By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Gertrude and Alice: They’re the famously eccentric American couple who held court as paid-up members of the glittering Parisian avant-garde of the ‘20s.
And now, once a month, you’ll find Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, large as life, on the tiny stage at the Grindstone Comedy Club & Bistro, in an improvised sitcom starring Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart. Sunday night the pair are back for a Thanksgiving edition of Gertrude and Alice (at their new time, 7 p.m.) that includes their kooky upstairs neighbour L’il Dickie, played by Trevor Schmidt.
Brausen explains that she and Stewart originated the characters in Die-Nasty’s 25th anniversary season in 2015. “Ridiculous stuff!” she declares of an improvised soap narrative that blithely bounced off history into wild left turns of impromptu comedy. “At one point Salvador Dali (Mark Meer) made a statue of Gertrude,” Brausen recalls. “And she came to life and started murdering people, like The Penguin from Batman…. Basically, we’d just hold salons and have guests and parties!”
For every edition, they borrow a quote from the enigmatic Stein (of “there is no there there” fame) to establish the theme. In honour of Thanksgiving: “silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.”
Brausen, the Teatro La Quindicina star and costume designer who played Lady Bracknell in the hit summer production of The Importance of Being Earnest, says she’s tried to read Stein novels. “I just couldn’t make it through…. Random weirdness, and not as fast-paced as we might like these days,” she says tactfully, approving of the former, not so much of the latter.
“We are happy weirdoes,” she says of the characters you’ll meet “an hour of totally made-up stuff … with a little Jackie Gleason thrown in.” Gertrude is very apt to arrive onstage, put down her lunchbox, and holler “where’s my dinner, Alice?”
Brausen and Stewart first brought the characters to the Grindstone last spring, “as a total experiment.” And they quickly realized “we need direction; otherwise, we’re just yapping!” as Brausen puts it.
That’s where the audience comes in: they’re the surrogate director. Brausen and Stewart get the audience to write answers to the questions of the night in the lobby before the show starts. “We put all the little pieces of paper in a bucket onstage, and every time we walk by we pick one out.” They’ve tried “what’s your worst date ever?”; everyone has one of those. Sunday night it’s “what are you thankful for?.”
The size of the Grindstone stage does make hosting salons a challenge. There are other ways, though, to get guests into the act. Now that the “sitcom upstairs neighbours” L’il Dickie and Fat Frank (Darrin Hagen) have broken up, it’s entirely possible that the former will starting dating. “I tried to write him a Grindr profile,” laughs Brausen. She predicts that L’il Dickie will start bringing guys over to Gertrude and Alice’s place.
Brausen’s witty touch with costumes is currently on display in Teatro’s season finale Skirts on Fire, a screwball comedy set in 1950s Manhattan. She’s having fun with Gertrude and Alice, and the 20s boho look. “I’m the uni-brow; Davina’s the moustache,” laughs Brausen. “ I wear a long women’s jacket, dark socks, shirt and tie, wingtip shoes. And I’ve cut the worst gray wig in the worst way! Davina as Alice has a dress with a kimono over it….”
“It’s quickly morphing into something unique and fun!” says Brausen. Next month’s edition of Gertrude and Alice, Nov. 4, is a Northern Light Theatre fund-raiser, Frank ’N’ Stein: hot dogs, beer, and a chance to hang out with 20th century celebs.
Gertrude and Alice
Starring: Leona Brausen and Davina Stewart
Where: Grindstone Comedy Club & Bistro, 10019 81 Ave.
Running: Sunday 7 p.m. and monthly (next month, Nov. 4, 7 p.m. as a Northern Light Theatre fund-raiser Frank ‘N’ Stein).