By LIZ BYRON. The Jungle Theater’s 25th season opened this weekend with Gertrude Stein and a Companion. Particularly notable is the fact that this is the 8th time this show has been played at the Jungle, and with the same two actors, no less. If a show warrants repeating 8 times, it seems safe to assume that it doesn’t suck, so the question on my mind as I settled into my seat was: is it really that good, or is this a sign of lack of imagination?
Well, it might be a bit of both, it turns out. Win Wells’ script is touching and entertaining, telling the story of Gertrude Stein’s relationship with her “companion”, Alice B. Toklas, from their first meeting to their respective deaths. For those unfamiliar with Stein’s legacy, the play does a good job of giving an overview of who she was; for those who know of her work as an author, thinker, and salonnière who regularly hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemmingway – to name just a few – in her home in Paris, the play gives a fascinating glimpse into her personal life but may feel disappointing in that it doesn’t give much attention to her work or her thinking.
It’s a pretty simple production: set designer Bain Boehlke dresses the stage with an armchair for Stein and a desk for Toklas, and the two take turns telling the story of their years together, from their first meeting, to the day Stein passes away, to the day twenty years later when Toklas also passes away. It’s a long story told fairly quickly, and entirely via anecdotes; descriptions of people who came in and out of their lives, reliving conversations, and discussing how or why they made certain decisions. Indeed, considering the number of years their stories span, the play is very short (about 95 minutes including an intermission) and slides by very quickly.
Claudio Wilkens and Barbara Kingsley reprise their roles as Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, respectively, and while my initial thought was something like, “Really? The same two actors playing the same two roles over and over again? Isn’t that a bit boring?” after seeing Wilkens and Kingsley on stage together, I can hardly imagine anybody else in the roles. They sink deeply into their characters and give performances so full-bodied and complete that, even during curtain call, made me struggle to think of them as actors and not as Stein and Toklas themselves. Bravo. Their performances are what sold me on this one, truly.
When this play was first performed in the early 90s at the Jungle, I can imagine it to have been a bit more revolutionary than it feels in 2015 – it is, after all, a love story about two women who spent their lives together. It’s poignant, watching it and knowing that this is a love story that simply couldn’t have been told during their lifetime. But at a time when same-sex marriage is legal in more and more states, and same-sex couples appear on mainstream TV and in real-life politics, it seems pretty, well, mild.
In fact, if I have one concern about this play, it was simply that I left the theatre feeling that there could have been more of it. That it could have been meatier, told me more about Stein’s thinking, or Paris in the 20s, or what it was like to be in a same-sex relationship in a way that was out in the open yet not spoken of. But really, this isn’t a problem with the script or the production — it’s maybe the problem with picking a subject who is so fascinating! All in all, I definitely see why the Jungle Theatre chose to mount this play an eighth time. Gertrude Stein and a Companion is a sweet, clever play, done here with two amazing actors who absolutely draw you in to their characters’ world.
Gertrude Stein and a Companion by Win Wells, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Runs January 23-March 8, 2015 with tickets $25-43 at 612-822-7063 or www.jungletheater.com