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Lucretia Borgia and Romancing the Chairs

Leah Englund Brick's interpretation of Gertrude Stein's 1938 play Lucretia Borgia uses shadow puppets and chairs to deliver Stein's reflexive portrait of a woman who is having an identity crisis. In the forum of the Capital Fringe at the Atlas Performing Arts Center seen July 18, 2014, Brick and Small Batch Theatre Company with support from Towson University presented a 55-minute work of physical theater, which the Dresser thinks is a good way to ground the psychological ruminations of the least read Modernist.ThroneSmall.jpg

While Stein's play calls for five characters and a crowd (Brick's play uses placards during the puppet show to announce that there are five characters and a crowd), Brick's play makes do with three actors--Katharine Ariyan, Sadie Lockhart and Elizabeth Scollan--embodying aspects of Lucretia Borgia as well as a recorded male voice. The Dresser thinks that the first chair on stage, a chair with arms, is the fifth character while subsequent chairs make up the crowd. Are chairs part of Stein's theatrical landscape for her Lucretia Borgia? No, but here the Dresser applauds Brick's good instincts. For example, in Stein's Tender Buttons, chairs--and tables, for that matter--point to a dialectic on existence, a subject that Stein explores throughout her work.

Because there is no story through line, the Dresser will provide some lines from the play to establish signposts indicating a sense of what the work is "about."

"If you made her come can you kill her."
"How pleasant to count--1 2 3 4 5 6 7..."
"Be careful of eight's."
"Once upon a time there was a shotgun."
"They will call me a suicide blonde."
"Later I will kill my twin..."

Stein draws her character from medieval history--Lucretia Borgia came from a sinister family who used her for political gain. Rumor has it that the historic Lucretia wore a hollow ring in which she kept poison.


So, Dear Reader, you might be wondering what happens during the performance. Here are some observations. In the unspoken shadow play as the show opens, we see a woman smoking a cigarette from a long cigarette holder. Cigarette holders are fashion accessories and suggest some kind of affectation. When one of the Lucretia's comes out from behind the shadow puppet scrim, she steps into a long gown and then ascends a ramp leading to the chair that the Dresser will call the throne. Once seated on the throne, Lucretia #1 proceeds to make up her face. In fact each of the Lucretia's dons the same dress and uses the same makeup box. What's new are the interactions these aspects of Lucretia have with the throne and later with additional chairs that get shoved on stage as if a crowd is gathering. Meanwhile, Lucretia has been referred to as Jenny, Winnie, and Gloria. And by the way, Stein used Lucretia Borgia in her novel Ida, which she wrote and rewrote from 1937 to 1940.

Threading the acts and scenes of Brick's production together (did the Dresser say that Act I is announced variously, one of Stein's destabilizing strategies for her plays) is recorded music including a strummed "Tea for Two" and a roaring Twenties tune. Stein suggests that the play is an opera and Brick's audience occasionally sees a placard with the word opera written on it. Even the genre--play or opera--has an identity crisis.

Communication disconnect and the issue of fame chasing makes Leslie McGrath's poem "Two Poles and a Suicide" interesting commentary to Leah Englund Brick's Lucretia Borgia. Is Lucretia living in a dining room hell with all the chairs that appear on stage? Possibly. And where are the men--only a disembodied voice off stage. Why is Lucretia a suicide blonde--a fashionable woman with bleached hair who knocks the men dead? There is a lot to think about in Brick's production. As always with Gertrude Stein, the thinking is best done with aslant aids such the intriguing "Two Poles and a Suicide" that refers to a sorceress, white elephants, black pearls, a nomad, and a dendritic tripwire.


Look at how her dark eyes smile
black as her last night.
Her photo's curled, yellow.
A chip. A chip to shoulder.

She was sorceress, sorely loved,
linger of mint, a plea left
on too many answering machines
when there were answering machines.
Everything is smaller now.

She was, she said, slave
to a slave to fame, a lover
of white elephants, black
pearls. Nomad in a fatherless
land, she traveled from
pole to pole until
left at the altar of exhaustion,
a dendritic tripwire
strung from attic to basement,
she died in the dining room
and she had company.

A tour guide, she was,
not to the hell of her own
despair, blithe and capricious,
but to the imagined hell
even mention of her name
now takes us to. We are not
to be blamed for going there.
We are not to blamed
for going there.

By Leslie McGrath
from By the Windpipe

Copyright © 2014 Leslie McGrath


Comments (2)

grace cavalieri:

A truly wonderful and invigorating review that inspires all of us to be new.

Evy Posamentier:

This stunning review makes me want to book a flight across country to DC to see this production.

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