Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The First Review! (and a lot of blogs...)

Here's the first actual publication review Sherlock Holmes/Carol has received--a shortish blurb but it's a good review. Give it a read.

“Taproot’s got good news: a brand new mashup of the Dickens classic.” - Mark D. Fefer, Seattle Weekly

That was the first publication review. But it's the seventh review for this show.

Just five years ago I used "blogging" as a punchline in one of my plays, where an obsessive theatre critic starts publishing his journal online after he quits his job. But now? Bloggers are all over the place, and not a punchline. Increasingly they're becoming part of the necessary press coverage theatre uses to spread word about a show.

Bloggers vary widely, as do blogs--not just professional or amateur status, but in their fundamental approach to their writing. Many of these folks, like myself, are writing about a variety of subjects, including but not limited to theatre. Sometimes these reviews mix a lot more personal narratives in, and there seems more interest in offering opinions, not an overall critical response.

“my biggest gripe was the fact that the show was eventually going to end.” - Steven Gomez, The Russians Used a Pencil

“For some reason, the holidays are never complete without a good performance or two. Thankfully, I was able to locate just the right diversion this Christmas – Taproot Theatre is performing ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.’” - Kim Martinez, Kim Martinez Staying Focused

Others are community-based blogs with multiple writers that mirror the fast-disappearing neighborhood newspaper.

“Stephen’s interaction throughout the performance is a stunning display of American theater at its best.” - Andrew Davis, Seattle P-I Greenwood-Phinney

“It’s the best of Dickens and Doyle. … You won’t want to miss this cheery, insightful and hilarious journey with some of literatures best.” - Meredith Pechta, Examiner.com

There are even magazines that have a blog element.

“It’s elementary, really. … it works seamlessly. … Holmes aficionados will find numerous delights.” - Machelle Allman, Seattle’s Child

What's interesting about all of these reviews is that with the exception of The Seattle Weekly and arguably The Seattle PI, these are are new voices that weren't writing about theatre just five years ago.

Which leads me to what is my favorite review, even though the reviewer probably liked the show less than anyone else:


Emma M. didn't like the show as much as most of the other writers. Some bits bored her and she's got some other criticisms. But right there at the top of the blog, you know what it says?

"Teenagers write this blog. Deal with it."

There are teens out there who actually want to go see theatre? And write about it? It warms the cockles of my ex-critic heart.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


"Sherlock Holmes/Christmas Carol" got its first pair of reviews already, from a couple of different bloggers.

Here's the link from blogger Gomezticator:


"...my biggest gripe was the fact that the show was eventually going to end."

And here's the one from the Phinney Ridge website:

Referring to Stephen Grenley's portrayal of Watson: "a stunning display of American theater at its best."

See what I did right there? I cherry-picked a couple of key quotes from these two reviews, each short, under a sentence. They make it seem like the reviewers absolutely loved the show and thought it was one of the best things they'd ever seen.

As a PR person, I'm wary of using this technique. The thing is, you can take a pretty mixed review and make it sound like a four-star sensation.

So: "the directing was far from brilliant, in fact hum-drum, and the production overall delivers none of the excitement you'd expect from a professional company."

Can become: "the directing was...brilliant...the excitement you'd expect from a professional company."

When I was reviewing plays back in the '90s I was called one day by the artistic director of a local fringe company. At that time of theatrical bounty, there were many groups in Seattle that produced sub-par work, but under this man's leadership this one ambitiously managed to produce mediocre productions across all genres, from Shakespeare to musicals, from improv to new writing.

He wanted to talk about the scathing review I'd given his most recent effort, a promising play that he'd managed to sink through his poor casting, desperate costuming, abysmal lighting and sound, and above all terrible direction. He was angry, but as we discussed each element he agreed that it wasn't very good.

Finally, exasperated and needing to end the conversation, I said, "Can you please tell me if there's anything inaccurate in my review?"

Gathering up his outrage, he answered, "I've read through this twice, and there is NOTHING here that I can quote!"

So: those reviews right above? The ones with the killer quotes?

Ah, go ahead and check. They're both raves.

Thanks, reviewers. I appreciate you taking the time to see shows and to share your thoughts about them--particularly when you had such a good time!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Wary Holmes Companion: Sherlock on the Radio

Cold enough for ya?

