Beyond a Theatre Review: Well-Made Plays

Update 4/30/14: While reading a book on George Bernard Shaw this morning, I realized that I may have used the term “well-made play” inaccurately in this review. That being said, I don’t know what other term I could have/should have used. The gaps in my theatre studies knowledge are showing . . . but it’s a learning opportunity. What would you suggest?

Written 4/14/14

Finally! Back to the theatre and back to writing about what it makes me think. I thought that the final few papers would keep me from scoping out the theatre scene until later in April, but since my new pad is closer to Berkeley Street and the great theaters located there, it’s made going to a Sunday matinee more of an acceptable study break.

I bought the C-Stage ticket for Belleville as soon as I saw the word “Hitchcockian” in the short description. When I realized it was by Amy Herzog, well-known American female playwright, then I was really pumped to leave my theatre meeting/drinks on Friday afternoon to catch the evening show at Canadian Stage.

Maybe it’s my break from the current Toronto theatre scene or the fact that I’ve been creating performance ethnography performances about Tumblr and reading Gertrude Stein and the Wooster Group for the past few weeks, but when the scene opened on the representational depiction of a young American couple’s apartment in Paris, I felt a combination of familiar relief and trepidation. The relief came from this familiar scene, the interior chamber that makes up so much of the theatre I write and that I have seen in the past. The trepidation came from new doubts springing up: did I still like this type of theatre? After all the work I’ve been doing in the past months of graduate school on experimental forms and what the limits of theatre and performance can be, have my definitions of good theatre changed? Could I still find value in this form?

The first few scenes did little to assuage my doubts. The conversation slowly built, the characters coming into view but sitting in the silence and awkwardness. I wondered why this play had to happen at this time, why it had to happen as a play. Until the violence began. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it became unclear within a few scenes whether the wife or the husband was more unstable, which paralyzed character was causing more anxiety, paranoia, and neurosis.

To truly tell if this was a hit and a way to assuage my doubts about “well-made” plays, I would have to visit the script. I know, I know–it’s meant to be performed and I saw a great Canadian production, so why go back and read it now? Because as an emerging playwright, that’s how I can best judge whether it needed to be a play. As of now, I enjoyed the cast’s performances and felt they honored the script, but I can’t tell. Was the beginning portion a bit slow because it needed to build the tension, to place me in the awkward silences between a husband and wife as they each began to realize something was off in their relationship, that the world they lived in was an illusion about to crumble? Could my lingering questions about the purpose of the landlord and his wife, who only appear for a few scenes and yet close the play, be answered by Herzog’s texts or will they remain a problem with the play and its script? I left feeling creeped out and suspicious of the world–both the one on the streets around me and the world of the theatre.

A few days later I decided to attend the matinee of another well-made play, a very well-made one indeed by David Lindsay-Abaire and even adapted into a film version with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart: Rabbit Hole. This time, I was familiar with the script. I’d read it numerous times for season consideration when I was coordinating/managing the Rice Players and a fellow coordinator staged the first scene for our Directing final last spring. So I was ready to judge: was this a good performance? Did it justify the script as a play? Or would I long to see the film–to prove to myself that stories set in a family house in a traditional New Jersey suburb and about one family’s grieving didn’t have as a reason to be on stage now that film provided another more suitable medium?

I loved the theatre building itself–how had I not been to the Alumnae’s amazing old firehouse space until this late in the year?–but I questioned the set throughout the performance. My directing and design course definitely got into my head and I couldn’t help thinking that the son’s room, while up on a platform above the main playing area, did haunt the space enough. The death of Danny should haunt the parents, family members, and other characters that enter that space. The play is about grieving and deciding what to do with the “dead baby” still taking up space in their lives.

My friend Christopher’s acting was superb. As a playwright in love with snail mail, I always wonder how letters can be used effectively on stage, if there’s a way to save this out-dated convention. I forgot about the letter in Rabbit Hole, the audience’s first introduction to Jason, the teenage boy who accidentally killed the little boy. His monologue simply performs aloud the letter he has written to the parents, Becca and Howie. Of course in this case Jason was played by Christopher and his entrance brought a different tone onto stage–that of an awkward teenage boy wracked with guilt and the need for forgiveness and closure. Because the letter brought this new energy to the space, it worked. It didn’t seem like something that could have been performed in another way.

I’m still not sure if Rabbit Hole works as a whole. I want it to, as it’s lauded as a Tony-nominated play and so many of the people I love and respect have put time and effort into producing it, but I’m not 100 percent sold. Maybe I haven’t seen it performed in the right way yet. Or maybe this is the sign that my taste in theatre is changing. I can no longer believe in these types of plays. The jury is still out. I’ll have to keep reading, watching, and attending performances to see what changes when I’m in the theater.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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One Response to Beyond a Theatre Review: Well-Made Plays

  1. Pingback: After the Call: How do you locate home? at inForming Content | gladlybeyondaustinausten

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