Conversations on Chekhov: What gimmicks? The Arden’s THREE SISTERS has a lasting effect

In September of 1900 Anton Chekhov confessed in a letter to his actress-wife Olga Knipper: “I find it very difficult to write THREE SISTERS, much more difficult than any other of my plays. There are a great many characters, its crowded. I’m afraid it will turn out obscure, pale, dull, verbose or awkward.”

From left:  Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) Sarah Sanford (as Olga),and Katharine Powell (as Masha) as the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Arden Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov’s play. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)
From left: Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) Sarah Sanford (as Olga),and Katharine Powell (as Masha) as the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Arden Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov’s play. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

It’s 2014, and weeks after seeing a performance the ticket stub from Terrence J. Nolen’s production of Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS on the Arden’s Otto Haas Stage is still in my coat pocket. I can’t seem to throw it out. The production was so perfectly personal. Its taken me a month to even begin writing about it. I wanted to nurse it, mull over it, drag out the experience like sipping a glass of vintage wine. This is not just a play you watch, it’s a play that should have a warning label attached to Curt Columbus’s fresh translation of Chekhov’s 1900 text that reads: This play is so riveting it may cause an existential crisis of sorts. It may make you quit your 9 to 5 day job to move across country This play could make you propose marriage to your boyfriend or girlfriend then break up with them if they say: “No. Not right now.” This play makes you ask: “If not now, when?” It’s a play that you think about first thing in the morning over coffee, on the treadmill, at work. This play will get under your skin. This play can change your life if you let it.

Chekhov is one of my all-time favorite playwrights and I could spend my life arguing in defense of his work, So I can’t help but respond to Michael Fisher’s Phindie review (THREE SISTERS (Arden Theatre): Does the gimmick stick?). Michael said: “When the house opens, the audience finds the actors milling around the fully lit theater—a trend that really needs to stop, because while it’s clearly meant to give the impression of casual naturalism, it usually comes off awkward and stagey.”

No, it doesn’t. This “slice of life-breaking the fourth-wall”-trend  is how Louis Malle’s 1994 film, Vanya on 42nd Street opens, with Wallace Shawn wolfing down a hot dog before entering the theater to play Vanya. Two years ago, for Soho Rep’s production of Uncle Vanya (read my review here) the entire theater was converted into the Serebryakov household. The audience entered, and sat cross-legged on a carpet. I got to climb over Kevin Kline’s head to sit behind him then he told me I could kick him if I needed to. He was nice, and the production was amazing, but I digress.

I didn’t get to sit next to Mr. Kline at the Arden production, I sat next to an actor friend and our conversation went like this: Entering the Arden’s Otto Haas Theater seeing the stretched stage in bare rehearsal mode, the actors swaggering around in street clothes, I said: Oh, its one of those.

My actor friend replied: By saying “one of those” you’re implying that it’s a gimmick. Sarah Sanford reading the stage directions as Olga. The video camera moved by Jake Blouch, and the projector running on the wall, the dressed down table read. They don’t trust the audience. It’s a total gimmick.

Me: No, Chekhov is willfully ripping apart at the seams Eugene Scribe’s formulaic well-made plays that littered the nineteenth century stage with stories of the downfall of women with loose morals and know it all-doctors also known as Raisonneur characters spouting the morals of the playwrights. (Birth control pills did not exist so the theater was used to frighten young women to stay chaste.)

Me again: So here, Nolen is merely following Chekhov’s lead and continuing to deconstruct this this four act play that revolves around three sisters, Olga (Sarah Sanford), Masha (Katharine Powell) and Irina (Mary Tuomanen)  Fearlessly dissecting words like samovar.

After the show was over I continued to lecture my extremely patient companion: And Scott Greer playing Chebutykin, the inebriated army doctor who confesses a patient died on his operating table is kind of a big deal. Perhaps because Chekhov was a doctor himself, or just in sheer rebellion of the well-made plays he is saying to his audience: Nope, I refuse to allow my doctor character to preach to the moral of this play you like priests from pulpits. (Okay, Michael, yes I completely agree with you that Greer is a dead ringer for Orson Wells.)

And I continued: Olga is reading the stage directions because Olga would. Nolen wants us to be conscious that yes, we are watching a play, and time is passing, hence the clock ticking away in plain sight on the wall.

Actor friend: Yeah, it pissed me off when they took down the clock in the second act.

Me: Yes, because the first act is all about the consciousness of the passage of time. As Ian Merrill Peakes says as Lieutenant-colonel Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin : “Yes, we shall all be forgotten. Such is our fate, and we can’t do anything about it. And all the things that seem serious, important and full of leaning to us now will be forgotten one day.”

