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Reviewed by:
  • Four Saints in Three Acts
  • Katherine E. Kelly
Four Saints in Three Acts. Score by Virgil Thomson, libretto by Gertrude Stein. Houston Grand Opera, Brown Theatre, Wortham Theatre Center, Houston, Texas. 3 February 1996.

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Figure 1.

St. Teresa II (Suzanna Guzman) and St. Teresa I (Ashley Putnam) in the Houston Grand Opera production of Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, directed and designed by Robert Wilson. Photo: Ken Howard.

In 1927, having set several of Gertrude Stein’s shorter compositions to music, Virgil Thomson commissioned Stein to write the libretto for an opera. The two collaborators eventually settled on the subject of saints, Stein selecting her two favorites—Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola. The prologue to the opera prepares nervously for Saint Teresa, who arrives amid a watery deluge with the opening of act 1. But Saint Ignatius takes much longer to appear and once he does he literally pales in comparison to the doubled Saint Teresa. As most commentators would have it, Teresa’s mystical longing for physical and spiritual union is opposed by Ignatius’s reliance on reason, analysis, and isolation. This production embodies that gendered theme but with a light and mischievous touch.

Robert Wilson’s direction and design, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, and Francesco Clemente’s costumes comment archly on the libretto and musical score, realizing in Wilson’s visual register the light, bright quality of this modernist cause célèbre. As with other Wilson renditions of celebrated works, this Four Saints visually quotes earlier productions of the opera: the 1934 premiere directed by John Houseman, with its cellophane wrap set and all-black cast, as well as the 1952 revival, again staged with the cellophane, candy-box colors, and heart-shaped chairs of the original. Wilson’s flat white muslin palm trees and his oversized white giraffe silhouettes pun on the cloying pink trees and yellow lion from the earlier productions, all of which suggest the Edenic, pastoral landscape Stein and Thomson imagined as their setting. Wilson takes the pastoral suggestion one step further, introducing dazzlingly white sheep cut-outs placed flat on the stage floor at the opening and then slowly raised up into the flies during the opening mime sequence. Making more Edenic mischief, he sets a sculptured orange snake on a table downstage left and an oversized green pear downstage right.

In his casting of roughly equal numbers of actors of color and Caucasians, Wilson provides his own variation on the racial politics of the original—and defiantly—all-black cast. Thomson insisted on using Harlem amateurs, preferring their voice, enunciation, and carriage, although planning at one point to put them in white face make-up. This never happened, but the performers’ skin color drew mixed comments from Stein (who opposed the idea of an all-black cast as discordantly “futuristic”) and from reviewers of the 1934 premiere. Wilson kept Thomson’s delightful Compère and Commère, positioning the former (sung and played by Wilbur Pauley in white face, dressed half in a tuxedo and half in a gorrilla suit) downstage left, and the latter (sung by African American Marieta Simpson, dressed half in an evening gown and half in a black and white tuxedo) downstage right. By implication, skin color is never neutral, never invisible, never merely decorative, always charged with social meaning.

So is gender. The entire chorus of saints—roughly thirty of them—wore nearly identical, floor-length dresses of a café au lait brown, sewn with the seams to the outside and complete with hoops, despite half of them being played by obviously male actors. The costumes featured genital appliqués consisting of either a tube of slightly pinkish fabric for the males or two crescent moons for the females.

Does a saint have gender? Stein’s saints have gendered preoccupations: Saint Ignatius counts, makes distinctions, observes sequences, measures duration. Saint Teresa observes processes, negates statements, forgets, and guesses. The costumes again comment humorously on gender: the doubled Saint Teresa wears a simply cut full-length brilliantly blue gown with a filligree white heart placed [End Page 363] the bosom...

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