Saturday, February 16, 2008

In Circles

Noelle McGrath (Mildred), Robin Manning (Mabel) (looking very like Stein and Toklas)
in current production of
In Circles. Photo: John Sowle

A FRIEND, JOHN SOWLE, HAS DIRECTED a production of Al Carmines's musical setting of Gertrude Stein's A Circular Play (1920: and included in her Last Operas and Plays). In Circles is a marvelous piece of musical theater, full of entertainment and surprises, sentiment, humor, enterprising in the extreme in its musical mix of high art, klezmer, soft-shoe and show-tune.

And quite faithful to Stein. What do I mean by that. Well, her "play in circles," like almost everything else she wrote, is rooted in the real world and the domestic world, from its opening description of a moment in the Stein-Toklas household
Papa dozes mamma blows her noses.
to its close a dozen pages later, with the writer reflecting on the work just finished
Fourteen circles.

Fifteen circles.

I wonder if I have heard about those circles.
The way to read Stein is to hear Stein, and In Circles makes her audible, and thus provides a marvelous introduction. More than an introduction, though; In Circles is also an enlargement of Stein's original play. Carmines expands it to a full-evening production, weaving, yes, circles around Stein's motifs, lifting a once-only chance remark — Mrs de Monzy has adopted a child — into full-out production number; or assigning lines to one or another of the four boys and four girls in the cast ("boys" and "girls" in the theatrical sense) and returning to them, re-investigating them in new contexts and ensembles, and thus revealing new depth and meaning.
Can you say the page to-day can you say the pages.
In the original cast recording (I know it's around here somewhere) many of Stein's lines thus broken and assigned develop into approximations of the reasonably intoned dialogue Stein no doubt transcribes in her play
He was a disappointment to me. I could not understand the reason for the waiting.
We had our photographs taken, not intentionally but we happened to have seats in the front row near the arena and so when a photograph was taken we were in it.
The result is Cubism, the isolation and consideration of various apparently different aspects of a given event (phrase, character, face) in a manner to enlarge its meanings. This is criticism at its best. So many of the best examples of Criticism are, in fact, works of art themselves, and Theater is the public location of this par excellence.

I wish I could see this production. I can't: it's playing at Judson Church in New York, the place of the premiere of In Circles forty years ago; and it closes this next Friday, Feb. 22.. In the meantime I have to be content with reading the reviews and seeing the cast photos.

And looking forward to another intelligent literary musical, the 1954 Shinbone Alley (book by Joe Darion and Mel Brooks, lyrics by Darion, and music by George Kleinsinger). It's getting a local production by the Camp Rose Players, and I can hardly wait.

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