Last night, I saw a traditional Boston Christmas staple; The Christmas Revels.
Unfortunately, “tradition” does not always equate “quality”.
So, I’ll admit to a personal bias. Over-produced theatre always makes me skeptical. When I pay over $30 for a ticket (especially when I’m not even paying for the best seats in the house), when I receive a program that has pages upon pages of benefactors listed, when I walk in to a BIG BEAUTIFUL GIGANTIC theatre, I expect a certain level of quality. What I expect from a piece is in direct proportion to the amount of resources at the piece’s disposal.
Walking in to the Sanders Theatre at Harvard is an experience in itself. The theatre (so claimeth Harvard) was designed as a lecture and commencement hall, but it feels more
like a converted cathedral. It has lofty arched ceilings, beautiful stained glass, and pulpit seating. Also, it’s a wooden theatre.
My love for wooden theatres is a love that cannot be paralleled. Wood brings life to a theatre (and the acoustics which it provides are simply unmatched). It feels homey, comfortable, a theatre that could give you a hug.
Sanders is a three-quarter round with only one fault that I can tell: the sightlines. It’s designed in Elizabethan style which means that it has a pit, a mezzanine, and a balcony supported by columns which jet through the mezz. Of course, the columns are an obvious sight obstruction, but the balcony itself is poorly designed. It isn’t raked steeply enough to give anyone but those lucky enough to be sitting front and center full viewing of the stage. Myself and my companion, seated mid-balcony, missed about a third of the performance due to failure to accommodate to these sightlines.
This, granted, is a problem that anyone could have. And (to be fair) certain seats are marked as “partial viewing”, but our seats were not among those. One would think that an organization which has performed out of a certain theatre for forty-one years would understand the space constraints of said theatre and make arrangements accordingly.
The performance itself seemed haphazard and lazy. It was clumsily written (they write a new show every year), jamming together elements that they, as an institution, were required to include due to audience expectations in a graceless mish-mosh of near incomprehensibility. The performers themselves lacked energy and what talent they had was eclipsed by an apparent need for more rehearsal. The principle players lacked training to accomplish the demands of their roles (one, an unspeaking clown, often devolving into nonverbal diarrhea rather than anything funny or meaningful). I doubt I saw a single performer smile for the entire performance.
The dance numbers were a travesty. The performers had some grace but lacked synchronicity so they became an unpolished mess.
The sets were beautiful, but the costumes were odd. Some were lovely, others included five-pocket khakis and sneakers (… in a period piece).
In all honesty, I felt like I was watching a big-budget high school production. Except I was out $45 a seat.
There were a few interesting elements to the show. Revelshas a sort of audience call and response sing-back tradition; there are several songs included in the show every year which the audience is expected to sing with the performers. Lyrics are included in your program, and the house lights are brought up to full during these numbers so that one may read the lyrics. Being in a theatre with 1,165 other audience members singing along with what was going on is a pretty fantastic experience. In addition, the first act wraps up with a catchy song and a farandol which extends into the lobby. Everyone rises and
participates, filling the giant lobby packed full of dancing people. It’s joyous and spontaneous (and truly wonderful to participate in). If the rest of the show had been as delightful as that moment, I would be writing an extremely different review.
There is, of course, an easy solution to my giant frustration: lower ticket prices. Yes, I would have paid $20 for a partial-view of the travesty that occurred onstage. I might have even been lukewarmly entertained. When I mentioned these things to my companion, he reminded me that the Revels was something of an institution and thereby could charge whatever they wanted because people would pay it.
Cue rage. World-leveling rage. The anger of a thousand torch-bearing French peasants. So… just because people had been coming to this thing for however many years as part of their personal Christmas traditions meant that they would come next year. Which meant the cardinal rule of theatre would be obeyed: butts would be put in seats. Which meant that yes, they could charge whatever they wanted.
….AND STILL PRODUCE AN OBVIOUSLY SUB-PAR PRODUCT?
…AND STILL HAVE AN AUDIENCE THE NEXT YEAR?
I ran a struggling no-budget theatre company. I know what kind of dedication it takes to making something go with no money or resources. Having money, backers, a captive audience, that’s a pretty cushy deal in the theatre (and a rare one at that). How can you let that audience down? How can you, even for a moment, allow anything to stand between you and a quality production?
…and you know the worst part? This audience WILL COME BACK NEXT YEAR hoping that it will be better, or hopped up on enough drugs (apparently I missed the distribution of the happy-pills at the entry) to think that they witnessed a passable (or even good) production.
No. After a show like this, this organization should be condemned to performing in church basements until they produce something worth their audience. Successful theatre companies need to remember what it’s like to be starving. That kind of pressure, that kind of intensity, feeds the creative spirit in a way that no amount of donors can.
If you went to dinner at a restaurant, even if it was your favorite restaurant, and the food
came out cold, the service was poor, and nobody was there to help you when you found a bug in your salad, would you go back? Theatre should be the same way.
I urge you. I plead with you. Do not bring your patronage to this establishment (or any who fail to produce something palatable) until they have re-earned it.
…on a completely different note…. I’m off on vacation for two weeks. I may check in (or I may take a much-needed break), but either way I hope you have a fantastic Holiday (whatever it may be that you celebrate) and a literary new year! This opportunity also affords me to utilize the following societal hackneye…
“Danielle, you just finished your first semester of your PhD! What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to Disney World!”