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Dennis Doesn't Write the Headlines: RFT theater critic sets the record — and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis — straight. 

There seems to be a misapprehension circling around town that I have an agenda against Shakespeare Festival St. Louis (and that I write the headlines that appear over my byline). Nothing could be further from the truth (including that bit about the headlines). I cherish a provocative evening with Romeo and Juliet or Beatrice and Benedick. Some of my earliest theater roots were planted as an assistant stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. I know firsthand the exhilaration of working on these bottomless plays. And I know how frustrating it can be to sweat blood on a production that you think is really good and then have the critics piss on it.

But I also know that theater is a creative process. No new theater company hits the ground running. Ever. There is always room for improvement. Yet from the night our Shakespeare Festival opened in 2001, its board of directors has operated on a myopic Field of Dreams mentality: If they build it, we will come. And when we come, we should all be so grateful for this wondrous new gift in our midst that it would be tantamount to heresy to speak ill of the product onstage.

Despite — perhaps even because of — all the encomiums that have been piled high on its eight festival offerings to date, the festival itself has not felt the need to fulfill its first and most fundamental challenge, which is to establish its own identity. As yet no one has decisively determined what is supposed to happen in Forest Park. Is the imprimatur to mount a superior quality product or simply to appeal to the lowest common denominator (and largest attendance figure) among the audiences? An intelligent member of the theater community recently suggested to me that because the festival is an outdoor summer operation, it should only stage comedies. I think that is arrant nonsense. Yet the opinion was deeply felt. Until this debate is waged and these identity issues are resolved, the festival is saddled with an ongoing sense of aimlessness.

And because the plays feel aimless, they always feel too long. Then I inevitably end up writing about the need for cuts. Not to get bogged down in hypotheticals, but can anyone doubt that if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be cutting like crazy and instilling his plays with visual elements that would appeal to an audience under the sway of film and television? Even in his own era, Shakespeare understood the need to tell a story visually. As he wrote in "The Rape of Lucrece," "To see sad sights moves more than to hear them told/For then the eye interprets to the ear."

But length is merely a symptom of a larger problem: the confusion over why the play is being staged. Yet shouldn't that reason always ultimately be the same? To tell an original story. How do you do that? Here's one approach, suggested by David Mamet: "My experience as a director and as a dramatist is this: The piece is moving in proportion to how much the author can leave out. A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains."

In our generation no playwright has been more assiduous about demanding that his plays be staged uncut than Edward Albee. An uncut Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs nearly three and a half hours. Yet three years ago, after its most recent Broadway revival — and after observing a new generation of audiences — without any fanfare Albee quietly made several substantive cuts in the text that are now mandatory for all future Virginia Woolfs. If Albee, who cherishes the spoken word, realizes the need to trim an overlong 40-year-old play in order to clarify his drama for today's often distracted viewers, surely those who stage Shakespeare can appreciate that an overlong 400-year-old play can also be made more immediate by trimming the fat and fleshing out the story.

Now let's play devil's advocate. Two years ago the Goodman Theatre in Chicago staged a King Lear that ran three hours and twenty minutes, and viewers sat rapt. So yes, Shakespeare can be compelling without cutting. But that deeply involving Lear worked so well because director Robert Falls understood that pace is preoccupation. Falls knew what the story was, he knew why he wanted to tell it, he made his objectives clear to every member of the company, and then he filled out every single moment. Every scene in Falls' Lear became the most important scene of the evening.

This is what must be done if Shakespeare is to hold a 21st-century audience. No longer can actors merely ride the lines. The characters onstage — even if they're larger than life — must be grounded in reality. In 1969 Richard Chamberlain went to England to star in Hamlet, a role he repeated the following year for television's Hallmark Hall of Fame. Many years later Chamberlain watched that TV film and then offered the following unsparing critique of his performance: "What I saw was a lot of fairly well-disciplined energy being expended on my part. The choices weren't bad. But I didn't see a real person. I wasn't really listening to the Ghost. I wasn't really thinking about my father. I wasn't really caught up in the dilemma of murdering a relative in cold blood. I wasn't really entranced by my mother. I didn't play any of those qualities deeply enough. Instead I was playing words and line and music. I was too general. Today my tendency would be to play a moment-to-moment reality and to make those moments much more personally specific."

Specificity. That's the magic pill that will allow today's viewers to relate to these 400-year-old characters. Too many festival performances have been far too general. And I think it's irresponsible of a critic not to say so (while at the same time acknowledging that mine is only one opinion).

I'm not even convinced that serious actors are all that disturbed by negative reviews, which they shouldn't be reading anyway. Actors are the first to know how hard it is to make these plays work; they know that the keenest satisfaction is in the striving and that there is nothing dishonorable about not attaining one's loftiest goals. Long before he became a film star, Christopher Walken played Romeo at Stratford, Ontario. Even after his initial movie roles, he was Macbeth at Lincoln Center, Hamlet at the Seattle Rep. Walken once observed, "If you fail a few times, what happens? The critics give you terrible reviews, or you get booed. I was booed in Romeo at Stratford. So what? It's not as if somebody takes you out in the alley and beats you up. You go home; you're depressed. But nobody really hurts you. You learn that getting bad reviews is not all that serious. Next time you'll do better. Failure teaches you that you never get anywhere being careful. I don't know of a more important lesson for any actor to learn and keep relearning."

Next summer Shakespeare Festival St. Louis surely can do better than they did this season. Artistic Director Dawn McAndrews will be into her second year on the job. She'll be working for the first time with a play of her own choosing. Perhaps between now and next May she can even resolve the festival's identity problems. That could be a big step forward, because it really does work wonders when everyone involved with a production is enthusiastic about wanting to tell the same story. 

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