Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road to Operadom
a travelogue of the new opera
Gertrude Stein Invents 
A Jump Early On
with Karren Alenier

For Prior Installments Click Here

For the Steiny Road Poet, every voyage away from home seems to develop its own theme.  A recent trip to New York City began with an accommodating man carrying her luggage up subway stairs.  Setting the bag down, he asked if the Poet knew about Buddhism.  The Poet said that she was going to a play reading about the six realms of Samsara.  She also saw the film about Hassidic Jews entitled Ushpizin, the opera An American Tragedy where the main character loses his Christian and moral bearings, and the Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Odilon Redon's paintings and etchings, some of which deal with a spectrum of religious themes drawn from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism.  


On December 3, 2005, Creative Mechanics Theatre Company sponsored a reading of Juanita Rockwell's play Between Trains.  In an airy fourth floor walk-up studio with many large windows overlooking lower Manhattan, five readers and one narrator unfolded the story of a woman whose worse nightmare is realized — she is naked and alone in a public venue: a platform of a train station.  This is the kind of situation that grabs a viewer's attention immediately.  Then comes a rush of rich language, images, and symbols: the Seven Dwarfs, primeval Velcro, the beauty of imperfection, no such thing as memory only fiction.  Some of the language play anticipates the mention of Gertrude Stein by one of the characters in this line of good and not-so-good rebirths.

In between her own note taking, the Poet watched the playwright, who also wrote a libretto for Stein's children's story World is Round, scribble words on a notepad while nodding or shaking her head.  The process of creating new work is both pleasurable and stressful.  Another artist watching and working was Chas Marsh who will create music and song lyrics for Between Trains.  And who was the audience?  Just scratching the surface, there was a woman who will be producing Between Trains in Costa Rico, a visual artist who designs books of poetry, a dramaturg who Rockwell worked with at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museumof Art where World is Round premiered (also Stein and Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts), a poet-playwright whose new work-in-progress play will be directed by Rockwell this winter.  What also filled out the audience was that the sponsoring theatre group had planned a whole day and evening of play readings and receptions that ran back to back.

How did Rockwell, who lives in Baltimore, manage to have her play read in New York? The artistic director of Creative Mechanics Theatre Company Gabriel Shanks received his M.F.A. in Directing from the Experimental Theatre Masters Program at Towson University.  This is a degree program that Rockwell created at Towson. She also brought most of her readers with her from Towson, giving them some exposure in the Big Apple.  Connections mean a great deal in the world of theater, especially if you can work on a new piece in New York City.


The next day the Poet, her son Ivan and daughter-in-law Jill went to MOMA to see Beyond the Visible: the Art of Odilon RedonRedon who lived from 1840 to 1916 was a painter and printmaker of the mysterious — both secular and religious. His study of Evolution can be seen in his depiction of monster and odd body parts like an eye-balloon and floating teeth that share space with books neatly shelved.  Jill, known in her pediatric dental practice as Doctor Jill, thought the floating teeth would be a great image for her kids to see while she worked on their teeth.  Around 1895 images of St. Anthony began appearing in Redon's work, followed later by Druids, Christ, Buddha, and figures from the old testament like Jacob. What particularly intrigued the Poet was that his promoter was the French decadent writer J.K. Huysman who wrote the cultish novel A rebours.  Other literary friends included poets Edgar Allan Poe and Stéphane Mallarmé.  Cross-pollination between the arts means wider exposure as the Steiny Road Poet has learned in creating her opera.


After the visit to MOMA, an artist friend who has just purchased and renovated a Brooklyn apartment near the ultra-orthodox Jews of Williamsburg suggested checking out Ushpizin, the Israeli film in which most of the actors are real life Hassidim.  After managing to get past the reviews that said the film was charming, the Poet delighted in a story that reveals the closed inside world of Hassids versus the secular world that includes escaped convicts.  The star of the film is not the down-and-out Moshe, a recent convertee to orthodox practice but his wife Mali who alternately shines and spits fire if anyone messes with her life and values as the ushpizin, the holy guests sharing their celebration of Sukkoth, do.  The convicts become G-d's test of faith for Moshe and Mali.  More interesting is that the woman who plays Mali is actually married to the man who plays Moshe.  Shuli Rand (as Moshe), the screenwriter of Ushpizin and a former actor before he became part of the ultra orthodox community, said he would not play opposite anyone except Michal Bat Sheva Rand!  Their energy could light a whole house.


Concluding the trip to New York, the Poet attended the world premiere of Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer's opera An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera.  She discussed the new work in depth in a separate essay for Scene4 (q.v.).   What she did not say already is that the main character Clyde Griffiths of An American Tragedy is tainted by the religion he was raised with.  When Clyde is sentenced to the electric chair for causing the death of his pregnant girlfriend, he protests that he is innocent.  (He just did not lift a finger to help her out of the lake after she fell out of their boat.)  Finally, he regresses to his childhood song about trusting in Jesus in a kind of brainwashing induced by frantic conversations with a prison minister and with his mother.  As some of the audience at the Met shouted Bravo, the Poet thought there must be quite a few believers from the Conservative Right who populated the plush seats at the Met that night and were glad that Clyde returned to Jesus. Or were those bravo shouters glad Clyde got the chair because he was not a true believer?  In any case, An American Tragedy did not put the Poet into the present moment by waking her up to new insights about what is happening now, which is the Gertrude Stein test for good theater.


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About This Article


©2006 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at www.steinopera.com
For Prior Installments Click Here
For more of her commentary and articles, check the



january 2006

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