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On Set With Theda Bara

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 14, 2024

David Greenspan
Photo by Emilio Madrid
At the Brick, there's not a bad seat in the house. That's because the house is a long, narrow room framing a long, narrow table, plus a few barstool-height chairs against the wall to fill the theater to a maximum of 50. Intimate doesn't begin to describe it, and the audience gathered at On Set with Theda Bara, presented by Transport Group and Lucille Lortel Theater, was convivial, chatting with strangers across the table and trading the information they'd gotten from Googling the title character, a movie star of more than a century ago. We were in a good mood; we were about to encounter David Greenspan.

You know Greenspan, he's the downtown legend who writes, directs, and fervently acts bizarre little plays. Here he's taken on Joey Merlo's uncategorizable one-hour phantasmagoria, a combination narrative, fever dream, séance, and meditation on the clashing of past and present. If it confuses you, well, you're not alone. But the compensations are many, beginning with watching a master artist up close.

About Theda Bara: She's generally recognized as the first screen "vamp," a term that's lately gone out of fashion but endured at least up to Cher. Short for vampire, a vamp was a screen siren who lured and betrayed gullible young men, beginning with Bara's A Fool There Was, the smash of 1914 and the only film of hers to wholly survive. Fox, her studio, insisted that she was born in the shadow of the Sphinx and loved to point out that her name was an anagram for "Arab death," but in fact she was Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati, Ohio, and was out of fashion by 1922. She's ripe material for biographical drama, but that's not what Merlo and Greenspan are offering.

What they're offering is a kaleidoscope, one that defies classification. Theda's surely the engine, beginning the evening by wandering in the desert, mysterious, exotic, vampish. Greenspan can twist his body in any number of directions and apply any color to his voice. He's one of that vanishing species, an actor with trained pipes, and you can hear him whisper from 70 feet away. There's a sound designer, Brandon Bulls, who supplies evocative background noise, but Greenspan doesn't need a mic. He never will.

As soon as we've met Theda, we stumble upon Finale, a present-day married gay detective searching for Iras, his missing self-proclaimed genderqueer teenage daughter. Got that? Now Greenspan is vocally guttural and physically ill at ease. We're just getting to know Finale when he turns into Ulysses, a nice young Southern pre-World War I boy with a terrible home life. Ulysses plays the organ at the local cinema, and he becomes obsessed with Theda.

How time and place career around! Theda expounds on image and reality: "My life is one big lie, but so are the movies, and that's what we love about them." She also jumps willfully into the present, 139 years young and savoring her surviving film clips on YouTube, which she pronounces "YouTuba." The lost Iras will encounter her, and so will Ulysses, to whom she's kind and considerate considering she's a vamp, and so will Finale. Ulysses also jumps time, to teach her about Google and YouTuba. In Merlo's warped universe, all roads lead to Theda Bara.

The transitions from place to place and thread to thread are abrupt and confusing, probably deliberately, and it's a good thing Greenspan is so adept at negotiating them. Ulysses populates a place where "reality seems to move about" and couples with Theda, probably in his mind (the real Theda, somewhat surprisingly, married her director and lived happily ever after, sans vamping). Iras fantasizes about feathers and skeletons. Finale concentrates on searching for her, like a good movie detective. Theda recites "The Raven," hammily, and conjures Iras while conducting a séance with Ulysses. She feeds Iras rice pudding. Now Iras is obsessing about her, and Theda is counseling, "You want to be me, but there is no me to be!" What the heck's going on?

A dream, perhaps, or an LSD-infused hallucination, or a random series of casually related throughlines. No idea why Iras is seducing Ulysses, muttering Theda's famous title card "Kiss me you fool," or why Finale is sticking his tongue out to catch snowflakes and finding they're bits of glass, or why everyone's trading identities. Rationality is the least of On Set with Theda Bara's intentions, but metatheatricality is uppermost, and Greenspan is armed with the right crew to provide that. Jack Serio directs with a keen eye for arresting stage pictures with minimal resources, and Stacy Derosier's lighting, in a mysteriously smoky space, goes deftly from bright to black and accentuates the drama.

Which is variously campy, comic, overwrought, underplayed, and incomprehensible. Merlo has said that he considers Theda Bara a metaphor for queerness, and you do get how alien and otherworldly she must have been to unsophisticated audiences, but he doesn't seem to be making any major statements about identity. What he's doing is letting David Greenspan unleash his full inventory of actorly invention, varying his rich voice and careening from table to corner to mirror to darkness with intense physicality, mesmerizingly. On Set with Theda Bara doesn't often make sense, in fact it never does. But for the experience of witnessing a great actor a few feet away, we're grateful.

On Set with Theda Bara
Through March 9, 2024
Transport Group and Lucille Lortel Theater
The Brick, 579 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn
Tickets online and current performance schedule: