On Stage, a Dreamlike Montage Of Gertrude Stein's Circle

Play revisits work of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Virgil Thomson. THEATER: REVIEW

PEOPLE often speak of the arts as though they are distinct fiefdoms - each with its territory and boundaries - which never unite in a whole. But I have just experienced a wonderful evening at Kennedy Center Opera House that merges painting, music, words, and dance into one creative unit. The result is a beautiful and heady excursion into the arts, unlike any other evening of theater. At times, it reminds you of bits of other fantasies: ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' the fountain ballet in ``An American in Paris,'' or Martha Clarke's performance art.

But it's not easy theater. Or a box-office bonanza. Ticket sales were slow, and three days into its Kennedy Center run, management decided to drop the curtain early on ``She Always Said, Pablo.'' It closed last night, two weeks ahead of schedule.

This innovative work - which includes images by Pablo Picasso, words by Gertrude Stein, and music by Virgil Thomson and Igor Stravinsky - was conceived and directed by Frank Galati, director of this production, which originated at Chicago's Goodman Theater and was a hit there. Mr. Galati won a Tony Award this year for his musical version of Steinbeck's ``The Grapes of Wrath.''

It is a pity that such a memorable production should close so quickly for lack of ticket sales, because this is a work that needs time to build an audience through word of mouth and reviews. At this writing, the Goodman Theater has no plans for touring the show.

Visually, ``Pablo'' is stunning, like a dream in TechniColor after a trip through a gallery of Picasso's best-known paintings. There is the bull-headed minotaur; the fractured Cubist faces of the desmoiselles of Avignon; the saltimbanques of the circus; refugees from the artist's blue period, rose period, and others. Picasso himself swaggers around the stage in a striped shirt.

And there are Gertrude Stein's words, which are as Cubist and surreal as any of Picasso's images.

Some of Stein's comments about Picasso, from ``Three Portraits of Painters,'' are quoted on stage: ``This one always had something being coming out of this one. This one was working. This one always had been working. This one was always having something that was coming out of this one that was a solid thing, a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a very pretty thing, a disturbing thing, a repellent thing, a very pretty thing. This one was one certainly being one having something coming out of him. This one was one whom some were following. This one was one who was working.''

The premise of Galati's ``Pablo'' is that the intense and sometimes tempestous friendship between the painter and Stein was a sort of platonic love affair. A huge replica of Picasso's formidable painting of Stein looms like a mountain over the opening scene. When told that Stein doesn't look like the painting of her, Picasso says, ``She will.''

In program notes, Anthony Adler mentions that Picasso and Stein had a falling-out, and about that time Picasso decided to write. But this genius of 20th-century art had no ear for words, as the ``Pablo'' reenactment of a scene from his play ``Desire Caught by the Tail'' illustrates, with phrases like ``disheveled mercy.''

One of the most harmonious blendings of the arts occurs in ``Pablo's'' excerpt from the Stein-Thomson opera ``Four Saints in Three Acts.'' The sweet, piercing music, the cryptic word-poems of Stein, and the vivid images of Picasso flow across the stage to the movement and choreography of Peter Amster.

In the knockout opening scene, ``Portraits,'' Stravinsky's ``Pastorale'' forms the musical frame for the images and drama that unfold.

Of course, it is the actors in the brilliant Goodman Theater production who make ``Pablo'' sing. Susan Nussbaum, who plays Stein, is a compelling and gifted actress with a luminous face. She brings meaning to even the most obscure of Stein's lines, playing the role from a wheelchair with a fluidity that brings an added dimension.

Marji Bank, as the acerbic Alice B. Toklas, Stein's longtime companion, makes her entrance dressed in frumpy black, looking like Mary Poppins in mourning. Larry Russo, who looks amazingly like the young Picasso, plays Pablo with charm. Russell Page is a savagely graceful minotaur and Carmen Pelton a lyric Woman in White.

Galati has directed ``She Always Said, Pablo'' with daring and spirit. It deserves a wider audience, perhaps through public television, an Off Broadway production, or a national tour.

After all, how often do we see the arts woven together like a living tapestry?

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