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Reviewing Student Theater is an Invisible Taboo


This report begins a survey of University theatre in greater Boston and Cambridge. Higher learning has significant footholds in Massachusetts Bay, and in aiming to treat the local theater scene broadly and accurately, it seems appropriate to make mention of some of these academic productions and their successes.

The disadvantage of this decision lies in the web of complexities surrounding criticism of student theatre. There is a tendency to look askance at serious reviews of what are regarded as amateur performances because, after all, such theatre is seen to exist outside professional repertoires and companies. The powers that be also believe that descriptions of student performances if brought into the public eye can damage the closed circuits of trust and intimacy which dramatic education relies upon to thrive.

Still, I am inclined to poke at the issue of student theatre, inclined to write these reviews, in part because Boston's scene is so suited to it, and in part because it is an invisible taboo. The condition of presenting a play is reflected in the shape of an amphitheater: activity onstage is meant to open onto a context broader than its own, spreading through an audience in ripples of reception that is necessarily different than the dialogue of one's own club. This is true even of university productions, which are presented by members of society who are mature enough to vote and join the military, but (it has been suggested) not mature enough to have somebody type up a sentence or two about their acting. Of course, actors can be very sensitive.

The Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club (hereafter HDRC) was founded in 1908, giving an umbrella and a home to theatrical practices in all their forms at Harvard. It has since been supplemented with additional clubs, including the Gilbert and Sullivan Players (founded in 1956) and the upstanding professional club (mainly for graduate students and adults) that maintains more separation from the university, American Repertory Theater (founded by Robert Brustein in 1980). As Harvard does not offer an undergraduate theater major, these clubs are particularly important to maintaining the rites of Thespis in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In the Loeb's corner of Cambridge in early November, one needed small relief, even if it came exclusively in the form of kool-aid-colored burgundy and sneakers peeping from under long skirts

Conspiracy was a shuffling of the dramatical deck where sensitivity fell fairly low in the stack. Status, charisma, and questions of justice and ideology were the first cards turned. An audience queued in the lobby of the Loeb Drama Center's mainstage, where a huge oval table was set with manilla file folders filled with briefs on the characters, each labelled "TOP SECRET" with sheets from someone's ink-jet printer. Of course, this was the way of the show: the physical details—props and costumes—were not necessarily polished to the flawless realism they wanted to suggest, but they put forward complex thought about the orchestration of horrific events. In this type of theater, some failures of realism are almost a relief: understanding is challenged enough by the matter and nature of the play without the added problem of trompe l'oeil. Amateurish attempts at realism that fall short of cinematic accuracy have their own potency as signifiers; this is a powerful distancing device sometimes carelessly discarded when it needn't be, and a strong reason for seeking out amateur productions. In the Loeb's corner of Cambridge in early November, one needed small relief, even if it came exclusively in the form of kool-aid-colored burgundy and sneakers peeping from under long skirts chosen for their accuracy to the period. Let the props suggest merely: the subject at hand was human evil.

Conspiracy is an adaptation from the only surviving transcript of the Wannsee Conference, a secret meeting at a villa north of Berlin where Nazi officials and high-ranking bureaucrats were debriefed on policies relating to the extermination of  Jews in 1942. The transcript was adapted by Loring Mandel in the late 1990s at the urging of Frank Pierson (screenwriter of Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, and others), and the screenplay, a tour de force for fifteen exceptional actors became an HBO movie of the same name starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in 2001. After conversation with director Caleb Thompson, a Harvard senior, Loring Mandel arranged a new adaptation of the play for HRDC this year, visiting rehearsals and corresponding with Thompson extensively on small changes and larger rewrites to the script.

Secret knowledge is pivotal in the play, and revealed with the dull ache of our other contextual knowledge: that is, cultural memory of the Holocaust. Thompson began correspondence with Mandel when struck by the theatricality of the HBO movie: important on a world-historical stage, it plays out in real time almost exclusively in a single room, powerfully observing some very old rules about unities in the construction of drama. But to place the action onstage, Thompson was obliged to crack open the closed circle of the meeting quite literally. Film accommodates the drama of close quarters and boardroom chatter in tight circles, but the stage is unforgiving to conversation around a table.

three actors on stage
Student actors protray Nazi officials in Conspiracy. Photo by Tiana A Abdulmassih.

The canny design of the HRDC production by Madelynne Hays ('13) splits the scene of dialogue and action—the table itself—opening the meeting to the audience like a book, as if we, too, are seated in the circle. Instead of a gathering around a single piece of furniture as in the film, the players are arranged at two long tables facing downstage, a spatial relationship like a classical court scene, where those seated seem in a position to pass judgment at the end. This leaves a very hot space center stage, where Reinhard Heydrich (Adam Conner '14) held electric focus in discursus on the “cleaning” of Europe—and gradually made clear that radical changes to the execution of justice had already been put into play, rendering the classical Enlightenment model of justice horrifyingly obsolete. The final solution had already been decided.

