Your eyes will certainly be busy all through "She Always Said, Pablo," the elusive theater piece put together by director Frank Galati, which opened last night in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.
This 100-minute outing, imported from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is awash in lovely images, surprising images, images to tickle the fancy and tease the subconscious. But it will help a great deal, I suspect, if you put yourself in the sensible shoes of Alice B. Toklas.
A little explanation is in order. "She Always Said, Pablo" wants to evoke the fierce friendship between Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. She, of course, was the Paris saloniste and writer who liked to take language apart and then reassemble it in odd and whimsical patterns. He was the prodigiously gifted Spanish artist who was then leading the cubist charge and generally reinventing the vocabulary of painting.
I suppose you could imagine a play in which the two passionately exchanged ideas on every subject under the sun, as they appeared to have done in real life. It is Galati's notion, however, that their friendship might be more fruitfully illustrated by an evening of Stein's words, delivered by performers dressed as figures from Picasso's canvases.
Galati has borrowed his excerpts from, among others, Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" and "The Mother of Us All," and her opera "Four Saints in Three Acts." Meanwhile, his designers, inspired by Picasso, have turned the performers into saltimbanques, harlequins, ballerinas, various "demoiselles" with their multi-featured faces, and, representing the artist himself, a matador and a Minotaur.
If you add into this mix music by Igor Stravinsky and Virgil Thomson and a selection from Picasso's one foray into play writing, "Desire Caught by the Tail," you have a decidedly esoteric mix. Not since the days of Peter Sellars has the Eisenhower Theater ventured out this far on a stylistic limb.
For some, that will be cause for jubilation. Others will be tempted to run as fast as they can in the other direction. That's why I say that it helps to put yourself in the shoes of Stein's longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas. Garbed in a severe black dress and black hat, a handbag suspended from the crook of her arm, she wanders about the stage, smoking a cigarette and drinking in the wonders unfolding about her. Now and then, she stops to tell us anecdotes about Gertrude and Pablo, two of the incontestable geniuses she has known in her life. But she doesn't try to explain them to us and probably couldn't, even if she tried. No, she just wants us to marvel at their originality, as she does.
Adopting her attitude will allow you to derive the maximum enjoyment from "She Always Said, Pablo" with the minimum frustration. Any attempts to account rationally for its shifts of mood or to shake sense into the tumble and tumult of Stein's words are probably destined for checkmate. This is not a play, but a playground.
To the rumble of thunder, a parasol pokes its way up through the stage floor, followed by a defiant matador. What ensues is a swirl of parades and processionals, word games and costume parties. Gravity is banished -- literally and metaphorically.
With the greatest of ease, bodies float through space or swing back and forth the full width of the stage on large balls. Magpies, cuckoo birds and "pigeons on the grass, alas" are profiled against the pastel-colored skies. At the same time, Stein's words, wresting themselves free of grammar's constraints, hum and buzz like honeybees.
Such pieces as "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" and "As a Wife Has a Cow" have the feel of fairy tales told in a foreign tongue. The performers recite them as if they make a great deal of sense -- as if they contain a salutary moral, even. But they are exercises in pure language, acting capriciously. Miss Furr takes off a white stocking and gives it to Miss Skeene, who puts it on, although not before she has taken off a white stocking herself and handed it to Miss Furr. The Minotaur removes his forbidding horned mask to reveal a smaller mask underneath.
A heavenly host of winged saints sings vibrantly, unimpeded by the fact that what is being sung is apt to run along the lines of "To know to know to love her so. Four saints prepare for saints. It makes it well fish. Four saints it makes it well fish."
Pablo dares tread on Gertrude's turf by staging his own nonsense play, in which a creature named Skinny Anguish prepares a fabulous soup in a boiling caldron. Gertrude scolds Pablo afterward by pointing out that "you are extraordinary with your limits and your limits are extraordinarily there." A reconciliation is effected under a mammoth Picasso portrait of a mother and child.
You get the drift, which is how "She Always Said, Pablo" proceeds under Galati's seductive direction. For most spectators, it will add up to no more than a bizarre dreamscape. But as designed by John Paoletti, Geoffrey Bushor and Mary Griswold, the sights are often gorgeous. Peter Amster's slow-motion choreography further contributes to the sense of stately otherworldliness.
While the performers are very much subordinate to the overall scheme of things, Susan Nussbaum (Gertrude), Barbara E. Robertson (Georgine Skeene), Linda Emond (Helen Furr) and Marji Bank (Alice) leave distinctive marks, while Anita Berry and William Bradley-Johnson, costumed as if for a night at the speak-easy, sing their way through "Four Saints in Three Acts" with great aplomb.
Stop, look, listen. Let the interpretations come to you later, as they may. Or may not.
She Always Said, Pablo, conceived and directed by Frank Galati. Words by Gertrude Stein; images by Pablo Picasso; music by Igor Stravinsky and Virgil Thomson. Designed by John Paoletti, Geoffrey Bushor, Mary Griswold. Musical direction, Edward Zelnis. Choreography, Peter Amster. With Susan Nussbaum, Marji Bank, Larry Russo, Russell Page, Carmen Pelton, Anita Berry, William Bradley-Johnson, Linda Emond, Barbara E. Robertson. At the Eisenhower Theater through July 22.