Acting, Theatricality and Me

A couple of months ago a posting of mine about a performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at Carnegie Hall occasioned a grumpy response from one Bill McKenney. I had complained that the Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, was "a tad too theatrical." Other aspects of the performance, which I liked a lot overall, struck me as "a little too pushy/Broadway." McKenney thinks I should retire from writing about music, and especially music and theater, and concludes that I have "an aversion to theatricality." You can read his comment at the end of my original posting.

Well maybe, but more likely McKenney's definition of theatricality, which he seems to believe applies to all forms of theater, needs a little rethinking. It's true that I have an aversion to what I hear as over-emotiing, or hectoring, from the stage. I was fascinated by Simon McBurney's production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" on Broadway. McBurney is the force behind London's Theatre de Complicite, which I presented in 1996 as director of the first Lincoln Center Festival. I admire him, even his sometimes rather too Gary Oldmanesque acting as a Hollywood villain.

Some critics complained about his "All My Sons" as the victim of an arty Euro-concept smothering a naturalistic play. My problem was the hoarse, hectoring acting of the principals, all of them good actors (even Katie Holmes!). For me, whatver concept/conceit McBurney was trying to impose, he encouraged the actors to fall back on Broadway cliche, or maybe he felt that was their inclination and he should go along witih it, or maybe he actually believed that Broadway audiences would only accept shouting and hectoring, would only believe the actors to be acting if they shouted. Even with the now-ubiquitous individual head microphones that one might think would obviate the need to shout in the first place.

At this late date there are all kinds of theater and all kinds of acting, much of it more filmically understated than, say, Jubliant Sykes. I can dislike him without disliking theater. There's British physical theater (theatre), there's Robert Wilson's formalized theater rituals, there's Robert Lepage's rather too understated acting (as in his latest original theater piece, "The Blue Dragon," which I saw last month in Los Angeles).

Theatricality has broadened into a delta of fine streams, to borrow a metaphor from Lepage's "Seven Streams of the River Ota." So that it's possible, likely even, to prefer one stream over another. They're all theater, and hence theatrical.

December 11, 2008 6:03 PM | | Comments (1)


Theatre should be theatrical on some level. That's what makes it unique.

I would have to say that shouting and blustering is common Arthur Miller trap - you look at the scripts and it can look like the characters should be shouting all the time. And I love the works...

Personally I find shouting the worst stage affectation. There's only so much an audience can take before they start to shut down.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on December 11, 2008 6:03 PM.

Claus: Not the Santa but the Theater Critic was the previous entry in this blog.

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