"Dinner" with Gertrude Stein at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

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Jesse Nathan and Chris Janzen present Dinner
There is no dinner there at Dinner, a performance happening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in conjunction with its current exhibition, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, part of a summer-long, city-wide celebration of Stein and her artistic legacy. (There are 2 more performances of Dinner today, June 5th, at 1pm and 4pm.)

Such sly sleight-of-hand may have pleased Stein, who loved to upend even the simplest of words, and the most basic of readers' expectations, until they were stretched out, turned around, repeated ad infinitum to become something utterly new, intentionally teetering between poetry and profundity, banality and babble.

Alice B. Toklas Cook BookThen again, Stein and her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, loved a good dinner, as any reader of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook would know. With their taste for both solid American home cooking and (to contemporary eyes) unimaginably elaborate French cuisine bourgeoise, the ladies might have found it hard to get through 2 hours of clamorous jazz and spoken word on the wee buffet provided by Bar Bambino. On a side table were deviled eggs, slivers of frittata, and tiny olive-and-mozzarella crostini, followed at intermission by one-bite polenta-kumquat cakelets and matchbook-sized wedges of Tcho chocolate cake.

Unless, of course, Alice had slipped a couple of sticky pieces of her cookbook's infamous Hashish Fudge into her purse. That's right, fudge, not brownies, and not the tourist-trap chocolate kind, either, but a much more Moroccan-minded mixture of dates, figs, almonds, and spices, plus a dusting of enough cannabis sativa to provoke "euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected."

However, as the surrounding exhibit revealed, Stein and Toklas had a high tolerance for eccentricity, their own and those of the many genius Bohemians they cultivated and whose work they collected. Dinner, therefore, is organized around the idea of a dinner party populated by an odd lot of history's eccentrics, half known (Virginia Woolf, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Hart Crane, Salvador Dali, Stein herself), half lost to footnotes, if that.


These quirky folk were too preoccupied by art, higher math, the invention of anti-gravity boots, the location of Shakespeare's bones, and more to give any thought to a menu; instead their imagined monologues, rants, and overlapping conversations were spoken and played by San Francisco writer Jesse Nathan (voice) and artist/musician Chris Janzen (guitar), with Tyler Cravines (drums) and Curtis Buettner (saxophone).

What's it like, this guest-by-guest performance in 14 parts? As if an all-guy free-jazz combo had hooked up with the poetry editor of McSweeney’s, poured a round of Red Bulls for a few choice members of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, then set 'em loose (outnumbered two-and-a-half to one by a bunch of crazy dudes) at a Saturday-night free-for-all in the basement of Viracocha. Sometimes, like Stein's work, the effect was ravishing (especially the lyrical saxophone solos); other times, also much like Stein's work, a little of looping, loud, repetitive, and nearly-unintelligible business can go a long way. There's a reason this kind of stuff is usually performed in close proximity to a willing bartender.

So, actually, it wasn't a bad thing when, three-quarters of the way through the show, Nathan's microphone suddenly went dead. ("The kitchen has just blown up!" he joked). As a team of stylish museum staffers scrambled to find a replacement, Nathan and Janzen took the chance to do an informal Q&A with audience members. The criteria for this imaginary party's guest list? First off, remarked Janzen, potential guests "had to be dead." Then, they had to have walked that fine line between genius and madness. Some changed the language of art, music, literature, or dance forever; others had great potential or massive contemporary popularity, but were overtaken and sunk by their own obsessions. Drug addicts, provocateurs, two suicides by drowning, a mathematician who refused to bathe: hardly a cozy group to gather around the table, but certainly stimulating subjects for art.

By the time the microphone was restored, we knew a lot more about what was going on onstage. Or perhaps the coffee and chocolate had kicked in; whichever it was, it finally seemed like the kind of party at which Stein, Toklas and her own gleefully idiosyncratic cohorts would have felt right at home.

On Mon., June 6th at 10AM, KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny discusses The Life and Work of Gertrude Stein with Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at SF MOMA, and Wanda M. Corn, guest curator and Robert and Ruth Halperin professor emerita in art history at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco.