Culture Vulture: New Georges Theater

February 25, 2018


I’ve been making an effort to reserve my increasingly limited theatergoing time for plays and artists that are new to me, bypassing revivals and work by people whose work I know thoroughly. I’ve long admired the idea of New Georges, Susan Bernfield’s theater company devoted to producing work by women, even though I’ve seen little or none of their work, and I’d yet to check out shows at the spiffy new Flea Theater space in Tribeca. So the description of the current double bill of Sound House and This Is the Color Described by the Time called out to me big-time.

We started with the Sunday matinee of Sound House, Debbie Salvetz’s production of Stephanie Fleischmann’s play about British electronic composer and sound designer Daphne Oram. I’d never heard of Oram, and I loved the nerdy non-glam period style of the actress who plays her, Victoria Finney. But the piece as a whole chopped up Oram’s story into incoherent bits shuffled together with an invented and much less interesting narrative about a character named Constance Sneed (Susanna Stahlman) and her stormy relationship with an elderly downstairs neighbor. The three actors (James Himelsbach plays a colleague of Oram’s named Horace Ohm) spend a lot of time arranging and rearranging antique sound equipment around the stage to no great import. I left unsatisfied.

Happily, its companion piece later that evening was a different story. Conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt and originally developed by a performance lab called Door 10, This Is the Color Described by the Time went much deeper into sound exploration, with the help of Elevator Repair Service’s longtime sound designer Ben Williams. The performance begins with audience members donning individual headsets, which allows us to dive sonically inside the mind of Gertrude Stein (Christina Rouner), holed up with Alice B. Toklas (Stephanie Roth Haberle) in their countryside home in Bilignin during the Second World War. Many layers of atmospheric sound drift through our ears as we watch Stein at her desk writing (the text includes chunks of her play “Mexico”), Toklas cooking, the two of them eating and nuzzling and being domestic, receiving letters from Stein’s friend and protégé Thornton Wilder (played by Williams) and their French protector, gay aesthete Bernard Faÿ (Ean Sheehy).

Capitalizing on recent scholarship (the program includes a substantial bibliography, including Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice and Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma), the piece expands beyond familiar portraits of Stein and Toklas to explore the moral complications and vulnerability of two Jewish American lesbians surviving Nazi occupation of France with the help of Faÿ, an official with the Vichy regime who espoused anti-Semitic views and was jailed after the war for his collaboration. Short on verbal narrative and long on theatrical imagery, this beautifully designed (sets by Amy Rubin, lighting by Reza Behjat) and performed show creates an atmosphere of tension and emotional complexity. Watch how a handful of tomatoes stand in for the fowl Toklas cooks for dinner and how a giant misshapen stuffed pillow comes to represent the cancer that killed Stein shortly after the war ended.

Between the two shows, we walked over to the Leslie-Lohmann Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street and checked out the two shows on display there. “Haptic Tactics” is one of those dense, intellectually rigorous shows with much to admire – I like that almost nothing looked like a conventional painting, photo, or sculpture – but not so much by way of beauty.

Around the corner is a show by Leonard Fink consisting largely of nude self-portraits, many of them shot among the ruins of the West Side piers. I love a guy who’s willing to give his work titles like “Self-Portrait Giving a Blow-Job.”

With both shows, I marveled at the museum’s scrupulous attention to the eccentric materials and pervy preoccupations of LGBTQ artists.

We stopped in for refreshments at the coffee shop Baked on Church Street – I had tea and some little round balls that are the vegan equivalent of doughnut holes – but they closed at 5:00, which left us with a couple of hours to kill. We would have eaten an early supper at the Aussie bistro Two Hands but they also closed at 5, so we ended up happily biding our time at the New Orleans-themed restaurant 1803, where Andy had the pulled pork sandwich and I the Cajun niçoise, both delicious. We got a 15% discount because they have a deal with the Flea Theater, where I was also touched to see Liz Swados’s well-worn leather jacket displayed with suitably fetishistic devotion.

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