What could be more ambitious than reading Gertrude Stein’s long enigmatic poem Tender Buttons? The Steiny Road Poet suggests that dramatizing Tender Buttons wins that prize. In October 2014, the New York City-based Van Reipen Collective under the overall direction of Gary Heidt produced “A spectacle in 3 parts.” based on the “Objects” (October 2-5), “Food” (October 16-19), and “Rooms” (October 9-12) sections of Tender Buttons. So far, Steiny has seen only the “Objects” play which she found to be musically engaging and as strange as some of the most perplexing parts of Tender Buttons.
FROM CABARET TO TRIPLE PLAY TENDER BUTTONS
While this review will limit itself to the “Objects,” segment of the Van Reipen Collective’s production, some background on how this triple-play fantasia evolved may be helpful in understanding the Collective’s approach. Their work began in 2010 with a musical interest. They created The Tender Buttons band and wrote songs using the lyrics from various sections of Stein’s encoded love poem. Members included Gary Heidt (bass and primary songwriter), Cassandra V. Chopourian (vocals), Jared Hayley (guitar), David Gould (drums), and firehose the dj (turntables and digital).
In 2011, The Tender Buttons band with their cabaret show appeared at New York City’s Medicine Show, an alternative theater space, and then traveled to Leipzig, Germany, performing at the Schaubühne Lindenfels, an arts center for theater, music, and film. They also performed at the Obsidian Art Space in Houston, Texas, with help from Jennifer Decker and her theater company Mildred’s Umbrella, a name pulled from one of the Tender Buttons Objects.
Then came the plan for the triple play project with Heidt directing “Objects” as an operetta with music from a band named Fist of Kindness, Niki Tulk as lead director for “Food,” and Cara Scarmack, Christopher Weston, and Priscilla Holbrook jointly directing “Rooms.”
THE EXOTIC VOICES OF VAN REIPEN COLLECTIVE
The musical component is Heidt’s focus in “Objects.” The 58 subpoems of Stein’s section 1 texts are treated consecutively as individual songs or grouped together with two to four subpoems creating a clearly defined musical set. The style of music varies as wildly as the subpoems themselves. Musical styles include folk, jazz, country, rock, Latin, operatic, in what may be comprehensively heard as world music. The song lyrics follow the Corrected Centennial Tender Buttons version recently issued by City Lights Press and as edited by Seth Perlow.
Many of the players double as musicians. The Fist of Kindness band included (asterisk indicates those who also had a speaking part):
Orin Buck—guitarron (the bass used in Mariachi bands)
*Cassandra Victoria Chopourian—baritone ukulele, pocket trumpet, vocals
*Steven Dworkin—accordion, cello, vocals
*RIchard Gross—banjo, recorder, vocals
*Gary Heidt—guitar, harmonica, banjo, vocals
Matt Metzgar— percussion, vocals, guitar
Joining Fist of Kindness was Kyungmi Lee on flute, electronic keyboard and toy piano. Lee, who has an engaging alto singing voice, also had extended speaking parts like Chapourian, Dworkin, Gross, and Heidt.
NEW LAYER: THE UNSPOKEN VAN REIPEN STORY
Added to the eclectic musical layer is an original Van Reipen Collective story that is loosely drawn from Stein’s objects, characters, or themes that Stein hints at but does not develop linearly. However, the way we know about the Collective’s story—a seven-act play—is through the printed program where the details, as well as the cast, are spelled out. Here is the Cast:
STAFF S (Mercy)…………………………………..….Sanae Buck
STAFF F (Medicine)……………….........................firehorse the dj
LADY FORTHRIGHT (charming very charming)...Debra Disbrow
LADY RROSE (the sister was not a mister)………...Kyungmi Lee
LADY CONE (widow in a wise veil)………….…....Lauren Farber
LADY C (a tunny)…………...........Cassandra Victoria Chopourian
CYRUS (a real soldier)………………..….…………….Gary Heidt
THE REVEREND (a white hunter)………………Cupcake Gross
THE JUDGE (a sizer of talk)………….…………..Steven Dworkin
WHO ARE THOSE CHARACTERS
Allow Steiny to give you, Dear Reader, a tour of who’s who as Steiny understands this identification list. The Narrator is an off-stage voice that announces the set of subpoems that will be sung next. Now, mind you, only Stein’s text is sung or spoken out loud.
