Theatre Review: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – Gertrude and Alice, conceived & created by The Independent Aunties

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Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

It might seem self-serving that Evalyn Parry, the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, has opened up the 40th anniversary season (“40 Years of Queer”) with her own play, but when a vehicle is brilliant, I say flaunt it. Gertrude and Alice was a giant hit in 2016 and is always welcome.

The play about long time lovers Gertrude Stein (Parry) and Alice B. Toklas (Anna Chatterton) was written by Parry and Chatterton, and dramaturged and directed by Karin Randoja. The three women come together from time to time to make theatre projects under the umbrella name (which I love) of The Independent Aunties. In fact, the eight members of the creative team are all women, which is just terrific from my point of view. (The others are Sherri Hay, set design; Michelle Ramsay, lighting; Ming Wong, costumes; Aleda Deroche, sound; and Christina Cicko, stage management.)

But back to the play. It seems that Gertrude and Alice have come back from the dead to tell their real story. Gertrude, in particular, wants to know if her books are still being read (and is quite dismayed to find out how few in the audience have tackled her canon). The bleacher seating is on two sides with the action in the middle, and so it is an intimate encounter between Gertrude, Alice and us. The audience has also been given a wonderful, annotated souvenir cahier of the timeline of their lives that is absolutely worth keeping.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The sheer brilliance of the play is the very sophisticated script. As well as their original dialogue, writers Parry and Chatterton have incorporated the words of Stein and Toklas from their books, and it is this fusion of the actual and the imagined that allows the real women to emerge. Clearly, their research has been monumental. The dynamic between the two characters is palpable, and the acting absolutely believable. We also get to hear about all their famous friends who frequented their Paris salons such as Picasso and Hemingway (who was apparently a pill). The modern art collection that Gertrude amassed is like another character in the play.

In the case of Stein, her famous (or infamous) circular, repetitive, elliptical “play on words” and bizarre punctuation (or lack thereof), that mirror the construction of a modernist painting, is first and foremost in her dialogue, and many of her most famous quotes make an appearance (“There is no there there”; A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose). We also get a cogent explanation from Gertrude herself about her literary philosophy, in particular, her desire to smash down the very conventions of what constitutes good writing. (“Commas are servile”.) Parry swans around the stage like a queen, sporting her short-cropped hair, cocooned in her padded costume to give her figure girth, her rich, plummy, affected voice filling the stage with grandeur.

Chatterton’s Alice, replete with the famous moustache, funny “s” sounds, humped shoulders, and servile walk, is there as Stein’s apologist, and to set the record straight when Stein veers off course. Her devotion to Gertrude is the focal point of her life. She even converted to Catholicism because that religion embraces an afterlife, and she wanted to join Gertrude in death. (Jews don’t have that belief.) Chatterton, however, never portrays Alice as weak. She is as strong as Gertrude in her own way, and is capable of a dogged feistiness when needed. After Gertrude’s death, Alice manages to fill the stage in her own right.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

There have been two important changes from the initial production. Contemporary artist Sherri Hay has crafted a series of colourful, whimsical sculptures and mobiles that festoon the stage and represent the art collection. These pieces also contain surprises. Lift up one, and Alice’s cooking ingredients are revealed; lift up another, and it is her typewriter. They also have parts that twist off and become a cup, for example, or a funnel that releases the sands of time. The second innovation is that dramaturge/director Randoja has composed a score that literally accompanies the play. At times it is cinematic, a burbling, gurgling electronica backdrop that fits the eccentric natures of the women exactly. Randoja also uses the music for emphasis. Strong chords, for example, underline Gertrude’s declamations.

In short, sometimes all the theatrical elements align to create perfection, and such is Gertrude and Alice. Bravo Parry for bringing back the production.

Gertrude and Alice, written by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry, directed by Karin Randoja, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, tickets 416-975-8555 or buddiesinbadtimes.com.