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In Picasso's Closet, this phantom called Balzac asks Picasso, "Don't you want to be who you were at the beginning? With nobody between you and the terror?"

Ariel Dorfman discusses his play about Pablo Picasso 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Ariel Dorfman, author of "Picasso's Closet," at Duke University - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Picasso's Closet staged readings
Nasher Museum of Art
Oct. 29-31, Nov. 15

Playwright Ariel Dorfman views the years Pablo Picasso spent behind enemy lines—in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France—from the perspective of an artist with firsthand knowledge of life under another brutal regime—in Chile under Pinochet.

Dorfman's play Picasso's Closet not only asks what the artist was forced to hide during the war years. In posing the question, "What would have happened had Picasso been killed in Paris?" Dorfman's controversial play inevitably asks if a crucial part of him didn't die as a result of his experiences during that period.

After a 2006 premiere in Washington, D.C., Dorfman revised the script for a proposed West End run last year. Beginning later this month, Jay O'Berski, artistic director for Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, produces a staged reading of the work at the Nasher Museum of Art.

Excerpts from our interview last week with the playwright appear below; a more complete version of the conversation appears on Artery, the Indy's arts blog.

INDEPENDENT: This must be a difficult script to produce.

DORFMAN: Let's say I've tried to do, modestly, in theater with time what Picasso does with space—which is to create many perspectives and break down the barriers of identity.

As different characters place their viewpoints one after another, there are these interstitial planes of reality coming at each other ...

Most biopics, say, tend to be rather linear. Or at least they go back and forth—childhood to adulthood to childhood to adulthood—

—the narrative of ping-pong—

—and they're very predictable in that sense. I said to myself, "How can I possibly write a play about Picasso as if Picasso's art had never existed" ... It's a post-Picasso play, whereas most plays about Picasso I've seen—most plays about artists I've seen—tend to act as if the artist had not influenced them at all.

It's not quite a cubist play, exactly.

But it is an attempt to do what he did in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: to bring together all these figures, and they're all disfigured, and you don't know who ... In other words, reality is jagged. It's like a mirror that's been broken and recomposed, and some pieces will always be missing. To give the audience that experience should be eminently pleasurable in a time such as ours. If it isn't, it's their fault, not mine, to put it provocatively. [laughter]

Artists do impose limitations on themselves; they say, "This work will be a villanelle, that one in terza rima." Are you making the point that exile in Paris was a self-imposed artistic limitation Picasso placed on himself?

Absolutely. I think he only understood it later. Which means the second question would be, "What does it end up being for him?" ... At that point, Picasso was already the most famous artist in the world. Fame can be a terrific burden ... It can also be the wrong mirror. You can end up fueling that fame instead of fueling the art.

Or you can be so cowed by fame that the voice evaporates.

Or you just repeat the voice. When you go into an existential terror ... you can either fall back on what is known and repeat it or you can go forward and do something different. In the play, this phantom called Balzac asks him, "Don't you want to be who you were at the beginning? With nobody between you and the terror?" For what is art except a wager against death? You put your art between yourself and death. Put that in that perspective, in a sense he was going back into that terror. It was a limitation, but it also could be very creative and fertile.

Picasso's Closet will be performed in staged readings Oct. 29-31 and Nov. 15 at the Nasher Museum of Art. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased through Duke Box Office at 684-4444 or online at tickets.duke.edu.

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