Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mamet On Tennessee Williams (Mamet)

I haven't seen too much commentary on David Mamet's weird column about Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana for the Guardian. Though it contains some useful nuggets, overall it seems a bizarre fragment. I finished the column and found I was looking in vain for a hyperlink to page 2.

Mamet wants to make the idea of "poetry" in drama his target, but he really seems to be touching on several of the issues that have been flying about the blogoshere the last few months about regional theatres doing plays that seem enshrined in the canon, but that are really not very good. I call the phenomenon Regionalitis. In a post this fall I defined Regionalitis this way:

"Regionalitis is the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres, having the interesting effect of perpetuating a undeserved reputation of greatness while at
the same time building up an incredible expectation of the casts and directors."

While in-house dramaturgy and inflexible subscribers were implicated in my diagnosis, Mamet seems to be taking aim at other targets:

"the educationally overburdened - that is, academics and drama critics. These have given us the beatification of Tennessee Williams, among others;..."

It is with this statement only that I take issue with Mamet's column. I mean, who can really argue with the rest of the points he makes.

"in a good play, the character's intentions are conveyed to the actor, through him to his antagonist, and through them, to the audience, through the words he speaks. Any dialogue that is not calculated to advance the intentions of the character (in the case of Othello, for instance, to find out if his wife is cheating on him) is pointless."

or this

"It is my contention that drama is essentially a poetic form - that the dramatic line should be written to convince primarily through its rhyme and rhythm and only secondarily, if at all, through an appeal to reason. Note that the truly determined individual - swain, salesman, discovered adulterer etc -
confects spontaneous poetry."

or even this:

"Without intention, vehement intention, there is no drama, in life or on the stage."

As I read the article, I began to feel as if Mamet was writing a commercial for himself, plugging all of the best parts of his dramatic writing, and taking unsubstantiated potshots at another canonized American dramatist. Does Mamet really believe that Williams is "beatified" because of Night of the Iguana? I can't imagine that he does. Notice that because of the column length no other plays of Williams are even mentioned.

Will some future playwright dash off a column in which he or she indirectly suggests that Mamet's canonization is based on academics praising his Boston Marriage, while the same column eschews mention of GlenGarry Glen Ross?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Those words, while filled with hope in the context of the actual song, have always struck me as more than adequate for the title of a horror movie as well.

This year we have doom and gloom in the shape of this LA Weekly article; "Squinting into the Sun." The article's main thrust is the continued death spiral of the regional theatre movement. Spearbearer Down Left thinks the piece is overly pessimistic and has an interesting dissection of the article on his blog.

In response to the charge, by the Weekly article, that part of the problem is the ideologically driven erosion of NEA type funding, Spearbearer writes:

"But this statement seems to be about 20 years out of date. From my vantage, though there are calls to reform Social Security, there is far less libertarianism out there in the zeitgeist than there was in the 80's. Despite the occasional calls to cut funding for PBS, and the threats of deficit hawks of the right and left, even Republicans seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a safety net and public assistance to culturally important landmarks. It's true that the arts are in danger, but the bane of their continued existence lies elsewhere than laissez-faire-loving ideologues, in my view."

He continues:

"Maybe I don't read the redneck papers. Someone please tell me what I'm missing. Where are the calls to cut the NEA? Yes, there are congressmen here and there that suggest cutting this or that, but arguments over how we divvy the pie are profoundly different from the kinds of arguments that happened 20 or even 10 years ago, where the question of whether the government should be baking pies at all was in question."

It would appear that Spearbearer's optimism is a little well founded during this Christmas season, at least for some organizations here in New England. The Boston Herald reports on a nice NEA gift:

Twenty-eight Massachusetts arts groups are getting what they want most for Christmas: a total of more than $750,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among the local recipients are: Boston Symphony Orchestra ($75,000 for James Levine’s Beethoven - Schoenberg retrospective); Museum of Fine Arts ($50,000 for “El Greco to Velazquez”); MIT’s List Visual Arts Center ($50,000 for a sculpture by Richard Serra); American Repertory Theatre ($35,000 for Rinde Eckert’s “The Orpheus Project”); Boston Ballet ($30,000 for a new ballet by Mark Morris); Handel and Haydn Society ($20,000 for Handel’s “Belshazzar”); World Music ($15,000 for modern dance programming); Opera Boston ($10,000 for a new Opera Unlimited festival); and Bank of America Celebrity Series ($10,000 for dance performances by the Kirov Ballet and others).

Not to be the downer, but...(cue ominous music) we have this from the Boston Globe on the precarious start for the newest space in town, and the home of the The New Rep.

Three months after its grand opening gala, the $7.5 million Arsenal Center for the Arts is struggling to book its new space and facing the resignations of two top officials.

However, the article does point towards some good news in that New Rep doesn't seem to be the problem with Center's overall financial picture. Artistic Director Rick Lombardo delivers a comforting quote:

''We're having a great fall, the best we've ever had at the box office," said Lombardo, whose company moved from Newton to become part of the center. ''I don't really know much about their internal workings, but I trust that they're telling us they're just going through an operational transition and putting a plan in place."

Almost like our current situation in Iraq, the progress of theatre is a little hard to judge, and to measure. Not to quibble with Spearbearer, but I think the LAWeekly article falls very neatly into the "eye of the beholder category," or the "glass half-_____" realm. Spearbearer seems to see the doom and gloom, others might see it to be an optimistic piece examining how the current structures are giving way to more exciting and innovative works of theatre.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pentagon Hired to Plant Postive Reviews of Avante Garde Theatre

Read the details here.

Seriously though.

It is believed that the Pentagon has hired firms to plant "good news" stories in Iraqi newspapers. This past weekend on Meet the Press, John McCain seemed to express that if the stories were real and that is the way that we need to get the information into the press there, than so be it. The idea goes, I guess, that American policy think-tanks can produce a million white papers on why this war is good for Iraq, but unless the daily Iraqi rags are reporting it, then it doesn't mean a hill of beans.

I was reminded of this reading this quote by George Hunka at Superfluities, who has some thoughts on the debate about criticism and avante garde:

"Academic dissertations didn't put Galileo, Waiting for Godot and The Homecoming on Broadway, of all places. Reviewers like Bernard Shaw (in Ibsen's case), Herbert Ihering (in Brecht's case), Jerry Tallmer, Martin Esslin and Kenneth Tynan (in Beckett's case) and Harold Hobson and Mel Gussow (in Pinter's), writing in daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, carefully prepared the ground for these innovations in both their daily reviews and in the think-pieces that ran in the Sunday arts section."

I think that George is exactly right.

An interesting point in this whole blogosphere debate about improving audience relations is the fact that the inciting essay in American Theatre, "Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays" jumps off from the phenomenal success, and subsequent audience ambivalence, of "Thom Pain."

Jefferey Jones, in the American Theatre article states that Isherwood, (a critic who routinely gets pounded in the blogosphere,) "got it." And while admitting that Will Eno's play is "inter-alia wierd," Jones' tone seems to suggest that Isherwood understood it, but most of the audience, (at least on the night Jones attended,) does not. This would appear to back up George's observation.

However, the interesting survey would be to see if any converts were won over. In other words, were people who would not be prone to venture to a production like that suddenly embracing of it after reading Isherwood's review and attending.

I was speaking with somebody who saw Thom Pain down in New York, and I thought he had a very good comment.

He said that he had read quite a bit about it, including the run-down on Hotreview. After seeing it, he admitted, "I think I was more enamored of the IDEA of the show, than the actual show."

Peter Marks' review of Thom Pain in the Washington post has a little of this flavor also. He claims that it really doesn't live up to the hype.

I thought the quote about being in love with the idea more than the execution summed up some of my personal experience with much avante-garde, including my one experience seeing a Foreman show.

Christopher Hitchens in Slate talks of just why placing stories is bad idea. He starts to wrap up his conclusion this way:

"I mean, just picture the scene for a moment. An Iraqi family living in, say, Anbar Province, picks its way down the stoop to collect the newly delivered newspaper. This everyday operation is hazardous, but less so than going down to the corner to pick it up, because there are mad people around who do not believe that anything should be in print, save the Quran, not to mention nasty local potentates who do not like to read criticism of themselves. Further, the streets are often dark and littered with risky debris. The lead story, however, reports that all is well in the Anbar region; indeed, things are going so well that there is even a slight chance that they will one day get better. Who is supposed to be fooled by this?"

