Friday, February 18, 2011

Fun With Theater Reviews

Meanwhile, halfway across the country...

My play about gay marriage, "But Not For Love," is currently running out in Los Angeles in a little blackbox space courtesy of Renegade Theatre.

This actually came about because of a random Fringe connection, and facebook.

In going through old Fringe reviews while cleaning up my website for a major reboot, I made note of names that cropped up, and started looking them up and electronically befriending them on facebook. One such electronic pal was Chadbourne Hamblin. He noticed I wrote plays. This new theater group he'd linked up with out in LA was looking to mount more regular productions. He asked for suggestions, I fielded a couple. Because of the whole Proposition 8 battle over gay marriage out in California, the group gravitated to "But Not For Love." And before I knew it, they were moving full-speed ahead on an early 2011 production timetable. They had previews the last week in January, then opened out there a week before "Leave" opened here in Minneapolis. And they'll be running for two weeks after "Leave" closes. So I thought to myself, "I have friends in California, when the heck do I have a better excuse to go out there?" Out comes the credit card, plane ticket is purchased.

In the meantime, I have to content myself with learning about the production long distance. Thankfully, the Renegade troupe is very efficient at self-promotion and got not one, not two, but four reviewers out there to see the thing and post their thoughts. They were not shy about sharing their opinions, which varied wildly.

Here's the basic plot...

Eleanor (in this production, Krystal Kennedy) and Ephram (John Croshaw), sister and brother, are both getting married on the same day. And they’re each getting married to a man. With protesters, policemen and a TV news crew outside the church, inside the couples are split over what their day and their ceremony should mean, to themselves or anyone else.

Patrick (Andrew Loviska), Ephram’s groom, agrees with Eleanor that they all need to make a statement by getting married. But Roland (Chadbourne Hamblin), Eleanor’s groom, and Ephram both just want a simple ceremony and a quiet day.

Another attraction begins to blossom between the female minister, known as the Duchess (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson), and one of the policemen standing guard over the church, Duke (Patrick Tiller). But a secret from the Duchess’ past may prove more of an obstacle than the two of them can overcome.

Meanwhile, outside among the protesters, Patrick’s younger brother Jacob (Nick Sousa) hurls a rock through the stained glass window in an effort to keep the wedding from taking place. When the rock draws blood, one couple may not end up getting married today, or any other day.

"Men have died from time to time,
And worms have eaten them,
But not for love."
- As You Like It, William Shakespeare

The reviews covered the full spectrum. I probably should have known better when I stumbled upon the 5-star review from Ron Irwin in the Burbank Examiner that started...

"Absolutely every element of the current Renegade Theatre production of the play, 'But Not For Love' is pure genius."

...that anything after that review was gonna be slightly less effusive.

The funny thing is that the reviewer for Backstage West, Les Spindle, also reviewed my only previous theater production in LA, 14 years ago, for Frontiers Magazine. Les loved my play "Heaven and Home" so much it ended up on his top ten list for the year, in addition to nabbing three Drama-Logue Awards, and a nomination for a GLAAD Award. As much as Les loved "Heaven and Home," he hated "But Not For Love." For example, in his opening paragraph, we have the following...

"Opponents of the Proposition 8 legislation might have found a new weapon: Courtesy of... the circuitous debates that dominate the script, it seems the controversial proposition could face the prospect of being bludgeoned to death by this series of protracted shouting matches."


But I have to admit, also damn funny.

I now have the image of someone swatting an anti-gay protester with a copy of my script, and it's most amusing.

Not that it probably matters but I also find it amusing that the straight reviewer raved about it and the gay reviewer was repulsed. (This also seems to have a direct correlation to my social life, but we won't belabor that here...)

I admitted to the director Richard Warren Baker via email that I felt a little bad for all of them having to take hits on behalf of my script.

Richard didn't want me to take that on. He was just as willing to take the blame as director. Again, opinions in print logged in at both extremes. Irwin wanted to give Richard a Tony, but Spindle called the direction "generally flaccid."

Double ouch. (and not funny)

As a writer, though, you never want someone to regret doing your script. I don't think Renegade does. I just wanted Richard and company to know that I feel their pain. It's a big leap of faith for a theater to put on a new play. Established titles and authors are always safer. After that, even a local name would be a safer bet. I admire a group that's just trying to make a name for itself grabbing onto a new play to be their vehicle. After all, if no theaters did that, new, living playwrights wouldn't have any outlet for their work.

