GERTRUDE STEIN GERTRUDE STEIN GERTRUDE STEIN -- At the Kreeger through October 18.
Gertrude Stein has survived as a character in modern culture mostly through a few one-liners: "There is no there there," "Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded," and the usually misquoted "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." (There are four roses in that line, not three.)
But Pat Carroll's one-woman show, "Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein," now at Arena Stage's Kreeger after its success at New York's Circle Repetory Theater, shows why virtually all contemporary geniuses (Gertrude Stein would have said "other geniuses") hung around the rue de Fleurus, listening to her every word.
She is shown as a spellbinding conversationalist, sparkling with audacious theories and devastating opinions.
Her language, with all its idiosyncracies -- the repetitions, the avoidance of simple contractions, the ommission of much punctuation -- is more magnificently lucid in Carroll's voice than in recordings of Gertrude Stein herself. Modern art seems young again, when she delivers her thunderbolt pronouncements on it, and its artists step out of their shrines to become alive under her wicked gossip.
The trick of one-person shows is to have an individual discuss his or her own life for an entire evening without appearing to be a self centered bore.No one can accuse Gertrude Stein of not being self-centered, but she certainly was not reckoned a bore.
A lot of the success has to do with the rambling quality of Marty Martin's script, which Carroll commissioned. Although much autobiographical material comes out, it does so in the unstructured conversational manner of illustrating points or bolstering stories, easier to take on stage than first-person narration.
(Strangely, many of these stories are told with different details from those in the autobiography Gertrude Stein wrote for her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Why is she saying here that there was only spinach to eat at the Picasso banquet for Rousseau, when the autobiography says it was Riz a la Valenciennes, a substantial dish? Helene the cook's insult of serving fried eggs instead of an omlette is recounted without the interesting detail that it had been directed at Matisse because he invited himself to dinner after first checking out the kitchen.)
The central drama of Gertrude Stein's life is shown to be her relationship with her brother, Leo Stein, who introduced her to modern art and then broke with it and therefore, inevitably, with her, who had displaced him as its champion. It's ironic -- and fascinating -- that when their final argument is presented, from her point of view and with the incredible success of modern art since to justify her stance, his esthetic judgment against the excesses of the movement does not die under her raillery.
And while one can feel that the power of her passion for art makes her socially irresistible, one can also see, in this portrait, how her pettiness could also make her intolerable. You can understand why so many "geniuses" sat at her feet -- and also why many of them eventually got up and walked out of her life.