Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How the Huntington Lost the Audience

The Huntington’s first production under their new artistic director is a world premiere of How Shakespeare Won the West, by Richard Nelson. A group of actors decide to leave New York for California during the Gold Rush, having heard that the miners are desperate for entertainment and that they love plays, particularly Shakespeare. This sounds like a great premise, and the program contains some fun historical anecdotes about the popularity of Shakespeare in 19th-century America. After finding our seats and looking through the program, we settled in for the ride.

Well, traveling across the country in the 1840’s was wearying, stressful, and generally joyless. Just like the play!

The story, it turns out, is narrated by the entire company. Non-stop. I mean, they really won’t shut up. And the constant bouncing in and out of role does neither the actors nor the audience any favors. It feels like a Christmas pageant in which each child has been given Very Important Lines so that nobody feels left out.

—Look, now they’re telling the story of how they looked for a comic actor for their troupe.
—Oh, now they’re acting out a scene where they find the comic actor.
—Yeah, it’s a shame he’s not funny, but at least he’s not really trying to be funny, is he?

Of course, in a Christmas pageant, the kids are cute, loving family members are in the audience, and there’s an upbeat story. And, with any luck, there’s more than one song.

The fundamental problems with How Shakespeare Won the West lay squarely at the feet of the playwright. He spends far too long setting up the journey across America and not enough time on the journey. You can see the outline he first developed for the story because so much of it remains in outline form and the later pieces are hurried through. (Though I hesitate to suggest that the play should be longer, because I certainly wouldn’t want to see more of it.) The characters are labeled instead of developed, and there’s no relationship between most of the characters because they’re too busy talking to the audience to interact with each other. In fact, the only complex network of interactions happens during the 15 minutes of dumb show as the characters arrive on stage before the curtain.

There’s one powerful set piece where an Indian chief who does not speak English is deeply moved by a performance of King Lear. The distancing of the constant narration is finally overcome for a few moments, though the playwright steps on the emotional climax in a desperate attempt to segue to the next item on his outline.

By the time the characters arrive in California, they are broken, and so is the interest of the audience. The climax of the play felt like an epilogue, and even then the playwright tacked on a secondary ending that just made it all worse. There was no standout performance. I left with admiration for the settlers and prospectors and performers who sought their fortunes or sought new lives in the great American West, sympathy for the actors who worked so hard to accomplish so little, and a deep and abiding hope that I never have to sit through another Richard Nelson play.


Anonymous said...

>Well, traveling across the country in the 1840’s was wearying, stressful, and generally joyless. Just like the play!

I hope that we were among the few for whom the journey across the country was accompanied by a cell phone.

I could forgive the first time. It often takes me far too long to find my phone in spite of the fact that it has a home in my purse. But come on, turn the &%*@ thing off after it rings the first time. Don't wait for the third full-on ringing plus several "message received" chirps.


irilyth said...

Hey, theater! I want to see shows at a theater in Boston that's much like the Mark Taper Forum in LA. Where is that?

Michael said...

About the endless cell phone: Obviously the unbelievably rude audience member and her companion are at fault, but so is the theater. I tried talking to the house manager, but he was rude and useless. I tried using the Huntington’s feedback form, which they have so far ignored. My hope would be that I could persuade the theater to show some respect for the rest of the audience and the performers. But at this point it seems that I’d have to browbeat them just to hear an apology, and it would obviously be insincere.

I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen some wonderful shows at the Huntington over the past few years. But I don’t like the way the place is managed, and a new artistic director is unlikely to improve the general staff attitude towards their audience.

Michael said...

Comparable to the Mark Taper Forum: Is that where we saw Peter Hall’s 2001 Romeo and Juliet where Juliet was played as if she were actually a 12-year-old girl? No, I guess that was at the Ahmanson; the Mark Taper Forum had John Spencer in Glimmer Glimmer Shine at the same time.

Let’s see; the Mark Taper Forum seats 750 people, has a thrust stage, and puts on modern shows with professional actors and some celebrities. The closest truly comparable theater would be the Lincoln Center Vivian Beaumont Theater, but that’s in New York. Lisa and I greatly enjoyed the season that we subscribed to down there, but it is a lot of travel to go to New York for shows.

For play selection, I’d take a look at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown (quite a bit smaller in all ways, but many great productions) or the Huntington in Boston (stick with the orchestra section, and bring a supersoaker to short out nearby cell phones). The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge does some of its productions with a thrust stage (the mechanics of their theater are very cool), but that’s about the only thrust stage I can think of in Boston other than the Lyric Stage (which is much smaller). The Lyric Stage is a little older in play selection, but I’ve enjoyed most of the plays I’ve seen there. The Huntington probably comes closest in terms of level of casting.

What did you like about the Mark Taper Forum?