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.