Local playwright Melissa Lucero McCarl, fresh off the lauded run of her dramatic Frida Kahlo tribute, Painted Bread, says the creation of her next great project, a play about expatriate author Gertrude Stein, resulted from a "serendipitous chain of events." The chance to show off the complexities of the legendary "rose is a rose is a rose" of avant-garde literature, who was also a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, came in the form of a commission that was offered to McCarl by Mizel Center artistic director Steve Wilson. He had viewed some of her past work and knew she was perfect for the task. Her finished effort, a two-woman play called Poignant Irritations, opens Thursday, April 7, in the center's Shwayder Theater. It's the final component of the ongoing interdisciplinary project Upstarts and Matriarchs: Jewish Women Artists and the Transformation of American Art. The series also included an art exhibit, lectures and film screenings.
The show is the product of prodigious research, augmented by Wilson's giving McCarl carte blanche to create a work in her own vision. It was bolstered by permission from Stein's estate for use of the author's own words. Not surprisingly, McCarl came to understand Stein's character far beyond the abridged description most people learn. "She wasn't a just a figurehead, this radical lesbian who lived in Paris," McCarl explains. "The most stunning thing I discovered about her was her mastery of philosophy. I'm still surprised that after all her decades of being prolific as a writer, she was never really acknowledged as a philosopher. Yet it was the philosophy that shaped the writing." And not all of Stein's often obtuse writings are inaccessible, adds McCarl, who came to finally understand Picasso's cubism only after reading the writer's words on the genre. It was an important revelation, as Stein's own disjointed, repetitive prose style paralleled what Picasso did with paint.
With that in mind, McCarl felt bound to pay homage to Stein's own syntactical cubism when she sat down to shape her drama. "The play's structure is unconventional, and had to be in order to honor Gertrude Stein's unconventional style," she says. "I basically put together a cubist play. Each scene is its own entity, and any one of them can be performed in any order." The final sequence of those scenes -- some written as reminiscences and others occurring in present time -- was actually cemented during a couple of workshop sessions. But lead actresses Billie McBride and Erica Sarzin-Borillo, who portray Stein and her constant companion, Alice B. Toklas, help augment the random mood by switching parts at the intermission.
Though Wilson originally envisioned a one-woman show in the mold of Pat Carroll's Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, McCarl's research led her in another direction: "I decided it would be an injustice to do a one-woman show, because so much of who Gertrude was was determined by her relationship with Alice. It was truly one of the great love stories of our times." McCarl notes that Toklas devoted her every waking moment to Stein, managing their lives and paving the way for the writer to be free of everyday obstacles. "They were together 38 years and never spent a single night apart. I wish every artist in the world could have an Alice." Even the play's title comes from Toklas's famous diary: It's how she described the sound of the maid beating rugs in the morning.
A great love story rarely gets in the way of a great story, of course -- and besides, McCarl declares, "I just think that she and Alice were really entertaining people." She hopes audiences will sense that, too. "I hope people stymied by Stein won't let that keep them from coming," she says. "This is actually their chance to understand her and her work better."