Talking turkeys: bombs on stage

April 22, 2008
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
The New York Times today reports on a revival of “Moose Murders”—considered by many to be the worst play ever staged on Broadway. (See Frank Rich’s original review, here.)

While New Yorkers will often pay as much attention to their failures as their successes, out here in the Heartland, we seem to try our best to either forget or deny our duds.

Maybe that’s the polite thing to do. But the reality is that, sometimes, productions go bad. And audiences know it. Acknowledging these turkeys, I think, helps patrons move on to the next show with hope for something better.

My belief: If you are repeatedly told that shows are terrific when you know they aren’t, you are more likely to give up on performing arts altogether.

So let’s air some dirty laundry (it’s what arts folks do when they’ve had a few drinks anyway).

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen on stage, here or elsewhere? Name names if you like. Don’t if you don’t. But share something about your experiences with awful operas, disastrous dance, and theatrics that thudded.

For starters, let me mention a few I witnessed:

--“Marlowe,” the Broadway musical in which Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare get high with pot that Sir Walter Raleigh scored from Pocahontas.

--“Eyes,” the cringe-inducing local adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” (Hard to forget the rabid-dog-attack sequence.)

--“Kaddish for Rubenstein,” a Philadelphia production of a black comedy set during the Holocaust that cribbed from everything from “Cabaret” to “Max Headroom.” One critic called it “Theatrical vomit.” Many of us in the cast—yes, I was in it—agreed.

Your thoughts?
ADVERTISEMENT
  • Many years ago IRT staged Rain, an adaptation of the equally awful movie starring Joan Crawford. Let's just say that the only redeeming part of the play was the great special effects that allowed torrential rain to fall on stage.
    In the lead role was a soap star whose name I'm forgotten. In one particularly dreadful scene, this actress portraying Sadie Thompson was melodramatically lamenting about her time in prison. A local theater critic seated next to me not so quietly remarked, She should get life for this performance!
  • Anyone out there recall the cast of Rain at the IRT?
  • I do like to hear and read honest, specific opinions and juicy gossip. My ears perk up as quickly as the next person when someone starts to say why a show or an individual was...less than effective.

    I also hate the expression, If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

    However, there is a huge difference between being repeatedly told that shows are terrific and being told why a show is enjoyable and/or worth seeing so that you can decide for yourself whether that aspect is something that you, yourself, value.

    I mean, really (and I am throwing your own question from a previous post back at you, Lou): how many truly great shows have you seen? Have you truly seen ANY completely perfect ones?

    I hope not. Complete perfection is boring.

    And for that matter, how many completely BAD shows have you seen? Weren't they sort of entertaining simply because they were so bad?

    Maybe I just haven't seen enough shows yet, but so far, even the bad ones have been interesting in some way. Some have been as interesting as car wrecks. I'm up for just about anything as long as someone has made some sort of effort and the result is not boring.

    That is not the same as thinking everything is terrific.

    But also...I disagree with you that we heartlanders spend too much time denying our failures. I think we are so quick to dwell on them - out of a false sense that it is somehow virtuous or strong or self-protective to do so - that we miss completely, and therefore undervalue, what we are doing right. We should be spending 80% of our time honestly (key word) appreciating each other's efforts and 20% compassionately making suggestions, rather than the other way around.

    All that said, I have seen three, no, four shows in the past year after which I thought, Dear God, WHAT am I going to write about THIS?!?

    For three of them I kept digging until I found something to honestly appreciate, and for the other I just copped out, didn't tell anyone I had gone to see it, and didn't write anything about it publicly. (That was before I had started my own theatre reviews blog.) But I still think I could have found something to honestly appreciate about it if I had sat with it long enough. I just ran out of time.

    'Speaking of which, I had better get to my day job. I don't think I have expressed myself very well here today (failure! failure! laughing!) but it's the best I can do for right now. More later, maybe...

