The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Jermyn Street Theatre
This celebration of the relationship between writer and art collector Gertrude Stein and her life partner Alice B Toklas at last gets its European première, delayed for two years by the pandemic, directed by author Edward Einhorn.
We can all quote “A rose is a rose is a rose” but I must admit, I have never really “got” Gertrude Stein’s genius, but Einhorn’s Stein is very sure she embodies it. Indeed, a discussion of who is a genius is one strand of his play: among her friends, Pablo Picasso is a yes but Ernest Hemingway no, but both are invited to this imaginary wedding (in their day, same-sex marriage wasn’t an option).
Indeed, Einhorn makes his whole play a game of pretend beginning with Natasha Byrne’s formidable Gertrude Stein announcing: “I am Gertrude Stein pretending to be Alice Toklas pretending to be Gertrude Stein”. Alyssa Simon’s Alice does likewise, but vice versa, and Kelly Burke and Mark Huckett as Picasso and Hemingway pretend to be themselves as well as wives, mistresses and models, a matador, Sylvia Beach, T S Eliot, James Joyce, Matisse and other celebrities given a name drop—most of whom have received wedding invitations from Alice. As each makes an entrance, it is paired with a sound and a lighting effect.
There isn’t any real plot but instead a montage of delightful absurdism in a sequence of short scenes, each of which is titled with its name appearing in picture frames that cover the wall of the set: "Arrival of the Guests", "The Wedding", "The Honeymoon" (that one very comically explicit) and so on.
Alyssa Simon’s Alice starts off a bit buttoned-up but shares her dreams of being in heaven meeting Solomon and Moses and confident that, though there is no Jewish heaven, Gertrude will be there because of her genius.
Mark Huckett is a gruffly butch Hemingway to counter Stein’s charge that he is homosexual and in love with the matador, lithe Kelly Burke instantly switches between broadly sketched characters, even officiating as the celebrant at the Jewish wedding which is complete with canopy and glass to smash and followed by some bubbly for all the guests in the audience.
This is all great fun, camp metatheatre that flares up in bullfight flamenco. It takes its cue from Stein herself, who pretended to be Alice in writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but it is also touchingly serious in presenting the devoted love of this celebrated lesbian couple. “I am my beloved and my beloved is me,” declares Alice.
One scene is labelled “Farce” and these accomplished and well-matched actors perform most of the play’s 90+ minutes deadpan and hilarious, but this is pretending; in real life, despite lifelong devotion, Gertrude and Alice weren’t legally married. Suddenly, the show becomes a comment on how the rest of the world then regarded such a relationship. Perhaps cancel that past tense; homophobes still speak of pretended families and pretended relationships.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton