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
When 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 Kitchen.
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 gestures.
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.
This 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, 2003).