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GERTRUDE AND ALICE: The Continuous Present

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

This might sound hokey, but watching Gertrude and Alice made my insides feel like spring: I was filled with surprise and freshness.

This script was created by a trio of playwrights: Anna Chatterton, Evalyn Parry, and Karin Randoja. In it, writer Stein and her life partner Alice B. Toklas return from the dead to check on Gertrude’s legacy and set a few things straight. (In this review, I’ll refer to the characters by their first names and the historical figures by their family names.)

Gertrude, who declares her own genius, is appalled that so few in the audience have read her work. That’s part of a strategy, I suspect, on the part of the playwrights, who appear to take the piss out of Stein’s oeuvre before opening our ears to it. Stein is most famous for the sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose.” But her repetition doesn’t end there. Take, for example, this excerpt from “As a Wife Has a Cow a Love Story”, which the script quotes: “Have it as having having it as happening, happening to have it as having, having to have it as happening. Happening and have it as happening and having it happen as happening and have to have it happen as happening, soon just as soon as now.”

This style might seem nonsensical or daunting — that’s how it’s always struck me — but consider this: in Gertrude and Alice, Alice delivers these lines as Gertrude brings her, non-graphically, to orgasm. Try reading that quote again with that in mind and it’s familiar, right? I’m not saying that Stein’s intention was necessarily to evoke sexual ecstasy with this passage, but orgasm is a helpful reference point for the big game she was after: in the play, Gertrude says the writer’s job is to record “what you are seeing inside the continuous present.”

So there’s an incantatory quality to Stein’s prose. Gertrude describes her work as the literary equivalent of cubism and that speaks to me of the suspension — or flattening — of time.

But I don’t want to get too heady about this because, as Alice says in the play, early critics dismissed Gertrude’s work because “They simply did not read her without worry.” Intimidated by her reputation, they couldn’t receive her gift. So don’t worry.

Alice’s explanation of Gertrude’s early professional struggles is part of the play’s exploration of genius, which extends into the distorting effects of fame.

But this production isn’t just about ideas. Gertrude and Alice is so emotionally engaging. Tanja Dixon-Warren (Gertrude) and Kelsi James (Alice), who both succeed in enormous tasks of memorization, know exactly what they’re saying all the time — and that grounds everything in their relationship, a love story that includes armloads of tenderness, as well as jealousies, squabbling, meal-making, and humour.

And, of course, there’s the richness of the context of Gertrude and Alice’s fully-lived lives: their friendships with Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway, among others — and Gertrude’s extraordinary collection of early twentieth-century paintings.

As conceived by director Anderson and her team, this Gertrude and Alice is also sensually inviting and playful. In some passages of reminiscence, Alice operates an overhead projector as Gertrude speaks, laying historic photos on top of felt-marker sketches. The lacy suit that costumer Sheila White gives Alice is exquisite, as is the combination of specificity and abstraction in Cecelia Valdala’s set: in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment, Valdala juxtaposes identifiable objects and walls that are framed in with two by fours.

Julia Lank’s sound design supports and enriches the play’s rhythms. And that’s a big deal because keeping those textures coming is what Gertrude and Alice is all about. The script isn’t a traditional, objective-driven narrative, it’s associative — and this production does an excellent job of keeping us in the moment. The continuous present.

GERTRUDE AND ALICE By Anna Chatterton, Evalyn Parry, and Karin Randoja. Directed by Lois Anderson On Saturday, January 21. A United Players of Vancouver production running at the Jericho Arts Centre Annex until February 11. Tickets

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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.