PAPA dozes. Mama blows her noses."
Opening words for an opening night. These will be the first words sung in chorus tonight for the opening of "In Circles," a musical show dating from the late 1960s, with words by Gertrude Stein and music by Al Carmines. "In Circles" will be going round and round at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, starting tonight and running Wednesday through Sunday through May 29.
Mama may be one of those Picasso paintings where you occasionally encounter a face with more than one nose. Picasso was a friend of Gertrude Stein's--like Virgil Thomson, Hemingway, Cocteau and Apollinaire and almost everyone who was anyone in the arts in Paris between the wars.
Or the noses may be plural because Stein wanted to shock people, or because she chose to rhyme. She did that occasionally, but neither rhyme nor reason was what she did best.
What she did best was toss words like a salad. Sometimes, in Stein's hands, a noun changes mysteriously into a verb: "Meat . . . can you meet? . . . And flour . . . Can you flower?" Sometimes strangeness resides in a perfectly flat, conversational string of words, taken down by a mind like a tape recorder, and recording the ambiguities and non sequiturs of spoken language, the senseless repetitions, the vocabulary and pronunciation mistakes, the clashing of incompatible overtones, the way people talk in circles. Stein showed us how we really talk, and because she did it on paper, we have trouble understanding.
It often helps when Stein is spoken aloud. The ear is used to working on scrambled messages; the eye has been pampered by the work of editors and proofreaders and by the fact that you can read a line more than once. Print has the subliminal effect of convincing (deluding?) people that things make sense.
It helps a lot when Stein is sung. We don't expect music to be logical, and her repetitious phrases (sometimes obsessive repetitions, sometimes partial repetitions) are something like the repetitions you hear in a lot of music. Sometimes her words are pure music and you should listen to rhythms and cadences and emotional flavors, not simple dictionary meanings.
For about half a century, Stein's words have been a magnet to American composers--notably Thomson, the first and best known. Some of his songs to her words were sung here a few months ago, when the Kennedy Center honored him in its American Composers Series. His two operas with texts by Stein have had recent, spectacular revivals: "Four Saints in Three Acts" can be heard in an excellent new Nonesuch recording and "The Mother of Us All," now playing in New York, will be at Wolf Trap Aug. 23, 24 and 26. A few weeks ago, there was an all-Stein program of vocal music in New York. It included compositions by Thomson, Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Meyer Kupferman and Paul Alan Levi, and could have included others if time had permitted.
"A room is full of odd bits of disturbing furniture," says one of Stein's characters, near the beginning of "In Circles." The show, too, is full of odd bits. And disturbing. Aided by Carmines' music, many lines that may not exactly make sense do make a strong impression. They can be haunting after you have heard them a few times and let them into your subconscious; they acquire meanings by lying in wait in your mind and popping out days, months, years later, triggered by a random event on which they provide a random comment.
"Messages," Stein says, "are received all the time." They are, in fact, planted like booby traps all through the show. More are received than will ever be understood, and that is one of the things the show is about.
"In Circles" is arranged in sets of circles, some concentric, others overlapping. The script has dozens of references to circular things--apples, hats, eggs, islands, glasses. It calls for "circular dancing." There are semi-abstract circles--a circle of friends and acquaintances, literary circles, religious circles, royal circles (which are distinguished by their color.) Circles are described as "a necessity . . . otherwise you would see no one." The show's thinking is often circular--and so is Carmines' music; sometimes he writes rounds. But his style wanders everywhere--from the cabaret to the outer fringes of opera. One of the most spectacular numbers in the show comes when the performers "sing 50," climbing up through several octaves as the numbers get higher and ending with a thin, piercing "50" gasped out by the highest voice.
Carmines has done a remarkable job of creating music that interacts effectively with Stein's words. Often, the music seems to point the words toward something like a meaning. Otherwise, it serves as a reminder that meaning is not everything in life.