wet earth

She Likes to Talk

There is a telling moment in “Paris Is Paris Is Paris: Gertrude Stein in Paris,” a one-woman show by Tom Parks currently playing at the Carl Cherry Center, in which Gertrude Stein (Carol Daly) expresses her disgust for the callous disregard that James Joyce showed his one-time mentor Sylvia Beach.  Beach, founder of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, had supported Joyce and published Ulysses when no one else would; after it became a success and a world-wide cause célèbre, he dumped her for a bigger contract, leaving her in financial peril.  In Parks’s play, this act of disloyalty earns Stein’s swift condemnation.  Yet in Daly’s subtle portrayal, one can imagine an even deeper source of displeasure: the unwelcome knowledge that Joyce’s famously modernist novel will be remembered as more important to the history of literature than anything Stein ever wrote.  She quickly changes the subject, but the feeling lingers: anything that threatens Gertrude Stein’s sense of herself as the most important person in the room must be banished.

Parks’s witty, well-constructed play is presented as a visit with the grand expatriate author in a salon in her apartment in Paris.  The year is 1945.  Picasso’s sensitive portrait of Stein hangs on a wall.  She sits at a small table; pours herself tea; stands up when the moods strikes her; exhorts the audience to “listen, listen!”; recites some of her writing; reminisces about her past and the famous artists and writers she has encountered; and shares details of a life spent with “Miss Toklas,” the life companion whose “autobiography” (written by Stein) was and remains Stein’s most celebrated book.

Some of the most enjoyable scenes in the play are when Daly winningly recites Stein’s own work, such as the tender Valentine poem she wrote to Toklas (“she is very lovely and mine which is very lovely”), and a brief, rousing rendition of “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” a cowboy song Stein liked to sing for guests.  Despite a life lived abroad, Stein would always consider herself resolutely American.

Daly is a compelling performer and masters Parks’s long, intermissionless script with confidence and flair.  One senses that she could dig even deeper into Stein’s character if given the chance, but this visit with Gertrude Stein is on the whole a polite affair, with drama and conflict kept at bay.  Though I found “Paris Is Paris Is Paris” entertaining, I also found myself wishing for some moment of imaginative fancy, some theatrical probing of Stein’s inner life—something I couldn’t find in a book.  The pre-recorded introduction and conclusion contribute to a certain academic, encyclopedic atmosphere.

Yet Parks takes a palpable delight in Stein’s inventive wordplay and his play is as much a writerly homage to a modernist master as a depiction of an aging woman in a chatty and nostalgic mood.  “I like to talk,” Stein says, and talk she does.  It is a credit to Daly and Parks that our interest is held throughout the show, which runs, perhaps too long, at nearly an hour and a half.

Near the end of the play, Stein reads from an exchange of letters between “Miss Toklas” and “Miss Stein.”  Alice would like to express her mounting displeasure at the visits of Ernest Hemingway, who is uncouth; also, she would like to know how Miss Stein will take her tea.  “I take my tea with neither milk nor lemon nor sugar,” Miss Stein replies, ignoring the troubling reference to Hemingway—another closed door to whatever shadows hung behind the mask of Gertrude Stein’s singular, art-filled life.

“Paris Is Paris Is Paris: Gertrude Stein in Paris,” will play at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadeloupe, in Carmel, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., through April 1.  Call (831) 620-2163 for tickets.

No One Is Alone

Most actors learn their lines, rehearse their scripts, perform their roles, and then move on to the next gig.  But what if the role you’re playing is yourself?

Two upcoming shows will give audiences the opportunity to see the transformative power of live theatre, up close and very personal.  Next week, at the Studio Theatre in Salinas, Hartnell College drama students will present “Can I Get a Witness,” a series of monologues based on personal material, written and performed by the students themselves.  Five years ago, Jeff McGrath, Production Manager at the Western Stage, was given the task of coming up with an event for the spring.

“It was during a mountain bike ride in Fort Ord,” McGrath says.  “I was remembering a conversation I’d had with a professor about what drives us to do theatre.”

McGrath says that when stories are compelling, we in the audience can identify with the story’s characters and its conflicts.  “This can give credence to events in our own lives.  We become a witness to those things that are important to us, which can make our own lives seem more real.  There’s a corroboration: someone saw this.”

