Conceived and Directed by Lily Whitsitt; Created by Door 10
Produced by New Georges
Off Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 3.3.18
The Flea, 20 Thomas Street
by Ran Xia on 3.3.18
Christina Rouner in This is the Color Described by the Time. Photo by Paula Court.
BOTTOM LINE: Engage all your senses as memories transforms the space in this immersive exploration of the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during WWII.
This is The Color Described by The Time is one of several plays in recent years about Gertrude Stein’s charmed life. These plays tend to have a unique style and a distinct way to dissect such a complex and legendary woman. Lily Whitsitt’s exploratory attempt, however, might be the most delicious one yet. The play itself is based on Stein’s early play Mexico, as well as letters she received—from Thornton Wilder and French historian Bernard Faÿ—when she lived in the south of France during the first and second world wars. But crucially, the production invites you to use all your senses, leaving you mesmerized by not only the subject matter, but also the magic created by the designers.
The first thing you do is put on a headset. Perhaps as a nod to Our Town, which was being written during the time this play is set, Wilder (Ben Williams) appears as a stage manager who instructs everyone about how to use the headset. Then, after a group sound check, the stage lights gradually shift, easing you into the world of the play.
Alice B. Toklas (Stephanie Roth Haberle) enters to chop and then fry an onion live on stage. As the aroma caresses your olfactory receptors, it becomes easy to get completely immersed in the world of Stein, Toklas, and the literary ghosts of their past. Even before Gertrude Stein (Christine Rouner) steps out, you’re already inside her head, thanks to Ben Williams' sound design. You hear whispers for Stein's thoughts, or perhaps memories of someone else speaking; slight rhythmic sounds as Stein reads through documents and continues on with her own writing; and even the grumbling of her stomach. (Yours might grumble too with that delicious scent of onion still lingering.)
Thornton Wilder (nicknamed Thorny) sends a letter first, describing his excitement over finishing Our Town. Soon after we meet Faÿ (Ean Sheehy), who appears from every corner of the stage, as if a ghost. Faÿ, a suspected Gestapo agent, was known for his anti-Semitism and was a Vichy official who imprisoned many Freemasons. Yet he was nevertheless a friend of the Steins. In his letters Faÿ describes his work, as well as his life in prison. The closeness of his relationship with the couple is apparent, if unexplained. Interestingly, director-creator Lily Whitsitt has Faÿ taking Stein’s possessions throughout the play. Whitsitt's versatile use of the space, as well as props, is a standout for this production: every inch of the seemingly ordinary setup opens up to reveal secrets. A snowstorm of letters falling down also makes a breathtaking image.
Another interesting choice is how much Toklas seems to blend into the space and the furniture. Her red floral dress against the green patterned wallpaper mirrors the lone red flower in a green vase on Stein’s desk. Toklas has always been portrayed as more of a facilitator and loyal sidekick than a character equal to her famous wife. Here, Whitsitt’s choice to emphasize this imbalance seems a sympathetic one, and eventually brings Toklas to deliver one of the play's most powerful moments.
In a scene filled with both tenderness and absolute cruelty, Toklas brings out a birdcage full of tomatoes. The sound design turns those plump fruits into pigeons, and Toklas is instructed to make a delicious meal out of them. So she pulls out the "pigeons" one by one, and holding them tight, she presses down, snapping the life out of each small body, as fragile as the skin of a tomato. As you see the row of tomatoes atop the counter, you can’t help but mourn the loss of the six pigeons who a moment ago were still cooing from the cage.
It’s one of the most visceral stage images I’ve ever encountered, a perfect metaphor for the fragility of peace and the intoxicating seduction of violence. And then there is Haberle’s absolutely captivating monologue that explains it all, when the façade is ripped open and we see the shambles behind. In the low light, she reads from a recipe with a gentle but determined voice, recounting the act of killing we have just witnessed. It will surely make you think.
It’s difficult to interpret the connections between characters if you’re not well versed in Gertrude Stein’s life and work, as well as Faÿ’s career. The content Stein's Mexico is included, but its connection to the rest of the play seems at times deliberately enigmatic. The production suffers from an obscurity that is common in plays created with found texts, as there is a slight inconstancy with the tone. However, the production deserves applause for its dazzling imagery and daring innovation. There are both powerful ideas realized, and barriers pushed through in this production. It is clear that the daring creative team is not satisfied with just creating a play, but also wants to redefine and expand the concept of theatre. This is The Color Described by The Time might not provide a tangible narrative, but if you embrace challenging, idea-driven plays, (especially if you’re familiar with Stein), you’re in for a feast of sensations, literally.
(This is The Color Described by The Time played at The Flea, 20 Thomas Street, through March 3, 2018. The running time was 70 minutes. This is the Color Described by the Time ran in rep with Sound House. Performances (of one or the other) were Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 3 and 8; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7. See website for schedule for each show. Tickets were $35 ($55 premium) and were available at newgeorges.org.)
This is The Color Described by The Time is conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt. Created by Door 10. Sound Design by Ben Williams, Costume Design by Alice Tavener, Lighting Design by Reza Behjat, and Set Design by Amy Rubin. Stage Manager is Elizabeth Emanual.
The cast is Christina Rouner, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Ean Sheehy, and Ben Williams.