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Review: 'Daring to Be Happy' THE MARRIAGE OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein is a Thrilling Exploration of Identity

"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

In the words of Gertrude Stein herself, life is a puzzle, a riddle and composition..."is troublesome."
These were also the words spoken beautifully on stage at HERE. There may not have been any answers immediately, when the play opened with a riddle that sounded like a logic puzzle to solve, ("I will be playing Gertrude Stein playing Alice playing Gertrude Stein") but one comes away with many thought-provoking questions.
The ingenious Playwright and author, and her lover, Gertrude Stein, and the latter, Alice B. Toklas, were the key players in multitalented Playwright and director Edward Einhorn's latest work, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at HERE in New York City.
So what is this exactly? "The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein" is a play not by Gertrude Stein but is a play by Edward Einhorn that is a play about marriage pretending to be a play about a play about a marriage."
But not exactly. The play is impeccably directed by Einhorn, as the actors shapeshift and seamlessly change identities. The real scene stealer of the night, (although the cast as an ensemble were fully responsible creating brilliantly nuanced theatre) was Jan Leslie Harding, playing "Picasso and Others), watching her perform was a masterclass in physical theatre and farce, as she effortless went from chauvinistic painter, to sassy vixen and many "others" with the flip of a hat. Harding is a veteran of Broadway and avant-garde theatre, including The Green Bird, directed by Julie Taymor, and also s founding member of the Flea Theatre.
Einhorn directs his play with a flair for both comedy and complexity. Mia Katigbak stuns with her delivery as Gertrude Stein, and Alyssa Simon portrays Stein's fair muse, with beautiful sweetness and poignancy. Simon steals the show with two of the most beautiful monologues about a dream she had in heaven "bobbing heads with Solomon," which is one of the emotional highlights of the play. This two-act exploration of life, death, art and love is strung together by an immersive "cocktail break," in which the characters shmooze (and Harding, as the rabbi, kibbutzes) with the audience, who celebrate the marriage of Stein and Toklas. The play delights in humor both heady and lush-out-loud, and an especially comical scene is when Picasso plays both "himself" and his five mistresses in a matador fight. Hemingway, played with great skill, humor, and bravado by Grant Neale, sheds light on an interesting concept that I, at least , had not yet thought about. Why is he, as Hemingway , so taken by bullfighting? Where is the art in that, and what is art, anyway? As Neale points out, bullfighting has everything that is so great about art, about theatre, about genius: life, death, loss, triumph, and outrage. Alyssa Simons's sweet vulnerability and innocence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Pablo Picasso, played by Jan Leslie Harding is magnificent , and Hemingway (and others) is an ongoing masterclass in brilliantly portrayed character study.
The play thrives on language, words spinning circles around each other (much like the characters ) and repetition, and as audience members, we're not given much time at all to get used to it . However, be prepared to be swept away, and suddenly confronted with complexities and philosophies that strike a nerve far greater than intellectual wit and wordplay. Who is pretending? How do we know when we ourselves are pretending? Is identity how others view us or how we view ourselves? And how do we claim it?
Or, perhaps one of the most tender lines in the play, "I am I because my dog loves me."
In an ensemble piece where four actors juggle words like jumping beans, and portray over 30 characters, while at the same time, musing over the meaning of "identity," there is a lot to take in here. The night is further enhanced by the meticulous sound and lighting effects, especially the final lighting cue which ends the show. The costuming is impeccable, as the play opens with Stein and Toklas in white, almost ceremonial robes, and throughout the play, all the way to its finish, as shadows dim behind the fading characters.
With "cameos" by historical figures like Thorton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, and artists including Henri Matisse, the play is still, as Einhorn makes a point to address in the program, more than just a play about the meaning of art. It is a play on the nature of love,marriage, what brings two people together, but more importantly, what brings one closer to oneself. Nothing stays the same, and as Toklas remarks, all the beautiful art that once hung in Stein's home was "turned to food," and when they had nothing left, there was no art to be "turned to medicine." In a world where nothing is as it seems, where is the real value, and what is the value in ourselves?
Through poignant direct address and comical, quick-witted salon scenes, the play leaves you breathless, spellbound, and most definitely thought-full. Alice B. Toklas - as defined by Gertrude Stein, as well as Stein herself were women far beyond their time, and so in Einhorn with his rapid-fire of "ideas and moments." Einhorn creates a world where anything is possible, and ask us as audience, why shouldn't anything be possible with love, with relationships , art and identity?
The good part about a world in which nothing is as it seems, is that everything is possible. This play, "inspired by the remarkable lives of two women," was an exploration of genius, of relationships, if being a whole "person" at any point in time in our rapidly changing world. This story is a " World defined by words," in which one word can become an entire world. And as Einhorn concludes in the program, "it's not really a story at all, just a whirlwind of moments and ideas." Yes it is these moments and ideas that make the place a very powerful of course mean fully realized by a brilliant cast, use of lighting, sound, and costuming.
There is so much to learn, if anything, from Stein herself, who says it best:
"It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.
"One must dare to be happy. "
"You look ridiculous if you dance
You look ridiculous if you don't dance
So you might as well
And dance they do. The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is theatre that needs to be seen, and a dance that needs to be experienced . Catch it until May 28th.

The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein runs through May 28th, 2017 at HERE Arts Center with the following schedule:
Wednesdays to Saturdays at 7PM
Sunday May 21 & 28 at 2pm

HERE Arts Center, is located at 145 6th Ave
Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online HERE.
Or by calling 212-352-3101

The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is an Untitled Theater Company No. 61 production.

Jan Leslie, Mia Katigbak, and Alyssa Simon
in "The Marriage of Alice B. Tolkas by Gertrude Stein." at HERE Arts Center
Written by Edward Einhorn
Photography Credits: Richard Termine.

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