The camera is a frantic attempt to capture, or bottle up every passing moment. A comment perhaps on our contemporary obsession with social media. People compulsively take pictures of their pancake breakfasts, and posting them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook because maybe they fear death, or that they too will be forgotten. Pancakes forgotten.

The only gripe I had about this show is that James Sugg only composed the music. He didn’t get to act. I guess James Sugg, Scott Greer, and Sam Henderson in the same Chekhov play at the same time—the stage couldn’t hold that much talent? I’d still be obsessing over it… oh wait! I am. [Arden Theatre, 40 N 2nd] March 20-April 20, 2014.

15 Replies to “Conversations on Chekhov: What gimmicks? The Arden’s THREE SISTERS has a lasting effect”
  1. Jessica:

    Interesting perspective, and I can’t really disagree with your analysis of this production’s presentational choices. What I would say, I suppose, is that our differing interpretations speak to yet another theater pet peeve of mine. Our editor, Mr. Ferraro, can tell you that the original review I sent him was more than a thousand words in excess of what was published, and amounted to more of a personal essay than a theater review (which is why I’m very thankful to him for cutting it). In that piece, I mentioned that I’d never gotten around to Chekhov in my studies–never liked him, never disliked him, never read him. I knew he was Russian and that was about it. And this raises the question that dogs me each time I go to the theater, particularly to see older plays: Do our theaters expect a familiarity with the text on the audience’s part? And should they?

    I hate this question, and I hate that I think about it so much, because I can see both sides. A patron of the theater, one might say, should love the art. Perhaps we consider the love of theater to be more immersive than other passions. People who love music or video games or sports might not feel obligated to know the history of those things, but theater people are, perhaps unfairly, expected to read the text before showing up and seeing the play. It’s part of the nature of the beast: if you love theater, the understanding seems to be, it’s all or nothing.

    On the other hand, you speak to many of the buried meanings in Nolen’s production, and I must say those things are neat, but here’s another question: Why do we need the the directorial choices to explain the play to us as we’re watching it? For instance, Olga’s role as de facto stage manager speaks to her character, the clock on the wall speaks to Chekhov’s themes–those things are neat, but they offer merely Easter eggs for people who have already read the play. Which brings us back to our original question: If I show up to see the play, am I expected to have read it? (I fully realize I’m inviting people to call me out for being a theater critic who hasn’t read Chekhov; oh well.)

    I have to go, but this is a very interesting topic, I think. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. And the Chekhovian conversation continues–love this! Thank you Michael for bravely posing the question: Do our theaters expect a familiarity with the text on the audience or patron’s part?


    Although do our theaters expect a familiarity with the text on the critics part?

    Hell yes.

    We, critics are held to a higher standard. We are expected to offer informed opinions. Reading Three Sisters before you reviewed it could have provided you with a context to approach and properly review the production. Theater criticism, specifically, I believe, is largely comparative. You gotta know what the script is (read it) and your review answers whether or not the production effectively executed the script.

    In your original review how can you ask the question: “Is this the original play that Chekhov wrote?” if you’ve never read the play in the first place?

    Forgive me if this is reading like a mother chiding a child. I am not saying that your review has to be weighed down by theater history. I worried about mentioning things like “Raisonneur characters”. I remember people falling asleep/snoring in my theater history course at SUNY Purchase where I first heard about Scribe and his Well-Made play formula. I kept it in because I’ll risk sounding preachy because I just love theater history so fucking much. Its a compulsion. But that’s my deal. I am obsessed, but you don’t have to be. I found historical context can make the flavor of a play more intense. It can heighten your experience as a critic.

    Can historical context take away from the immediacy of the action of the performance happening in the moment on stage? Only if you let it.

    An actor must know the script backwards and forwards but then be able to forget it in performance. A critic is required to do the same: Know the script, research before going in to the theater, but then be open to forgetting the play in the moment in order to truly witness, and record the performance. God, I don’t mean to lecture you, Michael.

    In a sense I believe like you that all great works art do not need an explanation. They should stand alone. Yes. But most people don’t major in theater/art history. In the Philadelphia Artist Collective’s production of Mary Stuart for example, I sat next to a lady looking at the program during intermission asking her companion: “Who is Schiller?” !!!! Jesus Christ—-Act 2 started so I couldn’t interject, but God damn it: Critics who can offer context to the theater patrons are so insanely essential to the theater.

    One question I guess I have is : Why would you review a play, and not research it? Who cares if you didn’t read it in school, you can read Three Sisters now! I’ll lend you my copy of the script. Again it was brave of you to admit you haven’t read it.