(Yes, I know there's self-production, yes, I know there's the Fringe, but face it, we all live in the theatrical sweet spot here in Minnesota. There's tons of theater, a big audience to support it, philanthropy out the wazoo, and costs here are a fraction of what they'd be in a place like New York, LA, or even Chicago. Imagine trying to live anywhere else, and trying to do art you love, and how much harder that would be. Not impossible, but harder. I have friends in New York, LA and Chicago, and their tireless pursuit of their art in the face of odds far greater than those I face here really amazes me. I moved here after grad school for a reason. I stayed here for a reason.)

Anyway, to pick a play of mine, go to the trouble of mounting a production of it because it's about an issue you really care about, and you like the script, and then to have your production get dinged in three out of four reviews for things that have to be laid at the feet of the script, not the production, I can understand why that might be frustrating. And why it might make you think twice about doing any new play, not just mine.

I understand Spindle's very different reaction to "But Not For Love." "Heaven and Home" couldn't be more different as a script. It's a full-length, non-linear, character-based piece. "Love" was commissioned to be a one-act, and even at 90 minutes, it's crammed a little too full of plot and characters for its own good. For better or worse (no pun intended), it's linear and full of overlapping two person scenes, with the occasional big ensemble scene where all hell breaks loose. It was also commissioned to be an issue play, and in one-act form, the characters sometimes take a back seat to the issue at hand. Like "Leave" before Urban Samurai got ahold of it, "Love" probably needs more room for the characters to breathe. "Heaven" had AIDS as a backdrop, but the word was never spoken, only inferred. A critic once described it as a "post-AIDS" play, more about the survivors than the dying. I'm looking forward to revisiting "But Not For Love" with the Urban Samurai crew in the near future - opening it up and digging into the characters. Right now, the script is asking the actors to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

And from the sound of things, the actors in LA are doing just that.

Even the reviewers who had the biggest problems with the script, laud the actors, as a group and by name.

Spindle thinks "the young ensemble cast deserves points for their valiant efforts..." and that in particular, "Following their characters' meet-cute encounter, St. Clair-Johnson and Tiller [as the minister called the Duchess, and Duke the cop] share amusing moments. The subtlest approach comes across best, namely Croshaw's smitten young man [Ephram] who wishes his wedding ceremony was more intimate and less like a shrill political grandstanding stunt."

Neal Weaver with LA Weekly thinks "The production, helmed by director Richard Warren Baker, is most successful in its quieter, more human moments than in its strident political declarations, when it topples over into melodrama. The events are not always credible, but there are strong performances from Sousa [anti-gay rally leader Jacob], St. Clair-Johnson [Duchess], and Tiller [Duke]."

And blogger Keisha7 for LA Splash "found the performances of Chadbourne Hamblin [reluctant straight groom Roland] and Nick Sousa [Jacob] to be both truthful and engaging."

Irwin has all sorts of great things to say about the cast...

"The cast was as close to perfect as the human condition allows." He brought his daughter along to the show and "In the words of my teen daughter Kari also an actress of some skill, 'Daddy, those actors were all very good.' You have that right kid – indeed magnificent." He calls Andy Loviska's work as activist gay groom Patrick "compellingly played," and says "Krystal Kennedy is magnificent as [straight ally and activist bride] Eleanor... And last but by no means least there is the amazing Natasha St.Clair-Johnson as the Duchess, a female cleric with a fairly mind blowing little secret."

So, everyone in the cast gets a little love, which makes me happy. A seven week run is a wonderful marathon for any show, and it's nice that the actors are all getting a nod for their efforts.

The director isn't left out of the lovefest. Though Spindle isn't a fan, Irwin is joined in his praise of the director by LA Splash blogger Keisha7,

"I particularly like the direction. Baker uses the limited black box space quite well. His staging makes great use of set design that is more about defining location than it is about utility to the performers. Every actor felt accessible and physically open, despite the places on stage that received no practical use at all.

Near the top of the show, there is a soundbite montage that reminds the audience of the innumerable voices and opinions starting with Sarah Palin, ending with Keith Olbermann. Director Richard Warren Baker touched on a very interesting motif for the piece. It would have been nice to have more of it – invisible voices in the dark, all feeling free to comment on an issue that does not directly affect them."

Ron Irwin in the Examiner goes further...

"Director Richard Warren Baker also deserves mega kudos for the amazing skill with which he assembled and directed this truly beautiful production. One area in which I was amazed is the way in which every resource of this rather intimate venue was masterfully used to give maximum impact. The lighting, placement and set design all gave a sense and feel of a much larger stage. I sadly lack the authority to confer upon you a Tony, so I hereby award you with a 'Ronnie' for best Director 2011."

