by Lynn on March 20, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Anna Chaterton and Evalyn Parry in collaboration with Karin Randoja
Directed by Karin Randoja
Set and Projections by Trevor Schwellnus
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Costumes by Ming Wong
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Cast: Anna Chatterton
Evalyn Parry

NOTE: Because there were several openings on the same day last week it’s taken me to now to catch up with this wonderful show.

A love letter to the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in a subtle, elegant deeply felt production.

The Story. Gertrude Stein was an American writer, intellectual, art collector and salon organizer who lived in Paris for most of her adult life. She moved to Paris to first live with her brother, Leo, in 1903.

Alice B. Toklas trained as a classical pianist, but had to stop her career to take care of her mother. She meets Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1907 and moves in with Gertrude and her brother. Gertrude and Alice were together for 39 years.

The play follows their relationship—Gertrude always refers to Alice as her ‘secretary’ but of course she was much more. They were true partners. Alice was Gertrude’s protector; perhaps muse; the person who remembered the details of their relationship better than Gertrude; who was the guardian of every thing Gertrude wrote and ensured that it was published after Gertrude passed away in 1946. Alice learned how to type in order to properly record Gertrude’s writing; Alice seemed to be the only one who could read Gertrude’s handwriting.

The story of this couple is also the story of the heady art and literary world of Paris in the first part of the twentieth century. They knew everybody and everybody knew them. They collected the paintings of Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse, to name only four of the many; they knew and had a falling out with Hemingway; and on and on. Their apartment on a Saturday night in Paris was a Mecca for the literary/art world. Their salons were legendary.

Most important is the writing of Gertrude Stein. Initially it seems repetitious, elusive, confounding, silly, obtuse, mysterious. Gertrude says that her writing isn’t repetitious. It’s insistent. And when necessary, she could write a straightforward book such as “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” and make a lot of money so the couple could live comfortably.

The Production. The always inventive Trevor Schwellnus designed the set. Fabric is used to suggest the three walls of the Paris apartment. There is a lectern stage right and a chair stage left with a small table. Projections of the many paintings that hung in the apartment are flashed on the walls. Gertrude’s family takes matters into their own hands after Gertrude’s death, and break into the apartment and steal the paintings. One by one the projection of a painting disappears to create that huge sense of loss. Alice always refers to those paintings as ‘their children’ which explains why it was so hard for her to sell any of them even when they needed money badly.

There is an elegance and quiet majesty to director Karin Randoja’s production. The central ‘wall’ of the set rolls up and Gertrude and Alice enter, Gertrude is in front, Alice behind her a few steps. They walk down stage in a shaft of light, grand music playing. Gertrude strides confidently; Alice takes smaller, quicker steps to keep up. She appears reverential behind Gertrude.

Gertrude (Evalyn Parry) wears a crisp, white blouse,a vest, a brooch, a billowing, long skirt, socks and sandals. Her hair is cropped very short. She smiles a benign smile. When she speaks it’s with a low purr of an almost monotone voice. She makes us listen rather than makes us hear her—big difference.

Alice (Anna Chatterton) wears a floral satiny dress, smart shoes, and carries a black handbag. (Kudos to costumes designer Ming Wong.) Her hair is dark and wavy. She has a squunched face, as if in a grimace, and just the merest hint of a moustache. When she speaks the voice is sharp-edged, the words enunciated to a crispness. The ‘s’ is dramatic and full of saliva, but not spit.

The wonderful Independent Aunties—composed of Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry in collaboration with Karin Randoja—know a thing or two about humour, irony and satire and putting it all together to create a show with laughs and substance. In addition to their own writing for the show, they liberally use the writings of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to produce a seamless text.

They start off by putting it all in context. Gertrude tells us with a smile that she is one of the best minds and literary giants of the twentieth century. She waits for us to agree. We are a shy group and hesitate. She then is confident that we have read all of her writing. She waits for a show of hands. Nothing. Undeterred she forges ahead and asks for a show of hands of those who have read three of her books. An expectant smiling look. Nothing. Quietly Alice looks at us and forms a 0 with her index finger and thumb. That gets a knowing laugh.

Gertrude quotes her famous “rose” line. (“rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”). We know that one. There are other references and Gertrude recites circuitous poems, the meaning of which make perfect sense to her and seem mysterious to us. As the production goes on and we are privy to Gertrude’s thinking the meaning of her musings becomes less and less mysterious. Even clearer. “The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.” Sounds pretty good to me.

They finish each other’s sentences. Alice quietly corrects Gertrude when she miss-remembers a fact. If Alice has to ask Gertrude anything she approaches her quietly. Invariably Gertrude shoos her away saying that she is ‘doing nothing,’ the implication is that it takes tremendous concentration and focus to do nothing. Gertrude continues her pose—sitting bent over, legs spread (covered by her long skirt) one leg bent forward, the other bent back, one bent arm on the front of the bent forward leg, her other hand on the crease of the hip and thigh, peering into the distance.

While Alice takes the ‘secondary’ roll, she and Gertrude are equals in life. When they go off at the end, they are side by side.

Karin Randoja directs with attention to detail, wit and subtlety.

Comment. Gertrude and Alice is a gem of a show. It shows the human side of Gertrude Stein, an icon of the avant garde; a woman whose reputation for writing seemingly impenetrable poems, books and essays, has preceded her. It explores her thinking, ideas and attitudes and puts them in context. Here was a woman who was outside the norm, an outlaw, but famous for her salons celebrating art and artists of every stripe.

Alice B. Toklas is also celebrated here as an equal partner; a person who never minds being called “a secretary’ because she knows she was more. Gertrude and Alice illuminates a relationship of two women, mavericks in their own way, devoted to creating and protecting art, be it literary, poetic, visual or any combination. The show is a celebration of a relationship that lasted, mainly happily, for 39 years.

Most importantly, Gertrude and Alice makes you curious to know more about them. I would think that if Gertrude asked the audience at the end of the show if they were curious and wanted to learn more about the two of them, every hand would have shot up. Good theatre does that.

Presented by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Independent Auntie Productions.

First performance: March 5, 2016.
I saw it: March 18, 2016.
Closes: March 27, 2016.
Cast: two gifted women.
Running Time: 75 mintes.

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