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Why Bad Theater Puts Me in a Bad Mood

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A few months back, I wrote what some have called a rather scathing review of The Secret Theatre in Long Island City’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

In looking over what I wrote, I now wonder, "Was the production really that bad?" I was even a little surprised by what I wrote, but I’d hardly call the review scathing. If you want to read scathing, check out Charles Isherwood's latest New York Times review of The Female of the Species and/or the reviews of John Simon. I would characterize my review as brutally honest. That seems more accurate.

I certainly got a lot of comments from friends and colleagues about the review though, as well as from complete strangers, who wondered if I was being just a little too hard, maybe even a little personal in my assessment of the production. 

Or take my recent review of the Parkside Players' revival of The Lion in Winter. Was that production really so bad? Was it necessary that I refer to it as “one of the least enjoyable evenings I have ever spent in the theatre?” 

The answer in both cases is Yes, they were that bad…and I will tell you why. 

Bad theatre puts me in a really foul mood. 

In the hours leading up to my attendance to both productions, I was in a great mood. See, I’m a theatre junkie. I love and cherish going to the theatre. I go to the theatre to escape and to take a break from the mess that is my own life for a few hours and live in the skin of the characters that I’m seeing on the stage. I go to be swept away…with acting, writing, directing…all of it. Some of my fondest memories from my life involve the theatre: like seeing Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten or Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year or Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn in Angels in America and many, many more. Last year, I saw a fantastic production of the musical Ragtime at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, so don’t think that I just praise Broadway productions. To me, theatre is theatre. Broadway, Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway…New York or regional…professional or amateur…it doesn’t mean anything to me.

If you’re in the theatre, you have an obligation; an obligation to present quality. I have an expectation when I go to the theatre and yes, my expectation is quality. Quality has many forms. You can have little to no money and limited resources and create quality work. All you have to be is a little creative, make the effort and go the distance. I've seen it happen. You just have to be dedicated and put the work in to make it happen.  I didn't see the work in both Cyrano de Bergerac and The Lion in Winter, so they felt the wrath.

Let me point out an example of quality theatre. Using The Secret Theatre in Long Island City once again, allow me to cite the best production I have seen there: their winter production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Katherine M. Carter. Ms. Carter's entire production was critically acclaimed across the board because it was creative, imaginative and a joy to watch from start to finish. Did she have expensive sets or costumes? No, she dressed the entire cast in pajamas and her set with two white blocks and four pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling, representing columns.  Carter and her design team allowed their imaginations to run wild, in the end creating a fun show for all. That's quality theatre in my book. Ms. Carter and her entire cast and crew took an idea, ran with it and was a success, whereas Cyrano de Bergerac was, overall, a lazy production and therefore, bad theatre in my book. 

Here's another example of quality theatre: The Transport Group in Manhattan's exceptional production of Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Seriously, whether you're gay or straight, see this production, as it is a glorious evening of theatre. The show is being performed in a loft in Chelsea and it was so vivid and real that it gave me chills. I got the feeling that I wasn't watching a performance,  but witnessing life. These were people, not characters or actors. There was a connection. It's why I go to the theatre, whereas the Parkside Players' production of The Lion in Winter is why I head for the nearest bar, in agony, after a performance.

What I'm basically saying is this: Don't be lazy. Audiences expect and demand better. 

I could go on and on with this subject, but I prefer to discuss quality.

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About Hannah Marie Ellison

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Interested and well said! Don’t forget, though, that even what to one viewer appears unequivocally bad can strike someone else totally differently. I saw the same Cyrano, and while it certainly had its flaws, I found that on balance – and in good part due to the excellent central performance – it was a successful production, one that (most important) I mostly enjoyed. My wife thought the same thing (and we don’t always agree!) So… without subjectivity, it would be a boring artistic world, wouldn’t it?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/realist Realist

    Come now, Hannah! Theater at any level is an adventure!

    We attend several of the local community theaters, mainly out of economic necessity with an element of convenience thrown in. At these, when a performance merits a standing ovation it’s an event! Otherwise, when it clearly is too much of a stretch for the cast, you consider their future prospects based on their efforts and try to remember the ones who look like they might go somewhere.

    With all of this in mind, when we do get to go to the “legitimate” theater we tend to better appreciate what it takes to put on a good production. It is an art and not a science, right?

  • Hannah Marie Ellison

    It “should” be an adventure, but in some cases it isn’t and that’s saddening to me.

    Maybe I’m too much of a cynic.

  • http://bob-lostintime.blogspot.com/ Miss Bob Etier

    It’s not cynical to be angered by insults! Whether it’s a poorly produced play, a book that badly needs editing, or a terrible movie, it’s an insult to offer anything less than the best to those who pay for the experience (in $$$ or time). If something is good, it makes me feel good. If something rotten is offered up as quality, how could I be anything but insulted? Insults are a good way to guarantee a bad review from a grumpy reviewer. –Bob E.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I’m glad you posted this article, because your Lion in Winter review wasn’t much cop. I came away from reading it at best hazy as to exactly why the production was so bad, since it was dismissed in a few perfunctory paragraphs.

    I’ve received one or two bad reviews myself in my time. They smarted, but at least the reviewer made it clear exactly what it was he thought I/we had done wrong. What I got from your review was rather how good the 1968 movie was. And that was about all. Not even why the movie was good vs. why this production was bad.