It is becoming disappointingly clear that, in this declining economy, the theatergoing public is spending its entertainment dollar, not surprisingly, on entertainment. There are very few new faces in the audience for new drama and the ranks of subscribers aren't growing. Opening an unfamiliar work without national exposure or a name actor will probably mean scant attendance at best, even if the author has some reputation. Several recent shows given local premieres in Boston highlight this increasing problem.
The Zeitgeist Stage Company, director/designer David Miller's singular operation, mounted Philadelphia playwright, Thomas Gibbons' "Bee-luther-hatchee", an interesting script desperately needing a subtitle to reach its audience. Despite an excellent interracial cast and good production values, some advertising but only standard press releases, attendance was slim. The author's extensive fellowships didn't result in truly compelling theatre. And there was little chance of crossover from the Theatre Offensive's annual Out on the Edge Festival running next door.
The play is an occasionally overwritten example of something like an O'Neill Conference product, but still raises significant intellectual questions about race, cultural "ownership", and intellectual honesty. These elements, if promoted, might have found interest in Boston, even though the author did have at least one too many reversals in the action. More effort to promote the cast headed by local favorite Michelle Dowd as Libby Price, the reclusive author of a memoir bearing the same title as the play might have helped. Naeemah A. White Peppers as Shelita Burns, Libby's New York editor, as well as Peter Brown (Sean), Erika Ritton (Anna/Sister Margaret), and Michael S. Miller (Times interviewer/Robert); all turn in performances worthy of notice. Each has credits which might encourage looking in on them. Most of all, since Gibbons has no reputation in Boston, some way needed to be found to intrigue the audience. The obvious subtitle of the piece, "The Mystery of Libby Price" would be a start.
The Boston Playwrights' Theatre at B.U. is committed to presenting work by local playwrights, particularly those with associations to their academic program, such as Maine writer Payne Ratner. While "Infestation" has effective dialogue and some interesting scenes, the whole effort seemed derivative, especially of Tracy Letts' 'Bug", which BPT presented last spring. with touches drawn from predecessors, such as Orton, Shepard, and Pinter. Even with a first rate cast giving the piece far more effort than the script deserves, the show was really a disjointed and inconsistent set of American Gothic vignettes A.R.T. stalwart Karen MacDonald tackled oversexed middle-aged Mother, a far cry from her IRNE winning Emilia last season. John Kuntz, back in town after receiving the Best Solo Performer Award at this August's Fringe Festival in NYC, created a convincingly off-kilter Elwin, her son. Regional veteran Michael Walker made Leon, the mysterious exterminator, a memorable force, however unmotivated. Father's been missing for twelve years and the only other character, the Sheriff, a walk-on by Russell Lees ("Nixon's Nixon"), has a heart attack the moment he steps in the door at the Act I curtain.
The major problem for director Wesley Savick is that these peculiar characters really don't have a play to be in, nor is there any believable extended relationship between them, try though the cast does to create such interaction. The excellent production values of the show--costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley, set by Richard Chambers, original sound by J Hagenbuckle--can't hide "Infestation" 's essential pointlessness. Which might explain the relative lack of promotion this fairly expensive show received. Perhaps it should be retitled "Obfuscation."
The Theatre Cooperative fared better with far less resources, but was still held back by their script. Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter" addresses its subject of racism embedded in "white" society too timidly. "Advice to the Players" by Bruce Bonafede, which ran too briefly there earlier in the season, was a much stronger piece. Unfortunately it had to be presented in late August when the actors needed were available Audiences were scarce. Afull review of this current production is posted separately
The main problem with "Spinning Into Butter, which seems to have been purposely written for a small, more economically viable cast, is that no black students appear. In fact it's revealed only in the final scene of the play that there is an active black student organization on campus. Somehow this important sector of the campus has never become involved in the crisis, a highly improbable circumstance. The author seems more interested in the antics of academic politics than the putative problem of the play. Gilman also gets lost in possibly autobiographical details trying to create a raison d'être for her heroine, a young white Dean of Students. Consequently the action peters out at the end, leaving provocative questions just lying there, for all her skillful scene making. Other potentially interesting faculty members and administrators are also kept offstage, in favor of heartfelt, but unconvincing debates.
The only one of these plays to receive any critical attention by the media was the last, owing mostly to Gilman's minor celebrity and well-defined subject matter. Gibbins as mentioned has no national reputation and Ratner is just local. Earlier, Seth Greenland's "Jerusalem" (AisleSay, 9/20/2002), the season's first premiere, was dismissed as too long, too comic, and not enough like "Angels in America"--with which it shares very little. Then all pens turned to Barry Humphrey's return in drag as "Dame Edna", mildly homophobic as usual, with nothing new to say. But easy to have fun writing about. Ditto for another round of "Nunsense", since everyone can feel mildly naughty laughing at nuns. There's even an upcoming dinner theatre run featuring a solo performer labeled "Father Misgivings." This standup routine will probably receive more press than the three new plays opening this month. Coyote Theatre's reworking of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" may get noticed if there are protests. And to be fair, another new dinner theatre piece featuring four yuppies overhead dining out in Chelsea (MA that is) has gotten a review.
This lack of attention to plays new to the local scene is not entirely the media's fault. The old standbys of press releases, glossies, and postcards aren't enough. Unless live theatre makes an effort to market its newer product with the same zeal that revivals and nostalgia are receiving, playwrighting for the living stage will become as marginalized as poetry. This becomes more likely when writers are judged more for their awards and fellowships, often received for previous work seldom seen onstage than for the work at hand. Pursuing alternate venues, which briefly get attention, also seems self-defeating. There is a fledgling attempt to organize a marketing allience for small theatre which may prove more fruitful. Whether such cooperation can do enough soon enough remains to be seen.
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