I have written on this blog about several of the productions from Diane Paulus’ first season as artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge: The tantalizingly beguiling Sleep No More from UK-based theater company Punchdrunk; the stunningly brilliant Gatz, an unforgettable verbatim performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby; and Paradise Lost, Cliffford Odets’ quintessentially American play about the Great Depression. Also produced this season—The Donkey Show and Best of Both Worlds.
The closing performance for Paulus’ maiden voyage at the A.R.T helm is a newly minted musical about baseball, the American experience and the Red Sox, Johnny Baseball. The populist leanings of this production are in keeping with the theatrical change of direction under Paulus’ leadership. Those proclivities are being played out off stage as well with the Fenway Park-like atmosphere that includes hot dog, pretzel and beer vendors in the lobby.
As a subscriber to A.R.T. for over 30 years, I view this year’s season as the most dramatic departure from A.R.T.’s theatrical past that I have seen. There is no question that Paulus is a force of nature—razor smart, charismatic and highly energetic—and her views on what theater should be are strongly held. She is insistent about bringing art closer to the average person, chipping away at the gap that has in many ways widened between artist and audience in this postmodern culture. It’s a little like moving from the artsy “theatre” variant back to its straight up American spelling.
What has amazed me is that even though Paulus’ advocacy has been stated quite clearly, the season’s performances have been wide ranging and extremely varied. Her proselytizing point of view has not resulted in theatrical experiences that all feel the same, a problem that has plagued numerous companies with visionary and/or ideological artistic directors. Each A.R.T. production has been its own variant on Paulus’ intention to produce theater that feels participatory, not detached; alive, not anesthetized; connected to our humanness rather than to our heads.
A few years back, before Paulus arrived at A.R.T., I was asked to participate in a theater devotees focus group to talk about the overall theater scene in Boston. Assembled in the room were the most serious theatergoers I’ve ever met outside of New York City. This was a gathering of those kind of theater buffs who knew the inside scoop on what was happening with every company, which directors had board support and which were caught in political crossfire, and of course the inevitable gossip about who was sleeping with whom. They were in a completely different league of devotional theatergoing from me.
What surprised me most about that experience however was how vociferously they hated A.R.T., all 11 of them. I was the only A.R.T. advocate in the room. And I couldn’t get any of them to buy my arguments in A.R.T’s defense—that risk taking is an essential part of great art making, or that no other theater company in Boston had been willing to step out into the stark and slightly scary world of contemporary playwriting and producing. They hated A.R.T’s theatrical mindset—cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular, smug.
I left that night with my allegiance to A.R.T. even more emblazoned than it had been before. I have had some unforgettably rarefied experiences in the Loeb Theater over the years, and some of those experiences would probably qualify as cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular and maybe even smug. And yes, some productions were crash and burn failures, without question. But the intention, that’s what I have always been drawn to at A.R.T.
Paulus’ direction is taking A.R.T. down new roads and so far I’m having fun on this jaunt. As the next season was announced I did find myself wondering if there will be room in A.R.T.’s future for those exquisitely crystalline, ethereally detached but ingeniously conceived productions that have been so signatory for this theater company in the past. Is there room in this new “people’s republic of Cambridge” theatrical climate for a translucent Three Sisters, a mesmerizing production by Serrand or Serban? I’m essentially a pluralist, so I want to get some of everything. But that approach to life—and to theater—doesn’t always fly.
Johnny Baseball would never be my choice for season frontrunner but then again I’m not a big fan of the song and dance genre. But loving baseball and in particular the Red Sox helps a lot even without plot complexities or philosophical inclinations. The play is fun, and the cast and the singing are terrific.
An interesting thing has happened since I saw Johnny B. on Wednesday night: I have talked about the play to people I have never mentioned theater to before and encouraged them to go. For the first time I am seeing how two very different subgroups can come together, Red Sox Nation and regional theater. Whether you are have populist tendencies or not, that is something to consider.
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