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By Melynda Nuss

HOUSTON, TEXAS, 28 MARCH 2011 — What happens when an artist gets old? It is a question that we’re bound to hear more often, as each generation of artists lives longer than the next. If so, Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, now having its premiere courtesy of the New Play Initiative at the Alley Theater in Houston, is a good shot across the bow. It gives us Picasso at the age of 77, comfortably ensconced in his villa on the Côte d’Azur, enjoying wine, baguettes and his own fame. It is an age at which one might be forgiven for wanting to retire; indeed, according to Picasso lore, it is an age at which the master might have been considered retired, churning out canvases and sketches for wealthy collectors. And Picasso could have been forgiven for wanting to retire, having begun his artistic training and output at the age of 7, lived through two world wars, the Catalan Independence movement, Franco’s fascism, two wives, and an astonishing number of mistresses — not to mention at least five distinct periods of artistic creation. One would think that he might need a rest.

But of course Picasso did not rest. His late period was one of his most prolific, experimenting with style and color, responding to the master artists he had known during his life, reaching toward new styles and new ways of making art, and even creating like the 50-foot tall creature in downtown Chicago that is still one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

It is no doubt this energy that attracted Siguenza. As a 30-year veteran of the theater scene, who, with his partners Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, pioneered the use of sketch comedy to illuminate the complex ethnic relationships of America’s cities, Siguenza has reached the capstone of his career. He writes, teaches and directs theater at the University of California at Irvine and serves as a mayor-appointed Commissioner to the City of Los Angeles. Recently he has started one-man portrayals of famous Latinos, starting with the Mexican film star Cantinflas. He seems to be thinking about how an artist that has already made his mark can take his art to the next level.

Herbert Siguenza as Pablo Picasso

In service of this idea, Siguenza plays Picasso as a man with the experience of an ancient but the openness of a child. He creates a chicken out of funnels and fans, a bull’s head out of a bicycle seat and handlebars. He makes a dog out of his daily bread delivery — then, on a whim, changes the design, adds a paintbrush, and makes a face. He is awake at three in the morning, wearing a bull’s mask, talking about sexual energy. When a lady complains about the price of a portrait that Picasso has sketched in only a few minutes, he tells her "Madam, it took me my entire life." But oh — onstage, we see how few of those minutes he has left, and how much drawing he wants to fit into them.

The strong suit of this production is simply the riot of being with Picasso — experiencing his manic energy, his insane creativity, his nonstop engagement. He slashes at the canvas or attacks it like a bull, drinks wine, naps, then attacks again. He plays tricks on the man who delivers his baguettes, argues with and cajoles his gallerist, flatters, berates and tolerates the audience. Siguenza portrays not only the meaning-making behind art, but also its energy, its physicality, its sheer joy.

The weak part of the production, unfortunately, is the politics. Siguenza, a Chicano/Latino activist, clearly wants to talk about them. Picasso, unfortunately, is more elusive. Picasso skirts the edge of some of the 20th century’s great political movements — its two great European wars, its fascism, its communism — while, indeed, one great cause, Catalan Independence, affected his homeland, and another, the fascist bombing of Spain, produced one of his greatest artworks, the Guernica (1937). Picasso remained neutral, refusing to fight for any side or party, although he did join the French Communist Party and lent his name to several leftist causes. Siguenza dutifully records Picasso’s indifference, but he doesn’t seem to understand it. He can show us Picasso shaking his head over a letter from a Hungarian friend about the Communist invasion. But what is taking place there? Surely not the simple incomprehensibility of man’s inhumanity to man — Picasso had seen that enough times to comprehend it. Perhaps the difficulty of sustaining faith in peace, love and brotherhood? But then does Picasso sustain it? And if so, how? The production so bombards us with memories and images of war that the images of peace doves and hands holding flowers that Siguenza (and Picasso) give us don’t seem like an adequate response. Politically, Picasso looks more like an artist in denial than an artist engaged.

This may be a way in which A Weekend With Pablo Picasso is more personal than political. Siguenza’s strength has always been the ability to see beyond the clichés in American politics — to explore what we mean (and what we don’t mean) when we say that we should all just get along. It is too bad he could not give us the same insight through the eyes of Picasso. But the life in the production is more than enough to make up for it. To spend a weekend with Picasso — a weekend living, reveling, creating art — is a wonderful thing. May Siguenza create more of it.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on the film The King's Speech for Culturekiosque. 

BOOK TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906
By John Richardson
Paperback: 548 pages
Knopf (October 2007)
ISBN-10: 037571149X
ISBN-13: 978-0375711497

A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916
By John Richardson

Paperback: 512 pages
Knopf (October 2007)
ISBN-10: 9780375711503
ISBN-13: 978-0375711503

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
By John Richardson

Paperback: 608 pages
Knopf: Reprint edition (October 2010)
ISBN-10: 0375711511
ISBN-13: 978-0375711510

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