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Off-Off-Broadway's Favorite Target

Cusi Cram hits the bulls-eye with a profile of Target Margin and its artistic director, David Herskovits. logo

Off-Off-Broadway theater companies come and go, with but a noble few weathering the slings and arrows of funding, keeping the company together, and building an audience. Target Margin has managed to do all this and then some.

The secret to this Obie Award-winning theater company's continued success and commitment to experimental theater is its gifted artistic director, David Herskovits. This is a man genuinely excited about theater; there is no trace in him of the bitter thespian toiling away in obscurity. On the contrary, he obviously loves what he does. That love--and also Herskovits' artistic ingenuity--has resulted in greater and greater awareness of Target Margin's work among downtown theatergoers, and beyond. For example, the company's production of the largely unproduced Mamba's Daughters was the highlight of last year's Spoleto Festival, earning a USA Today description of the piece as "visually stylish...glistening with color and peppered with witty, modern anachronisms that don't ask the audience to take the play at face value but examine it as a curious theatrical time capsule."

"I am excited by the way in which art makes us see familiar things differently," says Herskovits, adding: "I like taking the world we know and making it somehow new--we recognize something, but we've never actually seen it." He achieves this through a variety of methods; he consistently employs stylized staging, casts untraditionally, disrupts a play's action, pulls audiences between the familiar and the strange. And he somehow manages to do all this without losing the fundamental story of the play. Mark Rossier of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (commonly known as A.R.T./NY), a service an advocacy group for nonprofit theaters, describes Herskovits' talent in this way: "With other experimental theater groups, it often feels like all the stuff--the video, the costumes, the casting--is somehow there to show off. The things David uses are there for a reason. They have something to do with the text."

Target Margin is perhaps best known for its reinterpretations of classical texts and so-called "forgotten" plays. This year, however, the group has devoted its season to new works. Among other reasons, Herskovits decided to take on a slate of new plays because "change is good." The season began with Tulpa by Todd Alcott, followed by a three-week festival of new work, and will end with The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem by long-time Target Margin company member Rinne Groff, beginning its run at the Connelly Theater on April 19.

Groff and Herskovits have been working together since Groff acted in Target Margin's premiere production, Titus Andronicus, in 1991 at Todo con Nada; the production featured 25 people on a stage that can barely fit four comfortably. Groff then went on to act in six more Target Margin productions, including Cymbeline, Little Eyolf and Egypt. As Groff's career shifted gears and she turned to playwriting, she showed her work to Herskovits, who was very enthusiastic. "I love the language in Rinne's plays," he says, "the originality of how words are juxtaposed, how she makes language and speech that is familiar seem strange." The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem came about when he commissioned Groff to write a play and gave her but one specific request: that the play must have 18 characters.

Groff went ahead and wrote the play, with the idea that Herskovits would direct it. "David has a very distinct style," she says. "It's intelligent, theatrical, and fanciful. I tried to put those elements into the play." Set in 1913, the play follows a famous mathematician and his family to a seaside resort where a gathering of number theorists is set to convene. There are startling revelations, and lot of math. Lots of math. So much math, in fact, that Groff thinks that's the play's hook. "It's intriguing to so many people, in so many ways," she says.

Steven Ratazzi, a Target Margin veteran, plays mathematician Moses Vazonyi in The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem. During nine-year tenure with the company, he has played everything from a 20-year-old in Titus Andronicus to a 60-year-old The Seagull (Ratazzi himself is 37). "David has a very original way of thinking about casting," says the actor. "He sees theater as artifice and actors as part of that artifice. He casts very untraditionally, which is such a gift for an actor".

Another gift Herskovits gives to each of his productions is a particular look. Lenore Doxsee, a founding member and the resident lighting designer of the company attributes this to a very close relationship between direction and design at Target Margin. "David and I have worked on a lot of plays together," says Doxsee. "We challenge each other artistically. We won't let it get easy."

Although Herskovits enjoys working on new plays--particularly "the pleasure of collaboration"--and interpreting contemporary texts in ways that are "creative and constructive," Target Margin will return next year with a season of Marlowe. (Herskovits, a frequent interpreter of Shakespeare, feels the Bard is fetishized to a point where people have overlooked other great writers of his time.) Look out for a January 2001 production of Daedo, Queen of Carthage at the Ohio Theater. Whatever the text, old, new, obscure, Herskovits challenges his collaborators and his audience precisely because he continues to challenge himself.

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