Gertrude Stein, adapted by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston Brewsie and Willie / performed at the 7th Floor Penthouse (533 S. Los Angeles Street), Los Angeles / the performance I saw was on Saturday, July 24, 2010
Published in 1946, just weeks prior to Stein’s death, Brewsie and Willie began as a series of essays, published in the New York Times, expressing the feelings and worries of young soldiers still in Europe. Stein’s observations were based on her own conversations with American G.I.s, with whom she had spoken on the street and at dinners in her own home to which she had invited numerous of them.
In Stein’s original these men and women discuss everything, although often just in passing, from issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, history, economics, politics, and, in particular, their own uncertain future. Stein’s skillful interweaving of these various subjects is both humorous and powerfully moving, as one by one—some of the soldiers clearly having never spoken of these issues before—they reveal their minds, tell stories, and share their family lives and upbringing.
It is the complex matrix of these issues which allows this seemingly transparent work—a work which Stein enthusiasts and scholars might describe as too accessible in relation to her more experimental writing—to become a poetic chorus of fearful and thoughtful voices that links this to her most challenging work.
Although I might have liked to have the adapters tackle as many of these issues as possible, Chibas, Ehn, and director-author Preston skillfully and faithfully focus on issues economic and historical while suggesting the numerous other topics the original tackles. Indeed this performance was so excellent that any qualms I might have had in the adaptation of Stein are allayed by the powerful evocation of the young soldiers on the eve of their “redeployment,” a word most of them find meaningless, if not terrifying.
The youthful cast of the Poor Dog Group, most of whom are just two or three years out of the theatre program at CalArts, are precisely the age of Stein’s young Americans, and their fresh faces and simple beauty—as the men, sweating in the summer heat, briefly strip off their shirts to cool off, some of them having jumped in and out the windows of the top floor playhouse, literally unable to control their energy and, as we quickly discover, their worries—almost brings one to tears.
Having all faced two world wars back to back, and having lived through part of the Great Depression, these men of what Tom Brokaw has described as “The Greatest Generation” are terrified that upon their return there will be no jobs or, if there are jobs, the economy will be built up once more to again collapse. An early conversation between Brewise and Willie summarizes the situation as they envision it:
B: How I hate that word job.
everybody is employed.
In a world where, for the first time, they have had to look about, to compare their lives with others, and evaluate what it all means, these young men and women have all gradually begun to think, and before long, they are as active as Brewsie in observing, commenting upon, and questioning the world around them. And all, in turn, begin to fear that the new workaday world which they will soon face will not allow the time to think. Will they, like those of the past generations, forget all about the lessons they have learned? Will war break out once more? Will the nation overproduce to create a new depression? One could almost hear the sighs of the audience in their silent recognition of Stein’s soldiers' prescient concerns. This play is significant even for events of the present.
As Stein reiterated upon her deathbed, there is, obviously, no answer to the questions the soldiers pose. Donald Paul’s Thoreau-like logic to go back to the simple ways of living and surviving by oneself, as Brewsie realizes, will not work for most of these men. One very young soldier is determined to stay in France, but the others, despite their fears, want to return home. One or two suggest that they might embrace Socialism or even Communism, but Brewsie and most of the others realize that these are not true solutions for a country in which these ideas are so foreign.
Janet: And tell me, wont you miss talking when you go home, you do know dont you all of you nobody talks like you boys were always talking, not back home.
Los Angeles, July 31, 2010