Spring Guide: David Levine Messes with Imperfection in Venice Saved: A Seminar

For a man employed as a theater director and theater professor, David Levine evinces a great distaste for actual theater. Levine is somber and impish, handsome and goofy—recently described by a friend as "what you get when you cross Kierkegaard with Ogden Nash." His recent projects have shunned the stage altogether: In Actors at Work (2006), he auditioned performers, assembled a cast, filed Equity paperwork, then paid his corps to go back to their day jobs. In 2007's Bauerntheater, which translates as "farmers' theater," Levine hired actor David Barlow to live as the laborer from Heiner Müller's land-reform drama The Resettler. After a rehearsal period, Barlow moved to a plot of land outside Berlin and spent a month planting potatoes 10 hours a day. In 2004's 'Night Motherfucker, Levine closeted two actors in a large minimalist sculpture and had them run scenes from two-character Broadway plays.

Yet his next project, Venice Saved: A Seminar, which begins performances at P.S.122 on March 21, takes place in a real theater and features a real play: the 1943 "grand tragic oratorio on the loss of reality" by the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. Set in 1618, Venice Saved concerns a foiled Spanish scheme to conquer Venice. If this sounds shockingly conventional—a theater, a play, a plot—it is not. Levine has described Weil's play as "an inferior piece of political theater [that] disappoints all your expectations." An unfinished work, nearly half of the 39-page script consists of notes and ephemera—some are decipherable ("From the first lines of the play evoke the peacefulness of Venice"), others impenetrable ("Social without roots, social without a city, Roman Empire" and "In the third act, immobility"). How can this be staged?

Venice Saved: A Seminar does not answer that question—it is that question. Structured like a graduate colloquium, with actors and audience seated together around a long table, Levine and playwright Gordon Dahlquist use the play as a chance to tease out problems that the script provokes. The scenes, some of which Dahlquist has reworked, alternate with opportunities for the actors and audience to wrestle with questions of translation, adaptation, and what constitutes good political theater. The list of suggested topics for discussion includes "torture, gift bags, Blasted, outsourcing, anorexia, Israel, TCG, Rachel Corrie, Blackwater, free beer, the financial crisis, Iraq, and Barack Obama."

No one will farm potatoes at P.S.122: Levine in rehearsal
Daniel S. Neuner
No one will farm potatoes at P.S.122: Levine in rehearsal

On a recent afternoon, Levine and Dahlquist met to discuss the project in a barely heated rehearsal room in the East Village. Levine first encountered Weil's play several years ago and "couldn't figure out what to do with it. I kept messing around with it," assigning sections to his students at Berlin's European College of Liberal Arts. He liked the play's impassioned quality, but despaired of its dramaturgy. This paradox excited several lively conversations with Dahlquist, whom Levine had met during his stint as resident director at New Dramatists. Levine began to ask himself: "Wouldn't it be great if we could stage the discussion in some way?"

Of course, staging the discussion still involves staging the play, which is turgid, formal, and clumsy. Dahlquist condemns Weil's playwriting skills, noting that "her conceptions of character are really fixed and the scenes are really static." But Levine argues that the script's inadequacies will foster discussion, saying, "When it disappoints your expectations of what a good political play is supposed to be, that's when you start realizing what those expectations are." Levine and Dahlquist hope the difficult script and the seminar format will nudge the audience toward active participation and vigorous debate. (Depending on the energy of the audience members, the play might run an hour and a half—or more than four.)

Weil would not have approved. An unusually rigid thinker, she frequently broke with friends who dared offer even the slightest ideological divergence from her thought. Using her work to incite "real divergent opinions" is another example of Levine's attraction/repulsion toward drama. Of the production, Dahlquist cheerfully admits: "Weil would hate this. She would loathe the entire enterprise." Levine grins.

• Venice Saved: A SeminarMarch 21–April 5, P.S.122, 150 First Avenue, ps122.org

An Oresteia

Performances begin March 22

In Autobiography of Red, by the Canadian essayist and poet Anne Carson, the lead character observes, "Love does not make me gentle or kind." That same troubled sentiment also applies to Carson's trilogy, An Oresteia, her translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Orestes. Here, love leads characters to adultery, murder, revenge, and insanity. At Classic Stage, Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas direct the first two plays, Paul Lazar the third. Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, classicstage.org

End Days

Performances begin March 25

The physicist Stephen Hawking once remarked, "We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star." In Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, one of those monkeys needs Hawking's help. Rachel's mom has been born again, her Dad wishes he'd never been born, and the nerd next door is stalking her. So Rachel summons the super scientist to solve some difficult personal equations. Happily, he obliges. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, ensemblestudiotheatre.org

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