The Blood Will Out in A Picasso at Stages

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Photo by Bruce Bennett

Actor James Belcher was on stage the other day starring in A Picasso at Stages Repertory Theatre when he cut a finger on a metal door and couldn't stop the bleeding.

"A big blood drop is coming and dripping off the end of my finger ... The rest of the show I was worried that somebody would get spattered with blood. I was so preoccupied the whole rest of the show. I was keeping hand in my pocket, trying to stop the blood. It's always the weird thing. Should I stop the show? Excuse me everybody. I really cut myself... You just go on and do it," he tells Hair Balls.

Belcher is a well-known member of the Alley Theatre company of players. He's been there off and on for 22 seasons. This year, he had January and February off for vacation, but got an e-mail asking him if he'd be interested in this Jeffrey Hatcher script at Stages. (Meanwhile over at the Alley on the smaller Arena stage, James Black is starring with Josie De Guzman in another two-person Hatcher play, Mrs. Mannerly .)

"As soon as I heard the title. This is an opportunity. When I read it and realized it was a two-person play, I thought here's another opportunity to keep your chops, to keep your acting chops going. There's nothing more challenging than an hour and a half on stage with just another person (actress Carolyn Johnson)."

Belcher had done the Hatcher play Three Viewings at Stages many years ago and said he feels comfortable with his writing. He was careful in his portrayal of the mercurial and not-always-nice Picasso, that he didn't do an impersonation of the famous artist who worked in so many different mediums.

"I think a man like that must have been difficult to get along with for all of those sociological reasons of his upbringing, things that happened to him tragically when he was young. You find a way to live, he found a way to enjoy life. I think I touch it by performing this role. I'm sure that a lot of people who look back on him, look back on him with a wry smile."

As the play makes clear, Picasso was juggling a lot of women in his life, all at the same time. "Look at the women in his life, what they had to put up with. They would say he would yell at them.. He would yell at them and berate them and be horrible to them and the next day he would have made these wonderful earrings and present them as a demonstration of his undying love for them," said Belcher, who immersed himself in research for the role, using both books and videos that were done during Picasso's life.

The Spaniard was living in France in 1941 and had been brought in frequently for interrogations by the Germans. In the play, his new interrogator is a Miss Fischer who is trying to get him to authenticate some of his drawings and paintings.

In the play, Belcher as Picasso comes across as much bulkier than he is in real life. Some of it is clothing, but much of it comes from the way he strides about the room. "There's a lot of footage of him walking," Belcher said. "You look at that and you feel there's a quality that he looks like he feels connected to the earth. So you stand with a wider stance."

Perhaps most surprising is that Belcher actually draws Picasso-like pictures during the play. "I love drawing. Very early on in rehearsal I said I'm not ignorant to the idea of drawing." He said his drawings are different every night depending on whether he focuses on his partner's eyes, lips or other parts of her body.

"I watched several movies of him painting. They were done in the '60s and '70s. There's a very unique way they were shot. It was with a window. He sat on one side and the camera was on the other side staring at him. And he was just in shorts, no shirt, no shoes and he would paint onto the glass. You saw the way he held a brush. It was very moving to watch the physicalness of his painting and to watch his eyes as he watched him do a line. It was as if there was a story he was telling with his body."

Belcher believes the play is really about Miss Fischer. "She's struggling with her life. She's a German forced to get a Picasso painting. Picasso moves her so much but she has to get a Picasso to burn it to keep her family alive. She has to make that ultimate decision in the end. Once this play ends, what's going to happen?"

He also wants theatergoers to know that this is more than just a play about Germans, Nazis, Picasso and art. "We forget the attraction, the flirting and the love and a bit of romance. I would not want audiences to think of it as a history lesson. What Caroline and I share whenever we perform it are those moments when we're flirting with each other, It's probably a layer that makes it accessible to people. There's romance at the end. In the catacombs of France in 1941 between Picasso and his interrogator there was romance. That's pretty good."

A Picasso is at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway at Waugh Drive through February 21. The play is performed without an intermission on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.. Tickets can be obtained at 713.527.0123 or at www.stagestheatre.com.

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