Saturday, September 10, 2011

BLOG JACK: Brantley on the Empty Stage

Today, I read September 8th's Theater Talkback by The New York Times' Ben Brantley with some interest.  It is called "When a Bare Stage Fills the Theatre."  I was particularly drawn to this article because, as any of my theatre-going friends will tell you, my mantra for theatre is "Always remember that the Greeks did it on a stone slab with a mask, the sun and a toga!"

I say this very thing when we can't agree on the quality of a new show.  Would this show ultimately be as good if it were stripped down to the actors on the stage and nothing else?  Are the words and performances enough to engage the audience and entertain them? 
  • This discussion happened several times this past Broadway season.  Needless to say, it was shows like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, both of which I saw early in previews, and before the ensuing onslaught of press for both shows.  And we agreed that as it was, The Scottsboro Boys - devoid of fancy costumes and scenery, but full of theatrical ingenuity - proved my point exactly.

I say this when we wonder if the show is a triumph of staging and spectacle over story.  Does too much of the meaning rely on the visual created by the designers, the choreographer and the director?  Or has the director and choreographer done enough, that if stripped of lights, scenery and costumes, and only the script to rely on, to still give us a full show?
  • My mantra reared its sage head once again when we discussed Wonderland - the answer? No.  In fact, it was so over produced that it all but obscured the story and characters.  And again with The Book of Mormon - the answer? Absolutely.  That show would still be as funny, poignant and entertaining if the Eugene O'Neill Theatre had a blackout and all the costumes and scenery were stolen.
  • I recall the oddest experience of my theatre-going life.  In 2002, the Box Office Union was on strike at a theater that hosts national tours.  I don't remember the exact politics of it, but it boiled down to this:  an agreement was struck, but too late for everything to be loaded into the theatre for that week's first show.  Actors Equity allowed the performers to go on, while the ITASE unions told its workers to do as much as they could to help, but and not unload the sets, lights or costumes until that evening.  The show was 42nd Street, a show that definitely relies on the visual spectacle of lavish sets, lights and costumes.  Dying to see how it would play out, and with nothing to lose (I could not exchange my tickets for another performance that week), I stayed and watched the show on the very bare stage, on/off lights and street clothes of the performers that my mantra speaks of.  Imagine the opening number or "We're In the Money" without tap shoes, or "The Shadow Waltz" without shadows!  And yet, watching the whole thing play out was absolutely mesmerizing.  And the story, now the focus, was actually much more interesting than I had ever remembered it being.  It is also the only show I have ever attended where the act one finale got a full audience standing ovation, and, until Patti LuPone's "Rose's Turn," the only time a mid-show number got a standing ovation, which happened after the title number.  It was exciting and an event I will never forget it.  And it was nice to have my saying validated. 
And I say this to friends who attend local, necessarily low budget, and lift their noses in their as they go in, expecting the least.  I always take great pleasure in their shock and awe when such a show is success.  Clearly, a silk purse has been made from a sow's ear.

Ben Brantley discusses several shows that benefit and thrive from a bare stage in his blog - Our Town, all of the original Globe Theatre productions of William Shakespeare's plays among them.  And he brings up Chicago's current staging by Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking.  Boy, is he ever right!  Less is so much more in this case.  And it brought immediately to my mind the other great American musical in the long-run gallery, A Chorus Line, a show that, except for the last 3 or 4 minutes, not only thrives on a bare stage, but requires it.  For all of their spectacle and excess, would the three longest-running shows - Les Miserables, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera really have been as successful without "stuff"?  Brantley and I agree: probably not.  But it would be interesting to see Cats under the same circumstances as when I saw 42nd Street.

I disagree with Mr. Brantley more often than I agree.  But he and I see eye to eye on this point:  good acting and thoughtful staging coupled with a good script can be as magical as a stage full of scenery and actors flying right over our heads.

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