Friday, September 24, 2004

Did Critics Put Their Money Where Their Moomtaj Is?

In the last Mere Opinions on Larry's Theatermirror, I linked to the Globe, Herald, and WBUR theatre columns about risky business on the stages around town. The concerns raised by all three were clustered around the paucity in productions of Boston, Regional, or World Premieres in the area.

Well, New Rep snagged the World Premiere of Michael Weller’s new play Approaching Moomtaj. while the Theatre Mirror crew, (Larry, Carl Rossi, and Will Stackman,) all appear to have had slight reservations along with a good time at the theatre, some of the Elliot Norton Critics found it a little more tedious.

The important thing to me though is…How did the Guardians of The Theatrical Canon address the New Rep’s endeveaor.


Terry Byrne, who chastised us all for not being risky enough to mount Beauty and the Beast, found herself so disconnected from the play’s theme that she seemed a little detatched through the whole review. (Not quite as harsh as her Tommy review, which after its printing probably prompted some to send condolence cards to the musicians.)

Aside from the obligatory World Premiere moniker in her introduction to the play, she doesn’t go out of her way to address New Rep’s riskiness in mounting this production. This seems odd since she praised them for their courage in mounting Sweeney Todd, (a project with a built in cult audience.)

*Note: Terry is the best friend small theatre has right now in the mainstream press. She really is going out of her way to mention fringe and small theatre companies in her columns. (Rough and Tumble, Company One, Mill Six, Etc.) In fact, she even went so far as to list, in detail, where people can see theatre at out of the way spaces.


Now that Caroline or Change has closed on Broadway, Ed Siegel will have to wait anxiously to see who will pick it up here, but in the meantime he seems willing to patiently wait through arduous evenings of World Premieres of unkown plays.

Going a little farther than Terry Byrne, he mentions in the first graf, "The New Repertory Theatre has pulled off something of a coup in attracting the world premiere.." However, little else is mentioned with regards to this because Mr. Siegel has to save column space for his favorite pasttimes:

1. Plugging the American Repertory Theatre: "So enter, much to this production's benefit, Thomas Derrah as Wylie. Derrah's ability to get inside Wylie's irreverence and keep us guessing about the character's machinations and motives provides the spice of "Moomtaj." His Wylie is the kind of guy who reminds you what it was like to inhale, and then inhale some more, with or without "White Rabbit" playing in the background. The interplay between American Repertory Theatre veteran Derrah and New York actor Robert Prescott as Walker is terrific…"

2. Comparing Theatre to the Movies: "When you compare the people and the metaphors of 'Approaching Moomtaj' to their counterparts in a similar exercise, 'The Singing Detective,' 'Moomtaj' seems like a landscape still in need of artistic development."
Bill Marx, who made the strongest and clearest argument for " world" premieres, knows he has to spend some time addressing this and he does so by gritting his teeth and getting it over with in the first sentence:"The New Repertory Theatre kicks off its 20th season with something risky and that is to be congratulated. Not only is "Approaching Moomtaj" a world premiere production but it is also a play that deals with the reverberations of 9/11 in the American psyche."

However, the formalities end there. For even though Moomtaj is a World Premiere by a known playwright, it has three strikes against it: the playwright is American, the Play was written after George Bernard Shaw’s passing, and it tries to deal with technology as an impact on our lives. In other words, it already has three limbs cut off when starting the Highbrow steeplechase.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Brain Drain?

I hitched a ride with a vending machine repairman
He said he's been down this road more than twice
He was high on intellectualism
I've never been there, but the brochure looks nice
- Sheryl Crow

In the past years the independent Journals have been tryingly frantically to figure out what is happening to the Intellectuals of the world.
Comment magazine had an article on the death of the New York intelligentsia. While based more on the the specific tradition of the Jewish Intellectuals, they see the vanishing of that movement to lie in its inability to bequeath itself to to any heirs. Instead, they argue, the New York Intellectual movement was taken up by more global interests Leading to the next article...

Now the New Statesman reviews a new book called Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? The author of Where, Frank Ferudi seems to tilt his lance at the windmills of leftist culture which seem to stress, more and more, the openess of interpretation.

In other words, if we keep acknowledging that the world is too large and contains too many cultures for us to be objective, then what happens to the critical intellectual:

"Once society is considered too complex to be known as a whole, however, the idea of truth yields to both specialism and relativism."

The article then goes on to say that intellectualism, always concerned with truth, is then enslaved under the rigors of utilitarianism:

"With the decline of the critical intellectual, the thinker gives way to the expert, politics yields to technocracy, and culture and education lapse into forms of social therapy. The promotion of ideas plays second fiddle to the provision of services. Art and culture become substitute forms of cohesion, participation and self-esteem in a deeply divided society. Culture is deployed to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than to tackle the causes of those divisions, implying that social exclusion is simply a psychological affair. That to feel bad about ourselves is the first step towards transforming our situation is thus neatly sidestepped. What matters is not the quality of the activity, but whether it gets people off the streets. Extravagant justifications for culture are piously touted: it can cure crime, promote social bonding, pump up self-assurance, even tackle Aids. It helps to heal conflict and create community - a case, ironically, dear to the heart of that bogeyman of the anti-elitists, Matthew Arnold. As Furedi points out, art can indeed have profound social effects; but it rarely does so when its value as art is so airily set aside."

But the actual money shot of the argument is this:

"The feel-good factor flourishes in education as well. University academics are discouraged from fostering adversarial debate, in case it should hurt someone's feelings."

The idea that everybody is right, necessarily disqualifies argument or "talk," which the New York intellectuals of the Comment article seemed to treasure so highly.

