Staging Gertrude Stein’s Modernism
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Staging Gertrude Stein’s Modernism

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Paris in the early-20th century was a hotbed of artistic and sexual experimentation. Even so, the expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein stood out as a gay Jewish woman whose art was as uncompromising and unconventional as her lifestyle. Stein’s book of prose poetry, “Tender Buttons,” comes to the stage this month in an epic production by the Van Reipen Collective that promises to shed new light on one of Stein’s most challenging and influential works. It starts this week in the East Village.

Born to German-Jewish immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1874, Stein settled in 1903 in the City of Light with her lover, Alice B. Toklas. Stein modeled her famous salons after those hosted by Claribel and Etta Cone, wealthy Jewish sisters in Baltimore known for their major collection of French art. Over the next few decades, she adapted Cubism and other avant-garde painting styles into revolutionary literary techniques. “Tender Buttons,” published in 1912, treats everyday experience in a stream-of-consciousness manner, wrenching the domestic world out of any recognizable context.

First performed New York, Houston, London and Leipzig as an hour-long cabaret performance of excerpts from Stein’s book — which the Leipzig Volkszeitung called “avant-garde with a wink,” and “bewitching” — the stage version of “Tender Buttons” has now swelled to a five-hour production that incorporates Stein’s complete text. Mirroring the structure of the original book, composed of “Objects,” “Food” and “Rooms,” the play features a different director for each of the three parts of the work.

Cassandra Chopourian co-founded the Collective with Gary Heidt, who is the dramaturge. In an interview, Chopourian, who also acts in the piece, told The Jewish Week that the first step was to create song lyrics from Stein’s words. Next, she said, the company strove to “embed her words in fleeting visual images” that may seem illogical and random but that point to deeper meanings encoded in the text.

While Stein failed to speak out against the Vichy government in France, and even translated Marshal Phillipe Petain’s virulently anti-Semitic speeches into English, her work contains Jewish echoes. Heidt identifies Stein’s “kabbalistic” sensibility in that “words have their own material reality that is more fundamental than the reality to which they are supposed to point.” Quoting the gay Jewish poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum, who calls Stein “his church,” Heidt noted that “Tender Buttons,” as its stature has grown, has become a puzzling but profound “sacred text” in its own inestimable right.

Tender Buttons” runs in three sequential parts at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., at East 10th Street. “Objects” runs Oct. 2 through Oct. 5, “Rooms” runs Oct. 9 through Oct. 12 and “Food” runs Oct. 16 through Oct. 19. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $15, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.

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