One of the joys of being a critic is that you get to pronounce judgment on a work of art. One of the burdens is that you have to pronounce judgment on a work of art.
My training is to be a dance critic, and when I was active in that arena, the burden sometimes outweighed the joy. I couldn’t simply say “Great performance. Loved it’ and just appreciate the good parts. Even now, when I’m not reviewing a company, that bothersome little voice is asking, “but what do you really think?”
So when I read Jonathan Elliott’s U.S. 1 Newspaper review of the same production that I had previewed for U.S. 1 the week before, I was grateful that I had been able to attend this performance as an audience member, not a critic.
Elliott thought the production, directed by Keith Baker and choreographer Donald Byrd, didn’t work, but I thought it did. Actually, I loved it! Almost everything he didn’t like, I either didn’t mind it, or I thought it was terrific. That’s the advantage that you and I have over everyone who does not have the chops and/or the obligation to be a working critic. We can sit back and enjoy.
This should not be cited as a review. I am not a critic, and though I have seen Shakespeare, I have not seen another Twelfth Night. But here is a shout out for:
The musical concept: Justin Ellington’s score — sometimes played from the DJ’s booth above the stage, sometimes by the strolling violinist, sometimes by the stage manager — did not get in the way of the lines for me. It’s too bad all this background stuff made it necessary to mike the actors in this tiny theater, but oh well. The opening production number worked and the seven songs were terrific, especially when sung by Trevor Vaughn as Festus, who was engaging, funny, and, clear. I could hear and understand (almost) every word.
The character concept. Both reigning monarchs were African American. Miriam Hyman as Olivia (pictured) was styled to the hilt and glam behind those shades. She had SO much presence and authority that you believed she was in love with that twerp Viola, played by Christin Sawyer Davis with winsome clarity. RJ Foster was an oh-so-cool Orsino, though I was chagrined that he touched a basketball just once, whereas I’d given the impression he would be dribbling throughout. He also had charming authority and looked, shall I suggest, presidential?
The bawdy shenanigans as translated into today’s gadgets. Yes it was hokey when Valerie Issembert as Maria,Jackson Loo as Fabian, and Abe Goldfarb as Sir Toby Belch (pictured) pulled out their blackberries and computers, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief.
Most of all, natch, I liked the stage movement and dances. Byrd used Gabriel “KwikStep” Dionisio brilliantly. Yes, he’s a pro break-dancer, but, especially in the first act, Byrd had him using break-style movement to accent the action, like a Greek chorus, adding emotion to the words. More important, especially at the start, the actors’ movements, in hip hop style, helped to portray their characters more vividly. And, as expected, the break-dance duel/duet was terrific. (Byrd’s contributions as co-director were apparently so significant that somebody forgot to note, in the program, that he was also the choreographer. Very unfortunate.)
“What You Will” continues at Bristol Riverside Theater, 35 minutes from Princeton, through March 1. In a splendid coincidence, McCarter’s traditional version of the play is coming up from the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC starting March 10. So you have a chance to see both versions and decide for yourself on the merits of the BRT version.
The critics can say whether it’s Good Theater or Art. You get to say whether you liked it. Where? Respond to the review at U.S. 1 newspaper, comment on this blog, or comment on the play’s website, www.howwewill.org. Or look at the very favorable reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer or Curtain Up. and respond.
I know how hard it is to comment, even anonymously, and I don’t expect many responses. Why? Because McCarter has gone to a great deal of trouble to set up an audience reaction website. Just one person has responded re the latest production, Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
But performers are hungry for feedback. So are funders. This production was heavily subsidized by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
So do the artists a favor, weigh in. Go. Then say whether you think this approach can help capture the hearts and minds of texting and Twittering teens? Or should we make the original version more appealing?
And PS, artists, if you want to keep on getting reviewed in print publications, send your letters of appreciation to the publishers. In this publishing environment, critics are an endangered species.