Monday, November 28, 2005

Reviewing versus Criticism

Larry Stark posts an essay about writing reviews of plays.

He includes, for reviewers, some instructions in theatre etiquette:

"And then, if you haven't already, learn to laugh.
That's another thing plays try to make you do, and performers expect, or at least hope for, laughter to let them know they're doing it right. I don't mean laugh emptily, but laugh when you see something is funny --- respond, naturally but honestly, don't sit there like an iceberg. Don't let the performers think you're going to come backstage later to say 'You were so funny I could hardly keep from smiling!'"

He also includes some tips on writing:

"A review should find most of its facts in the play on the stage, and things like previous plays or performances by these same people may be interesting, but they do take up space that could be better used. Such things should be mentioned if they are unavoidably relevant, but they're just distractions otherwise.
In that regard, beware The Press Packet!"

And some veiled suggestions for us theatre practitioners:

"There's an interesting quirk lurking in the cast-lists of a lot of plays: characters are named, but their functions aren't.....For the purposes of plot-summary, the character's Function is much more important than the name. And think what a nightmare it is sorting out all the work of specific soloists in A Chorus Line when all you're given in the program are twenty First Names!
I never said reviewing would be easy, did I?"

And he gives some very straightforward advice for aspiring reviewers:

"But I will say this: whatever you want to write about plays, it's a good idea to start by learning how to write straight, no-bullshit reviews of what you see --- almost as a craft. I learned that craft from a very gifted editor named Joe Hanlon, and I still treasure conversations in which we'd argue for half an hour over the wording of a single sentence. His point was that he himself hadn't seen the show, so everything I wrote had to be clear to him."

It is really worth reading in full. And Larry's Theatermirror is the largest on-line regional theatre website of which I know. So check it out.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Batteries Not Included

Stephanie Zachareck has a pretty scathing review of the Rent movie on Salon. What is fascinating is that she has never seen the stage play. I have never thought of Rent as the defining theatrical event that many believe it is, but I still don't think it deserves the spite she gives it.

However, while initially put off by the review I caught on to one of her observations:

What's most disheartening about "Rent" is watching all these performers work so hard, for so little payoff: It's frustrating to have an ensemble of young actors who can sing and dance (among them the eminently likable Rosario Dawson, and Taye Diggs, who's wasted here), and to realize that this is the best material anyone has to offer them.

Rent always relied on the incredible energy and boundless talent of its exuberant young cast.

I remember seeing the stage show around 1996 and watching skeptically. It was a weird experience. The plot seemed contrived and trite and the songs were a little too pop-ish. But it was hard not to have been won over by the 10,000 Watt performance of these young thespians who could, (unusual for musicals) ACT, as well as sing and dance.

I have not seen the movie, but on one point I agree with Ms. Zachareck. I had exactly the same reaction at that time.... Is this the best that our country's theatre can offer them?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Will Ed Seigel Be Reviewing Coconut Grove Playhouse Productions?

Mark Jurkowitz's Media Log Column on the Phoenix has a juicy little gossip item about which Boston Globe employees are applying for buyouts.

Take a look at the list:

"But among those confirmed buyout applicants are Travel editor Wendy Fox, pop culture writer Renee Graham, feature writer Jack Thomas, op-ed page editor Nick King, editorial writer Susan Trausch, obit writer Tom Long, theater critic Ed Siegel, business writer Charlie Stein, and music writer Steve Morse."

Emphasis is mine.

What is the theatre page going to look like if Ed Seigel leaves? What is the critical landscape going to look like? If a drama critic takes an early buyout in the middle of a forest and.... well, you know what I am saying.

What will Mr. Seigel do? Will it be Florida or perhaps a some seasons enjoying the festivities at LaJolla Playhouse?. Arizona is nice too.

Though some may cheer, overall it could be another measure in the constant and continuous dirge of death knells for arts journalism. Bill Marx's lamentations of shrinking column space will probably fall on deaf ears, but his latest column (last week) has added prescience with this announcement of Seigel's application for buyout.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

NEW This Week!

I am going to try to start a new feature on my Blog called NEW This Week! Where I list all New Theatre Productions playing this coming weekend in the Boston Area.

By the way, by NEW, I mean NEW. I mean a production or play that is a Premiere with a capital P. A world Premiere. Not a Boston Premiere, or an American Premiere, or a Regional Premiere, or an East Coast Premiere. No, I mean a WORLD Premiere. Now, notice this means that if the play has been produced on Mars or in another solar system then it will be eligible to be listed.

So, this week, here goes:

-Out on the Edge Festival; Theater Offensive (Some of the festival is not premieres I know.)
-The Red Lion: Boston Playwrights Theatre
-Carol Mulroney: Huntington Theatre Company @ The Wimberly
-Gender Bender: Bare Minimum Productions @ The BCA
-Cinderella Rocks: Gold Dust Orphans
-Spring Chicken or When I Flew The Coop: HiJinxs Unlimited
Too Much to Keep Up With

The Theatre Blogosphere is flying with ideas about Audiences, New Play Development, Marketing, etc.

This post was intended to be an organization of links so that people could follow the crossblog discussions, but I gave up somewhere along the way. Bloggers like Matt Freeman, SpearBearer, Isaac Butler and George Hunka are linking, creating posts and even writing responses in comments sections of each others blogs so that it has become a little difficult to keep track of the very interesting conversation.

In this way the Theatre Blogosphere has a attained a salon type atmosphere, but I am thinking that Blogs are not an effective medium for this. In fact, a good ole' fashioned discussion group with a thread would do just fine.

I will admit that the discussion seems to be getting a bit too "meta" and the danger of a discussion becoming too meta is that somebody will come in quash the fun and creativity by stating that "nothing is getting done."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Since When is Slate Commenting on Theatre?!

I was fascinated to see Slate mentioning playwright August Wilson, but their little crap piece which is filled with misleading information and short sighted critique is the perfect example of misguided contrarianism.

For one thing, she talks of Lloyd Richards contributing to Wilson's "bloviating," but then uses "King Hedley II" as an example. Ummmmm, Rachel, Hedley was directed by Marion Mclinton.

She also tries to play up some type of "miltarism" in August Wilson's critical and theatrical life. She calls the Town Hall debate with Robert Brustein "explosive," but anybody who heard it will tell you that, while interesting, the debate was more or less a little bit of a fizzle.

What Slate is missing is the point that August Wilson will be missed because his theatre, when it was good, was so far ahead of anything else that we were seeing. Far from perfect, his plays were far from mediocre as well.

Some indelible theatrical memories of mine come from his plays.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Ed Seigel of the Boston Globe chimes in on The Real Thing at the Huntington, as well as Terry Byrne of the Herald. While both enjoyed themselves, they seemed to be looking for some type of hothouse, that I frankly think is not there.

Ed Seigel, blames the central performance of the Huntington show for the lack of feeling in the overall production.

"With such a hole in the middle of the play, the production gives weight to the criticism that Stoppard is all head and no heart. As written, ''The Real Thing" refutes those charges."

I couldn't disagree more. I believe that the play, as written, goes a long way towards supporting those charges. Now, I think that Stoppard has refuted the charges in his later works to a certain extent, but if Ed Seigel wants to hold up
The Real Thing
as exhibit A, then Stoppard needs a new defense attorney.

Terry Byrne yearns for more intimacy as well, but I think it is asking the play to take on duties for which it wasn't designed.

I will agree with Terry that the director could have spiced up the scenes a bit, and the sets were a slightly disconcerting. However, I think the problem with the Real Thing is that it suffers from Regionalitis. It is the same problem that Lanford Wilson's Burn This has.

Regionalitis is the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres, having the interesting effect of perpetuating a undeserved reputation of greatness while at the same time building up an incredible expectation of the casts and directors.

Burn This, for example, is a very mediocre Wilson play, performed way too much around the country. It is not a bad play, mind you, but is it deserving of so many productions/revivals? I firmly believe that the only reason it is continued to be worshipped is simply because so many people do it.

While The Real Thing is slightly better than Burn This, is it deserving of continued revival? Shakespeare's all but forgotten play, King John was produced out at Shakespeare and Company this past summer with mostly positive reviews. Before listing all of the virtues of this production, Bill Marx of WBUR asked, "So why isn't King John staged more often?" Then he answered, "Frankly, it is a mess, with a smattering of first rate poetry."

