I managed to catch the play Sizzle! on its closing weekend so my thoughts come a little too late to be of any help to those that were thinking of going to see the show. I did promise the playwright my brutal opinion after the show so my usual dozen or so readers will be joined by at least one more, who unlike myself, actually has written something that a fair amount of people have actually seen. I don’t say that lightly. Just thinking of the numbers for a second, more people saw Sizzle! Friday night then will probably ever read my dissertation. I can’t say read this blog because I’ve had a few blind squirrel days around here, thanks Deadspin and YEMblog , but in all fairness, writing a play, getting it produced, and dealing with actual critics from the likes of Time Out Chicago, The Chicago Tribune and other publications is real big boy stuff, not this little ditty.
Dear God, I almost quoted Shakespeare, but I will refrain. About the play; all things considered it was…ok. There were a few things that were mildly annoying and a few that were very annoying. And a few things that were pretty good, so let’s start there. I know New Suit is a bit of a nomadic tribe when it comes to space, but the west theatre at the Raven was quite wonderful. A number of storefront theaters have distinct seating issues, namely sightlines and sound but the small space at Raven was fantastic; stadium seating and a decent sound system that made the various audio pieces work. What’s more, I wasn’t quite centered (no matter what the venue, I kind of like being off center) and yet everything came through loud and clear. A good counter example to this is the theater I went to on Saturday evening, the Oriental. A huge space, but we were far left of center and we had a difficult time hearing the dialogue from certain locations of the stage. Anyway the space was superb and hopefully the New Suit can put on more shows there or comparable locales.
On to the mildly annoying. I can’t remember which review was pretty harsh about the lead actor, but I was pretty much in agreement with whoever wrote it. I’m lucky to have the insight of the playwright and a mutual friend to get the answer to some of these issues, but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that the character as either written, directed or performed (or a combination of all three) made me dislike him and not in a comedic sort of way, say like Ricky Gervais was in the Office or Jeffery Tambor in Arrested Development. It was more like dreading his appearance in general, like Chris Kattan in Corky Romano. The lead actor basically went from Jerry Lewis to Gene Wilder to Matthew Perry in the matter of minutes during a variety of scenes. The overall nervous and manic persona he tried to display ventured too far into caricature and stereotype of the neurotic persona that can too easily be overplayed.
Speaking of stereotypes, the decision to have the Hollywood producer act like a Pricilla Queen of the Desert was a bit much to take. I understand that the writers were trying to respect the filmmaker of the source material (more on this in a moment) but the character was positively gauche. However the truly annoying character because it embraced so many stereotypes was the second lead, the African American cameraman. The characterization of an African-American with baggy clothes, sideways hat, and eubonic affectation of speech was every Republican’s view of African-Americans bar Tiger Woods, Herman Cain and Michael Jordan. What was further infuriating was how the relationship was established of the white professor being the smart one and the African-American being uneducated. In the second act when the white characters were explaining to the African-American the nuances of environmental science and policy was almost offensive. They might as well have been speaking to a child.
Now, I have a bit of insider information about this character and the Hollywood producer. I’ve been told that the writers wanted to respect the original filmmaker and do an accurate retelling of the documentary. They went so far as to show the filmmaker working drafts of the script. I understand and respect the writer’s sensitivity to this issue and I find it admirable that they went to such lengths to insure they were representing his vision and memory of events. To be an historian for a second; at some point the author must offer their interpretation of an event, not just an accurate retelling, but an avenue to help the audience or reader understand the issue at hand. This is especially needed in a public performance. Even if the two characters in real life were directly out of the caricature handbook, being confronted with them on stage makes for a bad experience and presentation. Characters need depth to be believable and sometimes accuracy isn’t the best way to achieve that. A person’s perspective and memory are often the worst avenues to get at any truth, especially for an audience. I feel like the mission of the New Suit was compromised a little by giving the original source such a strong voice. Perhaps they could only get the rights to make the play by giving him editorial input and if that was the case, in the future they should demur instead of go forward with something that is lacking.
I should note that the second act, the talking down to the African-American notwithstanding, really embraced the educational and provocative mission of New Suit. It was quite good how the debate became framed and the importance that one person has in any issue. The idea that debate is healthy and as the New Suit has done with a number of productions that there are more opinions and sides to an argument than the predominant narrative that is usually latched upon by the mainstream media. So it is vital that New Suit keeps doing what it is doing. They just need to exert more control on the message in the future and remember that sometime the medium affects the message.
Looking over this review, I realize I’m being pretty brutal. Now, the playwright told me to not hold back and I didn’t. Like I said at the beginning, however, to put one’s work out there, produce it, market it, and suffer the critiques of two-bit academics and theatre critics alike, is truly admirable. I think it only far, then, to get off my butt and write some of the things that have been on my mind for quite some time. The playwright of Sizzle! gets the first licks on whatever that turns out to be.