Results tagged “review” from Drama Queen

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my editor about the practice of reading scripts ahead of a performance--a performance I'm supposed to review. Lately, I've been trying to make that a regular practice, but also lately I've discovered I'm having trouble bottling a sense of spontaneity in my reviews. Coincidence?

My editor mentioned that another of our critics reads scripts only after seeing the staged production, so as to preserve an audience-eye element of surprise and discovery. Other critics say they always read a script beforehand because, they assert, as critics we're paid to know more about a production than the general public, and part of our research includes some analysis of the playwright's themes and intentions as they appear on the page, as well as tipping us off to any relevant ahead-of-time research.

Hysteria.jpgToday's review, of the Wilma Theater's production of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, begins with a direct comparison between the script and its staged counterpart. In this case, I felt the comparison was absolutely fair. After all, if a play jumps off the page, it ought to similarly jump off the stage. I discussed the issue some more with my editor, who concluded that reading the script beforehand might have caused me to cut the production some extra slack. So what to do?

Obviously, take it to Facebook and Twitter.

I got plenty of responses, some from critics, others from artists and all running the gamut from angry to measured to undecided. The split fell on both sides, with good reasons for both approaches.

On Facebook, Philadelphia artist/director/playwright Robert Smythe begged for an end to text-based reviewing and said, "You are reviewing a production: the sum of its parts. Theater is not a sporting event, where the rules are set before the start and the players are judged as to how well they can play within those rules. It is not the reviewer's job to mine the text for more than the artist found themselves."

On Twitter, Ottowa-based playwright/actor/director @SterlingLynch said reading a script beforehand is "often a good idea, so long as one doesn't 'decide' how the show should work in advance." @subfab who describes himself on the site as a "poet, savior, village idiot," says, "What is the first and most important impression a show should have? Experience or a script? IMHO theatre's should be experience." [BTW, for the uninitiated, IMHO stands for "in my humble opinion." And BTW, for "by the way."]

But what of Romeo and Juliet? Clearly, if you're a critic going to see that for the fourth or seventh or hundredth time, you've not only lost the element of surprise, but ought to be fired if you haven't read it. Same goes for Ibsen, or Chekov, or Beckett and whomever else would fill the pages of your personal anthology of great dramatists. And what of the lesser plays and musicals that happen to have hit town more than once? Why do they get the benefit of extended pre-curtain analysis? Sure, in some cases, say movement-based or improv-based shows, or work that inherently allows some flexibility, a script-based reading is innapropriate. But other than that? 

I'd be inclined to say why not get comfy with a script--not the night before, but maybe a week or so ahead of time so it has a chance to sink in--if only it weren't for that spontaneity issue. Thorny. 

I'm still undecided. How about you?

May 21, 2009 12:15 PM | | Comments (6)
Here's what I've noticed lately in Philadelphia theater, and you can tell me if you've seen the same thing in your town: children's theater rocks. I'm working on a feature on the subject, and can't really get too far into it without tipping my hand, but damn. 

donnie_darko-frank.jpg
I remember the days when taking your kids to see a show meant some slapped together summary of a fairytale that usually ended in a bunch of people skipping through the aisles in plushie suits, singing something inane about love and friendship. I'm sure there are companies around Philly still milking that same cash cow, but in the past few years the bar for family theater has been raised so high that the shows are often worth seeing without going to the trouble of bearing/bringing a kid.

Today's review of Cinderella, this year's incarnation of People's Light and Theatre's annual holiday panto, takes notice of this new trend. Because not only wasn't the panto all that panto-like (it was structured more like a vaudeville show), it also engaged the talents of some of the area's most creative theater minds and brought in an unapologetic Fringe sensibility while simultaneously tipping a bowler to other successful and cutting-edge Philadelphia artists

And what better audience for the avant-garde, for surrealism, for the marriage of drama and technology than children? Kids are completely non-linear thinkers (at least until their innate absurdism gets instructed out of them), and willing to swallow whatever they're given as long as it provides an interesting flavor--otherwise, they'll spit it right back out at you, and never taste what you're offering again. They're the roughest critics and the most loyal customers, and if you win them over, you're not only helping yourself, you're shaping the future of the arts.

The long-term result of companies throwing major resources behind family programming is a generation that grows up with a lifelong appreciation for challenging theater. The short term result is, of course, money in the bank during rough economic times, since--aside from the packed school, birthday and scout audiences--most parents will justify taking their kids to a play, if not themselves. But it's pretty sweet that in this genre at least, making money and making substantial, worthwhile art aren't at odds.



November 25, 2008 12:48 PM | | Comments (3)
My most recent review, Delaware Theatre Company's Master Harold... And the Boys, got me thinking. It seems like there's a burst of African-American issues-related shows in Philly this season--Driving Miss Daisy, Gee's Bend (which, if anyone cares, I thought had a really clunky script but some excellent acting by Kala Moses Baxter and one of my new favorites on the scene, Kes Khemnu), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Resurrection, Day of the Picnic--just about every major theater has one show in its season with this theme.*

I suppose part of the reason for the change is that everyone's capitalizing on the election, but really, it started with a recent thrust of nontraditional casting before Obama became the clear presidential candidate and has just sort of snowballed. And while this mass shift in programming focus is certainly long overdue and welcome, well, it begs the real question: why can't Philadelphia, a city whose population is 45% African American, support a dedicated professional African American theater? Since Walter Dallas' departure and Freedom Repertory Theatre's demise (and that's a whole 'nother long story) no one has stepped in to fill the void, and I'm going to guess it's not because Philadelphians are okay with leaving the issue of inclusion to the whims of the city's various white artistic directors, or catching the random touring urban theater production. 

Mind you, I'm not knocking the efforts at diversity being made by any of these other companies. I think it's great for the city and even better for expanding everyone's audience base. But honestly, what is going on here, and why? 


*By the way Philly folks, I'm omitting InterAct from inclusion and discussion on this post, as their commitment to programming diversity has been part of their mission since the company's inception.


October 23, 2008 10:51 AM | | Comments (5)
Here's another reason why a critic might be inclined to go easy on a theater: guilt. In the case of today's review, there's a company in the Philadelphia suburbs I feel like I've been hammering just about every time I visit. Sometimes it's their choice of play, others it's the level of performance or direction, but lately it seems that every time I go, this lovely little house situated inside an old grist mill ends up with a spanking that pains us both. 

I don't believe in critical boosterism, nor do I think it's my job to keep theaters in business, but there comes a point when a critic has to ask herself if perhaps the problem is a difference in taste, rather than simply a dearth of quality. So no, this wasn't the best Sherlock Holmes I've ever seen, and though it was an uneven production, it was good enough to deliver at least part of the experience I wanted when I left the house that evening. This time, rather than chastising the company for my perception of its comfort with mediocrity, I sat back and accepted it for what it was: a suburban theater with pretty conventional tastes. And that night I had a pretty good time.

This doesn't mean I'll always cut them slack; after all, I'm worried about my credibility, not theirs. But still, it's a lesson in context, which is important for everyone to remember, whether reading or writing a review. When McCarter stumbles--as I believe they did in their latest production--it's one thing. But judging a small local house by the same standard is another. They don't get a pass, of course, because that would be irresponsible on my part, but they do get credit for knowing what their audience wants when they leave the house, even if it might not be exactly what I'm looking for.


P.S., the first line contains a typo. It should read, "our collective anxiety," not "collection anxiety." And no one deserves slack for letting that slide.
October 21, 2008 10:26 AM | | Comments (5)
Here's today's Inquirer review of Villanova Theatre's Long Day's Journey into Night. There are a lot of colleges in Philadelphia turning out a lot of top-shelf productions lately. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of them.
September 29, 2008 7:46 AM | | Comments (1)
The 2008 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival is over, but my extracurricular work--sorting out what I've seen and divining new ideas, trends and rising stars from the pack--continues. Rather than summarize the whole experience, click on the word cloud below. It's composed of all my festival reviews and is almost as chaotic as the fringing experience itself (who knew "balls," and "blood," would figure so prominently)? 