    Hope Baugh
    www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
  • I finally remembered the actress: Ronee Blakley of Nashville (Robert Altman) fame not a soap actress.
  • Without naming names (but those who were there will never forget it), I can remember a production that a friend once referred to as like watching someone pick a scab. (sadly, it was a drama/musical). My friend's comment, made under her breath to me, during the show, made me fight for the next 5 minutes to avoid laughing out loud. Then, the person on my other side wanted to know why I was hyperventilating, and I couldn't tell him because every time I opened my mouth, I started laughing.
  • Indy Broadway a season or two ago...Sebastian Bach in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ugh!
  • I also witnessed the short (VERY) run of Cyrano, the Musical in the early 90s in NYC. I'm reasonably sure the leading man (Robert Guillaume when I saw it, who replaced the original Cyrano) was plastered the day I saw it. I got my tickets for half-price and still felt I'd overpaid. The highlight of the musical would have to be a tie between the set and the costumes.......not the music, not the singers, not the book......it was rank.

    I looked it up - it ran from 11/93 to 3/94 (I think I saw it in 3/94, most likely - it was a Spring Break trip). Amazingly, it was nominated (but didn't win) for Tony awards in Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and Best Costumes (I can at least see that one). I can't imagine the other nominations - it was horrendous!
  • Last year's Phoenix Theatre production of Altar Boyz. They couldn't sing, couldn't act, couldn't dance. By far the worst for a professional theatre. It underlined the lack of good theatre in Indy.
  • DT, I hope that Altar Boyz wasn't your only experience with the Phoenix. I didn't see that one, but I have seen several knock-your-socks-off great performances there, and have had the privilege of being involved in a couple of them. If you haven't yet, I'd encourage you to give the Phoenix another chance. You might change your mind about a lack of good theatre . . . of course, I've seen good theatre at plenty of other places around town, too, so I disagree with that sentiment in general. (I've also seen lots of bad theatre around here, but I've seen bad theatre in NYC and London, too.)

    Brian G. Hartz
  • Dreams from a Summer House at IRT a few years ago. It was a modern-day take on Beauty and the Beast, and unless I'm hallucinating (which is possible), I think it was a musical.

    It was so bad that my husband and I intended to leave at intermission. Unfortunately, I had made the tactical error of checking my coat (it was winter), and there was no one manning the coat check at intermission.

    To this day, we say we stuck around because my coat was being held hostage.
  • Hope,

    Some comments on your comments (and I always enjoy your comments, by the way)...

    I mean, really (and I am throwing your own question from a previous post back at you, Lou): how many truly great shows have you seen? Have you truly seen ANY completely perfect ones?

    I don't expect shows to be perfect. I'd be in the wrong field if I did. For the most part, though, I try to only comment on shows that are striving for excellence.

    At the same time, I believe that a review should accurately reflect my experience with a show. If I'm bending over backwards to find something positive, then my review needs to make clear that I am bending over backwards and that the other elements of the show aren't up to the standard of that element. Otherwise, I'm being dishonest with the readers. And, to me, with the art.

    Complete perfection is boring.

    It isn't to me. The times I've seen a show, read a book or experienced an exhibition that has entered the perfection ballpark have been totally thrilling. Competence, on the other hand, can be really boring. Especially on average. I'd rather see a theater company, for instance, swing for the fences, strike out a few times and hit some home runs than to shoot for, and land, double after double after double (Did I just make a sports analogy?)

    And for that matter, how many completely BAD shows have you seen? Weren’t they sort of entertaining simply because they were so bad?

    The truly bad shows were perhaps fun to talk about later, having survived them, but they sure weren't fun to sit through. Okay, maybe Marlowe was...in a Plan 9 kind of way.

    We should be spending 80% of our time honestly (key word) appreciating each other’s efforts and 20% compassionately making suggestions, rather than the other way around.

    I am thrilled--honestly--that you have this philosophy and that it reflects in your writing. If we all had it, though, it would be harder to grow as an arts town. As a playwright, I am hungry for reviews not that praise my work, but that teach me something about my show. As an audience member, I want critics who are giving me an honest, intelligent, informed, readable look into their interaction with a performance or exhibition. (I believe you are doing that). Ideally, in any market, there will be a range of these critics--many of whom don't focus too heavily on the effort expended and, instead, focus on the results.

