Several years ago during the Tony awards Steve Martin did a bit about how to behave when going backstage to see a friend after they have appeared in a production that stinks worse than a combination of wet cat and old cheese. Despite my love for theatre and the theatre going experience the medium is capable of creating some pieces which are, to be kind, unredeemable.
This hard lesson was learned in my teens during a jaw dropingly horrible production of Shakespeare's "Richard the Third" presented by the Tony winning, highly respected American Conservatory Theatre based in San Francisco. Richard's hump was so enormous it resembled a scale model of Mt. Everest and the costumes, heavily reliant on studded black leather, appeared to have been inspired by the notorious nocturnal activities of the play's director the aptly named William Ball. In the final moments of the play our S & M fetish clad Richard runs to the front of the stage and recites the famous lines "A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse." Behind him appears the plays "good guy" clad in nothing but a pair of white tights, one leg bent, his powerful rippling arms curled before him in imitation of a horse reared up on it's hind legs. Inappropriate but understandable laughter filled the theatre. Later the assumption around town was that the strikingly handsome large muscleboy in the white tights, new to the acting company, was the latest addition to the director's offstage stable of studly stallions.
There are a number of other examples. After sitting through the theatrical abomination of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Blvd." I managed to stammer out, as my partner and friend gushed about it, "The set was nice."
I am not above leaving at intermission if I feel that my time is being wasted. "The Graduate" lost my interest after the infamous full frontal nudity sequence, which was dimly lit and occurs quite early, not to mention gratuitously, in the play. So to, did I leave and catch a bus home after the overlong tedious first act of the Goodman Theatres production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean". By intermission it had run a full hour and 45 minutes. Unashamed, I threw in the towel, feeling I had given it the "old college try".
There is one particular playwright however who so far in my experience almost guarantees a grueling night in the theatre. Regina Taylor is an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre. Having success early in her carrear as an actress, garnering a Golden Globe award and two Emmy nominations, she decided to turn her attention to playwriting. To date I have seen, at least in part, 3 of her works. First off, were she not a black woman, her plays would seem almost offensively racist, filled as they are with black stereotypes. If this is a case of Ms. Taylor writing what she knows perhaps she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The one piece I have seen in it's entirety, "Crowns", kept me in my seat only because of the gospel music infused through it. There was also no intermission, therefore no opportunity to make an inconspicuous escape. It, like Chinese food, was o.k. while it lasted but left little behind afterward. Then there were the series of 3 interconnected one acts. All three used the same set which was so well executed that the audience members were commenting on it before the house lights dimmed as there was no curtain and the set was in full view. After the first of the one acts I was unimpressed but not yet defeated. After the second I got on the train and headed home. First, you need to have 3 hours worth of things to say to expect an audience to stick with you for 3 hours. Second, she had, somewhat miraculously, managed to make the themes of rape and incest tedious and boring.
Next season one of the Goodman's productions is written and directed by Ms. Taylor. Generally speaking the words "written and directed by" are harbingers of doom, unless the names that follow are the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks or in the case of the film "Nine to Five" the late Colin Higgins. Still, ever the eternal optimist, and since I have already paid for the ticket, I shall attend and see how far I get.
Yet it was during my first experience with this playwright when life took on comic overtones almost worthy of the stage. My seat, for reasons that escape now, had been moved closer to the stage for this performance. Often this is a good thing, on this occasion, not so much. The play was a retelling of Chekhov's "The Seagull", set inexplicably among the people of the Gullah culture on the islands off of North Carolina. It was, to be kind, completely unredeemable. The rambling script and poor acting were mixed with a lame, uninspired set and costumes that made each member of the cast look as if they had gained 10 pounds between the final fitting and the opening performance. To fix the play one would have had to wipe the slate clean, then burn the slate to ash.
There is a scene in the original movie version of "The Producers" which scans the audience as they watch the musical number "Springtime for Hitler". Their faces reflect a mixture of shock, disbelief and disgust. As I looked down the row of seats next to me I beheld expressions on the faces of my fellow theatregoers which greatly resembled those of the theatregoers in the movie. One fellow had fallen asleep, I considered him fortunate.
By intermission I decided I had suffered enough and rose from my seat to leave the theatre. As I was about to exit the lobby I turned around. It looked as if someone had yelled "Fire!" People were stampeding towards the doors. Outside a block long line of cabs stood waiting. I imagined the call that had gone out. "Bomb at the Goodman. Please report to Dearborn Street at once to assist in the evacuation."
One of Chicago's major newspapers listed the play as "recommended". This led me to assume one of two things. Either the critic did not wish to be viewed as a misogynistic racist for giving a negative review to a play written by a black woman, or they had not actually seen the play they were paid to review.
Some time later while chatting with a customer at the jewelry counter where I worked at the time the subject of the play came up. When I asked her "So you saw it?" She replied, "I saw part of it."