Thanksgiving break in New York has been far from a break. I’ve spent my semester adamantly squeezing in time for at least one theatrical performance a week, usually two, sometimes three, once four. I’ve seen nearly all of the productions put on by my peers at Boston University and several performances outside of the microcosm of the School of Theater. Since leaving campus and meeting up with my family I’ve continued my habit of show attendance.
I love seeing shows. I love that my father is willing to buy me New York priced tickets. What’s frustrating, however, is my inability to just enjoy a night of entertainment. My reluctance to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the show and my difficulty turning off my director, playwright, dramaturge, designer, and BFA trained theater artist brain is somewhat infuriating.
I assume many of the math majors and health science students (at least the ones who are caught up on all their near-the-end-of-the-semester homework) are stuffing themselves with thanksgiving dinner leftovers, reconnecting with their hometown high school friends, and enjoying family time. I assume that fractions and anatomy have been compartmentalized into a section of the consciousness that is currently on hiatus.
However my education has not temporarily ceased. My artist brain has been critiquing and comparing and judging and synthesizing just as tenaciously as usual.
Only hours after stepping off the Megabus I found myself seated in the audience of the Cort Theater where the two Sean Mathius directed plays in repertory are currently playing. My ticket was for Harold Pinter‘s No Man’s Land, starring none other than Sir Ian McKellan, Sir Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley– four incredibly successful film and stage actors.
It was clear from the program notes in the Playbill that Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot wast the favorite of the two shows in repertory. The ensemble started with that show and later added in the Pinter play when Stewart finally convinced his buddy McKellan that acting in it would be a good time. Despite the fact that I was unable to get a ticket for a showing of the Becket play, the audience of No Man’s Land was only about 75% full on Wednesday night, and even more sparse after intermission.
The author of the program notes called to attention that a similarity between the two shows was the characters’ search for a reason and a strategy to keep on living through each new day. Aside from that comment, the notes focused primarily on the production of Waiting for Godot. This was a disservice to the Pinter play which already has less of a cult following than the Becket play.
Throughout the production I was distracted by what I found to be amateur mistakes in the lighting design. There was one moment in the second act when a character threw open the currents of a window, a full second passed, and only then did light shine through the newly exposed window into the living room set. Each time a character used the title phrase, “No man’s land,” the warm hues of light transitioned to cool hues. However this transition happened too quickly and read as a heavy handed call to attention. There were moments when a lamp would be switched on on stage and I hoped that its light would slowly and almost undetectably spread over the whole stage to give the impression of our eyes adjusting to the dim light. However what happened was the initial dim light would turn on and expose only a small section of the stage, a few seconds would pass, and then light clearly emanating unnaturally from theatrical equipment would fade in quickly to reveal more of the stage.
I often agree with the theory that when a play’s aesthetic is based in realism, as No Man’s Land was, elements of lighting design go unnoticed because they seam to occur naturally and effect the audience primarily subconsciously. Given that theory, the lighting design for this production was poorly conceived.
Last evening I experienced Sleep No More, an immersive adaptation of Shakespeare‘s Macbeth staged throughout the many rooms and levels of a hotel. The masked audience makes their own way through the production, catching bits and pieces of movement based vignettes and exploring the intricate set independently.
Despite the fact that there were constantly scenes occurring simultaneously throughout the hotel, the technical elements of the production were seamless. Lighting shifts and sound cues happened at the perfect moments to effectively accentuate a murder scene, an actor’s change of location, or (spoiler alert) the climactic hanging of Macbeth.
While I was overwhelmingly impressed by the technical aspects of the production, I did not feel taken care of as an audience member. I was not handed program notes or a map of the hotel’s floor plan upon my entry. Instead, after the conclusion of the performance and just before I left the hotel for the evening ushers tried to sell me 20 dollar programs with information to help me piece together what I just saw.
Most were unwilling to part with an additional 20 dollar bill after paying for an 85 dollar ticket. Instead, I debriefed with my family over some steamed muscles at a nearby restaurant. We each had different experiences. I realized that there were several vignettes I completely missed out on. There were several floors I never even ventured to. My parents, not knowing there would be a definitive ending, left before (Spoiler alert) Macbeth’s theatrically impressive hanging.
I feel a bit taken advantage of. I feel that the producers of Sleep No More intentionally keep vital information from their audience in order to make additional profit off of program sales and audience members who buy a second ticket to try and see what they missed the first time.
I’m afraid that too much of New York theater is made with the soul purpose of emptying the wallets of tourists. The two plays in repertory at the Cort Theater will make a profit whether the lighting design is good or poor and whether the Pinter play gets an equal viewing as the Becket play. This is due to the star studded cast and Waiting For Godot’s cult-like following. Similarly, Sleep No More will continue to draw an audience of tourists looking to get a little tipsy, see some spectacle and congratulate themselves for being artsy.