Play is a Play is a Play: Last Week to See Gertrude Stein Lab at Bushwick Starr

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See this published on Bushwick Daily 

This past month the Bushwick Starr hosted a special series with the Target Margin Theater (TMT)inspired by the literary prowess of Gertrude Stein. Curated by TMT Artistic Producer John Del Gaudio, over 75 artists contributed to seven original pieces and three special events. In discussing why Gertrude Stein was chosen to be the matron saint of this year’s Lab series, Del Gaudio stated, “There is much room for play, but at the end of the day you are left with this language, this poetic and, yes, sometimes repetitive language, and these rigorous structures that make her work exciting for some of us and frustrating for others. It challenges and provides different points of access. It pushes boundaries and can be polarizing.”

Getrude Stein (1874-1946) was a leading poet, playwright and patron of the arts during the Avant-Garde era. Although born in the U.S., Stein moved to Paris in 1903 where she lived for the remainder of her life. As a patron of Modern Art, Stein ran in an elite circle that included the creme de la creme of Modern Art including Pablo Picasso and Matisse.

Her “stream of consciousness” literary style is both rhythmic and repetitive, inspired by the life she lived in Paris. Stein happened to live during two tumultuous moments in history, witnessing first hand WWI and WWII at ground zero. She also lived on the fringe of society as an openly gay woman during a time homosexuality was very much a taboo. Her idiosyncrasies in life played out in her novels, plays, stories and poems.

The TMT Stein Lab: When this you see remember me runs through February 7, so there is still time to see a few shows. Here is a rundown of the four plays I went to see:

Erik Satie/If I Told Him/Erik Satie

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Lead Artist Adam R. Burnett created a surprisingly cohesive show despite borrowing from such disparate texts by Stein including “If I Told Him,” “Erik Satie,” “Geography,” “Land of Nations [Subtitle and Ask Asia],” and “Van or Twenty Years Later.” Erik Satie was a prominent composer of the European Avant-Garde who ran in Stein’s premier counter-culture group of friends. Satie’s work greatly influenced the Parisian “Theater of the Absurd” of the 1950s heralded by influential literatti like Albert Camus. “Theater of the Absurd” is very much aligned to earlier 1920s Absurdist movements including Bertolt Brecht’s “Epic Theater” or Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.” It is a cultural injustice if you have gone on this long and not seen a play influenced by Satie, or written by Bertolt Brecht, but I digress. As a super fan of all things Absurd, nothing brings more dynamism to the contemporary stage than a nonsensical song and dance like Burnett’s play at the Bushwick Starr.

“Erik Satie/If I Told Him/Erik Satie” held performances Thursday 1/22 through Saturday 1/31.

A Nice Story or We Get It, Gertrude

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Lead Artist Megan Hill drew from Stein’s texts “Reflections on the Atomic Bomb,” “A Play Called Not and Now,” and “Flirting at the Bon Marche” to create this charismatic show. A vaudeville song and dance of sorts, the play begins with three actors parodying the signature gimmicks of prominent figures during the first half of the 20th century including actor Charlie Chaplin, artist Pablo Picasso, composer Lord Berners and authors Gertrude Athertun, and Dashiell Hammett to name a few. Between satirical facial expressions and dizzying monologues, Stein’s “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1946) grounded the frenzy to a moment of existential terror. As actor’s staged a TRUDE Talk (a spoof on the ever popular TED talks), an actor states absurdly, but in all seriousness, “I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb…That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it’s the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction…if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting.” On a deeper note, “A Nice Story” explores how humor can be a coping mechanism for overwhelming psychological and emotional traumas.

“A Nice Story or We Get It, Gertrude” held performances Thursday 1/22 through Saturday 1/31.

She Counts Her Dresses

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Out off all the plays I watched in this series, “She Counts Her Dresses” has the most graspable plot. Lead Artist Nikki Calonge seamlessly weaved together two poems by Stein, “Miss Fur and Miss Skeene” and “Counting Her Dresses.” The plot tells the story of Miss Fur and Miss Skeene, both being “gay exactly the same way” and living “regularly gay” together. The endearing actress Eva Peskin began the show with an audience sing along. As we sang together silly Steinian lyrics with total heart and soul, the non sequitur utterances slowly faded into emotionally stirring sounds. This transition from meaning to emotion engenders a loss in conventional understanding but a gain in sensation. Calonge’s play is exactly why Stein’s poems should be performed—nonsense takes on a new role when read aloud. The ambiguous dialogue and the tongue twister story of Miss Fur and Miss Skeene becomes more than a mixed message, but a semiotic journey of sounds and movement. One small step for meaning, but one giant leap for visceral entertainment.

“She Counts Her Dresses” and “Stein-Drag” are a double feature event. See them Tuesday 2/3 at 7:30 pm, Thursday 2/5-Saturday 2/7 at 7:30 pm.

Stein-Drag

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“Stein-Drag” was the most complex of all the plays because of its multitude of vocal executions of Stein’s poems and tonal variations of the dialogue by the actors. Lead Artist Aaron Ethan Green created a layered performance from Stein’s collection of letters published in “Baby Precious Always Shines.” Four Drag Queens first appear on stage in a single song and dance that would make Chaka Khan proud. Then, the Queens take turn lip syncing to an audio dialogue emitting from the loud speakers. Seeing these women in such loud apparel lip syncing to the audio “baby talk” is alienating because this ambiguous situation removes such delicate words of endearment from their usually intimate executions between two lovers. The ominous audio is later unveiled to be not just a recording, but an actor on stage—a John of sorts, dressed in a Wayne Newton inspired Show Tunes Tuxedo, this lowly man in a sea of women becomes the keystone to this Ménage à Cinq.

“Stein-Drag” is an adaptation of “Baby Precious Always Shines,” which is a collection of notes and love letters that details the lifelong affair between Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. The pair first met in 1907 and were together until Stein’s death in 1946. Their love was only unveiled to the world in the 1980s when a cabinet in a Yale University library was opened and found to contain over 300 love letters written by Stein and Toklas. Stein’s term of endearment for Toklas was “Baby Precious” and “Wifie,” and in turn Stein was “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle” or “Hubbie” to Toklas. Acted out as soliloquies, songs, and even toasts, Stein’s intimate thoughts take a turn for the eccentric in “Stein-Drag.” At the end of the play, the Queens begin to undress and take off their makeup, and only at that moment the facade becomes undone and the love letters become just that—significant testimonies between women now only existing as documented memories. A song brought us in, so only a song can bring us out. A sixth Drag Queen channeling Lady Gaga takes to the stage. Enveloped by a voluminous fog, she coyly lip synchs to an electronic dance ballad. Her affected movement and off-kilter mannerisms are truly mesmerizing and the perfect closing act to a night of experimental theater.

“She Counts Her Dresses” and “Stein-Drag” are a double feature event. See them Tuesday 2/3 at 7:30 pm, Thursday 2/5-Saturday 2/7 at 7:30 pm.

The Bushwick Starr is located at 207 Starr Street, Brooklyn, NY 11237. Tickets for the above shows are $15 at www.bushwickstarr.org. To RSVP to free events, send an email to info@targetmargin.org

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