Want more? Here are links to every review in the cloud (bonus: they're attached to reviews from my Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues).

If that's still not enough, well, fine, I'll summarize anyway.

matsunesubal.jpg
For me, the most exciting moments at this year's Philly Live Arts/Fringe were those that took theater out of the theater. Viennese artists Matsune + Subal opened Store, a social experiment wherein two performance artists set up shop on South Street, a busy, exhaust-choked urban thoroughfare that was once where "all the hippies meet," (it's not nearly as nice as it sounds on this link, but you do get a bit of historical flavor and some Dead Milkmen trivia) and is now home to an array of condom stores, tattoo parlors, bars, and--considering those volatile ingredients--a heavy police presence. So it was nothing short of astonishing to watch as everyone from hoochies to hipsters fell under  the Matsune + Subal spell, purchasing ridiculous mini performances from a menu and laughing out loud as the pair ran through traffic with a plastic sheet fluttering behind them a la Christo, or posed as a .75 cent "Cheap Copy" of a grinning Buddha.

rotozaza.jpg
England's Rotozaza brought Etiquette, a two-person event, in which you and a friend are the two people, and the table in front of you is the stage. This link shows a video of the project's New York incarnation, but here in Philly, the setting was vastly different. It took place at the Last Drop Cafe, a local java joint that's been cultivating an air of pretentiousness since grunge, and whose grimy interior was perfectly suited to the piece. While a woman's voice (via recorded message, played through a pair of headphones) directed me to perform tasks, a man directed my husband, who sat opposite me at a cafe table filled with tiny props--a ball of clay, piece of chalk, glass of water with an eyedropper perched on its rim. We performed bits from Godard and Ibsen, and though I announced loudly "I am a prostitute," no one around seemed to care. It was a somnambulistic experience, being inside this hyper-dramatic event complete with a thrashing storm, that appeared to have no impact on its surroundings. 

Anyway, these, to me were examples of the essence of a perfect Fringe fest, productions that blurred the lines between performer and audience, performance and perception. There were several others equally exciting, but the real point here is that the Fringe is not the time to mount a conventional production of a standard old play. Unless you're adding a radical new spin (Oedipus at FDR's olly-popping skateboarders, for example), save yourself the agony, save it for your regular season and make room for artists whose work expands the form and offers us a reflection of our present and a glimpse into the future. 

Jerome Bel says it best:
 
September 18, 2008 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)
So this article in Variety says...

"British theaters will no longer be able to hoodwink potential audiences with out-of-context review quotes that seem to show the production is a hit, when the review actually conveys something different."

...and goes on to explain that theater operators who break this rule can be fined and sent to prison. Now, I'm all for truth in advertising, and have raised an eyebrow when shows I've panned excised a couple of neutral words and used them in promotional material. But hey, advertising is all about accentuating the positive, even if it means bending the truth ever so slightly in your product's favor.

1087182654_3ecad70f28.jpg
It's not like an evening at Starlight Express will give you cancer; though PTSD, maybe. It's also not as though the dramatic world operates in a conspiratorial information vacuum the way, say, cigarette companies once did. I'm flattered the Brits want to protect critics' intentions, and cheers to that, but good luck proving damages when there's a whole internet out there just bursting with opinions on every show that dares to hold an opening night.

Isn't it really an audience member's responsibility to do some research before they shell out $100 or its British equivalent for a seat to a lousy show? I am of the mind that if you can't take the time to read a review (and then decide independently whether or not you agree with said reviewer), but instead take an advertisement's word for a production's quality, then you get exactly what you deserve. You ever see those bumper stickers that proclaim, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it?" I'll just bet those are the same people who've been taken in one too many times by crafty poster designers, and are now calling for their imprisonment. Where's a good inquisitor when you need one?

 

May 27, 2008 3:58 PM | | Comments (5)
My Inquirer reviews and features...
January 28, 2008 7:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.