- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

What would Gertrude Stein herself make of the enigmatic and frequently mesmerizing “Gertrude Stein: If You Had Three Husbands,” a collaboration between the Alchymia Theatre of Chicago and Washington’s Stanislavsky Theater Studio? Would she find this experimental piece amusing or tedious? Those are the extremes you waver between in this playlet that is more like an assemblage or a sensory piece than traditional theater. You’ll probably emerge at the end befuddled, but, like Miss Stein’s writings, “If You Had Three Husbands” has a cumulative effect that transcends logic and conventional language.

Visually and aurally, the piece hypnotizes. The set conception by Scott Fielding is like a cubist painting or a surreal Dali landscape enlarged for the stage.

The still and commanding Miss Stein (Sarah Kane) sits inside a picture frame. She is flanked by three black chairs — which she moves around the set with ritualistic solemnity — and clocks of different types surround her. Miss Stein also interacts with three large canvases that appear either in or out of the picture frame.

Titles of each sequence are projected on a screen above accompanied by a rich soundscape consisting of animal sounds, clanking cutlery, outdoor noises, tunes from a music box or the ticking of a metronome. Each sequence features snippets of Miss Stein’s idiosyncratic, aestheticized language, marked by resonating repetition and fragmentation. Like James Joyce, Miss Stein evoked feelings through the rhythm, alignment and sound of words, rather than relying solely on their literal meanings. Unfortunately, Miss Kane’s exaggerated elocution and singsong cadences, which never vary for the play’s one-hour duration, sound studied and monotonous.

“If You Had Three Husbands” is weird, but once you succumb, it works its peculiar spell. Its deliberate, slow movements, painterly lighting and stage effects and discordant music are all skillfully integrated to create a striking mood piece. Not that sentences such as “Anyone is proud if the name of their house is the name of a city” will ever make perfect sense, but somehow the words — and the piece — resonate far beyond the confines of the English language.

**1/2

WHAT: “Gertrude Stein: If You Had Three Husbands” by Scott Fielding and Sarah Kane

WHERE: Stanislavsky Theater Studio, 1742 Church St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays through June 29.

TICKETS: $15 to $25

PHONE: 202/265-3748

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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