Although she craved fame and enjoyed it briefly in her career, Gertrude Stein was, by definition almost, not a crowd-pleaser. Both her gnomic writing and her august persona were designed for the initiated, not the masses. So it’s something of a marvelous surprise and a maddening disappointment to find her oeuvre celebrated and travestied by such a talented troupe of performers as Theater Plastique, whose debut show, Gertrude Stein Saints!, is a joyous, singing and dancing mishmash of unrelated Stein texts.
This artist collective created in 2013 with the mission “to uncover what has been culturally embedded in the American psyche through rhythm” has certainly found fertile ground with Stein. Not only did the “Mother Goose of Montparnasse” write with a keen ear for both rhyme and tempo, she was also more intensely American than the average expat in that she was a serious observer of the cultural idiosyncrasies of her motherland.
These are qualities that Theater Plastique, under the direction of founder Michelle Sutherland, buoyantly exploits. The libretto segues from one soulful or hand-clapping music and dance number to the next as it jumps between two of Stein’s lyric dramas: the high-minded Four Saints in Three Acts and, to a lesser degree, Saints and Singing, inspired by a farce about Hollywood starlets. A semblance of an epilogue is tacked on with passages from The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans, a lecture delivered during the author’s 1934 speaking tour of the United States, during which she enjoyed the exposure of a superstar.
It was during that moment of excitement about the monkish-looking sage from Paris that Four Saints in Three Acts premiered, in Hartford, Connecticut, followed by runs in New York and Chicago with an African-American cast. Stein wrote the libretto to American composer Virgil Thomson’s opera, with the aim of “making the saints the landscape” to Thomson’s music.
That original music has disappeared from Theater Plastique’s adaptation, replaced by new compositions and choreography tracing the history of musical styles in America, written by the ensemble cast. Gertrude Stein Saints! sashays from twangy hoedown to Justin Beiber kick-stepping in just over an hour, but for the most part looks and sounds like a cross between Jersey Boys and Stomp. Each big number is punctuated by a huge cardboard cut-out that drops down over the stage when it’s over; a crude symbolism of America’s rock n’ roll heyday is assembled with every new addition: pink Cadillac, Coke bottles, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and greenbacks, lots and lots of greenbacks. The show concludes in a red, white and blue fireworks show with a luminously projected American flag, à la Springsteen.
This is not the kind of America to which Gertrude Stein ever subscribed, however. It’s an obvious point but, for one thing, Stein would not have recognized any of the musical styles surveyed in the show. If Theater Plastique’s purpose is to explore the resonances of music in American culture, none of the dances famous in Stein’s lifetime, such as the Lindy Hop or the Charleston, are included.
For another, what excited her most during her grand American tour of 1934 were clapboard houses and the Utah desert: better metaphors for her particular relationship to the country from which she exiled herself, a feeling forged in the country’s unsentimental pioneer spirit. As Stein herself wrote in The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans (repeated at the end of the show), the American self can be distilled into a “sense of a space of time and what is to be done within this space of time.”
Apart for a few other brief flashes of Stein’s mind, there is little of the author’s original intention – or at least little that comes through intelligibly – in Gertrude Stein Saints! The 13-member cast groove and grind, pony and twerk, but they could be singing about just about anything. That they are, in fact, crooning about Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola appears (when it’s possible to understand them) utterly nonsensical. And while that is a term often ascribed, misguidedly, to Stein’s work, it is a wonder what is to be gained here from hearing her texts so completely out of context and without much of any attempt to interpret them. Just because it’s hard to say what Stein means in her writing doesn’t mean it can be made to say anything, or nothing, at all.
Stein wrote with a beat in her head, however, and that beat, at least, is very much alive in this production. As musical theater (with the emphasis on the musical), the show is delightful and provides a stage for some tremendous, as yet unknown talent (a majority of the ensemble hails currently from the theater and music programs at Carnegie Mellon University) . The voice work is beautifully lyrical, with skillful harmonizations and great range. The choreography is smart and witty and the dancing doesn’t miss a beat. Many numbers will linger long after the show, for their pure musicality. One in particular, a haunting tune composed around a passage from The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans, allows a glimpse into Stein’s Modernism in this otherwise 21st century show: “I write for myself and strangers, I do this do this for my own sake and for the sake of those who know I know it that they look like other ones, that they are separate and yet always repeated.”
At the final, party-crazed curtain, some of Stein lingers perhaps, after all.