“If you enjoy it, you understand it,” says the program cover of Four Saints in Three Acts, quoting the piece’s author, Gertrude Stein. Which means, I guess, that I understand it, though sometimes I enjoyed the craft more than the content. The downtown theater icon David Greenspan is a brilliant craftsman and technician of language–as both a writer and a performer, he brings the kind of specificity to every clause, every movement, that makes you feel like that sentence has perhaps never been spoken in precisely that way, with precisely that intention, before–nor has ever made quite so much sense. Director Ken Rus Schmoll, too, often has an archaeologist’s gentle touch with the intricacies of a script, with a soft brush here and a tweezers there to display the bones of a text.
Greenspan has a long history with multi-character single-performer works, and his skill can bring a pristine clarity to something that could in other hands become a hopeless, and pointless, muddle. Four Saints in Three Acts is the third part in a trilogy of early-twentieth-century American plays that Greenspan has recently performed as solo acts–the first two being the romantic comedy The Patsy (in 2011 and then again earlier this year) and Eugene O’Neill’s strangest play, Strange Interlude (in 2017). But watching this, I also think particularly of his own The Myopia, a bonkers historical [hysterical?] American epic with something like sixteen characters, performed solo by Greenspan with no more set or props than a chair, itself written very much in dialogue with Gertrude Stein (and sometimes in fact sharing performances with a lecture by Stein on theater).
As in The Myopia, Greenspan’s craft builds a throughline of language and intention where nothing so solid as narrative exists. It’s impossible not to delight in Greenspan’s relish of Gertrude Stein’s relish of her words: The echoes and the patterns of the language shine through here: the interplay of “with” and “without” and “withhold.” The constant play with numbers (Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein, it perhaps goes without saying that there are many more than four saints–among them, in a conventional production, two Saint Thereses–and well more than three acts). The mirrors and patterns in language that connect the play’s beginning to its end far more than any sense of plot or character. The conjuration of whimsical, imagined saints (Saint Plan. Saint Chavez. Saint Settlement) in dialogue with the more familiar Therese and Ignatius. The echoes of sound and sense. Greenspan and Schmoll have also created a gestural vocabulary as stylized and patterned as Stein’s language, with a posture pertaining to each saint, so that as the numbers mount, Greenspan’s movements take on the same spiraling, echoing quality as the text.
Four Saints was originally created as the libretto for an opera, with music by Virgil Thomson; it was first produced in 1934, with an all-Black cast of more than twenty (mostly amateur singers), design by the painter Florine Stettheimer, and choreography by Frederick Ashton. What was a lush spectacle in many dimensions is here distilled down to its essence: a man, a rug, and ninety minutes of luxuriating in language. In its juxtaposition of the austere and the lush, Four Saints in Three Acts also reminded me of some of the dance works of Merce Cunningham–an art form stripped to its barest building blocks. All the “extraneous” elements of theater are stripped away–no set, no costumes, no music, no cast to play against; it’s in a man in dialogue with the nature of language itself.