by Lynn on September 23, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r: Evalyn Parry, Anna Chatterton
Photo: Tanja Tiziana


At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Conceived and created by The Independent Aunties (Anna Chatterton, Evalyn Parry and Karin Randoja)

Written and performed by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry

(with additional text by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Directed by Karin Randoja

Set by Sherri Hay

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Costumes by Ming Wong

Composed by Karin Randoja

Sound by Aleda Deroche

This welcome remount has Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry repeating their dazzling performances as Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein respectively. The set has been completely changed and while Sherri Hay’s design is provocative, I’m not sure it’s helpful in informing the play.

The Story. Gertrude Stein was an American writer, intellectual, art collector and salon organizer who lived in Paris for most of her adult life.  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. Gertrude and Alice were together for 39 years.  The play follows their relationship—Gertrude refers to Alice as her ‘secretary’ but of course she was much more. She also refers to her as “the Boss.” They were true partners.

 Gertrude wrote prodigiously and was frustrated when no one would publish her work. She (Gertrude) also thought she was the only woman genius of the 20th Century (hello Virginia Woolf?). 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.

They knew everybody and everybody knew them.  They collected the paintings of their friends: Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne  and Matisse, to name only four of the many. Mind-boggling.

The Production.  This is a remount of the March 2016 production that also played at Buddies. The set has been completely redesigned this time by artist Sherri Hay and bears no resemblance to the set by Trevor Schwellnus in March 2016.

This time the audience sits on either side of the long playing area.  Modern artsy objects of rods and knobs are either suspended from the ceiling or stand on the floor. They are powered by sand and gravity. Extreme right is a delicate stream of sand that is falling through a shaft of light to pile on the floor.  Alice pulls a plug on some of these rod-knob formations and sand begins to flow down and mound on the floor. The gravity of the shifting sand then changes the configuration of connecting rods, sometimes into a loopy square or a strange triangle. The sand and the mound on the floor are illuminated. The production begins with the bonging of a church bell then more bongs, pings from triangles and the growing sounds of clocks ticking et.  Time factors heavily in the play…the passing of it, etc. One can look at the special devises of the set to see if the sand conjures the notion of time passing. I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if these abstract movable and malleable pieces serve the play

Even though the rod-knob forms might take the shape of a frame, suggesting some of the artwork that hung in the Stein-Toklas appartment, it does not have the same resonance as seeing several actual frames suspended in mid-air (as was the case in the previous production) that gave weight to how much artwork these women had. We hear about their incredible collection and how important it was (Alice referred to the paintings as ‘their children.’ Considering how often the paintings are referenced, I think something more substantial than abstract shapes in the air are needed to suggest the collection.

I realize that Gertrude’s writing was abstract and so the set might fit that. But too often I thought these forms have a mind of their own (they just moved and raised when the sand shifted) and the minds we should be interested in are those of Gertrude and Alice.

The performances are lovely. As Gertrude, Evalyn Parry sports a very short hair cut. She wears an overlarge but stylish coat that accentuates Gertrude’s girth. (Kudos to Ming Wong on her smart costumes for both Gertrude and Alice). Gertrude is always smiling, a contented, sly smile.  When Evalyn Parry speaks as Gertrude it’s with a low purr of an almost monotone voice.  She makes us listen rather than makes us hear her—big difference and her charm wins us over.

As Alice, Anna Chatterton is more emotional and animated. She has a squunched face, as if in a grimace, and just the merest hint of a mustache. She wears a simmering, sleek green patterned dress. When she speaks the voice is sharp-edged, the words enunciated to a crispness.

Karin Randoja directs with attention to detail, wit and subtlety. An erotic scene between the two of them with Gertrude reading poetry to Alice, is delivered with the characters sitting facing away from us, leaving us ‘imagining’ what is happening between the two of them as Alice reacts with breathless, erotic sounds.

The relationship between these two literary icons is loving, close, combative, respectful, and adoring. You get a true sense of how they lived and loved together.

Comment. The script by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry mixes large chunks of Gertrude’s writing, seamlessly with their own linking dialogue to produce a beautiful, informative play about these two towering presences in the 20th century.

Initially Gertrude’s writing seems repetitious, elusive, confounding, silly, obtuse and  mysterious. Gertrude says that her writing isn’t repetitious. It’s insistent.  Think of this quote: “Rose is a Rose is a Rose.” Not there is no preposition ‘a’ in front of the first ‘rose’.  The sentences wind around each other.  For all this Gertrude thought of herself as a genius—the only woman Genius of the 20th century. Alice adoringly would have agreed.

Much is made of how a lot of biographical information can be found in the program (in the form of a separate cahier (notebook) full of photographs and a chronology. This saves the piece from being an “and then I wrote” kind of play.

Gertrude and Alice does something better;  it puts a human face on two complex women, one of whom fancied herself a genius—the only woman genius of the 20th century, and might very well have been right. At least Alice thought so.

Produced by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Opened: Sept. 20, 2018.

Closes:  Oct. 7, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.


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