nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
January 10, 2010
How often do you get to see anything that's really exciting in theatre? Not manufactured exciting or substitute-sugar exciting but exciting exciting? Can a guy giving a performance reading of a lecture from 1934 be exciting? With David Greenspan, the answer is yes.
After going down the four flights on the elevator to the Atlantic Stage 2 space, I was struck by the crispness and simplicity of the set-up for Plays. A bare stage (save for a wooden table, a chair, and a glass of water), unadorned support beams, an exposed loading dock door, and white work lights. You know right away this piece is going to be centered on the performance with nothing to distract from it.
Fortunately, the performer in this case is David Greenspan. He enters wearing clothes as crisp as the space and carrying the manuscript for the event and a pair of glasses. He takes a seat at the desk and proceeds to deliver Gertrude Stein's lecture on the theatre for approximately an hour.
No plot, no characters, no sound effects, no pushing or pandering.
Gertrude Stein compares and contrasts what you experience in life, in reading a book, and in sitting in the theatre. The difference between experiencing something versus when we are receiving the experience second-hand. The rhythms we have as readers are different than what they are as audience members and what they are when we are actually going through something. She measures this in terms of emotions and excitement, whether we are in control or not of the experience, and the impressions they leave on us.
She gives us her journey into writing plays. The honesty and simplicity of the recounting her early experiences as a young girl attending the theatre seemed to bring the audience together in sharing the delight. Her admission that the only thing she remembered about Booth's Hamlet was his lying at the Queen's feet while he watched "the little play" says a lot about what we take away after all is said and done.
The loopy, circular logic in Stein's writing clarifies and re-clarifies her points and can give you a better understanding of them, but can also drive you slightly mad. If you like Stein's writing you will not be disappointed. If you don't, Greenspan's performance of this lecture will win you over anyway.
David Greenspan immediately hooked me the moment he walked out and said that sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. He is able to play with gestures, repetition, and opposites with the greatest of ease. He frames certain words or phrases so they come back to you hours after the performance. Long tracks of thought are brought back to the present to a moment of revelation, relief, or mild shock. He gets laughs through unfolding a moment rather than pushing for a rim shot.
There is a lot to digest and take away from this piece. I will remember what is said in this about excitement and how that element impacts life and art for a long time to come.