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Gertrude Stein Musical, Jasper Johns Art, In Bruges: the film

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.


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.FlowersThumb.jpg
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. Whimsies2.jpgLeft 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.
Some see.
Can you kiss me.
I see.
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.
Irregular circles.
Can you think with me.
I can hear Alice.
So can a great many people.
In Terra Cotta Town.
I named roses wild flowers.


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" Johns_04.L.jpg
and "Jubilee." Johns_05.L.jpg
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.

Ah, and then there is the attention to what makes words, and the utility and sensuality of numbers. Like Stein, Johns studies geometry and geography to understand and measure the world we occupy.

One last category the Dresser will mention is his literary invocations. Johns_16.L.jpg
To wit "Céline" (oh so dark - the gray stained glass window panes invoke Krystallnacht, the 1938 Nazi terror campaign against synagogues and Jewish businesses resulting in smashed windows and deportations, because of the hand prints that degrade to fingernail scrape marks.) Other literary figures popping up in Johns' work include Hart Crane, Tennyson, Frank O'Hara. If you can't get your bones to New York to see the 120 pieces in this collection, you could buy the exhibition book.

The Dresser offers this poem about windows (and death) from Hart Crane.


The host, he says that all is well
And the fire-wood glow is bright;
The food has a warm and tempting smell,--
But on the window licks the night.

Pile on the logs... Give me your hands,
Friends! No,-- it is not fright...
But hold me... somewhere I heard demands...
And on the window licks the night.

by Hart Crane

[Photos of Jasper Johns artwork by Jamie M. Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, Illinois. In order of appearance are:
False Start, 1959
Oil on canvas; 67 1/4 x 54 in. (170.8 x 137.2 cm)
Kenneth and Anne Griffin
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Jubilee, 1959
Oil and collage on canvas; 60 x 44 in. (152.4 x 111.8 cm)
Private collection
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Céline, 1978
Oil on canvas (two panels); overall: 85 5/8 x 48 3/4 in.(217.5 x 123.8 cm)
Kunstmuseum Basel, acquired with a contribution from the Max Geldner Foundation, 1979
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]


Right after the Dresser saw Shintoku-Maru and What Becomes You, her husband wanted to see Martin McDonagh's dark comedy In Bruges. The sequencing could not have been more serendipitously compelling. All three works address worlds set apart from the Our Town norm. The medieval canal city of Bruges in McDonagh's film is not only the hideaway destination of two hit men 08BrugesKenNRay.jpg
(Ken played by Brendan Gleeson and the younger Ray played by Colin Farrell) after Ray accidentally kills a child who got in the way of bullets meant for a targeted priest, but also the site where a movie is being made that involves dwarfs.
08brugRay.jpg 08BrugesDwarf.jpg

What's intriguingly odd about the characters of In Bruges is that they adhere to a code of honor, which the Dresser finds refreshing after her recent immersion in the world and life of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The underpinnings of this code have to do with what the Dresser will call the cult of the Madonna and is set just before Christmas. Ray, the inexperienced hit man who accidentally kills a small boy when he murders the child's priest, cries over his mistake and eventually attempts to commit suicide. The hit men's London boss Harry (played by Ralph Fiennes) wants the mistake fixed and when Ken won't do what Harry has ordered, Harry leaves his wife and children on a call of honor. From this point, the film breaks into comic and shockingly violent mayhem that includes a facedown with a pregnant woman. 08BrugesMadonna.jpg

Both Ken and Ray have their turns at being endearing. Ray, like a sulking adolescent brought on holiday with a parent, thinks Bruges is "a shit hole," but Ken plays the tourist as ordered by Harry and serves enthousiastically as the pair's tour guide. In the end, we see why Ray is justified in calling Bruges Hell. So if you can't make In Circles or "Jasper Johns: Gray," surely you'll find In Bruges in a neighborhood theater or eventually as a DVD to rent.

Here's an untitled poem from the language poet Rod Smith that captures the fear and mother fixation of In Bruges.

Franklin Covey & the spiders are coming down from the Natl Capital
carrying torches and poems.

Nothing believes them.

There are seeds being planted which are growing spiders.

Growing spiders need milk to make strong bones. I have no milk & so

they are mad. I have no milk & so

they are very, very, mad.

Mad spiders all over the place. I believe them when they say

"we are mad."

I go out immediately & buy lots & lots of milk.

I give it to them & then I run.

by Rod Smith
from Deed

Copyright © 2007 Rod Smith


Comments (2)

WHAT A RICH ARRAY OF ART HERE by Karren Alenier. She has a way of making the world suddenly filled with more sights sounds smells and tastes than ever before. The Rod Smith poem is perfect to tie up the sum of all these various shimmering ribbons. BRAVA! Grace

Margo Berdeshevsky:

Lovely review, Karren!
I just saw Circles' last night.
LOVED it madly. had a wonderful time/ round and around. the language holds up remarkably profoundly. I didn't mind the hyper-abundant dance numbers. In an around the words and through -- sometimes like water piercing each circle, sometimes like steel with the weight of the single word repeated until it gained its value, and dropped into the collective mind... Thus I heard/listened to every word float & drop -- important to me. What I mean is the singularity of words, like individual objects – a reflection of Stein's influence/influence by paint as a single element of that period, perhaps – as my companion to the performance, an art historian/ fellow poet, commented ... My own concentration was more on how Stein lends so well to the interpretation of actors who are then able to interpret each repetition with a different weight. I'm certain madame G would have loved it, and that this may well be how she arrived at her repetitions, with an inner ear for her multi variations, not just the paper weight of word plus word. And this, long before language poetry etc. made me think how many of the newer language poets, in France particularly, believe they are in brand new territories. not so, but plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose. a circle.

all the best,

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 16, 2008 5:06 PM.

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