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Best theatre


Last week's production of Carousel had some great moments, but sadly overall I wasn't thrilled with it.

(I was going to say that my hat's off to Mr. Hammerstein for what I assumed was the only use of the word "lorgnette" in a song, not to mention rhyming it with "born yet." Except now I see that Mr. Berlin wrote the same rhyme in a different song in 1940, a few years before Carousel.)

But thinking about it, I realized that one reason I had wanted to go was that almost all of the best plays I've seen have been college productions. I haven't seen all that many professional live plays, but most of the ones I've seen haven't impressed me all that much. But there've been some amazing college shows.

So I figured I'd list the best shows I've seen. Hard to rank these, so they're in chronological order by when I saw them.

'dentity Crisis as performed at Gunn High School in 1985 or 1986
As a Swarthmore friend put it, this is a play about a large family with very few people in it. The Swarthmore production of this that I was involved with was good, and fun; but (with no offense intended toward those of you who were involved in the college production), the high school version had more of an impact on me, perhaps because I had no idea what to expect. (Thanks, CT, for taking me to it!) "You didn't clap hard enough! Tinkerbell's dead!"
The Norman Conquests as performed at Swarthmore in 1986 or 1987
Three interlocking plays, with the same characters, taking place at the same time in different parts of a house and grounds. (But performed consecutively rather than simultaneously.) May have benefited somewhat from being one of the first college-level productions I'd seen (after four years of doing stage tech in high school), and one of the few plays I'd seen in a while that I had nothing to do with (so I couldn't see the flaws--which may explain why none of the shows I've been involved with quite make this list). But even taking that into account, it was an awfully good production, with very good acting. It was also the first time I saw Jessica T (who was particularly good in it), though we didn't meet socially until later. (Hi, Jessica!)
Noises Off as performed at Swarthmore around 1990
It's true that much of the cast and crew were friends of mine (including a couple of people who are reading this--hi, folks!), but that was true of plenty of other Swarthmore productions; that wasn't the only reason I liked this. Since then I've seen the movie and one professional production, both of which were fine, but the Swarthmore one was brilliant. Laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, on a two-story set with lots of doors and ever-mounting chaos. "Bag! Suddenly here, now gone!" was a catchphrase for years.
Our Country’s Good as performed by Stanford's Outside In Theatre in 1994
It's a play by someone with the unlikely name of Timberlake Wertenbaker, about the early days of the Australian penal colony. Stunningly good. I later bought the script and read it, but the power of the production I saw didn't really come through on the printed page.
Equus as also performed by Outside In, sometime around 1994
One of my favorite plays, and they did an excellent job with it.
A Little Night Music as performed at Stanford around 1995
This production was staged in a dorm lounge, but nonetheless had a remarkable unfolding set. I went to it on a whim, having liked the music for years but never having seen the show, and I was blown away. I enjoyed it so much that I went back the next night, when it was just as good. A couple years later, I saw a professional production in San José that fell almost completely flat, so it's not just that the material was good; the students did a brilliant job with it.

Note that this isn't a list of my favorite plays per se, just of my favorite performances. A list of favorite plays would have to also include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which I've seen two or three times but didn't love the productions of), Arcadia (which I've never seen but loved the script of), Deathtrap (never seen it on stage, though I liked the movie, but loved the script), and probably several others I'm not thinking of offhand. And there are also lots of plays (and performances of plays) that I've liked a lot but don't quite make that top tier--I'm partial to Twelfth Night, for example, and much of Gilbert & Sullivan, and Beckett's Rockaby, and Talking With... (most especially "Clear Glass Marbles"), and much of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and much of Sondheim, and so on and so on.

And, of course, there was lots of other good theatre at Paly and at Swarthmore, some of which I was involved with; I certainly intend no insult to those of you who were involved with shows I didn't list above. But the ones above are my very favorites. Or at least they're the favorites I remember offhand; there may've been others I'm not thinking of.

What are the best live theatrical performances you've seen, and why? (You can include stuff like circus performances and opera and performance art and street theatre if you like, but I'm specifically talking about theatre as opposed to, say, chamber music performances or rock concerts.)



I'll put in my bid for 2 shows:

1: Cats, in London, in it's original home. The theater was a small, inimate showhouse where, when the "cats" wandered through the audience, it felt like you were part of the show. I saw it a few years later at the Curren (I believe) in San Francisco, and the venue was so large that the "cats" running through the house seemed like a cheap add on to draw the audience into the show. The difference in venues (and talent to some extent, though we saw it on opening night in S.F.) made the second showing I saw of it seem garish and overdone.

2. Midsummer Night's Dream at Paly in 1983. Once again, the "venue" made up for a lot of the reasons why I loved that show. Instead of being inside, they (we, since I was part of the tech crew) build the stage out of the back of the theater, incorporating trees both as part of the set as well as for hanging lights (and since we manufactured more than 300 feet of lighting cable, including stupidly stripping a toaster of it's cable (still not sure how it handled all that current without melting or catching on fire) it's a good thing the fire marshall never looked at the set.) The cast was well chosen, including a teacher, Clarence Bakken, as Oberon, but the choice of Andy Pease as Puck I think really made the show. She was originally a gymnast I believe, and wove her way through the trees on the set, both on stage and above it in such a way that you really believed she was part magical. It's the only show I've worked where I still wasn't bored of it even after all the rehearsals and performances.

In no particular order:
King Lear at the American Repertory Theater, with F. Murray Abraham as Lear. I cried.

Ah, Wilderness and Long Days Journey Into Night at the Yale Repertory Theater, with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. Very lucky to have had the opportunity.

Les Mis in London, just an ordinary matinee performance I happened to grab a last-minute ticket for. I wept.

There was a lot of great student drama at Swarthmore, as you say. Some of the best shows I saw were, as you say, Noises Off and a Theater Department production of Midsummer Night's Dream. Some of the scenes from the Shakespeare in the Crum thing that folks did one year were awesome. The Foreigner was a riot. And what was that show that Jon Wald directed where the boy drowns? That was really good too.

I don't think that Jon Wald directed that production of The Rainmaker. I could be wrong, because I can't remember who directed it, and TSOR doesn't turn up anything. But it doesn't seem in my memory like a Jon Wald show, and my vague recollection of the cast puts it in the 90-91 year, when I think I would remember if Jon directed it.


Hmm. The source of my recollection of Jon is a memory of an improv game at the Women's Center (I think after a Vertigo-go show) in which various people can tag in and begin new scenes. One of the actors from The Rainmaker was onstage, and a second actor (I think it was Lisa Morse) jumped in, and they did a couple of minutes of the show, at which point the director of the show jumped in and yelled "Cut!" and proceeded to give them notes. Anyway, in my memory it was Jon Wald doing that, but I could easily be wrong.

Hey! I saw that production of Noises Off, at your and/or Jim M's invitation. The Foreigner, too. I still remember them fondly.

The best show I've ever seen was New Paradise Laboratories' "Stupor" at the philly fringe festival some years back.

PS. Hello! I haven't talked to you in quite a while, but after a google search for "flummoxed skink" I found myself in this neighborhood...

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