    Note: I will say: All of my attention devoted to history, and I never got to mention how Nolen’s choice to incorporate the camera’s minute lens made this play expansive drama so acute it killed me. The Power structure of an entire household shifts when a tiny key changes hands. That knocked the wind out of me, all my research be dashed!–see I just can’t quit talking about Chekhov, man. This dialogue is awesome. Thank you.

  3. P.S. Every music, sports, food, film, and theater critic worth reading knows the ins and outs of the subjects they are writing about. While interning at PW, I said: “I can’t really begin to write about music. I don’t play an instrument and the most I can tell you about the music dominating my IPod currently: Talking Heads, and the Mountain Goats, & Cake: “It makes me feel stuff.” You won’t see a music review from me anytime soon

  4. Excellent points, all, and I should mention–lest I shame myself TOO much–that I did major in theater and have been acting for (oof) ten years in addition to studying the art form, writing plays, stage managing, etc. So that’s the thing: I’m an expert in theater who yet has managed to remain ignorant of the entire catalogue of arguably one of the five or six most celebrated playwrights in the history of the medium. I’ve read Shakespeare, Beckett, Mamet, Ibsen–but not Chekhov. As a writer I think I’m pretty good, but as a student I’m probably about a C+.

    But that, I think, is why I still disagree.

    I must say, I love where this conversation is going, because what we’re really talking about here is the duty of the critic. And you’re absolutely right that (a) the educated critic has the ability to provide context for the less informed patron, and (b) the critic should be educated anyway for his/her own sake. So what it comes down to is the critic’s responsibility: Is it the responsibility of the critic to be smarter than the audience member?

    I don’t think so. Which is not to say that it doesn’t help, but it depends on one’s ideal of what the critic should be. I was assigned to review Three Sisters and it occurred to me that I absolutely could read it. (Thanks for the offer of your copy, but I’ve got it on my Kindle. Probably a shit translation, but it was free!) But when it came down to it, I’ve got a full time job and graduate classes to deal with. I simply didn’t have time.

    And I’m sure that’s something I have in common with many theatergoers; not everybody showing up at the door at 7:30 has read the play, and I find it interesting to write from that perspective. That’s what I believe the duty of the critic to be: Put yourself in the shoes of an audience member and ask, “Would this be worth seeing if I was merely a human going to the theater?”

    Because here’s the thing: You liked Arden’s production, but some of the aspects of it that you liked were heightened because you’d read (and loved) the play. But that isn’t going to be the experience of most people who paid the ticket price (unless there are way more Chekhov buffs in Philadelphia than I imagined). What the audience member wants is a good performance that tells them a good story. So that’s what I strove to answer in my review: Was this a good performance that told a good story effectively?

    And I didn’t think it was. I was geared up to see a play, and what I got instead was (sorry) Nolen’s twelfth-grade essay about the play brought to life.

    Here’s something: I’ve seen a lot of new plays this season–stuff like 4,000 Miles and Blink and Skin and Bone. World premieres, Philadelphia premieres. Plays you aren’t going to find in Penguin collections at Barnes & Noble. What about those plays? Should we be reading those, too?

    I suppose we could, but it still wouldn’t achieve what I’m interested in. Again, that’s not to say what you’re saying is without merit; frankly, I think most critics of any art form would agree with you. What you’re aiming to communicate is the experience of the critic, the scholar, the expert. And I can offer that point of view if ever I get to review some Shakespeare or some some Beckett or some Mamet. But in the meantime, is it not also valuable to communicate the experience of the average audience member? Is not that the person we’re aiming to reach?

    Quickly: Your note about writing music criticism. I am willing to bet that 99.9% of music critics have never picked up an instrument. They experience music just like you do: as a visceral experience that makes them feel stuff. All they really do is break down the components of the tracks and assess them in relation to each other. (Are the lyrics dumb or do they make you think about something bigger than the song? What do they make you think about? If they’re dumb, does that dumbness compliment the musical economy? Does the production quality play to the strengths of the songs themselves? There, we’ve basically just written a music review.)

    I think the whole question has less to do with the theater’s audience and more to do with our audience–or rather, the audience we’re looking for. I wouldn’t mind it, I suppose, if only people who had read Three Sisters read my review. But I would hope that’s not the case.

    There’s a lot of theory and philosophy to wade through here, and I’m sure there are some thoughts I’m leaving out, but I think this is a great conversation.

  5. Yes, let’s disagree. I am officially losing sleep over this:

    Is it the responsibility of the critic to be smarter than the average audience member?

