“If you are playing a historic figure, you’ve got to do your homework,” says Riley Berris, who is currently directing Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a comedy by Steve Martin about painter Pablo Picasso, as well as a young scientist by the name of Al Einstein. It’s a debut for Berris, who now commands the theater program at San Marcos High, a school that has been home to some of the area’s most influential performing arts educators, including David Holmes and Marjorie Luke.
Berris has clearly done her homework before stepping into her own historic role. She assistant taught with Holmes last year (as Holmes did before her with Luke), and she has blue-chip academic credentials in acting from Loyola Marymount University and in education from UCSB.
But Berris also has something else going for her that’s only obtainable once: the ambition and energy of someone in his or her first real teaching job. Watching as she rehearsed the Picasso cast last week, it seemed that the contrast between her bright yellow Lakers T-shirt and her brown tortoise-shell horn-rim glasses came closest to capturing the blend of fresh enthusiasm with seriousness of purpose.
“I read lots over the summer in preparation,” she told me, “and I noticed that most of the plays I had done in college were not going to work here because the casts were too small. A play with fewer than 10 roles was not going to be as good a show for a high school, so what I began looking for was something with closer to 15 real parts. And that’s when I found this show, which has 11 — just enough.”
Steve Martin’s clever script combines the comedian’s well-known gifts for surreal slapstick and snappy absurdist comebacks with a thoughtful take on what two young geniuses might have talked and thought about if they had met in a rowdy French café in October of 1904. At the time, Picasso was looking at a lot of African masks and beginning work on his cubist masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Einstein was busy coming up with his “special theory of relativity,” which he would publish in 1905. Needless to say, in Martin’s imagination, and with the help of a little wine and an audience of admiring women, the two men find they have a lot to talk about.
The play’s portrayal of Picasso’s womanizing and simulated alcohol consumption both raised concerns among high school administrators and parents in La Grande, Oregon, back in 2009, but Martin quickly came to the defense of the students’ and his own artistic freedom, saying his play about “people drinking in bars and treating women as sex objects” is similar to saying that Hamlet is “about a castle.” In any event, there’s no indication that anyone will be bothered by this delightful and intellectually stimulating show when this production goes up at San Marcos High School (4750 Hollister Ave.), Thursday-Saturday, November 13-15. Curtain is at 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the door. Call (805) 967-4581 x5568 or visit shopsmroyals.org to reserve tickets.