Theatre Plastique, founded and directed by Michelle Sutherland, is a group of Carnegie Mellon students who are collectively creating a trilogy of theater pieces "exploring what it means to be American." The first in the trilogy is a setting of works by Gertrude Stein. Sutherland created the script from FOUR SAINS IN THREE ACTS, SAINTS, and "The Gradual Making of THE MAKING OF AMERICANS." Sutherland then gave the script to a group of thirteen young musicians and performers who collectively created and masterfully perform an a cappella musical work out of the Stein fragments.
I have to admit that Stein isn't my favorite poet. I remember a two year period in which I was on dissertation committees for three Ph.D. students who were writing on Stein. It was harder work for me than it was for the students in question. Stein's operas, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS and THE MOTHER OF US ALL were given arid music by Virgil Thompson, not one of America's best composers. His spareness matches Stein in some basic ways, but one wishes she had worked with a more imaginative composer. Theatre Plastique gives Stein's words very contemporary musical settings. There is virtually no instrumentation other than an occasional guitar or a few chords from a keyboard. Yet the ensemble has used a wide panoply of pop genres -- hiphop, boy band, folk, blues, jazz, spiritual, Broadway anthem. It's hard to set free verse to fixed rhythms, but what these young composer-performers have created never seems to jar inappropriately with the language. The juxtaposition of Stein's cerebral poetry with pop musical forms is fascinating. The staging and choreography is equally inventive, and the pop arty scene design (Diego Montoya) constantly surprising and appropriate.
There's a kind of narrative arc to SAINTS. Saints are constantly involved in this pop heaven, but never appear. America, too, is invoked with conventional symbols of flag and fireworks, but remains vague. We end in darkness. What is clearly in focus is a celebration of community represented by the exuberant, exciting creative community onstage. Bravo to Sutherland and her talented, young fellow artists. I had just had lunch with one of my former star pupils who said that the best of his cohort were not so interested in conventional drama as in what might be called "performance." I'm still enough of a traditionalist to cherish a good play, but, despite my less than full appreciation of Stein, I found SAINTS to be thrilling theatre.
We had never been to the Abrons Art Center. It's a lovely traditional theatre on the Lower East Side. It was fun to walk back to the subway along bustling multi-cultural Grand Street. When we got to the subway platform, we had a conversation with two theatre folk who had just come from another production. We didn't know each other, but we knew each other by reputation. The evening was a reminder of how vibrant New York is and, within this metropolis, what a village the theatre community is.
GERTRUDE STEIN'S SAINTS, Abrons Arts Center, June 20, 2014.