Because the Dresser is hopelessly behind with her enthusiastic pursuit of the arts, this review will be a trifecta that includes the revival of the Gertrude Stein musical In Circles by the late Al Carmines, the new exhibition of work by Jasper Johns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the recently released film In Bruges.
BET #1--HURRY THIS WINDOW CLOSES SOON
IN CIRCLES, A STEINIAN MUSICAL
Normally the Dresser would give full attention to anything having to with Gertrude Stein and she will as the Steiny Road Poet in her March column of The Steiny Road to Operadom here in Scene Magazine, but In Circles, in a new production by Director John Sowle, will close February 22, 2008, and the show deserves attention immediately so you, Dear Reader, will know what an exciting and historic opportunity this show presents.
Playing at New York City's Judson Memorial Church, In Circles is a kitchen-sink musical offering everything from klezmer to ballroom tunes. Zany and joyful, the Kaliyuga Arts show runs about 90 minutes without intermission. If you have been curious about the work of Gertrude Stein, this would be the show to see because Sowle's interpretation threads discernable stories and puts Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas into the spotlight.
Paul Lincoln as Ollie, Robin Manning as Mabel, Noelle McGrath as Mildred. Photo by John Sowle
Based on Stein's A Circular Play: A Play in Circles, which she wrote in 1920, In Circles is a nearly word-for-word rendering of Stein's play that has no character assignments or stage directions. Although they do not follow a linear narrative, the play and musical offer cubist cuts of human dramas about loss (a young man is killed in a war), an adoption of a child, several love stories, and the dailyness of everyday, including eating, arguing, chopping wood, and even blowing one's nose. The human drama is sadly touching, comically endearing, and made intimate from the moment the players enter the staging arena and begin greeting the audience. Also expect controversial moments involving race (Anthony Wills Jr. as Dole, a character dressed in tails and acting as an interlocutor, fends off fingers pointing out he is a "Negro," but Stein layers on prejudice against others such as Indians, Jews, Catholics, Africans, Easterners. Within the comic and jubilant stuff of life, Stein also captures what hurts human beings.
There is a cast of ten players some of whom are also part of the musical ensemble. Left to right, Anthony Wills, Jr., Robin Manning, Steven Patterson, Maureen Taylor, Meghan Hales, Paul Boesing, Sarah Ferro, Michael Lazar, Noelle McGrath, Paul Lincoln. Photo by John Sowle
Paul Boesing as William, the piano-player, occasionally abandons his keyboard to give direction to the other players. Boesing is the also the musical's music director, taking the on- and offstage roles Al Carmines assigned to himself in the original production that was also at this Greenwich Village church.
Including the piano position, the staging for Sowle's production was nearly theater in the round. Black screens standing behind the audience chairs helped define the theater inside the church's main sanctuary and to contain the sound inside the staging area. For the most part, the words delivered by the players are understandable, especially when one takes into account that words and phrases are often repeated, as is characteristic of Stein's style.
Every member of the cast is memorably distinct and does a good job. The Dresser's favorite performers are Sarah Ferro as Jessie, Meghan Hales as Sylvia, Paul Lincoln at Ollie, Robin Manning as Mabel (but she acts like and dresses like Alice B. Toklas), Noelle McGrath as Mildred (but she acts like and dresses like Gertrude Stein). Ferro as Jessie is the vamp and performs her jazzy and bluesy numbers with verve and personality. Hales, as the wide-eyed ingénue Sylvia, is one of the young lovers who with Michael Lazar as Brother remind the Dresser of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the two high school sweethearts of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town. Lincoln as Ollie plays a wide range of instruments including banjo, cello, and accordion. Manning as Mildred/Alice plays the most complicated character in the show and does it exceedingly well because she knows how to be comic (she opens the show by cueing the number "Papa dozes mamma blows her noses." What is the cue? She blows her nose very loudly!) and she knows how to be straight-laced and formal. McGrath, who has been in this show before when Sowle first mounted a Los Angeles production in 1986, brings a confidence that transfers as warmth and intimacy. The Dresser does not see McGrath as the flesh-and-blood Gertrude Stein, but a caricature that works well for this character named Mildred.
If the Dresser has one criticism, it is only this, Sowle has let his choreographer Jack Dyville have a little too much fun. Dance numbers include such forms as tango, waltz, cancan, Charleston, cakewalk, Black Bottom, soft-shoe, folkish circle dancing with grapevine steps and so forth. The Dresser is sure Stein's text invited this celebratory movement since the play is a tea party or a birthday party or a Fourth of July celebration, but the audience needs a little more time to breathe before the next dance number erupts.
Also know that the audience showing up will most likely contain Stein aficionados. On opening night, the Dresser came with her dramaturg friend Maxine Kern who worked in the theater of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum Museum where Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts premiered and was involved in other Stein-related productions at the Wadsworth in the 1990s. San Francisco-based Stein and Toklas memorabilia collector Hans Gallas was the first person to greet the Dresser as she entered the theater to find seats. Just as the action started on stage, Ted Sod, book writer of 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris (opening in a newly revised production by Urban Stages in March 2008) took a seat. So the energy created by the music, the players, and the audience is invigorating and besides the house manager might give you a brownie.
I close this window with some excerpts from the end of Stein's original text and In Circles.
A circlet of kisses.
Can you kiss to see.
Can you kiss me.
Can you hear of kissing me.
Yes I see where you can be.
Do I sound like Alice.
Any voice is resembling.
Circles are candy.
Can you think with me.
I can hear Alice.
So can a great many people.
In Terra Cotta Town.
I named roses wild flowers.
BET #2--WATCH WHICH WINDOW YOU CHOOSE
JASPER JOHNS: GRAY
The Dresser thinks if you like the nuance of black and white, you will also like "Jasper Johns: Gray," an exhibition running from February 5 to May 4, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So if you can't get to New York in time for In Circles, you have a longer win-dough of opportunity (come on, you know trifectas involve racing, gambling, and bets) to see something out of the ordinary.
To the Dresser's mind, Johns offers something Steinian. He's got repetition like his well-known sequence on flags, but there's also the way some of his paintings, like Stein's signature phrase "rose is a rose is a rose," spawn slightly different iterations.
Have a look at "False Start"
Here Johns censors color in favor of calling it "False Start" versus the grayness of "Jubilee." Like Stein, Johns can be seen either as a contrarian or an artist with a rarefied sense of humor. Don't miss his encaustic "Painting Bitten by a Man" or his metal sculpture "The Critic Sees," where inside the lenses of the critic's glasses, there are mouths showing teeth.
The Dresser and her artist friend Janice Olson scratched their heads over the many encaustic paintings in this exhibition. It seems that Jasper Johns is known for employing this ancient technique that involves heating beeswax to a liquid stage and then applying it usually to wood. Also Johns has the reputation of being one of the ten most expensive living artists. His painting "Gray Numbers" was sold by one collector to another for $40 million.