You should see this show. If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you, and you should go back again and again until you do like it. Either that or psychotherapy.
This is only partly in jest. You might find this show dull if you are ignorant of the history of popular music in these United States, in which case you should go and learn something, and then come back, at which point you will feel the appropriate ecstasy. Or maybe you have never sung a song among friends, neither “Amazing Grace” up north nor Stephen Foster down south, neither field hollers in the east nor hog calls in the west, neither doo-wop nor hip-hop? Then join a community chorus, and come back, and bring them with you. Or perhaps you have had such a terrible childhood that you cannot feel the simple love of your fellow man as expressed in social singing and dancing? Seek professional help, please, and then come back.
See Gertrude Stein Saints! and know that you will be healed.
But perhaps you are skeptical, perhaps you have heard all this before? Okay, this is understandable, nothing comes easy in New York except parking tickets. So this is what you will see at the Abrons Arts Center down on the Lower East Side: six men and seven women sing and dance, mostly a capella, for seventy minutes. They are young, students or recent graduates from Carnegie Mellon University, wearing modest but tasty street clothes and carrying no props. Once in a while a cardboard set piece descends against the backdrop with a cartoony U.S. icon: a bald eagle, Mt. Rushmore, a pink Cadillac. Nothing pretentious and no narrative. They call themselves Theater Plastique, and they have devised the show themselves under the direction of Michelle Sutherland.
Wait, what? No narrative? So what do they sing about? Pigeons on the grass alas.
Yes, you in the back, I see your hand. You recognize this from Four Saints in Three Acts, an operatic libretto Gertrude Stein wrote back in the age of No Television (more precisely 1927) for composer Virgil Thomson. Unlike their next collaboration, the Susan B. Anthony bio-opera The Mother of us All, the text of Four Saints deliberately refuses our expectation of narrative. This even includes the misleading title, as there are perhaps twenty saints and at least four acts.
Four Saints is filled with Stein’s typical repetitions and cul de sacs, and on paper it can resemble Gertrude Stein on the Beach. Even the stage directions are sung (Act Two!). Now, thanks to the magic of Public Domain, director Michelle Sutherland and her troupe Theater Plastique have taken this word salad and re-tossed it, adding in savory chunks of Stein’s 1922 play Saints and Singing. Although that too walks the border between serious and silly, the play has some earthier concerns, not only nuns but also starlets, not only canticles but also:
Can tickle. Can tickle. He can tickle her. Can tickle. Can tickle. He can make her purr.
Those are the words, but what of the music? First of all, they have left the estimable Mr. Thomson behind. His music’s faux-naïf surface perfectly matches Stein’s prose and is perfectly respectful of it, but Theatre Plastique, exploiting the necessary grandiosity of youth, have collectively created their own settings, chancing that a little less respect makes greater opportunity for visceral engagement.
Truly a long shot, but they win it by blindsiding us with history, riding Stein’s torrent of loosely coupled phonemes through whitewater rapids of colonial hymnody, 60’s girl group stylings, dust bowl ballads, Civil War laments, and 80’s hip-hop battles–a completely unexpected and wide-ranging cross-section of informal social music-making. They teach us that there is a virtually invisible cultural continuity, that all true people’s music starts as the music of people without instruments, either because their hands are busy laboring or because they are too poor, though sometimes an old turntable becomes a scratchmaster’s Stradivarius, or a kid too shy to sing out becomes a Human Beat Box.
The ensemble couples this postmodern mosaic with an equivalently broad look at dance, including everything from Fosse to Thriller. Nothing American is alien here, a point tapped into place as a keystone by the inclusion of paragraphs from Stein’s The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans.
The music is much like that of their models. Songs improvised in garages, fields, or vacant lots are often short on harmonic and melodic sophistication, but this is mitigated by rhythmic subtlety, verbal dexterity, and, most importantly, brevity. No segment lasts long enough to become boring.
One as-yet unmentioned binder is the ensemble’s acting skills. They efficiently and effectively use nothing but movement and mood to create many social contexts (calling in the hogs, step dancing, divas in concert) and morph smoothly between them.
Every one of the 13 performers gets moments to shine, and shine they do. You can see that they are all fine dancers, but their ability to carry on almost entirely unaccompanied for over an hour without significant pitch problems is exceptional. The well-chosen projections are by Kevan Loney, the flirty but chaste costumes are by Diego Montoya, who also did the scenic design.
En fin, for the so-called adults out there who think they only like gabfest plays, I have news. Did you like Regular Singing? The parts where they just sit around and, well, sing? That’s what this is about. Did you like Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike? The part where You kids get off my lawn! turns into something about community and connection? That’s here, too.
Don’t wait! This kind of art is highly perishable, get it while it’s still fresh.
Gertrude Stein Saints! (through June 28, 2014)
Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street, corner of Pitt Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-351-3101 or visit http://www.abronsartscenter.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission