nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2007
From what I know of her, I suspect Gertrude Stein would have approved of Steinese TakeOut, the hour-long retrospective of seven of her short plays that is currently happening at The Red Room. Drew Pisarra hosts this delightfully informal, salon-like evening—barefoot and in pajamas, appropriately enough—and his gracious, bemused, and entirely unironic attitude towards this bewilderingly obscure material proves infectious. You wouldn't think that an hour of dense obtuseness could be fun, but in the hands of Pisarra and his game collaborators, it absolutely is.
It also offers the exceedingly rare opportunity to actually see, on the stage, work by one of the last century's most famous and influential (yet seldom read or understood) intellectual artists. The works on view here were all unfamiliar to me; they include Bonne Annee, Captain Walter Arnold, Ladies Voices, Curtain Raiser, Parlor, Play I[-III], and I Like It to be a Play. They're all poetic texts that don't seem to care about or respect the conventions, let alone the needs, of live theatre presentation. Some repeat words and phrases in the way we associate with Stein while others feel like non-sequitur nonsense and still others veer toward the accessible and profound. The six directors who tackle these works apply a variety of strategies to put them on their feet (the directors are Ryan Bronz, Andrew Frank, Drew Pisarra, Deanna Fleysher, Peter Campbell, and Eve Hartmann, listed in the same order as their contributions).
To my mind, the less successful pieces here are the ones that constrain themselves to the amorphous but very recognizable realm of experimental/avant-garde theatre; these stagings simply highlight the fact that innovation can indeed quickly go out of date.
But Andrew Frank's noir-inflected Captain Walter Arnold imposes an unexpected style, story, and mood on a text that, I imagine, is as sketchy as can be on paper. In it, Fiona Jones plays a scary dominatrix/gangster's moll sort of gal who is extracting dangerous retribution and/or confession from a man portrayed by Ridley Parson. It's not loaded with sense, exactly, but rather successfully aims for the gut, creating a strongly visceral impact that's quite satisfying.
Pisarra's two contributions are probably my favorites in the evening. Ladies Voices is done as a video, and is quite entertaining. Curtain Raiser is a splendid aural/visual joke/surprise whose exact nature must not be revealed; suffice to say that Pisarra informs us, right before the piece begins, that in keeping with Stein's penchant for minimalism, he has found a way here to dispense not only with plot, character, setting, and theme, but also with actors.
Surrounding the plays throughout is a relaxed, fun ambience (including a quiz) that covers the transitions effervescently and effectively. Producers of evenings of one-acts can learn much from Pisarra and company about how to make a program of even the most disconnected and discombobulating material go down, not like medicine, but like the comfortable carry-out food that Steinese TakeOut's title (and menu-like program) promise. Tasty stuff!