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On Set With Theda Bara


David Greenspan (Photo: Emilio Madrid)


On Set With Theda Bara


By Deirdre Donovan


Audiences who have sampled David Greenspan's multicharacter solo shows--The Patsy, Strange Interlude, and Four Saints in Three Acts--should prepare themselves for another exciting deep dive into this form with On Set With Theda Bara. Written by Joey Merlo and directed by Jack Serio, this hyper-intimate production is a terrific mash-up of a gothic coming-of-age story and campy melodrama.

Be warned that this is not your traditional theater evening. The action plays out on Frank J. Oliva's set, which consists of a long narrow table covered by a black cloth, with seats for theatergoers. There are 7 suspended vintage pool table lights that hover approximately a foot above each audience member's head. A few tall stools are lined up against the walls, which are bare except for some faux candle sconces. The effect is very noirish, the perfect backdrop for this séance-like play--performed for only 50 people each night--that blurs the boundaries between reality and unreality.

The story: It is a surreal tale about a middle-aged detective, Finale, who has lost his only child, Iras. The suspects are the silent film star Theda Bara and her accomplice Ulysses. They are a queer quartet, all performed by the consummate actor-playwright David Greenspan.


David Greenspan (Photo: Emilio Madrid)


For those who aren't familiar with Theda Bara, no worries. Such is the excellence of the acting and staging, that patient theatergoers will find that they will get up to speed in no time with just who this early twentieth-century star was and why her persona is so ideally absorbed into the play. Reportedly, the playwright uses the mythology of Theda Bara as a "metaphor for queerness" in the show.

Although that may at first blush seem like a paradox, given that Theda was mostly type-cast as a femme fatale and had the nickname "The Vamp," the idea of queerness and Theda actually fit like a glove. The actress's real-life struggle in the 1910s to define her own identity was not unlike the challenge of those in the contemporary LGBTQ community who identify as non-binary and use the pronoun "they." Or as the character Theda aptly puts it:

"People used to think I looked like a man. I hated those sneering comments. At first. But then I came to enjoy the criticism. Yes I look like a man! Because men have power! Maybe I am a man! Maybe I'm not!"

Merlo has ingeniously counterpointed Theda with Iras, detective Finale's genderqueer teenager. In fact, Theda, alerted by Ulysses that Iras is still listed as a missing person, stages a séance, in which she channels the missing Iras into the same space as them. Once there, the elated Iras discusses with Theda her search for her sexual identity and her aspirations for stardom:

"I kind of have like a punk, queer, throw-back vibe going for me right now which I think is kind of fire. People are scared of you. Dad and Papa don't get it. They never got it. That's why I had to leave. I knew I had to leave and find you. I knew that if I found you, I could become who I'm meant to be--a star."

Although Theda and Iras are fascinating to eavesdrop on, the characters of detective Finale and Ulysses have a quirkiness all their own. Finale, for instance, shares how difficult it was for him to place a Missing Person ad in the paper since he decided to call his child a she, something that Iras would detest. But he argues:

"This is an emergency! And she--she looks like a girl. People might get confused. If I said "they"--well--people might think there are two kids missing."

The character Ulysses is also smitten with Theda. Born into a blue-collar family, he became infatuated with the silent film star when he got his first job at a cinema and watched the actress perform exotic roles such as Cleopatra and Salome. Things get more bizarre as Ulysses recounts the first time he met Theda, "standing in the rain outside of her house," with Theda supposedly pulling up in a big red car and saying to him: "Get in." And that's only the beginning of his fantasy-fueled relationship with this luminary from yesteryear.


David Greenspan (Photo: Emilio Madrid)


Greenspan's acting is astonishing. As usual, he raises gooseflesh on one's neck with the risks he takes. From the get-go, he doesn't just sit at the head of the table like a conventional narrator figure might do. He circulates through the room, twirls this way and that, puts his back against a wall mirror to visually double himself, and even treads across the tabletop, making the suspended lighting fixtures swing back and forth like pendulums. Just when you think he has exhausted his bag of parlor tricks, he lies down on the tabletop face up, just inches from theatergoers, continuing to deliver the narrative as clearly as ever. Most remarkably, he's able to shift from one persona to the next with quicksilver speed, simply by changing his physical posture or modulating his voice.

The year is still young--but it will be hard to find another show this season that is as unique and rewarding as On Set With Theda Bara. See it before it's history.

At The Brick

579 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn.

Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission

Through March 9.