    No way. No how. Its dangerous to write as if the reader, and the audience members around you are not as smart as you are. But Michael, your simply asking the wrong question: I think the real question is:

    Is it the responsibility of the critic to be as smart, or as studied as the artistic teams producing the play?

    Hell yes it is.

    In this case its Terrence Nolen, his Scenic Designer EUGENE LEE, Costume Designer OLIVERA GAJIC, Lighting Designer F. MITCHELL DANA, Sound and Video Designer JORGE COUSINEAU, Composer JAMES SUGG, Dramaturg SALLY OLLOVE Stage Manager ALEC E. FERRELL. His company of actors: Jake Blouch (Fedotik), Rebecca Gibel (Natasha), Scott Greer (Chebutykin), Sam Henderson (Solyony), James Ijames (Tuzenbach), Daniel Ison (Rode), Louis Lippa (Ferapont). Ian Merrill Peakes (Vershinin), Katharine Powell (Masha), Sarah Sanford (Olga), Cathy Simpson (Anfisa), Luigi Sottile (Andre), Charlie Thurston (Kulygin), Mary Tuomanen (Irina).

    These people listed here devoted 2 years of their lives to this production, man. They deserve a better response than: “I didn’t have time to read the play.” –that’s a bullshit answer.

    If you don’t have time to read the play, I would say: Don’t write a review. You had time to write a dismissive review, but you don’t have time to read the play? —Again, I say: Bullshit!

    If you want what we write here to matter to anyone at all I would say be more mindful that the words you write as a critic carry weight. These reviews that we write effect these artists lives. A dismissive, poorly researched review would have killed me if I was an actress in this play.

    I was a professional actress too. Studied for ten years with many teachers like Austen Pendleton,( who would not let you perform a scene in his class until you read the play, and memorized your lines. Michael something tells me you wouldn’t have liked his class at all. He would have made you read plays. Yikes!.:))

    I was/am a professional actress, a card-carrying Equity Member candidate. (If that means anything.) I am/was a character actor. ( It was hard for me to get cast often because I could do dialects and play younger, older, and basically parts that were different from myself. And auditions are horrible, and I get horrific stage fright like Steve Martin, (again I READ his bio Born Standing Up). It was difficult to get cast but when I did, it was in roles that were killer. In 2009, I was Elma in William Inge’s Bus Stop. Elma was the role, that my director and I both thought was going to “make my career”–or something. Until the Inky came out and panned our production and dismissively and harshly reviewed it. The critic said “Foley’s Elma took her cues from a developmental seven years old”. (My influences for Elma, and in my performing life were Andy Kaufman/Gracie Allen’s Dumb Dora so the critic was on the right track. I was pushing too hard, maybe. I had very little stage time in Philadelphia give me a break. )

    I never believed in reading reviews during runs. I’d wait till after because even a good review can get in your head.

    I accidentally read it when a cast member sent it to me, or posted it on Facebook. I read it yes, that was my choice, I clicked on the link in front of my face but until then I never got a bad review in my life. The critics in New York and Michigan loved me.I didn’t believe criticism could be that harsh.

    I don’t fault the critic he/she was just doing their job. This is America where we have the freedom of speech and they have a complete right to their opinion. I only wish the critic paid more homage to William Inge the playwright, and his intent when he wrote the play in the 1950’s.

    Judging from the review I am not even sure if the critic read the play. Judging from the review it seemed like the critic was pissed that they had to drive all the way out to Souderton where the play was. I was more angry with the massochistic cast member who posted it on Facebook. To this day its a review I wish I could “unsee”.

    I can’t articulate what it felt like to basically be called “developmental” by Inky. Developmental is the polite word for retarded, right?

    I was staying with my oldest friend, Tracey, a girl I’ve known for 20 years in Fishtown because my father didn’t approve of my even performing in the play in the first place. (Mostly he didn’t approve of the Barrymore-minimum salary of $75 a week. He thought it was going to be $75 per day. He wanted me too quit opening night, but that’s another story entirely.)

    Thank God, because Tracey is the only person in the world who could have gotten me off the bathroom floor where i basically fell down after reading that review. She knew to bring the Jack Daniels in a shot glass saying:

    “I’ve known you since you were seven. Your not retarded, Jessie. Get up off my God damn bathroom floor, and drink this.

    (I just had a shot.I had to perform that night). —

    I share this because you gotta know this criticism business is serious. The words you write carry so much weight they can make an actor fall on a bathroom floor, man. A bathroom floor is a horrible place to end up after just reading the newspaper.

