HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
No Noises Off
By Martin Harries

The Argument
By David Greenspan, based on Aristotle's Poetics
Dinner Party
Adapted from Plato's Symposium by Target Margin Theater
The Kitchen
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.

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).