Gertrude Stein Saints! Abrons Arts Center (see Off-Off Broadway). By Gertrude Stein. Music by the company. Directed by Michelle Sutherland. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
Gertrude Stein Saints!: In brief
Passages from Gertrude Stein's opera librettos are set in various musical styles, from the great songbook of Americana to pop and the blues, and sung by an exuberant young cast. Michelle Sutherland directs.
Gertrude Stein Saints!: Theater review by Helen Shaw
When reading the title of Theater Plastique's music experience Gertrude Stein Saints!, do notice that it lacks the expected apostrophe. Maybe that's because Stein, midcentury mother of modernism, doesn't really seem to own this project. In Michelle Sutherland's rambunctious pastiche of Stein set to music, it's hard to recognize the thorny author of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights in something so bouncy, a mixtape (are there still mixtapes?) approach that makes difficult texts easy, infectious, frolicsome and blithe. Sutherland and her ebullient cast make something totally accessible, more Gertrude Stomp than Gertrude Stein; depending on your preference (avant-garde texts or Glee-style dance-offs), your resistance may vary.
Boys enter (dressed in icy pinks and blues) to croon sections of Four Saints in Three Acts to a capella doo-wop melodies. Does it matter that they're using language that once made language itself strange? Girls come out to flirt with them—is it important that they're singing a gospel-inflected section of Saints and Singing? The performers constantly pitch their attempts upward; they seem to be checking in with the ceiling, or the balcony seats, or possibly God. Just as in the Wooster Group's Early Shaker Spirituals, dance and song are offered up as gift and praise, though I don't remember the Woosters hurling the audience branded merchandise.
The stage is a cartoon heaven, full of painted clouds. Throughout the evening, large flat images will drop in: a pair of Coke bottles, TVs, Mount Rushmore, a giant mushroom cloud in the shape of a pink fist. Since Sutherland includes text from Stein's lecture The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans, these must exist as commentary on Yankee sins, but they're deployed joyfully, not critically. A late coup de théâtre, in which cash showers down on the ensemble, perhaps reflects our money-obsessed culture, but the singers splash about in it, puppies in their first snowfall. Eventually they grow thoughtful and sit in their drifts of crumpled bills. They seem tired and happy.
The ensemble members devised the music, which perhaps explains why they shift genres so quickly—yodeling, rapping, vocalizing in a rhythm & blues style. It's an amazing feat of group composition, truly something to celebrate. Around me, the audience was clapping along and responding delightedly to the variety of movement styles: ballet, grind, twerk, step, the cabbage patch, the electric slide, the zombie dance from “Thriller.” It's a Buzzfeed list of 50 years of American dance, done at maximum energy: “Thirteen college students and recent grads enter a theater and you won't believe what happens next.”
Of course, it may be that Saints is the generation gap incarnate. I certainly felt dizzy and self-conscious all through it, as though I was staring across a canyon that divided my pleasures from the pleasures of those in their teens and twenties. The audience at Abrons split along age lines: Some stony-faced olds (I include myself) sat still and silent in a room full of chattering, thrilled, enthusiastic youngs. I was frequently upset by what I thought of as regressive sexual politics onstage; today's fashion (pegged jeans for boys, tight-waisted full skirts or painted-on pedal pushers for girls) makes everything look like the ’50s, though the hems are shorter and the group (thank the saints) is more diverse. That text by Stein, of all people, should be turned into work that divides performers into boys' and girls' groups, egging one other on to gender-normative display, struck me as perverse. I spent my last minutes with the piece peering hard at the cartoon Rushmore, trying to picture Gertrude's stern face among the stone ones. She loved insouciance, but I wonder in what spirit she would have looked down.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: The following review is from the piece's premiere at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival.]
You'll find plenty of avant-garde ecstasy at Gertrude Stein Saints! The brainchild of director Michelle Sutherland, an MFA candidate for directing at Carnegie Mellon, the piece resets passages from Stein's opera librettos Four Saints in Three Acts and Saints and Singing in musical styles from the great songbook of Americana. (Though remembered as a Paris expat, Stein was born near Pittsburgh.) The modernist icon’s characteristic wordplay—a maelstrom of poetic sounds that carry little linear meaning—comes freshly alive when teased out by such styles as doo-wop, bluegrass, jazz, soul and even hip-hop, sung with minimal instrumentation to music developed for the project by its cast of 13 undergrads. This irresistible young ensemble, pulsing with energy and expertise, comes together vibrantly; clad in costume designer Anderson Larson's revealing whites, suggesting commingled saintliness and sensuality, they could be apostles or free-spirited radicals exploring modes of expression and self-discovery. (Jordan Phillips's soaring falsetto is nearly otherworldly.) As they dance and sing for 75 minutes, primarily in same-sex groupings, it's hard to imagine a more heavenly jam.—Diane Snyder
Click here for full Time Out coverage of the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival.