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Last Friday evening, I was present at the performances of two shows, the juxtaposition of which offered a considerable insight into the pros and cons of Harvard theater. Both shows had full houses, both audiences reacted with a display of much approval--yet it was clear that one was a phenomenal theatrical success, the other a dismal failure. The two shows in question were Ellington at Eight on the Loeb mainstage, and Out of the Reach of Children at Kirkland House: there were many flaws of an obvious kind in both shows--the rare ability of the Ellington singers to sing just off-key and just too quiet to be heard; the fact that the music of Out of the Reach of Children was not so much derivative as rehashed--yet there were more important reasons why Out of the Reach of Children was in its own terms a great show, and why Ellington at Eight so poor.
Ellington at Eight was performed by a company--in the words of one of the group (sadly prophetic!) "We have no stars." This was one of the reasons why the ensemble numbers proved so much more successful, in general, than solos or duets or trios--precisely because of the lack of artists with the "star-quality" to fill the expanse of the mainstage and its auditorium. With the possible exception of Bonnie Zimering's dancing, which was a continual joy to watch, there simply was no personality on stage with that combination of talent and egoism that forces one to look at them and not notice the blackness all around. In other words, in performance the show lacked style.
The director had tried to make up for the deficiency with a series of 'cutisms' in several numbers, which worked more or less successfully: an enormous letter, for example, out of which popped singers and dancers. Yet as each device in this series of specials progressed, rather than covering any deficiency, it made one even more painfully aware of the repetitious nature of the show, its lack of directionality. Significantly, the largest hand of applause was for a blues number sung without frills in the second act, and yet the biggest laugh was reserved for when another special effect lowered from the roof stuck and had to be raised and lowered three times during black-outs. It was not so much the lack of talent of the singers which was upsetting, but the lack of 'razamataz', the lack of style and charisma to put it across. Furthermore, this lack continually emphasized the lack of directionality, emotional or intellectual, inherent in the concept of the show. My final image of this production will be of a blonde Harvard undergraduate in a tuxedo, with a big, clean-shaven smile, trying to sing the blues, and watching his words and presence being swamped by the vast theater. All this under the auspices of "Black Cast Theater."
It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to see Out of the Reach of Children: yet whatever else its flaws, no one could deny this company its style. They were helped, for sure, by a very intimate theater, and an audience willing to enter into the spirit of the show. Yet the five performers individually and collectively displayed precisely that mixture of egoism and talent (they all sang superbly) that held the audience's attention completely--and having got that attention, proceeded to milk it with considerable charm--none more so than Maggie-Meg, of course. By this energy and charisma, they helped us pass by the rehashed Coca-Cola advertisement music, a fair number of trite lyrics and a structure which threatened to be as repetitious as Ellington. Part of this danger was averted by the element of directionality introduced--first, there was a temporal narrative: the growing up from adolescence of five girls. Although adolescent literature is usually of interest only to adolescents, even desperately mature undergraduates have been known to be nostalgic for 1974--it was precisely this rather self-indulgent "you-remember-how-funny-we-were" emotion that Cornelia Ravenal sought to exploit, and with some careful selection of material to fit her clearly defined audience, achieved great success. This leads to a second directionality in the show: the company sought to direct us emotionally in a way that might lead towards some sense of emotional growth of character and even an emotional conclusion. Now while the success of this on Friday night was extraordinary--the audience rose with a great surge to applaud at the end--I was left (standing) with a strong doubt. The triteness of this final lyric, her emotional conclusion: "And we've got to follow where/the dream goes,/for there will come a day/when all the riches and the rainbows are just a risk away," made one realize that unless we were to take the whole show as a parody of adolescent writing, there had been no consistent intellectual development or even awareness in the work, nothing to support or direct the emotions they played with. We were left with no idea of what taking that "risk" would involve for any of the characters on stage. However much we might agree with the revolutionary tone of the conclusion, because it was devoid of intellectual direction for the emotion, it became just emotionalism. It was called "open ending" because it was an empty ending.
In fact, rather than the development of character, we had seen a static retrospective view of types at two stages of life, with little sense of growth between the two ages, which made projection into the "dream" of the future even more difficult. The main reason for this, paradoxically, lies in the main reason for the show's success, the egoism and talents of the performers. From the first moments of parody of the informality of improvisational theater, we were being asked to watch ctors playing parts rather than the parts themselves. The parts became vehicles for the considerable abilities and egos of the artists: it was always "let's watch Corneila play this or that function." Hence we could see each character only at individual points without any sense of transition: this lead to my doubt at the end of the show. They did stop the scenes seeming repetitive, and offered us an emotionalism missing on the mainstage, and with their inimitable style this company achieved precisely what Ellington was trying to do and failed. But in doing so, they seemed to me to have sacrificed any intellectual development, and even intergrity. And with ten musicals going up this semester, or more, it seems probable that this diet of entertainment will be continued as the staple for Harvard students--we will see yet more fun-filed scripts as vehicles for individual talent and egos, we will see style and 'razamataz', we will see anything but theater that probes or investigates, links an intellectual insight to an emotionalism with talent and style to produce a work of true theater, a work in the tradition of Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett, and many other great writers.
It was delightful to see a cast of big ability and small budget, put a big budget and small ability in its place--but even so, I came away wondering if this was the sort of theater so much time, money and effort should be directed towards. To be fair to Harvard, the Loeb Experimental Theater and the Black Star Theater group in particular, and isolated house drama societies, do provide some alternative fare--but the audiences at these shows are small, if regular. Most people are probably not even aware of where the experimental theater is, despite its innovative and exciting work. To most people, Harvard theater means the "Pudding Show." Time and time again we hear "but we go to the theater for entertainment," spoken without the realization of what the demand for continually empty-headed entertainment implies about the culture and minds of the speakers. Perhaps the production of The Three Sisters on the mainstage will set a new trend for theater here. Failing that, lovers of theater as an artistic medium must await in hope the arrival of Mr. Robert Brustein.
Simon Goldhill is a Kennedy Fellow from Cambridge. England, studying theories of literary criticism.
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