Ingenious, maverick writer Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong partner, lover, muse, editor, general manager, cook, confidante and keeper of the Stein legacy, were a magical, ex-patriot couple who lived together mostly in Paris before, during and after the two World Wars. Their amazing relationship is the scintillating focus of Edward Einhorn’s The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at HERE.
This production is Einhorn at his best. He directs with stylized precision, while leaving flexibility for the portrayals of Stein (Mia Katigbak in a forceful, pointed reckoning); Toklas (Alyssa Simon’s sweet vulnerability and innocence is heartbreakingly beautiful); Pablo Picasso (Jan Leslie Harding is ironically magnificent as she imbues the self-important Picasso, his wife and mistress, and other artists with edgy humor); and Ernest Hemingway (Grant Neale’s portrayal is a spot-on laugh riot, his Hemingway a veritable bull in a china shop). As each of the characters announce who they are pretending to be (Stein pretends to be Toklas, Toklas Stein, etc.), we understand the confluence of identity, persona, and image, which must be doubly important for those who become famous.
But where does the pretending lead, and can it ever end? For Stein and Toklas their public lives were partial pretense governed by the culture. Their private lives still involved pretending, but it was fun and farcical; it is what brought them together as they exchanged their beings and flowed in and out of each other’s souls like water.
In fact the four actors play more than 30 characters of artistic renown who flit in and out of Stein’s and Toklas’ salons: Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Picasso, Georges Braque, mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, composer Virgil Thompson and others. The actors hit their marks with marvelous, in-the-moment-truth as they shepherd these renowned personalities (demure Toklas stayed in Stein’s public shadow) into the light of consciousness. We enjoy how the actors materialize these artistic anointed in living color before us. It is clear that they have invested full personal stakes in these portrayals, adding up, through Einhorn’s clever direction, to a masterwork that will not easily be forgotten.
Einhorn has cobbled together these concepts and portrayals from the writings of Stein and Toklas: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, and Wars I Have Seen by Stein, and What is Remembered by Toklas. He presents a light-hearted, whimsical, funny and yet incredibly profound examination of love, being, identity, identity cloaked in the fabric of love and marriage, and interconnected consciousness.
Einhorn’s work also encompasses the philosophical and psychological conundrums facing these two women, whose being decades ahead of their social-cultural time probably helped achieve a timelessness in their writings that resonates today. As Einhorn reveals in the first act, they are suited for one another. Both enjoy the hyperactive comings and goings of their friends, for example. Why wouldn’t they be married? Why not, indeed? Where one leaves off, the other begins. Love fuses their identities, a Biblical conceptualization despite the grossly limited and hypocritical judgment of clerics who frame marriage only as male with female.
Throughout the play, despite the joyful tone and exuberance of the first act, and in light of the coming realities of the second, underlying biases are intimated. Confined by history, Stein and Toklas can move only so far to socialize with others. Thus, even for liberal Paris, theirs is an intimate private wedding. They are joined in matrimony under the chuppah. But outside of this comforting love relationship, Catholic dogma and bias prevail. So they invite artistic friends who are loving and accepting of this consciousness-expanding event. So what if Stein’s brother Leo is appalled? (How this is framed is humorous.) He is invited anyway and Stein ironically clarifies just what it is that he dislikes.
With characteristic chauvinism, Hemingway’s reaction to their lesbianism is typically macho; it is what we imagine Hemingway might say. And it is incredibly funny. Likewise the wacky events of their meeting and companionship and salons, as we journey with Stein and Toklas through wedding preparations and the revolutionary event itself. Their marriage is an ebullient occasion with a hysterical love scene to crown their wedding night.
The worm does indeed turn in Act II. There is money and success and fame and more pretending, which are very real. The couple negotiate the intensity of these events with Stein in the forefront as the genius and Toklas as the handmaiden of her lover’s greatness. However, as Toklas ironically describes the geniuses who interact with Stein, we realize it is the greatness of Toklas to be Stein’s “second.” And considering what type of ethos it takes to be “the second,” the playwright implies perhaps she is not “the second” after all, though in public life she remains an afterthought. What are paramount are the bonds of love.
The second half is also playful and farcical, though. Einhorn has the undertones converge and break the surface. In the finality of the play’s last segment, Toklas shares her heavenly dreams and the reality that followed her life after Stein died in 1946. The play is indeed about public and private image, secret lifestyles, fear of “the other,” narrow-mindedness, paternalism, gender exclusion, and so much more, that to attempt to nail down additional themes would do their infinite variety an injustice.
Nevertheless, as Simon’s Toklas holds the stage and expresses the great difficulties she has when her life history with Stein is nullified by Stein’s family, we know her love will remain stalwart, their relationship firmly held within her consciousness. As she relates this, Simon is breathtaking. We identify with her matter-of-fact tone but feel an immense pain that the relationship, as fertile and productive as it was, was social anathema.
Einhorn has a ball unspooling Stein’s and Toklas’ intense, intimate love as it impacts the journey of their lives to their marriage ceremony, to their final reconciliation to live without each other when Stein leaves this plane and moves (in Toklas’ mind) to the heavenly ethers. Powerful and entrancing is the play’s poignant characterization of their embracing relationship as they extend great good will toward artists of all stripes and sanctities, and toward us with this celebration of their marriage, which finally has achieved an enlightened, whimsical, and beautiful acceptance in New York, thanks to the playwright.
Kudos goes to the production team, which creates the setting with clever minimalism: one sofa, a few chairs, a white wall with a hanging, and empty picture frames that have a symbolic presence and impact in the last segment of the play when they are removed. The well-thought-out period costumes finely enhance the story, reflecting the personalities. Those of the greats who drop by and share heady discourse with Stein and Toklas are humorous, displaying the kinds of signature accessories the luminaries have become associated with. The lighting is and finely done as Toklas stands with the shadows of their former life dissolving behind her.
That Stein and Toklas were intriguing and one-of-a-kind lovers incited energy and thrilled their friends, the masters and geniuses of cultural creation at the time. Einhorn suggests this with nonsensical dialogue in some sections that concerns the identities of Toklas and Stein as people who cannot adequately live without one another. When Stein moves on, Toklas must somehow manage to sparkle, furtively still, in the shadow of Stein’s blinding legend, unable to be fully appreciated for who and what she achieved together with Stein (until this presentation).
What is particularly engaging is what Einhorn’s dialogue shows about Stein’s and Toklas’ salons, their vitality and wild creativity. In their own way they fueled a realm of consciousness, depth, and artistic enlightenment that few artists can conjure up today, except perhaps in a channeling session.
Einhorn’s sumptuous dishing up of Toklas’ and Stein’s world and their dynamic and inimical relationship leaves one thinking. His take on these women and the “larger than life” denizens of their milieu who magnify their relationship enthralls with its uncanny beauty. The artful interactions are seasoned with a dash of whimsy, a pinch of surreality, a soupçon of delight, huge scoops of humor, and handfuls of the fantastical absurd. And for dessert we receive a measure of poignant reality which, in the midst of our enjoyment, startles, mesmerizes, and settles truth into our souls. Wow!
The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is at HERE until 28 May. This is one you won’t want to miss.