During the summer of 2005, while I was working on an amateurish attempt at directing The Importance of Being Earnest at UBC, I picked up an anthology of theatre criticism written by Frank Rich for the New York Times during the seminal years between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. Until the last couple of months, that anthology sat tucked away on the top shelf of my bookshelf, half-read and mostly forgotten -- much like my youthful attempts at acting and directing.
But then something happened -- Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre suspended their season due to the Covid-19 pandemic and released a beautiful video of their Artistic Director, Brian Richmond, speaking from the stage of The Roxy about the ghosts (and the ghost lights) that will inhabit the theatre for the foreseeable future. And then I started thinking about all of the ghosts that I’ve encountered in theatres over the years. I realized that some of the most profound moments of my life have happened while sitting in theatres, surrounded by willing audiences, viewing fictional worlds filled with ghost-like apparitions.
During a performance of Equivocation at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I witnessed my favourite beheading of all time -- during which a disembodied head yelled the most true line I’ve ever heard in a fictional universe: “THOU LIEST!” While watching a National Theatre Live production of Julius Caesar, actors covered Caesar’s body and a large portion of the audience with a huge red parachute -- symbolically forcing us to touch his blood and implicating us in the assassination of a tyrant. (Did you know that Brutus’ funeral oration is just as good or better than Marc Antony’s more famous speech about Roman’s Ears?) In a high school English class, I discovered the thrill of transforming dead words from the pages of Waiting for Godot into embodied actions on a stage, even while being confronted with the idea that we are given “birth astride of a grave.”
In other words, these fictional moments were the most true lies I’ve ever heard. While everything in a play is fictional, the “alchemy” of the theatre (as my friend Will Weigler puts it) can make it astonishingly true. So I picked up where I left off with Frank Rich in the mid-1980s. I found some of his rave reviews and some which demonstrate his reputation as the “Butcher of Broadway.” His review of Angels In America from 1993 is one of my favourite examples of taut, beautiful writing in any genre, while his review of Leader of the Pack from 1985 contains some of the most superb zingers I’ve ever had the uncomfortable pleasure of reading.
As I read these Rich reviews, I found myself coveting a return to the theatre after many years away, and keenly desiring the opportunity to share those experiences with other people. With most theatres closed down in response to the current pandemic, it feels like a strange moment to start reviewing theatre performances. However, I am heartened to note that the Stratford Festival will be sharing their upcoming season on YouTube. Other opportunities to see live theatre remotely will undoubtedly present themselves during the coming months, and I will be supporting the Blue Bridge's fundraising campaign as well. So when The Editor of the Quadra Villager offered me the opportunity to share my humble thoughts on the theatre in a semi-regular column, for reasons that I hope are now abundantly clear, I told her that I would do so “truly, falsely, and earnestly.”
Truly, Falsely & Earnestly Yours,