    But I still think I could have found something to honestly appreciate about it if I had “sat” with it long enough. I just ran out of time.

    That is, of course, your choice. And one of the reasons why the theater community here loves you. Those reaching out to the general public, though, have to (or, I believe, should) take a different stance. An average ticket buyer attending a performance shouldn't have to honor the effort expended. Rather, the average ticket buyer should be honored for the effort spent to get to the theater or performance hall. The performers and creative folks owe those people an engaging experience. Of course, not all shows are for all audiences, which is another reason why it's important for a critic to be clear about his or her experience. I don't just want to know if the critic liked it. I want to be able to discern from a review whether I would like--or would have liked--a show.

    Thanks again for the detailed thoughts, Hope. Let's keep engaging.

    By the way, Hope's review blog is listed on my blogroll. If you--the rest of the readers--haven't checked it out, I encourage you to vist.

    Lou Harry
  • Thanks for the comments, Lou! Here are a few more, quickly, since I am on my lunch break:

    You wrote: If I’m bending over backwards to find something positive, then my review needs to make clear that I am bending over backwards and that the other elements of the show aren’t up to the standard of that element. Otherwise, I’m being dishonest with the readers. And, to me, with the art.

    Hope: I agree, and I have been thinking that I should add a page called About the Theatres to my own blog, to help people understand how I calibrate my own reviews. Your comment has moved this project higher on my To Do list.

    Lou: I’d rather see a theater company, for instance, swing for the fences, strike out a few times and hit some home runs than to shoot for, and land, double after double after double (Did I just make a sports analogy?)

    Hope: Hah! Yes! Theatre and sports actually have a LOT in common!

    Lou: As a playwright, I am hungry for reviews not that praise my work, but that teach me something about my show.

    Hope: See? You dismiss praise, too. But praise teaches! To the artist who pays attention to it without ego, specific, honest praise does teach. It does inform.

    Lou: As an audience member, I want critics who are giving me an honest, intelligent, informed, readable look into their interaction with a performance or exhibition. (I believe you are doing that).

    Hope: Thanks. That is why I love to read your reviews, too. But again, I praise what I praise not only as a service to the artists but as a service to my fellow theatre-goers. I like special effects, so I would have gone to see Rain at the IRT simply because reviewers praised the cool special effects, even if they said all the rest was badly done. I would have appreciated having that information.

    Lou: Ideally, in any market, there will be a range of these critics–many of whom don’t focus too heavily on the effort expended and, instead, focus on the results.

    Hope: Yes. I agree: let us have more reviewers!

    Lou: An average ticket buyer attending a performance shouldn’t have to honor the effort expended.

    Hope: I agree.

    Lou: Rather, the average ticket buyer should be honored for the effort spent to get to the theater or performance hall.

    Hope: YES.

    Lou: The performers and creative folks owe those people an engaging experience.

    Hope: Yes.

    Lou: Of course, not all shows are for all audiences, which is another reason why it’s important for a critic to be clear about his or her experience. I don’t just want to know if the critic liked it. I want to be able to discern from a review whether I would like–or would have liked–a show.

    Hope: Yes! Yes! I agree with all of this. I guess your invitation for people to anonymously gripe in this blog about shows that happened a long time ago just rubbed me the wrong way. This blog is not the same as sitting around with friends over drinks, nor is it some TV talk show where people with bad teeth and worse grammar get to whine. It is very public, and classier than Geraldo or whatever, and I couldn't see the point of hurting artists' feelings in this way. But it's your karma, and anyway, sometimes I know I am too sensitive.

    Lou; Thanks again for the detailed thoughts, Hope. Let’s keep engaging.

    Hope: Of course. You're still my hero, Lou.

    Lou: By the way, Hope’s review blog is listed on my blogroll. If you–the rest of the readers–haven’t checked it out, I encourage you to vist.

    Hope: Thanks very much, Lou!

    Hope Baugh
    www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Post a comment to this blog

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT