Steinspeak: ‘Brewsie and Willie’

 

As Willie, the amiably angst-ridden protagonist and agonist of Brewsie and Willie might say, “How is it, fellows, that you could make yourself a theater show out of a book by that Gertrude Stein. How is it? How is it, I say?”

In the original 1946 Brewsie and Willie, which turned out to be Stein’s last book, her static and remote writing style combines with the vibrantly verbalized hopes and dreams of young Army men.

The soldiers argue about drinking, working dead-end jobs, the place of women in society and the freedoms and fears of their war service. They ask ,“How can you be a pioneer when there ain’t no wilderness no more?” To them, even the idea of world war is old hat.

A text-driven yet frenetically staged production of Brewsie and Willie returns to the second-floor loft space at 533 Los Angeles St. through June 26.

Staging the play involves an audacious merging of styles — the precise, choreographic direction of Travis Preston; the empathetic, contemporary tone of Preston’s co-adaptor Marissa Chibas; the physicality and bluster of the actors, Poor Dog Group; and elements of Stein herself, whose “rose is a rose is a rose” repetitive rhetorical style has, in the 65 years since her death, fueled at least as much parody as it has praise.

When Preston, dean of the school of theater at CalArts, discovered  Brewsie and Willie in New York’s Gotham Book Mart decades ago, he heard a voice that was not Stein’s. “I recognized my father’s voice in it. Stein clearly listened to the soldiers closely.” Indeed, Stein built  the book on conversations she had with G.I.s at her home in France at the end of World War II.

Preston, whose shows often dispense with language in favor of dance interludes, attempted to adapt the work for the stage in France and Germany, but he found “its English is so singular” that it required a domestic production.

Chibas,  a writer/performer and a colleague of Preston’s at CalArts,  says Stein drew  “from knowing those guys. They’re sitting in her living room. She’s taking what she heard. Some things are very conversational. There’s a lot in the vernacular.”

Brewsie and Willie — portrayed by Jonney Ahmanson and Brad Culver — bear some connection to various cinematic, literary and cartoon icons we associate with “our boys overseas,” such as Bill Mauldin’s jaded cartoon characters Willie and Joe, and the snappy exchanges of Abbott and Costello.

Yet Chibas argues that Stein’s tone comes from the masses rather than the mass media: “She wasn’t really connected to the pop culture of her time. She never saw a movie until very late in her life. She never rode on an airplane until she went to America in 1934, when she was 60.” That was for a lecture tour following the success of her opera with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, one of the pieces that established her remote modernist reputation.

“There’s a dimension of Stein’s modernity,” Preston suggests, “that’s really based on the natural repetition in the way we speak. She listened very carefully and sought to bring that speech into greater focus.”

“The first pass at the adaptation,” Chibas says, “was by Erik Ehn” — formerly the theater school dean at CalArts, now the head of the playwriting program at Brown University. “Travis and I worked from that pass. We did workshops of this for a year.”

Throughout the process, the emphasis was on making the language accessible. “The readthroughs were excruciating,” Chibas remembers. “[Stein’s] writing doesn’t come tripping off the tongue. You have to learn how the words make sense. Then we were focusing certain themes within the novella. There were so many things we had to give up. Even this week, we did a little trim.”

In 2010, the play was a critical success, but it was limited to a prearranged two-week run. The 2011 RADAR L.A. festival, with its focus on evolutionary and collaborative work, seemed like an ideal time to remount. The original cast is back on board, and Preston was reexamining staging until minutes before the dress rehearsal Tuesday night.

“It’s changed since last year — it’s a different space, for one thing,” Preston says. That new space is actually in the same building as the old space, but one floor down. The set includes platforms and hundreds of sandbags, and a crucial element for the tone of the play: the bleak environment outside. The Poor Dog performers yell out the windows onto the seedy street below. Walls are literally climbed, and a fire escape becomes a chin-up bar.

The hard work was done a year ago, but the tangle to contain and reframe Gertrude Steinspeak remains fresh in the director’s mind. “Actually,” Preston confesses, “I was in France two weeks ago, and I had to look at just the script again so I could prep the piece for the remount. And I was like, ‘Man! This is very challenging!”

Gertrude Stein couldn’t have said it better.

Brewsie and Willie. RADAR L.A., June 15-26. 213-237-2800. http://www.redcat.org/radar-la/poor-dog-group

Christopher Arnott

Christopher Arnott has scribbled about theater in Connecticut for over 25 years, mainly for the New Haven Advocate. He blogs as New Haven Theater Jerk.

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