Climbing a Mountain With Gertrude Stein
Ripe Time turns a Stein story into a fable for grown-ups and kids
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Gertrude Stein may be known for avoiding narrative in her novels, poems, and plays, but her 1939 book The World Is Round tells the relatively straightforward tale of Rose, a young girl who envies her alpha male cousin and decides to climb a mountain in an attempt to find answers about her life. “For Stein, a writer who is usually so ambivalent about narrative, it is remarkably clear in its storytelling,” says Rachel Dickstein, artistic director of Ripe Time.
Now Dickstein’s adaptation of The World Is Round is running April 17-30 at Brooklyn’s BAM Fisher, with music by Heather Christian and aerial choreography by Nicki Miller.
“I was immediately drawn to the brilliance with which Stein dialogues with the children’s book genre while also telling a resonant story of a girl wrestling with her own growing sense of identity,” says Dickstein, who describes the play as a fable for grownups and mature children. “I thought a lot about shows like Shockheaded Peter and the film Labyrinth, with David Bowie, when making this. Those are both based on fable-like scenarios, but have an adult sensibility that lends deeper meaning.”
The story’s subtler themes include a woman’s identity and sense of place in the world. For instance, though young Rose does reach the top of the mountain, she doesn’t find exactly what she expected. “As a very ambitious woman myself, with a teaching career, a directing career, a theatre company, and two small children, I so deeply identified with the struggles of this journey,” Dickstein says.
Fittingly, Christian’s original score is not simple fare. For her, Stein’s poetic language opened up artistic license to use music in different ways throughout the show.
Sometimes characters use music to further the plot, but not always. “The story lies in Rose’s changing consciousness,” Christian explains. The production starts with “a group of songs that are islands unto themselves—in terms of personality and feel because Rose is ‘trying on’ philosophies and self-images.” However, once Rose decides to climb the mountain, the music becomes “through-composed in order to keep up with Rose’s adrenaline and drive.”
Aurally speaking, Christian was inspired by Stein’s repetitive text. “There are so many forms of music that use near-incessant, almost Seussian repetition that traditionally don’t make it onto the stage,” she says. So she let herself be inspired by “a grab bag of musical repeaters.” These include Busta Rhymes, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Harry Nilsson, as well as traditional canons, revival tent gospel music, old folk songs, and children’s music from the 1800s to the present. “As it turns out, I really liked the juxtaposition of Stein’s highbrow, surrealistic repetition with this grab-bag array,” Christian says. “It seemed to mimic the characters and personalities our protagonist was trying on in her uphill climb to adulthood,”
As for effectively dramatizing climbing a mountain, that’s where aerial work comes into play. “I loved the idea of creating choreography that wasn’t about miming a ‘real’ mountain but instead was a metaphor of climbing—a route that required serious muscle that often just led to getting tied up in knots,” Dickstein says. “We started using silks and now are on to rope and ladders. It’s been amazing to create our mountain with choreographer Nicki Miller this way.”
Ultimately, it only seems right for a Gertrude Stein adaptation to feature symbolic stage pictures and an experimental score. Even if the story is straightforward, it still bears the stamp of Stein’s most famous work, and a literal production just wouldn’t do justice to the writer that inspired it.
Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn
Photo by Todd France