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.

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