Being One Being Living

Lee Anne Schmitt and Sophia Skiles

at Link’s Hall, August 15-17

By Carol Burbank

Gertrude Stein believed that plays should be landscapes, visual journeys for audiences with the curiosity and detachment of tourists, attentive to the alien details of another culture. Only then, she felt, could she keep up with the complexities of the playwright’s story, creating in essence her own snapshot of a place distant from the familiar world.

In “Being One Being Living,” an evening of homage to Stein’s sly modernist writings, Sophia Skiles and Lee Anne Schmitt of Baubo Performance Project create a touching and witty interior landscape; true to Stein’s belief in the power of idiosyncrasy, they also create a strong impression of their own personalities, blending their words and stories with Stein’s texts to explore the tenderness and brutality of love. In the more sophisticated moments of the three pieces, Skiles and Schmitt succeed in molding the evening into a visual and verbal tour of relationships as real and as fragmentary as the people and places in forgotten photographs–you knew them but can’t remember their names, so you must reinvent them.

The combination of the abstract and the specific is what makes these performances so evocative. The fluid “set” enhances the effect. Royd Climenhaga’s projections layer quotes from Stein over scenes from nature, brightly colored backdrops, or the uneven white surface of the theater’s back wall. Short films and black-and-white slides of the performers are also projected to create an imaginary past; most of these scenes simply show the same dances we see onstage but performed against the bleak backdrop of a factory landscape. The repetition without explanation mirrors Stein’s use of language, which is more like painting with words than conventional storytelling.

The best work in “Being One Being Living” is the title piece, taken from Stein’s autobiographical account of leaving home, including the story–if she does tell a story–of her first love affair. Schmitt and Skiles take their time speaking and moving, developing an unhurried pace that well serves the rhythms of the landscape they’ve created out of Stein’s text. Wearing shimmering gowns, one pink and the other white, under long, silky topcoats, the two women concentrate fully on small, almost silly gestures. Quoting Stein’s unhappiness at home (“She did not like then being one being living there…”), they perform a syncopated, dissociative, and somehow funny crawl across the floor, sliding like agile worms into piles of xeroxed pictures of a woman’s torso, then collapsing in sullen little heaps.

Another section brilliantly explores identity and the loss of self, expressed through a call-and-response recitation of Stein’s writings about being trapped in the daughter’s role: the performers dance with large paper bags over their heads. In a compelling combination of silliness and passion, they glide across the stage in their gowns, suddenly anonymous in their wrinkled brown masks. They could be anyone, and they begin to seem like hallucinated people with hallucinated faces, an effect broken when they occasionally lift the bag to recite some text or peer out as if struggling to navigate their environment.

The collage of text, dance, music, and slides in Being One Being Living moves dreamlike through several phases that end in a sense of joy and completion, of escape from constriction. Throughout, the performance is surprisingly still, as if the dancers were moving in their sleep, their eyes focused on some middle distance or on each other, their thoughts turned inward. When they speak they seem to wake, and the piece would flow, perhaps from a moment of obsessive play (one woman pulling a ragged brown string, the other miming the same motion) to a moment of almost comic seriousness (reciting Stein’s meditation on disillusionment: “This then makes an old man or an old woman out of you”).

Schmitt’s Testify and Skiles’s She May Be Coming at Any Moment Darling, which deal more literally with love lost, are less polished pieces, but still the performances had the confident illusion of universality, drawn from the power of intensely personal interactions with Stein’s texts. In the program the performers quote Stein as saying, “It is hard living down the tempers we are born with.” In these solo performances, they use Stein’s language to express those very tempers–magnifying them rather than trying to live them down. In a way these two pieces are the heart, if not the genius, of the evening, expressing the performers’ styles more clearly than I’ve seen them before.

Testify is a self-conscious, slightly wicked exploration of loneliness. Dressed in a frumpy vintage frock, Schmitt combines daily gestures of greeting with limp hops, sways, and stretches that would seem yearning if she displayed more feeling. In an intriguing development in her style, Schmitt’s usually sullen presence is animated by a trickster quality expressed almost solely in her eyes and in tiny twists of her mouth. Otherwise her body seems mechanical, with an incomplete quality that in other pieces has felt empty. The desultory plainness of gesture worked in this piece, however, which combines intriguing if unexplained references to folk songs (“John Brown’s Body”), mildly carnal flirting with the air, and the story of a young boy isolated by the ocean (set to the song “Come Along and Sit by Me”). It’s as if Schmitt were peeking out from a mask in this piece, both present and absent.

She May Be Coming at Any Moment Darling is clearer than Testify. Skiles’s lush vocal range and her startlingly specific gestures make her abstract movements exciting to watch and, eventually, very personal as their power accumulates. A collage about the obsessions of unrequited love, She May Be Coming uses corny country music, brutal punk rock, and peaceful slides of nature to animate Stein’s sparse language. In the work’s most comic moment–Skiles’s slow, methodical roll toward a desert moon projected on the wall as a cowboy sings “I’m Howlin’ at the Moon”–she also manages to evoke bitter sadness. And as each movement pattern evolves, previous gestures become layered into current ones. After the almost ritualistic story of a one-sided love affair, Skiles falls and rolls again, this time toward flames, slapping the ground in spasms as she turns. This is only one of several repetitions that transform the piece into a landscape evocative not only of Stein’s words but of her narrative technique. More important, though, it reveals the contradictions that make Skiles’s thinking and performance so intriguing.

At once dissonant, violent, and gentle, “Being One Being Living” gave classic texts flesh through the distinct personalities of the performers. It’s as if these women have begun to see, with Stein, that our “bottom natures,” distinct and eccentric, are “the really harmless ones to own, nay…they give a charm to any character.” In the end the developing eccentricities of these talented women, as filtered through the erotic and verbally complex frame of Stein’s own eccentricities, are what made the landscape of this evening worth exploring.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): performance still/ uncredited.