Theater archives

Herskovits Moves Theater Forward—to Its Medieval Roots


For New Year’s 2004, The New York Times asked leading scholars to suggest ideas the world could do without in this millennium; “capitalism” and “monotheism” were among those proposed. Leaving the latter aside for a moment, there are increasing signs that the theater, glutted on technology and pointless lavishness, is waking up to the need to eschew the overspending, both budgetary and aesthetic, that capitalism encourages. Richard Maxwell’s bare-bones events, Jonathan Miller’s anti-ornate King Lear, and David Greenspan’s brilliantly unadorned She Stoops to Comedy were all portents. Now David Herskovits’s Target Margin Theater, celebrated (or railed at) for bedecking lesser-known plays from the past with ostentatious deconstructive devices, has revived a mock-medieval French play from 1910, and there’s not a surplus gadget to be seen—only a peaceful, low-key environment, a single raked platform, and whatever magic the three actresses’ voices can coax from the text.

There’s plenty to be mined. Péguy, who died young early in World War I, was a fervently mystical Catholic who espoused a Dorothy Day–like socialism. His austere poetic prose, marked by Gertrude Stein–ish repetitions, supplies a prequel to Joan’s story, steering stringently past both the nationalism that drove Joan and the dogmatism that burned her, displaying the young “Jeannette” confronted on one side by worldly village girls and on the other by a saintly widow turned nun. The production’s ambience is contemporary—set designer Lenore Doxsee has covered that raked platform in two-hued stripes of green Astroturf—but the movement is sparse and the tone direct. What Herskovits hasn’t yet defined is what acting means in such a context; two of his performers are merely adequate. But Daphne Gaines’s rich, clear voice invests pious Madame Gervaise’s lines with lambent spirit, and the play’s lucid dignity comes across. Herskovits’s simple act of aesthetic faith has powerful resonances in a theater, and a world, hooked on every kind of overindulgence. For one thing, it reaffirms what La Croix, the leading French Catholic newspaper, said in its review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: “Sadism and voyeurism are no substitute for catechism.”