Now King John could possibly start to suffer from Regionalitis, believe it or not. Yes, theatre companies across the country could start producing King John every couple of years, and it could even enter into the regular repertory of produced Shakespeare with each company producing the play because every other company is producing it. Suddenly, the unspoken expectation is that King John is an important masterwork, that King John is Henry IV in messier clothes, and the expectation arises that all that needs to happen is for somebody to straighten it out, polish it off, and find just the right mix and... voila! The Masterpiece!

Next, the reviewers get the same impression, and suddenly, the play, which goes over nice enough with audiences, gets a slam in the reviews. Not because it is a mediocre play, but because the actors were not pulling their weight, and the director didn't understand the gem he or she was trusted with. Or worse, the critics see the play for what it is and slam the company for wasting time with it.

Regionalitis has more insidious designs though. Regionalitis seeks to destroy innovation, it seeks to silence new voices. In a more benign strain, the regionalitis virus spreads the latest plays to earn even a short production off-broadway. Suddenly, the afterschool special that played a short gig and got a pull quote of "surprisingly refreshing," is appearing...everywhere. This has a great benefit though, in that it provides newer playwrights with income.

Spearbearer Down Left has an interesting post regarding audiences, and it includes this quote:

"Listen, don't get me wrong: I make my living as a theatre historian, and I love old plays. But there may be something in Artaud that we should hear. Few societies in the past bothered much with doing plays from other eras -- not many revivals in Greece or Elizabethan England. It was only when America's regional theatre got hijacked by Tyrone Guthrie that we decided that we should focus on the classics, and the theatre-as-medicine approach was born."

I would to defer to somebody like Will Stackman or Larry Stark to tell me if this is an accurate statement about past theatergoing societies and the Guthrie. However, I think something is going wrong when most of us can guess pretty accurately what the theatre seasons of the regional companies are going to be.

It is a love hate relationship I have with regionalitis. The Real Thing is good. I liked the show and had a great time. Not doing that play as much may deprive people of seeing it, I know that. However, could multiple productions of The Real Thing and Burn This and True West, also be depriving us of seeing something possibly better? Something new, something that speaks to our time? As Hamlet would say, "Aye there's the rub."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Real Thing baby, uh huh!

One of the true pleasures of theatergoing is listening to Tom Stoppard. As far as modern playwrights go, he makes the most literate and poetic arguments for art, theater and philosophy.

The Huntington's production of The Real Thing is a joy, a treasure and an escape. A bouyancy keeps the audience and the actors floating for most of the evening on an air of pure wizardry. Stoppard's scene progressions are never predictable, and he is neither afraid to bring on characters at unexpected moments nor timid about shifting focus on us. His language is rare and valuable to the theatre, reminding us that an art is about beauty. And the particular timing of this encounter with beauty allows us a bit of a respite from the current world and national news reports, which bring horrors of devastation into our psyche on an up- to-the-minute basis.

Though a formidable work, this self-consumed Stoppard doesn't reach the levels of his later Arcadia and The Invention of Love, or his earlier Travesties. He's inward and searching, but without enough humility or respect for his opponents. Henry, the playwright protagonist, is furious at his actress wife's intentions to star in a bad play written by a lower class, soldier-activist who is serving time in prison for defacing a war memorial. In the a highlighted scene, Henry eviscerates the utterly cliche ridden play using a cricket bat as a metaphor for playwrighting. Harold Bloom would be proud of Henry's reducing of an activist play to a "steamroller," but it is stacking the proverbial deck when, later, the actual activist is reduced by Stoppard to a love sick puppy, and the activist's cause to a crush. This particular irony is insightful, but belongs in another play. While I completely agree that fanatic ideology doesn't create the best art, I also believe that the same may be true when the fanatic's cause is an aesthetic ideology itself.

Stoppard may be our best playwright working in the English Language right now, and this play open our minds, as is the duty of great art, to the questions of our accepted beliefs and codas. Using Love as the central metaphor, he is asking us, what is The Real Thing? The too-cool Henry's insouciance about commitment and relationships gives way to a predictable breakdown in the second act, but it is clear what is Stoppard's real target: Aesthetic arguments.

Like a good union negotiator, Stoppard concedes something that is of lesser value to him, the interpersonal relationship standards of his protaganist. But, with cricket bat in hand, he is now after the big game, the artistry of playwrighting, and he is not prepared to give an inch. And who is prepared to argue with the master? The phrase about a knife and gunfight comes to mind, but seems incredibly cliched. Though he flirts with a more substantial conflict - (Henry is revealed to be writing a science fiction teleplay) - Stoppard immediately winks at us with an understanding that Henry's artistic slumming is more for the money than for lack of inspiration about true love.

Why does it seem that every filmmaker or screenwriter dramatised on the stage is a Hollywood Hack? Let's see a character like Werner Herzog, Harmony Korine, or Stanley Kubrick stand up to the Henry's of the world. That would be a fair fight.

In these times we are living in now, it seems a little "cheeky" to elevate Stoppard's exploration of self-involved bedroom hopping, to too high of a level. But enjoy by all means, because this is great theatre...and Stoppard would be the first to tell you it is.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Louisiana...Dramatic Inspiration

I was thumbing through Walker Percy's The Moviegoer last night and it did not take me long, (page 2, in fact,) to find a reference to a suburb created around Lake Ponchatrain.

So much of our culture is centered in Louisiana. This month, Trinity Rep presents Suddenly Last Summer, a Tennessee Williams one act that takes place in the Garden District of Louisiana. Though well known to Tennessee's fans, this powerful little play is rarely staged anymore. However, it did result in a kind of critical restoration for his reputation at the time it was produced.

Despite Mr. Williams' fears and assumptions about the response, Suddenly Last Summer was critically accepted and even praised. If you ask me, Williams seemed to be paranoid about the violent nature of the play being a turn-off to people. After all, the gruesome and unspeakable things in this Southern Gothic all take place off-stage and separated by time.

I guess the fate befalling the main figure of the play, Sebastian Venable, is a little bit of a shock though, even by today's standards. But the language and intensity in the description of that fate is pure Tennessee Williams, and the final twenty minutes, which unravel the mystery of the play, are a bit of a master class for dramatic writers.

For those people who are only familiar with the central works of the Williams canon, they may want to check out the Trinity Rep production to see a rarely staged work. For those of you who are too crunched by the gas prices of late, the movie version with Katherine Hepburn is currently playing on ON DEMAND on Comcast Cable for free. (It is a movie version, so it is not the same as seeing it on the stage. Maybe read before you see the movie.)

*Remember Trinity Rep had the most economical per play cost for a subscription this coming season.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Shameful Admissions

The New Theatre Season approaches!

This past summer has witnessed some actual coverage of Boston theatre activity in the Mainstream Press, and not just a few brief transmissions from the Berkshires. Let's hope the coverage can keep up with everything that is happening through the fall and the winter.

Over my vacation, I did some theatrical soul searching, and came up with a little list of New England Theatrical events I have yet to experience. Then, the rolling march of Nature which we are all witnessing has made me think even harder about the fleeting days of life.

In his new hit play, Will Eno's existensial creation Thom Pain puts to the audience the age old question, "What would you do if you had one day to live?" The answer, as Mr. Pain points out, is very easy, you would live life to the fullest. He then adds a much harder question: "What if you only had forty years to live?"

So I have decided to come clean with my shameful theatrical admissions. These are just a few of my sins of which I will repent here in public and try to make restitution this season.

1. I have never seen Ryan Landry perform.
2. I have never attended a Rough and Tumble show
3. I have not yet seen an Actor's Shakespeare production.
4. I have not attended the Hovey Summer Shorts5. I have never been to a Cabaret performance
6. I have never seen a Reagle Players show.
7. I have never seen a show at the Yale rep.
8. I have yet to see a show at the Stoneham Theatre.
9. I have yet to see a Pilgrim Theatre Cooperative Show.

There are a few more. But I will keep those to myself for now. So, I ask you theatre audience members out there, (critics included,) what are your shameful admissions, and how are you going to make restitution?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Class War at the MFA?

This Op-Ed in the Boston Globe blows the shameful lid off of arts organizations who hide their crushing corporate culture and slave labor behind their curtains.

"Having embraced corporate culture, the museum has also taken on some of its worst characteristics. This has become especially evident in the workplace. While museum director Malcolm Rogers and his colleagues in management make huge salaries with large raises, the rest of the museum staff has faced layoffs and cuts in salaries and/or benefits. Scholar curators have found themselves to be expendable pieces of the machine. Many staff members have gone years without a raise. The museum's low-wage security guards are now fighting for their life in contract negotiations."

