Diversionary Theatre's staging of Love! Valour! Compassion! last fall represented more than the San Diego company's bias toward gay-related themes. The group had produced the play some years before, having revived it this year amid popular demand. Given the show's rich underlying stories on HIV and AIDS, last autumn's event became at once an artistic endeavor and a public service.
As businesses, most San Diego theaters are fairly adept at seizing on such occasions in the general interest. Their mission is to recount our life stories for personal and public reflection, and a look at some reasonable attendances around here might indicate that patrons are willing to part with their evening's resources to that end.
An audience, however, plays as vital a role in the show as the actors it scrutinizes-the profound give-and-take distinguishes theater from its cinematic and inanimate cousins. And as performer and patron share in the intimacy, so too must they accept equal responsibility for its effect. A little audience introspection goes a very, very long way in the theater-here, then, is a blessedly short article designed to enhance your experience and maybe get you thinking about your all-important function next time you see a show.
Coronado's Lamb's Players Theatre, for example, will stage William Shakespeare's Hamlet Jan. 21 through March 7. "Hamlet is the theatre's first modern man," the promotional material correctly says-themes of political intrigue and revenge ideally will strike multiple chords in today's patrons.
But a stupid trend has companies staging Shakespeare in contemporary dress right and left, as though the directors are trying to shift the case for relevance to the costume designers (remember the breathtakingly awful Julius Caesar at the Old Globe last summer?). It's hoped that by modern, Lamb's only means to define the man named Hamlet philosophically. Present-day dress has no place in Shakespeare any more than does his authentic Elizabethan clothing; his broad characters and stories offer directors a universe of exploration beyond costumes, with increased audience curiosity the result.
The black-box staple in San Diego's Hillcrest area, 6th @ Penn maintains its topical bent with Kimberly Akimbo, running Jan. 10 to Feb. 15. The David Lindsay-Abaire play centers on a 16-year-old girl with progeria, a malady that causes the body to age faster than it should. Fuddy Mears, Lindsay-Abaire's first piece, dealt with disease as well. Still running throughout the U.S., it features a girl with a rare form of amnesia; she awoke each day with no memory at all.
The idea behind Fuddy was not so much the portrayal of disease as of the dysfunction with which the people around the victim conduct their lives. Kimberly purports the same approach. The title character has a hypochondriac for a mom and a shyster for an aunt, two of many obstacles facing her as she hurtles toward an early death.
But the ailment in Fuddy is almost ethereal in nature, as loss of memory is visually less apparent than the ravages of age. With Kimberly, Lindsay-Abaire thus arouses curiosity about the strange disease, and to keep things interesting, he has to balance material on its etiology with the human interest that surrounds it. It's a tough row to hoe, especially since progeria is so rare. The enlightened audience will gauge his decisions with due diligence.
In a 1999 interview, actor Jack Heller (Beverly Hills Cop, TV's The Pretender) defended theater patrons' native intelligence as he attempted to gain a foothold in the small town of Ventura. His plans to start a professional company there wrought the disdain of his L.A. pals, who advised him that Venturans "don't know what they want; they're a buncha farmers."
"I don't believe that about any audience!" he exclaimed.
Heller might be right, at least if statistics are any indicator. A recent Theatre Communications Group report reflects $16 billion in admissions revenues for National Football League franchise cities in 2002; combined, professional and community theater did twice as well nationwide.
But our essence lies beyond those shabby gates, an essence theater taps like no other endeavor. We don't go to plays for reflections on the writers' or performers' worlds so much as for insights into ours-the ideal audience thus looks beyond the companies' bells and whistles, hastily exchanging them for a life-altering look at the human experience.
You be the judge.