Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A long look at Gertrude Stein

Ack! It's catch-up time, review-wise; how have I managed to let five shows and concerts pile up behind me without comment? Plus I'm afraid I have to begin with another post-mortem, this time for Look and Long, a "Gertrude Stein miscellany" from the highly imaginative Imaginary Beasts. The Beasts, under the direction of Matthew Woods, have developed a small cult for their particular brand of intelligent whimsy, and Look and Long did not disappoint the group's fans: it was quirkily diverting throughout, and given its source in the famously opaque writings of Stein, this was no small feat.

Although the particular chapter of Stein's oeuvre that the Beasts performed, Gertrude Stein's First Reader, was, believe it or not, designed for child's play. The First Reader (ironically enough, among the last of her written works) sprang from Stein's realization that she had long been toying with the basics of language and meaning in the way a young child might. Thus the "plays" of the Reader take the form of literal "play" - personae morph at the will of infantile desires; elementary fairy tales take loose form, then vanish, only to re-appear in what feels like an ongoing dream; half-absorbed dramatic forms turn into innocent parodies of themselves; and very large, unanswered questions about meaning often float just beneath the surface of the babbling text.

Fittingly, the Beasts were clothed (mostly) in nighties and pajamas, and cavorted on a set made of blackboards, on which primer-like words and phrases had been scribbled (a door built into one allowed them to emerge at times directly out of Stein's language, a nice touch). As usual, Woods and his actors consistently charmed, and the evening never lost energy or focus - still, like the Beasts's Lewis Carroll evening last summer, Look and Long felt like more of an introduction to the Beasts' usual style than to the precise meaning of Stein. That two shows from such dissimilar authors (Carroll follows language into paradox, while Stein bangs away at its building blocks) should feel so similar to each other in mood and effect indicates to me that the Beasts sometimes cuten up, rather than listen carefully to, their sources.

Still, isn't it refreshing to have anyone at all risking a show based on Gertrude Stein? And it was equally exciting to be introduced to so many new actors, none of whom I think I've seen before. The stand-outs in terms of presence and technique were James Patrick Nelson and Aimee Rose Ranger, but there was poised, effective work from Veronica Barron, Theo Goodell, and Kiki Samko - essentially the entire ensemble. Their energy and inspiration made it easy to look long at Look and Long.

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