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Reviewing, Theatre

A Free Play is Never Free

Portrait of Robert Oppenheimer from Los Alamos.

Portrait of Robert Oppenheimer from Los Alamos.

Live theatre involves an implicit contract between the performers and the audience: the performers bring entertainment, art, or an interesting performance, and the audience brings an open mind and the politeness to clap even if it sucks.

Tonight I went with a poor unwitting Gabe to see a staged reading of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Based on the original transcripts, the play documents the 1954 hearing in which Dr. Oppenheimer’s loyalty is put to the test, and his security clearance eventually revoked. It was performed by the relatively new Indra’s Net Theater, which focuses on “big idea” theatre revolving around science and ethics. I didn’t have the highest of expectations going in, but it sounded interesting enough. And in the age of the Big Data and the NSA, questionable ties between government and science are clearly relevant.

When I go to a free staged reading, I don’t expect much. It doesn’t have to be polished, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be inane, it can be boring, it can be fluff. I don’t expect much. What I do not expect, however, is it to be four hours.

After the fact, Gabe found a New York Times review of the 2006 run. He pulled this quote:

The proceedings do seem to lag at times in this relatively long evening of theater (roughly 2 hours 45 minutes). But so what? This is a play of real ideas, posing questions about moral relativism, the limits of vigilance and human decency.”

And so the question is: where did the extra hour and fifteen minutes come from?

Some of it, of course, was the introduction to the piece, which explained the history of the company and purpose of the host organization, a Unitarian social justice-focused church on Northside. That added about fifteen minutes or so to the beginning.

The other hour could have easily been cut if they had just talked at a slightly quicker pace and cut all the dead transition time. At one point, we waited in silence while they mimed taking a cassette tape from the front of the room to the back of the room to play a supposed recording. This may have been a realistic portrayal of how a hearing would go, but this is theatre, not reality, and we do not need to sit through the minute details of how life actually goes. Dead silence not only adds completely unnecessary time to the run of a show, it also causes the audience – i.e. me – to completely lose interest. Multiply this times many, and you get a slow-moving, uninteresting show.

Another main problem with the show was that it lacked any variety or texture. As the New York Times describes, the play is “all talk” – it consists solely of testimony and cross-examination, with intelligent characters discussing heady issues of loyalty, politics and ethics. The nuances of these conversations gets lost when the characters talk very slowly with the exact same tone and tempo for two hours until intermission gives us a short break and then two more hours of the exact same tone and tempo.

And the whole time, the majority of the characters were sitting. Since this was an official hearing, this makes sense from a realism point of view – but it also meant that our eye-line was completely impaired and it was impossible to see anything. Sitting also sends all the energy straight into the chair, creating a deadening effect. This is especially problematic with a staged reading: with scripts out, much of the actors’ focus was already going down, and the combination of dead energy and slow speaking made the already long play feel even longer.

Live theatre is different from TV in that you cannot simply turn it off; it’s not a like a movie where you can sneak out the back with none the wiser. With live theatre, the actors know you are there. Moreover, the director, for certain portions, was standing right behind us. That did not stop about a third of the audience from leaving at intermission. Gabe and I stuck it out for a second act, assured by the overheard comment that the second act was much shorter than the first.

They lied.

The second act featured numerous more characters, which brought different life and energy to the piece. Unfortunately, by that point, I was completely checked out. The last half hour or so consisted of those, “Is this done yet?” kind of moments, followed by despairing glances when we realized no, it was, in fact, not.

I wrote down several comments on the feedback form (basically what I’ve said above), and spent a good portion of the second act debating whether harsh criticism would be beneficial or not. Putting yourself onstage is an inherently brave and vulnerable act – is it really my place to give such negative feedback? But as I sat there, trying to be on my best behavior, we passed the three-hour mark. By the three-hour mark, the terms of the performer-audience contract change: I don’t care if it’s free, if you take up that much of my time, it had better be worth it. So I left my comments and Gabe and I got ice cream and that made things better.

I am a big fan of the company’s choice to focus on science and ethics: I think this is incredibly relevant and appropriate for a Berkeley theatre company. They are a young company, and surely still finding their bearings. I saw definite potential in their choice of play. Their last show received mixed but decent reviews, so here’s to hoping they grow and improve, because they’ve found a really great niche for source material and I’m curious to see what else they do. Just please – not four hours long.

Image note: The photo of Oppenheimer comes from Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL requires the following text be used when crediting images to it: (link)


Unless otherwise indicated, this information has been authored by an employee or employees of the University of California, operator of the Los Alamos National Laboratory under Contract No. W-7405-ENG-36 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. Government has rights to use, reproduce, and distribute this information. The public may copy and use this information without charge, provided that this Notice and any statement of authorship are reproduced on all copies. Neither the Government nor the University makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any liability or responsibility for the use of this information.

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