    Its dismissive reviews like that BusStop review and frankly your Three Sisters Review that inspired me to become a critic in the first place. (Your too nice to openly disparage the actors, but it was a bit on the flippant- dismissive side so I had to lump you in here- you won’t read plays. What can I do?.) I became a critic because:

    1) Critics are free to say what they like, as long as they can support their viewpoint. They’re words carry weight.

    2) I never have to audition again– if I don’t want to, and wait for people to decide to put me in stuff.

    3) My career is no longer dependent on my appearance. No one has told me: Sorry, you can’t write this review because you’re not a blonde. I can gain ten pounds.. I can get a tattoo. I can get my nose pierced if I want. (I don’t want, but the point is: I can now. )

    4) I am obsessed with facts about playwrights, and production history that frankly is useless to me as an actress are suddenly useful to me as a critic.

    5) I thought I could offer something not already happening in this city.

    6) Ironically just this past month alone I’ve seen productions that were so good they almost make want to write/perform again. Inis Nua’s Midsummer and Smokey Scout’s American Wisdom. (I’ve written two solo shows. These plays make want to write another. Can’t find a collaborator to save my life in this city. Splading Gray’s girlfriend helped me write my last show. She’s in New York. But I digress. )

    Regarding new plays: this is a no-brainer, you know this, your review of Skin and Bone reflected it. I guess I would say know as much as you can.

    I would recommend not thinking of yourself as a audience member, think of yourself as a maverick theatrical professional, a critic a lone wolf, a bridge between the company and its audience whatever. Just read the plays, if you can get them.

    Grad school? I wish I could afford to go back to grad school, man. You want to talk about stress I get it. I really do. The economy is in the toilet. I work full time as a temp for corporations sometimes I have two jobs and during Mary Stuart I was the sole supporter sole wage-earner of my household, my boyfriend was so unemployed. I never read Mary Stuart before I had to review it. I knew nothing about Schiller but come opening night you better believe I read that play, and I knew everything I could know about Schiller. You owe it to the companies to be informed about their work if you are going to write reviews about them.

    Yes, the German Post-modern philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said “The meaning of the text is not that strictly circumscribed: the limits of a text’s meaning are not confined to just the author’s intent or the reader’s understanding. In fact, we can never claim that any one interpretation is correct ‘in itself.’

    But this doesn’t mean you can be lazy and not read plays. Reading plays should not be a chore. Maybe I’m a dork because I’ve always thought reading plays was fun. I was a C+ student in high school because I was too busy cutting class and hanging out in the drama department, or Central Park lets be honest.(*cough*) I do have to read plays aloud because maybe a text is meant to be heard. Try that.

    I hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Michael. I really hope I didn’t condescend. I’m just really into this. Thoroughly enjoying this conversation.(Read plays before you review them.) But that’s just my take on all this criticism-business.

    I guess I curious, what made you want to be a critic?

  6. So we’ve jumped somewhat within your response from the responsibility of the critic to the job of the performer. I’m exited to play that game, but first I have a major bone to pick with the idea that we “owe” the producing theaters anything. Perhaps your background as an actress influences your opinion here somewhat, but I must vehemently disagree.

    You mention the talented artists at the Arden–actors, designers and all–who devoted, as you say, two years of their lives to this production. That’s well and good, but I can’t say I’m sympathetic for two reasons. First: it’s their job. Plain and simple. The nonprofit theater gets money (in the form of grants) so it can put on productions and get more money (in the form of ticket revenue). What’s all this money for if not to create a good production that can delight an audience? No one’s saying theater artists are paid handsomely, but neither are they paid to do work that has no other purpose than to please themselves. Which brings me to the second problem.

    Imagine that I’d like to write a book. I want to set my book in tsarist Russia, so I fly there and spend thousands of dollars in budgeted research funds (allocated by my publisher, under the assumption that this is, you know, necessary) learning about Nicholas II and the serfs and all that excellent jazz. I work for a long time on this book, two years even. I am given money for it, but it’s hard work for me all the same.

    And you read that book. And it sucks.

    What good was all the research? In the program for Three Sisters (which, for some reason, is still in my messenger bag) Nolen mentions that he flew to Moscow with his translator in order to immerse himself in the study of all things Chekhov (and to drink vodka). Am I nuts, or does that sound like more fun than work?

    The point is that actually “working” on the production is different than dicking around with research and study. Because those things will get you nowhere in the actual performance. Nolen’s ideas meant something to you, and that’s fine. And it’s important, if that’s what you’re looking for when you go to the theater. But I don’t think the same could be said of an average audience member. Which is–still and again–the person I am more interested in relating to.

