Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein
About Face Theatre
On her deathbed in 1946, Gertrude Stein asked her lover, Alice B. Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Alice remained silent, Gertrude said, “In that case, what is the question?” For Stein, questions were more important than answers, and every answer led to more questions. She was fascinated with the ways people repeat themselves, sometimes exactly, sometimes with minute variations. “Loving repeating is one way of being,” she wrote in The Making of Americans. She revitalized the oral tradition in literature, creating torrents of language meant to be spoken aloud. In a time when being artistically “serious” was construed as being “male,” Stein was a woman-centered woman and a major artist. And in most of her work she expressed her lifelong devotion to Toklas, whom she met in 1907.
Both the quirky charm and the utopian radicalism of this legendary figure are central to Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein. The Gertrude that director-adapter Frank Galati and composer Stephen Flaherty portray onstage is formidable and jolly, refined and ribald. Galati’s libretto, ingeniously stitched together from Stein’s writings, celebrates her as artistic innovator and queer pioneer. His artful staging (aided by Michelle Tesdall’s period costumes–long white dresses for the women, ice cream suits and straw boaters for the men) conveys the era’s gentility. The folk, ragtime, jazz, and blues idioms in Flaherty’s lyrical, beautifully textured score bring out the innate melodiousness of Stein’s writing, with its childlike rhymes and flowing rhythms. The three lead performers–Cindy Gold and Christine Mild as the older and younger Gertrude and charismatic Jenny Powers as Alice–are perfectly attuned to the material. Their mellifluous speaking voices, clarion sopranos, and wonderful diction, at once caressing and crisp, are well suited to a writer whose pleasure in the sounds of words is key to her work.
Loving Repeating begins with Gertrude lecturing at the University of Chicago in 1934. Proud of a fame won on her own terms, she recalls her journey from Oakland, California, to Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins (where she briefly pursued a medical degree), and finally to Paris. Gradually the lecture transforms into a theatrical revue evoking opera, cabaret, and vaudeville. (Jack Magaw’s stage within a stage has an arched proscenium framed by box seats; overhead, a voluptuous female nude blows a trumpet like the angel Gabriel.) The vignettes, performed by the leads and a gifted five-person chorus, are both rhapsodic and silly, capturing Stein’s obsessiveness, whimsicality, and sexuality. An earlier incarnation of the piece–A Long Gay Book, workshopped in 2003 at Northwestern University–portrayed Stein and Toklas’s relationship as loving but asexual. But here the physical aspect of the pair’s bond is central, illuminating the passionate subtext of lines like “You are my honey honey suckle / I am your bee” and Stein’s exuberant tribute to female orgasm: “My wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now.”
Where Flaherty and Galati’s earlier collaboration, the Broadway musical Ragtime, was a sprawling historical epic, this is a one-act chamber work whose intimacy is essential to its accessibility. Galati’s credits include staging the Stein-Virgil Thomson operas The Mother of Us All and Four Saints in Three Acts for Chicago Opera Theater and She Always Said, Pablo–his magnificent salute to Stein’s fertile friendship with Picasso–at the Goodman Theatre in 1987. But in Loving Repeating, the focus is entirely on Gertrude’s relationship with Alice. That’s key to the work’s charm and power, but it’s also a flaw: Stein’s impact lies not only in her own writing but in her enormous influence on other artists.
If loving repeating is one way of being, Loving Repeating is one way of seeing Stein. It’s not the only way, as Galati and Flaherty clearly realize. Like her work, theirs is about process and discovery–specifically, inspiring viewers to learn more about this visionary artist, whose concern over how to make poetry in a dehumanizing “late age” of runaway scientific and technological progress is more relevant now than ever. “That is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know that time is passing,” Stein wrote, “everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing.” Loving Repeating is 90 minutes well spent.
When: Through 3/12: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.