January 2009 Archives

let-my-people-come-lp-ad.jpgThis week I'm macking on: Philadelphia as a center for new play production. I wrote this article, which appeared in Thursday's Inquirer, about PlayPenn, a new play development workshop that's had an incredible track record with its accepted works. All six plays from the 2007 workshop have been chosen to grace professional stages around the country in 2008-09, and three of those stages are right here in my backyard. Seth Rozin, artistic director of InterAct Theatre, a member of the National New Play Network, and always a champion of new and provocative work, is also revving the engines for a new play initiative (tentatively called, ahem, the Philadelphia New Play Initiative) that will attempt to connect playwrights with producers. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the scene right now is as full and well-rounded as I've ever seen it, and this concerted effort to seal the leaks by cementing playwriting into our foundation is both well-placed and well-timed. People seem to be sticking around, new, small, quality companies are cropping up all the time, and just as exciting, the companies who have been here all along are still producing, and producing some compelling stuff. It's been a long road, and one that led PlayPenn's Paul Meshijian and me to chuckle about the days when the only thing playing in town was an extended engagement of  the Oh! Calcutta! knockoff Let My People Come. Good times.

This week I'm hating on: Uncertainty. So you know how I just mentioned Seth Rozin and new plays? Well okay, I saw one of those new plays this week, Andrew Case's The Rant, and reviewed it here. But the thing is, my companion, a man whose opinion and analysis I trust deeply (And not just because he's my husband. Actually, in spite of that fact.) had a completely different reaction to the production than I did. This is also the first time, after many, many years of playgoing, we've diverged so sharply in our opinions of a show. 

The thing is, my analysis gets the public platform, while his sits there burning a hole in my inbox. So here's what he e-mailed back after reading the rough draft of my review:

I don't agree but I think you're fair.  The point I took away from the play is that everyone has a rant (a "beef") that's fueled by their perspective, motives and personal history, and this makes it impossible to judge the truth based solely on what people say.  So, I think Seth is successful in encouraging discussion.  By the way, it's a crime you're given so little space.

He's pretty good, isn't he? And we agree on that last point, anyway. 

Needless to say, the whole encounter really threw my sense of critical judgment into a tailspin. Did I somehow miss the point? Could it be possible that our opposing views are equally valid in a situation like this, political theater being polarizing by definition? Ultimately, I decided we're probably in agreement about the production's content, just disagreeing about its execution. 

However, if something larger can come of all this navel gazing, it's this: with reviewers being laid off en masse, having a forum in which to turn what was once a static, printed review into a living, breathing, mutating organism might just be the path to our salvation. If print media would commit to making an effort at integrating the cultural conversation into their online content, people like me wouldn't be stuck out here on our own, blogging gratis, and driving traffic away from what rightfully belongs to them. Or at least it once did. Before they gave it away.

January 29, 2009 8:30 PM | | Comments (4)
This week I'm macking on: The return of the rock-star president. And no, not that one. 

Ok, screw it, I'm just going to say this quickly and get it out of the way. Les Freres Corbusier is re-mounting their emo-musical-light-show-fanboy-concert Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in May as part of the Public Theater's Public LAB season. Even better, tickets will be $10. I hope they sell CDs, and I hope producers here in Philly go see it and bring it home for me, and since I'm starting to feel like LFC's very own Mel, that's all I'm going to say on the subject. For now.

This week I'm hating on: Haters. If anyone--for example, these Fox News twits--expected Jay-Z and Young Jeezy to button up and settle down after the election, a.) they've never listened to hip-hop, which was founded on the principles of skillful braggadocio and a reflection of the urban African-American experience, and b.) they don't get what's going on in this country. Which is not to say I think every African-American agrees with all the, ahem, sentiments the rappers expressed on that jubilant inaugural evening. But the fact that the Fox talking heads (and others) are surprised our "postracial president" didn't make racial enmity disappear by walking up the Capitol steps and brushing that dirt off his shoulder, just emphasizes how wide the chasm of understanding is between not only the races, but the haves, have-nots and those-who-once-had-little-but-now-have-a-voice. 

And p.s., enough with the Aretha-dissing. On a bad day, like, say, Tuesday, she still sounds better than anyone I know, and she damn sure dresses better. No one other than the first lady of soul should have been up on that balcony belting out a patriotic tune for Mr. President, and I, for one, am glad she's still around to do it.

January 23, 2009 11:06 AM |
workers_15b.jpgBush the Elder once said he'd "do the right thing at the proper time." Well, Hedgerow Theatre, in mounting Looking Over the President's Shoulder at this time, has certainly done so. Either way the American people played the election, this production would have made the impact for which Hedgerow had hoped. 

The play is about African-American White House chief Butler Alonzo Fields' 21 years of service, and if we'd had a McCain presidency, it would have served as a sad reminder of what might have been, and those for whom time was running out on the dream. But that isn't the case, and though I had a quarrel or two with James Still's script, it's a pretty remarkable piece of work for right here, right now. 

Fields also harbored dreams of becoming an opera singer, and the script recalls the sole time he was invited to sing, for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and though they applauded, they also laughed. It's just too bad Mr. Fields didn't make it to the staff of this White House, where he could have sung his arias and, one imagines, no one would have laughed.

January 20, 2009 1:24 PM |
The tough break out an 11 o'clock number.

January 18, 2009 9:22 PM |
So this is it. We've come to the end of our weeklong foray into the exciting world of theater journalism (which this week conveniently managed to get a bit more exciting than usual). Though all our students stretched their fledgling critiquing muscles, there's only one empty chair at the Kennedy Center waiting to be filled by a Region II critic, and one waiting in the wings for an alternate. Those seats are so tough to come by I'm not even invited, which, you know, kind of hurts my feelings, but whatever. I'm sure whomever I picked will have a great time, and maybe bring me back a snowglobe or something.

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Without further ado, the winner is: Devin Dippold. Our alternate is Jessica Hinds-Bond. Coincidentally, both are grad students at Villanova University. Congratulations to them, and it was particularly gratifying, after agonizing over this choice for several hours, to see that you favored the same writers.  Everyone who was kind enough to comment on the students' critiques should know their comments were seen and discussed by all involved.

And one more thing: it ain't easy to make a profession sound exciting and glamorous when it's fighting for its life. The reason I posted this event here is because I figured we might as well get online and get used to interacting with an audience as quickly as possible, since that's the journalistic world these writers will inhabit once they graduate. And while watching the old newsroom model fade into oblivion is depressing as hell, on the flipside, if you're just stepping out of the collegiate cocoon, well, it's a pretty exciting time to be a writer. I know the economy's against them right now, but when that's all over (heaven help us), these students will be free to make their own rules and redefine arts criticism any damn way they please. 

The last time I taught at the University of the Arts, it was for a 'zine-making class. Remember those? DIY photocopied tracts you'd leave on the windowsill at coffeehouses? Like, not Starbucks, but dingy, poetry-reading-hosting independently-owned places that served espresso thick as mud? No? Then you're either too young or too old. There was a very narrow period when 'zines were all the rage, and when the internet appeared, they disappeared, and you're looking at what replaced them. The point is, with or without an established publication, writers will write, and the good ones will find an audience, and the scrappy ones will figure out a way to make it pay, too. Get enough scrappy ones together and you've got yourself a whole new arts journalism paradigm. It's our job as journalists and teachers to make sure the next generation doesn't flee from journalism, but instead leaves school ready to tear it free from its present bondage. I hope this year's Region II National Critics Institute has done its small part to feed this revolutionary spark. 

January 18, 2009 5:36 PM | | Comments (3)

jazz hands.JPGWe're at the end game. Here are the final entries, unedited by me, awaiting your vote. You'll notice the absence of one member, Jennifer Ford. Ms. Ford performed in La Bete during our group critiques, and as a result, withdrew from competition. However, she was an enthusiastic participant at the meetings the attended, and dammit, we missed her while she was gone. Everyone else arrives, on time, to render their final judgement.

The winning entry and writer will attend the American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center this spring, and the Kennedy Center winner there will attend this summer's O'Neill Center Critics Institute. May the best writer win the comp, and may the rest walk away with the knowledge that their writing has grown immeasurably since Tuesday evening.

Directing Choices Can't Stop La Bête

By Devin Dippold

Would you enjoy a witty, fast-paced, hilarious play that ended by calling you an idiot? If so, Grove City College 's production of La Bête is the show for you. In a play that either can praise or belittle comedic theatre works, the production chooses to shame the audience for laughing rather than embrace the power of its own effort.

The script by David Hirson centers on the 1654 French acting troupe directed by Elomire (Pierce Babirak), whose plays have become stagnant. Prince Conti (Jesse Aukeman), patron of the group, hires Valere (Douglas Baker), a street performer and fool, in the hopes that he can add life to Elomire's work. Hirson loosely bases Valere on French playwright Molière, who, like Valere, rose from street performer to the chief comic playwright of 17th Century France.

Baker pulls out the stops as Valere, and the script demands that he do so. During Act One, Valere delivers a nearly 30-minute monologue to showcase his supposed wit. Baker never lets the monologue stall. He creates a clown who prances around the stage, claiming "My tutor fell in love with me, of course" only to snap back with "Don't look at me as if I led him on." It's like watching the musician Tiny Tim frolic freely only to see him morph into Sam Kinison and berate everything around him. He is ridiculous but never boring.

The set design (uncredited in the program) offers an open space where Baker can play. The furniture is limited to chairs in each corner and a single round table, and Baker bounds on every piece. A single set of gold French doors in a cream colored upstage wall provides the main entrance and exit for all actors. Unfortunately, this means that almost every actor must use these doors and, in turn, creates a few tedious scene changes. Dr. Kristin Barbour's costume design is a muddled mix of contemporary and period pieces. Prince Costi looks like a perfect replica of Louis XIV, but Elomire's outfit is a modern black suit. Valere's ludicrous wig (gigantic even by period standards) sparks laughter, but rebellious teenage maid Dorine's wig is a bright green that clashes with every other costume. The other women are in fluorescent satin dresses that offer a 1960s "Mod" vibe seen nowhere else. The costumes feel like they are all from different shows.

Perhaps these contemporary costumes are supposed to link to the themes of the production. Near the end of the play, Babirak, who is a knockout as Elomire, has his defining moment. As everyone praises Valere's "sophomoric" work, Brabirak attacks the street performer, calling for a return to "deeper" art and bemoaning that this praise for such shallow work means "Mediocrity is all we know." In director Betsy Craig's program notes, she claims that mediocrity may not just be all we know but also be "all we want." She makes it clear in her notes that we should not seek a fun play just "because it pays well."

Craig opens the play by featuring every character but Valere in a series of tableaus set to music. The message is clear: these people are shallow, posturing fools, and they should not be followed. When the acting troupe sides with Valere, whose play creates the joy that Elomire's work lacks, they are made to feel like Judases instead of people with a legitimate point. Bejart (Patrick McElroy) offers a necessary compromise, but he and the rest of the troupe surround Elomire like sharks as he makes his point. Bejart becomes a sellout to his friend instead of a voice of reason. Craig's direction lauds over Elomire as a dramatic god, never stopping to see if, as the Prince suggests, his work may be stale. Likewise, she dismisses Valere as stupid and irrelevant without considering the merit of his humor.

The biggest issue with her take on the script? Elomire's speech condemns irreverent humor after a play full of irreverent, and often brilliant, humor. If Elomire is right, why did Grove City College choose to do this play? Is this production telling its audience that Molière offers nothing to the "serious" theatergoer? It tries to, but it doesn't succeed. Ultimately, David Hirson's script finds a happy balance between fun frivolity and serious critique. Not even Craig's directed dismissal of comedy can kill the fun of this show. If you can tolerate being scolded for laughing, this production is a lively romp that can leave you in stitches.

Evocative Spring

Jessica Hinds-Bond

Choreographed scenes of suicide, rape, masturbation, and abortion sound like bits from a new and purposefully-offensive fringe show, rather than moments from a play written over 100 years ago. Nevertheless, such scenes color Rowan University's production of Frank Wedekind's ever-controversial play Spring Awakening, translated and adapted by Douglas Langworthy. Composed of linked but non-linear scenes, and dealing with issues of love, friendship, sex, and the generational gap, Spring Awakening tells the story of 14-year old Melchior (Kevin Melendez), his best friend Moritz (Stephan Grande), and Melchior's first love Wendla (Arcadea Jenkins).

Spring Awakening explores the gulf between childhood and adulthood that must be traversed in the teenage years. Wendla and Melchior are treated as young children by the adults in their lives, as when Melchior's mother serves tea for him from a child's porcelain tea set and when Wendla's mother tries to tell her daughter how babies are made, only managing to moan open-mouthed that, "one must LOOOOOVE" a man. Monstrous masks illustrate the teenagers' impressions of the play's adults: while the school teachers' masks are enormous laugh-inducing creations of wrinkled flesh and dated hairstyles, the teenagers' mothers seem especially creepy in their featureless half-masks. Their recognizably human traits make them so much more discomforting than the alien-like teachers.

Rather than stagnant backdrops, Bart Healy's scenic design offers opposing atmospheric worlds that reinforce the play's themes. The first act takes place in a teenager-driven world of youthful promise, on a stage that is transformed into a multi-colored sea of flowers. Only two adults appear in this act; mothers of Wendla and Melchior, they seem strangely out-of-place in their grotesque partial masks. The second act, commencing just after Moritz commits suicide, presents the dead world of the grown-ups: the stage becomes a giant dirt-walled grave, the adults' masks become more outrageous, and it is the teenagers who are outnumbered. The grave arises from the stage after Moritz's suicide as if awakening to claim his body, formed from the undersides of the first act's flowered floor coverings. Identical blue children's tables and chairs are skillfully arranged by the actors to form everything from grave sites to household furniture, cutting down on scene change length and helping to unify the production.

The two acts of Spring Awakening feel like two completely different plays, the result of Lane Savadove's directing and Wedekind's bizarre script. The first act is full of life and energy even in the moments when someone is contemplating death, as near the end of the act when Grande constructs a pyramid out of six tables while holding the gun that he will use to kill himself. His friend Ilse (Michele Mizeski) flutters onto the stage, and the two climb either side of the pyramid to talk at its apex, reminding one of Emily and George atop the ladders in Our Town. The few encroachments of masked figures into the world are deliciously chilling, as when Melchior's mother Frau Gabor (Kelsey Malone) stands in a single spotlight at the stage's center, alluringly dressing herself in a full-black ensemble while reciting the letter that Mortiz is reading at the front corner of the stage.

In contrast, the abundance of ever-more-outrageous masks in the second act makes the action too awkwardly laughable rather than starkly beautiful as before. As the act opens, the six teachers appear in a line at the front of the stage, enacting a nightmarish scene full of faculty meeting trivialities, including a vote on whether a window in the room should be opened or left shut. The scene starts off funny and engaging but drags on for too long, a trait common to much of the second act.

The full ensemble is excellent in terms of movement throughout the production, with actors in many scenes working in perfect unison. Grande is the production's standout, portraying with sincerity a likeable boy frightened of failing in school and approaching sexual maturity.

Unfortunately, inconsistent vocal projection and sound-muffling masks sometimes render the production incomprehensible, as at the top of the second act when the six school teachers wear masks that vary from partial to full obstruction of the actors' faces. Another recurring and frustrating problem relates to the production's inventive blocking: actors often sit or lay in the flowers in the first act, rendering them invisible to audience members seated in the lower sections.

In spite of its faults, the solid ensemble work and the creative team's evocative staging make Spring Awakening a production not to be missed.

Tammy Bateman

A soldier returning from Iraq, a woman abandoned in a nursing home, and a photographer required to capture devastating images have one thing in common. They were all affected by the events of Hurricane Katrina. As the monologue On TV so clearly states, the tragedy was there for us to observe. Colorblind: The Katrina Monologues performed by The College of Brockport is a stunning string of stories shared by common people.

As the play opens, the character named Dead (Gloria Curet) immediately engages the audience. Her lazy posture, sloppy appearance, and a chewing accent give her the impression of your friendly, neighborhood porch talker. Curet's commanding performance sets the pace for the show and the actors that precede her.

Emerging from the audience, Stephanie Sauer stands out in her crisp dress clothes against the grungy state of those onstage. The comedy she weaves through this monologue of hopelessness is displayed in her strong stance and confident manner.

These are not the only standout performers. At the end of a beautifully written and fun monologue about the looting and coldness of human nature, Lindsay Fisher, playing the Photographer, hits the nerve of the entire play. In a series of monologues centered on pain and destruction, the photographer notices that among it all there are still compassionate people in the world. She vividly speaks of this moment she sees people who have lost everything, standing on a street covered in debris. The memory of that moment is not only playing in her head, but Fisher speaks the lines in a way that illustrates this. In a single line, she strikingly gives a chill when she speaks of a man standing among the defeated people of New Orleans. Not mourning his own losses but feeling for those who have lost much more, he plays his violin for the people who have nothing. As a character who up to this point is cynical of the country's behavior, she changes her once fidgety body language, and is now eerily still to deliver this saving grace among the rubble. While some actors are aided by Tom Flannery's writing to save their performances, Fisher takes the lines and makes them her own.

Paired with the equally stunning yet simple set of towering ladders of varying sizes, Colorblind is fascinating in all respects. Between each monologue the ensemble's graceful motions, directed by Maria Scipione connects the speakers' words to a visual display of struggle. Draped across ladders, young girls curled on the floor seeking shelter, and people holding one another, the ensemble embodies the experiences of those affected.

Colorblind is an eloquently written play that studies our commonalities in the face of struggle. An innocent child, an older man determined to remain in his home, and a observing from his roof all share one common factor. Compassion and selflessness for those just like themselves. If you're looking for a piece of theatre that is relatable in its discussion of this horrible event, while still flirting with a lighthearted tone, Colorblind will satisfy everyone's interest.

Love Not Hard to Find for this Labour
P.S. Northrop

From the moment the burgundy, 19th century floral print program for Albright College's production of Love's Labour's Lost is placed in your hands, you just know you're in for a ridiculous and stylized experience. Indeed, the players and designers make good on the program's promise--delivering an ostentatious performance that makes fun not only of itself, but also the world that it comes from. Even if you hate the showier side of Shakespeare, this interpretation brings a delightful touch of youth that makes Love's Labour's Lost a worthwhile endeavor.