Staff S and Staff F emanate from this line in subpoem 2 “Glazed glitter.”: There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. They are Lady Cone’s nursing attendants. Lady Cone who is the widow in a wise veil and who sits in a wheelchair throughout the play is plucked from subpoem 18 “A Chair.”.
Lady Forthright who is characterized as charming very charming is drawn from this line in “Glazed glitter.”: there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Her companion and maybe a relative is Lady Rrose, the sister who is not a mister. Lady Rrose dressed in unisex clothing but leaning toward male attire—pants and vest—is identified in stanza 13, section 3 “Rooms.” To quote Stein, “The sister was not a mister. Was this a surprise. It was.” [stanza 13, section 3 “Rooms”] Perhaps this means Lady Rrose will appear in the Rooms play? But, hélas, The Reverend, a white hunter, shot and killed Lady Rrose in act 6. Without a doubt, The Reverend is drawn from subpoem 51 “A white hunter.” but Van Reipen’s Reverend is a bonefide crazy man. Stein says, “A white hunter is nearly crazy.”
Showing up in act 4, Cyrus, known as a real soldier, pops from Stein’s ultra out-there text of subpoem 53 “Suppose an eyes.”: A soldier a real soldier has a worn lace a worn lace of different sizes that is to say if he can read, if he can read he is a size to show shutting up twenty-four. Cyrus, who has joined a political group called the Reds, telegraphs from the field to Lady Cone, his aunt, saying he will marry Lady C.
In act 2, Lady C (a tunny), dressed in black body suit with white striping and wearing one flipper and one high heel, is delivered in a box to the Aquarium in advance of Cyrus notifying his aunt about his fiancé. The Aquarium is where Lady Cone, the invalid, lives and is the location of the action. What does the Aquarium have to do with Tender Buttons? Steiny can only suggest that Stein provides a lot of water references and imagery, such as the fairy sea in subpoem 46 “A little called Pauline.”: Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten.
Now to a more mysterious question: what is a tunny? Well, Steiny says to slow down the delivery here, in “A center in a table.”, the last subpoem of the “Food” section, Stein writes, Suppose a cod liver a cod liver is an oil, suppose a cod liver oil is tunny, suppose a cod liver oil tunny is pressed suppose a cod liver oil tunny pressed is china and secret with a bestow a bestow reed, a reed to be a reed to be, in a reed to be. If tunny means tuna fish then Steiny thinks the cliché something is fishy applies to Lady C.
By act 4, the Van Reipen story starts shredding like a Shakespearian tragedy. The Reverend steals Lady Forthright’s gun from her purse but leaving behind his handkerchief which when the violated purse is relocated by Ladies Rrose and Forthright becomes a source of attention. It seems The Reverend has caused Lady C’s mother harm and Lady C is worried with forthcoming consequence about what harm he will cause her. Like Iago with Othello, The Reverend reveals to Cyrus that Lady C is a clandestine operative of the Whites, the major enemy of the Reds. The Reverend wants Cyrus, a Red member, to murder Lady C but instead Cyrus shoots himself.
While Cyrus visits death and returns, by act 7, The Reverend is brought before the Judge in a straitjacket. Presumably, he is on trial for murdering Lady Rrose and Lady Forthright (who are now veiled ghosts on stage) as well as causing Cyrus extreme psychological trauma. The Judge described as a sizer of talk is drawn from subpoem 54 “A shawl.”: A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talk. Cyrus produces a surprise witness—Lady C who testifies about The Reverend’s history of blackmailing people. The judge decides that The Reverend and Cyrus should fight to resolve the case against The Reverend.
PUTTING THE X ON EXPERIMENTAL THEATER
So what do we have with this kind of theater? Steiny thinks it isn’t exactly physical theater like Arlington, Virginia’s Synetic Theater or Chicago’s 500 Clown. It’s more a troubadour-like entertainment where music and movement trump whatever text one uses. In the case of the Van Reipen Collective neither the Van Reipen story nor the Stein text matter as much as the music.
So then the question comes down to this—would Steiny want to see Van Reipen’s “Objects” again? The answer is yes, the performances by the cast—their music-making, song-singing, odd choreography kicked Steiny’s subconscious into another realm. Maybe it’s the same primitive realm that makes a small child exclaim gleefully, “Do it again.”
Photos - Mark Gering