By Jim Kates
In two short acts, playwright Win Wells depicts not so much a relationship as a fusion, a merging of identities into one single, complex personality.
Gertrude Stein and a Companion by Win Wells. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players at 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through July 14.
How can you make drama by simply recounting a life?
Life as it is lived is just one thing after another, until the protagonist dies. There is a genre of theater that consists of just this kind of presentation. For the actors, it’s a matter of impersonation more than interpretation, and the conceptual goal is to come across the footlights as credible and recognizable, hardly more. The audience taps into what they know, or think they know, about the person being depicted, and we all go collaborately forward from there.
Introduce a second person, and you can begin to create tension, conflict, resolution, the elements of a different kind of satisfying drama.
The point of Gertrude Stein and a Companion is that the introduction of a second character doesn’t rough up the biographical narrative, it fulfills it. The companion of the title, Stein’s lifelong lover Alice B. Toklas, does not create the kind of friction we associate with dramatic action. Instead, in two short acts, playwright Win Wells depicts not so much a relationship as a fusion, a merging of identities into one single, complex personality.
Most of us know Gertrude Stein in caricature, the mannish patron of avant-garde art, presiding over her salon in Paris, the experimental writer of tautological truths, the flouter of convention in the most haut bourgeois of settings. Toklas came into her own in a different caricature (in the 1960s) after Stein’s death. The play takes on a half century of their lives and their companionship.
On the surface, Wells’s script contains hardly more than the familiar cultural gossip about a well known couple of the mid-twentieth century, gossip that Stein and Toklas themselves in their own life and work disseminated. Yet it moves well beyond the caricature. Stein and Toklas consort with artistic heavyweights — Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway are name-dropped most heavily in this version, as they were important presences in the circle around Stein — and make their own literary history.
Wells has relied on Stein’s own written words and the mannered cadences of her writing, which Becky London successfully conveys into the ordinary speech Stein’s linguistic distinctiveness.
Delicately directed by Gus Kaikkonen, who makes use of visual reflection and a rhyming of movement, London as Stein and Dale Hodges as Toklas come together as one. London brings a warmth to Stein that does not usually come across in documentary records of her somewhat imperious life, with a sly smile that expresses the wit that the lines convey and far more intimacy than the dialogue might indicate. Hodges, looking very much like Hemingway’s physical description of Toklas, plays a harder-edged and more vulnerable Toklas, the real engine of the household, a complex of emotional reticence.
Kaikkonen relies not only on his London and Hodges to be reasonable facsimiles of Stein and Toklas, but to take on both sides of brief dialogues involving others who move in and out of their lives. Their seamless mimicry provides a little variety (beyond the closeness of the two of them) without interrupting the central integrity of their characterizations.
The overwhelming set designed by Harry Feiner is dominated by reproductions of the most famous paintings that marked Stein’s taste and patronage, and these also function as a kind of character in the play.
My neighbor in the theater said she hadn’t been all that pleased with the last Peterborough Players offering because it made her think, and she came to the playhouse to be entertained, not to be set thinking. At the end of Gertrude Stein and a Companion she expressed herself as fully entertained. The lives and shared life of the two companions present plenty of food for thought, but a satisfying lightness suffuses this production.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.