Gertrude Stein was a genius. A genius. A genius. A genius. Although generally (and rather condescendingly) remembered for investing in modernist art, she in fact helped invent the thing—doing as much as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, or spare-voiced Ernest Hemingway to subvert the sacred conventions of English prosody. In the manner of Matisse and Cezanne, Stein flattened out the literary canvas to draw our attention to its raw constituent elements: words, sounds, rhythms. In the manner of Picasso and the cubists, she disrupted the flow of familiar narratives to render them rare and strange again.
Frank Galati and Stephen Flaherty clearly understood all that when they created their 2006 chamber musical about Stein, Loving Repeating, running now in an amiably bad revival from Kokandy Productions. The piece opens with the great lady standing behind a lectern at the University of Chicago in 1934, delivering a characteristically playful speech on the underpinnings of her oeuvre. Galati's script quotes from Stein's own discussions of her revolutionary intentions.
But those intentions aren't the point of Loving Repeating. Its real subject is Stein's love life—which was, for its way and time (hell, for our way and time considering all the fuss over same-sex marriage), every bit as subversive as her writing. Stein met Alice B. Toklas on September 8, 1907, and the two women remained together—wife and husband, husband and wife—until Stein's death nearly 39 years later.
Stein herself wrote marvelously about their relationship, and Galati has done an elegant curatorial job of excerpting and adapting her marvels for the stage, while Flaherty has brought out their mischievous joy in a score that ranges from ragtime pastiche to more contemporary styles that seem sometimes to allude to Jonathan Larson's Rent. We get the sweet eroticism of "Lifting Belly" ("Kiss my lips. She did. / Kiss my lips again she did. / Kiss my lips over and over and over again she did. / I have feathers. / Gentle fishes. . . . Lifting belly is so strange"), the domesticity and devotion of "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" ("They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay"), and on and lyrically on.
Still, there's a risk in using an artist's art to tell her story, which is that you'll end up subsuming the art in the story. The risk is especially great when it comes to Stein, inasmuch as her writing is so defiantly, so notoriously impenetrable: we may seize on the clean, clear conventions of romance as a welcome relief from avant-garde rigor. She's not so hard to understand, we may tell ourselves. Just a woman in love.
Well, yes and no. Stein was obviously mining her private passions when she penned "Lifting Belly" and gave us the significantly initialed Georgine Skeene. But saying that those efforts amount to diary entries is like saying that Ulysses is a book about a day in the life of a Dublin Jew. As Stein told her audience at the U. of C. when someone asked her about the rose-is-a-rose-is-a-rose line, "Can't you see that when the language was new . . . the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there? . . . And can't you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just worn-out literary words? . . . I'm no fool. I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a, is a, is a.' . . . But I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years."
Despite its good and progressive and entertaining intentions, Loving Repeating by its very nature threatens to drain the red back out of Stein's rose.
And the Kokandy show proves it. If Galati and Flaherty set a sentimental trap, this 75-minute staging by Allison Hendrix falls in up to its neck. Everything is romanticized, not to say cute-ified, into a latte froth. Pseudo-Shakespearean hand gestures make Andrea Louise Soule's dances look as if they were cribbed from the ballroom scene in Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet. Willowy and tall, with a beauty reminiscent of Elizabeth McGovern, Amanda Giles is absurdly miscast as the stubby, plain young Stein—and then compounds the difficulty by playing her famously pugnacious character with a McGovern-like reserve. Emily Goldberg's Alice is similarly confounding.
Worst of all, though, are Hendrix's strenuous attempts to infuse set pieces with dramatic content, resulting—ironically enough—in emotional gibberish. The prime example is her treatment of "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," which is played out with loads of grimaces apparently meant to convey some kind of conflict between the title characters. (Miss Furr seems especially troubled.) What exactly that conflict is, the grimaces never say. All in all, Stein's version makes more sense. v