By Beverly Friend, PHD, Member American Theatre Critics Assn.
While I certainly miss seeing plays, I miss reviewing them even more: the excitement of opening night, the thrill as the house lights dim and the curtain goes up, the responsibility of writing a valid assessment of the production which will benefit readers by giving — or withholding — praise.
Recently, the American Theatre Critics Association live-streamed an instructive panel on being a critic, and while I listened attentively, I wanted to join them, to jump in and reveal my own thoughts and memories.
I wanted to say that it is easiest to review a bad play. Opening sentences seem to write themselves! For Hunting Cockroaches, a comedy by Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki, I once wrote, “While the characters on stage discussed various ways to solve their insomnia, the 12 members of the audience had no trouble at all.”
Then, there was the cooperative endeavor between Court Theater at the University of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art when they mounted a highly experimental version of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House. To reinforce the feminist theme, the company cast very tall women for the female roles, and dwarves for the males. I wrote, “The only thing more disconcerting than seeing the rear view of a naked male dwarf would be if he turned around.” That was one of the rare moments that my Pioneer Press editor dropped me a note of praise!
A play so dreadful that I boycotted that theater for years was about a man who kept a hairy, wild woman in a cage. She tore up rabbits for nourishment. He adored her, but she fell in love with the woman who cleaned the cage. In that review, I commented that an earlier play by the same company had also had a cage center stage and perhaps they had chosen this play in order to recycle it. However, another reviewer informed me that this was a brand-new cage. Oh well…. The premise of the first play had not been much better – it speculated that prisons might be less crowded if people were paid to house an occasional criminal in their living rooms. I can’t remember the title of either play.
Then there was the amazing take on Hamlet. I try to see all the Hamlets that come through Chicago. This was called Hamlet. The idea was that Hamlet had more than one persona – and could be played by not one, not two, but three actors. This way, in his most famous speech, Hamlet #1 said, “to be.” Hamlet #2 said “or not to be” and Hamlet #3 finished, “that is the question.”
To make things even odder, one actor played the dual roles of both Polonius and Laertes and when they were conversing (with the father instructing his son on the pitfalls of being either a borrower or a lender), he wore a hat when performing as Polonius, and took it off when he was Laertes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also played by one actor.
Most often, however, plays are neither terrible, nor so wonderful as to earn raves. It is in writing about those that fall in the middle, that the work becomes most challenging. At the very least, the critic must –
- Tell the story, but not too much of the plot – especially avoiding spoilers.
- Mention the actors, but not confusing them with the characters they are playing
- Note directorial contributions, as well as costuming, sets, music and choreography where pertinent.
- Separate the play itself from the acting.
- Make an assessment – should the reader spend his money (often a steep amount) to see this play?
There are also moral and ethical considerations. As a reviewer, I can only do slight damage to a major Broadway touring company. On the other hand, I can make or break a storefront operation. Chicago had 80 theaters putting on 200 plays annually – many in quite small venues. However, size has no connection with quality. Even the very smallest — often lacking scenery and scant of props — can create enchantment.
I thought I had seen an enchantment, but it turned out to be the biggest gaff I ever made. The play was City Girl, presented by the Neo Futurians. In the first act, the Girl, herself, was rather drab and dumpy. However, when she reappeared after the intermission the change was amazing. She had morphed into a beauty. She was taller and shapelier. In fact, the change was so complete that I initially thought I was seeing two different actors. I investigated the playbook but there was only one actor listed for this role. Oh, well, I thought, makeup and costuming can do wonders. My review stated all this. The next day, reading another reviewer. I learned that it HAD been two actors! I called the theater and was told they gave no hints –not even forewarning critics — in order to surprise the audience. They had merely switched the cast member selling candy in the lobby with the one on stage. As my review would appear in several issues of the paper, I immediately corrected it. In addition, I brought in both versions to teach to my journalism classes at Oakton and discuss the embarrassing lesson I had learned.
But the biggest lesson – and present loss — is that whether in a grand auditorium, or the 20-seat room in the back of a bookstore, nothing compares with opening night. The houselights dim, and when the curtain goes up not only are you carried away to another world – you are experiencing a highly ephemeral moment that cannot be replicated. Never again this exact audience in this same place. Never again the words said in exactly the same way. For just tonight, the show goes on. Tomorrow you could read about it! Oh – for the return to those days.