I mean, we all associate Shakespeare with pastel tights under padded doublets for men and colorful dresses so large they threaten to take up an entire stage for women. This approach to attire is source of ridicule that all modern productions of the bard's tales have to face. Albright College seems to be acutely aware of this as they take their characters to the stage of the Merriam Theater. The costumes that Tiffany Hernandez and her stichers create for some of the roles capture their essence perfectly.

Most notable of these character-costume parings lies with David Darrow's portrayal of Don Adriano de Armando. First off, his attire, fabricated from a deep purple velvet with golden veins woven in throughout, makes him the most flamboyantly dressed character. Darrow's deep voice, powerful projection and pathetic attempts at high status all pair off with the costume stitch for statement.

Of course, Darrow's performance would be a little much if he wasn't toned down and mocked by his fellow actors. The witty interchanges between Biron (Billy Balmer) and Rosaline (Audrey Biser) along with the emotional proclamations of Ferdinand (Andrew Dell) all provide substance to pair with the play's overt style.

Dell is eloquent and unshakably high-status, standing perfectly upright and practically gliding across the stage as he delivers his verse--with his only setback being his inability to create volume in the Merriam Theater's space. Biser has the same volume troubles, although she makes up with this with her quick wit and expressive physicality. With a quick flip of her hair and a swish of her enormous pink dress, she deftly forces Balmer's character fall head over heels and, in using her body, earns that love more than any of the other actresses.
Along those lines, another trouble with any Shakespearian story is the notion of "love at first sight" where one simple glance is enough to get two people inexorably infatuated with one another. In Love's Labour's Lost, this tired undertaking is repeated four times over with four different pairs of people (and that's only in the main focus characters, the four noble noblemen of Navarre and the ladies of France). Director Julia Matthews deals with this problem with uproarious blocking. All eight of the noble men and women are lined up when they first meet. Pair by pair, they walk up to each other, abruptly fall in love, and then quickly jump out of line so that the next couple may tumble for each other in rapid succession. This leads to one of the performance's bigger laughs, and firmly establishes that the show isn't afraid to lampoon its origins.

But it would be a disappointment if the fun stopped with the actors and the blocking wouldn't it? Wayne E. Vettleson and his technical crew also get their chance to have a good time throughout the piece--specifically right before intermission. The four main men of the show have just been disheartened in their quest to attain the hearts of their female counterparts. However, Balmer is quick to rise up on a soapbox and rally the troops. His command over the text seems effortless and his voice reverberates throughout the whole of the Merriam as he starts his motivational oration. It gets to the point where his accent and manner of speech resemble every single cliché' inspirational monologue we've seen in the movies. Just when this dynamic is about to become groan-worthy, a dramatic yellow light washes over Balmer while an overly powerful arrangement of violins and brass comes belting out of the speakers. Cue five minutes of laughter.

All of this silliness goes down amongst a minimal yet vivid set. In the foreground there are white trees cut out of paper and adorned with Arabic looking calligraphy ascending to the ceiling on the right and rigid Corinthian columns topped with white busts of fierce philosophers to the left. Behind this there hangs a big 'ol white sheet that lights change the color of depending on the mood of the scene.

The sum of all these elements is something to behold. This production uses exuberant style and humor to create a uniquely absurd event that one just doesn't want to get out of. You're likely to hold on to that glitzy program for some time afterward, just so you can remember this gem of a production. 

Love' not 'Lost' in New Production of Shakespeare
By Shawn Arnold

Who wants to watch a boring old British play? Nothing is more of a snooze fest to a contemporary audience than a stuffy portrayal of the classics. George Bernard Shaw, whose main body of plays was only released less than 100 years ago, had the assistance of Lerner and Loewe to keep one of his plays fresh in the 50's. If Shaw is an issue, the Bard trumps them all. Too many productions of Shakespeare's works are often stilted and hackneyed. Albright College, however, does not follow down this boring path. The Domino Players Theatre Company of the college presents an uproariously flirtatious production of Bill's "Love's Labour's Lost."

A play about love, learning, flirtation, and the battle of the sexes, Shakespeare's naughty, sexual humor is peppered throughout the piece. Ferdinand, young King of Navarre (Andrew Dell), and three guys in his court swear off chicks to get some learning done. These studies are soon interrupted when the hotties from the French court show up. When love letters the dudes sent in the mail get mixed up and go to the wrong chics, the ladies decided to mess with the guys by forcing the gents to confuse which girl is which.

Trumpets swell. The foolish Biron delivers a bravado filled speech like John Wayne, essentially telling his buddies, "Lets Go Get'um Pilgrims." This is all the motivation the King and his men need to go after the hot mammas. Billy Balmer's Biron, foolish friend of the King, translates to a modern audience. Balmer maintains the integrity of the verse, yet takes liberties with the delivery and rate to make this jokester flesh out. Billy delivers his lines at the speed of thought, never allowing himself to simply recite the verse which would make it
artificial, poetry and not a play.

Some characters do allow the words to entrap and alter their performances. The French ladies all fall into this net, but Lauren Murray's Princess of France completely gets lost this speech. She does a beautiful job at reading the poetry, but she has some issue making it
become real and alive. The "Frenchies" all do, however, sport their sex appeal well in snaring the King and his gents. Although occasionally stiff in her dialog with the ladies, Audrey Biser's Rosaline is especially vivaciously flirty in her dealings with Ferdinand and Biron.

Comic relief from the already funny love affairs is readily available via the rustic characters. Their wacky, slap-stick antics provide much needed physical humor. The play that these characters perform for the two courts is absolutely hilarious. Although all of the rustics are
fun, two are above the rest. First is Andre Forbes-Ezeugwu's Costard. Andre gives a really effective modern edge to the peasant Costard. By allowing modern inflection into his speech, this Costard is a blast to watch.

And now the man, the myth, the artist currently known as Don Adriano de Armado. David Darrow's portrayal of Armado oozes bombastic troubadour in such a larger than life character. Darrow is absolutely side-splittingly funny as this Spaniard with his ridiculous lilt and his over the top physicality.

A wonderful playground for the actors in pastel shades and white, the set is a world divided. On one side the city, with its solid white pillars and chain dividers, is where the men are in control. It is an orderly place. The other side is the forest. Being the exact opposite of the city, it is delicate and fluid. The trees are parchment with beautiful script scrawled across. This is the domain of the women where their seduction is in control. Designer Lisi Stoessel did a wonderful job of distinguishing these two worlds on stage, both physically and symbolically.

Although the costume pieces are right out of Elizabethan England, this is not detracting at all from the immediacy of the piece. In fact, the costume design by Paula Trimpey is vivid, elaborate, and helps to draw you into and believe in these characters. Armado's ridiculous, velvety costume displays the equally absurd character.

Albright College's production of "Love's Labour's Lost" makes Shakespeare fresh and sexy for a modern audience. The production really is a must see. If you are a student who just started up the new semester and already feel, "What is the end of study, let me know?" as Biron laments in the first act, take some time off to see this exhilarating, spicy play. Bring a "special" guest. With only a little "Labour" you may get some "Love" with little money "Lost."

La Bete, You Bet!

Savannah Ganster

"Precocious? Try PHENOMENAL!" Okay, maybe I stole that line from David Hirson's La Bȇte, but it's the best way to describe this show, performed by Grove City College at the Art's Bank Theatre. Don't believe me? Ask the audience. They offered up the first standing ovation of this year's American College Theatre Festival for an invited production.

Imagine Alice in Wonderland set at the Palace of Versailles in extreme Technicolor... this is the opening scene of La Bete. The highly stylized set with a shining chandelier, a black and white checkered floor, and walls of creams and gold, contrasts with the stark background of a skeletal stage. The majority of its skirts, scrims and curtains are removed with every single gelled light revealed to the audience's eyes. Since La Bete is a show about the theatre, the manner in which the set appears upon the stage is a clever reinforcement of that theme. It's a reminder that this is a theatre within a theatre within a theatre.

Douglas Baker's Valere, the star of the show, is incredible. Baker vibrantly delivers a manic, delusional, self-absorbed, riotous twenty-two minute monologue. The monologue, which occupies thirty pages of script, is delivered furiously and flawlessly as Baker runs around the stage with the most intense energy seen so far during this festival's productions. As this monologue unfolds, it is clear that the character of Valere is a pretentious idiot who is given to long bouts of logorrhea and word invention. He is like a redneck in a country club parading around in a black wig reminiscent of culture icon Russell Brand's signature rat-nest hair, a drab fur-lined coat, a decaying lace cravat, a tunic that could double as a stained burlap sack, tweed knickers, cheddar orange tights and scuffed white golf shoes. For his idiocy and commonality, Valere is rejected by the elitist royal-court tenured acting troupe's leader, Elomire (Pierce Babirak), as he seeks acceptance into the troupe. Baker shines throughout the entire piece as he wins the other characters over with Valere's stupidity.

Jesse Aukeman's excessively frivolous, flamboyant, and effeminate Prince Conti is a hit! Aukeman gives his character the perfect amount of shallowness to come across as a bored and misinformed member of royalty. Also, he offers expressions with his powdered and rouged face which clearly communicate Prince Conti's emotions throughout the play. Aukeman's strengths as an actor allow him to show Prince Conti's intended weaknesses as a character in a deft manner.

However, despite the fabulosity (if Valere can invent words, so can I) of both Baker and Aukeman, actor Jennifer Ford stole the spotlight on several occasions. Ford plays the role of Dorine, a seventeen year old maid with toxic green hair who speaks only in rhyming monosyllabic words like, "blue," "two," "new," and "shoe." As she totters across the stage on her toes playing charades with the other characters, while looking coquettishly from Elomire to Valere as they argue, Dorine endears. Ford is quite certainly a very strong actor, for only a strong actor could steal the spotlight from Baker and Aukeman without saying more than ten different words through the course of this show.

In addition to the cast's strength, the costume director Dr. Kristen Barbour compiled the brightest and most elegant costumes (excluding Valere's costume) seen yet at the ACTF this year. Despite Valere's purposely gaudy costume, all of the costumes manage to complement each other. With vibrant satin dresses and matching makeup, Barbour attains costume perfection.

Not to be left out, La Bete director, Professor Betsy Craig, navigates Hirson's amazing script, written in rhyming couplets, to create this phenomenal word ballet. It asks the poignant questions, "What is art? Is it something superficial, or is it deep? If one expects mediocrity rather than excellence, can one ever be disappointed in the outcome of the truly mediocre or substandard? Is society declining so much that we have lost true art and instead embraced drivel?" However, this production manages a great feat and asks these questions through unparalleled hilarity and outrageousness. Rather than staring bleakly at a show dealing with such heavy themes, the audience laughs until their sides hurt and then they laugh some more.

La Bete, at once uproariously entertaining and saucy, is proof that PHENOMENAL art still exists.

A Dying Clown

Amy E. Martin

What do we want in theater and when is it good? From Plato to now, theater presents these enduring questions. The current Grove City College 's comedic production of LaBête attempts to answer what is good art and the performance scoff at Moliere glides above mediocre imitation. However, without the program note "what is good art" the question of theater as entertainment or moral instruction is nonexistent. Instead, the duality of witty humor and its rhythm creates a fast paced production where exorbitant luxury and absurdity are contradicted by the arch-lacking performance.

A Madonna inspired "Vogue strike a pose" movement introduces the cast, and is magnified by a 17th century style overture with sounds of playfully plucked strings. Beginning with a spotlight on the cast, vibrant snapshots emerge in a speedy, quirky gambol. As a grandiose chandelier glimmers above a black and white checkered floor the inherent contradictions of the set and Betsy Craig's direction become apparent; this is the world of LaBête!

Patron of the arts Prince Conti(Jesse Aukeman) demands a new track from his renowned acting troupe leader Elomire (Pierce Babirak), who intern is contradicted by a street performer Valere(Douglas Baker) and the wordy romp of the play speeds off. Elomire stands tall with slick hair and overwhelming eyebrows, and his gapping goldfish mouth delivers each line in crippling arrogance. In addition, he is too detached from the rest of the set, because of his narrow and morose black costume, that his presence appears dark and sinister in comparison to the rest of the cast. Elomire remains on stage for the nearly the entire play his voice inflection and body language become too obvious after the first thirty minutes, and he neglects to draw positive attention for the remainder of the production.

On the other side of the spectrum, Valere (Douglas Baker) is so full of foppish energy that the egotistical nature of the character engulfs the production in "verbobo;" an imaginary word referring to the spirit of words. Orange tights, Halloween costume textured fabric, and a massive-scrambled wig uses the comedy of manners as a focal point for Baker's narcissism. Playwright David Hirson has written Valere's character with an overbearing presence, which accumulates in a nearly thirty minute monologue on theater aesthetic, morality, and it both charms and confuses the viewer. Tragically, Baker was unable to maintain the exuberant charisma that he reached in his opening monologue for the entire production. He delivered no progression of intensity and his performance became a comedy drawing strong correlations of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend."

In addition the flat world of the set neglects awe inspiring sublimity, because it refuses to uphold the tempo of the production: perhaps a reason that no set designer is listed? It is too obvious in its inspiration and lacks depth. On the side of being overly symbolic the grandiose nature of the production is seen in the chandelier while the morality and rationality of theater hold strong within the confining lines of the black and white floor.

Dr. Kristin Barbour's costumes also lack any cohesive quality: from Elomire's and Valere's mentioned earlier to a comparison of the rest of the ensemble a confusing mesh of humor, texture, and extreme color pallet emerges. They are bright, spunky, fun, and illogical, but rationality for the decisions is not fulfilled by the performances. The costumes define the character instead of the more powerful opposite. This is particularly seen in the character of Dorine, who appears to be Alice in Wonderland on Absinthe. She articulates one syllable rhymes like "blue, true, new, and shoe" and wears a maids outfit with florescent lime green tights and hair, but seems unnecessary and insignificant to the plays progression.

LaBête reaches its peak in Valere's performance of the "Dying Clown" it becomes clear that the theatricality of the production has overpowered its significance. The sassy, Moliere mockery cheapens the intention of developing a dialectical conversation about art, because after an hour and a half of mindless laughter and ramblings the performance is unable to obtain depth.

Taking a refreshing yet cliché turn from absurdity to morality Elomire attempts to explain that good art is not merely what entertains, but what transforms. However, the greatest problem in the production arises here; because by this point Elomire's sinister nature has been unapparent within the rocket paced narcissism of Valere. Overall, the production neglects to successfully define "What good art really is," but it does enthusiastically amuse and brighten a long day.

January 17, 2009 1:09 PM | | Comments (7)

Ralph.JPGLater today, I'll post the students' final reviews so you can have the pleasure of critiquing the critics, but first, without further ado, our merry--though exhausted--men and women, in their own words. P.S.: Ralph Leary (at left), who shows up in a couple of the entries, is the National Critics Institute Coordinator for Region II, and a professor of English at Clarion College in Clarion, Pa.

Jennifer Ford

I liken the past 60 hours to the first time I ever put contact lenses in my eyes: the National Critics Institute experience has sharpened my focus for watching and thinking about theater. Charged with the job of critiquing the shows in the festival, I found myself paying closer attention to a show's costuming, lighting, and set design, whereas in the past I was mostly attentive to the acting. The teaching also unveiled to me the absolute requirement for a critic to back up every assertion they make about a show. To do this, I had to practice cataloging a show's memorable moments and producing them as evidence to my claims.

The challenge to describe theater in fresh, crisp language and to choose the most important points to put on paper is harder than I thought. It has been especially humbling to work side by side peers who picked up the skills quicker than I did. At the same time, I deem "most valuable" the chopping-block class feedback sessions where every student had a chance to chime in and point out strengths/flaws in each other's writing. It was a safe environment for evaluation because we not only shared our amateur status, but we mutually understood that all of us were here to learn and grow.

Both Wendy Rosenfield and Ralph Leary have been gems: encouraging, witty, and specifically helpful. The only thing that would make this experience better is a longer week.

Jessica Hinds-Bond

The NCI schedule reminds me of tech weekends spent at the theatre, both in that we're so incredibly busy (over 12 hours on Thursday), and in how much is accomplished in such a short time period. Between attending critics sessions and performances, writing responses, and commuting to and from Center City every day, calling the program "intensive" would be an understatement. In spite of the long hours, I'm definitely enjoying the experience. I'm learning to approach theatrical performance in a new way, and getting to try my hand at some non-academic writing for a change. The sessions with my fellow critics have been fantastic because the broad range of backgrounds and interests enriches the discussion. I've noticed immediate improvement in my writing, and I have learned so much about the different ways in which critics, audiences, and theatre artists approach reviews.

Devin Dippold

One of my long-standing issues as a theatregoer was a tendency to be too kind to the performance. Rather than state my opinions honestly, I chose to either soften or outright conceal any strong criticism I had for a production. That attitude had to change at the NCI conference. It was one thing to say kind words about a production when your words were just those of a typical audience member. When you are supposed to provide expert commentary, however, kindness isn't really in the job description.

Learning to express my critical ideas wasn't so much a long discovery process as it was a rapid change. I had to say what I felt. I had to present an honest review every day, and it had to be driven by something real. If I hated a show, I couldn't just pretend it was good; I had to be honest with myself and admit that it was bad. It sounds simple enough now, but I just never let myself think that way. Now, I've found it impossible to go back to being nice. I tried during today's productions (which I am not reviewing) to relax and just enjoy the shows. Instead, I found myself critiquing everything onstage. Why is there a blackout here? Why is the pacing slow there? I can't turn it off anymore. And I don't want to, either.

P.S. Northrop

When we arrived at the Doubletree Hotel for the ACTF conference I picked up the keys for myself and my three other roommates.

'What's our room number?" One of the guys--Sam--asked in the lobby as I handed him his key.

"Uhh..." I looked at the little pamphlet I'd been given. "1408" I said.

"...The haunted hotel movie?" Gilliam asked.

I stopped--trying to think. A group of other conference participants sitting at a couch near us and clearly eavesdropping suddenly burst out laughing. Sure enough, there's a horror movie entitled 1408 where an evil hotel room all but eats John Cusack.

We took this in stride, figuring there was no such thing as evil hotel rooms. But, sure enough, the next day another roommate turned on the tv and what else was on the screen but Jon Cusack getting told by Samuel Jacksion that room 1408 was evil. We'd been there a day and already the place was fucking with us.

This forms part of the reason why I'm glad I got involved with the National Critics Institute competition here at the festival. I leave my hotel room every morning, turning to my roommates and saying "Don't die...please", at 9 and usually don't return until about 11 at night. 1408 doesn't get much of chance to hate me.

