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On Set with Theda Bara

A shape-shifting actor again takes on multiple characters in a surreal, campy mystery.

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David Greenspan in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “On Set with Theda Bara” at The Brick Theater’s Exponential Festival (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

(Note: Off Broadway engagement of show that appeared at The Brick Theater previously one year ago.

David Greenspan, the shape-shifting thespian, has taken on yet another multi-character play, as if his one-man Strange Interlude and his more recent Four Saints in Three Acts whet his appetite for Joey Merlo’s On Set with Theda Bara, a mysterious take on the life of the silent picture era vamp and her intrusion into a family whose lives become a film noir.  Directed smartly by Jack Serio, the surreal play, just one hour long, took the audience on a colorful journey that included a truly spooky séance.

The brilliant, yet odd set by Frank Oliva at first seemed severe, but Greenspan turned it into a place of fantasy and dark humor.  A very long table took up the length of the Brick Theater.  The audience sat on chairs along the table and against the walls.

Over the table hung seven identical light fixtures.  These, plus a few spotlights—all unenhanced with color—provided the moody lighting by Stacey Derosier.

David Greenspan in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “On Set with Theda Bara” at The Brick Theater (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

Greenspan, dressed simply in slacks, white shirt and tie and a vest (costume by Avery Reed), entered speaking as Theda Bara delivering a passionate, self-serving speech evoking desert vistas and her seductive persona.

Immediately the play—never clearly defining time periods—plunged into the mysterious disappearance of young Iras, the daughter of Detective Finale, plus the reminiscences of Ulysses who fell for Theda Bara as a child accompanying his organist mother to showings of her films.

Finale, obsessed with finding his runaway daughter, often thinks he hears her calling.  Ulysses is just as obsessed with his memories of Bara, even waiting outside her house as she arrives in her eye-catching red car.  She notices Ulysses and invites him into her vehicle and, as he says, “I never left.”

David Greenspan in a scene from Joey Merlo’s “On Set with Theda Bara” at The Brick Theater (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

Theda’s meditations on her life, her art and her love life alternated with the other storylines.  She mused on how Hollywood artificially molded her into the femme fatale she epitomized.  Her conversations with Ulysses veered into bizarrely anachronistic places which Greenspan seemed to particularly enjoy.  He even gets to recite Poe’s The Raven as Bara.

The complicated journeys of all the characters come together in a brilliantly staged séance that was actually scary.  The stories of Theda, Finale, Iras and Ulysses fused in a whirlwind of Merlo’s redolent language.

What made it engrossing was Greenspan’s artistry. He can turn his head and become another character or slow his voice or change his accent almost imperceptibly, helped by the lighting and the atmospheric sound design by Brandon Bulls.  A sinister foggy haze towards the end turned the denouement into a coup de théâtre that took the audience to a spectral place.

On Set with Theda Bara was presented as part of the current Exponential Festival at The Brick Theater which is rapidly becoming an essential venue.

On Set with Theda Bara (return engagement: February 6 – March 16, 2024)

Transport Group and Lucille Lortel Theatre

The Brick Theater, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, in Brooklyn

For tickets, visit http://www.transportgroup.org

Running time: one hour without an intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (563 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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