Nobody performs Gertrude Stein these days, and it's fair to wonder if anyone reads her either. Once the seminal voice of the American-in-Paris avant garde of the 1920s, Stein has long been reduced in pop culture to being Alice B. Toklas' companion and to a single line, her patented dismissal of Oakland: "There is no there there."
But even if you know only that line, you already have a grasp of Stein's unique way with English. The mannered approach uses repetition to ironic and comic effect, with the result of making you reconsider the thought--like looking at an M.C. Escher painting, and then looking at it again. Her work is meant to be read on the page, but can it be performed?
Director Michael Counts thinks so, and this rising New York-based experimental artist has employed Stein's little-known text "Listen to Me" for his latest, word-defying stage spectacle at CalArts' Ensemble Theatre II.
The title is both apt and a trick, because while Stein's original could be read as one voice carrying on an extended reverie about two lovers--Sweet William and Lillian--who can never meet and connect, Counts' staging is as much (or more) about watching than listening.
Following a more than 30-year tradition of American experimental theater, which has continued to break down the wall between dramatized storytelling and visual art forms, this production is neither terribly groundbreaking nor new. But it becomes a gradually moving exploration of loss within a performance style that's virtually a nostalgic review of major experimenters of years gone by.
It also has, by the way, an enormously athletic and skilled performance by the CalArts student cast, pushing their skills to the limit in a staging that requires them to put aside conventional views of character and ratchet up their talents in vocal delivery, dance and physical movement. These kids are good. Very good.
For those in the audience aware of innovations by the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson, Peter Greenaway, Mabou Mines and Reza Abdoh, "Listen to Me" will be famililar enough. For those who aren't, this is a shock to the system. Taking a suggestion from Stein's poetic text and then wildly expanding on it, Counts presents threeeach of three characters.
First, there's a man, possibly a hunter, initially dressed for the frigid climes of the North or South Pole and then changing into a much younger-looking private boys' school uniform, and even, at moments, naked.
Then there's a porcelain-skinned woman, able to dress up to huge wedding outfits or dress down to her birthday suit. And there's an art museum guard, who not only moves the opening image of a genteel painting in the style of Constable and Gainsborough offstage but does countless other tasks, down to dictating the flow of the show.
The man is, we're to infer, Sweet William. The woman is Lillian. Each is split into three bodies. But, true to Stein's inscrutable ways, there is a missing fifth character--the show's enduring, unsolved mystery. Counts adds a 10th character played by the show's one non-college pro, Peter Jacobs. Positioned above and behind the audience, he plays, in a sense, the Orson Welles role.
Everyone is miked and amplified, to match the show's massive audio volume, which alternately broadcasts fusillades of industrial music, thunderclaps, Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz," Japanese music and Arvo Part's achingly beautiful "Fratres."
Ken Roht, formerly a key collaborator with the late Abdoh (himself a major L.A. theater voice in the '80s), helped Counts with the music montage, as did Leon Rothenberg, and provided the eclectic choreography, which ranges from hip-hop to ballet to ultra-slow moves a la Wilson.
This, plus Counts' endlessly imaginative tendency to continually update and change the scenery on a set of six long elevated ramps, makes "Listen to Me" a work that constantly feeds the senses while forcing the mind to put all the pieces together.
In the most general way, the sum of the pieces is about the impossibility of the sexes ever truly coming together. Characters here are isolated, separated, rarely touching, never speaking to each other but in direct address or out into the universe, hoping that someone will listen to them.
A key refrain near the end of the eventually exhausting work goes, in true Stein singsong style, "None of the characters have not met yet, and if they have not met, they have not met yet." Using repetition and images of human loneliness--and even a little magic--Counts finds some marvelous ways to make this remark and many others pulsate on stage.
For the record, the extraordinarily well-rehearsed students (too young to remember the old experimental movement but perhaps ready to start one of their own) are: Shaughn Buchholz, Matthew Dittman, Joy Jacobson, Cherinda Kincherlow, Andrea LeBlanc, Bridget Quebodeaux, John G. Sanders, Gene M. Vassilaros and Jabez Zuniga.
"Listen to Me," CalArts Ensemble Theatre II, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia. Tonight and Friday at 8 p.m. $2-$7. (661) 253-7800. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.