Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: Where has Frances Baum Nicholson been?
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.
I know, it certainly seems like that. I was here, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It wasn’t intentional, but rather a result of being completely overwhelmed by the (to me, anyway) monumental shifts in life which seemed to all hit at once.
I owe a huge apology to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont for not ever writing the review I intended to write about their fine production of Steve Martin’s “Bright Star,” a Eudora Welty-ish tale of class, hate and redemption in the South. I hope some of you went. It was disturbing in places, but strong, well directed, and filled with the bluegrass-tinged music that always reminds me of the musical based on Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” which I adored in my 20s.
I also owe an apology to the Ahmanson, for seeing and then never writing about the touring production of “Falsettos” which landed there. It was, to be frank, a bit disappointing to see how dated this had become. What were once triumphant, charming, and sad facts about life in gay America in the early 80s had become dry and thus somewhat slow, stating so many things now painfully obvious. Still, the performers were good and deserved to be celebrated.
So… what was I doing instead? Well, I was becoming a retired person. Not, at least not immediately, from theatrical criticism, but from the day job. After a total of 40 or so years as an educator, the last 35 of which have been spent at Blair High School in Pasadena (a treasure of a public school which never gets the credit it deserves), on May 31 I literally left the building.
Prepping for this is when I discovered my classroom (including the boxes full of stuff which had been schlepped from place to place as we moved out of our main building so it could be refurbished and remodeled) was essentially my attic.
Thus I have been sorting through nearly 40 years of educational stuff I had saved, some so old they were printed in purple ditto ink, and tossing away outdated paperwork, sample history textbooks, academic competition format materials, pirated VHS recordings, worksheets, workbooks, and an awful lot of “why the hell did I save that?” bits and pieces. The things which still had value were handed off to those who will be teaching what I have been teaching. It was weird to be divesting myself of so much, but it was time to go. I still love teaching, and care deeply about my students, but it is hard on the body to stand on linoleum over concrete day in and day out, and my oomph was not optimum.
Anyway, on top of this I had promised my wife that when I retired we could move closer to her family. Once she knew retirement was near, her family chimed in with “when you move to Louisville…” advise and comments even before we had decided to return to what was her home town. So, we’re returning to her home town (where I also went to grad school, so it is not entirely foreign territory). That meant that what of the last month and a half or so has not been involved with the details of retirement, and passing various educational batons, has been dedicated to house-hunting. This has meant flying back and forth, lots of document-gathering, etc. Found a nice place too, at a ridiculous price for anyone used to housing costs in SoCal.
Now I have been coming to grips with leaving my own home town. Let’s face it, I love California. I love Los Angeles County. I love the theater culture here, and the extraordinary diversity of people, cultures, arts organizations, languages… all of it. I have roots here dating back to the 20s. To walk away from this is a huge shift in some elemental personal paradigms. Still, it is time for a new, and frankly affordable adventure.
So, what happens to me, the drama critic? Well, I’m not gone yet and there are still some things to see. Still, my son is already talking about a redesign of this blog space to reflect a theater writer talking about Louisville (Actors Theatre especially) and the comparatively nearby regional theater world of Cincinnati. We’ll see. I may end up writing more philosophically about theater, its role in culture, and the need for its preservation. Nothing is yet completely decided, and – of course – the artistic world I move into will have to decide I’m worth listening to. This is never a one-way street.
So, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m going. I am getting over the overwhelming redefinition of my day to day, predicated by walking away from one profession I have practiced for nearly 2/3 of my life, and am beginning to look at what awaits on the horizon. I’ll let you know what I find along the way. You may end up as surprised as I probably will be at the results.
In the meantime, expect a few more reviews from the L.A. area before I leave town. Expect some from some part of the country even after that, if I can manage it. I am preparing to move, not die, and I’ve been writing about theater at least as long as I have been teaching – perhaps even a bit longer. This labor of love, which has survived the curtailing of newspaper publication and the shifts in Equity rules, is not ready for a final curtain.
As for the school I’m leaving behind? I am most proud to have helped found the Gay Straight Alliance there in 2005, and worked hard to create the school’s currently touted “open and accepting” atmosphere, where being a nonconformist in any one of a number of ways is welcomed and appreciated. I am also proud of my work with their strong and creative student government (the ASB). I am told the administration intends to name the ASB room after me, which is touching and humbling. Still, this is a public school district, where bureaucracy can sometimes thwart intent. We’ll see.