Aisle Say

Pablo and Cleopatra

By Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro
Directed by Rick DesRochers
At the New Theatre, Marlboro and Berkley Streets
Boston April 12-29, 1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Pablo who lends his name to the title of Rosanna Alfaro's new play is Picasso (Bill Mavis), in his symbolic role as the sort of charismatic celebrity who draws his vitality, his creativity, and a large part of his identity from his success as a lover of women -- beautiful, desirable, intelligent, accomplished women. Pablo uses women as he uses his succession of artistic styles -- obsessively, and for just as long as they produce new and interesting work. Cleopatra ( June Lewin is a composite made up out of the characteristics of the many women who served as the artist's muse in the course of his long life. The dramatic situation is that the lovers are aging, presenting each other month by month with further evidence of their inevitable decline towards ineffectuality and death -- the meaning of their sexual union is changing, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Picasso is seventy, twenty years older than Cleo, but Cleo is the one for whom aging represents an immediate crisis. Cleo's periods have stopped. Either she is pregnant with Picasso's child -- and faced once more with the decision to abort for the sake of Picasso and work -- or she has gone into menopause; that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Cleo has been a great beauty, always in demand as an artists' model, as well as being a talented sculptor herself. She has posed for Picasso at the expense of her own work, but she does not really regret it --well, not entirely. She agrees with Picasso that "art is life, sex is transcendence": and she shares with Picasso an obsession with sexuality as subject, and the idea that one or two artists will dominate the era, turning the work of all other artists into footnotes and commentaries on theirs.

It seems very likely that the artist who will win the posterity sweepstakes and be awarded immortality will be Picasso -- Cleo's own genuine if somewhat lesser talent hasn't a chance. Her inspirational effectiveness as model and muse is as much a part of her artistic identity as the sculptures she has sold and the prizes she has won. Cleo knows that those who share in Picasso's magic circle will become part of his story, part of art history -- especially his models, whom Picasso immortalizes not through romantic idealization, or classic mythologizing, or realist detail, but by modernist dissecting, dismembering, cartooning, :geometizing: creating a visual and emotional autopsy of his relationships.

Besides, life with Picasso includes theory as well as practice: Alfaro's witty dialog describes an ongoing game of artistic one-upmanship, the contestants vying to toss out the most definitive --and most wounding-- insights into the nature of creativity.

So far, Cleo has made a big impression. Picasso's latest show features room after room of Cleopatras -- but they are Cleos raging, Cleos aging, Cleos with a vagina toothed and fanged, on the attack. The old man who is her demanding and jealous lover, seldom able to resist a casual seduction himself, seems to be attracted to younger and younger beauties -- including Cleo's own seventeen year old hero-worshipping niece, Danielle (Karima Ridgley). Their mutual friend Jean (Dev Luthra), who has been in love with Cleo for years, is ready to replace Picasso's demands with his own tender nurture. Isn't it time for Cleo to change roles, give up her all-absorbing subordination, and get on with her own life and work in the time remaining to her?

The New Theatre has given Alfaro's play its very best. Artistic Director Rick DesRochers supplied fluid staging, and handled the several nude scenes with tact and style. The attractive set design, by Jean Segaloff, consists of some wood screens, a table and chairs, a couple of easels, and two model stands -- all of which stand in for various locations when the actors trundle them to new positions. This trundling might have interfered the momentum of the script-- wouldn't it be nice if all theatres could snap their fingers and magically materialize a turntable when a production could benefit from one?-- but Barbara Blatner has composed for "Pablo" a fascinating original score which turns every scene change into a commentary on the emotional transitions: performed by Blatner on keyboard, Tomas Ojeda on cello, and Colin Rountree on recorder and percussion.

With "Pablo", The New Theatre signed its first Equity contract, and the rise in status seems to have inspired extra effort all around. This is the best of the productions I've seen company do since it moved into the performing space on Marlboro Street and took on the commitment to develop plays by emerging local writers--- "Pablo" first appeared in a previous season's NeWorks festival. June Lewin, who has been with the script since its first read-through, is both alluring and abrasive as the volatile Cleopatra; Bill Mavis, though far too young and cursed with a less than convincing bald wig, starts as a plausible genius and grows into a commanding one as the script unfolds. Karima Ridgley's Danielle is sufficiently young, gorgeous, and vulnerable, so that her betrayal of her aunt Cleo seems to be the product of unconscious emulation rather than a brazen bit of nymphetic conniving. Ridgley makes Danielle's punishment seem both excessive and inevitable. Dev Luthra does what he can with the boring Jean, restrained by his better nature from indulging in the verbal and sexual excesses that surround him.

Our own better natures insure that the evening is not one of unalloyed pleasure, however. The questions Alfaro's play raises are troubling ones, and the answers implied are not exactly satisfying, emotionally, to the current sensibility; which is eager to believe in ideals of freedom, equality, and friendship as the basis for productive pair relationships.