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Loving Repeating

Kokandy Productions delivers an immersive ode to Gertrude Stein.

Emily Goldberg as Alice B. Toklas, Amanda Giles as Young Gertrude, and Caron Buinis as Gertrude Stein in Loving Repeating, directed by Allison Hendrix, at Chicago's Theater Wit.
(© Michael Brosilow)

With Loving Repeating, Kokandy Productions dusts off a delicate, esoteric chamber musical that hasn't been seen in Chicago since its world premiere here in 2006. Adapted by Frank Galati from the works of Gertrude Stein and featuring a score by Stephen Flaherty, Loving Repeating is a celebration of Stein's life and writing as well as her long relationship with partner Alice B. Toklas. Galati mines Stein's rich legacy, shaping the text and lyrics verbatim from her writing and lectures. The nonlinear, abstract, 70-minute piece follows Stein from her college years in the 1890s through her famously art-filled bohemian life with Toklas on the Left Bank to her death in 1946.

If you're well-versed in the abstract, poetically looping repetitive lyricism of Gertrude Stein's work, you'll be well-served by Allison Hendrix's deft direction with her eight-person cast. If you come to the show as a Stein novice, you'll be hard-pressed to truly appreciate the graceful stream-of-consciousness profundities embedded in show, and you probably won't walk out of the theater with an improved understanding of Stein. This is no easily accessible bio-musical. It's more a homage to Stein's language and her deep and circular musings on being, individuality, and the nature of human existence.

Flaherty's score is beautiful. Drawing from the traditions of opera and vaudeville with a wisp of singsongy nursery rhyme scattered through, the sounds of Loving Repeating will have you basking in their lushness, even if the words seem inscrutable.

At the heart of the piece is actor Caron Buinis, who plays Gertrude in her later years and provides narration, retrospect, and context from a cozy writing room perched above the stage. Looking down, she watches as younger Gertrude's (Amanda Giles) intellectual and sexual awakenings unfold and recalls a life that included dinner parties with the Hollywood elite, publishing squabbles with T.S. Eliot, and salons packed with a dazzling array of the world's leading artists and intellectuals. Buinis is wonderful, adding a humorous gravitas to the lissome, often dreamlike scenes enacted by the young eight-person ensemble below.

As young Alice, Emily Goldberg is a seductive standout, moving effortlessly (or so it seems) between ethereal delicacy and earthy sensuality. She has the voice of an angel combined with a burlesque beltress, and she employs this full range with charismatic impact. As young Gertrude, Giles has a voice as pure as a bell, but she's a bit tentative throughout and undercuts her performance with a pronounced slouch that gives her an elderly air rather than the vibrant youth the character calls for.

Under music director Kory Danielson, the ensemble has a blend that's as tight and precise as an a cappella choir. The four-piece orchestra is equally skilled. That gorgeous soundscape is accompanied by Andrea Louise Soule's lithe, seamless choreography, which draws from modern dance, ballet, and music hall camp to create a rippling collage of movement.

Set designer Ashley Ann Woods has created a stunning backdrop for the largely open playing space, hanging floor-to-flyspace replications of the early paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec that Alice and Gertrude collected. The orchestra is tucked into a massive picture frame as well. Kate Setzer-Kamphausen's muted-palette costumes reference the styles of the fin de siècle to the 1940s, deepening the show's visual appeal without overpowering the fragile narrative.

There are two ways to enjoy Loving Repeating. One is to read up on Stein before you go, so that the lyrics and philosophical ponderings don't befuddle you. The other is to simply let the show's sounds and visuals wash over you. You might not leave the production able to parse Stein's words, but you will have a sense of the revolutionary beauty she and Alice brought to the world.

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