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Steve Martin’s ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ opens at Vortex Theatre

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From left, Jeremy Gwin is Einstein, Evening Star Barron is Suzanne and Grey Blanco is Picasso in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” (Courtesy of Alan Mitchell)

From left, Jeremy Gwin is Einstein, Evening Star Barron is Suzanne and Grey Blanco is Picasso in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” (Courtesy of Alan Mitchell)

Picasso and Einstein meet in a bar and argue about genius.

The Vortex Theatre is opening its new home with Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” Friday, Sept. 5. Albuquerque’s oldest black-box theater, it has expanded to a $875,000 space at 2900 Carlisle NE.

Martin pairs the two innovators as twentysomethings in 1904, both on the cusp of their greatest creations. Einstein published his theory of relativity in 1905; Picasso painted the space-fracturing, revolutionary “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907.

“It was a time when the art community and the science community were on the edge of amazing discoveries that would shape the next 100 years,” director Martin Andrews said.

“There was also this innocence,” he continued. “In Europe, there was a resolution that passed that outlawed war. It was this endless hope of peace in the future. It hadn’t been destroyed by the events of World War I and World War II.”

A Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winner, Martin threads a link between the great imaginative leaps of art and science.

It’s “that someone like Einstein could come up with this theory that time is relative,” Andrews said. “Depending on where you view it from, it’s different. And Picasso is breaking down an object and seeing it from different perspectives at the same time.”

The Lapin Agile (it means “nimble rabbit”) actually exists in Monmarte, Paris. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a favorite spot for struggling artists and writers, including Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo.

It was also a magnet for less-savory characters including pimps, students from the Latin Quarter, down-and-outers and a contingent of local anarchists.

In Martin’s version, the two protagonists interact with a cast of eccentrics. The character of Schmendiman, an inventor, believes he is a genius although he actually knows very little.

Gaston, an amicable old Frenchman with prostate problems, dismisses anything not revolving around sex or alcohol.

The waitress Germaine, the owner’s girlfriend, has slept with Picasso. Suzanne, a beautiful 19-year-old, is in love with the artist. She’s left hurt and angry when he doesn’t even remember sleeping with her.

Jeremy Gwin plays Einstein. Grey Blanco will play Picasso.

“There’s a great line: Picasso’s love interest in the play is Suzanna. She’s coming down the stairs and she looks down and he’s framed in the light and he says, ‘I am Picasso.’ She says, ‘So what?’ He says, ‘Someday that’s going to mean something.'”

Andrews has always been fascinated by the great artist. Picasso created a movement that would ricochet throughout the 20th century.

“And there was this tabloid side where so many women came in and out of his life,” he continued. “He would capture them in his art and move onto the next one.”

As one would expect from the man who sang and danced to “King Tut” and penned the memoir “Born Standing Up,” it’s funny.

“It’s hilarious,” Andrews said. “It’s got corny jokes and there are side-splitting jokes that make you fall out of your chair. And it’s got some meaningful insights. That’s Steve Martin.”

A veteran of Albuquerque’s Shakespeare on the Plaza, Andrews played Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet.” A recent Iowa transplant, he is co-founder and producing director of Working Group Theatre, a documentary and educational theater company based in the Midwest.

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993 and enjoyed successful runs in both Los Angeles and New York.

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