One of the basic rules of theatregoing is that "You pays your money, you takes your chances." That's because, no matter how solid a reputation any production may achieve, many pieces of theatre are aimed to hit an intellectual mark which lies miles above the lowest common denominator. If you want the lowest common denominator, there's plenty of crap to be seen on network television. If you want something more stimulating, you'd better get used to taking risks.
Unfortunately, not every exercise in risk-taking brings the artistic rewards one anticipates. Sometimes a show can receive tons of media hype, get rave reviews from the press and yet, rather astonishingly, continue to disappoint its audiences. This happens most often when a work of rather small dramatic importance (Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera) or obscure symbolism (anyone for Harold Pinter?) gets touted as the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel.
As a professional critic, I occasionally find myself in the curious position of reviewing a work which, though many might swoon with ecstasy in attempting to categorize its artistic merits, leaves me absolutely, unremittingly stone cold. I suppose that the easy way out of such an embarrassing situation would be to join in the chorus of hosannas and make sure that I screamed "Bravo" as loud as the person sitting next to me. I call that the "est" experience in the arts which, crudely translated, means that as long as you paid for the experience, you'd damned well better believe you're gonna "get it."
Comedienne Anna Russell loved to mock those serious music lectures which used to be given by music critics for the further enlightenment of other music critics. Alas, I've never been good at following the crowd and, having been cursed with a Joe-Bob Briggs sensitivity to some of the more elusive rewards of "great art,' I'd just as soon be honest and fess up to the fact that a certain work's popular appeal totally eludes me.
Sometimes that means having the balls to say that I think a highly-acclaimed work of art is a whopping piece of shit or that, despite an overwhelming chorus of media approval, we may be dealing with a case of the Emperor's new clothes. But, like performing fellatio through a dark and dimly-lit gloryhole, it's a dark and dirty job. And someone's got to do it.
YOU CALL THIS FUNNY?
The best example I could give of this phenomenon involves a performance art piece called Les Petits Pas which was recently presented by the Compagnie Jerome Deschamps at Scotland's prestigious Edinburgh Festival. The marketing material said "Hysterically funny and touching at the same time, Jerome Deschamps, 38-year-old writer and director often compared to Jacques Tati or Groucho Marx, has set this piece in an old people's home where the inmates resist the tyrannical rule of the farcical caretakers. The residents are all played by entertainers of yesteryear who have come out of retirement to take part. It is full of golden oldie songs like 'Plaisir d'Amour' and has been a huge hit in Paris."
"I've always wanted to put on a show that would pay homage to people overtaken by old age," claims Jerome Deschamps. "Despite their wrinkles and their miseries, they want to sing love songs, and I find this wonderful."
A critic from Le Figaro was quoted as saying that "Of all theatre shows, this is one of the funniest, most original and daring that we have ever seen."
Not so. Contrary to media hype, Les Petits Pas was an appallingly unfunny spectacle: a loathsomely bad piece of theatre which was poorly conceived, abominably staged and then shoved down an audience's throat with the kind of fraudulent hype one might expect from a used car dealer (as opposed to the producers of a major international arts festival).
The slapstick humor and cheap sight gags employed by Deschamps in his creation weren't the slightest bit funny. And, despite the fact that their voices are now mere shadows of what they might once have been during their previous professional lives, the geriatric members of the show's cast doggedly kept on singing with what little dignity they could muster under the circumstances.
As a result, Les Petits Pas turned out to be one of the most pathetically embarrassing examples I've ever encountered of a stage director/playwright humiliating his actors by asking them to perform his own particular brand of shit.
While it's true that, as they say, "Shit happens," Eileen Heckart once told us (in Butterflies Are Free) that "Diarrhea's a part of real life but I wouldn't choose to pay for it as entertainment."
My sentiments exactly.
RAKING IT IN
Before I go on to describe the San Francisco Opera's revival of The Rake's Progress I should make it clear that previous exposures to Stravinsky's thinly-written opera have left me totally cold. Although some opera lovers embrace The Rake's Progress wholeheartedly, I find this work to be a very tedious intellectual exercise; the kind of academic masturbation which might seem very impressive within certain closed circles but which sure as hell fails to get my blood pumping.
The basic problem is that there is absolutely nothing in this opera which makes an audience care about any of the characters onstage. Even after Tom Rakewell has gone insane, his pathetic babbling in the final scene at Bedlam is nothing more than babbling. It does not offer much in the way of art.
That being said, I salute the San Francisco Opera's revival (which was well-staged, well-produced and fared much better by being presented with English Supertitles and a stronger cast of singers than those heard in 1982). Although I personally might not like The Rake's Progress, many others do -- particularly those who are fans of David Hockney's sets and costumes -- and, with all being fair in love, war and art, they are certainly entitled to their opinions.
Under John Cox's direction, baritone William Shimell scored strongly as Nick Shadow. Jonathan Green repeated his familiar, shtick-laden characterization of Sellem, the auctioneer. Victoria Vergara was a feisty Baba the Turk while Susan Patterson delivered an amiable Anne Truelove.
While John Mauceri did a nice job on the podium, the real star of the evening was tenor Jerry Hadley as Tom Rakewell. Making a long-overdue San Francisco Opera debut, Hadley not only sang like an angel; he displayed some of the finest diction to be heard in this opera house in years. Although his final mad scene was touchingly performed, I left the War Memorial Opera House hungry for music which was less astringent in nature as well as something of greater theatrical substance.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 20, 1988.