Let's rip off the band-aid quickly in terms of script feedback, shall we?

Spindle in Backstage West says "But Not For Love" is a "politically correct dramedy [which] comes across as more polemic than play. It's populated by characters who generally seem like mouthpieces of the playwright's views rather than multidimensional humans."

He also calls it a "wannabe crowd pleaser" full of "predictable showdowns," tags Eleanor's groom Roland as "homophobic" and says that Jacob's rallying of the crowd is "a repetitive fire-and-brimstone speech." His compliment for the actor playing Ephram moves into this final assessment of the script, when he notes that Ephram "wishes his wedding ceremony was more intimate and less like a shrill political grandstanding stunt. The same could be said about this admirably intended play."

("I'm just a boy whose intentions are good. Please Lord don't let be misunderstood," just popped into my head)

Ron Irwin in the Examiner apparently couldn't disagree more with Les (sorry, I just couldn't resist that one)...

"The story line is fascinating as it peels back the thoughts and emotions of seven very unique and thoroughly compelling characters. It was brilliantly written by Mathew A. Everett as he addresses the still simmering public debate over gay marriage. It would be easy to passionately present one side of this complex debate, but Matthew Everett gives the audience a far more intriguing and balanced view, leaving little doubt about his position and yet remaining I believe respectful of the broader community.

The story all centers on a double wedding, a double wedding in which one couple is straight and the other is gay. As the two couples prepare for the event tension grows and violence briefly erupts and becomes the catalyst for an out pouring of both passion and thought that takes the entire event to an amazing new level of awareness and understanding and ultimately brings the day to a joyful conclusion.

As you can imagine given the subject matter there is a great deal of passion and more than a little conflict, but it is perfectly balanced with a steady injection of brilliant humor. It is a play that provokes thought and teaches without being in anyway preachy. To make this clear, the character Jacob is indeed preachy in the extreme, but the overall play is not."

He recommends it "without reservation" and clarifies, in case people were wondering, "I am actually a life long and very proud flaming heterosexual. Such a condition does not in any way interfere with my ability to thoroughly enjoy this play."

And while I'm loving the fact that this guy loved it so much, I find that LA Splash blogger Keisha7 gives a really telling critique of the script when she says,

"The premise Matthew A. Everett’s play is great, but it could be stronger. Each person within each couple wants the same thing, just in varying degrees. There is never a real question about if these couples will get married. The questions are how and when. Without a credible threat of someone completely calling the whole thing off, the stakes can only get so high."

It's a very valid point, and one I'll have to look at going forward.

The use of multiple viewpoints doesn't work for her the same way it worked for Irwin...

"Everett seems to be trying to make all the valid arguments - trying to present every pro and con of the situation. However, these arguments just don’t ring true when coming from the characters that ultimately make them."

She also thinks the final scenes contain "two one-eighties... that feel contrived. In reality, change takes time. But Not For Love would better be served ending with the residue of something real."

The bit of extra time a full-length vs. a one-act structure would give the audience to process and the characters to evolve might make some of the shifts seem less abrupt, but I still need to watch how the characters choose to make peace with one another so the story remains tethered to our reality.

Speaking of reality, Irwin also gives me a little peek at the theater space before I get out there to see it myself...

"The physical elements of the theatre are rather amazing. It is truly intimate with seats for no more than 50 people. Yet the place seems larger. You enter off of Gardner Street just off of Sunset Boulevard into a brightly lit and spacious area. The whole feel is comfortable and friendly. When you enter the theatre area the seats are comfortable and positioned such that everyone enjoys a good view. Under the mastery of Founding Director Chick Vennera the Renegade Theatre is rapidly become a place where you can thoroughly enjoy genuinely professional productions that vastly exceed their physical realm."

I know Sunset Boulevard is enormous, and thus all sorts of things could be described as "just off Sunset Boulevard" but it still feels like of cool to be able to say that about a play of mine.

I'll be out there to see the show March 4, 5 and 6, but go the weekends before or after, too, if you can. I'd like anyone I know out that way to help out a new theater company producing a new play. The fact that it's also my new play just makes me root for them all the more. Show info below...

The Renegade Theatre Group’s production of But Not For Love is currently running through March 13, 2011 at:
The Renegade Theatre
1514 North Gardner Street
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 6:00 PM
Tickets are $20.00
May be purchased at the location or in advance at
or call for reservations (323) 960-4443

Links to the Full Reviews

Ron Irwin - Burbank Examiner

Keisha7 - LA Splash

Les Spindle - Backstage West

Neal Weaver - LA Weekly

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