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My Farewell Column: On Leaving My Post as Theater Critic, and My Next Adventure 

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Photo courtesy of the author

Dear Readers,

I have happy and sad news.

My two-decade tenure as a theater critic — for Scene and for my blog Rave and Pan — has come to an end. I have accepted the challenging and important position of executive director of Literary Cleveland. (More about that below.)

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the editor of Scene, Vince Grzegorek, my previous editors, and all the staff members for their unwavering support over the years.

As I leave this particular stage of mine, I'd like to share some of my thoughts, both positive and negative, that have occurred to me over the years. It's not easy to select, since I've written, on average, two or three full reviews every week for almost 20 years. That amounts to more than 100 reviews a year, for a career total exceeding 2,000.

So, for handy reference, I have divided my parting musings into three categories: Pet Peeves, a Lethal Pan?, and Glorious Raves

PET PEEVE ABOUT CRITICS

The "Oh, Aren't I Clever!" Critic

I hate it when a critic tries to demonstrate how deft they are with wordplay, trying to show off their questionable writing ability. For instance, if a play involves a certain topic, a critic might be tempted to employ lots of puns about and references to that topic.

I parodied this syndrome years ago in my review of the car-centric play Autobahn by Neil LaBute.

"In Autobahn, playwright-driver LaBute doesn't buckle his seatbelt of authorial restraint inside this hard-to-control vehicle, so that after side-swiping logic and T-boning credibility, his theatrical hopes crash through the windshield of self-indulgence, leaving his outlaw reputation bleeding on the pavement of overly condensed inanity."

In short, don't do that. Please.

PET PEEVE ABOUT THEATERGOERS

The Hard Candy Problem

Once the play starts, don't open that piece of hard candy! Ever! There are live actors on stage, performing for you. You're not in a movie theater watching filmed actors with 20-foot-tall speakers booming ear-shattering sound effects. Respect the space you're sharing with artists who are working their asses off to entertain you.

My feelings on this topic are best expressed in a poem I wrote, titled "Crinkle." Here is an excerpt:

She unfolds a hard candy wrapper with the patience of a bomb demolition expert, exposing just the next small plastic fold, its tiny wrinkle-crinkle now mocking me and my impotence to stop it. And on it goes, crinkle after hellacious crinkle.

I lean forward to make visual contact, to embarrass her. But she is absorbed in the play — oblivious! —her wrinkle-undoing crinkle fingers operating independently of her small, nut-sized brain.

Each ensuing crinkle now erupts like a small glass explosion in my head, leaving shards that cut and bleed.

So if you see me in a theater, and you have hard candy that has not been thoughtfully unwrapped and then re-wrapped beforehand in a cotton handkerchief, be advised. I know who you are, I am filled with dread intent, and I will take action. The crinkle ...stops here!

PET PEEVE ABOUT THEATERS

If You Sell Snacks in Plastic Bags

Empty the contents of the just-purchased snack bag or candy bar into a paper towel, gather the four corners of the towel, and hand that to the hungry patron. Sure, we'll probably hear the dreaded Dorito crunch from a few seats away, but at least we will be spared the Crinkles from Hell.

LETHAL PAN?

No, I Didn't Kill a Theater with My Review

All critics find the need to write negative reviews. It comes with the territory. However, I didn't intend to shut down a theater with a review. Really, I didn't.

It was purely coincidental that, after my review appeared a dozen years ago, a local theater company called Fourth Wall Productions not only cancelled the play in question, the theater itself went out of existence. That review included observations such as:

"Billed as a satire, the script is sophomoric, pedantic, and numbingly repetitive. And those are its strong points ...

"If there's a microbe of an idea in here, it is methodically flattened by the playwright's inability to create a single believable scene ...The director seems as much at sea as the playwright, allowing his actors to yammer with a complete absence of pace, as if this were their first off-book rehearsal ... Sadly, the performers don't do much to enliven this walking coma."

And I concluded with, "This errant effort makes one wish that the company's name were literal — that there really were a fourth wall, preferably 3 feet thick and soundproof, separating the stage from the defenseless audience."

Hey, everybody's got an opinion. And over the years a multitude of mine were ...

GLORIOUS RAVES

Of Plays that Were So Great, They Could Change Your Life

So thank you! to Dobama, Cleveland Public Theatre, Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, None Too Fragile, Blank Canvas, Beck Center, Cesear's Forum, Ensemble, Porthouse, Mercury, Convergence-Continuum, CleveShakes, Cain Park, Great Lakes, Ohio Shakespeare Fest, Lakeland, Oberlin, Baldwin Wallace, New World Performance Lab, and others.

We live in a rich and bounteous theater area, so go out and enjoy it all! I know I will.

And by the way, I invite you to become a member, a donor, or a participant in the programs of Literary Cleveland. That's where I will now be spending my days happily immersed in supporting, encouraging and motivating local writers and readers. For more information, visit litcleveland.org.

See you there!

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