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Theatre in Review: Four Saints in Three Acts (The Doxsee @ Target Margin Theater)

David Greenspan. Photo: Steven Pisano

"Pigeons on the grass, alas." So goes one of the most-quoted lines from Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera libretto by Gertrude Stein, written in 1927 and set to music by Virgil Thomson in 1928. Like everything else about the piece, the title is not to be taken literally -- it is in four acts and contains upwards of twenty saints -- but that's our Gertrude for you; in her view, words were slippery things, their factual content not to be relied on. For example, if you're wondering what that line about pigeons means, don't; anyone troubled by questions like that won't have a very good time at this highly unusual entertainment.

Is Four Saints in Three Acts a modernist masterpiece or a bizarre one-off? It depends on who you ask. Certainly, the success of its 1934 New York debut, staged by John Houseman, hinged on its all-Black cast and a scenic design, made of cellophane(!) by Florine Stettheimer and Kate Drain Lawson with lighting by the great Abe Feder. And it is, at best, infrequently revived. In the production at the Doxsee, music has been dispensed with, and design values are minimal; David Greenspan speaks the text on a simple, raised stage with subtle lighting changes provided by production designer Yuki Nakase Link. In a program note, Greenspan says that Stein always referred to the piece as a play, and he is taking her at her word. (Of course, Stein's definition of "play" is, like everything else about her, highly individual, but there you are.)

Your enjoyment of Four Saints in Three Acts will depend on surrendering any expectations of plot and characters. The piece instead offers a parade of saints pursuing lines of thought that are reliably impenetrable; it's a kind of word salad, lovingly prepared by a master avant-garde chef. The opening passage makes clear that nothing will be clear: "To know to know to love her so/Four saints prepare for saints/It makes it well fish/Four saints it makes it well fish/Four saints prepare for saints it makes it well well fish it makes it well fish prepare for saints/Prepare for saints/Two saints/Four saints." Alternating between a kind of blank verse and passages of prose, it goes like this for ninety minutes. It's an unchecked stream of consciousness that alternately seduces and stupefies and I'm not entirely sure if this isn't exactly the effect Stein wanted.

Greenspan, in the last decade or so, has specialized in solo versions of plays written for ensemble casts. And if we are to have Four Saints at all, he is an inspired choice to present it. Having made hay with the amusing 1920s potboiler The Patsy, climbed the mountain of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, and interpreted some of Stein's lectures, he throws every bit of his considerable skill at this text, clearly excited by the author's mandarin turn of mind. Under Ken Rus Schmoll's intensively detailed direction, Greenspan weighs every word, placing it carefully, like a piece in a giant mosaic. His approach is nothing less than protean; in a little more than a minute, he is, by turns, grand, coquettish, robotic, confiding, irritated, officious, and prayerful. He strikes melodramatic poses, like a modern-day Henry Irving; he briefly assumes a mantle of piety; he bursts into giggles over the madness of it all. He often seems to be listening to the prompts of voices only he can hear. Indeed, you could say he has been possessed by Stein's restless spirit; this is a performance as antic, impish, and as impossible to parse as her charming and bewildering words.

Four Saints is not for anyone seeking the usual pleasures of theatre; Stein is focused on how words sound, especially in strange juxtapositions that often contain hidden puns: "This is a scene where this is seen," or "Saint Teresa can know the difference between singing and women. Saint Teresa can know the difference between snow and thirds." It's a methodology capable of inducing a kind of cheerful derangement, a disorienting view of reality. (Don't be surprised if you are alternately captivated and a bit bored; the text is a kind of verbal superstructure through which one may wander at one's will.) And the absence of Thomson's frequently delightful score isn't felt; Greenspan's uniquely high-pitched voice makes its own music and establishes its own angular rhythms. His performance is marked by enormous discipline and considerable wit.

If this is something of a boutique offering, it is certain to have its fans. Anyone who is interested in Stein, who admires Greenspan, or who wants to know what all the fuss was about with between-the-wars Modernism will want to give this a look. You can worry about drama another time. This singular production is an act of love. --David Barbour

(19 September 2022)

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