“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” Picasso famously said. For Picasso and many of his contemporaries, as well as future generations of artists that grew out of his nearly inescapable influence, modernism was a call to unlearn, not just the aesthetics of Western academicism and classical beauty, but the convoluted frenzy of the adult mind.
It makes sense, then, that Picasso’s close friend, writer Gertrude Stein (who famously said, “a rose is a rose is a rose”) took her nonlinear, modernist prose style to the pages of the children’s novella “The World Is Round,” even though her unconventional and often-unpunctuated wordplay may at first seem unsuitable to children. Lola B. Pierson’s stage adaption of Stein’s 1939 book, now showing as a co-production between the Acme Corporation and the Annex Theater at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Station North, draws on the simultaneous absurdity and poignancy of Stein’s singsongy text with playful staging and original music by Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes.
At just 45 minutes, Pierson’s play condenses Stein’s original story, which captures the overwhelming experience that begins in childhood and carries into our adulthood, because the world never seems to get any less bewildering or anxiety-provoking. Specifically, “The World Is Round” illustrates the birth our existential crises. As Stein’s protagonist, a young, anxiety-prone girl aptly named Rose, actress Cricket Arrison repeatedly sings the book’s chant, “I am a little girl. My name is Rose. Why am I a little girl? Why is my name Rose?”
The play follows Rose’s search for identity, narrated by the thoroughly consummate chorus, played by Carly J. Bales, Daniel Friedman, Deirdre McAllister, Sophie Hinderberger, and Jenna Rossman (all dressed in white jumpsuits), as well as Rose, whose voice shifts between the first and third person. Each member of the chorus takes on shifting voices and energies, like storytellers that bring the personality of multiple characters into their readings. The rapid shifts in the chorus members’ roles feels like the embodiment of a child’s short attention span and wildly exaggerated perceptions.
As a book created for children—at least, in theory—Stein’s novella is highly visual. She demanded that the text be printed on rose-pink paper in deep-blue type (Rose’s favorite color). Bold yet fluid illustrations by Clement Hurd (“Goodnight Moon”) were also printed in this blue with white accents. While the stage production was largely faithful to the text, it departed from Stein and Hurd’s visualization. The minimal and fairly colorless set is composed of white sheets that cover the walls, with ambiguous, calligraphic drawings flanking each end of the room. A waterfall, the moon, outer space, a pair of hands, a clock, and a magnifying glass over a colorful map are projected onto the sheets at different points in the story. The contour of a mountain peak unravels from a ceiling-high scroll as Rose pulls it down to simulate climbing the mountain.
With her cousin Willie (Nicholas Parlato), Rose’s self-assured character foil, her dog Love, and Willie’s lion (both animals are puppeteered by the chorus), Rose finds herself in need of sense of certainty, to understand her place in the world. “Would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose. She used to think and then she used to think again.” She climbs the mountains in the hopes that when she reaches the top she will see everything and understand her relationship to the rest of the world.
The book itself is loaded with lyrics, often interspersed with narrative prose. With just two full-length numbers, Wasner’s score is minimal—but this wouldn’t be a faithful adaption of anything Gertrude Stein if it were a standard, full-fledged musical. The song at the end, sung by the silhouetted profile of Rose seated behind an illuminated sheet, sounds how we hoped it would sound: like a stripped-down Wye Oak tune with Stein’s original lyrics. Accompanied by choreography that mimics storytelling gestures and sign language, many of the musical moments reference children’s media spanning generations, from “The Sound of Music” to “Mary Poppins” to “Annie” to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” to Harry Potter. Together, the songs and movements feel like a collage of the collective childhood memories of adults of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Transported by Pierson’s staging, Stein’s words create a world stripped of adult perceptions that try to make sense out of nonsense. We unlearn and see the world as it is—round—through Rose’s mind, subject to the sensory overload that we become calloused to as adults, but never ultimately reckon with.
"The World Is Round" runs through July 12.