Gertrude Stein's Photograph
Walker Art Center, Red Eye, and the New Music Theater Ensemble
WATCHING PAUL BOESING'S musical staging of Gertrude Stein's Photograph, I found myself mentally shackling monkeys to typewriters. How many would be needed before one of them reproduced this three-page, five-act play, a typically impersonal and inscrutable Stein script? My best guess, accounting for keyboard size, word count, and simian ergonomics, is 51 exp. 3000. For so cold and remote is Photograph, and its spare, objective images, that it seems only arguably human; as I once heard said of Martin Amis, reading Gertrude Stein is like taking a blood transfusion from a lizard.
"Everyone asks that question," says composer/director Paul Boesing when addressed with the above theory on Stein's putative humanity. "But for me the play evoked a sense of longing and beauty." Boesing has a history of tackling difficult work; he began his career as an actor with Joseph Chaikin's famously (or infamously) experimental Open Theater, and with Peter Brook's International Company. Upon moving to Minneapolis, he transferred this experience to the Firehouse Theater (where he scored a racy antecedent to Hair) and to the feminist Foot of the Mountain Theater, founded by his ex-wife Martha Boesing.
Paul Boesing recalls first having considered the musical possibilities of Gertrude Stein after hearing composer Al Carmine's adaptations at Judson "poet church" space in New York, where Chaikin and Sam Shepard also produced some of their earliest work. When Boesing came across the seldom-staged Photograph, then, he considered it as musical source material. "Having heard Al Carmine's [compositions]," he says, "I imagined the words to Photograph, with all their rhythms, resonances, and repetitions. You say the words out loud--like 'a rose is a rose'--and you almost can't do it without singing. A rose is a rose. A rose is a rose. You start spinning out sounds until it makes a circle."
Indeed, Boesing's score relies on line repetition to suggest a multiplicity of meaning for each finite image: "Dogs eat rabbits. Rabbits are eaten. Wildflowers drink." These phrases, by themselves, recall nothing so much as Kurt Schwitter's dadaist sound recordings--seemingly random phonemes repeated ad infinitum with almost imperceptible shifts in volume and inflection. At other times, though, Stein's slim script seems a forecast of the literary theory of the 1980's: the violent divorce of the signifier and the signified, the arbitrary name and the actual object it evokes. "Expression falters," Stein says in the first act, later adding the line, "This is not what I meant to say." The reflexive prose continues: "A language tries to be free." She reaches a tonal crescendo early in the first act, pleading, "O come and believe me." (Believe what--that dogs eat rabbits or that rabbits are eaten? Can one have it both ways?) At the end of the fourth act, she elegantly asserts that "Pearls mean some sort of reason," and the fifth act is but a single sentence: "I will never reason away George." With these fragments from 1920, Stein seemingly conceded the impossibility of expressing emotion with words. Or even expressing words with words.
Paul Boesing first presented Photograph in 1979 at a West Bank art gallery, and the show was revived in a 1987 staging by Martha Boesing. One of Martha Boesing's innovations to the production was to ascribe the above "conflict"--the meaning of meaning--to a fictional Gertrude Stein, while dividing the songs among five other actors, figments of that author's imagination. But to convincingly portray a figment seems to be a tricky matter, and the actors and their nondescript choreography here suffer for the anonymity. Such metatextualism sometimes seems lazy; instead of examining the complexities of the source material, the director abdicates his responsibility by hiding behind a mirror that faces back to the author. I think the word for it is postmodernism. Which might also describe the show's music, a pleasantly tuneful and eclectic collection of Tin Pan Alley vocals, Latin rhythms, Debussy-style piano, chorale harmonies, and other atonal, vaguely Copeland-esque melodies. On the rare occasions when the music lags, one can always entertain oneself by imagining sour-faced Gertie singing along.
To say that Boesing has located the "real" story of Photograph would be ill-advised; Stein's script may in fact concern rabbits and their canine ingestion. Yet the Boesings' approach is a mostly thoughtful act of selective interpretation. Modern audiences who still expect more definite truths than this would do well to purchase a subscription to the neo-con Guthrie, or enroll in an introductory semiotics seminar. Or one might take platelets from an iguana while waiting for those typing apes to finish their program notes. CP
Gertrude Stein's Photograph runs through September 1 at Red Eye, 15 W. 14th St., Mpls.; call the Walker at 375-7622 for tickets.