Stage Animal / Sometimes size counts - and less is more
A play that rivets the audience in a small hall can get lost in the move to the big stage.
Yes, I know most theater tickets in Israel are acquired in group purchases, but nevertheless I like to pretend that theatergoers who are deliberating over how to spend an evening use their right to pick and choose freely among the offerings on the various stages, according to their own taste or recommendations they have heard or read.
I have, of course, no right to do this - as a theater critic I am required to see everything that is presented, and I even get paid to do that on condition I report on what I have seen and how it was. (I once even amused myself with the idea of having them pay me less when I write about a performance I enjoyed and more for a performance I thought was bad, as compensation for the suffering and mental distress, but I came to the conclusion that the temptation to pan shows would be something I wouldn't be able to withstand. )
Nevertheless, even if this contradicts the image of critics in general and puts my own reliability to the test, I hereby declare that I am much happier to praise than to pan a production. Not that it's easier; in fact it is a lot more complicated to praise in good taste. But this is also the place where a theater critic in Israel can have real influence. I have never managed to keep audiences away from a production that looked to me to be harmful, but at the same time I can testify that I have indeed caused quite a number of people to go to a production I praised. How do I know? I know because often an audience member, before a show or during the intermission, or by e-mail or even by snail mail, has told me that this really is so. But have no fear: Usually on the same occasion they cut me back down to size. This is because the declaration, "I went to see the play at your recommendation," is only the first part of the message. The second part, most regrettably, is: "And I really can't fathom why you recommended it."
At this point they enumerate at length, and even with increasing indignation, what they see as the flaws in the production, and I feel they are blaming me for the insult they have suffered and maybe even demanding compensation for the mental distress caused to them, not only because of the production itself but also because of their disappointed expectations.
I usually mutter a feeble apology about how it's all a matter of taste and so on, even though I definitely believe that the quality of the particular production isn't just a matter of taste.
I wouldn't be bothering you with these personal experiences had I not recently received more such compliments/complaints than usual, and this time I think I have what to say in my own defense. At the beginning of June the Cameri Theater put on in its small hall, the Cameri 2, two of William Shakespeare's historical plays: "Richard II," translated by Shimon Sandbank, and "Richard III," translated by Meir Wieseltier. The two shows were produced in parallel and presented as a single project. Both the main roles, which are very different from each other, were played by the same actor, Itay Tiran, and most of the actors appeared in both productions, which were directed by Arthur Kogan.
I thought the project was praiseworthy, as were the plays' direction and design. In my opinion Tiran was wonderful in "Richard II" and is definitely up to the task, though on second thought I am not sure I am entirely enthusiastic about his interpretation in "Richard III."
I also thought that in those productions the directors and the actors - not all of them to the same extent - succeeded in presenting to the audience a text of complex meaning and style in a way that was by and large absorbing, understandable and credible.
I wrote a detailed and very enthusiastic review of all the elements of the productions, and it is definitely possible that in my admiration for the whole, I underemphasized a number of reservations. Most of my colleagues were as enthusiastic as I was, some even more so.
A short time later I heard that the Cameri Theater was planning to move the productions from the small auditorium, for whose stage they were created, to the Cameri 1 hall. This is not the first time such a thing has happened at the Cameri and there is also a similar tendency at Habima. They try a new production in a smaller, more intimate hall and when it appears to be a success, they transfer it in a hurry to the large auditorium. The rationale is pretty clear, certainly in the case of the Richards: Fourteen actors participate in each of the productions. In a hall of about 400 seats, a production like this is economic suicide. In a hall of 900 seats it makes sense.
I said to myself that "Richard III" might withstand a move like this. Its plot is richer in incident and there are passages in the production that can stand up to a large space (Eli Gorenstein as an operatic murderer ). However, a transfer to the large hall of "Richard II," a play the thrust of which is a young king's musings on life and death, kingship and eternity, with little action and a lot of melancholy, looked to me like a recipe for destroying a production that had seemed to me to be the greater achievement in the project. I mulled the question of whether to try to see the productions in the large hall and judge for myself, but I feared I would not be able to detach myself from the huge impression left by having seen them in the small hall.
But even before I decided whether or not to go, I started getting messages from readers in one-to-one encounters, at social events, at shows or by e-mail. The tone was uniform: We trusted you, you were impressed, we went, we didn't understand what they were saying on the stage and we didn't understand what you are talking about. And all of them reported that there were audience members who went home in the intermission. I had confirmation of this from one of the actors, though he also told me - and I heard this from the theater as well - that the applause at the end of the performances was loud and long.
So what happened here? Were the two Richards good productions only in a small hall, and when transferred to a larger hall were their flaws revealed? What does this say about my skill, and, more importantly, about the "net" quality of the productions? Is this a case of the ballerina and the crooked floor?
I replied to those who complained to me that I take no responsibility because I had recommended the productions in specific conditions, and they saw them under very different conditions. I will add only that at a performance requiring a high degree of concentration to follow a complex text, the size of the space in which the actors are speaking the words, the kind of acoustics and the intimacy, as well as the audience's physical closeness to the actor, can create the difference between an excellent performance and a merely reasonable one. True, there are actors and productions that are wonderful in any space. However, when it comes to words and emotions, size does matter.
I cannot specifically address the Richards in the large hall of the Cameri. However, I do want to tell a story - not from now and not from here - that will explain the complexity of the problem.
Stephen Sondheim writes in the second volume he published about his works that when he was a young man and could not afford to buy good tickets to Broadway shows, he would buy tickets for the top balcony and from there he saw, for example, Mary Martin, a tiny actress and singer with a relatively small voice, sing the main role in "South Pacific" without amplification, and she was heard very well over the sounds of the orchestra.
"Mary Martin," he wrote, "had a small, coy voice and in order to hear her we had to lean vertiginously forward. None of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us - we had to lean into it. The concentration required was so great that we had to shut out the real world, and in so doing we became participants in the experience, all of which made it easy to suspend disbelief and enter another world, and the more of that in the theater, the better. With the advent of amplification, ears became lazy and audiences now tend to visit rather than enter. The issue is not one of volume, but of concentration."
Sondheim goes on to explain that it isn't just a problem of the audience. In 1984 he held rehearsals for his musical "An Afternoon in the Park with George" at the Booth Theater in New York. It was a small hall with excellent acoustics. The orchestra was relatively small and the orchestral adaptation was quite airy. The two leading actors, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, were blessed with powerful voices and excellent diction. Sondheim and his dramaturge and director James Lapine asked Patinkin and Peters to sing without amplification. To Sondheim and Lapine they sounded wonderful but Peters and Patinkin complained that "the theater sounded dead to them." It turned out they were no longer used to singing without amplification, without hearing themselves through the control monitors on the stage.
"What had happened, of course," wrote Sondheim, "was that over many years of amplified sound the ears of performers themselves had become lazy - or more accurately, dependent on the feedback from the loudspeaker system out front and the monitors backstage. That dependency takes a toll on young performers as well, whose voices expect microphones to amplify not only their volume but their emotions."
I am assuming the Cameri Theater has moved the Richards from the small hall to the large hall because it thought this was a correct management move: These are productions for which a demand has been created, so budgetary responsibility requires an answer to the demand now because nothing lasts forever. ("Hamlet," though, has remained in a very small hall for many years; quite simply, it was staged in a way that made it impossible to move it to a larger hall - while the identical hall and simple set for both Richards seemed to make it possible to move them to a larger stage. )
I am also convinced that the productions themselves haven't changed and that their creators - the director and the actors - have tried to take into account the change in the space and to adjust the production to the larger stage and hall. However, here too there is a problem because the actors' energy is most likely now invested in "how to perform in the large hall" instead of "how to perform the production."
There are productions - and usually the best of them - that are complex and delicate mechanisms. A production of a complex Shakespearean text that cuts no corners is like a tender sapling transplanted from a small pot to a larger one. The theater management's role is to take good care of the production and not only sell the tickets.
However, the problem is not these particular productions. I am not all that worried about them or about my own reliability. What is a pity, though, is that the large audience that already wants to see theater like this - productions in which a great deal of creative work has been invested - will be disappointed and in the future be liable to think twice before going to see a production of this sort. A profit in the short run risks becoming a loss in the long run.