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.”

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,

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,

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,

Mary Stuart

Performances begin March 30

Broadway’s been experiencing plenty of Sturm und Drang of late—early closings, difficulties capitalizing, those troubling Broadway League ads—though little of that genre has appeared onstage. But Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, a history play about rivalry for the British crown, in a new translation by Peter Oswald, includes a storm and plenty of stress. In Phyllida Lloyd’s production, a success at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Harriet Walter plays a forbidding Queen Elizabeth, with Janet McTeer as her Scottish rival. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street,

Le Serpent Rouge

Performances begin April 3

“An apple a play” might well be the motto adopted by dance-theater troupe Company XIV: Their last show began with the golden apple bestowed on Aphrodite, which incited the Trojan War, and their latest features an equally bothersome Red Delicious—the forbidden fruit Eve so fatefully munched in Eden. Doubtless Company XIV will bestow their signal combination of baroque dance, found text, and scantily clad chorus to represent this holy tale. 303 Bond Street, 303 Bond Street, Brooklyn,

Waiting for Godot

Performances begin April 3

Those awaiting another revival of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece now know when Godot will arrive. In this incarnation, directed by Anthony Page, actors Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin play the expectant tramps, with John Goodman and John Glover as Pozzo and Lucky. Beckett productions remain common, so if this production isn’t a success, those involved can comfort themselves with lines from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street,

9 to 5: The Musical

Performances begin April 7

Dolly Parton proclaimed that workin’ 9 to 5 was an inferior way to make a livin’: “Barely getting’ by/It’s all takin’/And no givin.’ ” Yet in the present financial climate, gainful employment of any sort has become a valuable commodity. Will workers of the world unite for the musical version of the 1980 film? Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty star as the beleaguered employees, with Marc Kudisch as their loutish boss. Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway,

the Norman Conquests

Performances begin April 7

In 1066, Duke William of Normandy scored a very nifty combat victory, beating out homonym rivals Harold and Harald for control of England. But Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests, quite elides the Battle of Hastings. Instead, it offers three interconnected plays—Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden—that chart a weekend in the life of assistant librarian Norman. Having conquered London critics, director Matthew Warchus exports his Old Vic production to New York. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway,

The Gingerbread House

Performances begin April 11

Mark Schultz doesn’t usually sugarcoat his dramas. Works such as Everything Will Be Different and Deathbed have emphasized the most acrid aspects of human nature. So don’t expect too many gumdrops and lollipops to decorate his latest play. But producers the stageFARM have assembled a remarkably sweet cast—Bobby Cannavale, Jason Butler Harner, Jackie Hoffman, Sarah Paulson, and Ben Rappaport—for The Gingerbread House, which concerns a couple desperate to belong to a sinister club. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Place,

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Performances begin May 5

President Andrew Jackson and religious reformer Martin Luther may seem to have little in common, but Jackson greatly admired Luther’s maxim, “No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.” That sanguine element is very much on display in Les Freres Corbusier’s impertinent ode to Jackson’s administration. Alex Timbers’s script and Michael Friedman’s emo rock songs compass Jackson’s invention of the Democratic party and devastation of Native Americans. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street,

The Merchant of Venice

Performances begin May 6

Gender doesn’t trouble most productions of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s depiction of the relationships between Portia and Bassanio and Jessica and Lorenzo usually give over to the play’s views on religion and commerce. But the all-male Propeller company, under Edward Hall’s direction, should offer a fresh take on these foul Venetian doings. Following in the footsteps of their revelatory Taming of the Shrew, the U.K.-based Propeller will bring this uncongenial comedy to BAM in a highly physical staging. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn,


Performances begin May 7

It’s a rare child who does not wish to exchange her parents for another set. And it’s a rarer one who gets the chance. That’s the case for Coraline, the young heroine of Neil Gaiman’s eerie children’s book. Opening a door in her new apartment, she discovers a replica family. Her story has already inspired a 3-D film, and now it has instigated a musical adaptation, with a book by David Greenspan and music and lyrics by the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Who’d want to exchange them? Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street,

Our House

Performances begin May 15

Apparently, Theresa Rebeck is mad—and she isn’t going to take it anymore. The author of The Scene and Mauritius has shifted her focus from predatory ingenues and rare stamps to prime-time television. Her latest play concerns a young newscaster who hosts a reality-TV show and an obsessive fan who covets a more high-definition relationship with her. Directed by Michael Mayer, the comedy questions the overlap of news and entertainment. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street,

Archive Highlights