Conspiracy makes the point, according to Thompson, that damning prejudice is not always the consequence of ignorance; that “the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated by fifteen intelligent, educated, enlightened, sophisticated, witty, urbane, idealistic young men. . .The guys sitting at that table thought they were the most progressive society in the world. They thought that they were creating a sort of racial utopia . . . [Conspiracy] is a kind of reminder that we always have to temper  our intellectual advancement with a moral awareness.” This sense of the dangers of progressivism were shockingly alive when played out by fifteen intelligent, educated, enlightened, sophisticated, witty, urbane, and idealistic young men at one of the greatest universities in the world. Strange to say, but Branagh, Tucci, et al., paled in comparison when I revisited their interpretations after watching Peter Bestoso and Adam Conner as Adolf Eichmann and Heydrich, respectively. Great actors, Tucci and Branagh told a story. But context meant that HRDC performed a different, and for me more important, task: a positive inoculation against fascist tendencies in an intellectual center of the world.

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The challenge of to review or not to review (or to invite critics to or not invite critics to) student productions is different from market to market and university to university. And age to age. As an arts journalist based in Indianapolis, I will occasionally review a college production, just as I will occasionally review an avocational production, if it seems to promise something unique for the market. I wasn't, for instance, going to pass up seeing Butler University's "Lamentations," which proved to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences I've had here. A midnight performance of "Hair" at Purdue U? Absolutely.
However, I am aware of the Google-ability of the world today. While I commit myself to writing honestly about the experience, I'm aware that negative review of a performance may be the only mention out there that a casting director finds when considering casting that actor next month or next year. Is that fair to the performer? Should fairness matter? Perhaps it's a dodge, but the less "professional" the production, the more likely I am not name names when a performance doesn't work. I look forward to more thoughts here on the subject..

Fairness should matter, but silence isn't the way to establish it. I think classifying reviews as"positive" or "negative" misses something about the complexity of statements, which can use a bit more subtlety than ideographic symbols like a thumb pointing
down, or certain numbers of stars or tomatoes. Our age is particularly fond of that sort of review. Nevertheless, it's possible to make more accurate distinctions, and people charged with reviewing ought to be capable of recognizing circumstances and using tact. It would be bad to write a scathing review of an undergraduate actor's performance for lots of reasons—not only because it might harm the actor's career, but because you would probably be focusing on the wrong corner of a phenomenon. The reviewer so focused would look mean-spirited
and untrustworthy unless the particular way the acting was bad created a genuine and far-reaching insight; and if that were the case, the poor actor would probably be forgiven, because a far-reaching insight would touch something larger than the actor and he would appear to be a victim of circumstance. Another way of saying this, bad reviews can be very tiresome if they are not also funny or instructive or observant and just. A professional reviewer, seeking out non-professional acting, finds it below-par: you would almost need a Dostoevsky to pull off that kind of perverse, decadent reasoning. So what you say, Lou, about operating on a case-by-case basis is essentially what I'm advocating. But I think there are several "cases" even within this small paragraph, and I think that review has its own rules which are worth our interest—which is not trust, but is related to it. For instance I would feel very justified in writing a scathing review of a neo-Nazi group's presentation of this play even if they were students, and I would feel more than happy to notice and comment if they were terrible actors to boot.

I, too, am very much against thumbs up/thumbs down reviewing. I don't do it. Nor do I assign star ratings or think of my reviews in terms of positive or negative. My use of the term "negative" simply was meant to refer to perception. No matter what our approach, actors (or directors, or theaters) will label it a positive, negative, or mixed review or comment. My point, a small one, is that with non-professional productions, I try to say what I want to say without having someone's name be Google-able. I only used it to illustrate one--of many--challenge with critically writing about a college production. I'm interested in your final point. Are you saying that a reviewer show be more comfortable being joyfully vicious in his or her writing if the critic does not agree with the politics of the presenter?

That isn't quite what I mean, no. I just want to encourage the breaking of our own rules when there is a reason for it. Regardless of my feelings about "thumbs up", for example, I like the way the liking things works on Facebook--it allows me to acknowledge comments that might be slightly pointed and aggressive, but that I appreciate for keeping conversation active and alive. There's a blanket good-feeling button, and also the ability to respond to the ideas in words. This keeps the internet friendly, which is more difficult than might be expected, especially when the base-line of our matter of conversation is National Socialism. Thank you for your comments, Lou!

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