At Buddies in Bad Times, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas dish the dirt, while Soulpepper tackles terrorism with Albert Camus’s The Just.
Suddenly, Toronto is looking a lot like Paris in the early 20th century. Down in the Village, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are hosting one of their famous salons, while out at the Distillery District, Albert Camus is philosophizing about revolution. If you have only a passing acquaintance with those iconic figures, then these are good opportunities to get to know them better.
Gertrude and Alice, premiering at Buddies in Bad Times, is a lively introduction to the godmother of modernism and her inseparable life partner. It opens with Stein (Evalyn Parry) asking if anyone in the audience has read her complete works. After the expected silence, she says she’ll lower the bar and ask if anyone has read three of her books. More silence. In truth, she’d be lucky to find someone who can even name three of them.
Not that Stein is forgotten. Not at all: she and Toklas, her wife of 38 years, are considered one of the world’s pioneering queer couples. Stein is renowned for championing a young Picasso and influencing Hemingway’s lean prose style. Toklas, a reputably excellent cook, remains notorious for publishing a recipe for hashish fudge. (Actually, it was the Canadian artist Brion Gysin who gave it to her and she claimed never to have tried it.) But Stein, a self-proclaimed genius and prolific author, frequently wrote in a challenging style that managed to be simple and incomprehensible at the same time. She struggled to get her work published in her lifetime and even now most of it gathers dust on library shelves.
Stein did, however, write one very readable classic, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which she cleverly adopted her wife’s voice and perspective to recount their lives together—complete with much gossip about Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the many other artists and writers in their celebrated Paris circle. The witty Autobiography is a primary source for Parry and co-star/co-writer Anna Chatterton’s two-character show, which has Gertrude and Alice alternately recounting their long marriage while also reading, sparingly, from Stein’s work.
A small sampling of Tender Buttons, Stein’s attempt to create the literary equivalent of Picasso’s Cubism, is enough to give you a sense of her obscurity. But her writing could also be a (literally) breathtaking tightrope walk between nonsense and perfect sense, and like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake it’s sometimes best appreciated when it’s read aloud. The most amusing (and erotic) moment in the play comes when Parry’s Stein furiously pleasures Chatterton’s Alice while reciting parts of As a Wife Has a Cow a Love Story. Whether or not Stein covertly intended that rhythmic, repetitive prose poem to imitate an orgasm, it certainly makes more sense when you think of it that way.
The show as a whole could use more daring sections like that. For a piece about an avant-garde writer, it’s rather conventional. And while there are juicy bits about Hemingway and allusions to Stein’s first lesbian love affair, Parry and Chatterton cheat us a little by skipping over some of the more interesting episodes in the Stein and Toklas story. Instead, they keep referring us to the play’s program. This in itself is as informative as the show: a glossy booklet made to look like one of the blue student cahiers Stein favoured for her compositions, it includes a biographical timeline with additional handwritten comments by the two women, plus vintage photos, and reproductions of the famous Stein portraits by Picasso and Picabia.
We can check and compare the images with Parry and Chatterton’s broad, playful impersonations onstage. Parry, her body padded and her hair sheared to resemble Stein’s greying skullcap, moves with a masculine swagger and suggests Stein’s squat earthiness. (Among other things in common, Stein and Picasso both resembled robust peasants.) She speaks in a pronounced American accent that reminds us of Stein’s proud U.S. roots—even if she did spend almost her entire life in France.
Chatterton, scowling and chain-smoking, displays Toklas’s swarthy features and an asperity to counterbalance her selfless devotion, but she overdoes Alice’s signature lisp. (The real Toklas, also American, sounded more refined.)
Karin Randoja, who directed and collaborated on the script, provides a staging that suggests we’re both attending one of Stein’s lectures and visiting her and Toklas’s Paris salon. Trevor Schwellnus’s projections, on a triptych of screens, are most effective at giving a sense of the huge (and once radical) art collection that Stein amassed. Christopher Stanton’s sound design serves up a taste of Stein’s landmark opera with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, as well as her favourite song, the romantic western ditty “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” (Even avant-garde artists can have a sentimental streak.)
Produced by Parry, Chatterton, and Randoja’s collective, Independent Aunties, Gertrude and Alice is Parry’s first production as the new artistic director of Buddies. It’s not as adventurous a beginning as we might have hoped, but it’s still an entertaining history lesson. Or, to borrow the title of one of Stein’s books, it’s full of useful knowledge.
We remember Albert Camus as a novelist—notably as the author of that masterpiece of alienation, L’Etranger, or The Outsider—and as a philosopher; but he also occasionally turned his hand to playwriting. Les Justes (The Just), from 1949, is his meditation on terrorism as a tactic to incite revolution. It’s a history play about the 1905 plot to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, uncle of the Russian tsar. The first half shows us the terrorists, members of the Social Revolutionary Party, arguing over their methods and motives even as they prepare to toss a bomb into the grand duke’s carriage. The second part takes place in prison, where the captured assassin awaits hanging but is tempted with the promise of a pardon for himself and his co-conspirators if he turns them in.
Camus’s drama anticipated the bloody war of independence in his native Algeria; in the post-9/11 era, when we’ve come to equate terrorism with indiscriminate mass murder, a debate over a single targeted assassination might almost seem quaint. But the moral dilemma Camus raises is an eternal one, and is as pertinent to governments as it is to revolutionaries: Can a cause, however just, ever excuse the taking of innocent lives?
It’s not a great play but it is a fascinating one, especially in Soulpepper‘s production, freshly translated for the company by Bobby Theodore and directed with flair by Frank Cox-O’Connell. The first part crackles with nervous tension and blazing tempers; the second one, in the prison, is positively Dostoevskian, with the poet-assassin Yanek (Gregory Prest) confronting a common murderer (Peter Fernandes), an urbane police official (Diego Matamoros), and the grand duke’s devout Christian wife (Katherine Gauthier).
The show also offers one of the protean delights of an acting repertory, with Prest and Raquel Duffy, who were so side-achingly funny in Soulpepper’s recent The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, now just as effectively playing it sombre in the roles of Yanek and his ex-lover, the bomb-maker Dora.
In the past, Les Justes has been described as an intellectual exercise that reads better than it plays, but Cox-O’Connell and his actors prove it has an emotional core to match its philosophizing.