Wednesday, March 01, 2006

the "New Storytelling" (part 2)

Beautifully sculpted incessant speech, full of sentences that overlap on hinge words with double grammatical functions, of repeatedly revised clauses and dialogues rehearsed by a single performer, nearly always makes its appearance at some point in any given play of David Greenspan. In the midst of incredibly strange, hilarious, intelligent plays, these balloons of language appear, knocking the whole form of the piece out of balance and giving it the opportunity to go in all sorts of new directions. In The Myopia (1998, click here for a PDF of the script), the massive monologue becomes the frame for the entire play. So far it’s only been performed by Greenspan himself, sitting in a chair, doing the voices of all the characters and narrating the stage directions.

It’s hard to imagine performing it in any other way. The “plot” of this “tragic burlesque of epic proportions” concerns Barclay (a softly glowing globe on a stand who speaks in Beckett-esque monologues of existential nihility), the offspring of Koreen (a giant) and Febus, a playwright whose great unfinished project was a musical about the life of Warren G. Harding, the corrupt Republican president who, in a way, set the American political right on the path we’re so familiar with today. Barclay’s speeches (in which he debates whether to complete the musical) alternate with scenes from the collapsing marriage of Koreen and Febus and from the life of Harding, which culminates in the 1920 Republican national convention, where hordes of politicians and journalists emerge from the impenetrable smoke of cigars and argue through the cascading waves of choral coughing. The narrator (the “raconteur” or “orator,” who has “become stage directions”) and his doppleganger (who “bears a striking resemblance to the actress Carol Channing”) appear to tell us that an entire three-hour act has been cut from the play, and engage in a discussion of the theater, of Gertrude Stein’s playwriting theories, and of experiences with acting exercises. There are moments of quasi-Shakespearean verse, L.A.-showbiz-slimeball talk, and that feedback loop of revision that sounds like Stein as Woody Allen, with more urgency than either.

What’s most striking about The Myopia is its scale, and scale is explicitly and implicitly thematized throughout (Koreen’s giantism, the three-hour cut act). The fact that a single performer simply delivers the script (given that it is meant to be performed live) allows for a capaciousness that exceeds anything an actual staging could achieve. The drastically different “looks” and tones of the various scenes alone would be more than most theater ensembles and budgets could handle. The history the play describes exceeds even its own possibility, both “horizontally” (in time) and “vertically” (in terms of how much of a given time can be represented). My favorite example of both dimensions is the following set of stage directions:

Characters of HARDING’s life now populate the stage: senators, congressmen, cronies, and crooks.
World War I enters, commences, and concludes. Soldiers return from Europe, litter the stage, impoverished and out of work. Postwar chaos ensues: all over the stage there are race riots, crime
waves, and a rise of fundamentalism. Down left, the Democratic Party is paralyzed by the social
upheaval. Up right, the Republican Party capitalizes on the nation’s discontent, begins its ascendancy.

The form of The Myopia is unique in my experience; its interior is a play, or a set of potential plays, some of them commentaries on the others (and a note at the end of an earlier Greenspan play claims that his next work is, in fact, a musical about Harding, implying that the entirety of The Myopia is a kind of absurdly inflated commentary on the failure of that project), and the constant reference to the stage reminds us of the scale of all the things that would be happening on it—the institution of the theater is an essential frame here—and what makes it possible to present this kind of theater at all is the fact that it’s a told story, a huge thing in the tiny container of a performer’s body and speech. Greenspan’s writing always seems based on some insoluble problem with the seed of the play, its original main idea; what ends up as the play is a multiplication and series of variations (almost puns) on that problem. In this one, the friction between different scales is at its most extreme, directly enacted in language.

(to be concluded soon)


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