I thought Josiah K. Spaulding of the Wang Center was the largest livin’ non-prof chief in Beantown. Come to find out that the MFA Chief ain’t far behind, man.

"Rogers(MFA Head) enjoyed a $55,000 raise to his $512,000 salary, while insisting that the layoffs were a 'painful last resort' and salary cuts were part of 'tough economic times.'"

This article should make artists sick. And please don’t try and tell me that I should see try and see the other side of things like this. I’ve tried already.

It is hard not to despair sometimes of a growing gap in this country. I try not to be too political on this blog, but things like this can get to you. After I read Oskar Eustis this week in the Village Voice, I didn't know whether to cheer or to retreat into depressed solitude in the face of how dire the situation for playwrights is in this country.

Then, of course, perspective is always dropped on our door by the crushing ranks of Nature's oblivious battallions. Hurricane Katrina has forced us to confront ourselves, our misplaced passions, our ignorant assumptions, our misguided trusts.
Bill Marx Notices The Lack of Celebration

In his column this week, Mr. Marx makes note of how New England stages are giving Shaw, Beckett, and Ibsen the snub on their birthdays. As George Hunka has pointed out, he could also add that the cold shoulder treatment is being extended to Brecht on the 50th anniversary of his death.

After giving props to the area theatres for staging some of these playwrights over the years, Mr. Marx falls into uncharacteristic aimless musing:

Why Williams and Chekhov rather than Ibsen and Shaw? Playwrights go in and out of fashion for unpredictable reasons. The razor-thin pleasantries of Somerset Maugham are making a comeback, while some masters, such as Strindberg and Pirandello, have never really caught on.

This pondering is a little refreshing to tell the truth. They are perhaps unanswerable questions, but fascinating to contemplate. On my vacation I read James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, and in the introduction by Charles Fanning I discovered the massive ouevre that is is Farrell's legacy. Like Marx, I wondered, Why Hemingway? Why Fitzgerald? Harold Bloom doesn't even list a single Farrell volume in his Western Canon appendix.

We can actually break down some of the playwrights themselves and ask similar quaestions about their own canons. Springboarding off of Marx's mention of Suddenly Last Summer, I wonder, why Streetcar, or Glass Menagerie, and not Summer and Smoke, or Orpheus Descending?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Back from Vacation!

Hi All!

Just spent a week on Nantucket. It was probably the best week weather wise of the whole summer. Every day was sunny and my wife and I hit just about all the main beaches.

Naturally summer vacation means reading! I brought along The Relic by Eca De Queiroz Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, Thom Pain by Will Eno, and a couple of Tennessee Williams plays I had never read before, I ashamed to say. (Summer and Smoke, Orpheus Descending, and Suddenly Last Summer.)

I finished it all except the Flannery O'Connor, which I had read before in college and on a long cold field excercise in Korea. I think the other book I read on that exercise was Michael Crichton's Disclosure, which I remember being an incredible dichotomy as far as reading experiences go.

Anyway, I am back and blogging. The new theatre season is heating up. What to see?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fringe Memories

This Guardian article from the Edinburg Fringe Festival brings back happy, harried, and horrible memories of my Fringe Experiences.

The fringe festival gave me some of the best experiences of my life. My first experience in orchestrating a production was a Fringe show with five actors and an incredible array of sound cues. I was Artistic Director, Playwright, Actor, Publicity man, etc. Probably my biggest advantage was my military experience from a few years earlier, which had provided me with the experience of mobilizing small teams to accomplish objectives under stressful circumstances.

When I go to Fringe Festival, I am not looking for the next big hit. I am looking for the quirky, the strange, the daring, the funny. Basically I am looking for the shows that scream out, "I have some talent, I am intelligent, I have this crazy idea that nobody would ever produce or invest in!"

I have to say that I have had some of my greatest or strangest stage memories from fringy productions. One, right off the top of my head, was Roblin Gray's Mumble in Numbskull, an existential clown show which haunts me to this day. A strange little play in which a group of people wore Mardi Gras masks as they enacted a talk show while voices would come over the sound system.

Now, unfortunately, we see the tide turning toward the great Sundance Festival Rising.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Little Did The Mainstream Critics Know...

...That across the gulf of cyberspace, intellects vast and cool regarded their online experiments with envious eyes...

I know bill Marx is not a Luddite.

So why does he sometimes treat his “blog” entries on as if he has never heard of the internet? Or even worse, as if he expects that his readers have not.

His latest Perspectives column War of the Tripods starts off this way- “Judging by their reviews of director Steven Spielberg's movie version of War of the Worlds, most film critics missed the point of the H.G. Wells 1898 novel.”

Fair enough, but there were enough film critics who did mention it, including some who went rather in depth about it. Mr. Marx should at least give them the credit of mentioning them or quoting them.

For instance, The New York Review of Books has a pretty good comparative essay about WOTW this issue, and Jim Emerson the Editor of Roger Ebert’s website talks of HG Well’s book as well. In fact, cyberspace has included many critiques that agree with just what Mr. Marx is suggesting. And they even go a little further. Emerson writes:

The images of armored machines patrolling residential neighborhoods with surveillance equipment and breaking down doors and walls in search of fugitives look like Frontline footage from Baghdad – or the West Bank. (One has to wonder, though: Are the aliens and their equipment limited to the same small visual spectrum as human eyesight? Some of our soldiers in Iraq are, at least, equipped with infrared and night-vision technology, even if they had to buy the stuff themselves…)

Wells the anti-imperialist might well have appreciated these touches; in his novel, he went out of his way to draw an explicit comparison between the behavior of mankind and that of the Martians:

I am re-reading War of the Worlds right now in the new NYRB version with illustrations by Gorey. There is no question, and there is no escaping, that the overall feeling Wells wants us to experience is that arrogance of our military dominance, with our actions such as the Iraq war, should be held onto very lightly. As I read, I am convinced that Speilberg chose the wrong source material for a parable of a terrorist onslaught.

Please Bill, links, links, links. We enjoy reading your musings, but sometimes we want a little more. Don’t be scared of directing people away from your site. You work for a non-profit, I am sure you are not worried about market share…or…..then again…maybe you are.

Apparently the NPR affiliates here in Boston are having some major ground shifting going on lately.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Did You Hear About the Actor Who Ran Off and Joined the Circus?.....

Where has theatre gone?

Nowhere. It is coming back , stupid. As evidenced by the popular Frogz by Imago here in Boston, and the worldwide sensation of Cirque de Soleil. Fast Company magazine even did an article on the success of Cirque last month, so you know that they are raking in the dough.

The circus has come to town, and it is going to save the theatrical world's ass. At least according to the Boston Globe this past weekend in the article A Striking Style.
Hard truths about the state of what most of us think of as theatre are often hard to hear. I was especially struck by the following statement by Andre Serrand which wraps up the article:

Physical theater is an antidote to work that doesn't make the most of the stage itself, proponents say.

''The reason people deserted theater is because it lacked life," says Serrand. ''Any movie by Altman or Fellini is more theatrical than most psychological drama. Most of what's on HBO is better written. And most things are better than watching five people onstage tear each other apart."
The director adds: ''What we are doing with music and masks and comedy and vivid re-creations is bringing theater back to where it began."

Yikes. You have to admit that he's got something there. Television drama has got intensely better as the years have gone on, and I don't think there is a comic playwright out there writing any better satire than Arrested Development, South Park, or Reno 911.

Terry Teachout has said that theatre has basically become an ineffective medium to deliver any type of message. And many critics have proclaimed that theatre should give up the fight and accept that it is going the way of Museums.

But yet this spark of life, this influx of younger audiences at productions like Blue Man, Stomp and Def Poetry Jam. And now there is the Frogz phenomenon.

Mainstream theatre of the psychological drama tries hard to bridge the gap. For instance, take the Huntington Theatre's recent production of 36 Views. Picking some elements of Japanese theatre, they placed them into a very straightforward potboiler script to juice up a little magic. Something always feels a little off about these approaches though, something doesn't quite feel integrated enough. At the end of 36 Views you are not breathless with the culmination of the synthesis of the story and the Noh theatre theatrical elements.

I don't know how many times I have seen a description of a Shakespeare production, or even a new play that says, "incorporating elements of Butoh dance." And then, when I see the production, I am very hard pressed to identify where in the heck the Butoh dance is. Having witnessed the amazing theatrical creations of Dappin'Butoh in Seattle, I am fully aware of the power of this dance form. However, I think what most often happens is that directors, with all the right intentions, are really not interested or aware of the art form beyond the fact that they think it would be cool to implement it.

These elements are a craft, practiced and innovated by experts and dedicated students. What most often ends up on stage in these hybrid productions is mediocre puppetry, dance or movement. I mean let's face it, how is an actor expected to learn lines, blocking, puppetry and dance technique in the now typical 5 week rehearsal process? Should we even try? Is the fight over?

I have more thoughts on this after reading Neil Labute's autobahn on the train yesterday. But more about that later.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tis the Season (Subscription) to be jolly?

But it is time for theatre’s to get busy renewing their subscriptions. Here in Boston I have the rundown of the Seasons and the basic ballpark cost-per-play that a subscription will get you. I tried to take the cheapest subscription program I could find to arrive at these estimates. (Some theatres, like the Huntington, offer an array of different types of subscriptions.)

The Executive Summary goes like:

Lowest to Highest in order of per play cost for a single subscription:

Trinity Rep (7 Play) 20.00 Per Play
Boston Theatre Works (4 Play) 21.25 Per Play
New Rep (5 Play) 23.60 Per Play
Lyric Stage (7 Play) 25.00 Per Play
American Repertory (7 Play) 29.14 Per Play
Stoneham Theatre (5 Play) 31.00 Per Play
Huntington Theatre (7 Play) 36.80 Per Play

Considering that movies now cost over 10.00 in some places, I am not so sure that prices are way out of wack. And the concessions at these theatres are nowhere near the mindblowing costs of concessions at the local multiplexes.

Of Course, theatre is a community event and one probably would want to regularly attend the theatre with a loved one or friend and so the cost would double what I have listed above.

Be Aware also that some of these prices are early bird offers and could change soon.

Huntington Theatre Company

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

Carol Mulroney by Stephen Belber

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton

The Hopper Collection by Matt Smart

The Road Home – Re-Membering 9/11

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum

Cheapest Subscription: 7 Plays- Previews Night $258.00 (36.80 Per Play.)

They have extremeley flexible ways to subscribe. 5 Plays 4 Plays Six Play etc. But basically they all come out to a per play average of 36-40 dollars for the cheapest subscriptions. Basically, Students win with a great 7 Play subscription averaging about 14.00 per play. (Be Forewarned though, the cheapest subscriptions may have you seated way up in the balcony on the BU Theatre.)

American Repertory Theatre

Carmen by Bizet

The Keening by Humberto Durado

Three Sisters by Anton Checkov

No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Orpheus X by Rinde Echert

Island of Slaves by Miravaux

Cheapest Subscription 204.00 ( Average of 29.14 per play.)

New Repertory Theatre

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

True West by Sam Shepard

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Frozen by Bryony Lavery

Bill W. And Doctor Bob by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey

Ragtime Book by Terrence McNally; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty

Cheapest Subscription: 5 Play Subscription 118 (23.60 per Play) Three Play Sub (26.30 per Play) 79.00.

Lyric Stage:


The Underpants

The Goat


Kong’s Night Out

They haven’t quite finalized the rest of the season, but they have some interesting lineups.

Cheapest Subscription: $175.00 = $25 a play.

Stoneham Theatre
Pal Joey Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Book by John O’Hara

Dracula by Bram Stoker

A Christmas Story

A Prayer for Owen Meaney Based on the book by John Irving · Adapted by Simon Bent

Seven Rabbits on a Pole: By John C. Picardi

Unforgettable: The Nat King Cole Story By Clarke Peters and Larrington Walker

Cheapest Subscription 5 Plays: Classic Adults $186 (31.00 per play.)

Trinity Repertory Company

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes

Suddenly Last Summer Tennessee Williams

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers by William Yellow Robe Junior (World Premiere)

Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Indoor/Outdoor by Kenny Finkle

Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmund Rondstadt

Untitled: Hinting at a World Premiere

Cheapest Subscription: 7 Plays 140.00 (20.00 per Play.)

Boston Theatre Works

Pulp: A Musical by Patricia Kane

Othello by William Shakespeare

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball by Rebecca Gilman

BTW Unbound: A Festival of New Plays

Cheapest Subscription: 85.00 21.25 Per Play
Brecht and Beckett Waiting for...
George Hunka on his Theatre Blog Superfluities brings up an interesting observation about this coming theatrical season. In the next year, we have the convergence of two milestones:

1. The Hundreth Birthday of Samuel Beckett
2. The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's Death

Few will disagree with the statement that these two men are probably the most influential twentieth century dramatists. However, he notes that no major festival or even productions of either man's work seems to be scheduled for New York.

I took a quick perusal of our Boston theatres and their schedules for this coming season and found it to be the same story. Even the ART seems to be passing on both playwrights. Not a criticism, just an observation.

George wrote a whole other post on why Brecht doesn't seem to be attracting the same attention he probably should.

"Brecht's vast achievement and huge body of work (at least 40 plays alone, not to mention a novel, dozens of short stories, and a book of collected poems that runs to 627 pages in my 1976 Methuen edition) provides a twentieth-century parallel to Shakespeare, exemplifying an extraordinary array of forms from ballet to the opera to the musical to spare agitprop to sprawling historical panoramas like Life of Galileo to parables like The Good Person of Setzuan."

A number of articles have been written recently about the resurgence of Shakespeare, and most of them are really questioning as to whether or not we can have "too much Shakespeare!" Does Shakespeare have more to say to us than Brecht and Beckett at this time in our history? Or, is Shakespeare somehow more accessible right now? Or are these types of questions irrelevant and basically interchangeable over time. In other words, fifteen years from now will we be shouting, "enough with Brecht, it's been ages since I've seen a big production of Corialanus!"

Then again, there seems to be a resurgence of Greek tragedy lately, although Ed Seigel chastised the Boston theatre community for not producing enough of it. (I initially thought he was being harsh, but upon checking the record of productions...I think I have to admit he was right about the paucity.)

It may come down to finances. Maybe Beckett and Brecht are just not great draws.

Monday, July 18, 2005

"You're Out of Order! This Whole Damn Trial is Out of Order."

I am still wondering how Pacino pulls off his performance in "...and Justice for All." I happened to see it on On-Demand cable this weekend.

Everything in the movie is pulling apart at the seams. There are enough sub-plots to fill a weekly television show. There are cheesy set-pieces like the helicopter ride, which seems like it should be in another movie. There is a completely underdeveloped plotline regarding his grandfather, (played by Lee Strasberg,) which consists of the same thing over and over again.

However, through it all, Pacino is fascinating to watch, and the final courtroom scene, (which we all know from the catch-line listed above) is mesmerizing. I watched it again and again. Every time I watch it, I am amazed at how I experience it. I find myself asking, "what is he going to do?" Even though I know the big blow up is coming and I know the lines by heart, I am intrigued by the dilemna of Arthur Kirkland a veteran lawyer who sees no way out of his situation.

It reminds of Marlon Brando's performance in On the Waterfront. Both movies would have been forgettable products of their time without the riveting performances at their core.

And, as an Arrested Development fan, it is great to see Jeffrey Tambor.

*As a side note, when did the idea of the rebel and the true believer become cliched?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Independence Day

Heading up to the mountains and the lakes of New Hampshire this weekend!

I am getting a big relief from the stresses of the day job. Landed two contract extension deals which were down to the wire, but it always feels good to get sales closed before a long weekend.

Everything is good though because my wife and I got to relax last night to the great sounds of Maeve live, right at Club Passim around the corner. There is nothing like hearing "In Every Moment" live, or hearing their acoustic "Too Many Troubles."

You don't know who Maeve is? There website informs Maeve is Rollyn, Courtney, and Rachel. They were all great singers on their own, but then they got together and they sound great!

If you want some weekend reading here are articles that are buzzing about the blogoshpere:

Bryan Curtis at Slate tries to reem the idea of Shakespeare in the Park, but ends up proving he doesn't understand much about Shakespeare.

The Guardian talks about a movement called "Monsterism," which claims to be a doctrine to get playwrights to think bigger and better. I think it will probably prove to be only useful in making the first few practitioners of it famous enough to get regular work before they abandon the church they started. Think Dogma 95.

Their Manifesto for the most part lacks vision or creativity, most of it is a rehash of things one would learn from The Art of Playwrighting by Largos Egri.

Jose Rivera wrote a much more daring and inspiring credo for playwrighting in American Theatre a few years back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Thunder Feels Like Relief When It Is Stolen

Backstage had a rundown of the TCG conference in Seattle
and I was dreaming up a post, but George Hunka at
Superfluities covered it perfectly, pointing out all
that I would have, (with less verbiage probably.)

I love when that happens because then I just have to do the
blogger speciality:

So check it out here.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Fate of Convention - al Critics
Bill Marx writes about arts issues in his once a week column on, and this week, he is fresh from the recent Critics Confab in California. (Any satirist playwrights feel free to savor the possibilities of a group of critics converging in sunny California for a convention.) Mr. Marx, charged up from the sun and the invigorating break-out sessions, is ready to take on the shrinking column space and the increasing capsulization culture of arts criticism:

"Over the years, commercial pressures, economic hard times, technological change, and editorial indifference have conspired to turn critics into thumb-sucking consumer guides. The savaging of elitism in the culture wars has also accelerated the downward spiral. As the circulation of newspapers and magazines declines, arts writing staff often shrinks. (The "L.A. Times" has gone without a staff theater critic for four years.) Of course, critics could have taken much better advantage of being provocative while they had the column inches. Readers are justifiably silent as puffy-as-usual reviews vaporize. They are content with Zagat-like audience polls."

I would say that the critics are just as content to have less space to fill. Thinking is hard, especially on a deadline. And Good Thinking requires a little rumination. However, one must be aware of the atrophy of the critical thinking muscle that can happen when critics only have the room for snark in their limited column space. And while I do not doubt the legitimacy of larger critical issues in the panning or snarking of certain performance, when the critic has less space to do it in, the chance that perhaps he or she hasn’t fully thought it out grows exponentially. It doesn’t educate the audience, it doesn’t help the artist, and the critic is left shambling forward, dragging the limp and hardening critical portion of his brain behind him like a caveman ready to wield a blunt club.

I remember Robert Brustein once saying that he turned down the New York Times reviewer position because he could not write a coherent review on that type of deadline. Meanwhile, his most recent submission to the New Republic, "Prosecution Plays," was a perfect imitation of the "Movie Minutes" segments of most Arts pages in the newspapers. He took, Pillowman, Thom Pain, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, etc. and rolled them up into one column. (With apologies for doing so.) However, I was disappointed to learn at the end that there was no punchline and that his column was not a satire.

I guess print will constrict even those critics who seek roomier pastures. Where are we to look then? Marx says this about the internet.

"The compelling promise of the Internet is that blogs will fill the vacuum with smart voices unafraid of angering the cultural industrial complex. There are some fine arts blogs around, but few pay the critics they use."

Here is an idea. Have you read the recent reviews of the two Tennessee Williams Plays in the New York Review Books? Ahhh. THERE is a review. Well, who has the time to read that, you ask? Well, not only will I read that, I will pay for it.

If somebody could provide an internet service that provided that level of content and scholarship, I would subscribe in a second, and I know many who would. Although, I also know many who wouldn’t.

How about pamphleteering? Highbrow critics could always run off cheap little pamphlets off MS Publisher and distribute them outside the Huntington and the ART as the audience comes out.

Marx continues:

"In addition, the lack of editorial and ethical standards can foster even more mush and stupidity than in the heyday of the mainstream media."

Mr. Marx brings up a good point, that is hard to get around. For instance, most of the better theatre blogs around are, in fact, written by artists. Playwrights like George Hunka, Actors like Spearbearer Down-Left, and Directors like Isaac Butler of Parabis provide good dialogue on arts, culture, theatre and Can we trust people like this to provide actual theatre criticism? Most of them don't, and they express their hesitancy to do so. There is a great ethical weirdness in giving reviews as an artist. I have sometimes offered quick–takes or reviews to Larry Stark’s Theatermirror, but I am always hesitant about doing so. Am I right in my feelings?

On the other hand, we artists seem to be the ones passionate enough to be trying to form some sort of independent cultural voice through a different medium. Why more critics, especially younger and smarter voices like Liza Weizztuch of the Phoenix, are not creating arts blogs, I am powerless to explain. Terry Teachout’s blog About Last Night perhaps provides an answer.

Mr. Teachout’s powerful critical faculties cannot be contained in his essays and reviews and they bleed into his online postings which are also peppered with quotes from Henry James and other classics. It is work, hard work for him to do this, but seemingly a labor of love.

Larry Stark’s Theater Mirror, started way before the blog craze of the past few years, demonstrates another hurdle for the critic. The frequency of reviewing. Larry would generally see and review far more productions than any mainstream critic, and he was closely followed by such posters to his site as Will Stackman.

Larry’s passion for criticism spilled into essays and commentary about the theatre scene, its artists and its critics. It also evolved into a community of review writers. Theatermirror is a unique type of interface that I haven’t really seen duplicated with such success anywhere else in cyberspace.

So what of the fate of criticism? Mr. Marx seems to be, not so much lamenting the death of criticism, but the fact that critics can no longer find paying gigs with health benefits. I understand your pain, Mr. Marx, but believe me, artists are already there. As anybody who reads here knows, I want good criticism.

Here and there, there are encouraging signs. As I have pointed out in past posts, the Village Voice is offering periodic review space to students of Graduate Drama Criticism programs.

But, Bill Marx concludes his column with a sobering bit of reality and empathy between graduating theatre artists and graduating critical minds:

"The National Endowment for the Arts promptly announced its plans to fund training programs at universities for cultural commentators. This is baffling. In an effort to appeal to the young and restless demographic, the "Phoenix" and other alternative papers are cutting the length of reviews. But academe will be churning out arts critics for nonexistent writing gigs. The reviewing jobs that pay will more likely than not demand spurts of opinion rather than sustained
arguments. Who needs a degree to do that?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Virus Spreads, but not Unchecked

In case you were wondering what happens to the American Repertory Theatre's classic aesthetic when it ventures beyond it’s nurtured and womb-like reverence it receives here in Boston, Scott Zigler, ART veteran director has staged The Cherry Orchard at The Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City.

Luckily, there are antibodies that are significantly strong enough to conquer the virus... for now:

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times:

"The debate about evoking the proper measurements of humor and pathos in the plays of Anton Chekhov will endure as long as they are produced, which is to say as long as civilization endures. The new staging of The Cherry Orchard that opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Scott Zigler,
settles the question, evenly if dubiously: it fails more or less equally at eliciting laughter and tears."

He doesn’t go into too much detail about the elements that make this production a failure, but at the end of the review it is revealed and those of us who have experienced it here in Cambridge, know just of what Mr. Isherwood speaks:

"Strangely, Chekhov's plays have a way of disintegrating entirely when they are presented in ineffective productions like this one. Despite our affirmed knowledge of this dramatist's artistry, we find ourselves mystified, staring at a stage full of ill-defined characters hurling sighs, gripes and non sequiturs at one another. Where did all the genius get to?"

Hilton Als of the The New Yorker is not as kind:

"…the production is far from modern. Instead, Zigler has put together a stiltedly old-fashioned show, full of male bombast and female fluttering, with every moment of silence taken up by mugging or sight gags."

Any who have sat through an ART classic empathize. Als goes on:

"As a whole, the actors are so poorly directed that their performances amount to a form of camp. Adams makes
a gallant effort to project dignity and a kind of tarnished grace, but she is weighed down by the other members of the cast, who play their parts in quotation marks."

And here he sums up exactly my feelings on watching the ridiculous Checkov shorts they did a few years ago:

"And while Zigler has cast the show with a number of adults—including the fine film actress Brooke Adams—it is ultimately a high-school production, amateurish and gleaming with anxious, doomed hope."

Theatermania’s review fights hard:

"Conversely, Zigler nearly obliterates the subtext and treats poignant scenes as if they are fodder for slapstick routines. In its best moments, the production is like a feather duster on a baroque cabinet, but purists beware; it's just as often equivalent to a Brillo pad on fine china."

Goes in for the kill…

"Yet Chekhov famously labeled his plays "comedies," and the creative team interprets this as an open call to indulge in labored shtick."

