Academic journal article TheatreForum

David Greenspan and Sybil Kempson Breathe New Life into Impossible Theatre

Academic journal article TheatreForum

David Greenspan and Sybil Kempson Breathe New Life into Impossible Theatre

Article excerpt

Picture it: On a stage, a tower crumbles beside the sea. A titanic seagod raises his green head above the waves, shaking his slimy locks. His daughter, a giantess, calls piteously to him. He cannot help her, so, dangling a tiny corpse from one massive hand, she walks slowly into the surf. Sound impossible? Precisely.

This affecting, bizarre, implausible scene is one of many such in The Myopia, David Greenspan's baroque, two-dozen-character solo show (he subtitles it an "epic burlesque of tragic proportions"), which has been in some state of creation or performance for the last two decades. [Photo 2] During that time, Greenspan has performed excerpts from it, given public readings while it was still in development and offered full productions at New York's PS122 and in the Ice Factory Festival in 1998 and 2003, respectively. Filtering slowly into the theatrical bloodstream, the work has had an effect much wider than the usual, as it is taught in classes, related in anecdote and held up as the sort of avant-weird solo show that gives the medium a good name. Greenspan won't come right out and say he's completely finished, but the December 2009 Foundry Theater production-well-attended and rapturously reviewed - will probably be considered the definitive effort.

In the same season-just across town, on a stage at PS122 once graced by Greenspan-Sybil Kempson made a smaller splash with the even stranger Crime or Emergency, a hectic performance of a play-cum-cabaret in which she plays every part, scrambling in and out of characters and costumes while a demented accompanist (Mike Iveson) bangs out underscoring. [Photo 3] Kempson and Greenspan are of different generations and different aesthetics-Greenspan sculpts his movements with balletic precision; Kempson seems to have been fired from a gun. And yet it is no coincidence that the kindred performances were highlights of the same season, as occasionally intellectual evolution (think of Leibniz and Newton simultaneously discovering the calculus!) converges with an audible bang.

Solo performance is nothing new. In fact, there is little that is older in human entertainment. But the shows of Greenspan and Kempson herald a micromovement that we can call the Impossible Theatre, in which a single performer plays all the roles and recites all the stage directions, thus creating a metatheatrical, non-realist experience. It's a simple solution to one of the mighty problems facing the avant-garde-How to keep ahead of the other, better funded artforms in terms of pure, unabashed spectacle. In this movement are seeds of other, older avant-garde gestures that also tried to exploit the line between what was possible and what was not in theatrical performance. For instance, in the late twenties, Russian experimentalists teased performative elements apart in order to make a text "unperformable" or (conversely) a performance "unwriteable." Daniil Kharms in his Oberiu Manifesto imagined a show in which two protagonists did not speak but only communicated by signs and a show that consisted of two arms emerging from a steaming samovar. As the surrealists swept all before them, gameplaying with text and performance and the inversion of old speech-act conventions, wreaked havoc on the dynamics between author and writer, player and listener. When we listen to Greenspan and Kempson, we are listening to the ringing echo of those early provocations, as filtered through three generations of absurdist exploration.

Since the creative explosion of the late fifties and early sixties, formally adventurous work has followed one of two paths. Under the benign gazes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, one branch of the American experimental scene has tended towards the radically simple. In order to operate scientifically, to isolate variables of intellectual and philosophical interest, work pared away that which might distract from pure technique, with narrative as the first thing to hit the cutting-room floor. …

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