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."

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?