David Jay and I saw *Four Saints in Three Acts* on Oct 6, 2022. *Four Saints* is an opera from 1928 with music by Virgil Thomson and a libretto by my beloved Gertrude Stein. I first got into Stein through their other opera collaboration, *The Mother Of Us All,* and though I'm not so familiar with *Four Saints* I run to any Stein- and Thomson-related performance.
But this was not a performance of the opera. This was a staging of the text to the opera, redone as a one man show performed by David Greenspan and directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. I had seen Greenspan in a one-man production of O'Neill's *Strange Interlude* in 2017 - - that was one of the most striking and impressive things I'd ever seen onstage so this show, with the Greenspan element and especially the Stein element, seemed tailor-made for me.
David Jay came along for a number of reasons:
1. He's up for a bit of theatrical wackiness now and then.
2. He's up for a bit of non-theatrical wackiness with me, probably more often.
3. The show was being performed very close to where he lives, in the ass end of Brooklyn.
4. It was 90 minutes long and had a 7pm start time.
5. The ticket cost $20.
As you can see, there were many prayers being answered in this show.
It's always refreshing to see something that's unlike anything you've seen before. Preferably it would also be good. This was brilliant. Talk about a tour de force. Greenspan is a marvel, such magnificent use of his instrument: the voice, the diction, the face, the hands, the torso, the whole movement and precision and articulated intention. We may not have known what it all meant but HE sure as hell knew.
David Jay was especially impressed by the feat of memorization - - 90 minutes of repetitive and abstract text, how on earth did he do it. And for an actor to be alone onstage for 90 minutes, go go go the whole time, and never need a sip of water. It was damn impressive.
The rapid fire impenetrable text reminded me a bit of Samuel Beckett's *Happy Days,* the more or less one-woman show with the woman buried up to her waist in mud, talking non-stop. That play is much more rooted in meaning and reality than this one.
I'll say two things about meaning. The program included a quote from Stein: "If you enjoy it you understand it." And another quote that I hope to track down one of these days. I went through a George Balanchine phase a few years ago, I read a lot about Balanchine and watched a lot of videos. I remember an interview with one of his muses, ballerina Mary Ellen Moylan. She was asked about his abstract ballets, where there was no story, nothing precise being communicated. What did it all mean? She said, "It wasn't explained. It was revealed." I've tried to track down the origin of this quote but have had no luck. Maybe I dreamed it, maybe I made it up. But does that make it any less true?
I remember my mentor and fellow Stein fan Karlos Moser quoting someone, saying that Stein had taken words and "scrubbed them clean of their meaning." She revealed them in their nakedness as sounds and colors and, when paired with other words, amusing rhymes. She arranges words so there's a moment of discovery now and then, something popping through the texture. Quite a few times, in this show, Greenspan spent let's say 20 seconds repeating a phrase, maybe eight or ten words altogether, the words maybe rearranged a bit but repeating in a constant stream. Then a new word would present itself. One of the words I remember was "astonishment." And it really was astonishing.
It was primarily an intellectual or whimsical experience but there were a few moments of drama and emotion. They popped through the texture like that word "astonishment." The most memorable seemed to be about St. Teresa having a baby and her trauma around the pregnancy and birth. The trauma was mostly internalized and contained in Greenspan's performance, which made it all the more powerful.
The audience was so deeply into the experience and grateful for the artistry. The gratitude was palpable through the whole performance.
Here's a video of Greenspan reading a lecture by Stein and doing an excerpt from *Four Saints.* The *Four Saints* section starts at about 1:00. While it's great that this has been documented and made available on YouTube, it can't capture the thrill of seeing it in person.