GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION
at Strawdog Theatre
According to a recent biography of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway said that when Alice B. Toklas entered Stein's life, Stein stopped looking like a beautiful peasant woman and started looking like a Roman emperor. And indeed, the enduring image of Stein is grave and commanding.
So Alexandra Billings--slender, beautiful, and light, the star of such campy delights as Lobo a Go-Go and Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack--would seem a farfetched choice to cast as the mythic Stein. Yet she has the lead role in Borealis Productions' Gertrude Stein and a Companion, now playing at Strawdog Theatre.
Toklas's image is nearly as serious and indelible as Stein's: dark, slight, and slightly slouched, Semitic and sloe-eyed. For this part, Borealis has chosen Jamie Pachino, a dishwater blond who oozes confidence and wit.
Surprisingly, Billings and Pachino work. In fact, they work well, making Gertrude Stein and a Companion a rich and poignant experience. That neither Billings nor Pachino resembles the historical figure she portrays quickly becomes irrelevant. For each has captured the essence of the woman: Stein's elegance and vulnerability, Toklas's resolve and righteousness. (In fact, the only obvious criticism of the production is that Billings does not need what little makeup she's wearing to suggest Stein. That is well accomplished without it.)
Playwright Win Wells uses Stein and Toklas's own words as often as possible, giving the piece a rhythmic, nearly hypnotic quality: "I walked," Stein says about the day she proposed to Toklas. "She walked. We walked." Pause. "We walked together."
Billings's appreciation of these lyrical words is obvious and contagious. Her delivery is sure, playful but never over the top. As Stein, she's almost an innocent. For her part, Pachino gives every word of Toklas's a sensual edge. She's flirting with Stein every time she opens her mouth.
Using text from Stein's writings, letters, and interviews, Wells tells the story of the Stein-Toklas marriage, slowly revealing the inner workings of its dynamic. What emerges is a private picture that's nearly the opposite of the public one: Stein, who sat like a king with Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, was dependent on Toklas for everything, from editing to packing her suitcases. Toklas, who seems so meek in those shadowy photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, deliberately dominated Stein's sexual and literary imagination.
When Toklas disapproved of Stein's friends, as she often did, she could banish them from Rue de Fleurus, their Paris home. Stein could beg, as she often did, but Toklas, who served brownies and coffee to the wives of Stein's guests in the kitchen, always ultimately ruled. Stein wrote about her, worshiped her, called her silly nicknames, and cherished every intimate moment with her. In turn, Toklas nurtured, protected (perhaps overprotected), and reveled in Stein's genius.
In Gertrude Stein and a Companion, Billings and Pachino have a terrific chemistry. They're coquettish, sharp, adoring, and curious about each other and the characters they portray. The interplay gives the piece a spark beyond the page. It takes this very specific story and peels off its layers, revealing a fascinating study in human relations, in marriage, in the science of compromise and the art of enduring love.