Saturday, January 21, 2006


Wicked and A Bit Disappointed

It's very hard for shows to live up to the enormous expectations that are built up around them. "Wicked" at the Kennedy Center was very well acted, and beautifully staged. I loved the premise of the show--the "backstory" of the Wizard of Oz, explaining the genesis of almost all the characters. The characters could have been stereotypes or caricatures, but the acting was too good and the script too clever to allow for that. Unfortunately, the sound was so poor where we were sitting in the first tier that although we could see everything, we couldn't make out much of what the characters were saying and very little of what they sang. I felt terrible for dragging my parents out to a disappointing evening. Worse, the organizer of the evening who obtained the hard-to-get tickets (and gave us great seats) felt the disappointment personally, as if he were in charge of the sound system! Not true, but that's not something that can be explained. It has to be felt. Feelings are easily hurt and it's hard to undo the damage afterwards. Funny, but the intense feelings of the characters in the show were mirrored by many of us in the audience: "How could you do this to me?" "Why is the world so unjust?"

I still feel it was a memorable evening, and what we did manage to hear intelligibly we loved.
The idea of the show is very ambitious--how do people become Wicked? What does "Wicked" mean anyway? Does anyone who opposes the current powers that be qualify as Wicked? That's an important question to ask nowadays. When there's an enemy, does anyone who refuses to fight qualify as wicked? The show will stay with me--particularly the acting and the music. For the rest, I'll buy the book and read the clever lines and lyrics that we missed, due to a wicked--or perhaps just an old and failing--sound system.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Two good articles for the New Year; resolutions

I have been an "armchair theatergoer" this past month, but in the New Year I hope to be more a more active theater-goer, slightly less judgmental and more adventurous.

Two excellent articles begin 2006. One, from the New York Times, examines the development of a script for a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew production of a play loosely based on "Six Characters in Search of an Author." (I will never forget Arena Stage's magnificent 1989 production of Six Characters--one of those theater experiences that is seared in my mind.) The article frankly addresses the difficulties both of ANY dramatic production, but also the sensitivities that are unique to the Middle East.

Theater is one of the finest ways to resolve conflict, particularly in the Middle East, where people are desperate for entertainment, but anything too frivolous can feel like a betrayal of the terrible circumstances in which they find themselves. The play, "Them" ("Hem" in Hebrew) did more for Arab-Israeli/Jewish-non-Jewish experiences for me than years of peace work. It was honest and funny and brought all kinds of people together--people who would never go to a peace workshop or a multiethnic gathering of any kind.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article, which is online at:

December 31, 2005

In Israel, Where Art Imitates Messy Life

When the Palestinian playwright Mohammad el-Thaher accepted a commission to write a new bilingual Arabic-Hebrew play, his inspiration was Luigi Pirandello's "Six Actors in Search of an Author." Pirandello's signature work, it explores not only themes of illusion and reality, but also ways that truth is distorted. It was a fitting choice. Mr. Thaher titled his play "Six Actors in Search of a Plot," and during the first five days of rehearsals last August at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh near Hadera, Israel, the Palestinian and Jewish actors argued about nearly every line.

Mr. Thaher, a native of the Arab quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, based his script on personal monologues written by Israeli Arab and Jewish facilitators affiliated with Peace Child Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv that has used theater to teach tolerance and mutual respect to Arab and Jewish teenagers. ...

During rehearsals, both sides said they felt under attack. The Palestinians were "unwilling to give up their attachment to history," Mr. Thaher said. "It's their weapon."

Jewish actors thought that Mr. Thaher's script richly expressed Palestinian claims but was anemic when it came to Jewish experience, said the director and choreographer Billy Yalowitz. "The Jews also felt they were on the defensive again and again."


Still, "Six Actors in Search of a Plot" survived, and after a long autumn break because of Mr. Yalowitz's teaching schedule in the United States, the team gathered again this month. In rehearsals at Kibbutz Gaash north of Tel Aviv, they kept disagreements on a back burner. But, Mr. Yalowitz said, "at any moment, things can boil back over."

When the show opens tonight and continues in the coming days at Israeli Arab, Jewish and mixed sites (including Jerusalem's Y.M.C.A.), audiences will decide if it succeeds in its goal: forging a new way to address the conflict. The play, which runs about 75 minutes, airs tragedies on both sides and challenges the actors, who go in and out of character, to focus on the present and the potential for new human life. Each performance will be followed by a discussion with audience members and an invitation to form dialogue groups.

"It is like a birth, so I feel a little bit afraid, a little bit hope, and a little bit tension," Mr. Thaher said. "But I hope that the end will be like a baby birth, a beautiful thing."
Closer to home, two fine theater critics --Bob Mondello and Trey Graham-- analyze Washington, D.C.'s theater scene in an interesting article in the City Paper. I disagree with their conclusion--that more theaters means more trashy productions. Also, I happen to like some things that these critics dismiss as fluff. Anything that pays the bills is not fluff. But the article is well worth reading:
Musicals, Chairs

by Bob Mondello and Trey Graham

Too many seats. Now there’s a problem to make D.C. theater old-timers scratch their heads.

For years, local troupes complained that—unlike, say, Baltimore or Chicago—Washington had precious few decrepit warehouses, abandoned firehouses, and unused industrial spaces to convert into theaters. Now, so many local stages have raised the cash to raise new roofs that the community’s latest worry is whether there are sufficient theatergoers to fill all the new seats.

The concern is entirely rational. The Studio Theatre, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the Gala Hispanic Theatre, and the Olney Theatre Center have all come close to doubling their capacities with their new houses. Arlington’s Signature Theatre will soon go from 136 seats to nearly 400. The Shakespeare Theatre Company won’t be giving up its 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre when it adds an a 776-seat main stage around the corner. Arena Stage dreams of a new “Cradle” for experimental work, the Washington Stage Guild will be ensconced in a flashy downtown high-rise, and the brand-new Atlas Arts Center will soon open a main stage to complement the two black-box theaters it already has.

The only venue going dark as these other stages light up is the Clark Street Playhouse, soon to be demolished for condominiums. And even its chief tenant, the Washington Shakespeare Company, is likely to grow by a few seats if it ends up sidling across I-395 to the space Signature is vacating.

If all these houses operate year-round, they’ll add close to 2,000 new theater seats to the more than 12,000 that Washington already has. Figure six performances a week, 30 weeks a year—which is about right for most stages with mortgages—and putting butts in 2,000 extra seats nightly will require some 360,000 additional butts per season.

All this comes at a time when the ground is shifting under cultural institutions in ways that could shake all these new buildings to their foundations. [snippet]
May 2006 be filled with good theater, sold-out shows, and many thoughtful writings and discussions.

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