cost? Does an artist's most important statement have to do with work he leaves to posterity or the sacrifices he makes for his contemporaries?

The sober issues are accorded serious treatment in John Dillon's tasteful production. Beyond the edifying arguments, though, you could wish that "Picasso's Closet" didn't hold an audience so strenuously at arm's length, that it could stir the heart as provocatively as it seeks to engage the intellect.

Dorfman is master of a compelling conceit here: He appropriates Picasso's modernist sensibility as inspiration for structuring the narrative. But he's less successful at the good old-fashioned task of fostering dramatic tension, of conjuring a world in which extreme risk provides a powerful platform for exploring character.

The result is an evening in which you tend to care more about the elegant frame than what's in the picture. Although the outline is based on fact, Dorfman's embroidery is all imaginary. The locale is Picasso's Paris studio -- handsomely conjured by set designer Lewis Folden -- where the artist worked during the Nazi occupation. Dorfman's premise reflects the mystery of how Picasso managed to survive unscathed when so many other artists and intellectuals, some of them his friends, did not. (Picasso's talent apparently trumped his leftist credentials; he might have had influential advocates who were close to Hitler.)

The playwright devises an elliptical format that he says is meant as a kind of homage to cubism -- the early-20th-century movement, championed by Picasso and Georges Braque, in which familiar objects were deconstructed geometrically and reassembled in abstracted forms. In Theater J's space at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, the technique is not mimicked so faithfully as to compromise coherence. In fact, it's rendered with enough clarity to tell the story and convey the sense of ambiguity Dorfman is after.

What's broken down and reordered here is history. Mixing real and fictional people, the playwright creates an alternate history in which the artist, portrayed by Mitchell Hebert, is closely followed and later killed by a Nazi officer (Saxon Palmer). The play also suggests the exact opposite occurs. (Picasso actually died in 1973, at age 92.)

The construct is not intended to muddy, but rather to illuminate, Dorfman's presentation of behaviors both repellent and honorable, of how a human being can harbor impulses superhuman and human, to feel at once the pulls of martyrdom and selfishness.

The story unfolds as if it were an amoeba, expanding in all directions at once. A journalist (Kathleen Coons) has come for a postwar jailhouse interview with Palmer's Capt. Lucht, who recounts his long pursuit of Picasso and his disgust for what he considers Picasso's degenerate art, embodied by his landmark painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." As counterpoint, Dorfman gives another kind of pursuer: Picasso's longtime lover Dora Maar (Katherine Clarvoe), an artist in her own right who develops the necessary protective antennae Picasso has no time for.

But Picasso will remorselessly discard her -- "You should have had my child. I would have been obliged to come see you," he says -- just as he appears to give the cold shoulder to his dear friend Max Jacob (Bill Hamlin), who pleads for Picasso to intercede with the Nazis to free him. The dualities in the plot extend to the characters: Dora will extol her lover and pray for his death. Picasso will agonize over Max's doom and argue that he has no power to alter his friend's fate.

It's the view of "Picasso's Closet," it seems, that in some awful events, there is no one satisfying way to respond -- that the one thing we can count on is that a human response is one rife with flaws and contradictions.

Hamlin, Clarvoe, Palmer and Coons provide strong support, even if these real or imagined characters do not assert themselves as intensely dramatic figures. You expect, of course, the artist to be a central source of magnetism. Yet Hebert's Picasso makes for a fairly chilly hub of the play.

That might be Dorfman's design, a reflection of his desire for elevated discourse to take the starring role. In this case, enlightenment is fine, even if you find yourself craving something a bit more enlivening.

Picasso's Closet, by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by John Dillon. Lighting, Martha Mountain; sound, Ryan Rumery; costumes, Kate Turner Walker. With Lawrence Redmond, Jim Jorgensen. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through July 23 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit .

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