Sunday, June 5, 2011

Best and worst theater

A forgotten article from Nov. 2004

I was searching my files for something else when I came across this old column about the best and worst of theater. I had only recently started writing theater reviews at the time and wanted to get an idea of what area theater people thought.

What are the best and worst plays of all time? The best and worst actors and playwrights? And who are most overrated?

Searching for answers to these questions, I called on the experts, people whose lives are dedicated to theater, the managing and artistic directors of theaters in the South Sound area.

Marcus Walker from the Lakewood Playhouse says the best play of all time is “Master Harold and the Boys” by Athol Fugard, adding, “I love the play ‘A Member of the Wedding' by Carson McCullers.”

Judith Cullen from Tacoma Little Theatre says she doesn’t “really have an all time favorite script,” but cites Neil Simon's "Lost In Yonkers" as “probably the only play that made me laugh and cry out loud when I read it the first time.” Ironically, Cullen also includes Simon in her list of worst plays. Simon's "Star Spangled Girl," she says, “still leaves me saying ‘Why?’”

Jon Douglas Rake from Tacoma Musical Playhouse lists “West Side Story,” “Ragtime,” “Sweeney Todd,” “My Fair Lady” and “42nd Street” as the best musicals of all time.

Harlequin Players founder Scott Whitney says, “Can there be any doubt about the best play ever written? It's ‘Hamlet.’ It's brilliant beyond comprehension and continues to shape western civilization in every age. Don't let bad productions confuse you. There's never been anything else like it.” As for the worst, Whitney says, “Ninety percent of everything is crap. Trying to separate the worst from the second worst is a waste of time.” Whitney does not beat around the bush.

Also on the worst list is Walker’s choice “Sugar Babies,” a Mickey Rooney musical review. Rake chimes in with other detested musicals: “Pal Joey” (“Good music, horrible book”) and “Two by Two” (“Why bother?”).
Cullen adds: “There is also a lot of David Mamet that I just don't have an appreciation for. There's a whole series of plays that are about people talking to each other but not listening, like ‘Cryptogram’ and ‘Oleanna’ that lose me completely. But a lot of his other writing I love. ‘Glengarry, Glenross’ is downright poetic, but it is language that must be heard aloud, not read silently.”

Walker lists Alan Ayckbourn, Arthur Miller and Shakespeare as the best playwrights of all time. Whitney also lists Shakespeare, along with Tom Stoppard and Stephen  Sondheim. Cullen lists Terrance McNally (“I always come away with something new”)  And August Wilson (“his writing is like no one else’s”). And Rake says Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim are the best musical composers.

Cullen goes on to say: “I love the classics, and I have a special place in my heart for Sheridan, Congreve & Wycherly, the British Restoration comedy playwrights. It is formula writing (they basically all wrote the same damn play) but the conceits are so wild and the characters so outrageous... they are fun to produce - outright silly fun. I also love Oscar Wilde.”

Rake says that “Cats” is the most overrated musical of all time, and all but Cullen agree that Andrew Lloyd Webber deserves the trophy for most overrated. "Overrated is a dicey term,” Cullen says. “So much is subjective. I personally find Overrated any theatre (and unfortunately there is a lot of it out there at a grass roots level) that says ‘I know the truth … and sit here for two hours while I preach at you.’” 

As for actors and playwrights these theater professionals most admire, Walker says: “I admire the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, as he has continued to run his own theatre and direct even after fame and fortune. He hasn't run off to movies or celebrity-ville. He also has a way to find the humor in the most dire circumstances and also offers hope in the face of real human foibles.Rake’s Broadway actors to watch are Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karen Ziemba and Donna Murphy. His favorite Broadway directors are Tommy Tune, Des MacAnuff, Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman. Whitney lists Andrew Heffernan, Mari Nelson, David Wright, Steven Taylor, David Pichette, Bob Wright, Demitra Pitman, Christopher Ravenscroft, Gregg Hicks, Rex Rabold, Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman among the actors he most admires. I, for one, find it refreshing that he lists local actors right alongside such greats as Hopkins and Oldman.

Shortly after writing this article I was priviledged to see the premiere of Agust Wilson's "Radio Golf" at the Seattle Rep, and I'm convinced that is definitely should rank as one of the great plays of all time, and we should be proud that Wilson made his final home in Seattle.
"Sweeney Todd" is currently playing at Lakewood Playhouse. My review in The News Tribune will be published Friday, June 10.
"Oleanna" will be performed by Theatre Artists Olympia at Olympia Little Theatre this summer (dates not yet announced), and will feature two actors I greatly admire: Christian Carvajal and Deya Ozburn.
Steven Taylor left the area to perform in "The Lion King" on Broadway.
Marcus Walker is no longer with us. He is greatly missed.

1 comment:

Carv said...

First, thank you. Second, I actually share Cullen's assessment of Mamet, as does Deya! And our director, John Munn, agrees Oleanna is about people who aren't really listening to each other. It'll be interesting to see what the three of us come up with, given that all of us have objections to the play.

I also agree with Scot that Hamlet is far and away the finest play ever written in the English language. Cyrano de Bergerac is my all-time favorite. More recently, I think Angels in America, Part I, Proof, and Lend Me a Tenor are about as good as it gets. TLT opens Proof this weekend. I directed a production in Oklahoma, so I can't wait to see what they did with theirs.

I used to say Mila Kunis was our worst living actor, but that was before Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Black Swan. Now it might be January Jones from Mad Men.

My acting idols are the old folks: Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Michael Gambon. I also dig Philip Seymour Hoffman. As for living theatre directors, I admire Julie Taymor. I have local favorites, too, but I try to keep that at a remove when I'm watching each new show.