Cubist Twosome

Poignant Irritations paints an intriguing portrait of Stein and Toklas.

Pigeons on the grass, alas.-- Gertrude Stein

It is neither just nor accurate to connect the word alas with pigeons. Pigeons are definitely not alas. They have nothing to do with alas and they have nothing to do with hooray (not even when you tie red, white, and blue ribbons on them and let them loose at band concerts)...Compared with a pigeon, a fish is practically beside itself.-- James Thurber, responding in "There's an Owl in My Room."

Poignant Irritations is too long, some of the first-act dialogue sounds arch -- these are, after all, highly artificial and self-invented women -- but the play clearly functions as art.

Billie McBride and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo in Poignant 
Irritations.
Larry Laszlo
Billie McBride and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo in Poignant Irritations.

Thinking about Gertrude Stein has always filled me with a not-so-poignant irritation. An expatriate who lived in France, Stein created a salon filled with extraordinary works of art (Pablo Picasso painted her portrait; she was friends with Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Cézanne) and frequented by Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other members of what she dubbed "the Lost Generation." Stein was a fierce advocate for cubism and tried to utilize cubist theories in her writing, which is rhythmic and highly repetitive. There are academics who take Stein's oeuvre very seriously, and heaven knows I've tried reading her, often finding an isolated phrase or passage that I liked (Poignant Irritations contains the wonderful line "a comma is holding your coat for you"). But no matter how I try, Stein's work seems to me, for the most, part meaningless babble.

McCarl confesses her own ambivalence about the writing in a program note, but she also describes the process by which she came to venerate not only Stein's literary output, but her entire philosophy of life. Some of the best passages in the play are those in which Stein explains herself, as when she lectures on the meaning of her well-known and much-derided line "Rose is a rose is a rose" and laments that critics take her words out of context. Those words are, she explains, an attempt to capture the reality of the object, to make readers see it anew.

True to the spirit of its protagonist, Poignant Irritationsis a scatter of a work, with no plot or straightforward timeline. Each scene has a semi-nonsensical title: "Scene Sic Tea Nine: Definition of a Secretary," "Scene 5,462: Testimony Against Gertrude," "Scene Infinity: Life After Gertrude, an Oxymoron," and the play consists of jests, insights into the writing or the times, bits of biography, character exploration. I don't know which of the play's bons mots are Stein's and which are McCarl's, but some of them are worthy of Oscar Wilde, particularly delivered with Billie McBride's dry wit, or in Erica Sarzin-Borrillo's flutelike tones.

Some of the scenes are resonant, piquant or funny; some are a perfect marriage of language and feeling, as when Toklas, stung at being called Stein's secretary, searches out dictionary definitions of the term, while a hovering and irrepressibly punning Stein helpfully teases at the word "secretary" until it seems to stand for something wondrous.

The play often comments on itself. The characters discuss the playwright's options or responsibilities. At one point, Stein approaches the stage while simultaneously describing herself approaching the stage.

Halfway through Poignant Irritations, the two actresses change roles -- an illustration of the intense closeness of Toklas and Stein. The results are mixed.

In the first act, McBride had given about as perfect an impersonation of the gruff, self-involved Stein as I can imagine. I didn't like the character, but the portrayal struck me as true. Sarzin-Borrillo made Toklas self-consciously affected, but also a very real and vulnerable woman who gave up her life to become Stein's everything -- housemaid, wife, facilitator, negotiator with the world, even, metaphorically, the paper on which she wrote. This part of director Steve Wilson's production communicated the complexity of the relationship, the darker currents beneath the women's devoted love.

Once they've changed roles, the actresses don't try to mimic each others' earlier impersonations. McBride's Toklas is a shuffling mouse of a woman, less appealing than Sarzin-Borrillo's interpretation. She wears a dark-brown wig that had suited the posing Toklas of Sarzin-Borrillo but is distracting on her. Sarzin-Borrillo adopts a gruffer and more confident manner as Stein, though she remains as fluidly expressive as before. Both actresses are working against type, and though the switch provides a fascinating study in the art of acting, I'm not sure it enhances the play.

These are fine performances, however, and with some tinkering, Poignant Irritations will be a first-rate play.

 
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