Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lewis and Clark and One Bad Play

Here's my review of Robert Shenkkan's newest play, "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," which sends the explorers on a trip to Iraq.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Chita Rivera's Stage Memoir

Chita Rivera's autobiographical musical memoir, "The Dancer's Life," opens on Broadway this Sunday.

I reviewed the San Diego tryout production for Variety. Read it here.

My prediction of its reception: somewhere in between highly respectful and rapturous.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Theatre, Community, and Community Theatre

Steven Leigh Morris, theatre editor of the alternative LA Weekly, has written a provocative piece, called "Squinting into the Sun: How our Theatre Will Change in the Next Decade." It's about the future of theatre in Los Angeles (but also regional theatre generally). Fundamentally, he notes that economically theatre is simply going financially bankrupt -- subscription houses are unsustainable due to the fact that subscribers are literally dying off, and living wages for artists at small theatres are impossible.

It's perceptive, smart, and my God, I hope he's wrong. Maybe I'm just not ready to accept it.

The article is filled with a mixture of dour pessimism and old-fashioned utopianism. His prognosis involves theatre's return to what he sees as its truer purpose: fostering community.

"The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling."

I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought.

Steven does mention the Cornerstone Theatre as a model. For those who don't know, the Cornerstone is a very interesting company that takes professional artists and brings them together with a local community to develop a theatrical production; e.g. an adaptation of Aeschylus on a Native American reservation.

I love the Cornerstone, but, to be completely honest, a bit more for the idea of it than the actual productions.

I mention them also because they're in transition. Their founder and artistic director, Bill Rauch, has given up the reigns and the company has just announced a replacement, playwright/director Michael John Garces.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Blogging, Theatre, and the Times

Should I just stop pretending I blog and just end this thing?

I’m thinking about it, but I’m not ready. Eventually, I’ll find the rhythm. For now, I hope you’ll bear with me.

The primary reason I don’t blog often is actually because my spare time from the day job is now taken up with reviewing again. I’m back writing for Variety after a brief stint with the Los Angeles Times. The Times has finally hired a full-time theatre critic, Charles McNulty (a very fine critic and old grad-school mate of mine), who will arrive soon. Immediately after the announcement, Variety quickly and kindly pursued me to return as the lead L.A. critic, so rather than review who-knows-what for the Times I’m back home with Variety and I appreciate their support.

Recent reviews include this one on an intriguing English experimental troupe Forced Entertainment, one on the production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with John Goodman and Brenda Fricker as Big Daddy and Big Mama, and one on “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a new musical that I liked a lot.

I’ve been reading other theatre blogs even though I haven’t been posting myself. I must say there are more and more all the time and the conversations are getting quite good – and even better than that. People have congratulated George Hunka many times as the leader of the theatre bloggers, and he deserves that reputation for simple, straightforward, informative, and relish-able posts like this one about theatre books he’d like for Christmas.

Months ago, George and Isaac Butler posted some provocative pieces about theatre critics; it was just as I was moving and I never had an opportunity to engage. Here’s a link to George’s criticism category and also to the specific one that really jumped out at me for its focus on many of the core issues involved.

While I have no desire to become the voice of theatre critics (OK, maybe I’m lying about that), I think I can add some insight into the issues critics face. So if you’re interested, George and Isaac, I’m ready to give it a go.

I will, of course, start by being a bit contrary. I am a critic, after all. In a recent post, Isaac goes after the NY Times. Isaac and I both shared a disdain for an ignorant Times piece about La Jolla Playhouse; it was so erroneous the Times published a scathingly sweeping correction.

But then Isaac posted on Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, and I have to say I’m shocked.

There is no critic in the country I would rather read these days than Charles Isherwood. He’s droll as hell, but he’s passionate. I do know Charles a little; he was the lead Variety critic and he assigned me pieces on occasion, but this is not a personal defense. I will say that, unlike most New York critics, Charles very much recognizes the national theatre scene – as the editor of Weekly Variety theatre section, he constantly came after me to write more about what was happening around the country.

He’s just the best writer of the entire lot. He’s insanely smart, extremely well-read, and he can be funny. When he hates something, he tells you. Nothing could improve theatre coverage in the Times more than Ben Brantley's giving way to Charles as lead critic, not because Mr. Brantley isn’t good, but because Charles is great.

To suggest that he’s “unnecessarily mean and hateful,” as Isaac does, I think is unfair. Isaac was referring to this review of Itamar Moses’s play “Bach at Leipzieg,” which he called “career assassination.” It reads to me just like a scathingly negative review; Charles saw the play as pretentious, pure and simple, and he said so in eloquent terms. He hated it, and it’s his job to say so. He also said why he didn't like it, what he believed Moses was trying to do, and why he failed at it. What’s unnecessary about that? He wasn’t the only one, by the way. Other critics just didn’t say it as descriptively.

The comment about career assassination reminds me of a story once told to me by Richard Gilman (deservedly one of George’s favorite critics and among my mentors). He had given Lorraine Hansbury’s follow-up to “A Raisin in the Sun” a terrible review. When she died soon afterwards, Gilman got a call from someone saying, “Happy now?!??!”

You think George Bernard Shaw wasn’t unnecessarily mean and hateful? He’s the man who said a critic’s job was to “leave no turn unstoned.”

And we tend to look kindly on greats like Eric Bentley – and, indeed, there has never been anyone better – mostly because we read their books, which focus on the works they loved. He wrote plenty of scathing reviews himself.

You know, people think it’s fun for critics to pan people in print. It’s not – it’s a burden, one we take on and one we take responsibility for. And any critic worth his/her salt knows that we're parasites -- we don't exist without other's creative work. But to do less than give our genuine, passionate, honest reaction would be doing the theatre itself a horrendous disservice.

Isaac also commented on the fact that the Sunday Times is just a PR section. There’s definitely something to that, and it’s not just the Times. I really wish papers would get away from the preview puff pieces that they do (including, by the way, the career-creating one on Moses that the Times ran before his play opened). They’re just too predictable, and there's got to be a more imaginative way to do them. (Small papers that have one writer do both the preview and the review are treading on very iffy territory – it’s tough to do a puff piece interview and then have to respond honestly to a play. It feels very impolite.)

They need to do more commentary, previews with something to say, some critical sensibility. Like, for example, Charles Isherwood’s piece in today’s Sunday NY Times. (Which, I just discovered, Isaac himself has praised. Once again, we agree.)