Having somewhat of an inferiority complex I am fascinated with these highbrow concepts and I guess I view them with a wary eye because I find that the modern Highbrow standards can inevitably turn to credentialing. In other words, "What right do you have to make artistic or intellectual judgements?" Is there a certain time in service? Is it your degree? Is it your ability?


Friday, September 03, 2004

Ed Siegel Is Submitting His Takeout Menu as Well

Terry Byrne and Ed Seigel are becoming like cantankerous old Donor/Subscribers with their laundry lists of all of the shows they would like to see here in Boston. (See my letter to Terry Byrne post below.)

Ed Siegel, in his latest , wants to see Caroline or Change done here and that is admirable and needed. And perhaps our major critics are urging us in baby steps. Maybe getting the latest hot new plays from other places on a faster basis will build some sort of critical mass amongst the theatre culture here in Boston. Then, the wisdom would follow, you would build the up the hunger and soon other places won't be able to supply fast enough and it will have to come from within our own ranks.

My fears about this type of plan is our position as a third class theatre town being strengthened. In other words, it is not enough that the Colonial and the Wang are hosts to touring companies from the Great White Way, Ed and Terry want to turn our smaller companies and houses into touring receptacles for other cities artistic successes.

They should be pushing for new musicals and plays to be birthed here, so that they could then champion on to life in other cities, but their heart isn't it, and they don't trust their critical convictions.

I do admire Ed Siegel's acknowledgement that the musical theatre in Boston is doing a great job, and I guess it is merely a mild polite nudge he is giving.
Does Anybody Have Any Idea What Terry Byrne is Talking About?

Terry, Terry, Terry. Your recent tepid tirade at Boston Theatre has all the excitement and chastisement as Lynne Cheney's speech at the Republican convention. I read your article: "Hub Theatres Should Live More Dangerously" and I thought I would write you as a concerned outsider. I don’t want you to do anything to hurt yourself or those around you.

My inclination, after reading the article’s headline was to say, "Good for you!." "Look at our Terry asserting herself!" However, once I finished the entire article, I had second thoughts. Maybe, I pondered, Terry Byrne should learn to live more dangerously.

You open with a chastisement about 4 works that won't be premiering in Boston. Well, the following works that are opening at regional theatres from Chicago to LaJolla won't be playing in Boston either: Lost Land by Stephen Jeffreys (featuring John Malkovich), The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris, Finishing the Picture by Arthur Miller,(Adaptation) A Doll House by Rebecca Gilman, Brooklyn Boy by Donald Marguiles, Vesuvius by Lucinda Coxson, and On the Mountain by Christoper Shinn.

Terry, what is the point? What is your definition of "daring"? Or "living dangerously?" Do you want new plays that are premiering here, or do you want more award winners that have had success in other cities?
I cannot believe that a serious article with such a challenging headline would include the sentence: "North Shore Music Theatre has become the area's most daring programmer, combining artistically rewarding pieces (the brilliant ``Pacific Overtures'') with a commitment to world premieres of musicals." I am really hoping you were being sarcastic, but I don’t think the rest of the article supports that kind of interpretation.

I think North Shore is a fantastic regional musical theatre, but.... Beauty and The Beast? Chicago? Even Tom Jones, which you don't mention, was first workshopped at Theatre Royal York in 1998.

It gets better though. You follow up a couple of paragraphs later: "But it's primarily the smaller theaters in town that take the biggest risks. Sugan Theatre Company will stage `Gagarin Way,' which was a hit in London a few years back." Isn't that sentence a paradox of a sort. A risk is staging something that was a proven hit? Terry, I am trying to follow you, but it is a little hard.

Again, I mean nothing disparaging against the theatre companies mentioned in the article, all of them do top notch work. For instance, you mention Company One, and I agree that they present more daring offerings, but you use their production of plays by Stephen Guirgis as an example of their daring, (plays that garnered worldwide attention and extended runs in New York and London,). What you should have mentioned is their courage in producing A Clockwork Orange, for which they took massive critical lumps.

Terry, my point is, I don’t think you really believe your original thesis for the article. Indeed, for an article with such a tone of chastisement for the theatre community in general, you go on to praise just about every company in Downtown Boston. And in case you’ve forgotten someone, you end the article with your awards for "FOUR WHO DARED:" (which kind of sounds like a forgotten war movie starring John Wayne.)

You include the following as examples of daring shows to have been mounted... Bat Boy, Bad Dates, and Sweeney Todd. No offense to the Huntington, Speakeasy, or New Rep, but the real daring parties were the original producers of those shows in other cities.

Maybe you should read up on excitement and daring. Want to read about daring? Check out this story about the House Theatre in Chicago:

What does Allen, the 26 year old Artistic Director of the house then do with his new fame? He stages a completely experimental and risky play. With the results being received very tepidly:
The Sun Times and…

The Chicago Tribune

Terry, maybe don’t try to be so inflammatory, it doesn't suit you. Deep in your heart, it would appear that you don't want to be controversial. And that is not a bad thing. Risky theatre and original work isn't for everyone, not even for some of those who produce it. And, most of it isn't really good either.

If you want a lesson in living dangerously go to Seattle or New York or Chicago for a season. I guarantee you won't like it. You see Terry, some people find going to see new work thrilling, but I doubt you really do. It sounds to me that what you are REALLY asking for in this article is for our theatre companies to do more of the plays you have heard about, but haven't been able to see. I don’t want to tell you that I know what’s best for you, but believe me, going to see "dangerous" work would make you irritable, you would start to hate it and then I am afraid you would take it out on everybody else.

As for dangerous theatre, step aside and leave it to those critics who really want to see us become a world class theatre town. Who really believe in us, and don’t just want to see our talents put to use solely by reproducing what has been hot last season in New York or London.

If you set the bar for living dangerously at producing Rebecca Gilman plays that have played in London, and New York then believe me, that is as high as people will reach.