But then succumbs to the academic propaganda that has long protected the ART productions:

"Before dismissing the production as entirely misguided, theatergoers should know that this kind of approach has historical justification. According to the influential Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, Chekhov said his plays were ‘vaudevilles’ that his contemporary Stanislavski had corrupted into ‘sentimental dramas.’ …..Still, this flawed revival makes so many bold and interesting choices that it shouldn't be missed by anyone who cares about Chekhov."

Perhaps the Emperor has no clothes after all. As sort of a control experiment, I also searched the reviews for mention of Alvin Epstein, and, right on cue, they confirmed my experiences of watching ART Checkov. For instance, Isherwood writes:

"Alvin Epstein, who plays the senescent servant Firs, provides a welcome infusion of focused energy with his engaging, physically inventive performance, eyebrows twitching in confusion at the blurry world evaporating before his eyes."

Amen Brother.

Lest any person reading misunderstand, I am not doing this to pick on Scott Zigler, who has directed some very effective productions. And I have really enjoyed some of the more revelatory productions at the Loeb Drama Center. More I am doing this as a sanity check for those of us who stand mystified at the end of some ART productions, and then horrified when we read the local reviews praising them.

What I have always felt is that a young company doing the same type of experiments would be eviscerated for such juvenile high jinks.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Ah The Classics!

Kind of off the topics, but I got an e-mail from Amazon advertising a great deal:

As someone who has recently purchased literary classics, you might like to know that the Penguin Classics Library is now available in one complete collection--only at

"The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection"List Price: $13,317.74Our Price: $7,989.99You Save: $5,327.75 (40%)

Almost half off! Wow!

As many of the reader's comments on Amazon point out...the shipping weight alone is 700 pounds. Although the listing clearly disqualifies the option, I think 1082 books more than qualifies for "super saving shipping."

Seriously though, would somebody want this? (I wonder if it includes the new Hilary Clinton Expose!)

I guess having access to that many classics on your wall would kind of be like having a tactile internet. Just pull books off the shelf, and get a bit of DH Lawrence here, a bit of Milton there.

In fact, it may help one to compose something like the Anatomy of Melancholy. (Which, by the way, does not seem to be listed as a Penguin Classic.) Or maybe The Wasteland.

Or it could provide the perfect setting for some refined wacko to lure in his unsuspecting quarry. Just like on those old Radio Suspense Dramas.

Announcer: Tonight on SussssPense! We have Vincent Price as Richard and Katherine Stanton as Juliet in a tale of terror and Suspense!!!

(Sounds of a Door Opening and Richard and Katherine Coming home to Richard's Apartment.)

Richard: Oh, I hope you had a pleasant time, Juliet.

Juliet: Oh, it was wonderful.

Richard: Yes, they seemed to enjoy it.

Juliet: Your reading of Dante 's Inferno was just the thing to get the people in this stuffy little town to warm up to you. They were all impressed.

Richard: All except that Mrs. Margaret.

Juliet: Oh, she's all right. She's just a little suspicious of outsiders, and what with you buying this old house that nobody has lived in since...I'm sorry Richard.

Richard:That's quite all right Juliet. I am used to being considered an outsider. And as you can see, this old house really isn't so bad. Sure it creaks a little bit in the wind, but it is my home.

Juliet: It sure is. Say, what is that?

Richard: What do mean?

Juliet: That, in the room.

Richard: Oh....that. That is just my Complete Penguin Classics collection. Would you like a closer look?

(Music Cue: Spooky music flows through the rest of the scene.)

Juliet: Is this what came in all those crates?

Richard: It is expensive, I know, but I can't be without my Penguins.

Juliet: There are so many of them. And...why are these ones different.

Richard: What do you mean?

Juliet: Those ones, they seem to have book covers on them. What a strange texture. Almost like...

Richard: Like what, Juliet?

Juliet: Well, I feel silly, even thinking it but they are almost like human skin.

You get the idea.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Feeding the Bear

Ed Seigel gives the pronouncement on Boston Theatre on Sunday and you'll never guess who is at the top of the list!

Well, you probably will guess, it is the American Repertory Theatre.

There are two significant measurements for a theater community. One: Does it satisfy the needs of local theatergoers? Each season for the past seven or eight years the answer has been an increasingly definitive ''yes."
The bar is higher for the second measurement. What if theater lovers from outside the area came to town and said, ''Take me to some shows that make Boston theater special." That might not show Boston theater in as flattering a light.

But here's how I would answer the challenge:

I would take them to anything at the American Repertory Theatre, which has pursued a very strong aesthetic in the three years that Robert Woodruff, Rob Orchard, and Gideon Lester have been in charge.

He praises the larger and more established theatres. The Huntington takes some knocks, but Nicholas Martin escapes as their hero. Although it is very apparent that Mr. Seigel is hungry for more "star" appearances such as Nathan Lane and Andrea Martin on the Huntington stages.

The Lyric has been putting together some great seasons, and this coming one is no exception, so I am glad that they are listed. And the New Rep is truly bursting at the seams and it will be interesting to see what comes of the new space.

However, the smaller companies get incredibly short shrift in the article:

. . . and at the BCA

The hope was that as
the Sugan and SpeakEasy moved into the newer spaces that the older theaters would bring other companies to the fore. Zeitgeist Stage Company had an excellent production of Joe Penhall's clever British play, ''Blue/Orange," but I didn't see anything else to attract those hypothetical out-of-towners. Tony Kushner's ''Homebody/Kabul" by Boston Theatre Works was a particular disappointment.

(I have a whole dissection of the Homebody critical reception on earlier posts.)

So the smaller companies get brushed away with a wave of the hand. And the established conglomerates are fed table scraps from the critical buffet. So the secret to developing a world class theatre town is doing the best of what is done elsewhere. Oh, and also having lots of stars, and of course, we can't forget doing away with this laborious Boston trend of hiring local talent...(pleasant dreams local actors.)

One can make too much of developing a local scene. At its best -- Harold Pinter's ''The Homecoming" -- the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, which casts mostly from out of town, reminds you how refreshing it can be to not see the usual suspects.

Where is Ryan Landry in this article? Where is 11:11? Where is Rose Carlson and the great job she is doing running the Piano Factory, taking up the slack for the space lost from the closing of the Leland Center, and producing her Dragonfly Festival?

Something I have developed over the past few years is an understanding of critical distance. I used to be baffled at the mainstream critics' refusal to acknowledge smaller theatre. And in fact, I am still shaking my head when I see the Elliot Norton awards honor plays that have had long successful New York runs as "Fringe." (Another post I want to write about.)

However, after the Critics panel last year and reading so much about criticism over the last two years, I understand the danger of critical advocacy for a theatre scene and for a critic's reputation. It is hard for an Ed Seigel in a piece like this to be suggesting people go to see "anything" done at some of the smaller theatre companies, or fringe theatres around town. It is really hit or miss with most of us. And mind you, I am not making illogical exceptions for myself. But my question is, why feed the larger houses your advocacy, then?

It is apparent to anybody who follows the Boston Theatre Scene at all closely that the ART, while a risk taking company, has many missteps, and what is troubling is that I believe Ed Seigel thinks that there is always something redeeming in the production. A comment I have heard frequently is, "the set is almost worth the price of admission." Things like this trouble me because what starts to happen is a separation begins between companies without resources and those with resources.

The definition of "production value" starts to veer off the rails without an adjustment for ticket price. So, in this model advocacy of the American Repertory Theatre becomes less risky because the audience will believe it has gotten its money's worth some way or another. The more they pay, the less chance of being disappointed because at least they will have seen a Nathan Lane or maybe an incredible set. And they will have comfortable seats.

However, for the price of one ART ticket, they could see several Rough and Tumble, Company One, 11:11, or Devanaugh shows. I think basically it all comes out in a wash when looked at this way.

I think we will not grow-up until the climate of this theatre community becomes open to risk, adventure, and yes, potential for failure.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

When Criticism Becomes Propaganda

I have been reading a little left wing go-go juice as of late. In particular, I have been reading George Lakoff's Moral Politics and Jim Wallis. Please blame the New Republic for the fetish as they had several articles in the last issue concerning Wallis, Lakoff, Democrats and Evangelicals.

So, for the past weeks I have left Eca De Queiros’ Theodorico in a state of suspension in Alexandria on his quest for The Relic. And Eric Bentley is waiting for me to finish his fascinating defense of Flat Characters in The Life of the Drama.

I have been in a political "frame" of mind, which is why I immediately pounced on and devoured Terry Teachout’s article about political theatre for InCharacter. For those of you unfamiliar, Mr. Teachout runs one of the best Art Blogsaround, ( About Last Night ,) and his posting frequency is superhuman.

