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By Jonathan Kalb

By Gertrude Stein
The Performing Garage
33 Wooster Street


According to a famous myth, Picasso found it impossible to paint a likeness of Gertrude Stein in eighty sittings, but captured it exquisitely months later from memory. True or not, this story has served over the years as a testament to Picasso's genius, to the power of subjective impression, and to the triumph of modernism in freeing artists from slavish dependency on direct observation. The myth also reflects on Stein, though, and suggests a somewhat more current paradigm of the artist who successfully eludes encapsulation, whose work tends to slip further away the closer one stares at it, but who (like Samuel Beckett) seems to invite the very sort of dogged, assiduous scrutiny that conceals her essence. Long cherished as a world-class figure for her stories, sketches and essays, Stein, author of over seventy plays, has remained obscure as a dramatist--partly because of her deliberate abstruseness of course, but also because most directors lack the insight, imagination and patience to paint her work, as it were, from memory. That's what the plays really require, and that's what Elizabeth LeCompte does best.

A year ago, I wrote that LeCompte's kabuki-inspired production of The Emperor Jones with The Wooster Group wasn't merely an interesting adaptation but rather the best production of that O'Neill play I'd seen. Now, House/Lights--LeCompte's version of Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, which has opened for review after two years of development in rehearsal and on tour--is the most inspired production of Gertrude Stein I've seen. It's certainly the only one I've fully enjoyed. LeCompte's instinct for finding classic texts that are indeed freshened and clarified by her explosive multimedia deconstructions is, once again, part of what's impressive. Devoid of the arbitrariness and triviality that plagues so much other multimedia work, her pieces lay bare what was essential and enduring in the original texts and then force that core into intensely revealing interaction with mediated detritus from today's surrounding cultural environment.

Faustus was originally written as an opera libretto in 1938, and it has the reputation of being one of Stein's most accessible dramas, not because it's really any easier to follow in performance than her other work, but because it's rooted in a familiar legend and makes some compromises with chronological time (events in one act actually seem to follow from those in the previous one, and so on). The title character is the inventor of electric light and seems to be a figure for an era that has sold its soul for technology. Faustus complicates this neat picture, however, by arguing with Mephisto over whether he really has a soul to sell and otherwise speaking as if he doesn't consider the deal certain or final. The lights sometimes sing and dance like an inanimate chorus, characters switch sexes and become plural willy-nilly, stage directions and character designations are often indistinguishable from dialogue, and a young woman named "Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel," who seeks help from Faustus after being bitten by a phallic "viper," becomes a second protagonist. In the end, Faustus longs for darkness and begs Mephisto to take him to hell "I have sold my soul to make a light and the light is bright but not interesting in my sight"), his final despair in part a reaction to Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel's progress toward sexual independence.

As one might expect, LeCompte has pumped this old text, with its complicated semantic humor and dense web of classical references, full of her particular frenetically savvy and technophilic energy. The set (by Jim Findlay) is an architectonic thicket of metal frames and railings, seesaw ramps with sliding tables, video monitors, wide banks of bright fluorescent striplights, stools, couches and numerous incandescent lights of different styles, including several huge bulbs hanging on hinged strips from a mobile pipe overhead. The eight actors dash madly about these obstacles with a surefooted awkwardness that strongly recalls Richard Foreman, with Kate Valk playing Faustus in high heels and a tight grey dress with an odd bulbous ring around the buttocks similar to the one she wore as Brutus Jones. Suzzy Roche is similarly encumbered as Mephisto with badly pencilled eyebrows and little goat-horns on her head. Voices are miked, distorted and punctuated with quacking, ringing and other sounds, and the actors sometimes lip-synch to snippets of music too various to list and assorted video images ranging from attractive static to Desi Arnez to a water ballet to a scene from Young Frankenstein. One woman spends much of the action delicately "playing"; a laptop computer downstage like a musical instrument.

All of this belongs more or less to the basic Wooster Group vocabulary, however. The really unique and crucial decision behind House/Lights, the one that gave it its fascinatingly ambivalent comic texture, was the incorporation of an inadvertently brilliant sexploitation film from 1964 called Olga's House of Shame (directed by Joseph Mawra). Perceiving the Steinian qualities in an obscure film like this and knowing how to apply them was what I meant before by painting from memory. The film is narrated by a cheery, newsreel-style male voice that tells of a rash of retaliatory violence against female underlings committed at an abandoned mine by a ruthless international crime boss named Olga. The footage itself, however, is always explicitly titillating and seems to mock even this alibi-narrative by concentrating on "torture" scenes in which pretty, deadpan Olga (in high-fashion clothes) seems about as dangerous as a stuffed animal, all the violence is ridiculously phony, and the real action seems to be about consensual bondage games. Olga takes a while to acknowledge her lesbian inclinations openly, and this is one link with Stein and the slow coming-of-age of Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel. Another link, though, is the film's flat, affectless atmosphere and sense of disjunction between words and intentions, words and actions, and actions and reactions. The parallel of this flatness, or deliberate phoniness, is far more compelling to me than the strained plot parallels LeCompte suggests by giving all the Faustus characters secondary names from the film.

Stein thought this sort of disjunction "syncopation" was her word) was implicit in theater and tried to make it explicit in her plays, but LeCompte improved on the idea, using it not only to emphasize the famous "continuous present" but also to reintroduce danger to this self-mocking play. Every time a conspicuously unfrightening torture scene from the film is also acted out live, for instance (as happens several times), the live actors behave in a noticeably more violent manner than the filmed ones, reminding the audience of the presence of and risk to live bodies in this wild play about damnation. Similarly, whenever one of the live actors poses on a stool to duplicate a salacious breast- or crotch-shot from the film, the play's somewhat abstract connection between plural identity and female degradation becomes suddenly and jarringly concrete.

Fortunately, LeCompte is above easy political positiontaking, obviously aware that the whole spirit of this show depends on maintaining the irresolvable rift between sincerity and insincerity. She consequently has no qualms about letting the entire second act (which deals with Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel's "curative" encounters with Faustus and other male figures) become a wonderfully hammy set-piece for Valk. Valk sits center stage the entire time, poised between pillows and framed by metal poles, talking by turns neutrally, snidely and conspiratorially in a dewdrop Betty-Boop voice to a microphone outfitted with a viper's head, the viper speaking back to her in the hilarious, ventriloquist-dummy voice of John Collins.

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, as it happens, has been something of a rite of passage among American avant-gardists: Robert Wilson directed it in 1992, Richard Foreman in 1982, Larry Kornfeld in 1979 (with the Judson Poet's Theater), and Judith Malina in 1951 (the first production of The Living Theater). Unfortunately, I saw none of these versions. I have, however, seen eight or ten other Stein productions (including Wilson's Four Saints in Three Acts and an expensive German version of Faustus), most of which were unbearably tedious, providing me many hours to ponder why this author's particular playfulness is so hard to get right onstage. Stein's ideas and insights about language and theater are no more or less difficult to apprehend, in the end, than those of any other fiercely idiosyncratic modernist, such as Joyce, Beckett or Artaud.

The problem, I think, is the blandness and sleepiness in her writing, rooted in her sing-songy nursery-rhyme cadences and simple reiterative vocabulary, which was always controversial and hasn't aged at all well in the info age. The deadliest equation, in my experience, is Stein paired with a director (such as Wilson) who tries to superimpose a differently faux-naive performance idiom and ends up with a mixture of two flavorless liquids. The best, as LeCompte brilliantly demonstrates, is the director whose street-smarts tell her when to walk away and where to go.



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