Monday, May 08, 2017

Review - Little Wars - Prime Productions - A Dinner Party You Can’t Say No To - 5 stars

(Blogger's note: After posting this review, I was made aware of the review of the same production on Talkin' Broadway. And, a simple internet search with the phrase "Gertrude Stein nazis" quickly brought up an illuminating article in the New Yorker. So I'm a bit torn. I still admire the production itself - the design, the acting - even the cleverness of the script. I'd still recommend it on those grounds. However, I agree with the other reviewer's thought that taking this as even a piece of fancy using history as a jumping off point is a bit of a slippery slope, given that the facts fly in the face of a fair chunk of the premise of the fictional story, making the epilogue in particular feel a bit odd. I also feel a bit like I need to do more homework in situations like this - and it makes me wonder why that same homework on some level eluded the writer and the production. Sigh. Art is complicated. Gertrude Stein, case in point. And then today, this interview drops today from Paula Vogel on theater and history...)

Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett-Birk) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) invite Agatha Christie (Alison Edwards) to a dinner party.  Agatha invites her friends Dorothy Parker (Elizabeth Desotelle) and Lillian Hellman (Vanessa Gamble). Gertrude and Lillian can’t stand each other. But that’s not the thorniest problem with the dinner arrangements.

“She’ll come out eventually.”
“That would be a good thing to cut on my tombstone.”

Gertrude and Alice are living in the French Alps in June 1940, and Hitler’s soldiers are invading France. France hasn’t surrendered - yet. Gertrude and Alice’s friend Muriel Gardiner (Laura B. Adams), who has unexpectedly arrived a day early, is an operative with the resistance, smuggling passports to Jews so they can get out of Europe before it’s too late. Gertrude and Alice’s housemaid Bernadette (Miriam Schwartz) is German, and a Jew.  In fact, nearly everyone at the dinner party is Jewish, not to mention that Gertrude and Alice are longtime lesbian companions.  What could possibly go wrong?

“For every story worth telling, there’s a dozen secrets worth keeping.”

That’s the premise of Little Wars - a hilarious yet deadly serious play from Steven Carl McCasland. Did this dinner party really happen? Probably not, but the premise fits so tidily in the cracks of history that it’s a tantalizing “what if?” Though McCasland is a very 21st century playwright, Little Wars is fashioned as a very old-school sort of play.  Basically it’s a great excuse to get these towering female figures (and the wonderful actresses who play them) all in the same room together to lob insults and witticisms at one another.  But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here.

“Is that scotch mine?”

It’s easy to see why new theater company Prime Productions chose Little Wars as their inaugural production.  Their mission is to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.”  These women “of a certain age,” women in their prime, dominate the story and the stage in Little Wars.  Only women with this much brass, and experience, can push back against the darkness encroaching on Europe - if they can stop warring with each other for a minute first, that is.  Little Wars explores that notion from many angles - what are human beings, women, artists, expected to do in the face of evil?  If they can’t save everyone, what’s the point in saving anyone?  Is there such a thing as too late in a situation like this?  When you have a powerful voice at your disposal, how do you speak out or fight back, especially when speaking out or fighting back could get you killed?

“As long as people are dying, it is never too late.”

That might make Little Wars sound pretty bleak, but rest assured, McCasland’s script is reminiscent of plays like Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women, or take your pick of any Noel Coward title.  One joke barely lands before the next one arrives on its heels.  And yet these women are all so smart and self-assured that when they turn to weightier topics, it also makes complete sense.  Director Shelli Place and her fine ensemble keep the story moving fluidly back and forth between comedy and drama without skipping a beat.  It’s great fun to watch.

“What can one woman do?”
“A lot.”

If you don’t know the women this play is about, you should.  And if you haven’t seen actresses like these work on material like this, you should.  Heck, you’ll want to applaud Meagan Kedrowski’s set, too.  The thing has so much personality - so vivid and cluttered, with enough entrances and exits for a French farce - it’s practically another character in the play.  Little Wars is a great launching pad for Prime Productions, and a great showcase for all these engaging performers.  Treat yourself.  Even though it’s ridiculously funny, it also has enough of a brain that it doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure.  Just a pleasure.  Enjoy.  (runs through May 21, 2017 at Mixed Blood Theater)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r: Lillian Helman (Vanessa Gamble) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) share a drink while Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett Birk) tunes the radio to an update on World War II outside in Prime Productions’ Little Wars; photography by Joseph Giannetti)

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