Review: Gertrude and Alice (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre/ Independent Aunties Productions)

Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton by Jeremy Mimnagh (3)An intelligently written portrait of Gertrude Stein & Alice Toklas at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times

The story of Gertrude and Alice, currently playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is one that has been told before: how a literary trailblazer (Gertrude Stein) owed much of their work to the life-long care, support, and inspiration provided by their wife (Alice B. Toklas). However, this version of the story is anything but boring thanks to the extraordinary performances and the intelligent writing of Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry.

Gertrude and Alice begins with a lecture from novelist/poet/playwright Gertrude Stein (Parry) where we quickly learn three things: 1. No one in the audience has read a single book written by Gertrude Stein and she is not surprised. 2. That might be because it can be hard to wrap your head around Gertrude Stein’s fondness for repetition until the time she decides to drop a twist so exquisite that it changes the way you see the world. 3. Alice B. Toklas (Chatterton) is not really Gertrude Stein’s “Secretary.”

The rest of the play interrupts Gertrude’s lecture to chronicle her and Alice’s love-at-first-sight partnership that lasts through two wars, through jealous spats over ex-lovers, through silence, through writing, through art-collecting, through writer’s block, through dismissing the men who will always shrug at a woman’s intelligence, through finding fame in the States, and finally, through death.

The story of the supporting wife behind the genius may not be a new story, but it’s a far more interesting one when the story is recast with two formidable women rather than yet another brooding male. (Not that Gertrude couldn’t brood with the best of them.) The all-female casting inspired me to re-examine my assumptions of womanhood and femininity. Although both Gertrude and Alice agreed that Gertrude was the intellectual genius, Alice’s care-giving, domestic contributions are never underplayed or devalued by the play.

Gertrude may have tried to change the way we see the world but we mostly saw their relationship through Alice’s eyes. Even while Gertrude is speaking, Alice would often shape the narration by interjecting to remind Gertrude of things she forgot to mention and Alice’s recitation of her recipe for a properly executed wine-cooked roast is delivered with just as much precision and assertiveness as any of Gertrude’s esoteric verses. As a young woman, I found it especially rewarding to see these different models of womanhood depicted as equally compelling and of importance.

My companion also noted that the show decided to focus on Gertrude and Alice’s work rather than probe “what it was like to be queer Jewish women who lived through two world wars.” While I do agree that their experiences in the world wars were a bit hastily drawn, I didn’t think the play avoided engaging with their sexuality. From the first time Gertie calls Alice “My Secretary” with winking emphasis, we are very much aware of the romantic and sexually-charged nature of their relationship.

Even though Gertrude admits that she never publicly labeled herself a lesbian, she states that her queer identity was always an integral part of her work. Indeed, Parry, Chatterton, and director Karin Randoja never shied away in their depiction of Gertrude and Alice’s sexual relationship. At one point Gertrude literally chases Alice around the stage for some sexual attention. In another moment, after a fight over an ex-lover, Gertrude makes it up to Alice with a well-deserved orgasm.

It was clear from the astounding performances of Parry and Chatterton that, as described in the program, this was not their first collaboration together. Their connection was so natural and believable that I was brought to the verge of tears multiple times throughout the play. Parry’s charisma held our attention through some of the more complicated Gertrude monologues and my companion and I both marveled at Chatterton’s complete physical transformation as Alice. I also have to tip my hat to the rich costume design of Ming Wong and the dazzling projection design by Trevor Schwellnus for their evocative but timeless interpretation of the 20th century.

Towards the end of the production, Gertrude reminds us that we shouldn’t give up on something just because it’s difficult. That it is important to continue creating for the sake of creating even if others will never appreciate it in our lifetime. Gertrude and Alice is by no means an easy play but boy is it rewarding.

Details:

  • Gertrude and Alice is playing until March 27th at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street).
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30 PM.
  • Tickets are $25 to $37 with Pay What You Can performances on Sundays and are available online, by phone at 416-975-8555, or in person at the Buddies Box Office.
  • This show contains adult content.
  • There is a talk back at the end of every Thursday performance.

Photo of Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton by Jeremy Mimnagh.