Don't believe Edmund Wilson. Who was he to decree that Gertrude Stein was "widely ridiculed and seldom enjoyed"?
Ridiculed? Perhaps. Less important than she might have wished? No doubt (but that was her secret). Seldom enjoyed? That's strictly a matter of taste.
If, like director David Kaplan, you approach Stein's material with the right attitude, you can discover worlds of strange, esoteric fun. Too bad Wilson isn't around to go to the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where he just might have managed a smile at Kaplan's dingbat staging of Stein's "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights."
Lights? Electricity and Mephisto? What happened to good old Faustian fire and brimstone? Well, these are modern times. Let's say this doctor dabbles in high voltage.
He has a boy (Ed Hooks) and a dog (Lyndon Thompson, white with black spots, who says "Thank you" on cue), a barbershop quartet (these fellas redefine the term "lighten up"), and he babbles on and on about Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel. These are not four women, or two, but one. A bitter viper bit her. (Listen: I didn't write this; Stein did, perhaps as an inspirational exercise for Dr. Seuss.)
Prankster Kaplan has a lot of the little boy in him, which is why he can so cleverly tap the whimsical little girl in Gertie--or in Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel.
Following a brief prelude (wherein Quintin Scherquist, a real little boy, and Jessica Murray, a real little girl, act out the Faustus legend), we're treated to a prologue: a full-throated sampling of Act III of Boito's "Mefistofele" (sung by Paul Nicholas and Wendy Shermet). The pre-show prepares us for more wackiness to come.
Here is an a cappella chorus of singing light bulbs, a tricky red devil (Gene Ross) in stereotype and Hallowe'en costume, complete with fork, and a 12-year-old (or thereabouts) electric light ballerina (Nancy Marroquin) who pops in and out of the action for reasons known only to director Kaplan.
Best of all, there is a slightly long in the tooth, utterly childlike and enchanting Marguerite Ida/Helena Annabel (Anita Dangler), who keeps swooning into someone or other's arms--especially Faustus' (William Utay), and even more especially those of the handsome Man from Overseas (Barney McFadden), a.k.a. Mr. Viper.
He goes around (and around and around and around) in his sexy French accent singsonging such irresistible nothings as "Pree-tty pree-tty dear/She ees all my love and always here/And I am hers and She ees mine/And I love her all zee time" and "I am the only he she is the only she we are the only we. . . . " Well, it's enough to make any woman, even one bitterly bitten by a bitter viper, lose her head.
This wonderfully silly visual and aural joke, presumably written as a libretto for an opera that never found a composer, is sung more than it is spoken at the Ensemble, despite the fact that no credit is given for the music. (A little sleuthing uncovered that the rather delicate score was written "collectively by the company." Stein, I think, would have been pleased.)
It also has a character Stein had not planned on: herself, gently overseeing the zaniness as a Grande Dame might host afternoon tea. (She is played with composure and great magnanimity by a he: Glenn Shadix.) The show comes to its predictably sulphurous end with Faustus expressing, "I sold my soul to hell . . . I will I will kill I will I will . . . Very well very well I can go to hell," as indeed he does.
Stein used repetition as others might use controlled substances. She called it varied insistence. To some minds, addiction might do as well. Yet, take it or leave it, this love of overemphasis made her unique.
"Dr. Faustus" won't be everybody's cup of hemlock, to be sure, and any Hidden Deeper Meanings (electricity and Satanism, the viper and the resurrection of Marguerite Ida/Helena Annabel, etc.) have all gone to hell with Faustus or to some more pleasant destination, perhaps with Stein. What remains is more Kaplan's invention than Stein's and recommended only for lovers of sheer, mad, mildly intellectual whimsy.
To quote Gertie one more time: "That's the story, the story story, the story of Faust." He is dead.
"Enough said/Enough said."
'DR. FAUSTUS LIGHTS THE LIGHTS' An opera libretto by Gertrude Stein, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles. Producer Michael Martin Magedman. Lights Scott Janush. Director David Kaplan. Prelude: Jessica Murray, Quintin Scherquist. Prologue: Paul Nicholas, Wendy Shermet. Play: William Utay, Gene Ross, Ed Hooks, Lyndon Thompson, Anita Dangler, Glenn Shadix, Barney McFadden, Scherquist and Murray. Light Bulb Chorus: Jenean Chandler, Midge Dial, Theresa Karanik, Victoria Ann-Lewis, Susan Merson, Mallory Sandler, Stephanie Satie, Mary Wadkins. Barber Shop Quartet: Michael Chieffo, David Ellzey, Wayne Winstead, Michael Winther. Ballerina: Nancy Marroquin. Performances at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. until June 1 (213-466-2916).