SAINTS AND SINGING
Sweet Jane Productions
at Cafe Voltaire
Gertrude Stein is Gertrude Stein is Gertrude Stein, and either you like her or you don’t. She can certainly be admired for her audacity: writing plays and stories that blatantly ignore questions like who, what, where, how, and why. Her bohemian life-style in Paris and open homosexuality also shocked a society much less tolerant than today’s. But Stein can, and should, be most admired for her poetic sensibility. No one captures the erotic in all its guises like Gertrude Stein.
The trick is for the director and actors to recapture that eroticism and put it on the stage. That’s not an easy task, considering that Stein develops no characters and writes lines like “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Come again and talk of heaven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, I come to you so noisily you astonish me. Open the door.” What do you do with lines like that? Sure, it’s poetic and beautiful, but is it theater?
In Saints and Singing, Sweet Jane Productions does glorious things with lines like that. Director Ellen Beckerman proves that while Saints and Singing may not be theater–never mind that Stein wrote it as a play–it’s something worth watching. Rich, luscious, and emotional, this work is meant to be experienced, not completely understood. Stein layers a multitude of distinct voices to create a moving, illogical kaleidoscope of sound.
That being said, there is a vague story: Beckerman has adapted the script to make it more appropriate for the stage, chiseling out a shadowy tale of twin identities within the same woman. Seeming like lesbian lovers, they’re torn apart when the woman bows to the pressures of church and society and marries a man who pleases her not. Once she’s married she cracks emotionally, unsure of her new role in society, unable to fit. “You know very well that you are wedded to your running. You never run away and you never satisfy,” says the twin. The deacon says, “You never satisfy decidedly you never satisfy, very decidedly do you ever satisfy weddings.” At issue is the self and one’s identity in society. Stein constantly plays with the meaning and usage of words: things that can be spoken of in polite society and those that cannot. Acts that can be admitted and those that cannot. And she captures the tension that exists between the reality of the mind and spirit and the reality of society.
Stein knew a lot about desire and things that cannot fit into words. The cool thing is that she doesn’t try to fit them into words. She just sort of dances around the subject, creating a passionate and erotic collage of emotion. The cast–Jennifer Bradley, Amy Landecker, Amy Moon Mathieu, and Michelle Nance–all carry these emotions well, caressing the language and letting Stein’s use of repetition work its mesmerizing power.
Beckerman has put a lot of careful analysis into her direction of Saints and Singing, even switching lines around to give this ambiguous play some clarity. But she also retains the poetry of the piece. The difficulty in watching something like Saints and Singing is that it is a poem, yet you can’t go back and study each line in order to understand it. It just sort of happens, in a confusing but beautiful way.