It is for me. This is one hardy Alaskan who prefers his Seattle winters gray and wet instead of icy and treacherous. The cold snap and mini-blizzard that's shut down half of Seattle has me abandoning portions of my house to the cold and retreating to a couple of rooms where closed doors and some weatherized windows make baseboard heating adequate.

But there's an upside to all of this. Being housebound is a great opportunity to listen to some radio theatre. I've long been an Old Time Radio enthusiast (read: dork), and these days you can track down thousands of these radio shows for free download.

Given my other interests, you're probably not surprised to learn that I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes radio shows, which began while Conan Doyle was still alive and are still produced by both American and British radio producers to this day.

The quality of these shows are variable. My personal favorites are the John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson versions from the 1940s. But here's a link to a charming 1948 adaptation of Conan Doyle's "Christmas Tale" The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle starring John Stanley as Holmes and George Spelvin as Dr. Watson, that I think is just as fun.

Perfect entertainment on a chilly November night!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hamlet: Good Grief, Sweet Prince

I saw Seattle Shakespeare’s excellent production of Hamlet this last week, and all of the good press the show’s gotten is richly deserved. Great cast, crystal clear directing, funny and somber and illuminating—a fine opportunity to reacquaint yourself with one of the best plays ever written.

But it also shows what I’ve long thought about the Prince of Denmark: he is absolutely the worst revenger in the history of Revenge Tragedies.

To recap: Hamlet is told by no less of an authority than the Ghost of his own dead Father that his Uncle is a murderous villain. On top of this, Claudius has married his mother, dispossessed the Prince, and shoots off the Royal Cannons whenever he gets drunk. Simple answer, right? Request a private conference with the old souse, run your sword through his gut, make excuses afterwards.

Instead he hatches several Cunning Plans, and the result is a stage littered with corpses—including his own.

You can blame Hamlet or his philosophy professors at Wittenberg or the Oedipal complex or the effect of Renaissance ideas on the medieval mind. Personally, I blame Horatio, the least effective sidekick in literature.

After painstaking research, I’ve reconstructed the following pages from Horatio’s private diary.

8 October: I met with H. again today to discuss his plans for revenge. He showed up with his stockings foul'd, ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankles. He also had stuck some straw in his hair.

“What’s with the down-gyving?” I asked.

“I merely seem mad,” he said. “When the wind’s southerly, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw.” He then crossed his eyes and shook his cheeks with a “wubba wubba” sound.

“Uh-huh.” I replied.

“My antic disposition shall confound mine enemy.”

“It’s certainly confounding me,” I admitted. “Along with Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, Marcellus, Ophelia and everyone else in the castle.”

“That’s my purpose!” he said triumphantly.

“Why Ophelia?” I asked. “Do you think she had something to do with the murder?”


“Then why are you acting crazy round her?”

He looked ashamed for a moment. “She’s great, really, but you know? All we ever talk about is her gardening and whatever hey-nonny-nonny song she's listening to. It’s just not working for me, so I thought I’d let her down easy.”

“By pretending you’re insane?”


“Well, far be it for me to give unsolicited advice, but if your Uncle murdered your Father, just kill him! C
laudius is a loudmouth drunk who’s always cadging drinks and hitting on lords’ wives at official functions. You’re the rightful heir.I can create a distraction so his guards aren’t looking. I’ll say something like ‘Help! Help! I see a ghost!,’ while you run him through.There probably won’t even be an official investigation.”

H. looked confused. “The time’s not right. What’s today, Tuesday? It’s bad luck to kill your Uncle on a Tuesday. I read that somewhere.” He suddenly spotted Polonius. “Ah-ha! Off to confound the old man!” He hitched his right stocking down a couple of inches further and raced off.

I miss Wittenberg.

10 October: Talked to H. again, who’s in a fevered excitement about the arrival of some strolling players. Hey, I love theatre as much as the next guy (particularly comical-historical-pastoral—I go nuts for that stuff!), but that’s not what has him so goofy. “My plot is laid, Horatio!,” he said, brandishing some pages he was scribbling on. “I’m going to interpolate a scene I’ve written into tonight's performance, replicating my father’s murder!”

“Wow!” I said.

“I know, right? Stuck in the middle of this old Italian tragedy like a petard in a punch bowl.” He made a “KA-BLOOIE!” sound and thrust out his hands, fingers waving, in imitation of an explosion.

