What does it really mean when a show is "uneven"?
Such a deadly little word. It's the kind of doomsday judgement that probably makes every actor in the show stop reading immediately and thrust the review at a friend or an agent demanding "Here, YOU read it, and just tell me what it says about me!"
I like to paraphrase Bill Littlefield's comment about baseball: "For me, there is no such thing as 'Boring' theater!" And I really mean that. Thinking about HOW a bad show is bad is just as interesting as how a good one is good; if it's a boring show, figuring out what makes it boring is not boring at all. It's true that the reviews I am proudest of have been reviews of memorably sublime theatrical experiences --- and it's true that, for me, there are Lots of those every year. But it's always those half-empty/half-full shows that whirl around the inside of the skull until it's probably best just to toss a coin to call it a hit or a flop. And I saw two of them last week.
They were "way out west" --- in Wellesley and in Norwood --- and I saw them because I was invited, and because I had never seen a show there before. Both shows are closed, so there will be no full review of either one. But both were indeed uneven, and in very different ways.
Friday, 25 February: "A Doll's House" by Wellesley College Theatre
"Here at Wellesley, where the empowering of woman is a sacred mission, ... " begins Director Nora Hussey's notes, and it's obvious from those notes that Ibsen's play was conceived as a teaching-tool as much as a theatrical presentation. In that sense, what the play had, and still has, to say about women, men, and marriage is almost more important than the play, or its production. And that's a heavy freight to expect any play to carry.
Add another burden: this is a student production, at a women's college --- and yet there are only two really central parts for actresses (aside from a maid an a governess), but three big ones for men. And that's where this production became uneven. Set aside the problem of establishing the male/female roles that were prevalent in Ibsen's time rather than our own; there is still a serious problem of experience, age, and technique here.
Douglas Rainey, who played Nora's husband, Stephen Cooper who played a complicated villain, and James Butterfield who played an ambivalent near-death doctor were all playing men close to their own ages, and all of them had many years of stage experience to draw on. Physically, they didn't have to stretch, technically they took the stage and read the lines expertly, and life-experience was theirs to draw on. Contrast that with the problems facing Pauline Yasuda playing Nora the child-wife, or Melina McGrew playing her widowed school-chum --- both undergraduates at a school dedicated not to turning out accomplished actresses, but educating the whole woman.
This is where "uneven" really takes hold. As student actresses, Yasuda and McGrew were fine. They understood their roles, rose to the right pitch at each moment of the play, hit the right tone for the scenes as they progressed. On their level, they did everything as well as could be expected from students. But they were playing opposite a crew of seasoned professionals. Of course their inexperience showed, as it never shows for instance at a Harvard/Radcliffe all-student production in the Loeb Ex. These women weren't bad, they were simply upstaged.
How could such a production be "evened"? I suppose instead of pro's, the men could have been cast from undergraduates from Harvard or MIT or Emerson or Tufts. Contrariwise the two female leads could have been demoted to maid and governess in favor of two experienced actresses of proper age who could hold their own with these seasoned actors. I suppose it all depends what pedagogical ends a production of "A Doll's House" at Wellesley College is expected to serve.
But, obviously, I wasn't bored.
Sunday, 27 February, "Meet Me in St. Louis" by The Fiddlehead Theater, Norwood
Nor was I bored Sunday Afternoon out in Norwood, watching The Fiddlehead Theater production of "Meet Me In St. Louis" in what had begun life as a big movie-house, then became a twin-cinema, but now has a whole new life as a regional theatre, with some students and professionals doing bigger roles, and local amateurs filling the stage. Even though it was a Sunday, the large house was nearly full, with a large sprinkling of parents, children and grandparents, and even a teen-ager or two. And that very-young/very-old audience may be a clue to the uneven production.
The show itself has a huge cast, representing all ages, though a couple of romantic love-stories dominate. If you don't remember the magnificent Vincente Minnelli/Judy Garland/Margaret O'Brian film, this stage re-make would have been incomprehensible. The first act is a slavish rehash of all its highlights, minus any of its continuity. Act two adds a few new songs, replays the rest of the plot, and ends up with the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and Fair, and a last reprise of the familiar title song. The immortal "Trolley Song" ends the first half. The staples and stitches holding it all together are obvious everywhere, so remembering the movie is a must.
But the audience was thoroughly prepped. For most of the second act a little kid behind me kept expecting "now they go to the Fair, right?" every scene, and it was obvious that she, along with most of the audience, had rented the video and played it several times before coming to the theatre. She also saw no difference between discussing a video at home and "watching" a theatrical production on a stage with a full audience. Also, as with most community theater productions, the audience was full of family and friends ready to adore their favorite performers.
That said, most of the performers were excellent, though of course on different levels. (I have lost my only program, and remember only Director Justin Budinoff's name, so I must generalize here.) The cast tried like hell Not to play the roles the film-actors had, but the script often left people (he who played Father, for instance) little room for creativity. The four sisters and their two beaux and brother did their best mouthing familiar lines (Esther --- the Garland role --- in particular made the part her own), but most of the rest knew the audience knew their roles already, and so just imitated.
The audience, of course, saw nothing wrong in that. They saw what the film made them expect to see, and so a lot of good, subtly-played details slipped past them totally. And that's where the unevenness of it all took its toll. There were roles that blazed with inner fire and originality alongside mere mouthing of the lines, and the audience reaction accepted both never rewarding the one nor yawning over the other. That's the kind of uncritical "amateur audience" reaction that gives unambitious community theater the loving kiss of death.
Of course, though several of the voices here were full and melodious, the Fiddlehead sound system was both inadequate and loud, making tinny reproduction blare from anywhere but onstage, destroying much focus on the performances themselves. And except for the piano, the pit-band was nowhere up to the task.
Still, there were performers on all levels that were disciplined and imaginative, others that hadn't a clue. The good news, and the bad news, was that the audience loved it all. And, in that sense, the evenness of their acceptance was the worst Unevenness of all.