I had a conversation with Larry Stark of Theatermirror over the weekend. He attended a Boston Playwrights Network reading of Patrick Brennan's play American Rex , in which I was actually reading the small role of a right-wing, loudmouth television host named Pat Riot. (Think Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity all roled into one creature.)
As Larry and I talked about recent shows we had seen, I mentioned one he hadn't been able to attend. He quickly asked me, "What happened?"
It is always an interesting question, and whenever I have the chance to speak to him it comes up. It is so different from the usual questions people throw out to you when you find your critical opinion being sought.
Usually, people will ask, "Was it good?" "How was it?" "Did you like it?"
Larry consistently asks, "What happened?" It is a good question to ask with regards to the immediacy and the ephemeral nature of theatre. What happened the night you saw the show?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his Divinity School Address gave a famous image:
Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.
It is rumored that during a performance of Aristophanes' Clouds, the mask maker's skill at caricaturing Socrates, (a character in the play,) was so perfect that the Philospher himself stood up out of the crowd so that people could compare the likeness.
Critics or reviewers can become such formalists that the only time one
can detect that they witnessed the performance with 900 other people is when they feel they must begrudgingly report, to the contrary of their personal experience, the crowd's joyful reaction. And this is only if the reaction seems to be wildly disproportionate to their own.
Louise Kennedy's review of Mike Daisey's new monologue Invincible Summer, puts a new twist on , "The-Audience-Seemed-to-Have-Had-A Great Time." In her review she seems to have not only encountered a sparse and dull audience, but also a dumb one:
It's an exciting, risky way to work, and it's easy to imagine how a packed house of smart and engaged people would feed Daisey the energy he needs to perform at his best. That's the audience I found myself longing for as I watched Daisey's comical-philosophical monologue "Invincible Summer" on a dozy, quiet, ham-sated Easter evening at the Zero Arrow Theatre, where the empty seats were only slightly less responsive than the full ones.
There's more . She keeps going with this, like a comedian who has found a great line of yuks.
This is not a criticism of Kennedy, but it interested me because the review not only let me know what is important about the show, it also let me see Kennedy as a living, breathing audience member and the Zero Arrow Street Space as a real place. Every one of us can know what that felt like to be there at that performance on that day. Although I hope other audience members aren't offended by her crack at their intelligence, even though she did mitigate it by suggesting the possibility of Easter dinner hangovers as soporific accomplices.
Site specific theatre, or non-traditional venues can often shake the cobwebs out of a reviewer's environmental antennae. Actors Shakespeare Project is currently doing Titus Andronicus at an underground garage in Harvard Square. The batch of reviews now out specifically address the effect of surroundings on the audience's experience, with even an extended anecdote about a woman who may have been feeling a bit queasy.