JANUARY 2024 | Volume 235


Production image

Photo by Nancy Caldwell.

Gertrude and Alice
by Anna Chatterton, Evalyn Perry & Karin Randoja
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
Jan. 19-Feb. 11
$34/$29/$15 or 604-224-8007 ext. 2

Gertrude and Alice are Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude introduces Alice to the audience as her “young secretary,” but she was also her lover and companion for four decades until Stein’s death in 1946. Written by three women from Toronto who call themselves the Independent Aunties, Gertrude and Aliceis a two-hander in which the characters address the audience and each other to try to illuminate the life and weirdly ingenious modernist writings and artistic influence of Gertrude Stein.

Elegantly directed by Lois Anderson with terrific performances by Tanja Dixon-Warren as Gertrude and Kelsi James as Alice, this United Players production offers a fascinating glimpse into characters whose names are far more familiar than either their lives or work.

Cecilia Vadala’s clever set is partly a theatre, where Miss Stein has come to speak about her art and self-described genius, and partly the Paris apartment thathouses their collection of modern paintings—Picassos, Matisses, Cezannes—(which Alice describes as “our children”), and where Alice, “devoted to Gertrude’s genius,” transcribes Stein’s literary dictation, what one critic described as “the ravings of a lunatic.”

Dixon-Warren does a remarkable job channeling Stein’s stream-of-consciousness way of thinking, speaking and writing, which depends on repetition, looping around an idea, breaking it apart and putting it back together from multiple repeated perspectives to get at its essence, much like Picasso’s cubism, to which Gertrude compares her writing. Early on she riffs on her 1911 piece, “Flirting at the Bon Marche”:

Some are knowing very well that they are living in a very dreary way of living.
Some are coming to know very well that they are living in a very sad way of living.
Some are coming to know very well that they are living in a very tedious way of living. Some are coming to know very well that they are living in a very dull way of living.
These go shopping. They go shopping and it always was a thing they were rightly doing. Now everything is changing. Certainly everything is changing.
They go shopping, they are being in a different way of living.
Everything is changing. Why is everything changing.

And so on. Dixon-Warren also very nicely deadpans, as when Gertrude illustrates her premise that “to be a genius you must do nothing.” As she does just that, Alice describes for us how to marinate mutton. In counterpointing Gertrude’s prolix dialogue, James’ highly expressive face gives Alice her own kind of eloquence. She has the look of a silent film starlet, especially in costume designer Sheila White’s funky-elegant period clothes. Loved the two women’s hats as well.

We learn about Gertrude’s profound influence on writers like Hemingway (Alice hated him); her pioneering use of the term “gay” to refer to homosexuality; their return to America in the 1930s, Stein having finally been recognized as being “ahead of her time”; and some mysterious hints about how these two Jewish women survived World War II in Nazi-occupied France.

As interesting as the art history, literary history, and biography might be, the essence of the show is the tender relationship of this odd couple. I never for a second doubted Alice’s attraction to what she calls Gertrude’s “power and sense of life,” or the love and devotion to each other that they profess. Kudos to both actors,to director Anderson, and to intimacy director k’Aryn Mott. A couple of Gertrude Stein’s titles made sense to me for the first time: Tender Buttons and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Gertrude and Alice will make you want to read some Stein (I recommend selections).

See this smart, fascinating, beautifully staged and performed character study. Highly recommended.



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