Note to experimental theater directors: when audience members pass one another glasses of wine between acts, it goes a long way toward creating camaraderie. By the second act of White Wines, a four act meditation on Gertrude Stein’s short, mystifying play, playing under the title Now Repeat in Steinese, the house begins to feel as much like a quirky cocktail party as an audience at a play by an esteemed avant garde writer of the early twentieth century. Under the guidance of producer Drew Pisarra, the program forgoes pretension by staging a delightfully scrappy celebration of one of Stein’s earliest works. The evening is great fun. The so-called Mother of Modernism, Stein’s wordplay goes beyond mere cleverness and into a dreamlike stream of consciousness where sound and meaning blur. (“Modify the brave and gallant pin wheel,” goes a line from White Wines, “Show the shout, worry with wounds, love out what is a pendant and a choke and a dress in together.”) Despite the elusiveness of Stein’s writing – or because of it – she continues to be a staple of downtown theater. What enterprising experimental director could resist such a delicious challenge? The Wooster Group famously juxtaposed Stein with a soft-core bondage film for “House/Lights,” produced in 1999 and restaged it in 2005. Still more recently, the list of theater companies to that have produced Stein’s work includes The Atlantic, Target Margin, Horse Trade, Medicine Show, and Judson Church.
Pisarra himself is no stranger to Stein, having spent more than a decade staging her material. He last produced an evening of short Stein plays at The Red Room in 2007. Whereas his previous Now Repeat in Steinease provided audiences with exposure to a smattering of her little-known work, this time he ups the Steinian ante by literally repeating the same play four times. Taken as a whole, the evening inventively suggests a multiplicity of ways to stage the strange material. Textually broken into three portions, White Wines has no concrete characters, marked dialogue, or obvious plot. The sheer repetition of the evening helps elucidate the text; the later acts are also the evening’s strongest.
The first White Wines of the evening, under the direction of Kurt Braunhohler and Laura Sheedy, is also the most neutral, which is maybe to say the most nonsensical. They split the text into two characters, one played by Sheedy and another by Lucas Hazlet. She wears two white frocks and goggles on her forehead; he a gray suit. It’s a suitable embodiment of the text's looseness, if (like the text) hard to follow.
Ryan Bronz’ film version of White Wines, which constitutes the second act of the evening, makes clear how well filmic techniques can capture the play’s disjunctures. Just as the repetitive nature of Stein’s writing makes it at once easier and more difficult to hear, his editing choices, heavy on looped images and jump cuts, are both mesmerizing and faithfully confusing.
The third act makes the clearest choices of the evening, and consequently yields the most crystallized results. The roles are played here by two women, Rita Marchelya and Amy Dickenson, who bring a suburban desperation to the perplexing text. Director Andrew Frank hones in on references to “a clutch,” making the first portion of the text about two friends out shopping. In the next scene, the lights are lowered and they sit at opposite ends of the stage, on the phone with one another as they thoughtfully sip drinks and engage in a late night chat. We recognize these scenarios from countless romantic comedies (the female version of a buddy movie), but, here, something is off.
Rather than make the play’s bizarre use of language obvious or awkward, placing it in an easily recognizable context heightens its gleeful unease. In one particularly compelling moment, Dickerson tears through a stream of dialogue like the world’s most enthusiastic but clueless actor doing Shakespeare. Her emotional intensity is undeniable, but in this case, the words she’s given to say really are nearly gibberish. Feminist critics argue that Stein’s writing is an intervention in patriarchal language; here it suggests the failure of rom-com dialogue to speak to the lives of contemporary women.
The final installment of the evening splits the action from the text, to great effect. Three aproned women, Susan Slatin, Dorit Avganim, and Heidi Carlsen, go through the motions of baking bread (and also the motions of some Kabuki-slow hand gestures). Meanwhile, the recorded text of the play, read by a succession of three young children, plays on the sound system. To the uninitiated, Stein’s writing can come across as pretentious and inaccessible. Having her words read by children is a brilliant way to locate its inherent playfulness. Alex Confino, Slater Klahr, and Allison Johnston dutifully make out the text with childlike earnestness, rendering words illogical to everyone accessible to anyone.
Now Repeat in Steinese runs Tuesdays in June at Under St. Marks Theater in the East Village. Stein aficionados will relish an opportunity to see the multiple possibilities of this singular work, while newcomers will find a friendly invitation to join in the Steinian fun.