P-p-p-popcorn Ghosts!

I reviewed Marin Shakes’s shaky Macbeth for the Marin Independent Journal, so hie thee hence to read all about it.

Madeline Harris and spirits in Marin Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Through August 14
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
Dominican University
1475 Grand Ave.
San Rafael, CA

Show #68 of 2011, attended July 15.

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  1. Ann Morrissey

    7 / 21 / 2011 6:59 pm

    Dear Mr. Hurwitt,

    It is not my desire or intent to publically broadcast my reaction to your reviews of MACBETH in the Chronicle or the IJ, so I welcome this opportunity to privately and candidly communicate with you.

    First, to lay a foundation of sorts: I am not a hired hand. I am not a reviewer. I am not a director, producer, actor, tech person, frequent theater goer or stage mom. My son, Zane Morrissey, is in the production by his own choice and doing but that association has absolutely no bearing on my reactionto your reviews.

    I found your review of MACBETH in the Chronicle to be extremely mean spirited and distracting. It was quickly evident to me it was more a platform for you to express your frustrations of the day and perhaps a desire to be a clever, glib and eloquent author or playwright or satirist than a reviewer of a county-based theatre company working in an outdoor amphitheatre with very limited resources, flexibility and funds. These reviews of yours lack foundation or consideration of the context in which to compare the effectiveness of the scenery, staging, costuming, etc. I didn’t think the scenery was outstanding in any way either–though it achieved what it had to achieve given the restrictions they had to work with. I don’t see what your purpose was in describing it as high-school level. Not sure anyone could do much better. It has to withstand the outdoor environment, it can easily be vandalized, it has to be also used for another production and perhaps two more. I don’t believe there is any space in that amphiteatre to store other additional backgounds nor do I believe there is the time to change them when the two productions run concurrently. This is an very rustic and limited outdoor envirnoment. In my humble opinion, given what they have to work with, they achieved their objective and did so quite well.
    Opening night did lack the spark it had during the previews and has enjoyed since then. The audience was low in attendence and were tough I am told. It was cold that evening and any in the audience not prepared for it could not be comfortable. I hope you were not one caught unprepared. The audience count is up now as is the energy and spark but I fear all could change if people read your reviews and either don’t go or go armed with the some of the uncalled-for barbs in your reviews. The apparitions, for instance, do not conujure up visions of popcorn. Blame Sir William for writing in these ghost creatures in to his play; not Lesley Shisgall Currier. Were this film with the aid of special effects–or even indoor, hig-budet theater–it could have been presented in a variety of very sophistocated and slick ways, but this is live, low budget, low security outdoor stage. In my humble opinion and according to many I have queried, it works and is visually rather intriquing. And w

    Who cares about Macbeth’s gloves looking like mittens? Your review in the Chronicle sounds more like a personal vendetta against Marin Shakespeare than a review. But, as I see on your blog, Marin Shakespeare’s MACBETH is known to you as number #68. You see a lot of productions and have to turn out a lot of reviews–even on the days you’re tired, cranky, overworked and underappreciated. I don’t think it’s your intention to euthanize this production, is it?


    • Sam Hurwitt

      7 / 21 / 2011 10:45 pm

      Dear Ms. Morrison:

      It seems that you have confused two different reviewers. Although I wrote the review in the Marin Independent Journal, I did not write the one in the Chronicle, so almost none of the details that you specifically object to (mittens, high school scenery) were written by me at all. That’s a different Hurwitt.

      The one detail you single out that is actually from my review is the popcorn apparitions. When you say “Blame Sir William for writing in these ghost creatures in to his play; not Lesley Shisgall Currier,” however, you are mistaken. Those creatures are not in the play that Shakespeare wrote at all. There are the three Weird Sisters, Banquo’s ghost, and the visions that appear during the one prophetic scene in which Macbeth sees the line of future kings. This business of having a bunch of spirits following Macbeth around wherever he goes is original to this production. I see what the director was going for in having Macbeth hallucinate much more than Shakespeare’s script calls for, but in practice it didn’t work very well. Also, strange as it may seem to us today, William Shakespeare was never knighted.

      Though I certainly understand your disappointment with unfavorable reviews of a show that your child was in (and I believe I said he was charming in it), reviewers come to these shows not looking to trash them in the slightest. We come to them hoping that they’ll be good and are delighted when they are and disappointed when they are not, and report back on what we’ve seen as best we can. I understand that people with a personal connection to the shows will often look for external, personal motives when a review is less than stellar, and I’m not sure that’s even a bad thing: There’s much to be said for personal loyalty. But that doesn’t make it true. I have nothing but good feelings toward the company and would like very much for it to succeed, but that certainly does not mean that I’m going to fib about what I saw to make it sound better than it was.

      Best wishes,
      Sam Hurwitt


  2. rose hoffman

    7 / 27 / 2011 9:05 am

    I saw this production on opening night and frankly, I think both Hurwitts were relatively generous in their reviews. Unlike the majority of audience members that night, I am neither friend, family member nor patron of Marin Shakes, merely an educated theatergoer with the misfortune to plunk down a large sum for tickets to a show that would have seemed amateurish if performed for free in a small town park.