But really--NCI proves to be an incredible experience, haunted hotel rooms aside. Theater criticism is a beautiful mashup of the rigid journalistic world and the ethereal land of the theatre. Most of my counterparts have come from the theatre side of the collision, whereas I am the stuffy journalist of the group. I'm pretty sure this makes me the luckiest member of our little band, as I am surrounded with brilliantly minded actor-types with huge knowledge of the stage and all the crazy shit that goes on behind it. I've learned more in the past few days than I did in a good half of my last semester. I love the thirst for knowledge and the need to write displayed by all of these guys.

And all the while, I've been on an endless stress-high since about midday Wednesday. I love deadlines, the way they inexorably approach, threatening to wash over you, whether or not you and your writing are ready for them or not. I thrive off of that sense of urgency--because when I'm writing furiously, I swear it's one of the few times where I truly feel alive. It's the worlds greatest feeling--and the style of theater criticism allows you to let loose the chains that boring ol'regular journalism nomrall imposes on you. I love this writing, I love this festival, and not even room 1408 destroying us could take away the joy of it.

Yeah, sure--that end was abrupt, but if I didn't stop you know I would go on, reaching (and most likely surpassing) Valare-lengths. And no one wants that.

Until next time, kids.

Shawn Arnold

So I have to sneak back into classes Tuesday. On top of that I have to make up the things I missed this week(thank you). Ouch! However, I couldn't have asked for a more educational, more fun reason to miss than NCI. Although time consuming, it was such a free and thought
provoking process, yet it was so much fun. It was such a relief to find a group of individuals who can actually talk about theater in more than "good" or "bad." I mean is that too hard to ask for? Also I have learned a ton about how important it is to remain concise when writing
a review. The harsh world of editorial criticism has it limits on article size, and this forces the writer to keep the meat and remove the fluff. I have got to thank Wendy for her guidance in this process. I especially must thank her for helping me find my voice a bit more in
my writing. Plus she is a fan of The Office and Flight of the Conchords which makes her the coolest person ever. Major props Wendy! Anyways this week has been such a wonderful experience. Thanks to everyone involved!

Amy Martin

The overall effect of the NCI workshop experience has reestablished my personal relationship to theater. Having entered the world of criticism from an interest in dramaturgy I believed the class would improve my analytical skills, but the effect is much deeper. Although I love dramaturgy and working with the text, I found myself in conflict with many of the directorial choices and learning critical writing skills has provided an outlet for my beliefs. While watching a production, the arrogance that I once felt for defending a script has faded and been replaced by a more objective critical eye. Being a critic at the KCACTF festival has been a life-altering experience, for which I am entirely grateful. In addition, working in a writing class has brought attention to my writing style and technique. The great part about being a student is the ability to try new things and expand as an individual.

Savannah Ganster

So, I came to the American College Theatre Festival in Philadelphia this week expecting to sit in on playwriting workshops. Instead, I ended up participating in the National Critics Institute workshops. I know, I know... It's slightly shocking that I'd rather learn to be a theatre critic and review invited productions, than attend the playwriting workshops that I had looked so forward to. But fear not, the shock ends there.

The NCI workshops have been amazing! I feel like I've bonded with people who understand the theatre and who aren't afraid to write about their opinions. Regardless of the bad rap generally assigned to theatre critics, I can assure you that none of the nine people sharing this room with me throughout the NCI workshops are the asshole type. In fact, they've become some of the most supportive peers that I've known. As we sit in our workshop sessions critiquing our play reviews from the night before, no one is afraid to share their work. We provide each other with words of encouragement and constructive criticism and laugh and joke and talk theatre.

I couldn't have learned more about the journalistic art of review throughout the duration of this festival had I tried. Wendy and Professor Leary, our mentors, are treasure troves of knowledge concerning critiquing theatre. They've provided a great amount of support and criticism to aid us in our journeys as critics and as writers.

Despite the fact that I didn't attend any playwriting workshops, I feel as though my writing abilities have been nurtured and have grown. Everything that I've learned through the NCI workshops can be taken and applied to what I know about playwriting, which means that I've learned more than how to be an effective critic while I'm here. I've learned how to be an effective critic, how to be a better playwright, how to hone the art of writing into the veins of journalism, creative writing, etc., and how to let my unique voice of authority shine through all of my writing.

Tammy Bateman

I sat down on the first day of this week with the National Critic's Institute and I was incredibly overwhelmed. I am not comfortable with others reading my writing. I am a performer and therefore somewhat fearful of critics. So what brought me to this particular workshop at the festival? Well, with a small attempt at theatre criticism (more praising than criticizing due to the nature of the program) in high school, I thought that this could be another chance to learn this profession in a more serious way. And boy was it! I was not prepared for the amount of work and difficulty I would have trying to keep up with the other, more advanced writers in the workshop. But once I got past my initial discouragement, I was able to find the positive in this situation, as I try with all things. For one, my colleagues weren't condemning me for my short comings. They were all surprisingly supportive of my meager attempts at a few reviews, (and let's remember that they're aspiring critics--so now I know they really are nice people even if they may be critical in their writing). Aside from that, as an actor, listening in on what the critics look at can be majorly beneficial. While a review may be informative, in this environment I got the chance to listen to everyone's opinions (and not in 500 words or less) and really hear what they look for. I have a newfound admiration for this profession and what these writers do. I now understand the effort they put into their work. While I may have realized that maybe this career isn't for me, I've experienced a week of yet another part of this wonderful business and that counts as a success in my book!


January 17, 2009 10:38 AM | | Comments (1)


The Quiet Storm: Devin Dippold

Later on, our brave word-warriors will tell you just what transpired for them here at the National Critics Institute. But first, a quickie look at the moments that made SUNY Brockport's production of Tom Flannery's Colorblind: The Katrina Monologues, sink or swim. Coolest part? Everyone chose a different moment. However, two students went so different that they wrote about Rowan University's production of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening (P.S. Northrop) and Grove City College's production of David Hirson's La Bete (Jessica Hinds-Bond)instead. Who knew we had two Kenleys hiding out behind their laptops?

The assignment: tell us exactly when the production crystallized (or fell apart), and tell us in a way that unifies the rest of your (ghost) review.

Tammy Bateman

At the end of a beautifully written and fun monologue about the looting and coldness of human nature in despair, Lindsay Fisher, in "Photographer," hits the nerve of the entire play. In a series of monologues centered on pain and destruction, the photographer notices that among it all there are still compassionate people in the world. She vividly speaks of this moment she sees people who have lost everything, standing on a street covered in debris. The memory of that moment is not only playing in her head, but Fisher speaks the lines in a way that illustrates this, and in a single line, she strikingly gives a chill when she speaks of a man, playing his violin for the people who have nothing.  As a character who up to this point is cynical of the country's behavior, she changes her body language and speech to deliver this saving grace among the rubble. While some actors are aided by Tom Flannery's writing to save their performances, Fisher takes the lines and makes them her own. 

Devin Dippold

During the monologue "Hold Out," an older Ninth Ward resident (played by Maxwel Anderson) explains his actions by stating his lifelong philosophy. Anderson rocks slowly back and forth in his chair on the porch he built at the house he has lived in for over 50 years. He states "Harry Truman once said, 'If you want a friend in this world, get a dog.' So I got one." Anderson, in that line, sums up the problems that this play attacks. After the levees break, the New Orleans characters are left to fend for themselves. A woman waits in a nursing home for help that isn't coming. A soldier comes home from Iraq to no home and no prospects. A man spraypaints "By all means, take your effing time" on his roof after being stranded for days. All help has abandoned the Katrina victims, and only people like Anderson's character, who refuses any offer of help, thrive. The government has proven Harry Truman right.

Shawn Arnold

A 30-something Bostonian woman stands desperately clutching her peacoat. She stares anxiously out contemplating the worst. A mingled look of torment and disgust lingers upon her face.  Her brow furrows in concern as she utters, "Am I the only person in America watching?" She is heartbrokenly mourning the general lack of concern America has for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. This is but one persona in Colorblind: The Katrina Monologues, an account of the devastation and the reaction to the terrible tragedy in New Orleans.

Savannah Ganster

The camera points and clicks as the victims of Hurricane Katrina struggle to stay alive. A gangbanger standing in a pink fur coat in the water... Click. A dope addict with a looted television. Click... Every image of the struggling, dying people of New Orleans that might be newsworthy... CLICK, CLICK, CLICK! Nothing's sacred anymore, especially not when a photographer can look at someone in need, snap a shot and turn away in search of the next emotion-invoking image, unaffected. And then, the music rises: a single violin, agonizingly sweet and hopeful, cutting through the death and despair within the Superdome. The photographer (Lindsay Fisher) sees the violinist in the midst of destruction, the perfect image, and then she turns and walks away without even focusing her camera upon him. Serenading hope in the restoration of humanity, charity and New Orleans, this scene is Colorblind's moment of perfection.

