Art History

Visual art, and modern visual art in particular, inspires the viewer to pull it apart, study it, and find out what makes it tick. Artists' signatures and titles are not enough information for the curious; one is compelled to know what the creator was using as a model, and why this model (a person, a landscape, a bowl of fruit) was considered worth capturing in time. Sometimes people use their imagination to fill in the historical blanks, as was the case with art lover Ron Hirsen. He turned an interest in Pablo Picasso's etching "The Frugal Repast" into a fact-and-fiction-mixing script for a show of the same name, now being produced by Abingdon Theater Company. But this work of art bears little resemblance to its namesake—it is more of a rough outline with scant shading.

In Paris in 1913, in the gallery of dealer Ambroise Vollard, the wealthy and creative sit down to a chicken curry dinner. Among them are the aforementioned host, American writer Gertrude Stein, her companion (and future writer) Alice B. Toklas, and the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. They discuss the Cubist movement and make other high-minded small talk until Picasso and his muse du jour crash the scene.

Though Picasso has not yet evolved into the genius that he will become, he is clearly the brightest star in this particular constellation. He complains about a woman following him, which is laughed off by those at the party. (His artistic reputation may not yet be well known, but his reputation as a womanizer is already legendary.)

Across the street, that woman joins a sad little man in a bowler hat. They are tightrope walkers ("aerialists" is the preferred term in the play) who are oppressed by their boss, poverty, and the illness that's threatening to take their young son's life. These characters remain nameless, referring to each other and their boy by affectionate gastronomical aliases. Their almost expressionless faces and nondescript clothing cement their existence as archetypes of the poor.

But the only things that belong to them—their faces—have been stolen by Picasso and turned into an etching that sits in Vollard's window. The couple decides to steal the picture and demand a ransom so they can take "the little dumpling" to the doctor. When the fortunate meet the less fortunate, they bond over their art but clash over their differing views on art.

There are questions raised about the commoditization of art and how to establish its value. The use of a realistic tone for Picasso's crowd, in contrast to the circus music and clownish movement for the couple, adds another layer: that of the disparity between the tenor of these people's lives and what happens to them. (The solemn artists wallow in frivolity, and the frivolous circus performers wallow in solemnity.)

The performers themselves all meet the requirements of the roles, but the flashier characters of Picasso (Roberto DeFelice) and his mistresses (all played by Kathleen McElfresh) allow those actors a chance to stand out. DeFelice makes a temperamental, sensual Picasso, and McElfresh exuberantly tries on many accents and identities as the comic relief.

The problem is with Hirsen's script, which is more concerned with wink-wink references to the historical figures' lives and endless nicknames for the man and woman than with having a meaningful conversation. This playfulness would be O.K. if the show didn't have the loftier goal of trying to make a statement about art.

Sometimes a play is just a play, and sometimes, to echo Gertrude Stein, "a play is a play is a play is a play." In this case, a play is not the play it wants to be. Perhaps if The Frugal Repast understood itself better and was less worried about understanding art better, the play would be content to be what it is—a frothy, "what-if" exercise played by a patron in an art gallery.

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