Write it yourself: “What You Will”

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.

12 thoughts on “Write it yourself: “What You Will”

  1. Thanks to all who have weighed in on this! It’s been an enlightening exchange. I’ve just returned from seeing the McCarter production, which is indeed gorgeous and very memorable. If I had seen this first, I might have had a similar response to Jonos. The innovative McCarter production may indeed be the premiere Twelfth Night for this decade.But I still liked many elements of the hip hop version, and I appreciate how it reached out to new audiences — and I don’t mean high school kids that get dragged to student matinees whether they want to come or not. Curiosity seekers came to hip hop Shakespeare at the BRT who might not have bought tickets to “regular” Shakespeare, and they were entertained.

  2. I returned with a handful of students on closing weekend–the word they used was “detached.” One of them put it best–“the added parts take away from the story instead of opening it up.”Better luck next time, BRT. Meanwhile, have you seen Twelfth Night at McCarter yet?

  3. When he’s not jetting around, Donald Byrd runs a dance company here in Seattle, so I was interested in reading about this venture. Shakespeare often gets used as a jumping-off place for all kinds of experiments, and seems to have weathered the experience. (around here we’ve seen Midsummer Night’s Dream as a 1950s sock hop, Macbeth set in the Wild West, and a Kabuki-influenced Lear, just off the top) On the other side of the question, I saw a couple of workshop versions of Rennie Harris’ Rome and Jewels (break dance version of Romeo and Juliet) that didn’t quite convince me as far as the original text was concerned. I haven’t seen this production and so won’t pretend to have a cogent opinion, but I do think that any experiment like this works best when we don’t expect it to do everything a traditional production does, plus whatever else is on the program. Whether it’s really Twelfth Night is perhaps a good question to address, but more fundamentally, is it good theater?ps Hi Barbara!

  4. Thanks so much for the recommendation Barbara, I had a great outing with my very theatrical 3 year old daughter.We both enjoyed the opening number, even though it was pretty much impossible to hear the words or understand the story. The energy and dancing were great.After that, however we lasted about 4 minutes once the play made a clean break from hip hop to standard iambic recitation. To make the break worse the diction was mediocre and the sound quality in the room didn’t help. My daughter is only 3, but she got scared because neither of us could really understand what was going on.(my duaghter has sat through 45 minutes of opera and 2 hours of ballet, so it might be that she simply needs a sound track)In any case we sat in the lobby for the next 40 minutes and had a grand time watching the actors prepare to make their entrances from the back of the theatre. We finally entered the audience towards the end of the first act and enjoyed a musical number again, but only made it another 15 minutes through the dialog before we left for a dinner together.A 3 year old might not be the right gauge for theatre, but what she found scary or uncomfortable in this potentially wonderful comedy, i can’t say that I found funny or enjoyable.

  5. And I’m going to try to return and look at it again as well. I don’t think Simon was saying that art can’t be judged objectively, just pointing out that each critic sees through a different lens. Re the respective value of the mob’s opinion and the critic’s opinion, I was struck by a conversation on NPR today about the Oscar nominations. None of the audience faves, notably the Dark Knight and the other top five high grossing movies, got Oscar nods.( Dark Knight did get a technical nomination of some kind but nothing major. As they pointed out, the Oscar nominators have a different agenda from the movie goers. . . thanks for your input and the forum is still open.

  6. I applaud your opinion, and Simon’s; that’s the beauty of new media. We all now have the power to broadcast.I’m going back next week to see the show because, like I said, I feel it doesn’t work; I want to know MORE about why it doesn’t work, and I want to bring my students because I feel it’s important for them to develop and opine about this in a way that isn’t filtered through me.I will respectfully disagree with you on one implication, though: art, like anything else CAN be judged objectively. As long as money’s changing hands, and a price tag is set on what that art is worth, the floodgates open. It’s a slippery slope, sure, but someone has to ride it.

  7. I asked drama critic Simon Saltzman to weigh in on this discussion. Saltzman has not seen production, but suggests that “it is just plain healthy and productive to have different opinions floating about. Critical and complementary discourse is essential in a free society and in a world where blogging and twittering are suddenly the rage. And how wonderful is it to be able to challenge someone else’s point of view in a not physically combative way. I like the way you considered all the various production elements. We all have our different styles and come to the page with our own unique subjectivity…”

  8. Thank you for your response, and I forcefully assert the critic’s responsibility to honestly assess a work, and I resist the calls for the critic to help sell tickets. That’s not your job. But I do want to explore the ways that new media can empower audience members, artists, and critics alike. It gets interesting when a knowledgeable person (you) takes a strong position with which an audience member (me) disagrees. Actually you are probably right about the faults that you cited, but — from my viewpoint — they did not mar my enjoyment.In the dance world there are fewer rights and wrongs, though I often find myself inevitably on the side of the out-of-fashion wrongs, so I’m familiar with the dissidents’ world. I’ll be curious about your students’ reactions. Let’s give them space to post their reviews! And, yes, I have tickets for the DC/McCarter production. PS. Nobody laughed at t the performance I saw on Wednesday, but I attributed that to the fact that, with snow predicted, there were less than 3 dozen people in the house, none below 50. Maybe BRT needs a claque.

  9. Barbara,Hiya. Heard you were looking to open a dialogue.THe following is a synthesis of a few different perspectives. I’m writing as a life-long theater attendee. I’m writing as a person who’s worked for the last ten years in professional theater, as a marketer, as a manager, as a writer, and as a teaching artist and professor. I’m writing as a twenty-even year old watching his favorite form of artistic expression die, nationwide. And I’m writing, first and foremost, as a consumer and reviewer.The bottom line is that in two weeks, there will be an amazing production of Twelfth Night in town. Entertainment dollars for all of us are short. Go see Taichman’s production at McCarter–I saw it in DC, and it is everything “What You Will” isn’t.Going down the list:I guess my big problem with the production was what I felt was its lack of authenticity–I struck up a conversation with some fellowtheatergoers (all of us-six people–seemingly the only people in the house under 30) at intermission, and then again at close, and we all had that sort of vague feeling of shamelessness you get when your favorite sitcom introduces a character that skateboards–it seemed cloying, like someone had said “KIDS LOVE BREAKDANCING! LET’S DO THAT!” Saturday night’s crowd reacted with almost no laughter–and this is a play I love dearly. Twelfth Night is one of the funniest pieces in the English language–and as a workshop, this would be a fine experiment, but as a piece of narrative theater, it didn’t work. I found no one sympathetic, or likeable, or understandable, in a play and text I hold close to my heart. That’s a red flag.The second was that the hip-hop elements weren’t integrated–what was Feste’s relationship to the households? Why did he rap? What gave different characters agency to speak in different rhythms or utilize different technology? Nothing was thought through. It was a lot of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and no visible efforts on making the concept work.This is an idea I LOVE when there’s commitment–it’s impossible to talk about this particular fusion without referencing the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet, which DOES THIS RIGHT–I feel like all of this was a well-intentioned attempt to try to hook young people that didn’t work.I’m going back next weekend with some of my students from TCNJ, who were in a production of Twelfth Night this past fall. We’ll see what they think.It all comes down to the point that this is an industry in trouble–EVERY production people see, everything I recommend, I need to do so with honesty and resolve. If this was a student show somewhere, and the concept and experimentation were burdened under different auspices…well, my review might have been different.If you have 30 bucks or so, and there’s only one 12th Night you can see this year, I hope dearly you go to McCarter. Because the Taichman production is jaw-dropping. It is ABSOLUTELY the kind of show that, had I seen it at fourteen, I’d be stuck in this business for life.To be continued.

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