Scene4 Magazine-inSight

July 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Geographical History

Upon arriving May 15, 20009, at the KGB Bar in Manhattan's Village, the Steiny Road Poet was given an option to put on her critic's hat for Lindsey Hope Pearlman's and Randi Rivera's adaptation of Gertrude Stein's The Geographical History of America, a show sponsored by "Horse Trade" and "Human Group". The Poet had not planned to pull out her pen, but rather had come to see how Stein would fare in the KGB and something called The Red Room. However, at the box office, a full level of stairs below the KGB, Director Randi Rivera appeared and charged the ions in that small space. Thus, a much larger terrain of toleration opened within the body and brain of the SR Poet. What she viscerally felt was a multi-directional burst of new energy for Gertrude Stein. Intellectually, she could then picture herself opening the pages of The Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind and reading this work. Never mind that she was launching into a possible project to write a new libretto based on Stein's seminal, nearly 1000-paged novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress.


Stein completed The Geographical History in September 1935, after she had flown all over America experiencing what Pablo Picasso "saw" in his paintings, after she had given her lecture tour and lost her identity, after she had met Thornton Wilder who pops up as a figure in this novel with nested plays, this long meditation on human nature, the human mind, and the act and essence of writing. Like her opera libretto Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein blatantly breaches logic and the sense of time. Numerous sections bear the same exact chapter number. How does a critic, let alone an adapting playwright such as Lindsey Hope Pearlman, chart this landscape? Can one drop breadcrumbs? No, Stein's birds, or dogs, will eat them.

What the Poet loves about this kitchen sink work is how many topics of current or historic interest pop into unexpected view. GHofACast1-crThere is a riff on China or china—the earthenware. A recurring treatise on communism (now you see, Dear Reader, why the KGB was a good venue for the Pearlman/Rivera adaptation), propaganda, money, the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt. A look at the detective novel. A whiff of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Also quotable lines abound such as "… what is the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man" or "in the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is." And if you have read other works by Stein, familiar refrains thread through, such as riffs on how are you and you say very well thank you.


William Gass in his introduction to The Geographical History wrote that this Steinian work was an "appropriate" study of the present moment, "mapping body space." He continued, "Life might be long but living was as brief as each breath in breathing." What Pearlman and Rivera did in their interpretation was add a prominent movement element, backed up by live guitar music (think Woody Guthrie) and a pared down script.


For example, the play began with a dumb show. The players Julia Crockett, Phil Gasper, and Lindsey Hope Pearlman entered the KGB in wide-eyed wonder and proceeded to the bar where the three sat themselves (on the bar and not on stools) and did a hear/see/speak-no-evil pantomime. Once the audience was engaged, the dumb show ended by the players jumping down from the bar and running up the stairs outside the room that is the KGB. Spontaneously the audience followed without prompting. The Red Room on the top floor of the building housing the KGB is a black box theater. In the Red Room, the cast played viscerally with selected text from The Geographical History.


According to the publicity for the show, this was to be "a communal experience for the Facebook age." After the show, the Steiny Road Poet settled back at the same table in the KGB and waited to talk to the principal creators. The Poet thought the show was more a Tweeting kind of event. She even went so far to tell Ms. Pearlman that she preferred that, instead of the dumb show, the cast should sidle up to the patrons of the bar to talk about communism, propaganda, and the "little dog who knows me." Right there at that point of "now," the actor could have asked the bar patron and possible audience member to send a Tweet to promote the show. The Steiny Road Poet is all for Facebook, but Twitter is quicker and easier from a cell phone. But hey! The Steiny Road Poet had her communal experience at the KGB, a woman who sat with her and her dramaturg friend Maxine Kern had seen Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, the opera the Steiny Road Poet did with composer Bill Banfield. 

Next up from Human Group at the Red Room is The Hunger Artist based on Franz Kafka's short story "A Hunger Artist." While this is an alternate universe away from Ms. Stein who had a hearty appetite, the SR Poet likes the energy of the Human Group and says go buy a beer and see what happens. Just don't go hungry.


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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July 2009

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