Ingenious, maverick writer Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong partner, lover, muse, editor, general manager, cook, confidante and keeper of the Stein legacy, were a magical, ex-patriot couple who lived together mostly in Paris before, during and after the two World Wars. Their amazing relationship is the scintillating focus of Edward Einhorn’s The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at HERE in New York City.
This production is Einhorn at his best; he directs with stylized precision leaving a flexible openness for the various portrayals of Gertrude Stein (Mia Katigbak in a forceful, pointed reckoning), Alice B.Toklas (Alyssa Simon’s sweet vulnerability and innocence is heart-breakingly beautiful), Pablo Picasso (Jan Leslie Harding is ironically magnificent as she imbues the self-important Picasso, his wife and mistress and others with edgy humor), and Ernest Hemingway (Grant Neale’s portrayals are a laugh riot; his Hemingway is hysterical, a veritable bull in a china shop). As each of the characters announce who they are pretending to be (Stein pretends to be Toklas, and Toklas Stein, etc.), we understand the confluence of identity, persona, public and private image which must be doubly so for those who become famous.
But where does the pretending lead and can it ever end? For Stein and Toklas their public lives were partial pretense governed by the culture. Their private lives still involved pretending, but it was fun and farcical; it is what brought them together as they exchanged their beings and, like water, flowed in and out of each other’s souls.
In The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, four actors play over thirty characters of artistic renown who flit in and out of Stein’s and Toklas’ salons: Ernst Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Thorton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and composer Virgil Thompson to name a few. Each of the actors hits their mark with marvelous, in-the-moment-truth, as they shepherd these renowned personalities (demur Toklas stayed in Stein’s public shadow), into the light of consciousness. We enjoy how the actors have materialized these artistic anointed in living color before us. It is clear that each actor has invested their full personal stake in their portrayals, making for a masterwork through Einhorn’s clever direction, that will not easily be forgotten.
Einhorn has cobbled together these portrayals from the writings of Stein and Toklas (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography by Stein, Wars I Have Seen by Stein and What is Remembered by Toklas). He presents a light-hearted, whimsical, funny and yet incredibly profound examination of love, being, identity, identity cloaked in the fabric of love and marriage, and interconnected consciousness.
Einhorn’s work also encompasses the philosophical and psychological conundrums of these two women who were decades ahead of the social culture which probably helped them achieve a timelessness in their writings that resonates today. As Einhorn reveals in the first act, they are suited for one another in the hyper comings and goings of their friends whose company all enjoy together. Why wouldn’t they be married? Why not, indeed? Where one leaves off, the other begins. Love fuses their identities into one, a Biblical conceptualization despite the grossly limited, hypocritical judgment of clerics who only frame marriage via male and female gender (then, now?).
Throughout the play, despite the joyful tone and exuberance of the first act in light of the coming realities of the second, underlying cultural biases are intimated. Confined by history, Stein and Toklas can only move so far in their cultural sphere and consciousness to meld with others. Thus, even for liberal Paris, theirs is an intimate private wedding; they are joined in matrimony under the chuppah. Outside of this comforting love relationship, Catholic dogma and bias prevail. So they invite artistic friends who are loving and accepting of a consciousness-expanding event. So what if Stein’s brother Leo is appalled; (how this is framed is humorous). He is invited anyway and Stein ironically clarifies just what it is that he dislikes.
With characteristic chauvinism, Hemingway’s reaction to their lesbianism is typically macho; it is what we imagine Hemingway did say. And it is incredibly funny. Likewise, are the events of their meeting and companionship and salons, as we journey with Stein and Toklas through wedding preparations and the revolutionary event itself. Their marriage is an ebullient occasion with a hysterical love scene afterward which crowns their love on their wedding night.
But the worm does indeed turn in Act II. There is money and success and fame and more pretending, which is very real. The couple negotiate the intensity of these events with Stein in the forefront as the genius and Toklas as the handmaiden of her lover’s greatness. However, as Toklas ironically refers to the geniuses who interact with Stein, we realize it is the greatness of Toklas to be Stein’s “second.” And considering what type of ethos it takes to be “the second,” the playwright implies perhaps she is not “the second,” after all, though in public life she remains an afterthought. What is paramount are the bonds of love that tie.
The second half is also playful and farcical, however, Einhorn has the undertones converge and break the surface. In the finality of the play’s last segment, Toklas shares her heavenly dreams and the reality that followed her life after Stein dies in 1946. The play is indeed about public and private image, secret lifestyles, fear of “the other,” narrow-mindedness, paternalism, gender exclusion and so much more, that to attempt to nail down additional themes would do their infinite variety an injustice.
Nevertheless, as Alyssa Simon’s Toklas holds the stage and expresses the great difficulties she has when her life with Stein is obviated by Stein’s family, we know she will remain stalwart with her love of Stein and their relationship firmly held within her consciousness. As she relates this, Simon is breathtaking. We identify with her matter-of-fact tone but feel an immense pain that their relationship, as fertile and productive as it is, was social anathema.