And seeing something, really seeing it, can often be the first step toward letting go.

Since the inception of “Can I Get a Witness,” Hartnell students have braved the territory of personal writing and performance to offer pieces about fear, isolation and prejudice.  This year, the theme is regret.  The performances are monologues, but the students deliver them to another individual on stage, who may improvise a bit of dialogue; the other students are also on stage, as witnesses.  This year, there will be seven pieces, including one by a young woman who had a misunderstanding with her sister in Japan over a single word; a student who voices regret to a director; and one who will speak to a brother who took his own life.

Bringing such stories out into the open heals not only the performer but the audience as well.  Here are some more stories: a lesbian mother speaks in loving amazement to her son; a father struggles to understand the death of a child; a woman wonders why she’s had so many strange encounters with the police.  These and other compelling personal stories will be performed on stage this weekend at Spotlife, a solo performance class taught by Clifford Henderson and Dixie Cox in Santa Cruz.  (I’m one of the performers.)  The eight-week Spotlife class takes eight participants through the process of developing an original monologue; the eighth class is the performance.

On the first day of class, those who had taken Spotlife before offered us newbies some helpful thoughts: trust the process; one can always find humor even in the darkest places; the more personal the story, the more universal its appeal; and no one is alone in this.  At the theatre, everyone is a witness.

“Can I Get a Witness,” Saturday March 24, 7:30 p.m., Sunday March 25, 1:30 p.m., Hartnell College Performing Arts Building, Studio Theater (411 Central Ave. Salinas).  Admission by donation.

“ SpotLife,” Saturday, March 17, 2:00 p.m., Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, one block south of Ocean St., Santa Cruz.  Suggested $5-10 donation.

A Genuine Investigator

“But I believe that mysteries surface in unexpected forms, and if I am to be a genuine investigator, then I must follow what I feel needs investigation.”

These words are spoken by a character in a short story by Aimee Bender, but they could just as easily apply to the author herself, whose four books investigate in dazzling prose the mysteries of human emotion.  Bender, who will read from her work and discuss fiction-writing on Thursday at MPC (see below for details), writes stories that are hard to summarize.  A boy whose fingers are keys?  A woman whose children are potatoes?  A girl who is unable to eat food without experiencing the feelings of the person who made it?  When I first heard about Bender’s writing, I didn’t think I would care for it: I thought it might be too sci-fi, or wacky, or whimsical for my tastes.

Boy, was I wrong.

In her two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and two collections of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), Bender writes in an utterly unique voice that marries narrative realism with elements of fantasy and the absurd.  Yet the surreal detail is never really the point.  Yes, a boy is born with keys for fingers, but the story is about finding one’s purpose in life and trying to answer the question “what is the greatest mystery of your family.”  (That is quite a question.)  Yes, the girl can taste her mother’s secret feelings, but is this really so strange?  As children we absorb into our bodies the stories and feelings our mothers and fathers absorbed from their mothers and fathers.  Bender’s surrealist details shine an imaginative light on that which can’t be measured yet may be the truest thing about us.

A major theme running through her work is a hunger for transformation, which can lead some characters to extremes: disfigurement, self-mutilation, the desire to dissolve or pierce through the fixed boundaries of self and escape the burden of loneliness.  In one town there are “scar people.”  The narrator asks, Does it hurt?  “And the scar people nodded, yes.  But it felt somehow wonderful, they said.  For one long second, it felt like the world was holding them close.”

To be held close, cradled, by hurt, comes close to explaining the rich appeal of Bender’s work, which is beautifully written and often quite moving.  In one story, a tiny creature looks at a larger man who is both cruel and forlorn, and cannot understand “the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.”

Bender’s writing unbuckles our hearts.

Aimee Bender will read from her work and discuss the writing of fiction on Thursday, March 15 in the Sam Karas Room at Monterey Peninsula College. This MPC Guest Authors Series event begins at 7:00 p.m.; tickets ($10) will be available at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.  This MPC Guest Authors Series event is made possible with support from the MPC Humanities Division and English Department, the MPC Foundation and The Arts Council for Monterey County.

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