    So it seems what you’re saying is that the audience is allowed its visceral response to the performance, but that the critic must forgo that immediate state in favor of intellectual analysis. I simply disagree–but I do think there can be exceptions. I would say this: The critic should be subjective, and should be educated and well-informed; however, the critic should reserve the right, I think, to meet each production as he/she is in his/her life at that very moment. I may read Three Sisters one day, but I should not–should NOT–be “required” to do so simply so I can write 600 words about a production that should–SHOULD, absolutely, emphatically SHOULD–be good enough, with the talented people and the resources at hand, to work on its own merits, prior knowledge of the text be damned. Similarly, if I’m asked to review a play I’ve read–Hamlet or Waiting for Godot or Glengarry Glen Ross–I will use my knowledge of the text in the review, but only as it pertains to the production at hand.

    (And I must pause here to dispel the idea that I “don’t read plays”; I’ve read the plays I’ve wanted to read when I’ve wanted to read them and for no other reason than that they piqued my interest at the time. I’m reading King Lear right now, and I’m a particular fan of your friend Austin Pendleton’s play “Orson’s Shadow” [more due to my interest in Orson Welles, but anyway]. Still, Mr. Pendleton is quite wrong to make you read the play before you do the scene. Fun and enlightening as it might be, Nora doesn’t know she’s going to leave Torvald when she’s talking to Krogstad, so really, there’s no reason for you to know that’s going to happen. This is a different conversation, though, perhaps better suited for another time.)

    Even if you believe the artists are “owed” some work that the critic must do outside the theater–reading the play, learning about tsarist Russia, knowing Chekhov’s blood type–I don’t really think that’s the point. I’m not judging the amount of work the artists did; I’m judging the result. Call me conservative, but that’s what matters. (I wish I had the eloquence and succinctness of David Mamet, but I should point you in the direction of his great nonfiction texts, particularly “Theatre” and my favorite “True and False,” for a clarification of my feelings on this matter.) The point, to me, is that the research, the reading, the intellectualization of the text means nothing without a good performance that tells the story effectively. (And don’t forget–I wasn’t entirely dismissive of Nolen’s production! I actually quite liked it once it evolved past the high-concept BS into, you know, an actual performance of the play–sometime around the end of Act II, I think.)

    You ask me why I wanted to be a critic, but your question seems to come from a place that assumes I’m not a heavily invested and well informed fan and patron of theater. That’s absolutely the wrong assumption, and I hope that, by saying that I didn’t feel like reading Three Sisters and that I don’t believe I NEED to read each work that I see, that I haven’t crowned myself King Ignorant and given the impression that I don’t care about theater at all. I love theater, have worked in it and studied it and probably thought about it more than anything else over the past ten years. But that’s precisely why I love doing this: Because I feel like we so often focus on the wrong things when we talk about art, especially if we are artists ourselves in addition to being critics. We fuss and fret over the “process” when really we should be concerned with the product. I go to the theater to have fun and to be moved, not to dissect and analyze and THINK about shit. That happens after, and in my opinion serves no purpose when superimposed onto the performance. When the director wants you to focus on the “ideas” of his “interpretation” instead of actually listening to the words, I just want to gag. I’m in this racket because I hate that sort of pretentiousness, and because I don’t think it helps to make good theater. It is, I believe, the antithesis of respecting the audience. And it is the audience–not the critic and certainly not the performers themselves–for whom the play is produced.

    As for reviews affecting the performers and the directors–I don’t know. I hate to say that I don’t care, but…there are a few elements here. First, if the play genuinely insults my intelligence, I have no sympathy for the artists who committed the crime. My nastiness (hopefully I’m never TOO nasty) will be inversely proportional to how much the artists value the audience over themselves. I don’t think I was mean in my Arden review, but if I was dismissive it’s because I thought the production was more interested in its own ideas than in the story at hand. (i.e., Nolen was more interested in Nolen than he seemed to be in Olga and Irina and Masha). I would never insult a performer the way you were insulted unless I really felt personally offended by the performance, and I can’t see a scenario in which that would happen. But still, if I’m asked to judge a work of art, I will evaluate the art and NOT the process that created it. Remember that ridiculous Rube Goldberg device that Pee-Wee used to make his breakfast? It’s fun to look at, and it certainly took a lot of time and energy to create, but really all I want is my fucking eggs.

  7. For a classic or well-known play, I think it benefits the reader for the reviewer/critic to know the play and the production history. But I don’t think it’s required to read it before seeing the production. If you’ve avoided Chekhov thus far in your life, I could see advantages in showing up as a blank slate, so the ending can be a surprise.

    But then, yes, maybe go learn some more about the guy and his stuff afterwards.

