During the past three years I have had very little good to say about the Boston GLOBE or the American Repertory Theatre, and that condition may persist for the coming year as well; nonetheless, it is indeed a new year, and thanks to A.R.T.'s webmaster Doug Kirshen I must admit that the GLOBE, the most powerful of the reviewing media in the city, does indeed employ a first-rate critic.
I didn't say "reviewer" I said "critic". The GLOBE does have a reliably serious reviewer who knows the job and talks more about what he sees than about himself --- his name is Skip Ascheim. However, everyone reviewing plays on a daily or weekly deadline always believes themselves not merely reviewers of plays but "theatrical critics" and they are all self-deluded.
A critique isn't a deadline-driven "notice" written a couple hours or even a couple days after the press-night curtain comes down. It's a reflective Sunday piece, a second look full of second thoughts --- not a report of what happened onstage but a broad-brush consideration of specific details and wider considerations. It's what Geralyn Horton does in her Aisle-Say columns on the Internet. And it's what Patti Hartigan does in the pages of the Boston GLOBE.
Now, everyone knows I only buy the GLOBE on Thursdays; I have to check on theater listings that they found that I missed (I use the New England Entertainment Digest and the Phoenix On-line as well) and so I have to buy Thursday's GLOBE Calendar, which comes packed inside a lot of printed wrapping-paper. With such a narrow window of opportunity, the chances of my reading all of Patti Hartigan's critiques is small, and so I must thank Doug Kirshen for forwarding me this excellent example. As a matter of fact, Hartigan's piece does for me what I expect a critic to do: she tells me that I will probably not like Andre Serban's directorial excesses here any more than I ever did --- but her enthusiastic insights makes me wonder if maybe I should go see it anyway, if only to be able to fight with her about it.
In an enlightened universe, Patti Hartigan would be the GLOBE's senior reviewer and would be writing same-night reviews of all major plays in the area --- and I'd have to buy it every damn day. Until her clear qualifications for the job now done instead by Ed Siegel are recognized, all I can do is tell anyone who really loves theater that whatever Hartigan has to say in the paper's pages should be sought out and thought about whenever it appears.
This is an example:
Subject: Boston Globe Review of Merchant of Venice
Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998 11:14:55 -0500 (EST)
From: Doug Kirshen firstname.lastname@example.org
Serban's 'Merchant' unnerving
By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff, 12/19/98
CAMBRIDGE - In a word, it's unsettling. It's also probing and provocative, delicate and disturbing, moving and, sometimes, quite maddening.
We are talking about director Andrei Serban's production of ''The Merchant of Venice'' at the American Repertory Theatre, where this problematic play sort of seeps into your skin and leaves you grappling with your own ambivalence. Of course, the question haunting any contemporary production of ''The Merchant of Venice'' is: Given the atrocities of the 20th century and the murderous religious conflicts that continue to shake our so-called civilization, how do you handle the anti-Semitism inherent in the play? How do you depict Shakespeare's calculating Jewish moneylender, Shylock? Our instincts tell us that Shylock should be fiercely noble, an outsider scarred by a lifetime of viscious taunts. That way we can walk away shaking our heads at those shameless Elizabethan bigots. Not us. Never again.
But Serban's unnerving production defies conventional expectations. Like he did in last season's ''The Taming of the Shrew,'' he leaves the judgment up to the audience, rattling our consciences and, in the process, leaving himself open to the grumblings of the Shakespeare police. (No complaints here.) Serban creates a theater of distinct sounds and images: Every scene - from the sun-splashed Eden of Belmont, to the metallic streets of Venice, to the forbidding milieu of Shylock's house, to the barren landscape of the clown episode - is a world unto itself. The painterly images of Christine Jones's spare sets and the sounds of Elizabeth Swados's tingling score create a visceral impression that is not immediately apparent. But for all the elusiveness of the production and for all the liberties Serban takes, the production is instilled with an aching sense of longing for a more merciful world. It stays with you; it's hard to shake.
Shylock is played by Will LeBow as a mocking clown whose biting humor masks a tortured soul. Speaking in a Yiddish accent, LeBow is all cackle and grin. But as Lenny Bruce once said, humor is based on destruction and despair. LeBow is doing everything he can to mask the pain behind the personal; he delivers the ''Hath not a Jew eyes?'' speech while popping up and down behind a miniature screen, a smile painted on his face and revenge burning in his eyes. He's like a jack-in-the-box in a horror movie, a clown about to lash (or perhaps slash) out. He takes off the mask only when he is pushed too far. It should be said that this portrayal created some misunderstanding on press night, when some members of the audience took his anguish over his daughter's betrayal as another joke. In this case, LeBow's Shylock succeeded at hiding his despair, perhaps too well.
There are outstanding performances - and some abysmal ones, too. Jonathan Epstein, who played Shylock in Shakespeare and Company's controversial yet acclaimed production of ''Merchant'' this summer, is a powerful as Antonio (just as he is in ART's ongoing production of ''Phaedra''). Here, Antonio is a mirror of Shylock, an outsider suffering his own internal hell. He, too, wears a mask, but his is one of melancholy. He is a closeted homosexual who puts a pound of his flesh up as collateral for a loan Shylock gives to his adored friend Bassanio, who is wooing Portia in in the fairy tale land of Belmont. Antonio and Shylock are both trapped by their identities, paralyzed by the disguises they are forced to wear. Masks cannot free us; instead, they haunt us, like the masqueraders who glide across the stage in one scene or the masked jurists who are anything but just.
Kristin Flanders, who played Kate in last season's ''Shrew,'' is intense as Portia; living in the sunny world of Belmont (with sets painted in Van Gogh colors on a Rothko-esque canvas), she emanates a noble dignity as she rejects a stream of simple-minded suitors. (The suitors, by contrast, are over the top; enough said.) There is a sexiness to her solidity and strength. But she, too, masks her jealousy when she marries Bassanio (played serviceably by Andrew Garman) and discovers his relationship with Antonio. She collapses position like a moving sigh, gasping for air. When she disguises herself as a man and goes to the court to save Antonio's life, she speaks in a little, tiny disembodied voice, like a visitor from another planet. It's a bizarre directorial choice, perhaps showing the huge gulf between the mercenary world of Venice and the peaceful world of Belmont.
The ART regulars - Thomas Derrah, Alvin Epstein, Stephen Rowe - are skillful team members; but some of the actors in small roles are embarrassingly weak. Ken Cheeseman, in particular, is beyond grating in the appropriately named role of Gratiano.
More disturbing is Aysan Celik's portrayal of Shylock's daughter, Jessica. Serban doesn't seem to know what to do with this character, who rejects her father, steals his money (big bags with dollar signs, in case you were wondering), runs off with a lover, and becomes a Christian. The scene with her lover is directed as one of innocent joy, but in the end, Jessica weeps for her father, which comes out of nowhere and seems tacked on because it's the ''right'' thing to do. In an otherwise bold production, it rings utterly false.
But in its way, Serban's production manages to humanize the play by taking chances in these sensitive times. Would I rather see a sympathetic Shylock? Absolutely. The play and its anti-Semitism are easier to swallow that way. Will some people be put off by a taunting Shylock and a closeted Antonio? Probably. But that's precisely the reason Shakespeare prevails; it's compelling to see different interpretations of the same multilayered work. In this one, Serban is longing for a world where the sun always shines and forgiveness is divine, but the production haunts because that world is unattainable. In the end, he pairs Shylock and Antonio, eternal outsiders clad in black suits while the others are sort of ethereal beings in pastels and white. It's a jarring image, a disturbing sight. Even with the uneven acting and the occasional directorial excess, the production rankles; it rattles; its images persist. If anything, at a time when bombshells are flying in more ways then one, it leaves one wishing for a world where the quality of mercy could even exist.
This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 12/19/98.
Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.
Love to you all,