Amy Martin

"We all know the water's color blind... Are you? As Gloria Curet delivered the line in her second monologue, "Dead Again," her implications horrified. What it means to be color blind became a question demanding an answer. Her lips moved as if she tried to cover a decaying mouth, the inflections jived, but then... Realizing that the sound associations and additional imagery came from the fact that the actor was black. Does being color blind mean ignoring? No, this constitutes a Reagan definition of racial justice, and being 20 years post his era one would expect progress from Americans. However, the haunting imagery of her dead figure bouncing, laughing and cackling, while reciting establishes a new relationship to race. If New Orleans emerges rebuilt without the projects, what repercussions does this truly have? Colorblind: The Katrina Monologues is a new play where these very questions tell us about ourselves and the American nation. 

P.S. Northrop

But then the second act begins, and suddenly all of these flaws get amplified tenfold. Rather than focus on the beauty of childhood innocence, the play steers it's eyes towards the monstrous structure that is the adult world. In that very first scene after intermission, all of the characters on stage are wearing hideous winkled and warted multicolor masks.  They mainly communicate in hoots and hollers and guttural repetitive chants. The malignant mature ones in the play are supposed to inspire fear and disgust in the viewers--but instead the ridiculous way the players portray their repellent roles leads the majority of the audience to laughter. These bellowing  cackles reverberate throughout the Merriam and add to the din that the actors on stage are creating. The result is pandemonium. You are unsettled, you are nervous. This piles on top of the fact that you cannot hear what's being said clearly onstage thanks to shoddy projection. The whole production takes on the cloudy confusing aura of a dream. You know something absolutely dreadful is going on but your inability to effectively process it only adds to the terror. Surely, for the entirety of it's latter half, this presentation of Spring Awakening plunges you into the depths of some ungodly nightmare--whether it intends to or not. And--finally--when the lights go out at the end of that show, you will be afraid of that dark.

Jessica Hinds-Bond

Like a cocaine-induced rendition of Carrottop, Jim Carey, and Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice, a lanky man in a badly disheveled long brown wig paces around the stage, spouting words in a stream-of-consciousness that is periodically punctuated by self-described caterwauling, showcasing his particular talent for over-dramatic posturing and playing for cheap laughs. In the midst of this more than 20-minute monologue, Valere (Douglas Baker) suddenly grabs a white handkerchief, and begs the others onstage to "Gag me with this handkerchief, alright?" Mercilessly, neither of the other men obliges him in his request, and he continues his shrieking unabated. Really? This man represents the future of the theatre?


January 16, 2009 4:55 PM | | Comments (1)


Savannah Ganster, Tammy Bateman and Amy Martin quietly rain down the pain in their ledes. And also illustrate why that MTV Rolling Stone intern reality show didn't exactly make compelling television.

Here's the deal: the students saw two productions last night--Penn State Altoona's Big Love, by Charles Mee, and SUNY Oswego's Honor and the River, by Anton Dudley. They wrote full reviews, turned them in this morning and were either critiqued into submission or inspiration, and perhaps some combination of the two. So I'm not going to post those full reviews here.

Instead, have a look at these ledes for today's production of Love's Labour's Lost (brought to the festival by Albright College) and tell our critics whether they've made you want to read more or if you've seen all you need to see of either review or production.

Love's Labour's Ledes

Devin Dippold

Battle lines are drawn. On one side stands a wild forest, filled with lovers frolicking. On the other side stand three columns, atop which the busts of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates look down upon all they "see." A man under their watchful eye partitions off these columns from the rest of the world. The Domino Players' production of Love's Labour's Lost prepares two sides for war, but does anyone really want to fight?


Jessica Hinds-Bond

A forest of lanky paper trees covered in cursive handwriting dots the stage. Three grown men hide unseen behind a narrow pillar, a skeletal podium, and a short bench. Women of radically different heights, dresses, and hair accessories don eye-masks and exchange scarves, fooling their lovers into proposing to the surrogate women. Sudden news of a parent's death spurs four betrothals and a happy ending. Only in Shakespeare are such things possible. In the Albright College Domino Players' production of Love"s Labour's Lost, they are not only possible but compelling and magical.

Shawn Arnold

Who wants to watch a boring old British play? Nothing is less entertaining to a contemporary audience than a stuffy portrayal of the classics. George Bernard Shaw, whose bulk of work is less than a century old, had the assistance of Lerner and Loewe to keep one of his plays fresh in the 50's. If Shaw is an issue, the Bard trumps them all. Too many productions of Shakespeare's works are often stilted and hackneyed. Albright College, however, does not follow down this boring path. The Domino Players Theatre Company of the college presents an uproariously flirtatious production of Bill's Love's Labour's Lost.

Savannah Ganster

The stage is set. Tall white trees shadowed with calligrapher's script create a poetic forest, which sets the mood for an elegant Shakespearian production, thanks to scenic design by Lisi Stoessel. Cue the classical music. Enter the characters dressed in their period costumes, courtesy of Paula Trimpey. As this show begins, so does the teeth gritting. Albright College Domino Players' presentation of Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia makes for some laborious viewing.

Tammy Bateman

As The Domino Players of Albright College so wonderfully portrayed, Love's Labour's Lost is a hilarious comedy about friendship, knowledge, and love.  Filled with misguided courtships to make even a modern day soap opera seem simple, William Shakespeare's comedy shows four Lords of Navarre together in their pursuit of the noble ladies of France. The solidarity displayed by the Domino Players' ensemble is not only necessary for such a production, but executed with believability and success.

P.S. Northrop

From the moment the burgundy, 19th century floral print program for Albright College's production of Love's Labour's Lost is placed in your hands, you just know you're in for a ridiculous and stylized experience. Indeed, the players and designers of that show make good on the program's promise--delivering an ostentatious performance that makes fun not only of itself, but of the world that it comes from. Even if you hate the showier side of Shakespeare, this interpretation brings a delightful touch of youthful immaturity that makes Love's Labour's Lost a worthwhile endeavor.

Amy Martin

The current production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, at the Merrian Theater in Philadelphia, works to ensure that the language is not a hindrance for the cast. The Albright University production features strong voices and distinct faces that successfully carry the weighty language, but the production neglects to incorporate the actors onto the set, which causes the two separate levels to emerge. Director Julia Matthews' blocking creates a silhouette drama where the actors appear foreign to the space, as if their heads are detached from their bodies.

Next time on Everyone's a Critic

Tomorrow marks our last full day for classes and theatergoing, and Saturday is judgement day, though you wouldn't know it by the way this group encourages and gently critiques each other. It's all very un-Real World, and frankly, kind of disappointing, but UArts wouldn't give us a hot tub, so I guess that's that.

Friday I'll post the results of another short exercise, and Saturday the full reviews will be up so you can help decide who gets the comp. Our winner then heads to the Kennedy Center for its College Theater Festival, and the winner at that event--who will be judged on the review they've written here--heads up to New England for a sweet two-week getaway (that is, if your definition of "getaway" is "really hard work" ) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. It's pretty astonishing that there are still students motivated enough by their love of the arts to want to buck the trend and spend their free time trying to master this craft in what may be the most difficult moment of its evolution. I hope you'll encourage them to continue exploring this uncertain--but certainly worthwhile--path.

Shawn.jpgShawn Arnold. He's so our Suede. Ok, not really, but get a load of this crazy action shot!

January 15, 2009 3:33 PM | | Comments (4)
231149641_3641a7bef9.jpgToday was the first full day of the National Critics Institute meeting at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, and with it came a few new faces. Welcome is in order for Grove City College's Jennifer Ford, Penn State Berks County's Savannah Ganster, and SUNY Buffalo's Amy Martin. Madi Distefano (pictured here in a scene from her show Eye-95), a Philadelphia director/actor/playwright and founder of Brat Productions visited the class to talk about the effect of theater criticism on the theater community--not that I think it should guide the students, but certainly so that they may be aware of the heavy responsibility placed upon them as keepers of the cultural flame. 

What also worked out nicely was that Distefano's main gripe (What's with all the plot description?) and main suggestion (If you're going to criticize something, make sure you back it up with evidence.) dovetailed neatly with what we'd been discussing before she arrived. So it's settled: critics and the critiqued both want the same things out of a review. Glad we can agree on something.

The students also saw two challenging productions, which they'll be reviewing tomorrow. Stay tuned for the results. In the meantime, though Savannah and Amy didn't get a chance to craft their query letters, here are two more for your consideration. Any interested editors out there?

Query 1

Dear (Editor),


As a senior English major, I believe that Shakespeare's characters are a treasure bestowed to anyone who speaks the language he helped invent.  However, in the week prior to Grove City College's production of As You Like It, I kept hearing "Is the whole thing going to be in Old English?" in whiney, disinterested tones.  I wanted to explain no, Shakespeare was not Anglo-Saxon and in fact wrote in modern English, but perhaps he just possessed a broader vocabulary than you?   But I held my tongue.


Instead of responding directly to my peer's ignorant qualms, I'd like to write a 800 word article titled "Shakespeare-Induced Psychogogia."  Psychogogia refers to the process of one's soul being drawn upward towards truth, which is exactly what I believe happens in a (good) Shakespeare production.  This article will explore the process of approaching a Shakespeare text and will highlight different techniques that Grove City actors used to guide audience understanding in their recent production of As You Like It.   I also want to write about the attractiveness of Shakespeare's plays and bemoan their suffering popularity in contrast to contemporary theater's "cutting edge" sexual-awakening themes. 


