Off-Broadway Theater Review: GERTRUDE STEIN SAINTS! (Abrons Arts Center)

by Paul Birchall on June 29, 2014

in Theater-New York

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WHEN THE SAINTS COME DANCING IN

Here’s a charming revue that sets to song and dance the words of the great poet Gertrude Stein, mistress of new language and one of the tremendous free spirits of the 20th century.

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If I were a critic of the heft and depth of, say, Stage and Cinema’s own Jason Rohrer, my talented and inestimable colleague, I suspect I would actually try, in response to this work, to write the review in a style that mimics Gertrude Stein.  You know, something like, “that was the play that was the play that was the play so lovely and young and ferocious and that was the play that was” (and how would that look as the pull quote on a theater marquee, eh?).  However, I am fortunate in that I am one of those critics who prefers to toe the line – and besides, a review written like a Gertrude Stein poem would probably be more difficult to read than the actual play’s text.  So I prefer to talk just about what was there.  What was there.  What was there.  There.

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Indeed, this staging of Gertrude Stein’s words is really quite a beguiling production, featuring a cast of bright-faced, young performers who are so fresh and gung ho you almost can’t look at them too long for fear of burning your eyes out, as you would from gazing at the sun.  The cast, who mostly appear to be students and graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s acclaimed theater program, is responsible for setting Stein’s poems to music – and director Michelle Sutherland corrals them all into a songspiel that boasts the agile and free spirited and (occasionally slightly unfocused) choreography that only the just-out-of-college can pull off.

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The ensemble performs mostly a capella melodies (which they composed during the rehearsal process), utilizing the text of Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” as the lyrical “book.”  As a work of performance art, the songs are often delightfully engaging, with melodies that run the gamut of American music.  A group of exceptionally handsome young fellows warble phrases such as “a narrative of, prepare for saints,” before shifting to the style of a Barber Shop quartet, although the lyrics seem to be something like “for saints, it makes it well fish.”

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A group of young female singers appear, and the work shifts into the style of a Southern spiritual with the ladies chanting, “to mount it up, up hill, to mount it up, up hill.”  Other songs render Stein’s obscure language in the style of The Temptations from the 1950s, boy bands from the 1980s, and sultry “twerking” Beyoncé-style diva songs.

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All right:  It’s more than a little bit perplexing, but, as a producer notes in the show’s introduction, the production hews to the Stein-like concept, “If you enjoy it, then you understand it.”  And that’s really enough for me.

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The visual elements are quite compelling.  The performers’ choreography is crisp and the singing is lovely – the cast members have truly pleasing voices.  Just as important, the ensemble possesses a genial brashness that keeps you involved and interested in the show, even when you can’t make out a blessed thing about what’s going on.

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Yet, at the same time, one must also pay some service to the text.  If there’s a problem here, it’s the fact that the presentation frankly suggests one possible interpretation of Stein’s poetry – one in which the words are somewhat shoehorned into the concepts, melodies, and on-stage actions.  You can almost bet that Stein didn’t see this when she wrote her pieces; or maybe she did, but she saw other stuff, too.  We can’t help but feel that words are used here in the service of a really fun song-and-dance production:  They aren’t that important: The cast could just as easily jettison them to say “glub glub glub” instead, and I am not sure that anyone would notice or care.  Stein is not, strictly speaking, the most crucial aspect of the show; it sort of reduces some intentionally challenging poetry and concepts to the level of mood music for dance class, and that’s a pity.

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photos by Jonathan Mandell

Gertrude Stein Saints!
Theater Plastique
Abrons Art Center
466 Grand St (at Pitt St)
ended on June 28, 2014
for more info, visit www.gertrudesteinsaints.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jason Rohrer June 29, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Great reading, sir. Actually Tony Frankel is much more likely to review with that kind of show-specific cleverness than I am. But thank you for your kind words and for a lovely and thorough essay.

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