A recent review of a piece I directed has caught my eye, and I wish to address certain points. I find reviews to be helpful and instructive, pointing a finger at things that are working and things that aren’t. Examining criticism in this manner is only helpful, however, when the criticism comes from an objective, reasoned place. The review in question is, in my opinion, heavily influenced by the critic’s own experience and expectation rather than being rooted in a deep knowledge of the theatre.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course.
- The playwright “has produced his own play and this may have worked against him, as he seems to have relied on the work being enough to carry the full weight of the theatrical experience. It can’t.”
Theatre intrinsically happens at the interface between actor and audience. It is unclear to me what the reviewer’s expectation of the producer-playwright is, that he should be relying on a script to “bear the weight” of a theatrical experience. It is also unclear whether the reviewer is hinting at a specific theatrical experience he was expecting. If he did enter with a certain expectation and wasn’t prepared to have those expectations dashed, I would argue he was unprepared for an evening of theatre.
If the reviewer’s point is that the text of a play cannot “carry the show,” then I would agree. The text of Romeo and Juliet by itself is not theatre, and as such it cannot be called upon to support an entire production. (Who hasn’t been subjected to poorly executed Shakespeare?)
- The director “seems not to have imagined any style to the production or even taken the simplest steps to establish the reality of its dramatic arena.”
Perhaps the reviewer is unfamiliar with the sort of minimalist performance indicative of the intimate theatre; perhaps he is unfamiliar with theories espoused by Artaud or Grotowski, or of the work done by Robert Wilson or Ivo van Hove. This is not to say that the director has attempted to replicate a style; rather, he has used elements of various techniques in order to tell a story which, it seems, moves a number of spectators to strong emotion. This was the intent of the staging, to lay bare the emotional framework which supports a path to enlightenment through meditation, fasting, and mindfulness.
All of these concepts are limited by the strictures of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the venue, the nature of which means that the most ideal lighting, sound, scenic, and costume elements may not be achievable. This should not deter the theatre artist from presenting their work in a fringe festival; remember, all one needs to present theatre is an actor and a spectator.
- “We didn’t need to see the back walls of the theater or the chalk drawings on the walls ([the director’s] sole effort at creating a reality.) The entire play could have used dim and isolated lighting to convey a cave’s interior. This would have allowed for a variety of wonderful theatrics to effect the demons come to torment Anthony.”
Why do chalk drawings indicate the “sole effort at creating a reality”? Do not human beings in a space already convey a reality? If the reviewer were looking for other “real” things to latch onto, what about the costuming? the blankets and other props? It seems arbitrary to pin one’s acceptance of a reality on one particular element of design, when the reality, as it were, of sitting in a theatre is its own experience.
- “There wasn’t even an attempt to show the interior light of the cave dimming when the huge stone used to block its entrance was rolled into place.”
The point worth making, though, is that there needn’t be an attempt to show this light shift. The light dimming in the tomb is unnecessary to telling the story. Half of the review in question is given to the description of a cave and how the work failed to portray this cave adequately for the reviewer. Certainly, if this had been a play about a cave, more attention might have been paid to it; however, this was a play about meditation and enlightenment. Perhaps a different play might have fed into the reviewer’s longing to return to the caves of his youth, seeing the wonder and magic of those caves and how their influence affected his life. This was not that play.
- “Even simple means were not employed, such as having [the actor] in the darkness change his costume to more ragged states to denote the passage of time.”
- “The director and playwright, it seems, just didn’t take this production very seriously. So why should an audience.”
The question of why an audience should take a work seriously is a good one, and one which the reviewer should endeavor to answer himself in his critical work. Perhaps the reviewer has chosen a snarky way in which to indicate that an audience should not take this specific work seriously, based solely on his own definition of what a theatrical experience is, giving no example rooted in the grand tradition or theories of theatre. To do so is to be disingenuous to an audience looking for an expert opinion.
What theatre criticism should accomplish is entirely educational in nature. The theatre critic speaks first to the public in order to enlighten the lay person about particular details of the art with which they may be unfamiliar. Then the theatre critic speaks to the artists in parsing the techniques involved in the creation of their art; what works and what doesn’t. Finally, the theatre critic is uniquely poised to offer their discernment of the meaning and purpose of a piece, the effect the theatrical experience has on its audience. In this way, the theatre critic is positioned as the expert, using their power to influence culture in what we all hope is a positive way. To do this effectively, and for the sake of society, the critic needs to gain the trust of everyone involved, both in the creative community as well as the general, art-consuming public. Only in this way will the art continue to grow and thrive.
The Tomb by Ed Sharrow premiered as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 4, 11, 15, 17, and 19, 2017. “Recalling Anthony the Great in ‘The Tomb’” was written by Ernest Kearney and published June 13, 2017, on theTVolution.com. It may be accessed here: https://thetvolution.com/2017/06/recalling-anthony-the-great-in-the-tomb/.