    The production resembled nothing quite so much as that of a recital at a for-profit dance school, with a partisan audience over-praising their friends and family onstage. This stage was crammed with the rankly amateur students of what must be either the company’s summer camps or drama lessons. I have been told that a number of them are interns who pay 900 bucks for this privilege. This racket of selling bit parts to stagestruck kids and wannabe twentysomethings, and overpriced tickets to their adoring grandmamas and long-suffering parents is a commonplace in the massive dance schools of affluent suburbs. (I am not referring to the recitals of serious ballet and modern dance academies, whose efforts to create dancers with integrity is made all the harder by having to compete with these outlets where the biggest attention goes to the highest bidder).

    But I digress.

    This Mackers was just like one of those Nutcrackers, down to the handful of semiprofessional ringers hired for the occasion, the awkward costumes mixed with a sprinkling of perhaps competently designed but hideously malconstructed scenery and costumes, and the swaggering ‘star turn’ of the school director, who found even Shakespeare’s words insufficient for his ego, and who was therefore compelled to add lame ad-libs a Borscht Belt hack would have found pandering.

    Standing out like a virgin in a brothel were the performances of Macduff and Malcolm, who did their best to bring integrity to a show that must have been quite a trial to work on.

    The leading couple seem to be actors of purpose and goodwill. My heartfelt advice to them is to resist the temptation of being enshrined as this company’s darlings, and refocus on honest work elsewhere. Yes, you’ll have to forego the flattery and actually earn your casting, but your audiences and your craft will be much the better for it.

    I fear any such rebirth is impossible for the Curriers. This venue and the wealthy and sophisticated community surrounding have the potential to produce an experience rivaling that of Cal Shakes, who once upon a time were not that far above the apex of Marin Shakes’ past efforts. But these people have had two decades to take this opprtunity legit, and it seems clear that their legacy will remain yet another story of squandered potential. A story depressingly common in the performing arts. And that’s the only tragedy I saw on the Dominican stage that night.


    • Sam Hurwitt

      7 / 27 / 2011 9:42 am

      Dear Ms. Hoffman:

      While I found the use of student actors in this production conspicuous because it was oddly conceived, I don’t begrudge it on principle. When I was a kid I benefited greatly from various drama camps and summer classes offered by local theater companies. All of the ones I participated in culminated in student productions rather than cameos in the mainstage season, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the latter if it’s done well. It’s just that it sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s done poorly. I definitely don’t think it’s any kind of scam.

      There was one youth theater company I encountered in my teens that really DID feel like a racket, a chance to cram as many kids on stage as possible while making parents pay for costume materials and tickets on top of tuition, but most programs are a good-faith effort to give kids some basic theater training. Obviously parents and students have to make their own decisions about who’s best qualified to provide that training. I’d say too that the best teaching artists are not necessarily the same as the best stage artists, although it’s nice when the two skill sets overlap.

      Thanks for your testimony,
      Sam Hurwitt


  3. rose hoffman

    7 / 27 / 2011 11:04 am

    I couldn’t agree more. The wonderful actors and non-actor arts patrons who have been incubated in theater company programs and summer camps is legion, and the Bay Area has several fine institutions doing just that.
    Everybody as well as the art form wins when this is done well….it provides income and community outreach to the company, supplemental work for the teaching artists, and an introduction to theater for the students.

    What I object to is succunbing, perhaps unintentionally, to the temptation to letting this side business, or the obligstion to patrons corrupt the judgment of the artistic direction. Some such influence and bias is inevitable, and is a challenge for all arts institutions large and small, but it needs to be resisted.

    It should also be mentioned that having children from an associated academy perform in the main production is a wonderful, centuries-old tradition of the world’s greatest ballet and opera companies. However, in all such cases, the children’s casting serves the play, not the other way round. And to look more locally, Cal Shakes and SF Shakes both have strong teaching programs and neither of them deploys these students as supernumeraries, and as far as I know, the rare child that appears on their stages goes through the same casting director as everyone else in the show.

    I don’t mean to suggest that this racket-like dynamic is an intentional scam of Marin Shakes. I am confident that it’s not. But as Shakespeare himself has shown us in many of the histories, villainry is sometimes committed by individuals who believe themselves to be serving the common good. All of us associated with the performing arts in a time of miniscule funding have to be vigilant about the corrupting influence of patronage. The key is a sense of balance, and in all cases, being sure that your artistic values trump the competing needs of the company. Though it is a tougher road, the long term rewards are far greater….hence my Cal Shakes example.


  4. Candace

    7 / 30 / 2011 10:15 am

    I know one of the interns… and she knows that they look like popcorn-heads. What do you say when you’re a “student” and a “professional” tells you to wear a popcorn head and look “spooky?”…unfortunately, you do it. Oh to be young.





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