Art, Ambition and Obsession Tear Apart Young Picasso and His Best Friend in ‘Blue Period’

Scene from
Jose Balistrieri (left) as Casagemas and Javier Guerrero as Picasso in “Blue Period” at OnStage Playhouse. Photo by Daren Scott

They were two young people, 19 and 20 years old, friends since childhood. Fellow artists, traveling from Barcelona to experience the delirious maelstrom of early 20th century Paris. Together, they lived in a Montmartre courtyard, drinking copious amounts of wine and absinthe, frequenting bordellos, bars, cafes and opium dens. Excessive in everything. Hobbing with prostitutes, painters, art collectors and dealers. High on life, drunk on love. Those few months in the City of Light would change the course of their lives.

One of them, a genius, was destined for glory. The other… it wasn’t.

Pablo Picasso, with his courage, bold confidence and cheerfulness, seemed irresistible to all. His sidekick, Carles Casagemas, with his instability and morphine addiction, was on an emotional rollercoaster, destined for disaster.

Similarly, “Blue Period,” the new play by New York-born San Diegan Charles Borkhuis, which makes its world premiere on On Stage Playhouse (after two years of workshop), he is manic in the first act and depressed in the second. The title refers to the gloomy works created by the Spanish painter during an extended period of depression, between 1901 and 1904.

When Parisian model Germaine Gargallo poses for Picasso, she joins their spinning “club” and they become an inseparable threesome.

Casagemas falls desperately, obsessively in love with her. But she is already married, although she admits, somewhat anachronistically, that it is an “open marriage”.

He wants to have fun. she wants to be a muse. She wants paintings of her to hang in the homes of the rich, where she would never be invited, but where she could watch the residents grow old and never grow old herself. Also, it becomes clear that she wants Picasso (they were partners, then lovers and, although it’s not intimate here, ended up as lifelong friends).

There is a wild, youthful exuberance to it all at first. Borkhuis’ rapid-fire dialogue crackles.

Picasso is on fire, his creativity inexhaustible. It has been taken over by the well-known art dealer Pere Manyac, who sees its brilliance but finds it underdeveloped.

The Casagemas cannot compete — artistically or romantically.

As “Blue Period” says, the three disparate men have something in common besides art: they were all disappointments to their fathers.

In the late 1900s, the young men’s trip home to Barcelona for Christmas proves fatal to their friendship.

Upon his return to Paris, Picasso becomes a different person and artist. Grief-stricken, he vows to go his own way, refusing to become “Manyac’s dog”. He paints only the outcasts of society: the broken, lonely, homeless, hungry, sick and disabled.

His ‘Blue Period’ paintings did not sell at the time, but became some of his most popular works. Of course, he would go on to create exuberant, if stilted, works in many styles and mediums.

But in those heady early days of Paris, it was all fun, booze and clowning, though Picasso’s closest friends, associates and models never really felt him see them.

“You look good at me,” says Casagemas. “I’m starting to fade.” As Germaine puts it, “you ignore everyone you don’t paint.”

Borhuis tries to cover a lot of ground and mostly does it admirably, although Manyac’s character is underplayed, perhaps because he’s the outsider in this quartet, not a member of the “club”. A bemused Herbert Sigüenza gives him gravitas, but his character isn’t written as a sympathetic or compelling figure—only an insightful one.

We don’t learn much about Germaine either, but Claire Kaplan’s performance is so bright, so seductive and teasing, animal-loving and fiercely independent, that we fall for her as much as the men. She becomes the catalyst, the explainer, giving insight into what seems to have been in Casagemas’s mind (and heart). But her infectious joie de vivre develops, in Casagemas fashion, into a desperate, clinging obsession — with Picasso.

As befits this challenging story, it’s the relationship between the two young men that takes center stage — and Javier Guerrero (as Picasso) and Jose Balistrieri (Cazagemas) are both commanding and wonderful.

For Picasso, it’s always about work. He sees everyone as a potential subject. No emotional ties bind him – until he loses his best friend and almost loses himself. But he doesn’t stop working. Guerrero captures his passion, his relentless drive, his ruthless ambition.

Balistrieri, who is about to start The Old Globe/USD MFA program, is a prodigy.

His wide, black eyes are flooded, mad. his fury is palpable. In his early days in Paris, he is ridiculous, funny, in constant motion, clearly intimidated by Picasso’s talent, and devastated when his friend criticizes his own conscious attempts. He is consumed by Germaine, wanting her for his own, but anguishing that he cannot play for or with her. He is a clown, an accomplished one, and a complete tragedian. It is a masterful performance.

The three male cast members have worked together, ably, before — in the 2018 New Village Arts production of José Rivera’s magical “Cloud Tectonics.” Balistrieri and Guerrero played brothers (a woman comes between them!), while Sigüenza made his directorial debut.

Now, with skill and liveliness, James P. Darvas directs these four perfect actors, keeping the pace of the first act fast and frenetic, slowing things down to an incredible mood in the second act. There’s only one weakness (besides the choppy line recall in the preview performance): the stunningly bad French pronunciations throughout.

The production and design work is matched by the acting/directing acumen.

The set (Duane McGregor) captures the bohemian clutter and slovenly decadence of the apartment, and the desolation of the cemetery frequented by the slain Casagemas. Lighting (Kevin “Blax” Burroughs) and costumes (Sandra Ruíz) contribute significantly to the sense of place and time.

Most inventive are the projections (by Estefanía Ricalde, who also designed the sound, with video design by Salomón Maya), displayed on framed canvas, impressively conveying the vivid landscape that passes as the two friends make their way home to Spain with the train. Then we see a wonderful series of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings, in all their strange, abstract realism, ending with a moving flame (a ghost), which lingers to the end.

Complementing these images nicely is a lobby display of Sigüenza’s Blue Period paintings, including a youthful version of Picasso’s iconic “The Old Guitarist” and a small, blue adaptation of the master’s magnum opus, “Guernica.”

This incendiary story begs to be told and retold. In 2013, UC San Diego premiered a play by Sharif Abu Hamdeh, whose “Casagemas” was a unique combination of theater and opera.

The Borkhuis also offers an interesting view. This extraordinary production sheds light on unforgettable personalities, remarkable events and intense emotions in Belle Époque Paris.

  • “Blue Period” runs until August 7 at On Stage Playhouse291 Third Avenue in Chula Vista
  • Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Performance duration: 2 hours. (including the break).
  • Tickets ($22-$25) are at 619-422-7787 or onstageplayhouse.org
  • COVID Protocol: Masks are required inside the theater

Pat Launer, member of the American Association of Theater Critics, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy-winning theater critic. You can find an archive of her previews and reviews at patlawner.com.

Art, Ambition and Obsession Tear Apart Young Picasso and His Best Friend in ‘Blue Period’ Source link Art, Ambition and Obsession Tear Apart Young Picasso and His Best Friend in ‘Blue Period’

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