To read a Shakespeare play is a rigorous but rewarding process, but then to transport his scripts onto the stage with the combination of dramatic lighting, exquisite costumes, and invigorating actors is to evoke a magical spirit.  Throughout the production of As You Like It, I most enjoyed the rehearsals when I could hear new understanding in a voice or see new relish a face.  Everyone contributed to breathe life into a text written in 1599, and the result was true beauty, realized on a stage. 


Overall, this article will point to the purpose for theater criticism: to put our mouths out of taste for bad theater and to instead instruct us towards what we should be watching.  The Grove City community should know that the college's production of As You Like It is accessible and hilarious.  Even if Shakespeare is not within one's personal realm of taste, Grove City's As You Like It has the power to change a mind. I can have this article to you within five days of your consent.  



Jennifer Ford

Query 2

Ms. Rosenfield,

Last year approximately fifty students participated in Elizabethtown College's Shorts Fest, a two-night event of short plays.  This year, the college is increasing its student participation by having not only student performers, directors, and designers, but making the event a major display of all types of theatrical talent within the college.  Billed as "The New Playwrights Festival," the collection of ten-minute plays of a widely varying nature has been written by the ten students in last semester's Playwriting class. 

I would like to write an article titled "Etown Theatre: Room for Everyone," that praises the theatre department and their bold steps to encourage such a wide array of theatrical talent.  In 1500 words I would like to cover the various forms of student participation for this event.

This piece will examine the extensive work done by the students in class with their drafting and revisions, as well as the creative process of selecting directors and casts for their plays.  I will discuss this process and how it has aided in the education of these students to the real world of theatre.  Another important aspect of this event is the production team, including stage and production management, box office, and front of house staff, as well as publicity committees.  I want to cover the work of all the students involved in this endeavor.  Lastly, I would like to include commentary from the faculty and students on their thoughts regarding this great opportunity.  

As an active member of Elizabethtown College's Theatre and Dance Division, I am very dedicated and proud of this event.  I was a member of the Playwriting course last semester, so I have been lucky enough to see this project from its earliest stages - a blank sheet of paper.  As a first-time playwright, I feel strongly about this opportunity and the opportunity it presents to all the students' various interests in the theatre world.  In 2005 & 2006 I was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer for my reviews for The Greater Philadelphia Cappies, demonstrating my strong passion for the world of theatre.  

I hope that my passion for this event has piqued your interest and that you would like to hear more about this event.  If you are interested, please let me know, and I can have an article to you within a week of your acceptance. 

Thank you for your time,

Tammy Bateman

January 14, 2009 11:31 PM |
For an important news break. 

Everyone's a Critic will continue its important work later today, but in the meantime, an interesting, blog-worthy dustup flared between Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, Sarah Ruhl's agent and the Broad Street Review (BSR), an online publication covering the city's arts and culture.

The Wilma hosted an open reading of a "surprise play," which turned out to be Ruhl's newest, In the Next Room. Several critics attended, and one, Jim Rutter, wrote what I thought was an insightful review, published by the BSR. And therein lies the rub. The Wilma claims the work is unfinished and thus shouldn't be subject to review, but the question is, if a theater promotes a reading as a newsworthy event--and certainly sending out a press release about a "surprise" by a major playwright would make it so--then isn't it a journalist's responsibility to report on that surprise? Perhaps a review is the wrong approach, but surely no one can be shocked by some aspect of the evening showing up in print or online, as Rutter and BSR publisher Dan Rottenberg note in their chain of correspondence. And considering that--Hello!--the play is all about the history of the vibrator, well, who didn't think it would generate a (cue music) throbbing, pulsing, writhing storm of controversy and attention?

It all brings me back to a discussion I had here with The Critical Condition's Mark Blankenship about my call for a review of Les Freres Corbusier's Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). (I know, I know, I promised I was done talking about it, but I can't stop myself!) Mark's position was similar to that of Wilma Artistic Director Blanka Zizka: if a work isn't ready for the public feeding frenzy that sometimes accompanies a review, it shouldn't be reviewed. In DDR's case, I believed (and still do) that if the public is being charged to attend the event, and it's receiving a full-fledged production--I'd say 50 dancers, a crazy Thunderdome set, and a soap-opera-starring leading man qualify it as such--then it's a journalist's duty to inform the theater-loving public about what transpired onstage. In the Wilma's case, I think it's a trickier call, since a staged reading makes no claims about being a fully-realized work. But again, if it's promoted as a newsworthy event, the argument could be made that it ought to covered as one. Additionally, since, as Rutter points out, "news" can be broken at any time by anyone with a Blackberry and an opinion, is it even reasonable for a playwright or theater to assume they can close the floodgates of public opinion when they're the ones who have opened them in the first place?
January 14, 2009 7:58 AM | | Comments (9)
Day one, and we already have a casualty. Justin Fitzpatrick, whom you met in the last entry, bowed out with a good excuse--he'll be appearing in the festival's production of Love's Labour's Lost. Our ranks are now down to an enthusiastic five students.

62252-buggy-whip.gifThe first assignment I've given to my Critics Institute participants is one that should be familiar to plenty of writers who entered the job market in the 1990s and later (and also to those re-entering the market after a layoff or buyout): write me a query letter for a feature on some aspect of theater in your community. The assignment reflects the reality of a critics' work in these uncertain times. I don't think there's a critic working today who still has the luxury of sitting back and turning in nothing but reviews, and by the time these students graduate, the position of "full-time staff reviewer" will have taken on the quaint, instructive patina that used to accompany the term "buggy-whip salesman." Editors, freelancers, staffers, theater professionals, please let them know what you think of their ideas, and feel free to weigh in with anything else they ought to know about their potential profession.

Query 1

Dear (Editor), 

Although the works of Shakespeare are brilliant and eternal, why is it 

that the works of the Bard seem to be the sole source of dramatic 

literature available to US high school students? If it wasn't for an 

accelerated 10th grade English class and an AP English calss, I 

personally wouldn't have have been introduced to the works of Miller, 

Ibsen, and Chekhov. The same cannot be said of the typical academic 

student at my former high school

I would like to offer you the approximately 1,200 to 1,300 word 

article, "The Exile of Dramatic Lit in American High Schools." 

Generally it will discuss how the exclusion of dramatic literature in 

high schools is systematically hampering the education of students. For 


1. Drama polishes the mind: This is the cognitive benefits to studying 


2. Drama fosters understanding: This includes the empathetic and 

sympathetic benefits to the studies of drama.

3. Drama engages the students: This discusses how drama can bring 

students literally into the world of a piece of literature.

4. You think all modern drama is inappropriate? Have you read "Romeo 

and Juliet?": This final section discusses the fallibility of the 

argument that modern drama is inappropriate by taking a look at the 

seedier side of the typical, sole high school exposure to dramatic 


This subject really fascinates me because I am both working on a degree 

in secondary education, and I have a vested interest in dramatic 

literature (also being an acting major). I really hope that you find 

this topic intriguing. I look forward to your response. I really think 

that with the current atmosphere of negativity towards standardized 

testing this article is quite applicable. I can get this article to you 

within 3 to 4 weeks of receiving the green light. I cannot wait to hear 

from you.


Shawn Arnold

Query 2

Dear Ms. Rosenfield:

The issue concerning the updating of classic works of drama confronts any theatre seeking to bring the works of great playwrights of the past to a contemporary audience. Even when a change unlocks new elements of the text, some viewers may find it off-putting to see a great work so "twisted." Yet Mauckingbird Theatre Company is breaking new ground in how to capture the spirit of classic playwrights while applying their texts to their own struggles. Their productions of The Misanthrope, R+J, and Hedda Gabler strive to examine gay culture and its place in our society.

I'd like to offer you an 800 word article titled "Reinterpretation Done Right." This article delves into how Mauckingbird Theatre Company has managed to find ways to make these classic works so relevant to the social themes and issues facing the gay community. The piece looks both at how these productions reinterpret the plays and how they critique our own culture. It specifically discusses the following:

Mauckingbird Theatre Company does not impose ideas upon the text. Rather, it links the themes central to these classic works to their own passions as artists and people.

The Misanthrope proves that Mauckingbird is willing both to critique society as a whole and, more specifically, gay society. Just as Moliere's criticism comes from a hope of bettering French society, Mauckingbird's reinvention embraces gay culture while striving for more depth within that culture.

Mauckingbird's choices of R+J and Hedda Gabler showcase the company's willingness to critique the forces outside the gay community as well. The two productions challenge the established ideas of male and female sexuality, respectively.

As a theatre artist coming out of Villanova University's graduate school, I find it is important to highlight how these artists are reshaping our theatrical community. I believe this article could help expose their work to a larger audience.

I would like to thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Devin Dippold

Query 3

Dear Ms. Rosenfield,


Have you ever wondered how the current recession affects the Philadelphia-area theatre community? The auto, credit, and housing industries as well as job markets across the country have been drastically impacted by the recession, a problem of which most Americans are well-aware. What effect has the recession had on our theatres and arts organizations? Michael Kaiser's recent Washington Post article "No Bailout for the Arts?" addressed this concern at a national level, but how is the ever-more-dismal economic situation affecting our local theatre community? 


I'd like to offer you a 1500-word article titled "Philadelphia Theatres: Dark Days Ahead?" The article would discuss the prospective outlook of the Philadelphia theatre community through an examination of specific situations at a range of local theatre companies: small and large companies as well as long-established and recently created theatre companies would be consulted in order to provide a true picture of our diverse theatre community. 