Einhorn has a ball unspooling Stein’s and Toklas’ intense, intimate love as it impacts the journey of their lives to their marriage ceremony, to Stein and Toklas’ final reconciliation to live without each other when Stein leaves this plane and moves (in Toklas’ mind), to the heavenly ethers. Powerful and entrancing is Einhorn’s poignant characterization of their embracing relationship as they extend great good will toward artists of all stripes and sanctities, and extend that good will toward us with this celebration of their marriage, which finally has achieved an enlightened, whimsical and beautiful acceptance in New York, thanks to the playwright.
Kudos goes to the production team. The setting, Einhorn and his team create with clever, minimalism: one sofa, a few chairs, a white wall with hanging, empty picture frames that have a symbolic presence and impact in the last segment of the play when they are removed. The period costumes finely enhance. They reflect all the personalities and are well thought out. The costumes of the greats who drop by and share heady discourse with Stein and Toklas are humorous; they reflect the signature accessories the luminaries have become associated with. The lighting is irrevocable and finely done as Toklas stands with the shadows of their former life dissolving behind her.
That Stein and Toklas were intriguing and one-of-a-kind lovers, incited energy and thrilled their friends, the masters and geniuses of cultural creation at the time. Einhorn suggests this with nonsensical dialogue in some sections which stirs import about the identities of Toklas and Stein who have found their soul-mates and cannot live adequately without each other. When Stein moves on, Toklas must somehow manage to sparkle furtively still in the shadow of Stein’s blinding legend, unable to be fully appreciated for who and what she achieved together with Stein (until this presentation).
What is particularly engaging in the production is what Einhorn’s dialogue twits about Stein’s and Toklas’ salons, yet signifies their vitality and wild creativity. In a way they fueled a realm of consciousness, depth and artistic enlightenment that few artists can conjure up today, except perhaps in a channeling session.
Einhorn’s sumptuous dishing up of Toklas’ and Stein’s iconic world and their dynamic and inimical relationship leaves one considering. His take on these women and the “larger than life” denizens of historical, cultural fame who magnify their relationship enthralls with uncanny beauty. The artful interactions are seasoned with a dash of whimsy, a pinch of surreality, a soupcon of delight, huge scoops of humor, and handfuls of the fantastic. And for dessert we receive a measure of poignant reality which, in the midst of our enjoyment, startles, mesmerizes and settles truth into our souls. Wow!
The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is at HERE until 28 May. This is one you won’t want to miss.
3LD Art and Technology Center and Untitled Theater Company #61’s production of The Pig or Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig by Václav Havel and Vladimír Morávek is nothing short of a work of wry genius. Edward Einhorn who adapted the play into English was instrumental in re-imagining this work for an American audience.
Wonderfully directed by Henry Akona, the production incorporates multi-media, in heightened artistic expression. The innovative and interesting forms elevate and enrich the themes culminating in an empathetic celebration of freedom. To achieve this heightened aspect, all the arts are represented: the dance, live instrumental music, stylistic cabaret songs, tweaked rock songs (i.e. “I’m Waiting for the Man” by the Velvet Underground) light opera, graffiti art video projections, closed-circuit TV, and ironic, comedic structure with a deep underlying message. The musicians/dancers/actors/artists/technicians ingeniously employ their talents in these forms to create a unique and transformative experience for the audience. United psychically, the audience and players collaborate in the jubilee. It is as if they are participating in a necessary cultural revolution, creating their own inner moments of reform for our time in our country. The production massages all the senses, even the sense of taste and smell; there is pig in a delicious langos of pulled pork, (and a vegetarian langos for those empathizing with the pig), as well as beer and sweets for the finale…touché.
In a simplistic form the plot of this musical, dance, “dinner theatre” production is that Vaclav Havel searches for the right sized fresh, live pig sourced from the local farmers so that he can invite his friends for a roast and of course, conduct at artistic salon which emblazons and uplifts the cause of independence. The problem is that Havel cannot settle with a farmer on securing the right pig. The moment he thinls he has purchased it, either the price goes up or the pig is the wrong size or another factor squelches the deal. Running simultaneously with this plot line is the one for the operetta The Bartered Bride. The bride’s marriage is uncertain because all of the details cannot be worked out. Cohering events and plots is a journalist (Katherine Boynton) who interviews the bride-to-be (Moira Stone) and her groom-to-be (Terence Stone) and Havel (Robert Honeywell) about the process of the events and action. The symbolism of seeking something that becomes unattainable is present and the journalistic news reports with scrolls on the bottom of the closed circuit TV screens are sardonically in keeping with the absurd events and mishaps and convolutions of action which, of course, are accompanied by singers, musicians and dancers. For this is a jubilee, after all, and a superlative hint at the revolution which isn’t supposed to be happening, which of course is. Indeed, the very hunt for the pig and the ill conceived matrimonials are revolutionary.
