Theater Review: reprint of BREWSIE AND WILLIE (now at RADAR L.A.)

by Harvey Perr on June 15, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Editor’s note:  Brewsie and Willie is currently running as part of the Radar L.A. Theater Festival.  This review is reprinted from an earlier production of the show in July 2010.

We are printing the text only.  To see the review as it originally appeared, visit

The current production ends June 26, 2011.  For  tickets, visit



Theater Review
by Harvey Perr
published July 24, 2010

Is Willie patterned on one of the famous dogfaces immortalized by cartoonist Bill Mauldin during World War II? Or is he strictly a creation of Gertrude Stein, based on a real GI Ms. Stein interviewed in preparation for the novella – which was her last to be published, just two weeks before her death in 1946 – titled Brewsie And Willie? Certainly, the cadences of his speech make one think of Stein’s poetic intervention, but the authenticity of what he is saying reveals that the passions of the liberating U.S. Army went straight to her heart. Or is he, despite the fact that this is an artifact from the past, a G.I. about to return home to America, limbs intact, from Iraq or Afghanistan, knowing some of the truths about war that the lies he was told in advance had not prepared him for? And who is Brewsie? Is he the voice of reason in an unreasonable world? Is he the voice of Gertrude Stein? Does he speak not just for the moment in which he moves and breathes but for the past as well as for the future?

Whoever they are, Brewsie and Willie and their fellow G.I.s are the most engaging and loose-limbed fellows in town. They can be seen, along with three female camp followers, in the penthouse on the seventh floor of a building in downtown Los Angeles, in a stage adaptation of  Stein’s novella, produced by the Poor Dog Group in association with The Center for New Performance at CalArts, thanks to the NEA which provided the money from President Obama’s stimulus fund, until August 1; and any theater goer who doesn’t run down to see them all in action can never claim again that they love the theater but rarely get the opportunity to see anything worthwhile. This is essential theater, if anything is. It is evidence, in fact, that miracles are indeed possible in the theater. Yes, it’s a miracle, pure and simple. That’s what it is.

Under a parachute canopy, atop yards of canvas strewn with sand bags – a marvelous design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr. – against elaborate but subtle projections which eerily put the outside world inside the theater space, these soldiers rant and argue and sing and tramp on hallowed ground, while a saxophonist wails his melancholy improvisations, and, every so often, rhythms seem to enter their bodies and they either shake them off or surrender to the beat with a sometimes sensuous, sometimes frenetic choreography (the highly original creation of Mira Kingsley). The physical discipline this ensemble exhibits is not unusual  in avant-garde theater, but it is the most beautifully calibrated work of its kind that this reviewer has come across, in this country, since the glory days of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and, better yet, this ensemble consists of some of the best young actors you are likely to see under one roof, on one stage, anytime soon. If one were to single out one actor, it is only because Brad Culver, who lives inside the body of Willie, has that indefinable little something extra that one has the privilege of seeing only on the rarest of occasions. But passion and truth emerges from each and every member of this stunning cast. This is not theater of trickery. Miracles like this are the product of hard work and dedication and a spirit of genuine camaraderie.

And, as evening descends, the lights of the real city become the backdrop of the play and the rooftop outside the penthouse is used in thrilling small ways, creating the sense that the world goes on continually, all around us. Travis Preston, the endlessly imaginative director and the co-adaptor of the Stein novella (with Marissa Chibas and Erik Ehn), has harnessed the material, the design elements, and his extraordinary company of actors (most from CalArts’s graduating class of 2008) into a profound synthesis of depth and incision and spirit which do honor to the work of the Poor Dog Group. He has woven a tapestry of complex textures and colors; the monochromatic tones are both raw and elegant.

It would be unfair to not mention that, as the evening reaches its conclusion, Stein tends towards the didactic, but her heartfelt look at these articulate dogfaces is what one remembers most vividly. Be certain, too, that one will discuss, in its aftermath, the various conflicting arguments her protagonists engage in. But Caitlyn Conlin’s final speech has a directness and a stringency that demonstrates that there need not be a trace of hypocrisy or sentimentality in patriotism. Stein, a Jew, who was given protection during the war by friends who had collaborated with the Nazis, must have been provided with a sobering experience listening to these soldiers, and Brewsie And Willie is the result of those learned lessons. And this production pays tribute to both the dogfaces she wrote about and to the lyrical soul of Gertrude Stein.

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The current production ends June 26, 2011.  For  tickets, visit

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