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November 27, 2009

REVIEW: Good and Bad Theatrical Nights

Roy Meachum

It has been nearly 44 years since I first sat on the aisle as a critic; although reviewer might be more appropriate. Because of working on television (Washington’s Channel 9), the number of words was limited to maybe 250. Switching to print, the amount doubled but still not enough to nit and pick aspects of the production and the people in it.


Now with, the editor sets no boundary of length. But still I tend to react to things I see – stage works and movies – viscerally. Other than an occasional word that some people think is showing off an esoteric vocabulary, I tell it not how it is but my reaction based on whether they should spend the time and money for tickets.


In 1966, David Merrick presented a musical that did not survive: “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!” When reviewed in New York, I found the show a joyful pastiche of Broadway and what was going on in the culture now. It even had balloon captions that said “Pow!” and “Wow!” right on stage – in the manner of the trend-setting television program, “Batman.” It still failed and the explanation was the high ticket prices. How high? An amazing $12!


How much was never the measure for me. I seek value for people.


The best ticket around now is Baltimore’s Hippodrome re-booking of “Mamma Mia!” In the press kit there are pages and pages of record box offices, from all over the world. I saw it last year on the same stage, and this version strikes me as better. The direction, choreography, sets and costumes were the same. In these areas, I couldn’t tell a smidgen difference in Tuesday’s performance; the faces were different but totally professional, as were last season’s.


If you caught the movie, then you can understand the show rests squarely on Mamma, in this case Michelle Dawson. I drove out of Baltimore wondering why I had never heard of Ms. Dawson before. The lady seemed to have written the book on musicals. She’s possessed of a super voice, backed up by formidable dancing skills. She’s a winner! I mean to slight no one else when I applaud Liana Hunt; she’s the one who calls Ms. Dawson Mamma Mia. Her fresh face stays fresh throughout the evening. And bravo for everyone else. There’s not a clinker in the cast.


A warning: “Mamma Mia!” will hang around the Hippodrome only till Sunday. By all means, put it high on the list of holiday gifts for yourself. Go!


I can’t give the same advice and urging about Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “As You Like It,” the closest thing to a musical Will ever wrote; the songs are possibly his best lyrics. And how could anyone resist such lines as “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” And my choice: “What is love? ‘tis not hereafter…Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty, youth’s a stuff that will not endure…”


The play is seldom staged, but I drove into Washington Sunday confident that I would go home, maybe not exultant but satisfied with the production from a company that has never disappointed me. I always come away with treasures to savor – until the other night.


This STC presentation is a gimmick-ridden production that breaks the Shakespearean play into pieces unrecognizable, and that have little to do with the text. I set down with an understanding that Director Maria Aitken wanted to portray the play as a movie scenario. To swish through American history, stopping arbitrarily, as she liked, demands knowledge that the Irish-born theatrical personality never studied for. Moving the start of the oil era from Pennsylvania to Texas is the worst example. More confusing was the curtain-up scenes that dress the actors as if they were from Oliver Cromwell’s era. The director also invokes the Civil War as a comedy.


The cast meanwhile rushes around delighted at breaking out of the mold that Shakespeare is customarily cast in UNLESS they have worked with the STC. Much of my delight in chronicling the company’s progress derives from the surprise at each production’s setting: World War I British army, Edwardian and rock and roll come instantly to mind.


If anything, Ms. Aitken encourages her actors to overact and that is the ultimate sin for anybody who cares about the stage. Even more confusing is how she puts her players at distances from each other; rarely do they communicate directly or react to their fellow characters.


Figuring out what the Shakespeare Theatre Company hoped for in giving Maria Aitken free reins is no consolation; the powers-that-be probably hoped she would replicate her “The 39 Steps” headline triumph. Maybe not.


This “As You Like It’s” an abomination that defies recommendation from any outsider, much in the way the Royal Shakespeare’s presentation of Marat/Sade called for the company to stare back defiantly at the audience at the end, instead of the usual bowing and scraping.


If you’ve never heard of Marat/Sade, its full name runs: “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.”


I reviewed that on Broadway, too.


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