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Four Saints in Three Acts

Theatre Review by James Wilson - September 19, 2022

David Greenspan
Photo by Steven Pisano
"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." Thus, so begins Gertrude Stein's 1927 libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts, which (as Stein describes the genesis) became the basis for an opera with a score by composer Virgil Thomson. Arguably, music allows incomprehensible lyrics to transcend meaning, but as a dramatic text, Stein's words can come across as unintelligible at best and gibberish at worst. It is therefore something of a miracle that even as the current version eliminates the music, eschews a large operatic company, foregoes the pageantry of the original 1934 Broadway production, and delivers Stein's book without a single alteration, actor David Greenspan gives a tour-de-force solo performance in the Lucille Lortel Theatre production now playing at the Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn.

Last spring, Greenspan revived his magnificent one-person interpretation of The Patsy, a 1925 comedy by Barry Conners. In that piece, he performed eight distinct characters and succinctly conveyed the laughable high jinks of the drawing-room comedy while making the audience root for the Cinderella-like heroine at the play's center. The current project is more ambitious by far. Contrary to the title's description, Four Saints includes a cast of at least twenty saints (and, incidentally, comprises more than three acts), and it typically includes a large chorus. There is no characterization to speak of and no discernible plot. Yet, Greenspan mines the theatricality within Stein's scenarios and gives musicality to the words.

Truthfully, ten minutes into the show, I wasn't certain I would be able to endure eighty more minutes. To be sure, I marveled at Greenspan's ability to memorize a script assembled with lines like, "Letting pin in letting let in let in in in in in let in let in wet in wed in dead in dead wed led," etc., but I was afraid that this histrionic parlor trick would grow wearisome. (The set by Yuki Nakase Link consists of a carpeted platform surrounded by sheer curtains and resembles the theatrical equivalent of a stately parlor.) To riff on Stein, I initially questioned whether or not there was a there there. In a strange way, though, the performance became even more enthralling and hypnotically entrancing as the evening proceeded.

Under Ken Rus Schmoll's spot-on direction and Link's simple but effective lighting, the actor inexplicably becomes one with the words. Every utterance is imparted with the utmost conviction, and characterizations gradually emerge through gesture, balletic movement, and vocal inflection. Repeated phrases and genealogical lists of saints, for instance, offer a sense of solemn ritual, and there is divine mysteriousness associated with the dictatorial assumption that plays must be composed of acts, scenes, and stage directions. Stein is intent in showing the precariousness of such strict authorial and god-like control.

Greenspan also rejoices in Stein's verbal wordplay and finds the unabashed silliness in some of the non sequiturs and flights of fancy. Take for example, the passage that calls attention to the laziness of June/moon rhymes: "Begin to trace begin to race begin to place begin and in in that that is why this is what is left as may may follows June and June follows moon and moon follows soon and it is very nearly ended with bread." In his dexterous interpretation, Greenspan draws out the childlike fun in these sequences that recall Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" or the children's books by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel).

Last week I met with a friend who told me how excited he was to see the new David Greenspan opus. "I would watch him read the telephone book," he said. The telephone book may have a larger dramatis personae than Four Saints in Three Acts and perhaps a bit more drama, but I am sure my friend will be dazzled by this rendition. David Greenspan raises the bar for actors. In fact, he is so good, I can affirm that I would watch him read Gertrude Stein.

Four Saints in Three Acts
Through October 9, 2022
Lucille Lortel Theatre Production
The Doxsee @ Target Margin Theater, 232 52nd Street, Brooklyn NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: