Gertrude and Alice: can a self-proclaimed genius be charming?
by Drew Rowsome- photos by Jerem Mimnagh
Better to be irritating than to continue to reproduce what is accepted to be beautiful
So pronounces the self-proclaimed and condescending genius Gertrude Stein in Gertrude and Alice. Gertrude is played grandly by Evalyn Parry who is extolling the virtues of a modern painting while, not incidentally, asserting her place in the pantheon of genius artists. And while Gertrude and Alice does possess an unconventional beauty, it is, despite big chunks of Stein's obtuse prose, not irritating but rather utterly charming.
To great fanfare and an actual ascending curtain, Stein and her secretary/paramour Alice B Toklas arrive on stage. There is no fourth wall and Stein immediately berates the audience for not having read all of her books. Anyone who has attempted to read Gertrude Stein will appreciate the joke. Those who have never attempted will be laughing at Parry's wide-eyed physicality and rampaging ego masking a touching fragility. Parry talks like Gertrude Stein reads, and much of Gertrude and Alice is, if not actual excerpts, excellent parodies of the Stein style. That Parry makes it comprehensible, comic, and, on one occasion erotic, is a bit of a triumph.
Anna Chatterton's Alice B Toklas begins quiet, a shadow carefully one step behind the genius - there is much excellent physical clowning that illustrates their relationship hilariously. But this is a love story and thus requires two leads, so Chatterton sheds her dowager's hump and gives as good as she gets. In the process she garners more than her fair share of laughs. There is a competitiveness between the two but also a love that feels warm and genuine. It's easy when they're both also enthralled - intellectually, emotionally and erotically - with Stein's genius.
But Gertrude and Alice has more on its mind than a biographical sketch (Toklas occasionally reminds us that a charming booklet has been provided), a love story or a gay history lesson. Stein's status as a "literary cubist" is cunningly explored through projections of the pair's fabled art collection; the process of creation and its cost is demonstrated. And the shallowness of celebrity is lampooned: Stein has a habit of posing in an exact replica of the famous Picasso portrait of her, while reminding us that,
It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.
Fortunately the creators - Parry and Chatterton, director Karin Randoja (Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera), production designer Trevor Schwellnus (Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical) and lighting designer Michelle Ramsay - have a different work ethic and, while honouring Stein and Toklas, they never reign in their inclination to entertain. It was so charming (that word again) that I almost, almost, am tempted to tackle reading Gertrude Stein again.
Gertrude and Alice runs until Sun, March 27 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com