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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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StageQ's love story Gertrude Stein and a Companion is alluring but lacks nuance
Gertrude Stein and a Companion: A lovers' duet.
Credit:Dan Myers, Lumi Photography

Gertrude Stein once wrote, "Your identity [is] not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember." The StageQ production of Win Wells' Gertrude Stein and a Companion (through March 7 at the Bartell Theatre) portrays exactly that idea. The play examines the relationship between Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, the woman Ernest Hemingway aptly called Stein's wife long before anyone had heard of marriage equality.

The story begins on the night of Stein's death in 1946. As the audience files in, Stein is already on stage, half-lit, pondering her own sudden mortality. When Toklas arrives, so do the memories, recounted in a series of monologues and dialogues exchanged between the two. Stein's notorious Paris salon is the setting, which director and set designer Autumn Shiley depicts as a boxy living space, hemmed in on either side by two writing desks, one belonging to Stein, the other to Toklas. On the back wall, a series of empty picture frames stand in for the priceless works of art Gertrude and her brother Leo so presciently collected before acrimoniously parting ways in 1914.

We don't see the paintings, but we imagine them there as Toklas describes them. One by one, she sells them off to support Stein's unread and unreadable tomes. The Matisse is easy to part with, but there is physical pain when Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein is lost to the Met. The painting is a stand-in for Stein's corporeal body in the years following her death. It leaves more than just a hole in the wall after it goes.

Wells conceives the play as a lovers' duet, but the subtler moments are lost due to the manic portrayal of Stein by Katy Conley. Kathy Lynn Sliter as Toklas is, on the other hand, very good, at times even luminescent, and it's not hard to understand why Stein is taken with her. What misunderstood genius wouldn't want to find comfort in capable, sly and sexy Alice, a woman who dismisses anyone she doesn't like with an arched eyebrow and lit cigarette? Conley is unnecessarily frenetic, and the pacing is oddly rushed. Even the breathtaking history of the Lost Generation is reduced to the emotional impact of name-dropping (Hemingway, Fitzgerald and "good old Pablo"). Tender, unwritten moments should tell the story that lies beneath the facts; otherwise, one could glean the same information from a half-hour on Wikipedia.

Stein was many things, but not cheerily bombastic, as presented here. She was an experimental writer and iconoclastic art collector, a lesbian who attributed her genius to her masculinity, even a Jew who collaborated willingly with Vichy France. Toklas was the engine that directed Stein's career. When the play ends at Alice's death, Wells intimates that their love affair continues on into the afterlife. Toklas has engineered it, as efficiently as she did their lives. "Dead is dead," Stein says. But the play insists the opposite. Death is only the beginning. Identity lives on, so long as the audience cares to remember.

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