Friday, December 6, 2013

Theatre: Gertrude Stein and a Companion

By Win Wells
Her Infinite Variety Ensemble
Directed by Helen Doig
Performed by Vivienne Glance and Shirley Van Sanden
The Guild Studio
Until December 14

While I first became aware of Alice B. Toklas, in my student days, it was only because her name was part of the title of a minor Peter Sellers movie of the time. It had nothing to do with her, but made for a great round of charades.
Later, you saw grainy images of a mousy little woman standing with another woman and someone really, really famous, like Ernest Hemingway or Pablo Picasso.
The other woman was Gertrude Stein, and they were perhaps the world’s most famous lesbian couple before Ellen and Portia.
I feel I know her much better now, thanks to Win Wells’s deft Gertrude Stein and a Companion, and a terrific performance by Shirley Van Sanden.
There’s nothing mousy about Van Sanden, but she can play it, and that sets up her characterisation on familiar ground. What she does then, to Alice and our impression of her, is outstanding. Van Sanden makes her feisty, sometimes fierce, funny and downright sexy. She plays Alice from the studious young woman who arrives in Paris in 1907 until she dies, impoverished and evicted from her apartment, sixty years later. She has outlived Stein by 21 years.
Vivienne Glance, who plays Stein in life and as an apparition after her death, is a perfect foil for Van Sanden’s Alice. She captures both Stein’s generosity and her haughtiness, her essential American-ness, in a handsome, evenly paced performance.
I must say Wills is the most obscure playwright I’ve ever not come across – even our friends of last resort, Messrs Google and Wikipedia, are almost no help. His dialogue cleverly uses the cadence of Stein’s own writing to great effect, and director Helen Doig’s decision to let his words do the work pays of in a clear, engaging reading of his text.
I got off to bad start with Van Sanden and HIVE, the all-female ensemble, because of their first production, a misguided Titus Andronicus in which I thought she was fatally miscast. Here she is perfectly cast, the show has been judiciously chosen and produced (in the tiny Guild Studio space in East Perth), and absolutely deserves your attention.

This review appeared in The West Australian 5.12.13       

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