In ‘Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity,’ David Greenspan Channels a Gertrude Stein Trifecta


If you stare at downtown theater veteran David Greenspan long enough, he starts to look like Gertrude Stein. Certainly he’s svelter than the matriarch of modernism, whose likeness Picasso made iconic with his Cubist portrait (now in the Met’s collection). Stein’s face often appears impatient and inquisitive, but Greenspan gives off an aura of slyness; in virtuosic monologue performances like The Myopia and The Argument, the actor-playwright has seduced intellectuals with elaborate spins on Plato or obscure American presidents. Here the performer resembles his subject: In his late fifties, Greenspan has graying temples, a boyish face, and a cropped haircut, not unlike the avant-garde doyenne of pre-war Paris.

The similarity is purely coincidental, however. In Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity, a new Target Margin Theater production he conceived and performs, Greenspan doesn’t “do” Gertrude (tempting as that might be). Instead his tribute, part of Target Margin’s wonderfully ambitious seven-show Stein season, takes a far more engaging route. In three short segments, he inhabits her crackpot mind, chews on her delicious prose, and demonstrates her luminous powers of imagination. Greenspan gives verbatim recitations of Stein’s twisty, mutating words — two pieces created from Stein’s celebrated 1920s and ’30s lectures and essays on aesthetics (“Composition as Explanation” and “What Are Master-Pieces, and Why Are There So Few of Them?”) and one staging of her 1935 dramatic poem (“Identity A Poem”).

At first Greenspan sits on a chair on a conspicuously bare stage under the Connelly Theater’s gilded proscenium arch, with just a water bottle and a few pages. He launches into Stein’s remarks on the act of making art. Soon our heads spin, as this loopy lecture kicks up questions and pronouncements about the nature of creation. What does it mean to be “ahead” of your time? Is modern art best enjoyed right after its creation — as Stein so often did in French ateliers and salons? Or does something change after “avant garde” work no longer offends and is anointed a classic? How can an artist find the right form to express the time in which she lives?

That gloss might make Composition… sound didactic, but Greenspan animates the material beautifully. His voice modulates in shrewdly calibrated sync with Stein’s repetitive, offhanded wordplay. His quirky hand gestures reinforce her key terms and ideas — how art expresses the “continuous present” and keeps “beginning again.” He makes the most of humorous asides: “Talking has nothing to do with creation. I talk a lot,” Stein tells us in one moment of self-derision. In other places her quips resonate for the Instagram and Twitter generation: “[E]verybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not interesting,” she says in a typical oracular declaration. When the world is painted and photographed too much, she announces, “[S]eeing it is not interesting.”

In “Identity,” the final short piece, Greenspan rises to his feet and shows how Stein’s loosely articulated principles can build a poetic play. Like all the libretti and dramas Stein wrote, this one’s primarily a drama of the mind and a sensuous bit of sonority. The playlet starts over and over again, endlessly reconfiguring an imagined cast: a little dog, a chorus, a narrator. His arms outstretched, Greenspan sculpts himself into position for each revised scene; mimicking Stein’s fluid mind, he constantly interrupts his own stage compositions. An esoteric evening? Absolutely. But Composition… is filled with pleasures — not least the giddy feeling that art always inspires fresh language, and that it belongs on the stage.

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