Theatre review: Girls Do Gertrude!

by **

Dear Dad

Doing Gertrude is a tough call, given the American writer’s famous idiosyncratic literary style and abstract expressions. But Cheyney Caddy and Yvonne Virsik, themselves rising monuments in Melbourne theatre, take on this monumental bid.

As part of this year’s Midsumma Festival, Caddy and Virsik bring two of Gertrude Stein’s theatrical works, A Circular Play and  Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, to the resplendant Victorian milieu of the Northcote Town Hall.

Caddy’s Circular invites her audience into a 1920s salon — softly-lit and romantically bohemian in Jeminah Alli Reidy’s intriguing set design — where she wants them to dispel all compulsion for reasoning and emotionally mingle with the whims of the 11-member cast, who, decorated in Debra Hallam’s gorgeous 20th century costumes, have come to share, to seek and to rest.

Under Tiffany Walton’s musical direction, the production takes off with the rendition en masse of Ain’t We Got Fun. A portrait of the women’s mental landscape, this infectious foxtrot not only describes the poverty suffered by Gertrude’s women — not of material comfort, as in the lyrics, but of homosexual freedom and social acceptance — it captures the 20th century lesbian writer’s ever-positive outlook and carefree abandon.

Weaving through Gertrude’s disjointed words that swirl, like musical notes, within exquisite piano (Walton) and guitar (Stella Skinner) sequences, is the recurring theme of ‘circle’. As metaphor — of belonging, of acceptance and inclusion —  circles are perhaps (only perhaps) Gertrude’s depiction of the emotional refuge homosexuals seek in the then-sexually repressive age.

Caddy has assembled a magnificent cast, each displaying requisite air and suitable poise. Alternating between pain and joy, the women’s yearning and frustration, fun and sensuality are flawlessly conveyed. Solo vocal performances by Chanelle Sheenan, amongst a few lustrous others, also prove satisfyingly moving.

In the end, with superb visual atmospherics, skilfully languid choreography, and a sensational soundscape, Caddy has brought out the enigma and ambiguity so fundamental to Gertrude’s work, to exceptional effect — the involvement of an incongruous, yet symbolic, live bunny is a case in point.

Virsik’s Three Sisters, on the other hand, is rather more defined — with a narrative and with characters — but none the less obscure, if decidedly more unsettling.

Opening with a spectacular mime, in which another 11-member cast act out various hilarious vignettes, each one with a tenebrous undercurrent, Virsik sets the tone for her production.

This piece tells the story of three orphaned girls who are not sisters and two brothers who are brothers (played here, naturally, by girls). They decide to play a game of murder and intrigue where the mystery of the perpetrator’s identity must be unravelled.

Written during the Second World War, when Gertrude and her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas — both American Jews — were hiding from the Nazis in occupied France, the play is arguably a chilling satire about war and Virsik’s version is a commentary of how history repeats itself.

Against Reidy’s spooky backdrop, of empty picture frames and funereal linen, the production shows how history can be fabricated by the ‘last man standing’ and how truth is often shrouded by the murkiness of war. The outwardly innocence of the children, cleverly accentuated by Bridie Wilkinson’s loose-fitting pyjamas, makes the message all the more disturbing.

In keeping with Gertrude’s literary fetish for ‘repetitions’ of words, Virsik has staged three repetitions of the original writing. As it turns out, this iterative style not only demonstrates the repetitive scourge of history, it numbs one’s mind to the horrors of violence, that in the end are reduced to all but a theatrical farce.

Still, this high voltage production is sharply funny and acted with real brio by an extraordinary cast. Virsik, who has a proven talent in managing a hefty ensemble without faltering, has again achieved an impressive result in choreography and directorial vision.

Finally, Girls Do Gertrude! is an outstanding embodiment of the artist’s spirit, interpretations of which will certainly stand the test of time.