“Listen to Me” is a bittersweet adventure by Gertrude Stein — a love story and a cerebral frolic, in the face of planetary crisis. Directed by James Peck, Stein’s evocative, rarely produced play will be presented at Muhlenberg College, Feb. 22-26.
Written in 1936, Stein’s play is a piece of experimental staged poetry, in which characters laugh, love, philosophize, and struggle heroically to hold onto hope as their prospects dim.
“It has these themes of environmental catastrophe and looming disaster,” says Peck, a theater professor at Muhlenberg. “It asks some questions about the ways in which romance, love, and art matter in the context of a dire planetary situation.”
Peck has directed Stein before, and has also published articles about her theatrical work. He calls her “one of the most original and important theater thinkers of the 20th century,” and says that he wanted to share the experience of working on her plays with students.
In a few words, according to Peck, “Listen to Me” is arguably, partly, possibly a love story at the end of the world — but he resists the effort to impose a synopsis. The play is unusual in several ways: it has only a couple of clearly defined characters; most of the text isn’t so much dialog as it is poetry; and its scenes unfold with only the suggestion of a linear course of events. But Peck says that audience members who have the idea that the play is difficult or inaccessible will be quite surprised.
“I want people to understand that it’s not just ‘weird,’” Peck says. “It’s very deeply felt, it really starts from feeling — that Stein is deeply concerned about how people treat each other and about fairness in human relationships. I want them to know how moving her plays are and how accessible they are once you start to put them on their feet and figure out ways to put the language into actors’ bodies and create stage pictures around the words.”
To that end, the cast of 15 have been collaborating and experimenting their way through the text, finding the moments and phrases that resonate, and exploring ways in which to communicate that resonance to an audience.
“It’s a cooperative process,” says Xavier Pacheco, who plays Sweet William, one of the show’s two named characters. “The only way to rehearse this play is to work consistently through it all together and see where we end up. It’s a brilliant cast. It feels good to be working with people in a way that we’re all in it together.”
Scenic designer Tim Averill has found a design solution that echoes both the circumstance of the play and the process of its creation. It’s a dock, extending off stage from the top of a sphere — the earth, perhaps — on which words and images will be projected. It suggests the last visible piece of a sinking ship, on which the actors perch apprehensively.
“It’s a desperate place where people are trying to live,” Averill says. “It’s about too many people and too much stuff and too much light.”
The production also features an original score by Doug Ovens, who also collaborated with Peck on last season’s “Ulysses in Nighttown.” Ovens says the score will feature a “virtual chamber ensemble” of prerecorded woodwinds, percussion, and piano, as well as a “celestial soprano” derived for samples from recordings of his vocal pieces.
“My music revisits Modernist styles while striving to amplify ideas of love as well as confusion, conflict, and, hopefully, survival,” Ovens says.
Peck says he hopes all these elements will come together in a theatrical experience that feels, on the one hand, cautionary and anxious, and on the other, hopeful and celebratory — because, in these days, that’s how he feels as an artist and global citizen.
“Can we feel love and existential dread at the same time?” he asks. “I think that’s what Stein wants to know. It’s what I want to know. How do those things fit together? I think we can; I think we have to. And that’s what we’ve set out to do.”
“Listen to Me” plays Feb. 22-26. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. The production is recommended for mature audiences.
Tickets and information are available online at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.