Friday , April 19 2024
David Greenspan in 'On Set with Theda Bara' at the Brick Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid
David Greenspan in 'On Set with Theda Bara' at the Brick Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid

Theater Review (NYC): ‘On Set with Theda Bara,’ a Solo Show by Joey Merlo Starring David Greenspan

Do we ever really know who we are? That question runs like an electric current under the new Off-Broadway production of Joey Merlo’s On Set with Theda Bara now at The Brick Theater. For some of us identity feels simple, but for many it’s not. Posing the question to all of us, the production positions us not in rows of theater seats but around a long table. Are we an audience? Are we at a meeting? A dinner table?

The title drew my attention first. How many people today have even heard of Theda Bara, the vampy silent film star of the 1910s? The one whose pictures were mostly lost in the tragic 1937 Fox vault fire, so TCM can’t unspool them for us like it can the classics of Charlie Chaplin?

And what kind of creative mind knew enough – and cared enough – to summon her presence to the stage today?

Self and Spirit

Playwright Joey Merlo, that’s who. And actor extraordinaire David Greenspan, that’s who.

In this whirlwind of a solo turn Greenspan plays four characters including the legendary screen thespian herself. With seething force he quickens this hourlong prose poem about a genderqueer teenager and aspiring actor who runs away from home. Pursuing validation of their identity and seeking inspiration, Iras tracks down Bara’s spirit, and gets more than they bargained for.

Around the room, and even atop the table itself, Greenspan twirls, and barks, and recites, and slithers. In the light and in the dark, through a dry-ice fog, he flits from character to character, sometimes as quickly as line by line. In a further, meta iteration of the identity question, we can occasionally lose track of who’s speaking at a given moment.

David Greenspan in 'On Set with Theda Bara' at the Brick Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid
David Greenspan in ‘On Set with Theda Bara’ at the Brick Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid

Iras angrily challenges her gay father’s unreadiness for his daughter’s genderqueer identity, reminding us that just as there’s no “Black vote,” there’s no unitary “LGBTQ+” identity. We’re all ourselves, and no one but ourselves. But what self exactly? Who is Iras, if others don’t see them as they see themself? Who is her detective father if he’s not the fully sensitized and understanding parent he’d thought himself to be?

Star Power

An organ-playing accompanist who befriends Theda Bara has rebelled against his upbringing too, and is subsumed into the hugeness of the star’s presence. And then there’s the scene-chewing shade of Theda Bara herself. Her lesson for Iras, the teen so keen to assert identity, is about the loss of identity that a movie star undergoes. Their own self vanishes as their shell fills with the yearnings and aspirations of their fans.

Although this gothic-noir-camp ghost story is a solo show, it boasts two stars: Greenspan, with his sizzling physicality and transformational magic; and Merlo’s engrossing, sometimes dizzying, often poetic script. Simple but highly effective lighting and sound enhance the illusion that we’re in a kind of fever dream. Merlo notes that he wrote most of the play while sick in bed. Who are we? Are we really who and where we think we are, or are we just characters, spectral Theda Baras, in someone’s dream?

Find out at The Brick in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, through March 9. Directed by Jack Serio, it’s a production of the Transport Group and Lucille Lortel Theatre. Tickets are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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