Gertrude Stein and a Companion

The last play I saw was part of the Women’s Voice festival, and this play should have been included.  With a cast of just two women and a female director, this is exactly the type of representation the festival is fighting for. Fells Point Corner Theater has been moving to update their structure, audience members, and repertoire; and I think they are making great strides.

Although this is a two-woman show, the central figure of the evening is Ernest Hemingway.  He even gives the play its title, “Gertrude Stein and a Companion.” For although Stein and Toklas housed the elite artists and writers of their generation, from Picasso to Matisse, Hemingway refused to accept their coupled status- so they became Stein and companion in his writing, and thus, the moniker.

In the opening of the play, Gertrude Stein passes away.  Her ghost narrates and inhabits the play along with the companion, Alice Toklas.  The timeline is all over the place, as they reminiscence about the past, then jut back into the present, and even dabble a bit into the future.  The cast does an excellent job of maintaining order in what could be a cumbersome time travel episode.  Toklas’ inclusion of canes in her elderly state, and the two women taking on other characterizations in flashback sequences, help ground the time disarray.

The women.  Andrea Bush plays Gertrude Stein in her long skirt and assuming brooch that bobs as she laughs.  Her voice is quite magnificent, and many of her jokes are in the style of Stein’s writing; her famous “a rose is a rose is a rose,” for example, or the way she quips and Toklas repeats it or pick up on the ending punchline.  She moves only a little from her “chair” and when they need to travel, she does so by means of the front lip of the stage versus Toklas’s exits via the door of the apartment.  Bush really embraces the Stein-isms of the play.  She is a highly believable companion and writer, although in love, she falls a bit flat.  Her relationship with Marriane Gazzola Angelella as Toklas is solid as friends, acquaintances, business partners, even two old women who have lived together for years; but in the one flashback sequence where they fall in love, the kiss seems a bit awkward.  They feel more like roommates (stop saying companions!) with a deep respect for one another than hot blooded lovers.

Marriane Gazzola Angelella is in her Spanish disguise, we are told.  She dons a black bob cut and black ensemble, down to her fabulous vintage black shoes.  Her character does seem more affected than Stein, she has to make the decisions, she has to be the caretaker, and when she is left behind, you can see the distraught on her face.  She, like Bush, smokes herbal cigarettes on stage. But only one each, which they quickly half puff, and half put out.  I don’t think you needed the cigarettes in the production at all, but if they are to be included, have someone act like a smoker with them, not a casual interest.  Particularly when they remark how impossible they were to acquire during the War.

The set by Chris Flint looks like the house of a little old lady, well appointed with mismatching chairs, a floor rug, and wallpaper.  The paintings on the back wall vanish during the intermission because “Ravenna,” an old biscuit, take them to storage out of concern for their worth.  The lights remain technicolored where the frames existed though, with design by Chris Allen.  Other than a rough start where all the lights come on at once abruptly, the lighting design shifts slightly to highlight the particular nuisance of time being depicted. Director Anne Hamontree has the women reserved in their acting to showcase the witty dialogue and comedic timing of their exchanges.  I would have liked to see a little more from Bush as Stein though- she seems to be larger than life and held back slightly during her storylines.

The jokes, the name-dropping of artistic greats, and ultimate portrayal of two women joined throughout life, is an English geek’s dream.  I found myself snickering at the utterances and jibes at some of the artistic presences from the past. Even the great HIM-HEM of the sportsman Hemingway.  Gazzola Angelella’s treatment of him comes partly from her jealousy, but the way she spits his name and gibes his masculinity is really very comical.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  If you like witty plays with historical overtures, this is your cup of tea.  If you like women who defy the roles history has set for them, this is for you.  If you want to support women in the arts, and FPCT, this is your ticket.  These women give a wonderful evening of thought-provoking banter. (I)

Runs at Fells Point Corner Theater through March 25th.



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