  8. Yes, go learn something about the guy. That’s really my point here, Mike. But no, Mike, I don’t think critics in general owe something to the theater companies, no. Not at all.

    I read your review, and it inspired me to write my own because I felt this production deserved more attention. I owed them my review.

    I mention the talented artists at the Arden–actors, designers and all–who devoted, as you say, two years of their lives to this production because that’s what made me want to respond to your review with my own. I loved the production. I needed to express it, and I was able to. Phindie is awesome. Your awesome for inspiring me to write.

    If I didn’t like your hypothetical book. I can promise you I’d read the whole thing before I knock it.

    Regarding Mamet’s True or False: I liked the book in theory. He was rebelling against Lee Strasberg, and actors who cling to guru-teachers. He was attempting to pick apart the Stanislavski’s method. (A method Stanislavski developed through his work with the Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre.) But in practice I hated it. A director gave me this book on the first day of rehearsal of Night of the Iguana , saying: “You’re method. I don’t like method actors. Read this book.”

    Mamet’s method is the antithesis of Williams. He’s fallible. I’m not method. This was a conversation that I wished happened at the audition not the first bloody day of rehearsal. Not a good time to learn a new method. I just liked to play pretend intensely. I am not method. Not the best intro to the book.

    Anyway, Mamet contradicts himself: He says: “Your an actor not a student.” Basically saying you don’t need to rely on teachers but yet he teaches full time at the Atlantic Theater Co.-WTF?

    Maybe its not my place to tell you how to prepare to review a show. We prepare, and review differently. I can accept this. This was so much fun. Nothing like a 3 day argument. I love it. You make me want to write more.

    Liam thank you for pointing out that: James Sugg is James Sugg, and not “James Snugg” as I originally misspelled it in more than one review! Austin is Austin and not “Austen.” That’s what I get for writing and posting at 4 am.

  9. We’re going to have to have a whooooooole different argument about True and False someday. I have some VERY strong opinions about that book and its approach not only to acting but to every facet of theater. All of Mamet’s nonfiction texts are my absolute shit. (Except that one he wrote about discovering he was a conservative republican; even I was like, “Gtfo, David.”)

    And as far as giving Arden’s production another perspective: it’s admirable, especially since the production had already closed so you really didn’t HAVE to say anything about it. And like I said, my original review was 1,800 words long; even if it wasn’t exactly glowing, the longer version at least gave the play more consideration than the 800 words it was eventually boiled down to. It’s funny, we’re trying to cap reviews at 600 words now at Phindie, so the result is that we reserve our longer, more introspective word counts for comments-section debates. It’s like we’ve created an inverted internet.

    Anyway, this was really interesting. There needs to be a whole round table at Phindie about critical theory. Can you imagine all the throbbing forehead veins???

  10. Oooooo, you’re a Mamet-man! Of course you’re not going to respond positively to Chekhov.Mamet is the like the anti-Chekhov. But I was raised in the Stanislavski Method. Maybe I’m more hard core-method about everything than I realized. Maybe this is why we essentially agree to disagree.

    Mamet versus Method.

    I realized I’ve been yelling at you like my first acting teacher, a brilliant firery Russian man, named Marat Yussim who would yell at us everyday. (He was literally right about everything. His instincts about talent, and life in the theater were impeccable. )

    He would say in a thick Russian accent:

    “You, kids, Stanislavski hisself couldn’t teach you! You didn’t read play? You didn’t prepare? Shmata!” (Throws chair because he was awesome, and Russian.) –This is what I’ve been yelling at you for like 3 days minus the shmata.

    Forget throbbing temples lets get Russian and throw chairs at the Phindie-sit down. Maybe Chris Munden could throw just one chair?

  11. P.S. : In her review of EgoPo’s production of Ibsen’s Peer Gint, Toby Zinman admits to not reading the play before seeing the show:


    But note: Toby doesn’t dismiss the production, and she researched production history, Mike.

    I’ll admit sometimes I wait to the read the play after I see the show, but not before sitting down to write the review, man.

    1. Sorry girlfriend, you’re definitely not going to convince me of anything by bringing up Toby Zinman. She is a sentinel of the old guard, and while her methodology has its merits I can neither agree with it nor operate by it. (Also, I must one day send you my unedited review of Three Sisters, to once and for all convince you that “dismissive” is the last thing I was toward Arden’s production.)

  12. Toby, old guard?

    Psssh-please. No. Her reviews read like dialogue. She’s built relationships with theater companies, and so the dialogue is only natural.-That is criticism to me. A Toby Zinman-review is a big deal. Have you been to the theater when Zinman arrives?
    All the blue haired ladies are on edge, and turning to each other saying:

    “She’s here.” or “That’s—from—shh–don’t point..I said don’t point.”

