November 9 – December 16, 2001
Based upon writings of Gertrude Stein
Directed by Frédérique Michel
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe, Jr.
Cast: Ford Austin, Maureen Byrnes, David E. Frank, Katarina Lejona, Jed Low, Irene Casarez, Kathryn Sheer
Los Angeles Times
November 16, 2001Review by Philip Brandes
Flamboyant though she may have been in life, 20th century arts icon Gertrude Stein is not the first author to whose writings one would typically turn for theatrical inspiration. Famous for her flowery tautology (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”) and other circular, often ponderous conundrums, the fiercely anarchic Stein trod a different path even in her plays, relying on cerebral deconstructions of language rather than the traditional dramatists’ toolkit to render human experience on the stage.
The challenge of impenetrability hasn’t intimidated Aresis Ensemble’s Frederique Michel from tackling “The Gertrude Stein Project” at Santa Monica’s City Garage. Honoring what she calls Stein’s “Cubist” approach to theater, Michel has assembled passages from Stein’s writings into a fragmented, kaleidoscopic presentation.
The concept could easily succumb to heavy-handed treatment, but Michel opts for a light, whimsical approach to her staging that makes the piece more fun and lively than it sounds on paper. Deep philosophical musings alternate with puns and even recipes from the cookbook of Stein’s lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas. Part recitation, part performance, this esoteric pastiche is framed with the company’s usual stylistic flair, juxtaposing heady conceptual dialogue with erotic imagery.
“Plays are either read or seen or heard” goes one of the self-evident truths invoked for more detailed contemplation as a defiantly nude woman (Katharina Lejona) strolls across the stage. Later, she dons a mink coat as she and the other characters (who are really little more than presences) explore the psychosexual associations with the word “fur.” Think Helmut Newton meets Webster.
Lejona’s onstage companions include Kathryn Sheer as a comely ballerina with whom she suggestively mirrors Stein’s lesbian relationship with Toklas, Jed Low as a bald aristocrat, Maureen Byrnes as a chic cafe diner, and Ford Austin and David E. Frank as a pair of bowler-hatted gentlemen. Together, they grapple with the paradoxes inherent in statements such as “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. The emotional paragraphs are made up of unemotional sentences.” (This and other puzzlements are repeated several times, so you’ll have ample opportunity to consider them.)
Augmented with Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s customary evocative production design, this “Project” represents solid work from the company applied to material that doesn’t easily lend itself to the stage. Trying to follow anything like a linear narrative or character continuity is a recipe for frustration–you’ll have better luck following Toklas’ brownie recipe instead.