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Chicago by John Olson

Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein
About Face Theatre Company

Also see John's review of The Cradle Will Rock

Loving Repeating
(L-R) Cristen Paige, Jenny Powers, Bernie Yvon, Cindy Gold, Zach Ford, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, Christine Mild, Travis Turner
The writer Gertrude Stein may be remembered more for her place in artistic and literary history than for her work itself. Though her quotes “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” and her one-line description of Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) are widely recognized, the number of people who know her as a member of the circle of expatriate artists living in 1920s Paris that included the likes of Picasso and Hemingway certainly must outnumber those who have actually read her work. Further, if you don’t count her most popular and accessible work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the number of her readers will be even lower.

It would seem that adapter and director Frank Galati hopes to rectify this situation with Loving Repeating. The show’s structure has Gertrude Stein at age 60 delivering a lecture on her life and work (taken from an actual 1934 lecture she gave at the University of Chicago) interspersed with musical settings of her writings that have parallels to key events in her life, primarily events involving the relationship with her life partner Alice B. Toklas. Galati will surely succeed to an extent in bringing some new readers to her work. Those who (like me) are less familiar with her words than her place in literary history may be drawn to this opportunity to learn more. As an introduction to Stein’s writing, though, Loving Repeating may be daunting for many. Her writing is so dense - filled with challenging ideas expressed in an unfamiliar, repetitive style - that it’s quite a lot to take in on a first hearing.

This is especially so because there’s so much else to pay attention to, starting with Stephen Flaherty’s rich and varied score that covers genres from popular music of the 1910s and ‘20s, Scottish/Irish folk music and Calypso. With lyrics taken entirely from Stein’s words, relatively little of it includes traditional songs. Much of it sets Stein’s poetic prose and opera librettos to music, and there’s a good amount of underscoring. As sung by a top-shelf cast of eight accompanied by music director Tom Murray’s five-piece orchestra (that sounds much bigger, thanks to the orchestrations by Flaherty and Brad Haak), it’s enough just to listen to Flaherty’s score for the seventy-five minutes of the piece. If Stein’s writing may be as important for its sound and rhythm as its meaning, it’s perfectly appropriate to expand it through music.

Galati has gone far beyond an aural presentation of Stein’s writing, though, and has given us a lot to look at as well. Jack Magaw’s colorful two-dimensional set painted by Christine Bolles and the flat props designed by Nate Doud were inspired by works of Picasso. Galati and choreographer Liza Gennaro keep the five-member ensemble moving in impressionistic comment and counterpoint to the words and actions of the principals, with the action highlighted effectively by the lighting design of Chris Binder. Costumes designed by Michelle Tesdall place the older Gertrude in a characteristic gray sweater and the younger Gertrude, Alice and the ensemble – all essentially memory characters – in white early 20th century apparel.

As the older Gertrude, Cindy Gold creates a wry and likable Stein, intellectual yet charming and down-to-earth. One can easily picture how great minds like Picasso and Hemingway would have been drawn to her. The young Gertrude is played by Christine Mild as a confident, earthy young woman, aware and unashamed of her uniqueness with a powerful voice that matches the strength of her character. As her love interest, Alice B. Toklas, Jenny Powers (Meg in Broadway’s Little Women) is charismatic and ravishing – as beautiful as she must have appeared to Ms. Stein. Though the many ideas taken from Stein’s work may be a lot to process, the depth of her devotion to Ms. Toklas is clearly felt in the piece. The ensemble of Cristen Paige, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, Zach Ford, Travis Turner and Bernie Yvon provide impeccable support and impressive solo moments, particularly in the musicalization of Stein’s short story “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene.”

Though performed by just eight actor-singers and five instrumentalists, the production has a polish and richness that give it the feeling of a show much larger and longer. As an introduction to the writing of Gertrude Stein, it’s really too much to fully absorb in an initial viewing. “Gertrude Stein for Dummies” it’s not, and some previous familiarity with her work would be helpful. Even so, with the pleasures of Flaherty’s ambitious and satisfying score and the visual treats of the direction and production design, it can be enjoyed on a sensory level, even if a greater intellectual appreciation of the ideas might require repeat viewings. The abundance of ideas – including those of this show’s creative team as well as those of Gertrude Stein – suggests that such repeat viewings would be rewarding. To borrow from the title of Hemingway’s memoirs of this time and place, Loving Repeating is a feast.

Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein will be performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., through March 12, 2006. Tickets can be purchased at the MCA Box Office, 312-397-3868, or online at www.mcachicago.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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