Cleanup on the Bulk Aisle: Somebody overindulged at winter's theater buffet

Last month a blizzard blew through town on Thanksgiving afternoon, leaving the city under a veneer of ice and snow when holiday travelers least needed it. The very next weekend, another blizzard struck the city when nine shows — a veritable torrent of comedy and drama — opened at the same time. The Thanksgiving slush melted within a few hours; the repercussions from nine simultaneous openings are perhaps more insidious, a metaphorical "black ice" for the theater community.

There are those who would contend that such an abundance of theater is a positive indicator of a healthy arts community. And it's undeniable that more plays are being staged now than in years past. In 2001, for instance, Riverfront Times reviewed a mere four plays in the entire month of December. Only two shows — The Royal Family at the Rep and Collected Stories at New Jewish — opened on that now-coveted first weekend in December. Later that month the now-defunct Characters & Company staged a musical version of It's a Wonderful Life, and a touring company of The Vagina Monologues played the Edison.

But of course there are now lots more theater companies, and they all seem to operate under the profoundly misleading maxim that "if you stage it, they will come." That might work for baseball stadiums, but it doesn't yet apply to theaters. At several of the openings I attended earlier this month, the audiences were thin. How do these companies survive with such sparse attendance? Seven of the nine plays ran for at least three weeks. Perhaps that's also a positive sign; not so long ago, two weeks was the norm. Certainly a dedicated viewer can parse out his theatergoing over three weeks and see everything. Reviewers, alas, do not enjoy that luxury. Nor do we have the space to fully review nine shows in the same week. Earlier this month the RFT opted for expediency and limited the Stage page to capsule reviews — an equitable response to the onslaught, but also frustrating, for there was some really fine work that deserved fuller attention.

Chelsea Serocke was one of December's gifts in Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake).
Jay Morthland
Chelsea Serocke was one of December's gifts in Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake).

How I wish I could have written at greater length about the nuances in the portrayals by Kirsten Wylder and Chelsea Serocke as an estranged mother and daughter in Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), an offbeat but engrossing offering from Echo Theatre. Crumble also allowed Terry Meddows a memorable turn as, of all bizarre things, a crumbling house. If the Kevin Kline Awards included a category for Best Dilapidated Building, Meddows would be the runaway winner.

I wish I could have written more about Alan Knoll's acutely tuned rendering of George Bailey and the entire populace of Bedford Falls in This Wonderful Life, a one-man celebration of Frank Capra's 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, and I wish there had been space to praise Marjorie Williamson's poster design for this Dramatic License production, a design that succeeded totally in capturing the show's essence. It's not often that a poster makes you want to go to the theater; this one did.

I wish there had been space to review the Webster Conservatory production of the always crowd-pleasing 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, exuberantly yet sensitively directed by Quin Gresham, artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock. If he's doing this caliber of work out in central Missouri, perhaps a return visit is warranted next summer.

Now, like a freak snowstorm, all but two of the December plays have melted into air, leaving behind nothing but memories. (The Sophie Tucker revue, Last of the Red Hot Mamas, at New Jewish and Over the Tavern at the Rep conclude their runs this weekend.) But the new year brings another round of perplexing decisions. On the first weekend in January, the Black Rep opens its season with Shakespeare's Pericles; the Rep is staging The Fall of Heaven, a first play from popular novelist Walter Mosley; the ever-adventuresome Upstream Theater returns with Cooking with Elisa, and Metro Theater is back at the Edison, this time with a stage adaptation of the highly regarded children's novel The Giver. So many plays, so little space.

What's a critic to do? 

 
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