Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts is, to put it bluntly, nonsensical. An avant-garde opera with a libretto by Stein and a score by Virgil Thomson, it's more word-driven than plot-driven: the libretto repeats the same lines endlessly, strings prepositions together in ways that would have English teachers howling, plays with phrasing and homophones, and contains a host of abstractions. Making the bold decision to turn Stein's largely inscrutable opera into a solo show that is essentially one 90-minute monologue may seem like theatrical suicide, but that's just what David Greenspan is currently doing at Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn. And, incredibly, it works.
That it does work is largely due to Greenspan's inspired interpretation of the text (as directed by Ken Rus Schmoll), and of course, his ability to carry out that interpretation. Watching him perform Four Saints in Three Acts drives home the perplexities of the English language and the almost inifinite possible meanings of a single phrase. Varying inflection, volume, speed, expression, and body language, he endows each line with meaning---even ones as seemingly nonsensical as "with a wide water with within with withdrawn."
Some he treats with great delicacy, turning them into near ritual ("here where they are, they are here"); others he imbues with humor, making the audience cackle ("how many saints can remember a house which was built before they can remember"); still others become a reflection on suffering ("Saint Therese has been prepared for there being summer"); and a lonely plea for an end to existential isolation ("to be with them to be windowed").
As, around a third of the way in, I slowly started to gain a handle on the merciless onslaught of words, that last theme jumped out at me. "There is a distance in between others," Greenspan says. And perhaps, I thought (flashing back to my college lit theory class), a distance between words and meaning. In Stein's endless reaching through and combusting of language, I heard the distance between what dry syllables can communicate and what our flooded hearts want to convey.
As if in an alchemical attempt to solve that existential loneliness, Stein peppers her libretto with equations for changing 2 into 1, 1 into 3, or, as in the title, 4 in 3 (though to be transparent, there are more than 3 acts and many more than 4 saints). Greenspan aids this interpretation by repeatedly pointing to his chest with one finger, as if trying to lodge the play's many saints within himself.
Then again, in what could be called an alchemical performance, that's exactly what he does. And perhaps that explains why I found myself almost falling into a trance as I watched. Greenspan is inhabiting Stein's characters, transforming bare words into beautiful meanings, or at least, endless reachings for meaning. When he brings his two hands slowly together in the show's final few minutes, interlocking his fingers like 10 saints joining into one, I felt as though I'd just witnessed something akin to a religious ceremony: hypnotic, maddening, brilliant.
The Lucille Lortel Theatre’s production of 'Four Saints in Three Acts' runs through October 9th at The Doxsee @ Target Margin Theater (232 52nd St, Brooklyn). For tickets and more info, see the link below: