There is deceit in the title of this play. There was no marriage of Alice B Toklas, but in the world of pretend around which The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein exists, anything is possible.
a curious, fascinating and quirky work
This production has made it to stage two years after its planned opening. The intended original cast and most of the creatives have been reassembled at the Jermyn Street Theatre under the highly-anticipated direction of the play’s author Edward Einhorn.
It’s a curious, fascinating and quirky work, with an appeal that is rooted in the academic and literary. Einhorn immersed himself in the writings of Gertrude Stein. Her style, concerns and manner of philosophical musing are manifest throughout. Theatrically it is an absurdist and farcical welcome to her world in which many of the most famous names of the period pop up repeatedly in quickfire succession with the cast portraying four core characters and over thirty others with whom she was well acquainted. To keep track of where we are and what is happening, illuminated scene descriptors appear in the empty white picture that form an artistic set by Machiko Weston.
Natasha Byrne cuts a matriarchal Gertrude Stein, with an opening that sets the tone for what is to follow; she makes introductions, announces who people are and generally controls the action with a certain air of mischief, knowing that this is something of a game. Alyssa Simon, who created the role of Alice Toklas at HERE Arts Centre, New York in 2017, appears dutiful and often a little bemused by all the activity going on around her, as though all these people really are endlessly calling at the house she lives in with Stein. That is until the end, when reality ceeps in and she makes a moving personal statement. The Stein/Toklas relationship invites discussion of the secrecy, prejudice and discrimination surrounding love between people of the same sex and towards Jews. These Jewish and homosexual themes come together in the wedding ceremony, which is the ultimate pretence.
The two remaining actors each occupy a main role. Kelly Burke is a nimble and eccentric Picasso and Mark Huckett a curmudgeonly Hemingway, but with deft use of props, changes of voice, accents and quick costume changes they take on the likes of Alfred North Whitehead, TS Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder and a host of others from the modernist scene including wives, mistresses and matadors. With songs, it might make something of a comic music hall act, but here it simply reflects the theme of pretending that dominates the play. Hemingway, it is suggested, created an image of who and what he believed Hemingway should be and then tried to live up to it.
The text is neither deep nor profound, notwithstanding much discussion on the nature of genius, which was something of a philosophical preoccupation at that time in these circles. Instead it reflects much of the superficiality within fashinoable society of the day and relates to the ranks of the famous being portrayed as caricatures trying to impress with outward appearances and strings on bon mots.
On first hearing, it’s all very amusing, but the style soon begins to feel overworked. On reflection it’s as though the first scene sets out the methodology and practice, saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do. Now watch me do it over and over again, because as the lady herself said, ’Rose is a rose is a rose’’.