    Tell me that is not awesome. How can you not love her?

    Its ok, you don’t have to, but Toby actually agrees with you. Gint? Didn’t read it, and she survived.

    Whose next on the Fisher-chopping block? Howard Shapiro? Just so we are clear: We will come to blows if you knock my Shapiro.

  13. Well, you said it yourself: the blue-hairs freak over Toby. If that’s not Old Guard in the most literal sense, I don’t know what is.

    In all seriousness, her style is just too old-fashioned for me. Heavy on summary (which you need, obviously, but it can be done with flair) and heavy on vague adjectives–the sorts of descriptors you use when you either (a) don’t feel like actually thinking about what you saw, or (b) don’t really have anything to say about it. “Imaginative,” “remarkable,” “clever.” Words that sound nice but mean nothing without context, without painting both the physical and the philosophical aspects of the performance for the reader. These words are fine by themselves, but to rely on them to carry an entire review is lazy. Maybe it’s because she comes from newspaper, where writers are pinned down to suffocating word counts, but there’s a lack of imagination there. And, of course, I sometimes fall prey to those vague adjectives and pesky cliches, too. But I read my old work and make a point to recognize those parts where the prose falls flat, and when I try again, I at least try to incorporate what I’ve learned. That’s part of what writing means to me: never pretending my work is perfect, and always looking for ways to improve. (Zinman actually uses the phrase “theatrical tour de force” in her Gint review. I mean for fuck’s sake…)

    As for Shapiro: Check out his Three Sisters review:

    Here’s a sample:

    “If there’s some meaning in this, I challenge you to find it.”

    Not only is that an apt reaction to Arden’s production, but I think that’s going to be my new life mantra.

    1. You are just cracking me up at this point, man. Hilarious. I am not questioning your ability to write. You write well. I can’t worry too much about the quality of my work because then I will get too much in my head if I focus on the end product. The more we write the better we will get, right? If I were you I wouldn’t worry about that either. What interests me about criticism is that its subjective by nature and we, critics get the opportunity to say uniquely what we think. How interesting is that Shapiro, J. Cooper Robb, of Philadelphia Weekly, You and I saw exactly the same production and came away from it with completely different critiques to offer? Its like the first novels written in epistolary form. It almost allows the reader to see the show multiple times, from multiple viewpoints.

      If I beat myself up for anything its that I really want to see and review everything. I wish I could somehow make the lion’s share of my income writing about theater, teaching dramatic lit or thinking about theater, like Toby does. I would love to spend my days writing profiles, theater calendar-blurbs and promotional material, I get ideas all the time, but I’m lucky if I can churn out 2 reviews a month. Because I gotta constantly hustle to work or find work. (which could really be anything anywhere, but it largely worlds away from anything remotely connected to the arts.) Now apparently they are selling my house. (Perhaps this is why I’ve been obsessed with this Chekhov play. Everyone is always losing their homes in Chekhov plays: Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, almost, and this play they get kicked out. Perhaps because Chekhov’s father was a drunk who pissed away all the money he had in the world, and the family home had to be sold.

      Its like in college, I was on scholarship and I still had to work my way through so I was a “B” student. But if I didn’t have to work through college, at night and weekends I would have been an A student. Same principle applies here. Right now I am like a “B+ critic but given some kind of magical non-exsistent full time job to write about plays I would be like an “A+ critic. But that’s like asking for like a unicorn, no?

      I interned at PW until I absolutely couldn’t afford to anymore. Simple fact is: I am a self-supporting young woman. My parents and family, and boyfriend think I am nuts to do this, but I just fucking love it. I ignore them, but that takes energy, and I have had full-blown-knock-down fights with them just to get to my computer to even write these reviews. This has definitely slowed me up. You are so lucky, you are a guy, Mike. But its not like I am going to quit. I’ll dump them all before I quit writing, or thinking about theater. (the real issue stems from money, or the lack of it.)

      I loved interning at that newspaper, but I could not afford to work for free or even afford to work on a freelance basis. On the plus side: I don’t need much. I’ll take $10 an hour. Barely above minimum wage.

      All this talk about the future of criticism, how can we not talk about the necessity of financial compensation? I guess I look up to Toby because she is kind of living the dream. The newspaper, one of the few papers left in town pays her, not full time, but still. She has been addressing the issues we’ve addressed here for close to 15 years. She was the full time critic at City Paper. How can I not admire her? Check out this article from 2006:

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