Art, ambition and obsession tear young Picasso and his best friend apart in the ‘blue period’
They were two young men aged 19 and 20, childhood friends. Artist friends, who came from Barcelona to experience the delirious whirlwind of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Together they lived in an attic in Montmartre, drinking large quantities of wine and absinthe, frequenting brothels, bars, cafes and opium dens. Too indulge in everything. Rub shoulders with prostitutes, painters, collectors and art dealers. Devoured by life, drunk with love. These 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… wasn’t.
Pablo Picasso, with her bravado, brash confidence and exuberance, seemed irresistible to everyone. His best friend, Carles Casagemas, with his volatility and morphine addiction, was on an emotional roller coaster, doomed for disaster.
Likewise, “Blue Period”, the new play by San Diegan Charles Borkhuis, born in New York, whose world premiere will take place in Performance hall on stage (after two years of workshop), is manic in the first act and depressive in the second. The title refers to the dark works produced by the Spanish painter in a long period of depression, between 1901 and 1904.
When Parisian model Germaine Gargallo poses for Picasso, she joins their “club” and they become an inseparable triumvirate.
Casagemas falls desperately, obsessively in love with her. But she is already married, although she admits, somewhat anachronistically, that it is an “open marriage”.
She wants to have fun; she wants to be a muse. She wants paintings of her hung in the homes of the wealthy, where she would never actually 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 companions, then lovers and, although not hinted at here, they became lifelong friends).
There’s a wild, youthful exuberance to it all at first. Borkhuis’ rapid dialogue crackles.
Picasso is on fire, his creativity inexhaustible. He is hired by the famous art dealer Pere Manyac, who sees his genius but finds him underdeveloped.
Casagemas can’t compete – artistically or romantically.
As “Blue Period” says, the three disparate men have more in common than art: they were all disappointments to their fathers.
At the end of 1900, the young men’s trip to Barcelona for Christmas proves fatal to their friendship.
On his return to Paris, Picasso becomes a different person and artist. Grief-stricken, he vows to go his own way, refusing to be “Manyac’s lapdog”. He paints only the outcasts of society: the broken, the lonely, the homeless, the hungry, the sick and the handicapped.
His “Blue Period” paintings were unsaleable at the time, but became some of his most popular works. He would, of course, continue to create prolifically, even lavishly, in many styles and mediums.
But in those heady early days in Paris, it was all fun, drink and clowning around, though Picasso’s closest friends and associates and sitters never really felt seen by him.
“You look right through me,” Casagemas says. “I’m starting to fade away.” As Germaine says, “You ignore everyone you don’t paint.”
Borhuis tries to cover a lot of territory, and he succeeds admirably most of the time, although Manyac’s character is underdrawn, perhaps because he is the underdog of this quartet, not a member of the “club”. . A bewigged Herbert Sigüenza gives him gravitas, but his character is not written as a compassionate or convincing figure – only a perceptive person.
We don’t learn much about Germaine either, but Claire Kaplan’s performance is so luminous, so seductive and teasing, in love with life and fiercely independent, that we fall in love with her just like men. She becomes the catalyst, the explainer, which provides insight into what seems to have been on Casagemas’ mind (and heart). But his contagious joie de vivre turns, in Casagemas fashion, into a desperate, clingy obsession – with Picasso.
As befits this provocative story, it’s the relationship of the two young men that takes center stage – and Javier Guerrero (as Picasso) and Jose Balistrieri (Casagemas) are both imposing and superb.
For Picasso, it is always about the 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 never stops 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 marvel.
His large black-rimmed eyes are burning, mad; his mania is palpable. At the start of Paris, it is antique, funny, in constant motion, clearly intimidated by Picasso’s talent and destroyed when his friend criticizes his own conscious attempts. He is devoured by Germaine, wanting her for herself, but anguished at not being able to play for or with her. He is a clown, a magician and a tragedy in his own right. It’s a masterful performance.
The three male cast members have previously worked together, expertly, in New Village Arts’ 2018 production of José Rivera’s magical “Cloud Tectonics.” Balistrieri and Guerrero played brothers (a woman intervened!), while Sigüenza made his directorial debut.
Now, with dexterity and vitality, James P. Darvas directs these four accomplished actors, keeping the pace of the firecracker fast and frenetic first act, slowing things down to a pessimistic mood in the second act. There’s only one weakness (aside from the flimsy line reminder in the preview performance): the surprisingly poor French pronunciations throughout.
The production and design work matches actor/director insight.
The set (Duane McGregor) captures the bohemian jumble and disheveled decadence of the apartment, and the desolation of the cemetery frequented by death-obsessed Casagemas. The lighting (Kevin “Blax” Burroughs) and the costumes (Sandra Ruíz) contribute powerfully to the atmosphere of the place and the time.
The most inventive projections (by Estefanía Ricalde, who also designed the sound, with video design by Salomón Maya), displayed on a framed canvas, vividly convey the vibrant landscape that unfolds as the two friends return to Spain by train. Next we see a wonderful range of paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period, in all their dark, abstract realism, ending in a moving flame (a phantom light), which remains until the end.
These images are beautifully complemented by an exhibition in the lobby of paintings from Sigüenza’s Blue Period, 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 fusion of theater and opera.
Borkhuis also offers an intriguing approach. This exceptional production highlights unforgettable personalities, remarkable events and intense emotions in Paris Belle Époque.
- “Blue Period” until August 7 at Performance hall on stage291 Third Avenue in Chula Vista
- Performances take place from Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Operating time: 2 hours. (including intermission).
- Tickets ($22-$25) are at 619-422-7787 or onstageplayhouse.org
- COVID protocol: Masks are mandatory 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. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.