Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Adjusting To The New: Musing on Life and Art
I was reading a review by theatrical critic Laura Pels in the New York Times, and was struck by my immediate resonance with her lead paragraph: “When classics get adapted or updated, I often find myself asking: What’s the added value? What do you get from Shakespeare with penguins that you don’t get better from Shakespeare straight up?”
I suppose this is because, to some extent, I’m trying not to see my life as “Shakespeare with penguins”, for I have left my well defined, life-long comfort zone of Los Angeles County for another land: Louisville, Kentucky. It is much smaller (I’m trading a county of over 10 million for a county of just over 700,000), but still an artistic hub, and it is where my wife grew up and many members of her large extended family still live. And I am retired from the day job, so it is right to be in a state of reinvention. I just don’t want it to be too random, or worse, get in the way of who I am or what I want to achieve.
On the other hand, this resonated with me because Pels’ questions are ones I have often had to ask as a critic as well. Looking, as she was, at Shakespeare… or Moliere, or even Ibsen, Williams or Miller, I am well acquainted with the fine line between innovation which makes the story relevant to a new audience, and the kind of “messing with the original” which becomes a distraction. (You’ll notice nobody seems to do this with Shaw, and I’m sure it is because any decently superstitious director/adaptor knows that Bernard Shaw will rise from the dead to slap you silly if you mess with his work. He was a remarkably adamant man.)
When I think of this, two instances come to mind. In the first, one director I used to review frequently was obviously so sure that nobody would get Shakespeare’s jokes that she had fairies do gymnastics as they talked, or “rustics” (peasants) engaging in constant slapstick. Not only was this exhausting for the performers, it meant you really couldn’t hear the lines to see if they were funny or not.
Granted, there is a long, supposedly clever speech toward the end of As You Like It which every director would like to cut, but can’t because of a costume change. It may have been funny in Elizabethan times, but its entire context is lost on a modern audience… and there you could have the character stand on his head or juggle and it would make the scene a whole lot better. On the other hand, the rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the watchmen in Much Ado About Nothing, if performed by people who know how to speak Elizabethan English naturally, can be very funny indeed, because the lines actually are.
The second involves a production group which fell into the habit of putting in costume non-sequiturs where they made no artistic sense: bowler hats or batwing glasses in what are otherwise naturalistic, clearly 18th Century settings of definitely and comfortably period plays. Like… is this supposed to tell us it’s a comedy? Certainly, playing with time period and construction, especially when it comes to costuming, is a thing, but there should be a reason for it, not just a pair of out-of-place glasses that add absolutely nothing to either the character or the play.
This does not mean I am opposed to taking, say, Shakespeare out of its time period. I have a friend in Britain who apologized for taking me to the RSC theater in Stratford, because it wasn’t going to be “real Shakespeare” because it wasn’t being done in doublet and hose. (It was a terrific production of As You Like It that even the 16-year-old me knew was extraordinary.) Adaptations of time period that work can create a freshness which brings a great work to a new generation. Orson Welles’ 1930s production of a “Voodoo Macbeth,” or his Julius Caesar set in Mussolini’s Rome, or a great and far more recent Julius Caesar at the Mark Taper Forum set in the time of Kennedy, were historically powerful. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s addition to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, a production of Much Ado… reset in in the glamour of the Restoration period, was magical. More recently, Ian McKellen’s Hitlerian Richard III was stunning onstage (though deadly on film, but that’s another discussion).
Which brings me back to my own situation. I have made a big life shift, and I’m not done thinking it through. I don’t want to paste things on which will turn out to be superfluous. I am – for the first time in 15 years – a home owner. That’s not superfluous. I have references from theatrical friends and my editor to reconnect with theater here, from a local dinner theater to Actors Theatre of Louisville, a highly respected regional company. How I reconnect with that side of my life, now that I’m settled in, will either result in penguins or profundity. Still evaluating the approach. And, of course, it being Kentucky, there is politics. Living in a blue city in a red state has its own drama. Is that a penguin for my life, or a chance to make change?
Today it is exactly three months since I first set foot in my new home. Still, I still find my L.A. roots are a part of me. In any case, I’m not in Los Angeles anymore, though I still receive emails from press representatives for shows I would love to see… Ah well. A shout out to my friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. A shout out to my friends and colleagues at Pasadena’s Blair High School, which once again avoided budget-related shuttering. That life goes on without me. Now it’s my job to figure out what this new life is really going to be all about. I’ll let you know. Hopefully, it will not include penguins.