Acme’s The World is Round follows a young girl in the process of becoming who she is
By Bret McCabe
Rose (Cricket Arrison) is a little girl. She sings a song. The song she sings goes, “I am a little girl, my name is Rose.” She sings sweetly, her voice declaring the facts of the world as she knows it. She is a little girl. Her name is Rose. And that assurance only lasts as long at it takes her to sing. In the second line of her song Rose’s pitch rises a bit at the end, as if she’s not only unsure of what she knows of the world, but of her very place in it. “Why am I a little girl? Why is my name Rose?” she sings.
I lost count of how many times Arrison’s Rose sings this couplet over the roughly 45 minutes of The World is Round, the version of Gertrude Stein’s 1939 children’s book adapted for the stage and directed by Lola Pierson and co-presented by the Acme Corporation and the Baltimore Annex Theater. The number of times she does so is less important than the repetitive effect the song has: just how long does it take a child to recognize that she has a self in this world, and that there are words she can use to identify who she is? More interesting, how long does it take that same child to recognize that the world goes about being the world, whether or not she’s in it?
This seesawing of a single consciousness contemplating and understanding it’s limits is the story of Stein’s World; what makes this stage adaptation so rewarding is the stark approach to exploring this entire universe. As staged inside St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church in Station North everything is a blank slate. Costumes and set backdrops consist almost entirely of sheets of white fabric—subtle designs suggesting natural objects, such as a waterfall, are faintly visible on the scenic backdrops; almost all the cast members wear an all-white adult onesie—and at various times videos are projected onto the entire cast and set. This visual landscape echoes the play’s imaginative mission. Rose herself is a bit of a blank slate, and what she’s uses to fill her self up are the things she observes and names with words. And under Pierson’s direction, with this gamely talented cast, the original musical from Jenn Wasner, and the production’s sly approach, this World achieves something quite impressive: It makes this abstraction humanly poignant.
That it does so via such minimalism and mirth is the icing on top. In many ways World is a thematic echo to last year’s Kaspar, Acme and Pierson’s formally adventurous take on Peter Handke’s 1967 play about language as a tool of self knowledge and social control. Here Pierson again explores how language shapes how a character understands herself and her surroundings, and this adaptation recognizes that how this character produces and consumes language informs that slef-knowledge as well. But where Kaspar aimed for, and hit, a level of psychological intensity, World operates at an eloquently high degree of emotional intelligence.
The play’s plot is as simple as the books: There is Rose. She knows a little boy named Willie (Nicholas Parlato) whom she thinks is her cousin. Some anecdotal stuff happens, and the stories of its happenings are repeated in a series of verbally particular sentences familiar to any Stein fan. (The American modernist was profoundly gifted at making simple words and syntax constructions become gorgeously complex, and on a number of occasions Arrison comically recites strings of clunky phrasings in clipped, detached meters, as if a young female RoboCop reciting Dr. Suess.) Often that aforementioned stuff is recounted by, narrated, sung, and otherwise performed by a five-member chorus—Carly J. Bales, Daniel Friedman, Sophie Hinderberger, Deirdre McAllister, and Jenna Rossman.
This chorus is the play’s secret weapon. Arrison carries the serious heavy lifting of the play, creating a complicated, conflicted little girl out of little more than a series of short chunks of dialog and her sung refrains. The chorus is a group of five impish spirits who tackle every scene like they were told they could eat all the cookies, ice cream, and Kit Kats they wanted. That energy comes in part from how the chorus’ sections are dramatically staged: each one borrows some aspect from children’s television programming/film/musicals in some way. I don’t have kids, and I’m decades away from my own childhood, but at some point I think I caught elements of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Mary Poppins, Annie, and The Sound of Music in the production—either a melody, a familiar series of body motions and behaviors, a familiar trope, and outright homage.
This approach isn’t merely entertainment nostalgia; it reinforces the play’s thematic concerns. In Stein’s World Rose writes herself into selfhood; in Acme’s World Rose also creates her an emotional self through aesthetic experiences. Pierson’s quoting of children’s programming is a sly reminder of how much cultural education they contain, but also the spectrum of human emotions—joy, sadness, fear, grief, love—that the stories in that programming calibrate in young consciousnesses as well. These allusions feel slight at first, but they accrue a quietly profound power, and this World becomes sneakily affecting.
A quick side note: Stein’s World was apparently supposed to be reviewed by that American titan of literary criticism Edmund Wilson in the December 20, 1939 issue of The New Republic, in a joint review of T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In a short paragraph that precedes the actual review, Wilson writes that he was “baffled” by being assigned two children’s books, and confessed “difficulty in getting through the Stein book.” He passed them on to a gentleman by the name of Chauncey Hackett, “who has children and definite ideas about children’s books,” and who subsequently reviewed the pair with help of a jury of five kids.
Before signing off, however, Wilson noted that: “[i]t is perhaps worth pointing out that there seems to be something like a general tendency on the part of the more ‘difficult’ writers to go in for children’s books. Kay Boyle has done a book about a camel, and E.E. Cummings is rumored to be engaged on a book about fairy-tales. I don’t know what this means—except that they evidently do no feel at the moment that they have anything better to do.”
I bring this up here because I’m a childless adult who is never going to reproduce and part of me understands Wilson’s dismissal here, though I also have to confess that Stein’s World has inspired artists that I appreciate to produce some imaginative works that I dearly love, such as John Cage’s “Living Room Music”. In the process of writing this review I learned World has also been staged as a more conventional musical, as well as an opera with music by James Sellars and a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, a Towson University theater arts professor. Not bad for a baffling “children’s book.” (I also seem to recall that Eliot’s book was eventually adapted into something as well.) Pierson’s adaptation is a thoughtful adventurous addition to its ongoing creative life.
Acme Theatre’s The World is Round runs through July 12. More info and tickets here.