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Article: Some Thoughts on Reviewing

Bevery Friend shares her thoughts on what being a theatre critic is all about…

It is far easier to review a bad play than a good one. Opening sentences seem to write themselves! For Hunting Cockroaches, a supposed comedy by Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki, I 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 the theatre 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.

I opened by warning the readers, “Shakespeare is being murdered at the Theatre Building on Belmont” and closed by noting that after the intermission only four people remained in the audience: “two critics, the usher, and one other, who may well have been either a relative of cast or crew or a glutton for punishment.”

At other times, however, a play may be dazzling. One such was Robert Fall’s unique production of King Lear at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2006. I didn’t review the play initially, but did so in an article about the best plays of the year:

 

A brilliantly conceived and executed scene may haunt memory long after a play’s end. Such a one occurs in Robert Fall’s interpretation of King Lear for Goodman Theater. Focus momentarily shifts from the lives of the nobility — Lear and his daughters — to innocent villagers caught up in collateral damage caused by battling armies. While a dead Gloucester lies center stage, a series of nameless citizens straggle in, each carrying and then dropping a swathed corpse which ranges from child size to adult.

After about 30 bodies pile up, men clad in blood-stained aprons enter and begin tossing corpses into a mass grave. They finish, spy the dead Gloucester and — picking him up by arms and feet — swing him in with the rest.

No words are spoken in this arresting depiction, but it is brim with meaning, providing not only a vision of the impact of war on the nameless populace but a memorable illustration of that great equalizer: Death.

Purists may cavil that this isn’t Shakespeare. Maybe not, but it certainly is thought-provoking and effective — the best theatrical moment in the very best play of 2006.

 

Most often, however, plays are neither terrible, nor so wonderful as to garner raves. It is in writing about those that fall in the middle, that the work becomes most challenging. Reviewing is in some way formulaic, with specific hurdles to overcome:

  • Telling the story, but not too much of the plot – especially avoiding spoilers.
  • Mentioning the actors, but not confusing them with the characters they are playing
  • Noting directorial contributions, as well as costuming, sets, music and choreography where pertinent.
  • Separating the play itself from the acting. A terrific play can be poorly acted and a mediocre script can be enhanced and brought to life by a skilled cast.
  • Making an assessment – should the reader spend his money (often a steep amount) to see this play? However, it is not enough to judge without giving solid reasons for the conclusions reached.

Then, 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 has 80 theatres putting on 200 plays annually – many in very small venues.  However, size has no connection with quality. Even the very smallest — often lacking scenery and scant of props — can create enchantment.

Whether in a grand auditorium, or the 20-seat room in the back of a bookstore, nothing compares with opening night. The house lights 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 can read about it!

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