During the last half hour of The Goodman’s Camino Real, while I was trying to paper-cut my wrists open with the edges of my program, I was asking myself, “How much of what we consider theatre can you strip away before you can no longer call it theatre?”
Camino Real is the Goodman’s current ultra avante garde adaptation of a surrealist Tennessee Williams play. The entire experience of the show can be encapsulated in one telling moment: at the end of the play, the company of actors took their curtain call to only tepid and polite applause. The cast, showing no sensory acuity whatsoever, decided to take an unsolicited encore bow…probably out of sheer habit, but in that moment it seemed obliviously pretentious.
My wife and I are frequent theatre goers and we both have a good deal of patience for avante garde theatre, provided it ends up having some value or merit. After the hour and forty five minute time limit before the Goodman decided to be merciful and let its audience exit from Camino Real, the only point of debate between us was whether the show literally had no redeeming value, or whether we were not the intended target audience. I typically steel myself from declaring that a show is outright bad because I admit the possibility that I did not understand the point. When I was in college, I saw Ionesco’s The Chairs in New York, and I left the play baffled. It wasn’t until later when I learned more about the context of existentialism and also grew up a little bit that I finally understood the point. The Chairs is an example of a play that would baffle contemporary audiences only to be better appreciated in time, which is a quality that often suggests artistic merit.
We know from the history of theatre that you can strip away many of the elements that are characteristically associated with the genre and still produce high-quality art. We know for example that you do not absolutely need realistic or even eye-catching sets and technical aspects. The best production of Romeo and Juliet I ever saw consisted of five RADA actors and five chairs. Read more…
Last week, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s newest staging of Romeo and Juliet. It reminded me that It’s been about ten years or so since I saw a staging of R&J featuring actual chemistry between the two leads. I’m still on the lookout for it.
Shakespeare, like any long-lived, evolving phenomenon, is subject to trends. They keep things interesting. For example, as the director cited in the program, Romeo and Juliet was used as a female star vehicle throughout the late 20th century. As a result, the role of Juliet would be played by actresses inappropriately old for the role.
The director also notes that in the last 20 years or so, Shakespeare stagings have re-emphasized the bawdy humor. The plays have always contained sex jokes, included originally to appeal to the cheap-ticket audience. Until recently this humor was downplayed or cut out entirely. Now it’s played up so much that I must have counted five or six pantomimed pelvic thrusts at this most recent performance.
Trends are good. It’s important to look at classics in new, interesting ways. This most recent staging, interesting though it was, signaled to me that it’s time for the trend to shift again. Read more…