Bain Boehlke may not like the term, but he is a showman. He understands things such as timing and dramatic weight and harnessing the crackling, unseen energy of a moment.
Boehlke chose the fertile occasion of the Jungle Theater's 25th anniversary season to re-introduce us to "Gertrude Stein and a Companion," which opened Friday night. As we considered the theater's history and the niche this show occupies within it, we had the sense of an event.
This is the eighth production (all directed by Boehlke) of "Gertrude," dating to 1992, and the first since 2001. Claudia Wilkens once again dons the earth-toned vest and long skirt of Stein, slumped casually in a sturdy wooden throne. Content, eloquent and brimming with trademark confidence, she speaks from the afterworld about her life and her relationship with Alice B. Toklas.
Poor Alice. Poor, fragile and forlorn Alice — left verklempt when her life's companion died on July 27, 1946. Barbara Kingsley carries the weight of that afternoon when we first see her sitting at a cluttered desk ruminating on the years Stein and Toklas spent together as darlings of the American expatriate community in Paris. We come to appreciate, through the 100-minute show, that these two Americans were better fitted to the sensibility, the outlook and manner of European life.
Win Wells' script hustles the two women back in time — where they laugh and recall adventures with Hemingway ("He looked modern but smelled like a museum") and the other writers and artists who joined the Stein salon. Wells also slides the temporal dial forward to the 1960s, as Toklas labors to burnish her lover's reputation and manage an estate filled with precious artworks that Picasso dropped on Stein.
Finally, Stein welcomes Toklas to the next realm, and in a gorgeous matrix of dim light (designed by Bill Healey), the two embrace themselves and an eternity.
The many years that have passed since Wilkens and Kingsley first assumed these characters in 1992 have done the actors much good.
Kingsley, dressed in a sacky smock by Amelia Cheever, looks a bit like a Tim Burton character — spindly and hunched, with a great pageboy wig by Laura Adams and the actor's tremulous voice. As Stein might have put it (rendered here in Wilkens' rich, throaty voice), Toklas had a "delicious" paradox of strength and vulnerability in her visage. Kingsley channels that resolve and determination, despite her frailty.
Wilkens, her hair bobbed short, has a stout and blunt manner. Why, she wonders, is her work considered difficult? "Just read the words on the page!"
Wells also adorns his script with lovely, swift evocations of Stein's writing: "Time has a way from time to time of being timeless," she says at one point. How sleek, yet fully redolent.
This occasion, this show coming at this time in the history of this theater, has the air of a family reunion. Boehlke, Wilkens and Kingsley have always figured in the Jungle's life. Watching the work reminds us again of the rich gift we've been given.
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