By Dennis Johnson, Community Theatre Coordinator
I thought of several titles for this article. Perhaps SPIDERMAN: Turn Off The Theatre or 3-D Comes To Broadway. The future of theatre is the key question here. Something different is suddenly happening on Broadway and what happens on Broadway eventually has an impact on theatre practitioners everywhere.
I spent the first week of 2011 in New York City. And like everyone else, I wanted to check out the biggest theatrical newsmaker of the season. So I bought a ticket for SPIDERMAN: Turn off the Dark. No big names in the cast, but Julie Taymor directed. Bono and The Edge are credited with music and lyrics. Big names sell tickets.
The Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street was formerly called the Hilton Theatre and before that, the Ford Centre. I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang there a few years ago, with a car that flew out over the audience. It seems to specialize in technological extravaganzas, and apparently had to be completely rebuilt to accommodate the endlessly moving scenery and flying actors for SPIDERMAN.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the audience was well informed. They had read the comic books, and the newspaper accounts of concussions and actors dangling over the audience. As I arrived, a press conference was taking place in the lobby, where Christopher Tierney, an actor who fell thirty feet into the orchestra pit, appeared before the press complete with seven screws in his back, and wearing a neck brace. He says he’s looking forward to returning to the show, and then went backstage to say “break a leg” to his colleagues.
Then the show began – fifteen minutes late. Of course five of those minutes were taken up with a speech by one of the producers, who explained in detail that this is a Preview, the show has not opened yet and there could possibly be a few “glitches” which could cause the show to stop temporarily. Then he introduced the “Production Stage Manager” who was a voice from on high – a voice that has clearly become one of the new characters in this most unusual of dramas. This was not the last time we were to hear from him.
At 8:29 pm – less than 15 minutes into the action – a “glitch” happened. Two pieces of scenery that had been hung far too close together collided in mid-air and debris fell to the stage, just missing one of the actors. The main drop lowered, actors and musicians were ordered off the stage, and our friend the Production Stage Manager announced that we’d be taking a short break while the crew fixed the problem. Houselights came up (for fifteen minutes) and suddenly a quarter of the audience (by my estimate) pulled out their cell-phones and started texting their friends. They had already got what they came for. Something had gone wrong and they were going to be the first to tell their friends. For this they (and I) paid $142 a seat.
This was not the only “glitch” that evening. Toward the end of Act One, there was not enough time to hook up the Green Goblin before his final flying reappearance. The tension of the moment was suddenly squandered, and the actor in question took advantage of the moment to give us a laugh in character which delighted the audience. Well he should laugh. The joke is on us.
SPIDERMAN: Turn Off The Dark has more in common with WWE wrestling than it does with theatre as we know it. The fact that the wrestling takes place above the audience, using actors dangling from highly visible wires, does not make it any less phony or contrived than professional wrestlers. The persistent technological “glitches” that plague the show are suspiciously similar to the kind of reality television pranks that create artificial tension in a show where none really exists.
SPIDERMAN: Turn Off The Dark claims to be a technological marvel, and yet all of its so-called innovations have been in constant use in the theatre for over a hundred years – flying actors, treadmills, hydraulic lifts, projections. This is the stuff of melodrama and was well known to David Belasco and Oscar Hammerstein. This is the kind of theatre that the Little Theatre Movement was created to counteract. Little Theatres were for actors, writers and their art, not for spectacle.
In fact, SPIDERMAN is nothing more than a 3-D movie transferred to the stage. Wow! The actors actually fly out of the screen directly at you! I know I should never disparage patrons who go to the trouble of buying tickets for live theatre, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this musical is attracting a movie audience. They want to be in on the latest fad. Even if it is using technology that is over a century old.
Thankfully, however, the theatre is still alive and well in New York City. SPIDERMAN was not the only play I saw that week. There were three others. Ironically, all three were about mediocrity in the theatre. All three were brilliant vehicles for very fine actors. And sadly, two of them have now closed. The first, and certainly most high profile, was La Bete by David Hirson, starring three of my favourite actors – Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette. La Bete is a comedy about the beast that resides within every artist – namely the willingness to compromise artistic principals in order to give the audience what they want. Joanna Lumley plays the Princess, a character who represents the audience, petulantly trying to control the entertainment provided by the actors she employs, and never knowing what she really wants. Rylance, a brilliant scene-stealer, plays the title role, a fool who’s self-centred stream-of-consciousness ramblings are at once hilarious and awful. David Hyde Pierce plays the uncompromising artist, who of course, is forced to leave the stage while the actors in the company he has built, decide to remain with the Princess and allow themselves to be led by an idiot. I thought about SPIDERMAN a lot that night.
Then I saw Mistakes Were Made by Craig Wright at the Barrow Street Theatre, Off Broadway. This comedy reveals a producer trying to get a new play produced on Broadway about the French Revolution. The producer, brilliantly played by Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) wants to cast a completely inappropriate movie star in the lead role. Well, not exactly the lead. He wants the author to rewrite his play and give “that Pierre guy” (Robespierre) a sidekick who will become the central character in a romanticized, fictionalized version of history. Happily, neither the playwright nor the movie star will have anything to do with the idea. Sadly, the producer has spent all his time on the telephone force-feeding his pet fish (a puppet) which collapses and dies at the end of the play. Force-feeding the gullible. Mistakes Were Made is a comedy that reminds us that art is all too often destroyed by the middleman.
Finally, I saw Zero Hour, written and performed by Jim Brochu and directed by Piper Laurie. This is a two-hour one-man show about Zero Mostel. It’s a tragedy about a very funny man. Zero Mostel created the roles of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Tevya in Fiddler of the Roof and Max Bialystock in The Producers. Zero Mostel was a difficult, unlikeable man who suffered the indignity of being dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee (where he treated the Congressmen with hilarious answers to their ridiculous questions) and was then blacklisted for ten years. Mostel’s first love was visual art – he was a painter and portrait artist and his creativity was sustained by substituting one art form for another. Zero Hour is now on tour and will play the Al Green Theatre in Toronto March 26 to April 16, 2011. Highly recommended, and guaranteed to make you think about who really controls the theatre.
I left New York complacent. I had smugly dismissed SPIDERMAN and happily embraced the other plays I had seen. But SPIDERMAN is still playing (even though it won’t officially open until the Ides of March). And the rest of the plays I saw, have closed or will soon be over.