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Reviewing the Review 

Summer movies usually means "fun" movies. That's "fun," as in "numbingly stupid and dull." Maybe it's all that "fun" on celluloid that's given an impetus to the local summer theater scene. Whatever the cause, the torrid nights of July and August have engendered an exciting new "season."

In the upcoming months, it will be hard to top offerings like Wendell Pierce's Jitney; Running With Scissors' Hedwig and the Angry Inch; The Shakespeare Festival's Richard III; not to mention Red Noses' production of Jim Fitzmorris' original With Malice Towards All.

In any case, the traditional fall/winter season is about to begin, so this may be a good time to pause and consider that most problematic component of the theatrical experience: the review.

One of the great pleasures of the acting profession is trading "war stories": the hilarious misadventures that occur in front of an audience. "Remember the time Louie forgot to take the blond pageboy wig off, that he wore as the mother-in-law, when he re-entered as the sheriff?" That sort of thing.

However, I don't believe I've ever heard a group of actors sitting around trading quotes from their bad reviews. They would be more likely to indulge in black humor about the terminal illness of the next of kin. It's a shame, really. After all, we've all gotten panned.

My own most memorable shellacking came for a play I wrote and directed in a little theater on the Bowery in the late '60s. On the exalted pages of the Village Voice, I was compared, unfavorably, to a bug that had been squashed on a car windshield. I'm still a little bewildered by the extravagant disgust the play evoked in the critic. But, entomological metaphor aside, I'm sad to say he was more right than wrong about the merits of the script.

Perhaps what we need is a Pasteur of Pans. We need to be inoculated by way of comparative trashings. With this in mind -- as a public service to the actors, directors and playwrights about to run the critical gauntlet once again -- I offer some scorching tidbits drawn from No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, compiled by Diana Rigg.

Hopefully, it will be comforting to learn that Sir John Gielgud was once scolded in print for having "the most meaningless legs imaginable" or that Glenda Jackson was described as bearing "a face to launch a thousand dredgers." And imagine Lord Olivier's surprise when he discovered "... any fan of Walt Disney comics could see that Lawrence Olivier (as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) had modeled his appearance on Scrooge McDuck."

But appearance is secondary. Here are some assessments of characterizations offered by the great and famous in classic roles:

"Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra and sank."

"Cedric Hardwicke conducted the soul selling transaction (in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus) with the thoughtful dignity of a grocer selling a pound of cheese."

"Ralph Richardson's Uncle Vanya is just his Falstaff with a hangover."

"Farley Granger played Mr. Darcy (in Pride and Prejudice) with all the flexibility of a telegraph pole."

"James Earl Jones (in Coriolanus) sounded like one-stringed double bass with a faintly Calypso accent, and rolled about like a huge barrel set in motion by a homunculus within."

"Albert Finney's Hamlet is more of a Spamlet, really."

"Anthony Hopkins (playing Macbeth at the Old Vic) gives the impression that he is Rotarian pork butcher about to tell the stalls a dirty story."

But my very favorite demolition job is Max Beerbohm's reaction to Sarah Bernhardt when she cast herself (a one-legged, post-menopausal French woman) in the title role of Hamlet:

"I cannot, on my heart, take Sarah's Hamlet seriously. I cannot even imagine anyone capable of more than a hollow pretense at taking it seriously. However, the truly great are apt, in matters concerning themselves, to lose that sense of fitness which is usually called a sense of humor. And I did not notice that Sarah was once hindered in her performance by any irrepressible desire to break out laughing. Her solemnity was politely fostered by the Adelphi audience. From first to last no one smiled. If anyone had so far relaxed himself as to smile, he would have been bound to laugh. One laugh in that dangerous atmosphere and the whole structure of polite solemnity would have toppled down, burying beneath its ruins the nation's reputation for good manners. I, therefore, like everyone else, kept an iron control upon the corners of my lips. It was not until I was half-way home and well out of ear shot of the Adelphi that I unsealed the accumulations of my merriment."

Courage, thespians, others have fallen before you!

click to enlarge Upcoming theater productions will be hard-pressed to match the quality of summer works that included Tony Molina, Ron Gural and Gavin Mahlie in The Shakespeare Festival's Richard III.
  • Upcoming theater productions will be hard-pressed to match the quality of summer works that included Tony Molina, Ron Gural and Gavin Mahlie in The Shakespeare Festival's Richard III.
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