"This Play Is Also a Concert": The Here and Now of Deborah Stein's God Save Gertrude

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I like Shakespeare, but I'm not quite sure what this is going to be. I don't know if I'll like this." It is Sunday afternoon in Pasadena, and I'm sitting in the Theatre @ Boston Court, listening to the older gentleman in the row in front of me grumbling to his companions. I grin to myself, for he is unknowingly asking the perfect question: what is this play, combining Shakespeare and Patti Smith and post-Soviet Eastern Europe? What to make of it? What to do with it? At the end of the show, I grin even wider, for the anonymous gentleman is on his feet clapping and cheering.

"What's the next generation of artists doing? We talk about it all the time, but we don't do anything." It is Monday afternoon in La Jolla, and I'm sitting at my desk, on the phone with Polly Carl, former Producing Artistic Director of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and current Director of Artistic Development for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Carl brought the play to the 2006 PlayLabs festival at the Playwrights' Center after reading a draft of the script. The play pushes against old boundaries, respecting that which has come before, while simultaneously laying claim to it and making it anew.

"I love theatre because it is live, and that's also why I go to rock shows." It is Tuesday afternoon, and I'm sitting on my couch, on the phone again, this time listening to Deborah Stein, writer of God Save Gertrude. I nod as Stein explains how the liveness of music connects to the audience in a way that much of modern American theatre fails to do. At a time when so many theatre artists are trying to borrow from film and television, Stein is more interested in those tools available only to live performances. Whether a play or a punk rock concert, the impact on an audience of a living body 15 feet away is something that video simply can't provide. God Save Gertrude is both play and punk rock show, and has all the impact and all the raw appeal that that implies. "There are so many plays for people who want to sit in the dark," Stein says. And I nod in agreement: Gertrude is not one of them.

Stein started writing the play while getting her MFA in Playwriting at Brown University; Gertrude was, in fact, the first play Stein wrote solo, having worked entirely on collaborations before Brown. The initial draft was an eight-page long scene, written for a class on adaptation. Short it may have been, but all the basic elements of the play were there: the four characters, Gertrude's opening and closing monologues, and the preoccupation with music. Instead of the unseen presence she holds in the current incarnation, Patti Smith was on stage as a "ghost" of sorts, lip-syncing to her own music. Stein tried to put God Save Gertrude away, but couldn't entirely let go of the play: even in those mere eight pages, she felt that she had created something more true to her own voice than anything else she had written before. Fortunately, she brushed it off and fleshed it out, first as part of the 2006 PlayLabs, then in a 2008 workshop, produced by the Workhaus Collective, the playwright-focused co mpany-in- residence at the Playwrights' Center, of which Stein is a Producing Director; finally, Gertrude took the stage in a full professional production in fall 2009, at Pasadena's Boston Court, directed by Michael Michetti.

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the inspiration for Stein's God Save Gertrude, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, never gets a chance to defend herself; as Stein explains, Shakespeare's Gertrude is either an idiot, entirely unaware of what's going on behind the scenes in Elsinore, or she's a monster who knowingly and willingly marries the man who murdered her husband. …