Brewsie and Willie

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

When I first came to LA from Colorado, I struggled with time. There was something about the loss of seasons, or at least seasons as I knew them - snow, mud, summer, leaves, repeat - without the context of weather I couldn't figure out, for instance, when I'd met someone. Was it last year? Or three years ago? It just seemed to be one sunny day after another.

I felt the same way when I first encountered Gertrude Stein's writing. There just wasn't any context. With all that repetition, I got caught in a wave of words that washed over my intellect but never found their way into my heart.

A beautiful new adaptation of Stein's Brewsie & Willie provides that context.

The play is based on a novella published in 1946. Before her death, Gertrude Stein turned her attentions to the stories and worries of the young GI's preparing to return home from a horrific war. The play is populated by these children of the depression, who became men through war. They're filled with questions about the future of their country, and how could they possibly return to a “regular” job - if one even existed.

Director Travis Preston's recent LA work - King Lear at the Brewery, a one-man MacBeth at RedCat - has a tendency to be a bit pretentious.

poster.jpgBut Preston has teamed up here with a young company of recent CalArts grads, called the Poor Dog Group, that help keeps this work down to earth. Sure - The writing is still filled with Stein's signature loops of repetition and circling meaning. But rather than getting caught in the sound of the language, these actors make the words echo the spiraling thoughts of young men who've yet to find their way in the world.

They're helped by choreographer Mira Kingsley's subtle but strong movement. From the understated sexy swaying of the female characters to the shaking – literally - that carries the GI's from one scene to the next, Kingsley provides a visual anchor for the turbulent world.

What's remarkable is the historical resonance of the work - The characters fixation on their financial future and the trouble of European debt provides a little too clear a historical mirror for the current economy. And it's brought even closer to home by being set in a theater in a loft high above downtown's skid row. Passing by the edge of LA's tented homeless on the way to the theater provides an essential, if uncomfortable, prologue to the piece. The production has chosen to leave the loft's soaring windows open to the city and it's a powerful choice. When one of the white American soldiers leans out an open window cursing the presence of all these foreigners, Europe of 1946 collides painfully with our current uneasy national conversation on immigration.

I have to admit that like the June gloom that seems to be haunting us a little longer than normal this, the words of the play did begin to wash over me in a fog of language towards the end. But that shouldn't stop you from seeing this young group of theater soldiers attack this challenging text.

Brewsie & Willie plays through August 1.

For info on the play text the word “Curtain” to 69866.

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Scott Groller