Gertrude Stein’s plays are rarely performed, no doubt because they are challenging, not so much for the performer as for the audience. Black Apple Theatre, an ensemble of forty young women, has risen to the challenge by producing two of Stein’s plays: A Circular Play and Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters. With forty talented performers, there was no shortage of enthusiastic audience members, who sat mesmerised, if not completely baffled, by Stein’s plays. Stein was determined to break with tradition and was influenced by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters to experiment with ‘free’ forms of writing.
First up was A Circular Play (1920), which – as it implies – goes nowhere. Not only is this a ‘non-narrative’ play, but the dialogue is fragmented and doesn’t make much sense. Director Cheyney Caddy has carefully choreographed the performers to give an impression of dynamic action and passionate characters, in spite of the circular and apparently meaningless script. Northcote Town Hall is not the easiest place for voice projection: the actors delivered the repetitive, crisscrossing dialogue with subtle differences and vivid characterisation, but often dropped their voices at the end of lines, losing some of the impact. Strangely, the obscurity of the script made it all the more important to hear what was said. By the way, well done to the large and placid rabbit with the non-speaking part, who seemed equally mesmerised by the action onstage!
Caddy has done a great job in bringing out some fine performances and the ensemble is lovely to look at: authentic 1920s-style dresses and a cluttered period set, with chaise longue, piano, ferns, and other paraphernalia, all in the perfect art deco ambience of the town hall. The bevy of girls were all fully engaged, and moved constantly around the stage in a party-like atmosphere, interacting with intensity and switching from camaraderie, giggles and musical outbursts to moments of sober dejection. The music by guitarist Stella Skinner, pianist/musical director Tiffanni Walton and several singers was a definite highlight. Stein was famous for her salon parties in Paris, where the cognoscenti gravitated, and the play obviously alludes to this. There is even a suggestion that Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas are present in the cast.
The second play, Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (1943), was staged at the other end of the hall, using a simpler set with the chaise longue reinstated centre stage. In this later, more accessible, play, directed by Yvonne Virsik, the dialogue is thankfully comprehensible and it is the action that is repeated – three times! There was plenty of audience laughter as the performers warmed to the melodrama with a very physical and lively interpretation – a murder mystery taken to the nth degree of absurdity. The first time round, the performance was hilarious, but the second and third versions did little to build on that humour. Virsik had an excellent grasp of comedy and the acting reflected this, but she could have injected a few more surprises in the replays, for greater dramatic effect.
Again there is a party atmosphere – Black Apple Theatre seems very adept at parties! This time it is a pajama party, where everyone, bar one of course, is murdered. There is a definite whiff of satire here, a reference to the pointlessness of war, which formed the background to the writing.
Overall, Black Apple Theatre displays oodles of talent, heaps of enthusiasm and a fresh and intelligent insight into an obscure writer. They are certainly to be commended for bringing these neglected plays into the limelight and performing them with such vigour and aplomb. This performance will no doubt help launch some interesting careers.
Black Apple Theatre presents
Girls Do Gertrude!
Part of Midsumma 2012
Directors Yvonne Virsik and Cheyney Caddy
Venue: Northcote Town Hall | Main Hall, 189 High St, Northcote
Dates: 24 – 29 January
Times: 24 – 28 8pm, 2pm Matinee on Saturday 28, 6:30pm on Sunday 29
Tickets: Full $25.00, Concession $22.50
Bookings: www.midsumma.org.au | www.northcotetownhall.com.au | 9481 9500