The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 3, 2008


Cultural Compass

Curtains rising: local theaters begin their seasons

Autumn is the harbinger of the new school year, the region’s annual foliage spectacle and the smell of those first crisp apples, and for me, one of the most exciting smells of all: greasepaint. I always look forward to a mailbox stuffed with brochures and subscription offerings that heralds the new theater season. Twelve to 20 miles in any direction will give us more than 120 possibilities (see

Why is this important, especially when the Red Sox and Patriots are playing, and the television networks are competing for our time with a battery of new shows? Surely there is plenty to watch and plenty of good books to read without rising from the comfort our sofas and recliners. Why shake ourselves loose to venture out into the cold snaps of fall evenings and squeeze ourselves into the invariably cramped seats of a local theater?

Theater is not a spectator sport

Because when that curtain rises, we are not engaging in a passive activity. Theater is no spectator sport; any good actor will tell you that the audience is a character in any play, actively engaging all the other characters in the play. Good actors feel the audience breathing and will guide their responses; good audiences want to be transported into the play, demanding that actors act with them, not for them. No matter whether the actor is playing a realistic human character or the ticking crocodile in Peter Pan, he will make his audience recognize something of themselves and forge a connection.

This is a live human relationship unlike any other. Shakespeare called it “hold[ing] . . . the mirror up to nature.” He was right. I remember sitting in an aisle seat years ago for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. The show begins with pairs of green lights representing cats’ eyes blinking on all over the stage and in the audience, creating the unnerving feeling of being surrounded by felines in the dark. As the rest of the lights slowly dimmed up, I was conscious of a presence to my left in the aisle, and one of the “cats” insinuated himself nearly into my lap, rubbing his shoulder against my arm and “purring.” Unimpressed by this obvious and cute stage business, I growled rudely, “Oh, get up onstage and go to work,” just to see what would happen. The “cat” drew back, arched, presented his “claws,” hissed at me and then skittered away toward the stage. The reaction worked perfectly. He had won the little cat contretemps and left me laughing, if a bit ruefully. From that point on, I marveled at how seamlessly the “cats” mingled feline and human behavior, let them pull me into their world and thoroughly enjoyed myself. That “cat” mirrored a bit of my nature to me.

The reflection we see in nature’s mirror can be comical, terrifying, or heartwarming. Sometimes a character is so evil as to be almost, but never quite completely unrecognizable. But always, a disturbing kernel of recognition tells us that somewhere deep inside of us all lurks a similar capacity for evil.

The role of the villain

And don’t we enjoy those villains? Uninhibited by the conventions of social behavior that bind and civilize us, they are anarchists, sent into our lives for the space of the play to celebrate mischief and misrule. They do things we would never dare to do, or things so awful that we fear we might do them if we lost control of ourselves. They expose our own carefully smothered chaos and disorder and right from the audience, we fight those demons in the mirror.

Most actors agree that it is much harder to play “good” characters than evil ones, because good characters require the discipline and restraint that evil ones discard. Heroes like Oedipus and Othello are pretty wooden until their flaws are revealed and they have a chance to display a little emotion. Flaws are physically exhausting to play, but they are a lot freer and more fun.

Perhaps hardest of all to play, however, are clowns and wits, who need to deliver not just the reflection of our blemished human nature, but to make us laugh at it.

What makes it funny

The comedian/actor Robin Williams, asked on Inside the Actors’ Studio to explain how this is done, borrowed a scarf from a woman in the audience and did a five-minute riff with it that left both the audience and the interviewer screaming with laughter. Returning the scarf, he said, “That’s the best explanation I can give.” W.C. Fields did nothing to clarify matters when he said, “The funniest thing a comedian can do is not do it.” And Mae West declared, “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

An analysis of comic technique is, obviously, elusive. Comedy is a widely interpreted art, too, ranging from side-splitting hilarity to simply something with a relatively happy ending. There is a saying among American actors, for example, that the definition of a Russian comedy is that all the characters survive the play.

The point is, live theater can spark a direct connection with our own natures and those of our fellows in the audience and onstage that is impossible in any other situation. It is intense and mano a mano for the hours we are in the theater. It can provoke us to a full range of real emotion and allow us to try on traits and behaviors, all in the space of an evening and without risk. It is, after all, exactly what it says it is: playing.

Local theater opportunities

And so begins another playing season. There are some great local options around. The Lyric Stage in Boston starts with Follies and continues with a new David Mamet comedy, November, which pillories presidential elections in a timely fashion. Lyric also offers Kidstock: children’s theater in which children ages four to 10 can participate onstage or in their seats at family performances.

The Brandeis Theater Company has pieces as varied as Tea, Flowers, Purity and Grace, a “dance play based on Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth,” and Siddhartha, a Jungian Fantasy in Three Movements with Prelude. The Huntington Theatre’s season includes Tom Stoppard’s new Rock ‘n’ Roll and a production of The Corn is Green with Kate Burton. The American Repertory Theatre (ART) opens with the highly respected actress Anna Deavere Smith in her own Let Me Down Easy, and later, presents Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.

Closer to home, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre ranges from The Fantasticks to the comedy, Bad Dates and Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. These are just a few of this season’s offerings in these theaters, and more abound in the metro-Boston area. And look for Carlisle’s Savoyard Light Opera Company’s production of Annie Get Your Gun, coming soon.

Right next door, the Concord Players plan Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, Cabaret, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Theatre III in Acton will present the musical version of Jane Eyre in November and then The Cemetery Club and Forever Plaid. Carlisle seventh graders will be presenting their own production in the new year, and CCHS will have a full season of shows as well.

I hope you will join me in plunging into the theater season this year. Breathe in some of that greasepaint, in the full knowledge that it is absolutely addictive. ∆

Local theater companies

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