Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



entire contents copyright 1997/1998 by Larry Stark

To review or Not to Review
--- Saturday, 7 February, '98

People give reviewers free tickets expecting a review. The free tickets are part of the p/r budget, and even a negative review is p/r --- P.T.Barnum's dictum "I don't care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right" is as true as it ever was. But I don't have a hole in a page I must fill, and I'm my own editor, and I see no purpose in printing my own negative reviews. I've seen seven shows this year so far, and reviewed only three, but every absent review is not there for a different reason. Hence this notebook. I'll take them in order:

I wrote a "review" of the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University(deep breath!)'s performance of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" newly translated by Paul Schmidt --- but it was a review specifically for Todd Olson, who sometimes has time free to review plays here in The Mirror. Todd directed the show, and I wanted to convey to him, specifically, whatever reactions I might have had that he, as director, might find useful. The cast was uneven, but there was a lot there I liked, and I hope my comment were useful.

But this was essentially student work; the audience was there as a service to the actors and the creative staff working with them; and there were only three performances. In cases like that, unless I can crow "Boy, you shoulda been there!!!" I can't see how my mixed review of this mixed performance would be of benefit to anyone. So I said what I did to the only one who might find them useful.

And whatever else I might have said would have nothing to do with This Specific Production, since I found myself, after and even during the show, musing on the play and the author. For instance, the show opens with a round-robin of unrequited love-scenes: Medvedenko throws himself at Masha; Masha throws herself at Konstantin, Masha throws herself at Dorn --- in the first few minutes of the play! And in each case the appeal is blatant, the put-down contemptuously cruel. For a play that will end in a suicide, this seems more the opening of a Neil Simon comedy. ELEKTRAFIRE
This was a modern rock opera in one act written by Doug Thoms performed in a tiny playspace upstairs at The Middle East Cafe. It squeezed the Orestes and Electra plays into nine songs done in less than an hour, with every voice and every instrument miked and amplified enough to blow every eardrum in The Wang to kingdom come. Often, the only way I could make out the words was to put my fingers in my ears and close my eyes.

This was much more a musical than a theatrical event --- my definition of opera --- and it is a failing of mine that the organ, the trained operatic voice, and electrified instruments all make abominable noise to my tin ears, so there was little for me to talk about. I wondered why this production made Electra's little sister Chrysothemis a major player, why Electra was driven mad by her mother's sexual advances, why a parade of possible sacrificial animals Clytemnestra needs to choose correctly about --- why these rather serious victims were paraded in looking like cutsey Disneyland denizens.

And, again, my mind turned to other things. The original Greek story was handled more or less straight, but the telescoping of plot and occasional contemporary language, as well as a lot of plot turns explained in bald expository narrative all ruined any serious dramatic possibilities. I didn't see that the original story was either used to comment on anything contemporary, or told in contemporary terms. It seemed to me nothing but an excuse for nine very loud musical numbers.

I decided to attend all of the Boston Women On Top productions that Underground Railway and CentaStage is presenting at the BCA, giving a full review to each one. Well, here was Naava Platka doing a one-daughter recreation of her Polish holocaust-survivor mother's life and career in Yiddish theater in South Africa --- and here I sat, restless and unmoved. Nothing about the material or the performance was in any way uninteresting, unimaginative, or poorly executed. But nothing looked new, either.

Plaatka's mother couldn't talk about her own past, so her daughter had to piece it all together from notebooks and scrapbooks found after she died. Songs written by her brother who died in the camps --- songs she performed in those camps to keep hope alive for her fellows --- have a sprightly charm edged with sadness. The story is as compelling as that of thousands of others, each unique, each identical. The story is always shocking, but rarely new. And theater is about New if it's about anything.

Turtle Lane Playhouse does vest-pocket recreations of big Broadway musicals in fresh, unassuming productions. The three I've seen so far, including this one, have always been a mixed bag of victories and failures. The biggest success here was the ensemble's interactions and by-play, which looked spontaneous and in-character. Patricia Strauss' choreography for the girls and for the big neutral-territory dance in which the Jets and the Sharks and their girls tried to one-up one another. Some of the fights, and the "Gee, Officer Krupke" number also benefitted from this fresh ensemble feel.

But I just don't respond to "West Side Story" anymore. I know that because I saw the tour that came throgh the Colonial a year or so ago, and --- unlike their version of "Joseph And et cetera" --- Turtle Lane failed to wash the tepid taste of that experience from my mind.

In my mind, the ballet-based choreography for the young men simply doesn't work anymore. The first time the Jets lean toward the audience with their shoulders shrugged forward and lift one knee, in unison, they stop being anything believable and become ballet-boys slumming. And it's never their fault; it's not even the fault of Jerome Robbins, who was breaking new ground fifty years ago by nudging the genre toward verisimilitude. It's the fault of current directors and choreographers who refuse to bite the bullet and re-think the entire show from its own premises up.

I thought maybe Choreohrapher Strauss was going to take a shot at it when the entire cast came on for the dream of brotherhod sequence (called, significantly, "Ballet sequence" in the program) not in ballet-slippers but barefoot. But the balanced arabesques and lifts, done in pure white dresses that speak more of "Les Sylphides" than the barrios, more about pretty than about love for your fellow human beings.

I wanted something different, I guess. (Get that, Bill Corbett?) I wanted that gang of self-important teen-agers to dance as proudly, as tall, as honestly as they walked and lounged and sneered and smiled and winced and binged one another's biceps. I didn't want plies and relevees and arabesques. I wanted those young toughs to define themselves through spontaneous dance as easily as Anita and her girlfriends defined themselves through dance. Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno made themselves immortal dancing "America"; I can't remember anyone who made a name for himself dancing Riff's or Action's stylized choreography for this show.

The rest of the show works. It can be played, and sung, and a lot of it can be danced convincingly. It can even be re-created in new, contemporary terms. But that unison step, with the shoulders shrugged forward and the knees rising, ruins everything for me.

And those are the reasons I felt it better not to reviw these four shows.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide