No Noises Off
By Martin Harries
By David Greenspan, based on Aristotle's Poetics
Adapted from Plato's Symposium by Target Margin Theater
512 W. 19th St.
Box office: (212) 255-5793 x11
Does theater, despite everything, think?
If theater does think, surely it's not simply, or not only, by
putting thoughtful characters on stage and arranging for them
to talk thoughtfully. Shaw thinks, sure, but there are other ways
to think. How does theater think? Where might this thinking happen?
No production would seem to provoke these
questions more readily than Target Margin's paired program of
The Argument, David Greenspan's utterly compelling staging
of Aristotle's Poetics by way of Gerald Else's commentaries,
and Dinner Party, a more uneven and yet also surprisingly
elegant, even moving dramatization of Plato's Symposium.
These unlikely revisions of two resonant ancient Greek texts work
surprisingly well as theater. They think, in part, by tangling
with two of the foundational texts in aesthetics and their arguments
about tragedy, violence, love and beauty, as well as their arguments
about desire. Thought, yes, but is this theatrical thinking?
A propos of this double bill, I would like
to take a short detour. By chance the last theater performance
I saw before Target Margin's program was the second-to-last evening
of the fine, doomed Broadway revival of Journey's End.
The setting of that play is the confined space of the underground
quarters of a group of officers in the trenches of a World War
I battlefield. Jonathan Fensom's long, horizontal playing space
for the Broadway production effectively produced the claustrophobic
aura the play demanded. One effect of this drastic narrowing of
the playing space was the paradoxical sensation that the world
backstage had expanded, that as trench confinement became less
and less bearable, the horizon of death and mayhem outside or
behind the shallow stage of action had grown ominously larger.
Journey's End exemplified what
one might say of any realist play: the designers design not only
the set but also what is off stage. In the realist theater, Roland
Barthes' "effect of the real" depends on the illusion of a backstage
not only continuous with but also somehow more capacious than
the space on stage. That space guarantees the fully inhabited
psychology of those rounded characters whose partial lives we
witness. Target Margin's program thinks in part by challenging
this convention of the backstage. It carries on a post-realist
tradition of challenging the reality effect produced by the sublime
depths of the backstage. The Argument and Dinner
Party make the stakes of this theatrical gamble especially
clear: without the guarantee of depth offered by the backstage,
theatrical thinking has to happen, so to speak, in the open.
To a startling and sometimes uncomfortable
degree Target Margin has eliminated the backstage. This bracing
dismissal doubtless owes much to David Herskovits, Target Margin's
Artistic Director and also the director of the two productions
under review. This break with the allure of the guarantees of
the backstage seems to me to mark a crucial difference between
the work of Target Margin and that of many other experimental
companies. Even Richard Foreman's rigorous interrogation of the
conditions of the stage relies on an uncanny activation of the
realist power of "backstage." We may not know what's going on
back there, but strange objects and stranger figures continue
to emerge. For Foreman, the backstage may serve as the materialization
of the unconscious and not as an extension of the realist space
of the stage, but his spooky hidden spaces nevertheless function
as a kind of translation of that realist space.
David Greenspan delivers his brilliant collage of Aristotle and
the commentaries of Gerald Else, he simply walks out into the
playing space from the same entrance the audience used, and speaks,
and gesticulates, and lectures, and "acts." The scattered pieces
of the set for Dinner Party are behind him, but there
is no attempt to pretend that he and these pieces belong to different
worlds: that stuff will obviously be used later. (Or not, as the
case may be.)
Similarly, after intermission, there they
are, the actors for Dinner Party, opening bottles of
wine, scanning music playlists on a computer screen, flirting.
However artfully, they embody a group of theater artists who pretend
to have no designs on us. And that pretense edges closer to the
truth when this artless set-up leads to a modernized version of
Plato's competition to render the best argument or story about
love. There is some spinning of a backstage "back story": Han
Nah (Han Nah Kim) has won an Obie for a solo performance a few
nights earlier, and her friends are variously delighted or jealous,
or both. But this story is the occasion for talk and for thought,
right here, in the malleable black box of the theater called The
When we hear about Han Nah's Obie-winning
solo performance, we've just seen one that deserves an Obie, and
more. David Greenspan ("Aristotle in The Argument; David
in Dinner Party," the program tells us with a certain
disingenuous cunning) hardly lacks for Obies or other awards,
but it's possible nevertheless that this extraordinary performer
does not have the recognition he deserves. Greenspan delivers
The Argument with a deceptively deadpan vocal virtuosity
and a remarkable expressive physicality: even his legs make articulate
More remarkable still is that Greenspan's
performance of the most influential treatise on theater captivates
from start to finish. (It was fair to anticipate that this performance
might have been a little dry.) Greenspan develops a vocabulary
of bodily motifs that illustrate some of the central concerns
of Aristotle's text -- a slashing arm movement downwards, for
instance, accompanies the word "pathos" -- but on the whole he
speaks a heavily edited version of Aristotle's text, along with
interpolations that are presumably texts by Else (e.g., "stage
lights will not be invented for over 2000 years").
