It’s maybe best to explain the Lucille Lortel manufacturing of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” starring David Greenspan, by saying what it’s not. For one factor, it’s not on the Lortel, which is in Manhattan, however at an experimental theatre in Brooklyn. Nor is it actually a play—there are elliptical references to scenes and situations however no dramatic dialogue. Gertrude Stein wrote it, in 1927, for the composer Virgil Thomson to set to music, subtitling it “An Opera to Be Sung,” however Greenspan performs it solo, as a textual content and not using a rating. So it’s not precisely a libretto, both. Even Stein’s title received’t let you know what it’s: Greenspan refers to round twenty saints, and the present runs to 4 acts, not three.
This manufacturing of “Four Saints” brings us on a pilgrimage to a road of warehouses in Sunset Park, right into a efficiency area hidden behind a bright-yellow storage door. (Although it’s “in” the Lucille Lortel Theatre’s season, that is Target Margin’s Doxsee Theatre, house to the baroque, the perimeter, the abstruse.) Greenspan, wearing a easy blue shirt and grey pants, stands on a sq. platform lined with a pale Persian rug. Surrounded by gauzy curtains glazed in honey-colored mild, this plinth, created by the set designer Yuki Nakase Link, sits on a glassy black floor and appears to drift a couple of toes above the ground. Greenspan due to this fact seems to be on a flying carpet in a room untethered from gravity and time: the evening outdoors could be very darkish, however inside we’re in a heat, everlasting afternoon.
Stein’s spare, Cubist language—stuffed with puns and kids’s rhymes (“one two three 4 5 six seven all good kids go to heaven”), sideways allusions, and an insistent current tense—typically leaves readers and listeners at sea. “Pigeons massive pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass,” Greenspan says to his puzzled viewers. The feline sixty-six-year-old actor strikes like a melodrama villain who skilled with Martha Graham, and his exaggerations and stylizations supply tantalizing glimpses of story. “Four Saints,” although, can nonetheless really feel like a comprehension take a look at for a language that you simply’ve been faking for years. The nouns pop—saints, magpies, home windows—however the verb tenses are disorienting. If you’re fortunate, understanding creeps in by means of your tissues, by way of a form of capillary motion.
What is Greenspan doing, on their own onstage with this wild language? “Four Saints” is the third within the actor’s enthralling experiments with solo efficiency and the American canon. (His personal writing consists of such downtown landmarks as “The Argument” and “Dead Mother.”) He began in 2011, with a soufflé, a one-man model of “The Patsy,” a breezy Barry Conners romance from 1925. Greenspan performed all of the nineteen-twenties inventory elements—status-obsessed mama, resolute pa, heart-of-gold daughter—with gestural exactitude; it was straightforward to know who was gee-whizzing whom, even in rapid-fire screwball dialog. Then, six years later, Greenspan carried out all six hours of Eugene O’Neill’s unwieldiest work, “Strange Interlude,” taking part in each character within the nine-act psycho-potboiler. It was a staggering achievement, and it received him his sixth Obie.
Now he brings his high-affect approach to Stein, and he or she each offers method and resists. Without Thomson’s composition to lean on, Greenspan should depend on his personal lacquered cadences, which run the gamut from James Mason-ish purrs (caressing, urbane, amused) to tinny yelps. The first, lengthy part whirls by entertainingly, buoyed by Greenspan’s impish allure, however finally our incomprehension slows and roughens the expertise, altering it into . . . one thing else.
These days, Stein, the mom of modernism, is way referred to—as a queer forebear, a saloniste, a buddy of Picasso’s, a literary provocateur—however her roughly seventy-five performs are not often produced. When they’re, it’s typically with music, such because the composer Heather Christian’s 2014 rating for the kids’s work “The World Is Round.” (Music makes the medication go down.) When “Saints” was first carried out, in 1934, John Houseman, who went on to kind the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles, directed a Gesamtkunstwerk from a spectacular state of affairs given to him by Thomson. (It was solely “accepted” by Stein.) Featuring an all-Black solid, it roiled with motion and visible occasion: picnicking and parading saints, Florine Stettheimer’s glowing cellophane cyclorama, dances by Frederick Ashton, and Thomson’s music, which married modern dissonance to Gregorian chant. Greenspan, although, indulges in no such gildings. He speaks solely what’s on Stein’s web page, together with strains, corresponding to “Repeat First Act,” that could be stage instructions.
Greenspan tells us about an oddly erotic Saint Therese (which occurs to be one of many writer’s nicknames for her lover, Alice B. Toklas), who’s “half in and half outside,” and the motion, what there’s of it, eddies round her: “There are an amazing many locations and individuals close to collectively. Saint Therese not younger and youthful however visited just like the others by some, who’re regularly going there.” When saints arrive, Greenspan offers them every a recognizable angle, typically borrowed from canonical work: Saint Ignatius holds his fingers up as if making his method by means of a fog; Stein’s fictional Saint Chavez mimes shouldering a bindle and assumes an aw-shucks optimism. (Greenspan creates dozens of distinct personae this manner.) At the identical time, the narration offers us a vivid, flat, modernist panorama of the thoughts, the place language tolls like bells. “All Saints. Settled all in all saints. Saints. Saints settled saints settled all in all saints. All saints. Saints in all saints.”
How a lot of this will we parse? Greenspan and his director and frequent collaborator, Ken Rus Schmoll, embody a quote from Stein in this system: “If you take pleasure in it you perceive it.” (She was chiding an interviewer who requested her about intelligibility.) This query of enjoyment is a eager one. Stein’s insistent in-the-moment-ness requires big infusions of vitality and a spotlight: it’s not as if a plot engine goes to roll the present ahead. My personal inner negotiations with the occasion included annoyance, boredom, delight, shock, distraction, after which a fast blaze of affection. There is that means, too; but it surely arrives obliquely. “There might be no peace on earth with calm,” Greenspan says. That sentence is just not airtight in any respect—it’s a rallying cry.
Stein was involved that audiences appeared to expertise drama in what she known as “syncopated time.” Our feelings throughout a traditional play run both forward of or behind the quick motion—we bear in mind the characters’ pasts or predict their futures. So how, she requested, can we let go of that distraction and expertise occasions now? How can artwork place us within the current? Greenspan’s personal innate lightness is beneficial in answering that—notably the way in which he tells us, waggishly, that the present runs ninety minutes. (Do we imagine him?) He and Stein vibrate on the identical ecstatic frequency, and his humorousness rhymes with hers, notably when he’s flicking an imaginary robin off his finger as Saint Therese. (What doesn’t curiosity her doesn’t curiosity her.) In truth, his strategies and Stein’s are so in accord that they danger changing into redundant. Greenspan’s stylizations ran thrillingly counter to the heat of Conners and to the lugubriousness of O’Neill, however right here he comes near seeming like Stein’s priest.
All this implies is that the present is sometimes troublesome, simply as a church service might be. Nearly 100 years after Stein wrote it, “Saints” has not staled or softened. Even although I’m bewitched by Stein, and by Greenspan, and by Greenspan doing Stein, I nonetheless discovered myself needing to implement some psychological self-discipline. About an hour into the efficiency, my consideration began to slacken. (In my notes, I wrote, “Recommit!,” after which stored underlining it.) This is Stein’s and Greenspan’s method of utilizing time, or, slightly, of instructing us to make use of time. It’s theatre as meditative self-discipline. One should intentionally select the present over different temptations: one should select to hear. So we selected. We have been selecting there. In a method, we’re nonetheless selecting, with an amazing many saints there, who’re selecting there collectively. ♦