I smiled. He smiled.

Then, I had to ask. “Why, exactly?”

“I’m going to watch Claudius. I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I’ll know my course.”

“To cut him down while he’s distracted?”

“Absolutely!” he said. Then he looked a little shifty. “Or really soon, anyway.”

“So the ghost wasn’t enough?” He looked at me mysteriously.

“Maybe it wasn’t a ghost. Maybe it was a trick.”

“A trick?”

“Maybe it was a sprite disguised as a ghost, trying to get me to kill Claudius.”

"A sprite? Like a brownie?"

"Or a hobgoblin."

“That's pretty convoluted, even for a hobgoblin.”

“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio….”

“I heard you the first time. Look, if your plan works Claudius will know you put the players up to it. Won’t you lose the advantage of surprise?”

He looked confused, then shouted “I don’t have time for this!” and angrily rearranged his head straw. “I’ve got to go find those players and give them some acting advice!”

“Well, I’m sure THAT will go over well." I said.

He ungyved his right hose a bit, and was off.

This afternoon I updated my resume. I’m applying for a job with the Swedish Royal Court.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dammit, Mamet! A Review of Mr. Crankypants' New Book "Theatre"

Is David Mamet, one of the greatest playwrights of the American stage, now its crankiest commentator?

I've just been finished his new book, modestly entitled Theatre. The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

That doesn't mean that Theatre is not occasionally a fun read. When his earlier book True and False came out in 1999, I discussed it with Freehold’s director (and UW Professor) Mark Jenkins. That book was a radical and thorough attack on the Stanislavski-inspired system of acting training, with Mamet lambasting just about every central tenant of “the Method,” from “sense memory” to textual analysis. His objections were vituperative but seemed informed; Mamet had studied with Meisner and was a friend of Harold Clurman, among other original pioneers of The Group Theatre. He certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

When I asked Jenkins, himself a graduate of The Actor’s Studio, what he thought, he said he strenuously disagreed with almost everything in the book. “But look at where Mamet is: he’s won the Pulitzer and has come close to an Oscar. He’s got a hit film out (at that time it was The Spanish Prisoner) and is married to a beautiful actress. He’s on top of the world and he knows it. Of course he’s going to write a book like this!”

But having railed from the top of Success Mountain against Theatre’s “false prophets,” a decade later Mamet’s provocative thoughts have calcified into list-making curmudgeonliness.

In Theatre, it’s not just theatrical training that gets bludgeoned. Practically every element of the art is savaged, including actors, directors, the rehearsal process, the cost of theatre tickets, subscribers, arts funding, political theatre, poetic theatre, and “victim theatre.”

Mamet’s value as an essayist is his pugilistic prose which declares, in short powerful sentences, his positions. But when you start to pull them apart in search of the meaning of the maxims, what’s there is at best bewildering and at worst fraudulent.

Take this paragraph, from the chapter provocatively entitled (but what isn't in this book?) “On the General Uselessness of the Rehearsal Process:”

“The better the play, the easier it is to stage. Why? A good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom. Knowing this, the director can merely stage the actors such that, scene by scene, their intentions are clear to the audience. Let the actor learn his lines and open the damn thing.”

Let's leave alone the grumblings about ease of staging, which sound like the exasperated yowl of a playwright who’s become convinced that the real problem with his wonderful scripts is that his stupid directors keep overproducing them.

Instead, let's examine this contention: “a good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom.” Since Mamet evokes Aristotle, Oedipus, and Shakespeare, I'll evoke Hamlet. Now, Hamlet's fundamental "want" is obvious: avenge his father, and kill his Uncle. Then why doesn't he do it? In the original history that Shakespeare used as his source, the Prince learns about the murder, hunts down his uncle, kills him, and then reigns happily in Elsinore to a ripe old age. Now that's clear. So why does Shakespeare’s Hamlet spend five acts assuming an “antic disposition,” breaking up with Ophelia, bewildering his friends, and even staging a play in court just to see Claudius’s reaction? The only thing that’s “clear” is that he's conflicted--he wants to kill his Uncle at the same time he doesn't want to, for reasons that he can't articulate and we can't fully understand. That's what makes Hamlet not just a good but a great play.

