Friday, September 16, 2005

Regionalitis

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."

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