Like a Sufi, the Steiny Road Poet is spinning with ecstatic energy. On February 12, 2008, she attended the opening night of Kaliyuga Arts and John Sowle’s new production of In Circles, Al Carmines’ musical setting of Gertrude Stein’s A Circular Play.
The production celebrated the prolific Carmines, who died August 9, 2005, and brought this Steinian exploration of the geometry of human relationships back to New York City’s Judson Memorial Church where in 1967 Carmines, under the direction of Larry Kornfeld, played the piano for the world premiere of In Circles.
AL CARMINES POETS’ THEATER
In 1961 under mandate from Howard Moody, the senior minister at Judson Memorial Church, Carmines, as the new assistant rector, created the Judson Poets’ Theatre. From ’61 to ’81, Carmines wrote and produced about 80 musicals, operas, and oratorios. With Kornfeld, Carmines presented music theater pieces on six of Stein’s texts, a subject the Steiny Road Poet has explored in a past column on Steinian theater. Full of high energy, Carmines wrote and performed a different opening number for each performance of the limited run, original production. The show moved to the Cherry Lane Theatre and in 1968, In Circles won an Obie Award. Apparently there is no one who comes close to what the Reverend Al Carmines did for avant-garde theater, social engagement and change (including gay rights), and Gertrude Stein.
The Steiny Road Poet wagers that on any night of Sowle’s production of In Circles, the individual audience members were every bit as engaging and engaged in all things Stein as this evocative musical. For example, the Poet, as she entered the theater to find a seat, was delightfully surprised to be greeted by her San Francisco-based friend Hans Gallas, who mounts exhibitions on Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. His next exhibition will occur in collaboration with a new Urban Stages production of Ted Sod’s 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris and there was Ted slipping into the Judson Theatre just as two key players were walking around shaking hands and greeting the audience. Carmines would have been pleased to see how this crowd brought so much new excitement to his celebration of Stein.
WORDS VERSUS WAR: STEIN’S PLAY
Stein wrote A Circular Play: A Play in Circles in 1920. Although it does not follow a linear narrative, the play offers cubist cuts of human dramas about loss (a young man is killed in a war, one presumes, based on when she wrote the work, Stein is talking about World War I although noted Stein scholar Ulla Dydo in her annotated collection A Stein Reader points out that Stein is talking about the army of Napoleon Bonaparte), an adoption of a child, several love stories, and the dailyness of everyday, including eating, arguing, chopping wood, and even blowing one’s nose. Maybe Stein means this to be a celebration of life and freedom. This is how the play and the musical begin (the slash represents a line break because the Steiny Road Poet wants to remind you, Dear Reader, that Stein writes everything as poetry): “First in a circle./ Papa dozes mamma blows her noses.” The play moves to the second instance of circles:
Second in circles.
A citroen and a citizen
A miss and bliss.
We came together.
Then suddenly there was an army.
In my room.
Here Stein jumps on the name Napoleon but her second Napoleon is the famous 19th century lexicographer and grammarian Napoleon Cailloux
We asked them to go away
We asked them very kindly to stay.
How can Cailloux be dead again.
Napoleon is dead.
A morning celebration.
And a surprising birthday.
And then the third set of circles goes back to simpler subject matter about food: “The third circle./ Round as around as my apple.”
Carmines began his musical with an amusing round about blowing noses. Mabel (played in the 2008 production by Robin Manning) cues the song by loudly blowing her nose as she stands behind a dozing Mildred (Noelle McGrath). Manning and McGrath are a good team and charmingly comic. In Sowle’s production, Mildred is Gertrude Stein (attired in the expected vest and long skirt) and Mabel (dressed in a lusciously exotic silk print dress) is Alice B. Toklas.
In the Kornfeld production, the players who sang and acted in the premiere helped Kornfeld create their characters and there was no association of any character with Stein or Toklas. The setting of Kornfeld’s production was a garden party while Sowle’s setting is a tea party where the house manager quietly serves the audience brownies. (Did those few bites of minted brownies make the Poet more of a dervish?)
EVERYTHING AND THE KITCHEN SINK
In Circles is a kitchen-sink musical offering everything from klezmer to ballroom tunes. It runs about 90 minutes without intermission. Including the piano position, the staging for Sowle’s production was nearly theater in the round. Black screens standing behind the audience chairs helped define the theater inside the church’s main sanctuary and to contain the sound inside the staging area.
Sowle, who first produced this musical in 1986 for Kaliyuga Arts in Los Angeles, said in the 2008 program notes that Carmines based his work on a nearly word-for-word rendering of A Circular Play. Sowle also explained that although “the musical adaptation does assign ‘lines’ to characters,” he had been “quite cavalier in reassigning them.” Why? Because “the play suggested [to him] particular events in the lives of Ms. Stein and Alice Toklas and some of their close friends.” If one reads Stein’s play, the first thing one will notice is that there are no character assignments and no stage directions. Stein’s opera libretto Four Saints in Three Acts is also done without characters. Virgil Thomson who set Four Saints made his own character assignments.
There are other touches that make Sowle’s production different from the Kornfeld production, and probably different from the 1986 Kaliyuga Arts In Circles. One thing is that a couple of the players (besides William, the piano player) also play musical instruments. Paul Lincoln as Ollie plays an impressive succession of stringed instruments including banjo and cello. Michael Lazar as Brother plays the guitar. Paul Boesing as William takes the role Al Carmines assigned to himself. Boesing, who is also a composer (he has set Stein’s play Photograph and this makes the Steiny Road Poet whirl with excitement!) and the music director of this production, walks away from his keyboard from time to time to provide instruction to the other characters. Although the improvisational orchestra does not attempt to accomplish what John Doyle did in his stylized production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, there is the same kind of collaborative intimacy.
Another thing Sowle has added to this production is a dizzying procession of dance numbers that include such forms as tango, waltz, cancan, Charleston, cakewalk, Black Bottom, soft-shoe, folkish circle dancing with grapevine steps. The Steiny Road Poet loves dance and knows Stein’s text was so inclusive that these dance numbers begged to be done, but the Poet thinks choreographer Jack Dyville had a little too much fun.
One other thing that occurs to the Steiny Road Poet is that the young lovers Brother and Sylvia (the wonderfully animated Meghan Hales) conjured Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the two high school sweethearts of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town.
In Our Town, Emily dies in childbirth while in Sowle’s production Brother dies while in military service. Wilder met Stein when she came to the United States for her 1934-35 lecture tour. He told her that the third act of Our Town was based on her ideas. After Brother dies, his ghost continues to haunt the scenes that follow.
Like a stone cast in water, Sowle and his talented players made In Circles a rich evening of Steinian theater that the Steiny Road Poet will continue to receive insights from. In the meantime as she continues to spin with excitement, she knows better how to travel in the presence of the Divine. Hats off to Al Carmines!
Photos - John Sowle