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Rousuck Review: "The World Is Round"

Anna Fitzgerald

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews “The World Is Round” a stage adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s novella of the same name, brought to life by two Baltimore theatre groups, The Acme Corporation and Baltimore Annex Theater:

Even if you’re only slightly familiar with Gertrude Stein, you’ve probably heard her most famous quote: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But you may not know that Rose was the name of the little girl protagonist in a children’s book that Stein published in 1939, called “The World is Round.”

Two Baltimore theater companies – Annex Theater and The Acme Corporation – have brought Rose to life in a splendidly inventive, original stage adaptation of “The World is Round.” A children’s book by Gertrude Stein is far from typical kid lit. So it’s fitting that this stage version, adapted and directed by Acme’s Lola B. Pierson, is daring, experimental and full of unexpected juxtapositions. Think Gertrude Stein meets Samuel Beckett and Mr. Rogers and Harry Potter and Mary Poppins.

Gertrude Stein’s book has an odd, rather disjointed plot. Rose has two dogs and a cousin named Willie, who gives her a lion. Rose learns in school that the world is round, which makes her sad. Rose likes to sing, but singing makes her cry. Rose decides to climb a mountain. Stein’s simple, repetitive language has a child-like quality, and its rhythms and repetitions make it well suited to music. Songwriter JennWasner -- one of the founders of the Baltimore band, Wye Oak – has composed a haunting, layered score.

A great deal of the show is sung. Rose is played by an adult, Cricket Arrison, who brings a matter-of-fact tone to her singing and an almost severe presence to her acting. The opening song introduces Rose’s serious-minded, questioning attitude. When the show’s five-member chorus joins in, the effect suggests the way questions circle around and recur in a child’s mind. I’m not sure why Rose is portrayed primarily as an observer, instead of a participant. Arrison spends much of the 45-minute play seated to one side, with the chorus occupying most of the stage. Perhaps this is intended to suggest that Rose is a child more given to thinking than action. But it would help the audience engage with her if she were less stationary.

Pierson, the show’s director and adapter, incorporates choral, often overlapping, speech as well as music. There are also projections and a bit of puppetry – the lion is represented by one chorus member manipulating a wooden lion’s head and another manipulating the animal’s legs. And, a very clever window-shade device represents Rose’s mountain climb. The whole presentation is highly stylized, including the chorus’ movement.

Rose is a lonelier child on stage than she is in Stein’s book. But just as Rose comes to accept that, to quote the title, “The World is Round,” she also finds her place in it and someone to share it with. I read Gertrude Stein’s book before seeing the show, which undoubtedly made it more comprehensible. The production, like the book, is less concerned with traditional narrative, than with capturing a child’s sense of wonder. It does that and also embodies Gertrude Stein’s sparse, poetic language. It’s an impressive achievement.

“The World is Round” – a co-production by the Acme Corporation and the Annex Theatre Company – continues through July 12 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Charles Village.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.