Aristotle's Poetics has shaped
millennia of discussion about genre. The Argument is
a mischievous generic hybrid: performed lecture? But what is a
lecture? Erving Goffman writes:
A lecture . . . purports to take the
audience right past the auditorium, the occasion, and the speaker
into the subject matter upon which the lecture comments. So
your lecturer is meant to be a performer, but not merely a performer.
There is a dramaturgical logic to Goffman's
comments: the lecturer's "subject matter" should transcend the
location of the lecture's delivery. The Argument, then,
seems some sort of abyssal, diabolical parody of a lecture: it
succeeds as theater while partaking of the lecture's denial of
its own theatricality. Greenspan's virtuosic performance returns
Aristotle's abstractions to the theater.
And yet, there remains a kind of depth.
The basic lighting scheme for both pieces (by Lenore Doxsee) shifts
unobtrusively from bright to darker, and the effect of this in
The Argument is to suggest that Greenspan's (or Aristotle's?
or Else's?) investments in the material are more complicated than
they might have seemed at the start. We come back to the auditorium,
and to a curious, even elegiac sense of affective attachment to
these dramaturgical questions about genre and about violence that
we have been hearing about.
Something similar happens at the end of
Dinner Party. Over gentle music, Greig Sargeant narrates
what sounds very much like a direct rendition of the end of Plato's
Symposium: everyone is asleep except for Agathon, Aristophanes,
and Socrates (or in this case, David Greenspan, Steven Rattazzi,
and Stephanie Weeks); Socrates (Weeks) is arguing that the same
writer should be able to write both comedies and tragedies. In
performance this was strangely moving -- strangely so because
I could not trace the affective charge I found this moment to
have. Surely this emotion did not come from the aura of some backstage
promise of happiness, of psychological depth, or merely from the
darkening lights or the appealing music.
closing also made me ponder the form of Dinner Party.
To call it a comedy would be perhaps too straightforward, although
the comic moments are many. Some of these moments, indeed, are
strained: Aristophanes' allegory of the torn halves of human beings
looking for their other selves does not need the pageantry accompanying
it here: actors pair up, carry discs representing their molded
selves; the discs then split in two and the shattered humans are
then forever in search of their other half. Rattazzi proves himself
an adept comic performer: why not give him something like the
space allowed Greenspan, if only briefly?
Dinner Party is perhaps at its
strongest where it strays least from the dialogue of Plato's text.
There is a great moment, for instance, when Stephanie challenges
Han Nah, and Socrates' meditative destruction of Agathon's praise
of love as the source of all great virtues is, suddenly, a live
thought in the theater. Han Nah wants to believe she can embody
the beauty she also desires. Her narcissistic, harebrained, but
also appealingly lithe and disarming, danced rendition of the
lyrics to "All You Need is Love" is a perfect skit on self-love.
She trusts that we will adore the seriocomic beauty of her dance
as she does herself. A short while later, the partygoers are slouched
around a table in that way we're told the ancient Greeks enjoyed.
Nonchalant, Socratic Stephanie quietly asks whether, if love is
all we need, it might also be all we lack. There is no need of
a backstage to make the idea that love loves what it lacks devastating.
Indeed, that backstage might seem to promise that what love lacks
is mysteriously there, and part of love, after all.
But the clincher is that there is no backstage
beyond the table where the Sound Demon, Diana Konopka, mixes the
soundtrack for this evening of thinking about love and sex. "Is
there anyone here I haven't slept with?" asks David Greenspan,
doubling now not for Aristotle but for Alcibiades, soon after
he enters. This flicker of another life, of a "back story," surfaces
as the bright fragment of some comedy Aristotle might not have
liked. But the figures onstage are in the midst of conversation,
not concerned with those tragic sexual histories that seem so
often to crowd the wings. (And if these stories do rustle in the
wings, there may be nothing tragic about them.) There is no sense
that some story will continue elsewhere.
The comedy of the evening as a whole is
partly the result of that elimination of the backstage where deep
significance is thought to lurk. And this collapsing of levels
suggests one effective way that the theater can think: by not
pretending that its richest potential representations are in a
world outside it. People have been pursuing playful, improvisatory
arguments at a party; now it's time to make one's way to a bar
to talk, and to think, or maybe even to love, there or somewhere
else -- and then home to rest.
In asking whether and how theater thinks,
I echo Stathis Gourgouris' Does Literature Think?: Literature
as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Stanford University Press,