Theatre’s short chapters are filled with a laundry list of the dislikes of Mamet. Actors need to understand the “fact” that no one wants to see people crying on a stage. (Hey Electra! Get a room!) Plays about “victims,” and here Mamet means "social message" dramas about the dilemmas of gays, women, and people of color, are reminiscent (for reasons that aren't entirely clear) of Stalinist show trials. Subsidized theatres insulate artists from the healthy tonic of the marketplace. Subscribers feel conned because they've been sold on a season, not a play’s individual merits. Directors are simply unnecessary, an obstacle between the actor and the play.

After laying waste to so much of the theatrical landscape, what’s left? A paying audience; a few actors who can speak clearly, look up from the floor, and pick up their cues; and a good script—preferably, one infers, one written by David Mamet.

Whatever truth is here, these brisk unsubstantiated opinions sound like a crotchety old-timer less interested in sharing wisdom than on sounding off.

But just when his crankiness gets to be too much, he’ll come out with something like this: “Who are the correct teachers of writing? There are two….The speaking one is the audience.” Here he suggests that the greatest classroom for the playwright is sitting in on a performance and watching not just the show but how it goes over—the jokes that fall flat, the endings that don’t end, the scenes where an audience collectively rustles. From personal experience, I affirm: he couldn't be more right.

And the second great teacher? “…the silent teacher is the empty page.” I’m not even entirely sure I understand what Mamet’s saying here, but as a playwright, I feel it. And it’s beautiful.

There are two other things I unequivocally enjoy about this book. The first is that it’s not Mamet’s last word on Theatre. Thankfully, he’s still writing plays, not just sour essays, and I believe that there might be another masterpiece or two in that graying bespectacled head. The second? The spelling of the book’s title. In the great “Theater” versus “Theatre” debate, I've always been a “re” man. And like Mamet, while I have no solid basis in fact for this position, I am willing to argue passionately for it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Me and the SOBs

Tonight was a particular milestone for me. I presented a paper to the local gathering of The Baker Street Irregulars, known in this region as The Sound of the Baskervilles.

The paper, which was a study of fictional pastiche using the oft-repeated literary meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, was warmly received by the SOBs, several of who gave me invaluable corrections and suggestions. I only wish back when I was working on my MA that I had such a friendly and sympathetic audience.

Now, while I am tolerant and even admiring of much of what you might call geek or fan culture, I am not really a member of any of that tribe. Yes, I know how to role a 20 sided die and know what "armor class" is, I know both the first and last names of Bruce Wayne's butler, but particulars of the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and even Lord of the Rings baffle me. The intricate creation of imaginary universes is occasionally fascinating to visit, but I rarely stay for extended periods of time in the worlds of Stan Lee, Gene Roddenberry, or even J.R.R. Tolkien (who I think we can agree was a better writer than even Stan or Gene).


It turns out I like being a Sherlockian.

Not enough to put on a deerstalker or pick up a pipe. I was invited tonight by the SOB's President David Haugen to consider taking a Canonical name, and I have no idea where to even begin. (Though I always liked the character of young Lord Baskerville, come to think of it.)

But when the trivia started flowing tonight around the book of the meeting, in this case "The Adventure of the Reigate Squires," while I was entirely unable to answer any of the questions, I was still fascinated.

Sherlockians (or in Britain, Holmesians) are the original fans. One of their most esteemed members, Vincent Starrett (author of the essential Holmesian critical work The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) practically invented the oddly enjoyable game of treating a literary character as if he had a real life outside of the pages of fiction. He wrote seminal essays on Conan Doyle's stories not as the fictions of a sly and eccentric Scottish writer, but as if Holmes was a living, breathing person whose adventures had been captured by his best friend, Dr. John Watson.

At this late date the rules of Starrett's game have become baroque and astonishing. Errors in the stories of dates, places and names that a literary critic would suggest came from a hurried Conan Doyle skipping his proofreading duties are attributed to Watson's faulty memory or other accidents that negate the need for a "real world" author entirely. There are books like Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong that uses narrative implausibilities in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles to argue that Holmes didn't actually solve his famous case.

It's all very silly.

And engrossing and charming and fun. I'm grateful for the SOBers for being such warm-hearted and enjoyable people. I'll be seeing a good gathering of them at the December 8th production of "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol." You should come too.

And if you find yourself interested in a meeting of the SOBs, here's a link to their website: