Ecstatic visions

Saints and Singing

By Gertrude Stein
Directed by Matthew Earnest
Presented by deep ellum ensemble (
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space Theatre L
529 W. 42nd St. (279-4200/
Non-union production (closes July 26)
Review by Frank Episale

Gertrude Stein’s plays were not "ahead of their time" so much as they exist outside of time altogether. They do not rethink dramatic structure so much as reject it. There are no characters to love or hate, no discernible narrative threads in which to get caught up. They are abstract poems, released into three and four dimensions, employing theatre as a tool but rarely, if ever, embracing the aesthetic conventions and established techniques of theatrical art.

Director Matthew Earnest’s deep ellum ensemble have wisely embraced Saints and Singing on its own terms, crafting an entertaining, stylistically coherent production without attempting to make too much "sense" of the text. An ensemble of five skilled performers took the stage in choir robes, contrasting the enigmatic opening text of the play with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Before long, the robes were cast off and the actors were dancing, singing, and chanting in their underwear. There are thematic justifications for this choice, but the fast-paced production invited the audience to set aside textual and dramaturgical analysis and enjoy the performance as spectacle, absorbing it as a celebration of theatre for its own sake.

To physicalize the structure of the text, Earnest staged the production largely as a dance piece. Movements were introduced and repeated at various times from various angles and at varying speeds. While some of the choreography was concrete, much was abstracted, at turns beautiful, funny, and just confusing. These qualities were evoked not by the meaning of the movement but by the movement itself: i.e. it’s beautiful when he holds his arm in that position; it’s funny when she turns her head like that. Gradually, this approach to the staging allowed a way into the text as well. The remnants of meaning in the spoken words were less important than the sound of the words themselves. Fragments of narrative emerged but were always submissive to the quality of the voices, the bodies, and the shape of the text.

In other hands, this approach could have been unduly alienating, but this charismatic ensemble always kept a strong connection to the audience. While the cast functioned well as a cohesive ensemble, they also each exhibited their own distinct strengths and personalities. Chris Bean’s physical grace and joy in performing, Jennifer Roland’s vocal conviction and flawless timing, Shawn Parr’s quiet, grounded intelligence, and Holly Techholtz’s soaring soprano all worked together with the unflagging energy and enthusiasm of apparent ringleader Trae Hicks. Each performer was granted a chance to shine solo and then be absorbed back into the collective.

Joseph Troski’s sound collage effectively contributed to the sense that the audience was in good hands, while Severn Clay’s lights were functional but uninspired. Carla Rudiger and Jose Gonzalez contributed to the choreography and costume design.

While the aesthetic of Saints and Singing was consistent, Earnest made sure there were enough surprises to keep the audience interested. Moments that one might expect to be played for laughs were surprisingly serious, while meditations on ritual and faith were startlingly funny. The good-natured enthusiasm of the cast was infectious and contributed to a friendly atmosphere in which the audience could laugh or sigh or be perplexed without worrying about whether their reaction was appropriate. From the opening pop song by Handel to Prince’s liturgical "I Would Die For You," deep ellum ensemble consistently brought a sense of intelligence, adventure, and play to this rarely performed text.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Performing: 2
Sets: N/A
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Frank Episale