Theater archives

Paris Styles


I like to look at it.” That was Gertrude Stein’s reply, when asked what was so important about modern painting, and it’s my first response to Gertrude and Alice, the Foundry Theatre’s production of the piece Lola Pashalinski and her life-partner Linda Chapman have made from the lives of that other long-term female couple who loom over the whole history of 20th-century art, their influence greater now than ever. As if to underscore the point, Anne Bogart’s production eschews, delightfully, all the obvious 1920s visual icons. Instead of a literal 27, rue de Fleurus, its walls jammed with the Cubist canvases everyone knows by heart, set designer Myung Hee Cho puts Stein and Toklas in a light-toned, airy space where Mimi Jordan Sherin’s sunlight floods onto overlapping monochrome rectangles, interrupted by unex-
pected alcoves and playful patches of op-art design. The atmosphere suggests a safe haven, a restful room at the far end of the century’s consciousness, where strife-torn modernism can finally catch its breath.

A safe haven is precisely what Stein and Toklas created for each other, in both their living quarters and their relationship itself. While never isolated from what was going on in the outside world, they were enabled by their pairing to be selective in their responses to it. Gertrude’s position as an artist enhanced Alice’s status; Alice’s critical sense, homemaking abilities, and guard-dog instincts gave Gertrude both the freedom for quiet contemplation and guidelines that shaped the results. The two women’s inherited incomes were enough when combined to sustain a highly comfortable material life. And, of course, there was love, with its attendant erotic pleasures and its wildly fluctuating emotions— making, for Gertrude, matter as much worth scrutinizing as any the outside world could provide, and, for Alice, an adventure conceivably even greater than meeting Alfred North Whitehead or having Picasso draw her needlepoint patterns.

The trajectory of this inner world, from the couple’s first meeting to the triumphant end of the American lecture tour, is what Chapman and Pashalinski have mapped, in a script that partly compiles Stein’s own words, and partly smoothes them into a new event by a complex blend of editorial compression, clarification, and additions in a matching (but not identical) style. Easy to take and pretty continuously charming, this approach gives you frequent biographical handholds and resting places on the mysterious mountain of Stein’s work, while offering constant glimpses of the glow that emanates from the treasures within. The overall effect is like an “inner” double biography approximating the shape of a Stein play, rather than a literal one masquerading as a conventional drama.

Not that there weren’t dramas aplenty between the two women: over daily living patterns, over friends, over Gertrude’s works, and most often over love affairs past or potentially in the future. (In at least one major text, Stanzas in Meditation, Alice made Gertrude change the word may to can throughout, on learning that Gertrude had kept the letters of her early lover May Bookstaver.) And there were the intertwining cycles of Gertrude’s two sources of despair: the failure of her works to reach a wider public and the terrifying anomie of modern life. After she finally became a bestseller— by writing a book in Alice’s voice rather than her own— the combination of her sudden celebrity with the worsening state of the 1930s world actually blocked her creative output for some time.

Like many other aspects of their exterior life, the second source of Gertrude’s writing block isn’t mentioned in Gertrude and Alice. You’d never know from this evening in the theater that the couple lived through two European wars, aiding and befriending thousands of GIs, or that their Paris circle was riven with quarrels after Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Yet events and people, however fascinating (especially when Stein condescends to describe them), aren’t the essence of either her art or her pairing with Alice. The inner, spiritual essence of life, in its continuing present state, was what she always pursued. Her writing never slides into the simple monotony of trance because other levels of consciousness always intervene; every so often, abruptly, external objects make a surprise entrance. In the Chapman-Pashalinski version, the two women’s marital dynamic replaces Stein’s scrutiny of her inner being; factoids and blips of quotation from others replace the three-
dimensional objects she contemplated. The show draws most heavily on works in which Stein studied Alice (“Ada,” sometimes spelled to sound like “aid her”) or the reality of marriage
itself, like “As a Wife Has a Cow a Love Story.” (“Cow” was Stein’s word for the female sexual organ— among other reasons, because in her handwriting it resembled the French word con.)

Bogart’s staging sets the coauthors gliding through a visual equivalent of the text’s shape, all carefully choreographed repetitions and running gags. Mysterious objects in the set’s eerily lit alcoves turn out to be hats and handbags. As Gertrude reads at a podium, Alice embroiders in a wing chair, constantly striking matches (to light cigarettes) that Gertrude as constantly blows out. At various times, alter-
nately or together, they lounge or sulk on a striped loveseat. Darron L. West’s soundscore keeps up a running commentary on the event, shifting between music of the era (the original cast
album of Four Saints, Gershwin playing “Sweet and Low-Down”) and
music evoked by the shifting emo-
tional temperature. This kind of movie scoring, irksome in a conventional play, here seems as reasonable as the center line on the highway.

Not nearly as reasonable, though, as casting Lola Pashalinski to play Gertrude Stein— the best work I’ve ever seen her do (and I’ve been watching since the original production of Ludlam’s Bluebeard), as well as the easiest-flowing and happiest. There seems to be no distance, in any respect, between her and the character— no struggle to look or sound like Stein, never a lack of clarity or authority in her handling of the language, and always a depth of feeling to match the surface lucidity. Striving to compete with her majestic ease, Chapman is understandably tempted to overstate and strain from time to time; when not doing so, she catches, endearingly, Alice’s contradictory persona, caustic and tender. Probably Alice herself felt a similar need to fight Gertrude for attention now and then. “Dear life,” Gertrude wrote, “life is strife.” Fresh and affectionate, Gertrude and Alice brings the strife to life with unexpected sweetness and elegance, making modernism seem, not over, but vividly classical.

A very different Paris life is the focus of Jean-Claude Carrière’s comedy, La Terrasse. A couple abruptly breaking up finds its apartment, just as abruptly, invaded by eccentrics in search of a better living space. Carrière tries, unsuccessfully but not uninterestingly, to weave two different types of comedy out of this material: a standard farce about the invaders using the apartment for all kinds of shady business, not excluding murder and suicide attempts via the offstage terrace; and a post-Absurdist philosophic comedy about the emptiness of life at the end of the modernist era. Like two people trying to live in a very small space, the two notions keep getting in each other’s way, and neither is new enough to strike many sparks. Mike Ockrent’s staging, though, coaxes a fair batch of laughs from the oddly mixed elements, helped by Santo Loquasto’s puckishly angled set and several very funny performances, especially Tom Aldredge as an almost blind general and Bruce Norris as a rich loon who compulsively proposes to unavailable women. And the only objection to Mark O’Donnell’s smooth, speakable translation is that it fails to tamper sufficiently with the original. Loyalty to the author should normally be the translator’s first rule, but if there was ever a play that needed its long speeches curbed, its data clarified, and a lot of extra gags to soup it up, La Terrasse is it.