This article was forwarded to me by Mr. Fassl.  It’s well written and addresses what I consider to be the major problem in theatre, but Mr. Fischer consitently lauds the same plays he’s carping about.  I’m not sure it’s his job to do anything other than that, but I think these reviewers sometimes need to be reviewed themselves.

F

http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/93780444.html

Until three months ago, I’d never heard of Mickle Maher or his 2003 play, “Spirits to Enforce.” For much of the past three weeks, I’ve been able to think of little else.

That sea change comes courtesy of Youngblood Theatre Company’s recent production of “Spirits,” which is easily the most exciting and also one of the best plays I’ve seen in Milwaukee during the 2009-’10 theater season.

I loved it so much that I went back for seconds, two weeks after having caught the opening night performance. It was even better than I’d remembered, and the enthusiastic reception from the audience – which included a number of Milwaukee’s theater professionals – made clear I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Even on its final weekend, “Spirits” remained a huge hit; the last Saturday night performance sold out.

So why did it take seven years for “Spirits” to reach Milwaukee?

Ironically, that’s among the subjects Maher tackles in this rich, multilayered play. “Spirits” features 12 out-of-work actors stuck on a cramped and submerged submarine, underscoring how irrelevant they seem to the world above. They’re working the phones, desperately trying to raise money for an upcoming production of “The Tempest.”

Nobody is buying. The numbed and overworked public in “Spirits” doesn’t want Shakespeare’s poetry. It wants action-packed dramas at the multiplex, featuring superheroes who vanquish evil and promise a temporary haven from a heartless world.

The actors try to oblige, taking on superhero identities in an effort to bolster their appeal and sell some tickets. Maher has a lot of fun with this conceit, but he is making a deadly serious point about the compromises theater companies feel compelled to make in order to fill seats.

That’s why a play like “Spirits” frequently doesn’t make the cut when it comes to programming a theater season; it’s dense and elliptical, which can be a tougher sell.

“Spirits” also has a big cast, which means hefty labor costs for an Equity theater. It’s no accident that in American Theatre’s annual October survey of the nation’s most produced plays – which excludes holiday-themed shows like “A Christmas Carol” as well as works by Shakespeare – none of the casts for the four most-produced plays is more than half the size of the cast in “Spirits.”

But attuned as theater companies must be to the art of the possible, such pragmatism can’t become an ironclad law – or a self-fulfilling prophecy about what they can do. As its name suggests, a play is an act of free-wheeling imagination; in allowing us to dream, it encourages us to remake the world.

Theater that forgets this basic truth – refusing to take chances with itself or with its audience – risks devolving into mindless entertainment.

We’ve all had tough days when such bland fare was all we could handle. But it’s not the stuff that dreams are made of. And a steady diet of such easily digested morsels – overly tight plays that connect all the dots, and one-person shows that resemble historical documentaries or stand-up comedy routines – will kill the spirit. Taking few risks, such plays deliver few rewards.

The genius of ‘Spirits’

It’s worth remembering that “The Tempest” itself was a gamble, representing a dramatic break with tradition that makes it hard, even today, to classify just what sort of play it is.

Postmodernism has nothing on the Bard’s script, which gleefully upends its own Jacobean plot by transporting us to a magical island, ruled by a wily magician with supernatural powers and featuring both a mesmerizing spirit and a mythological back story.

The genius of “Spirits” is that it makes this old play seem young again, which not only challenges us to rethink how we see Shakespeare, but also makes us hungry for more of the same: the dazzling language, vividly imagined characters and wild, heady ideas propelling one of his greatest plays.

Buoyed by the dozen superheroes in its cast, the Youngblood production of “Spirits” delivered all three.

That Milwaukee responded as it did – and that its theater community is still buzzing so excitedly about what it saw – sends a loud message to the artistic director of every theater company in town: We want more of the same. Don’t make us wait seven years to see any play this good. Take us back to Prospero’s island. Take us home.

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