Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Four Saints in Three Acts

Gertrude Stein is one of those authors whose work often seems difficult and dense, until one hears it performed, after which its playfulness can be downright delightful.

I remember hearing a recording of Stein herself reciting her poem "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso." It was a revelation. "Oh," I suddenly realized, "it's supposed to be funny!"

Audience members who come see David Greenspan performing Stein's play Four Saints in Three Acts might be in for a similar revelation. Stein's script, which was famously used as the libretto for an opera by Virgil Thomson, can be puzzling to read, in part because it contains more than four saints and is longer than three acts.

The piece is not meant to be simply read, however, but performed, and Greenspan is a winning choice to interpret difficult materiel for a contemporary audience. Fans of experimental musicals might remember his portrayal of "Other Mother" in Stephin Merritt's stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline. More recently, he performed a solo-version of Eugene O'Neill's epic drama Strange Interlude.

Though Four Saints in Three Acts is being presented by the Lucille Lortel Theatre, it isn't performed at the Lortel's storied Off-Broadway theatre in Greenwich Village. Instead, Greenspan performs the work in a smaller, more industrial-feeling space, The Doxsee, recently opened by Target Margin in Brooklyn. Though the theatre's block on 52nd Street south of Sunset Park is mostly filled with warehouses and auto-repair shops, scenic and lighting designer Yuki Nakase Link has made the space feel as homey as possible with an enormous carpet and draping white curtains.

With a nearly bare stage inside a bare-bones theatre, the focus is all on the performer. Greenspan, working together with director Ken Rus Schmoll and dramaturg Jay Stull, has clearly gone over every inch of Stein's text to try to make it as accessible as possible. How accessible can one make lines like "Four saints it makes it well fish"? Well, I'm not sure, but it's fun to watch someone at least try, especially an actor as warm and good-humored as Greenspan.

When I saw the play last night, the audience seemed hesitant to laugh at parts. After all, Stein is a serious writer, isn't she? Being serious doesn't mean one can't have a sense of humor, though, and I imagine Stein would encourage us to embrace her play's sheer silliness.

And that, I think, would definitely make it well fish.

Photo credit: Steven Pisano