Steiningly Abstract

The group Theater Plastique had a hit at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival with its inaugural production, Gertrude Stein Saints! The show has now returned for a longer run at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, and it’s a compelling, if unusual, piece of theater. Neither play nor opera — as Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein’s original work was, with a score by Virgil Thomson — Gertrude Stein Saints! is more a song cycle. Beyond that, it’s a calling card for the invention and musicianship of an unusually talented group of young performers.

The group, six men and seven women, for the most part sing a cappella, although on occasion they are accompanied by a guitarist. They have adapted Stein’s text, and, under the direction of Michelle Sutherland, perform Stein’s words with dynamism.

Saint Therese, In follow and saints.
Saint Therese. To be somewhere with or without saints.
Saint Therese can never mention the others.
Saint Therese to them. Saints not found. All four saints not more than all four saints.

Or, later on:

Saint Chavez. How many doors are there in it how may floors are there in it how many doors are there in it how many windows are there in it how many floors are there in it how many windows are there in it how many doors are there in it?

What can one make of such abstruse lyrics? Or of “When I wish radishes there”? Or “Pigeons on the grass, alas” — famous, but not more understandable in context. Quite a lot, it turns out. Stein’s words matter less than the sounds, and the cast has abandoned the score by Thomson to set the words to music of its own devising. Producer Jordan Harrison took the stage and informed the audience that the music was written in five days. Considering its excellence, that’s pretty amazing.

Many more than four saints’ names arise during the evening, but Cecilia, Chavez and Ignatius are among the most often mentioned, though counting them up is as irrelevant as trying to find a plot. Two guitars sit on stage but are rarely used. Voices are the primary instruments, and the invention of the performers carries the day. Fingers snap, hands clap, and feet stamp to provide percussion, the latter sometimes with splendid choreography (uncredited) that varies from marching to athletic leaps and even a mock ballet by a young male performer in a shirt with cars on it — he’s the clown of the group, insofar as any single person has been individualized.

The musical settings evoke different eras of 20th-century American popular music. There are elements of bebop, gospel, Beach Boys, '60s folk, yodeling and country — if you close your eyes, you might even hear the '30s vogue for ukulele on a lightly strummed guitar.

Sutherland has staged the proceedings with unflagging exuberance, with an occasional scene making one wonder if there's a plot. At one point, the performers seem to go off the rails mentally, pulling off their clothes and acting crazily, and they end up on the floor, spent. Later on, paper money falls and the cast goes wild, scooping it up and rubbing it on themselves as if it were soap. What it means is anyone’s guess, but the moments pass, and they gather themselves up and move on. 

The backgrounds designed by Diego Montoya resonate with American and beach iconography: Mount Rushmore, an eagle, white picket fences, sunglasses and muscle cars. His beachwear costumes luxuriate in pastels and white. Short-sleeve shirts cover T-shirts and tank tops. Sneakers abound. Some performers have capri pants. (Perhaps the only misstep is putting the sole hoodie on a young black male performer, even though it’s blue.)

The proceedings may be abstract, but the effect is exhilarating. Anyone who wants to venture far afield theatrically will find terrific young musicians and performers at Abrons. Go in with no expectations and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, perhaps even astonished.

Theater Plastique's production of Gertrude Stein Saints! will be presented through June 28, Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.). For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit www.abronstartscenter.org.

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