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|A CurtainUp Review
Blood on the Dining Room Floor
By Les Gutman
I do like detective fiction. I never try to guess
who has done the crime and if I did I would be
sure to guess wrong but I liked somebody being
dead and how it moves along....
---Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography, 1936
Gertrude Stein wrote a host of opera libretti, but this is not one of them. Blood on the Dining Room Floor is her only stab at the detective novel, which Jonathan Sheffer uses as a launching pad for his murder mystery opera. His program notes describe the service he has performed: starting with her "apparently meaningless meanderings," he divined a "concrete story" focusing on three ""crimes."
The story, mostly sung, is placed in a country house in 1933 France that Stein shared with Alice B. Toklas. They are both characters here: Stein (Carolann Page) is suffering writer's block and turns finally to detective stories which, as we know from the above, she finds intriguing. Alice (Wendy Hill) keeps busy cooking and fretting over recipes. (Her two cooking interludes between the principal tales are choice, the second conjuring up a murder most fowl.)
Sheffer has utilized a variety of Stein's writings to cobble things together to his own satisfaction. He's very willing not only to cut and paste but to delete as well. At times, he employs Stein's repetition and wordplay (e.g., "whither with her"), but mostly he jettisons Stein's signature serpentines for the benefit of his storytelling narrative.
And narrative much of it is. Sheffer's biggest problem is that in transferring Stein's mostly dialogue-free prose to the stage, he is unable to find a way to express it theatrically. He's also unable to make the case for its use as a lyrical base convincing. So we are left with much singing and recitative about what the people onstage are supposed to be doing.
What lifts the production from its base is Dobrish's inventive direction. He not only gives the characters some flesh, but also treats the material as the campy dark comedy it deserves to be, all without walking away from looming presence of its author. There are quality production values throughout, and the presence of an orchestra of a dozen fine musicians behind the equally fine voices onstage is an embarrassment of riches.