Edward Einhorn is well acquainted with Václav Havel’s works. In his collaboration with the Untitled Theater Company #61, The Havel Collection, a five-volume set of new translations of Havel’s plays, has been published. Their intimate knowledge of Havel’s work was demonstrated during their 2006 Havel festival in NYC. As a result it was not surprising when in 2010 upon request of Václav Havel, Einhorn was flown to The Czech Republic to see the premiere of The Pig or Václav Havel‘s Hunt for a Pig that was the centerpiece of a June theater festival in Brno. What Einhorn experienced while watching the production at the Brno festival gave birth to Akons’ and Einhorn’s conceptualization which four years later is appearing at 3LD in this soul-lifting, interactive, multi-media English version.
This production has been effected like Havel effected The Velvet Revolution swirling into the independence manifested by The Czech Republic. Initially, Havel wrote a humorous dialogue about how he tried to get a pig for a roast to celebrate a feast with his friends. (Is the pig metaphoric?) The sketchy 1987 dialogue appeared in an “underground” magazine; during Communism it was surreptitious photocopies of photocopies. In 2010 Vladimír Morávek rediscovered the dialogue, staged it and the idea grew and developed a life of its own in an all encompassing production.
Morávek added more characters who were then seamlessly interwoven into sections of a Czech operetta, The Bartered Bride. The operetta is a nationalistic work from the 1860s written in the Czech language; it was a groundbreaking move toward independence in defiance of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s rule over them, for the Czech language was never the language spoken. The comedic action of Havel trying to buy a pig for his roast and the plot of the folk opera of a bride who may or may not get married and be at her wedding were beautifully fused together in the Havel/Morávek production. Czech past and present were affirmed with dry humor and celebration reaffirming that the independent spirit of the Czech people can never be contained.
What Einhorn witnessed in the 2010 Czech premiere of The Pig or Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig was an amazing tribute to Czech history and the uplifting of the Czech spirit over oppression. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through fascism, through communism, through The Velvet Revolution (the Czech overthrow of the old regime after the Berlin Wall fell), and the eventual emergence after Havel gained the presidency to the forming of The Czech Republic, freedom was ever present. In seeking a path to define their own way out from control, the Czech people had already defined themselves. It was only a matter of going.
Though communism brutally suppressed any outward show of freedom in 1968, the spirit was roiling underneath in the cultural currents. In a slap dash seemingly random style, Havel, an artist, and others moved on a path from which there was no turning back. Havel recognized that despite domination by others, independence was the only inner path the culture knew to truthfully follow toward the light. From their seeking of it in the 1860s to their gaining it after the Berlin Wall fell, their generational energy is transparent. Anyone looking closely at their culture and ethos would know the eventuality of this demonstration of the Czech spirit coming to pass. Independence and freedom could not and would not be stopped. What is interesting to comprehend in its greatness is that it was fomented via the arts. The 3LD Art & Technology Center and the Untitled Theater Company #61 production of Václav Havel’s Hunt for The Pig underscores how the arts are paramount in fomenting independence and freedom.
By adapting the play using all the forms of artistic expression in this production, Henry Akona, Edward Einhorn and the incredibly talented production team and ensemble are not only shouting out Václav Havel’s legacy, they are reminding us of our own. They are encouraging the expression of our inner drive toward independence and self-definition through the arts, innovation and interactive media. They are hearkening us to establish and maintain a cultural and political unity between and among enlightened artists, innovators, techies, writers, dancers, musicians, singers, cabaret stylists, indeed anyone who manifests his or her expression of independence and freedom through any medium, modality or tool. As this expression grows widespread, its currents flow globally. Other global artists are inspired and renewed by the uplifting spirit winds. Reform and transformation are rebirthed again and again, and there is a renaissance of interaction which reinforces the very deepest part of the human spirit to overthrow the most trenchant, nullifying and damaging impulses of materialism soaked oppression.
Václav Havel and the Czech Republic’s inspiring revolution led predominately by artists against the Philistines, is an example for all time. By revisiting it again and again, in such works as Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig, we are encouraged not to despair of the oppressive political vicissitudes of our time. In the play by Havel and Morávek and in this production Einhorn and Akona counsel us not to accept the lies and gross injustices of a ruling political oligarchy which prizes money and profits over people’s welfare. Our history has shown that like the Czechs, Americans have been driven to achieve freedom, equity and justice. Einhorn and Akona’s production strengthens us to continue the fight against similar types of power domination that the Czechs faced and overcame. As the struggle toward overthrowing lies and hatred transformed and rebirthed us, in the past, we, with innovators and artists must continue this work in unity so additional change is achieved in an ongoing process. Ultimately, the work is in freeing each human heart through vehicles of the arts. This is a work that is never finished.
Along the way there is the jubilee and a constant reminder of the distance traveled; there is the pig roast to which we call our friends in a celebration of the past that has morphed into and melded with the present. The feast encompasses historic and ongoing revolutionary action. It represents a lifting up after tearing down the walls of hypocrisy. Each transformation brings on the next wave of action, and that wave inspires and energizes us to continue ferreting out the lies. For where there are lies, there can be no good thing for anyone, least of all those who control with lies. As Havel believed, “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” Only truth and love benefit the cross-cultural whole.
This is a smashing must see jubilee for the joy, the revolution, the transformation, the brilliance. It is running at the 3LD Art + Technology Center until March 29th.
The review first appeared on Blogcritics.