My article would describe the recent and projected changes in subscriber bases and gifts from corporate and individual donors. It would probe into the effect of reduced budgets on season selection and hiring practices at area theatres, as well detail creative solutions that individual theatres are investigating. Finally, the article would explore long-term projections for the theatre community as a whole, considering such questions as the number of theatres which expect to weather the storm of recession, and the number of years that it may take to regain previous subscriber numbers and theatre community diversity.


I believe that this article would prove engaging for your readers, and I look forward to receiving your response. If the article interests you, I can provide the piece within 15 days of your go-ahead. Thank you for your time!


Jessica Hinds-Bond

Query 4

Dear Editor, 

    Comedic improvised acting is a trend in theater that has only truly come into the spotlight in modern times.  While some  "improv" has managed to make it to the national scene (the most prominent of which being the incredibly popular "Who's line is it Anyway?" series), the greater majority of live improv is limited to professional troupes in urban areas. Subsequently, a great deal of theater enthusiasts who also live in the suburbs and the country are forced to miss out on this greater jewel of live performance. However, at the same time there are high school students banding together across the country--forming their own amateur improv troupes simply for the joy of it--and they are desperate for an audience.  

    I would love to present to you an article titled "Startling Amateur Theater: High School Improvisational Troupes Amaze." It would be a 1500 word piece on high school Improv Troupes in  the Deleware valley area, how long they've been around, how often they perform, and how readers can find out if their local  high schools have an improv troupe of their own. 

    First, the article would give a description of what improvised acting is. Improvised acting being the method of doing theater without a script--simply going on stage, taking a suggestion from the audience, and performing a scene based off of that. It would then discuss the perks of high school improv . Amateur improv performances are a great way to spend an evening. Since their members are invariably performing for their families, the shows are usually kept at a PG rating, so one can bring their whole family to the shows. Since the performers improvise for the simple joy of the art and desperately need  publicity--the shows are usually free, giving theater enthusiasts a cheap way to enjoy theater performances in this terrible economy.      

    After this, several examples of prominent local troupes would be highlighted, such as the North Penn High School improv troupe in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  Following this, it would give readers in other parts of the Deleware Valley tips on how to figure out of their own local high school has an improvisational troupe of it's own. Readers can do this via school website and google searches. 

    I am interested in doing this article because I am a graduate of a high school improv troupe myself. I know how to find other high school troupes, as my alma mater's group was in a constant search for fellow improvisers to work with. After high school, I taught informal improv classes for high school students and subsequently have an extensive improv background. 

    I hope I am right in thinking that this would be of some interest to your readers, and I wait eagerly for your reply. I can have a final draft of the  manuscript delivered to you within a week of your decision. 


Peter Starr Northrop. 

January 13, 2009 1:13 PM | | Comments (4)
This week I'm macking on: the brave, bold participants of Project Everyone's a Critic. These students will all be attending the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival--and here, a monent of respect is due, because setting their sights on arts journalism at this particular historical/economic/technological/journalistic moment proves just how brave and bold they are. We may have more students signing up at the last minute, so stay tuned for the full cast credits. I will begin posting their writing on Wednesday, January 14 and hope to see you there.

Jessica Hinds-Bond.jpg

Jessica Hinds-Bond is a second-year theatre M.A. student at Villanova University. While completing her undergraduate degree in theatre design at Auburn University in Alabama, she discovered a love for dramaturgy and theater research. She is the dramaturg for Cabaret, Villanova's final production of the 2008-2009 season. She has been a member of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Literary Committee for the past three years, reading and responding to plays submitted by students to the annual Playwriting Festival.


Devin Dippold graduated with honors from McKendree College, where he directed, wrote, and starred in Chosen Reject, a one man show based on the writings of Kurt Cobain. He is currently a second year student in the M.A. program at Villanova University, where he recently dramaturged their production of Le Dindon by Georges Feydeau. He also stage managed last season's production of The Illusion. Acting credits include Gus in The Dumb Waiter, Tartuffe in Tartuffe: Born Again, and Ed in Defying Gravity. In his spare time, Devin plays guitar and is a martial arts instructor. 


Shawn Arnold loves theater and love to analyze it. He is a Central Pennsylvania resident from Philipsburg. Shawn is currently attending Clarion University of Pennsylvania with a double major in both the BFA acting and secondary education social studies programs. In addition to his interest in theater, Shawn is also a lover of history and all things about the past. Shawn has also taken an active step to foster theater in his home town. He has been heavily involved in the creation of both a community and youth theater program in the area. 

P.S. Northrop.jpg

Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with poor fashion sense and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a Sophomore at Elizabethtown College, where he is slowly dragging out a double-major in English and theater. There, he divides his time between working as a writer and editor for the school newspaper--The Etownian, pretending to run the newly founded sketch comedy group Sketch-E's writing department, and attending the occasional class. Peter's theater background is limited to only three years spent in a high-school improv troupe, having minor roles in a few college mainstage and one-act productions, and writing/performing for his aforementioned sketch comedy group. His other varying hobbies include cooking, hiking and most of all, discovering all sorts of things about the crazy world in which we live.


Justin Fitzpatrick is a freshman theatre major at Albright College. He avidly participates in theater in many ways such as performing, directing, choreographing, and vocal coaching. His passion lies with musicals. Past shows on which he has worked include: On Broadway: A Scene Study (Link Larkin), Footloose (Garvin), Oklahoma! (Will Parker), Bye, Bye Birdie (Co-Director), The Secret Garden (Lt. Wright), The Sound of Music (Rolf), Seussical: The Musical (Horton the Elephant/Vocal Coach), The Pirates of Penzance (Co-Director/Vocal Coach/Choreographer), High School Musical (Mongo), You Are Here* (Jimmie), Love's Labour's Lost (Forester/Mercade).   Recently, Justin realized that he has a natural habit of critiquing every type of performance he sees, and has decided that being a part of the National Critics Institute at the KCACTF would be a beneficial experience.

Tammy Bateman.jpg
Tammy Bateman is a junior at Elizabethtown College. A major in both Business Administration and Theatre Performance, Tammy enjoys all aspects of the theater world. She has been performing for the last seven years and served as a critic for the Greater Philadelphia Cappies program at Ridley High School. At Elizabethtown she currently serves as Vice President for the drama club, Sock and Buskin, and manages the Tempest Theatre Box Office. In her spare time she can be seen performing with the college's all-female a capella group, Melica. She is very excited to be a part of the National Critics Institute and competing as an Irene Ryan Nominee for Region II at this year's festival.  

This week I'm hating on: The fact that not a month after Dance Dance Revolution closed, the Ohio Theatre--which housed it--is closing too. Not only that, as I'm getting ready to work on a piece about new play development, one of the plays I'm covering, Christina Ham's After Adam, was cut from Luna Stage's roster because of the theater's "survival" issues. Though Broadway's darkened doors get all the major press, I'm guessing that in the end, they'll be okay. The real theatrical victims of this economic iceberg are houses willing to take chances on exciting, experimental and ultimately galvanizing new work, because they're so much more vulnerable and once they're gone, their founder's often very particular aesthetic goes with them. 

The good news? Hey, how about this: Even though these days newspapers are less about "all the news that's fit to print" and more about "whatever print still fits," the Inquirer is mulling over adding three new theaters to our reviewing circuit. Proof that at a time when theater critics are an endangered species, we're needed more than ever.
January 9, 2009 8:41 AM |
At this remarkably glum moment for the arts and arts journalism (I'd link to some examples, but you're probably depressed enough already), I'm stepping into the Guest Critic position at the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Next week, for five days, it will be my job to convince a half-dozen or so aspiring young writers that theater criticism is a worthy professional goal. 

But I've got my game face on, and you know why? It's because the current crop of college-age kids are undoubtedly the ones who will transform arts criticism. They're not used to reading a pulp-and-ink newspaper, and they probably don't expect to get a job at one. But they're online ALL THE TIME, and whether they blog or use social networks to share information, they're not wringing their hands over the lack of "classically trained" online journalists. Though the nuts and bolts of good writing certainly don't change, that classical training is in dire need of the kind of overhaul that many journalism professors just aren't qualified to offer, at least not yet, while the dust is still stirring and no one knows quite how it will settle. 

So here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to mix it up a little and run this Institute like a mini-Project Runway: welcome to Project Everyone's a Critic. From January 13-17, the students and I will attend shows, talk about them and write about them. At session's end, I will channel my inner Klum and choose one student to attend the national festival at the Kennedy Center this spring. 

That's where you come in. 

The students, all either college- or graduate-level, have agreed to let me post their writing here--reviews, ledes, whatever they've got--and in an effort to blend new media with old-school written critique, I'd appreciate it if you'd weigh in with your assistance, guidance, words of encouragement, and yes, some critique of your own (remember please, they're still aspiring critics). I'm not collecting votes or anything, but if you have a clear favorite, by all means, let me who it is and why. This is my attempt to give them a taste of what it's like to write as journalists for an audience of internet strangers who have the ability to talk back and aren't afraid to use it.

I'll post the participants' bios in tomorrow's Mack Attack. Until then, I dunno... What's my tagline? Maybe, "Exeunt, stage left."
January 8, 2009 5:30 PM | | Comments (5)

Me Elsewhere


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