Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What the Critics Had to Say about Gertrude Stein and a Companion


To Do Productions is currently presenting a play at the Marigny Theater written by Win Wells about the life of Gertrude Stein (3/3/1874-7/27/1946), the famous Jewish American writer who left America circa 1903 to spend most of her life in France. After meeting Alice B. Toklas in 1907, these two women spent the rest of their lives together holding a salon in Paris that attracted most of the avant garde artists and writers of their era such as Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald , Cezanne and Renoir and which have since become considered among the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

The play as done by To Do Productions is a simple no frills gentle interpretation of a woman and her companion who were not only important catalysts of the au courant art and literary scene of the twentieth century but have also become, next to Sappho, one of the world’s most renown lesbians and positive examples of the lesbian community as a literary icon.

Probably one of the world’s most famous portraits is the one of Ms. Stein done by Picasso which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Although Director Glenn Meche has cast his characters in the style of “a happy home life of gentle love and understanding,” Picasso’s portrait implies a woman who sits before one like the Rock of Gibralter.

One wonders if the playwright’s vision was a 'family version' of an otherwise stronger, smarter, less effeminate character.

There was too much Walt Disney and not enough real womyn in Gertrude Stein’s character in Director Meche’s interpretation, although Karen Shields gives us a fully realized and almost too lovable character in her delicate and well polished version of Mr. Meche’s direction. She was very credible but a little too “housewifely” for my taste. I guess what I felt was needed was a dose or two of testosterone.

Lisa Davis, that vivacious, veritable vixen of volatile stage characters was more acceptable as Ms. Stein’s take-charge lover/companion Alice B. Toklas. To paraphrase a comment of Ms. Stein from the play, “without Alice nothing would have been possible.” Alice was a cook (remember
the brownies with hash) from her famous cookbook, among other fine recipes. Toklas was also a take charge woman with a fine business sense, wit, intelligence, and charm, according to all records. Ms. Davis gives her all of those qualities bringing a real life Alice to the stage and the chemistry between her and Ms. Shields is excellent.

Timm Holt did a fine job with the lighting and Wesley Coder’s set decoration was stunning. As the curtain opens, one is suddenly exalted by a kaleidoscope of the brilliant colors of some of the
paintings Ms. Stein owned. They are lit (upstage rear) behind a curtain of scrim which makes them so vivid that the symbol of all they imply creatively for and all that Ms. Stein encouraged from their creators comes together in an epiphany of amazement and joy and beauty. The play,
Gertrude Stein and a Companion may not be an epiphany, but it is a quiet and pleasant joy offering a very lovely evening in the theater.

- Patrick Shannon, Ambush Magazine, 07/01/2008


Gertrude and Alice, together again at Marigny Theatre

As the poet herself might have put it, "A play is a play is a play is a play." Or, in the case of "Gertrude Stein and a Companion" at Marigny Theatre: "Miss Stein upon the stage; engage."

It's not hard to do with Win Wells' entertaining portrait of one of the most successful gay unions of the 20th century, that of avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/muse/secretary/enabler of almost 40 years, Alice B. Toklas, of the famous hashish brownies.

The title comes from Ernest Hemingway, who liked Miss Stein quite a bit and Miss Toklas not at all, a feeling that was reciprocated. Later, the press found the phrase useful when the couple toured America after the publication of Stein's critical and commercial success, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" (Stein writing in Toklas' voice, somewhat revised by Toklas as she typed Stein's handwritten manuscript).

After all, no one back in the 1930s was going to describe them as lovers or the world's best-known lesbian couple. They were two curious American women -- one stout and mannish, one small with a furry mustache -- who lived together in Paris, had a fabled collection of Impressionist art and a salon visited by the greats of art and literature as well as American soldiers from two World Wars.

But as accessible as "The Autobiography" was, Stein preferred her experimental "word portraits" in largely impenetrable prose, mocked by the likes of James Thurber. In his play, Wells quotes both women verbatim and deftly approximates Stein's free-verse style. He never cuts too close to the bone, much less approaches prurience in depicting their relationship.

The result, while best enjoyed by audiences with some knowledge of the couple, also serves as a primer, "My First Little Golden Book of Gertrude Stein," intriguing enough to make you want to know more. It name-drops and trots out familiar stories, such as the one about Picasso's portrait of Stein, who protested, "It doesn't look like me," and his response, "It will! It will!"

The play begins with Stein's death in 1946 and hopscotches, in appropriately nonlinear form, through the two women's lives. "Dead is dead," Stein tells us. "But dead is not done. Not over."

Stein is played in warm, solid, convincing style by Karen Shields, an excellent actress who ably embodies Stein's conception of herself as a helpless genius: she who must be served.

The deliciously quirky Lisa Davis makes a prickly Toklas, an opinionated partner devoted to, yet often dominating her more formidable mate, who acquiesces to her will, since in practical matters, Stein is helpless without her. There is a glancing physical verisimilitude between Shields and Stein, while Davis is a glamour girl compared to the actual Toklas. Yet there is acting alchemy to the way Davis fluidly assumes and sheds decades with a black shawl.

Much of the play puts an amusing gloss on their lives that brooks no suggestion of emotional disruption, such as the angry argument between the two reported by Hemingway in his "A Moveable Feast," but then, both paint him as an unreliable narrator.

Wells depicts two remarkable women determined to follow their own paths, and when they converged, something splendid happened.

Toklas outlived Stein by 21 years, publishing her two anecdotal cookbooks and -- like many a survivor of a gay partnership -- being treated shamefully by Stein's family, evicted from their home and dying blind and broke at 89.

Director Glenn Meche's stylish, assured production is properly spare, the staged bracketed with a modest table and chair for Toklas, a grander one for Stein. The background is composed of paintings from their collection, the Picasso portrait stage center, all behind a scrim curtain, lit so the paintings can be highlighted when mentioned or vanish altogether.

Together with Paul Rudnick's "Valhalla," "Gertrude Stein and a Companion" is the most sophisticated, successful staging the Marigny Theatre and To-Do Productions have given us, reinforcing the importance of careful casting and attention to detail.

- David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune, 07/04/2008


Modernist Women

Modernist paintings dominate Wesley Coder's set: the simply arranged living room of the home Stein and Toklas share. Visually, we can see where Stein is getting her cues, because her collection of paintings line the walls. At the center is the portrait of Stein done by Picasso.

All of the play takes place in this room, and it tells the story of these two women in relation to one another. Nonetheless, Gerturde Stein feels intimate rather than claustrophobic. Under Glenn Meche's direction, Karen Shields (Stein) and Lisa Davis (Toklas) give us two strong-willed though very different individuals who are drawn to one another like the opposite poles of magnets. The play shifts backward and forward through their lives so that it gains variety in time. ...

To Do Productions' Gertrude Stein and a Companion entertains and fascinates. It's well worth the look at the private life behind the legendary writer.

- Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly, 07/15/2008

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