Mr. Teachout, unlike most critics, does well to start off the article praising successes before descending into evisceration. He liked the production of Nine Parts of Desire, but hated Sam Shepard’s the God of Hell. He was not alone in his thinking.

Although he tries to stick to the important topic of Truth and Beauty in Art, his whole thesis seems to be closely echoing the Conservative rallying cry of "Fair and Balanced," which gets my shields up a little bit. More than likely this is because it seems as if Mr. Teachout, whom I believe is a conservative, is coopting his critical space to fight back a little in terms of the ongoing culture war.

"Turning messy fact into orderly fiction necessarily entails simplification; turning it into artful fiction demands as well that this simplification acknowledge the full complexity of human nature and human experience. These seemingly contradictory requirements can easily be fumbled by the artist whose principal goal is to persuade the audience of the rectitude of his cause. Yet propagandists are rarely prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. They alter reality not in order to make "everything more beautiful," but to stack the deck."

This is a dead on accurate quote, but what puzzles me is the toss off line right before this paragraph. Teachout says, "No matter how artful a play like The Exonerated may be, its effect as art will dissipate if its claims to truthfulness can be significantly and successfully challenged, (as those of The Exonerated have been). " Mr. Teachout, please provide a footnote or a link of some sort, because I follow theatre news relatively closely and I don’t remember reading anything like that.

Now, The Exonerated seems to have been the most successful and entertaining of the docudrama types of plays that have been produced recently. It presents a challenging obstacle for conservatives, conservative critics, and critics of this type of theatre. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Teachout regarding most all of these plays, I think the Exonerated has been a somewhat of a triumph for that type of theatre. I suspect that he does as well, so it is strange that rather than engaging with it, he needs to toss it off with an unsupported attack on its truthfulness.

The mantra of most Right Wing media criticism has been the Liberal Dominance of the creative and news realm. And this whole essay appears to be somewhat of a template of the same issue. In fact, at one point Mr. Teachout appears to be using the same exact arguments that we saw in Right Wing attacks on the Dixie Chicks and others. Basically the argument goes: "Look, after they stated their Liberal Views, their album sales declined."

Strangely, Mr. Teachout, who I know knows better, appears to be linking quality or truthfulness to box office appeal:

"Not to mention the fact that the highly publicized Embedded, even though it was written and directed by a movie star, failed to transfer to a Broadway theatre. Nor should it be overlooked that the two most stringently politicized musicals of last season, Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, failed to please a sufficiently large number of Playgoers and had their runs cut short as a result."

After reading the article, the overall impression I hope one will come away with (and the point I think Teachout is really trying to make,) is that the plays which are held up to ridicule in his essay are bad not because they are POLITICAL, but because they are BAD. However, some of the tilt of Teachout’s argument is, like most of the political discourse these days, guilty of the same thing it condemns.

For instance, Jim Wallis in his recent book God’s Politics, kind of lashes out at the Right for coopting religion, but the thesis of his book would appear to be that Democrats should start framing things spiritually as well. Mmmm. What’s not good for the goose, is not good for the gander either, Mr. Wallis.

Terry Teachout and Mark Steyn are right to use their reviewing space to challenge artists who specifically present political arguments as the thesis of their work. But I am not so sure that Keats’ negative capability is a fair way to present a good template for politically inclined writers. After all when conservative critics start using their spaces to present a political worldview aren't they boring people just the same? And to continue in that vein, who is reading them?

I am finishing niggling on what I am sure most of you think are small points. On the whole, the core of these types of arguments should always go to the idea that Power is the Enemy of Truth and Teachout believes and writes of this.

*(I could go into a whole posting explaining why his characterization of Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America is wrong. But suffice to say Mr. Teachout and I have much different takes. While Roy Cohn does end up in Hell, I felt that Joe Pitt destroyed his wife, who thankfully is getting a fresh start and Louis Ironson cheated on his partner. And I see no reading of the text that would indicate that Mr. Kushner thinks anything differently about these characters. Assassins was a bold experiment which failed way back in the early 90's, and constant revivals of it, without any serious reworking, are misguided.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Theatre Artists....Always Be Closing!

The Boston Theatre Marathon played a few weeks ago. I didn’t make it this year, what with work and other commitments.

Larry Stark still has the best and most detailed run-down of the Marathon at the Theatermirror. The major dailies used the aforementioned cookie cutter style to run-down the festivities. At least Terry Byrne of the Herald attended and reviewed, whereas the Globe and the Phoenix sent the stringers.

Phoenix stringer, Liza Weizztuch was granted extensive space to cover it, though she includes reviews of two other plays. I have been incredibly busy and this has resulted in my being too late to link to some of the reviews.

Perusing the reviews was akin to the experience of taking out the same old cookie cutters every Christmas. The template for reviewing the Marathon is always the same, maybe because a Ten-Minute Play Festival format yields pretty much the same results every time. The festival puts on about 50 ten minute plays a year and has by far the best concentrated sampling of talent, both writing wise and acting wise, of any other theatrical event in Boston.

However, from attending in previous years, and reading the reviews this year, I started to think a little statistically. What is really valuable about the experience of concentrating so many works into a short period of time is that it makes a little petri dish in which we kind of quantify artistic output.

Now the Boston Theatre Marathon puts on about 50 ten minute plays a year. My career is sales, and I would like to present a sales statistic from a few years ago. There is no getting around the fact that sales is a numbers game. We have probably all heard the maxim, "If you are not making sales, you are simply not talking to enough people." Well, let's break down those people into two groups. In sales we call them Suspects and Prospects.

Suspects are basically the "looks like a duck" assumption. They are a company or person who looks, from a casual glance, like they might have the money and the need for your product. In the case of the Theatre Marathon, they are the scripts they receive when they put out their intitial call. These Suspects seem formatted the right way, they are typed, they have characters, dialogue, some of them have plots. In other words, they look like a duck, walk like a duck, etc.

In sales, the suspects must be contacted and QUALIFIED? Qualifying basically consists of calling suspects and finding out if they really do need your product, and if they really can afford your product. If these things are true, the suspects become prospects.

Prospects are people or companies that could use your product, and can afford it. Prospects are the people you start selling to. You send them direct mail, you call them once a month, try to get in front of them for a presentation, you take them to the US Open. Basically, you kiss their ass and, as we know from the great Mamet play, you are always closing.

So how does this relate to a the Boston Theatre Marathon? Some of you following closely may already be onto it, others have probably clicked some of the links on the right side.

Well, basically, an understood sales statistic is based on contacting 100 Suspects. Not leaving a voice mail, not mailing them a letter, but having a qualifying conversation with them on the phone. (Don't even try to think about how many actual dials you have to make to contact 100 people.)

Well, after you make these qualifying conversations you will find, right away that 50 of the 100 are simply not interested. They don't have a need for your service or product, they can't afford it, or they are happy with the way things are currently.

So that leaves you with 50 . Basically, these are the ones you want to clarify further, you want to nurture them. But you still have to understand that these 50 are not going to all be buying customers. They might....maybe further down the line. But not right now.

Here is how the remaining 50 usually break out:

35 - These could be a future lead, they might say
"contact me again next year, etc. There are some promising things there, but really, intheir current state they are nothing to get excited about right now.

(The remaining fifteen are now able to be called Prospects.)

10 - Seems very interested. They are open to talking. You see
ways in which you could work together soon. Your product or service could help them.

5 - Hot Lead! There is an urgency and excitement. They
want to meet with you right away. There is no doubt that you have an answer to their problem. The only question is, Is it the right answer?

Now out of the Hot Five you can count on anywhere from two to three being Buying Customers. In other words a perfect Prospect.

So out of 50 top suspects only 3 buying customers.

Relating this to the Theatre Marathon, statistically speaking, out of the 50 plays you probably should only count on about 2-3 being Outstanding.

I have though about this in regards to theatre in general. Eugene O'Neill wrote about 50 plays, could we break his down into these categories, with Iceman, Long Day's Journey, and Moon for the Misbegotten being the three buying customers?

It made me think a lot about how many new plays are produced a year, (not enough,) and how many are really worthy of that top three status. I think the movies get this a lot better than we do in theatre. Although I can't confuse Hollywood with art, as David Mamet talks about in his article, "Bambi Vs. Godzilla" in Harper's this month.