By Pat Launer
A weekend in the south of France is compressed into 80 minutes. Watch the master paint; watch him bathe — and eat and smoke (a lot). And create art from fishbones, or from junk found on the street. See him don a clown’s nose and a bullfighter’s cape. And hear him talk. About politics and painting and art.
This fabulous facsimile of Pablo Picasso is speaking directly to us, supposed art students sent by his dealer to “spy” on him, and make sure he completes a wealthy American collector’s commission — for six paintings and three vases to be created in one weekend.
Herbert Sigüenza, writer, actor, director, clown and visual artist extraordinaire, wrote and stars in the filmed version of the stage piece he created in 2010. It was first workshopped at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, then returned several years later for a full production, and was presented in 2019 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad, after sold-out runs across the country. Now it’s available to everyone worldwide (through Oct. 14, anyway).
The feature-length adaptation expands the piece, opening it up to lovely exteriors (including a charming garden outside the detailed studio, designed by Sammy Moore).
But despite the potential for extreme closeups, the nature of the medium tends to decrease some of the intimacy of the stage performance, and the thrill of watching Sigüenza (who has a BFA in visual art) painting in real time. (After the live versions, one of his onstage Picasso-esque paintings was auctioned off as a fundraiser).
There’s a difference in the suspension of disbelief, too; Sigüenza so marvelously inhabits the master that if you squinted a little while he was onstage, you could almost believe you really were in the presence of the great Picasso, in all his workaholic, irascible genius, his aggressive honesty and his art-and-life-loving, self-aggrandizing ways.
It’s 1957. He’s 76 years old. But the grueling demand for output and productivity isn’t daunting; work clearly energizes him.
Most of the text is taken from Picasso’s writings, musings and interviews. I’ve seen the stage play three times, and being an abstract painter myself, each time, I get new insights and takeaways, about art in general and Picasso’s art in particular.
Some gems from this incarnation:
- “Nature never produces the same things twice; why should I?”
- “To draw, you must close your eyes and see.”
- “It took me a lifetime to paint like a child.”
- “I like darkness everywhere except on my canvas.”
- “An artist is a political being,” he reminds us, “shaping himself by what’s going on.”
The film is excellently, seamlessly directed (by long-time Sigüenza collaborator Todd Salovey, associate artistic director at the San Diego Rep; and filmmaker Tim Powell). The lighting (Ashley McFall and Tim Powell) is superb, effectively capturing the changing time of day as well as the many moods of the ebullient provocateur.
The soundscape (originally created for the stage production by Bruno Louchouarn) is lovely, if occasionally repetitive. Perhaps showing newsreels and re-enactments during his nightmares (goose-stepping Nazis; Picasso unveiling his anti-war masterwork, “Guernica”) is a bit on the nose. But it might be helpful for those who don’t know much about the painter, the 1937 painting, or the times.
Since far-flung audiences may never get to see Sigüenza’s tour de force performance in the flesh, this is a terrific opportunity. Like so much of our theater consumption in these pandemic days, it’s the next best thing to being there.
- “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” the filmed version from the San Diego Repertory Theatre, can be viewed through Oct. 14
- Tickets ($35 per household) can be obtained at 619-544-1000 or sdrep.org
- Running time: 1 hr. 17 min
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.