Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "To hold, as 'twere, a Mirror up to Theater"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Monday - Tuesday, 13 - 14 August, 2001: "To hold, as 'twere, a Mirror up to Theater"

Subject: just a thought
Date: 13 Aug 2001 05:13:45 MDT

Hi Larry - Bill Doscher here; regarding your words in your review of STOPKISS: "Since I saw the previous production, I am no longer an honest mirror for this production."
You've addressed this issue before but it bothers me SLIGHTLY that you feel that your first viewing of a play cripples your ability to judge and, in a way, "enjoy" subsequent productions. Certainly first impressions will stay with us, especially favorable ones, but theatre (or "theater"; I can never keep them straight) is such an immediate, ever-changing art - and even as paintings and books remain the same through the years, our perceptions of them will change as age and life experience has changed us.
Your colleague Carolyn Clay has an annoying habit of referencing the original, "professional" staging of local works she reviews, many times inferring it was "better" - yes, (insert name of local actor) has not the experience or prestige of (insert well-known "professional" actor) but his work is no less vital and worthy of criticism, in the context of what is being created NOW.
I guess what's bothering me is your "stance" on reviewing subsequent productions of works you've seen before is, to me at least, depriving us, and you, of the thoughts and comments which, more than not, prove worthwhile.
As always, thanks for all your efforts and contributions to our local theatrical scene; looking forward to your thoughts on MARAT/SADE (which I can guarantee bears little resemblance to the "original")
Bill Doscher

Dear Bill:
You give me an excellent opportunity to expand on my quick-response reply, which began:

I am DELIGHTED to have your letter, and I'm going to use it for a L O O O O N G response as a Notebook entry.

My feeling is that I REVIEW plays --- I tell people as much as I can and as well as I can What's There. Others are much more comfortable thinking of themselves as CRITICS --- people who do exactly what I'm doing now: Thinking about plays and theater, and JUDGING what's there. To my mind a reviewer is a reporter, and should be as objective as possible.

Now, no one is objective. If I Report on a play and just Say What I Saw, what I choose to talk about IS a judgment.. But I don't want to be in the business of telling people "Don't Go to this Turkey!" --- even though others in the business occasionally Relish that office of arbiter.

Back when I was working for BOSTON AFTER DARK, it grew obvious to me that if I had LOVED a play, I would go to a new production Expecting the Same Experience, and wondering why the new director "missed" opportunities to give me that experience.

And that for me was NOT an objective-enough stance. I tried, especially when I had liked a play, to get Someone Else to review it. I really DID want to tell people what WAS there, not what "wasn't".

I didn't mean to imply "...that your first viewing of a play cripples your ability to judge and, in a way, 'enjoy' subsequent productions." If that were true, no one could possibly review Shakespeare! But when an outstanding production of a play is indeed fresh in the mind, it's hard to make that mind a blank mirror when seeing a new production. And that was certainly true with "Stop Kiss":

The Nora Theater and Erinys Productions mountings of this script could hardly have been more different --- because the resources were so different. The money spent on the show, the credentials and experience of the casts and creative staffs, the cost of the sets, the mere size of their audiences were completely different. And the Nora Company did a bang-up job with a very forceful play that was completely new to me.

So, could I trust myself to describe --- to report on --- that second production with any objective experience of its own strengths or weaknesses? Could I see the different approaches and insights of a new director and cast as interesting in themselves? Or would anything Anyone who had seen the first production said about the second become, inevitably, not an objective report but a comparison of the two?

In my mind, I am writing reviews that are read by people who have not seen the show, and who want to know not what to think about it, but what's There --- enough information to make up their Own Minds whether they might like it or not. And that may be because I have frequently sat at a play next to a reviewer I respect who came out with a totally different reaction from mine to the very same performance. De Gustibus, in spades...

Excellent example:
"The Glass Menagerie" is a show I've seen a lot. A good friend (and a real CRITIC, though he never writes; I learn Reams from him in our conversations) had an extra ticket to the Hartford Stage production that visited at the A.R.T., and so I got to see it.
He thought it Excellent --- and he knows Williams down to the toenails.
After a couple days, on the phone, I listened to all his enthusiasm and finally blurted out: "But you can't do 'Menagerie' without a pea-jacket!"

Now what I really meant was that I had no real sense from that production that Tom was not In That Apartment, but VISITING his Past from the perspective of a cold, foggy deck on a merchant marine run, after he escaped.
And, to be frank, it was not only the ending sequence of the Movie of "Menagerie" I was recalling in contrast, but also Mark Sickler's astonishingly beautiful performance as Tom in the play out at the Hovey Players --- and it was probably John MacKenzie's set and lights I was REALLY responding to; but Mark Did wear that quintessential pea-jacket.

Have you ever seen a movie made from a book you really Loved?
The first time through a story, your (MY!) attention is focused on the Surprises of each moment as that story unfolds. I can't read a mystery-story a second time because all those surprises are gone. (Well, maybe Raymond Chandler ... but not even Dorothy Sayres!)

But as a "mere reviewer" my Job isn't to hold the old and the new productions of a play side by side and make judgments about the differences. That's not a reviewer's job, it's rather that longer, more thoughtful Sunday piece that might be most interesting to others who saw the same show. Instead, I'm trying to tell all the people who Have Not Seen This Show what I saw that They will see. And if I'm NOT seeing it, but seeing This show through my memories of That one, I'm doing those naive theater-goers a real disservice. That's my humble opinion.
"But" (as Santiago admitted in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA) "I am a strange old man"!

As to "Marat/Sade":
I never saw the Peter Brook original production, except on film; but I did see a good production in the basement of the Hotel Touraine (62 Boylston) by David Wheeler's THEATRE COMPANY OF BOSTON, and a college production down in Providence, and between them a High School production in MIT's Sala de Puerto Rico. But those were thirty years or more ago, and luckily I can remember only the briefest of flashes about any of them.
However, I have been Hugely impressed by The Bridge Theatre Company productions in recent years, and I hear they hired to play deSade a geezer I've seen doing "House of Blue Leaves" and "Keely & Du" who, I think, will make it look like a whole new show.
Break a leg. Break a leg all!


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide