Boston’s larger stages don’t need to be more like the movies. They need to be more like the small stages.
Theater critic Ed Siegel incensed some—and drew applause from others—when he published a divisive, bold essay last week bemoaning the current state of Boston theater. In his piece, which was published by WBUR’s the ARTery (where he once served as editor), Siegel admits that, lately, he’s been enjoying going to the movies a lot more than going to the theater.
While he admits that this is an uncannily good time of year for film—it is Oscar season, after all—he points to four current films that deliver what he calls a peak artistic experience: Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and François Ozon’s By the Grace of God. A peak artistic experience, he explains, is “often out of this world, maybe even beyond words, a transcendental experience that leaves one weak at the knees or in awe of the artistic excellence or emotional impact of what’s just been witnessed.”
By those standards, the only transcendental experience that made me weak in the knees this year was being asked by Faye Dunaway to scrub her blazer in the sink, but that’s another story for another day. What Siegel describes is the very thing that both theatermakers and audiences—including critics—are forever chasing. As a critic myself, who is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association along with Siegel, it’s that peak artistic experience that I am forever chasing.
Like it or not, he brings up a good point: Why go to the theater when there’s something more fulfilling on television or at the movies? It’s a fair point. But is it helpful to be comparing Ronan Noone (who wrote and directed The Smuggler at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre) to Martin Scorsese, or Joshua Harmon (whose Admissions is in its final week at SpeakEasy Stage) to Almodóvar? It doesn’t even seem to be in the realm of reasonable comparisons to me.
Putting that aside, Siegel more fairly compares the crop of this fall’s local theatrical offerings to that of last year. Last fall was an embarrassment of riches, it’s true; specifically, he points to Between Riverside and Crazy at SpeakEasy Stage, The Black Clown at American Repertory Theater, Man in the Ring at Huntington Theatre Company, Measure for Measure at ArtsEmerson, and the touring production of Hamilton. All were incredible. All won Elliot Norton Awards at this year’s ceremony. And I voted for (almost) all of them.
So what do we have this fall, then? Well, he calls out American Utopia, David Byrne’s theatrical concert that enjoyed a pre-Broadway run at the Emerson Colonial Theatre; SIX, a featherweight theatrical concert that enjoyed a pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater; Cambodian Rock Band at Merrimack Repertory Theatre; Admissions at SpeakEasy Stage; My Fascination With Creepy Ladies at Anthem Theatre Company; Nixon’s Nixon at New Repertory Theatre; and both The Purists and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Of the eight plays that Siegel mentions, I loved only one, Cambodian Rock Band, which is one of the most refreshing things I’ve seen in a long time. But he’s also correct when he says that it isn’t perfect. Plus, it might not meet his criteria of “deep sophistication.”
One potential problem with the Boston theater scene, says Siegel, is that it is “so obsessed with telling stories of the moment that they’re giving short shrift to stories meant to last,” which is a very real, very big issue. He goes on: “I do think that Boston theater … goes through cycles of moving forward and then plateauing, and that part of the current plateau has to do with obsessing about the divisive politics of the moment.”
While I’ve only been covering theater in Boston for a fraction of the time of Siegel, I must add my voice to his criticism. To be blunt, I am a little tired of belabored efforts to either force relevancy to the political times that we’re in, or to stage things that are faux woke, works like The Niceties at the Huntington, Admissions at SpeakEasy Stage, or Jagged Little Pill at American Repertory Theater. All three works seem designed, in a paint-by-numbers way, to specifically appeal to upper-middle-class, white liberals (read: subscribers) who feel accomplished, fulfilled, and redeemed when they can pat themselves on the back and say, “Wasn’t that great!”
Some detractors of Siegel’s piece chalked his recent displeasure up to not seeing enough on Boston’s small and fringe stages, while others cited occupational burnout and suggested that he diversify the companies that he’s regularly attending.
“I feel the small/fringe scene has been incredibly brave lately,” wrote Lindsay Eagle, director and Elliot Norton Award-winning actress, in a Facebook post. “And if I may say, I feel we are not getting rewarded for our bravery with attention from critics.”
Playwright Patrick Gabridge struck a similar tone in a different post. “I have significant frustration with articles like this by critics who complain but don’t actually make the effort to get off the beaten path to see shows that are … fully engaging audiences in a deep way.”
As a critic who regularly feels the pressure of trying to make it to everything—it isn’t uncommon for me to see six shows a week during peak times—getting off the beaten path is easier said than done. No matter how much one loves theater, seeing between eight and 20 shows a month is a lot of work. And we don’t miss things because we want to, but often because we have to.
“The correct response to the inability to find ‘peak experience’ theatre,” wrote Eagle, “is not to give up on the industry and turn towards film. It is to look harder and to encourage the companies you’re finding stale and boring to pursue more ambitious art. That is one of the jobs of a critic: to push the art form to climb higher.”
Actress Georgia Lyman, in a separate post, did not seem to take issue with Siegel’s piece as Eagle did, but seems to agree on the job of a critic. “Criticism might not be dead after all,” she wrote. “My point in posting [the article] was to show a glimmer of hope that critics might be able to begin to challenge the audience out of complacency. As I believe real critics can.”
Along those same lines, local musician and performer Ruby Rose Fox wrote: “If this guy is bored, good for him. Without criticism, we get boring art.” And Dawn Simmons, frequent director and executive director of StageSource, appreciated Siegel’s article, posting that she appreciates “the challenge he poses as it makes me think about the art I’m creating and forces me to answer the question for myself.”
One post that caught my attention was from Sloth Levine, a director, designer, and all-around theater maker, who wrote: “Boston does not make things interesting. [It] doesn’t make theater, generally, that is actually in dialogue with our popular culture. It’s either because we’re premiering work that was stale five years ago or we refuse to engage with artists who want to take risks, or both. And we don’t demand more of the artists who are making [it]. There’s no real push towards refinement in the skills we use onstage.”
Levine’s point is valid. Oftentimes, we are getting plays—New England premiere or not—that were written a few years ago, which are then repackaged and resold to Boston audiences as being current, new, and relevant. Admissions, which is running now at SpeakEasy, opened in New York almost two years ago; The Thanksgiving Play, which recently closed at the Lyric, premiered more than a year ago Off-Broadway; and Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opens at the Huntington this February, premiered in New York more than three years ago. These are great plays and I’m glad we’re getting them. But with such a lag, it’s hard to feel as though Boston is ever really on the front lines of great theater instead of just a stop on the road once the rights become available.
If critiquing the work being staged in Boston is fair game, then so is critiquing the work of the critics, particularly if what people seem to be saying is that although the Boston theater scene might regularly plateau and feel boring, the critics should—and must—continue to push for excellence and challenge everyone to be better.
So is it time for all critics to stand up and say, “Hi, I’m a theater critic, and I’m bored?” I have to say, I’m ecstatic.
When I decided that I wanted to start writing about Boston theater more than five years ago, the reason I felt compelled to do so is that, with the exception of a handful of writers, almost all the reviews are always so damn polite. Or worse, everything reads as a “must-see,” which completely nullifies the point and—frankly—wastes everybody’s time. Book reports don’t push the art forward.
The critics are a big piece of this, and we must—as the saying goes—be the change we wish to see. But local theater companies must also do better. Particularly the larger ones.
I keep fairly detailed lists of the theater that I see. In the realm of midsize theater—where the likes of SpeakEasy, Central Square, Merrimack, the Lyric compete—my notes are littered with some of the most fulfilling things I’ve seen all year, things like The Crucible, Cloud 9, School Girls, and Cambodian Rock Band.
In the realm of small and fringe theaters, it is an embarrassment of riches. The number of notable productions at our small and fringe theaters outnumbers those on midsize stages by at least two to one. And they outnumber those on larger stages by even more alarming margins. So far this year, on Boston’s largest stages—at the companies with the most money, with the largest audiences, and the biggest seasons—the work is far inferior to what’s happening in small, dusty blackbox spaces. Of the large companies, North Shore Music Theatre’s Sunset Boulevard is a notable exception, and it was very much a peak artistic experience for this critic.
A major force in large theater, the Huntington’s biggest problem, of late, is its programming. Its revivals lack urgency and freshness, and the new plays it produces are—generally speaking—not going to move the art form forward any time soon. The other major large company, American Repertory Theater, functions less and less like a theater of Boston and more like ArtsEmerson or the Colonial, bringing in artists and productions from elsewhere, or else funneling productions with New York casts from Cambridge right to… you guessed it… New York. When is the last time that A.R.T. cast a local actor or employed a local director?
The imbalance is alarming in that the smallest theaters with the smallest budgets and smallest audiences—always one or two flops away from going under—are taking the most profound risks and often staging the most electrifying work.
The Arlekin Players in Needham had two slam dunks this year with The Stone and The Seagull, both of which pushed the limits of how theater could tell old stories in new ways, all the while making the audience feel as if they were witnessing something new and profound; Guy Ben-Aharon’s riveting production of The Return at Israeli Stage was one of the most engrossing things I’ve ever seen in Boston, and it was told on a tiny little platform situated in a South End rehearsal studio without so much as a prop; I was swept up and intoxicated by The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Apollinaire Theatre, an immersively staged fever dream that found a young academic coming face to face with the Devil on the Scottish borders; and the pit in my stomach from Yewande Odetoyinbo’s performance in Moonbox’s Caroline, or Change—which was in April—still hasn’t quite subsided.
And then there’s the discovery of something new. Is that a form of peak artistic experience? You bet it is. Imagine the thrill of watching Apollinaire’s free production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Chelsea’s waterfront on a warm July evening and seeing a 16-year-old boy named Seamus G. Doyle giving the kind of effortless performance that most professionals more than twice his age couldn’t muster. Imagine, also, Praxis Stage’s threadbare production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which was staged in a tiny gymnasium in Dorchester with an ethnically diverse cast, including the alluring and commanding Zair Silva in the title role, along with the just-out-of-college Jonah Toussaint, whose easy swagger and natural handling of the prose makes him one of my favorite finds of the year. I’d say that watching a young boy with brown skin watch a Shakespeare play featuring heroes who look like him also qualifies as a peak artistic experience.
There’s also The Institute for the Opposite of Longing, a play that ran for six performances as part of Apollinaire’s new Resident Artist Program. Written by and starring Lindsay Beamish and Vanessa Peters, this devised piece about grief, loss, longing, and sadness throbbed with ache so profound that I found myself longing for more from Beamish and Peters.
And if something must be political and timely, can’t it be original? Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans offered a peak artistic experience with The Ebonic Woman, a laugh-out-loud satire about a black woman—born Hennessy Brown—who took down Donald Trump and his racist, small-minded supporters in a production of flagrant and shameless creativity, directed by Kiki Samko.
Boston critics can do better. Boston theater companies can do better. Let’s hold each other accountable. After all, we’re all working toward that same thing: that weak-in-the-knees, out-of-this-world, beyond words, transcendental experience.
Let’s get to work.