It Was the Best of Plays, Because It Was the Worst of Plays

By Trisha Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic by Danielle B. Szabo

There is nothing as exquisite as seeing a truly terrible production. I love nothing more than spending three hours in a dark theatre watching the pieces fall apart.

As I sit watching a Chicago theatre’s truly terrible stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes: The Hounds of Baskerville, I cannot help but feel immeasurable glee when three grown men prance across the stage. They are operating a hound thing which vaguely resembles a horse/dragon/dog cross if a third grader was told to create a puppet in the style of Warhorse.

Sherlock Holmes battles this monstrous atrocity with no trace of his famous wit which may be a product of the unintelligibility of his accent, which sounds more like an offensive rendition of an Indian accent than any part of England that I know. John Watson repeatedly enters to the sound of hip-hop music which might make some semblance of sense if the piece wasn’t set in Victorian England.

Occasionally, I wonder why I take such absurd pleasure in something that has obviously strayed so far from its goal? But the truth is that it makes my job as a dramaturg incredibly easy.

As a theatre-maker and student, I spend hours a day poring over texts that tell me what might possibly qualify as relevant, meaningful, and enjoyable theatrical experiences. There are so many conflicting philosophies swimming around my head that I no longer know for myself what is good theatre.

These myriad of theories argue loudly in my mind while I’m trying to watch the gosh darn show here, please.

And never mind going to see a play with a friend who will insist on getting my full opinion of every tiny motion.. Seeing a good play is a three hour memory exercise and I will be tested on the minutest of details by my companion that needs my “expertise” to understand.

It is exhausting.

With a truly terrible production where everything goes wrong, it is so much easier to criticize. And that is truly what everyone is asking a theatre person to do when they ask your opinion of a production. It is never acceptable to say that I loved Lookingglass’s Lookingglass Alice because it was really pretty and funny. That is not analytical enough, not deep enough, and definitely not the kind of criticism that would make Kenneth Tynan proud.

I would much rather sit through a production supposedly about surviving sexual assault written by a man who has a suspiciously large role as the assaultor and narrator. In this production of Mine, the two characters awkwardly spinning around the stage seemed less like imposing memories come to attack the lead character and more like the Tooth Fairy got disoriented on a roller coaster.

I have always enjoyed seeing bad theatre like that, potentially because where I’m from, it is the only theatre I have.

I come from a hometown where the best theatre in the area recently put on a production of American Idiot, the pop opera about drug abuse and teenage pregnancy, where the average age of the cast was 50 years old. That’s generally the shenanigans that happen in Nashua, New Hampshire.

As the resident wannabe theatre-maker growing up here, it was my job to tell everyone that the three and a half hour production of Peter Pan was not revolutionary theatre but was actually quite bad.

I vividly remember questioning why there was an addition of a babysitter, a grumpy teenage girl, to watch the children even when they kept the traditional Peter Pan guardian of Nana. This babysitter caused the audience endless confusion as she was brought to Neverland and quickly ditched to wander the forest for two hours. In-between scenes, we would get glimpses of her running into the Native Americans who stole her cheese puffs or the woodland creatures who performed a ballet with her.

I puzzled and puzzled about this character, knowing that she must have some reason for being in the show. It wasn’t until everyone flew was flying back to Neverland that I realized they had forgotten her. I guess there was no purpose after all.

The truth is that bad plays make dramaturgy incredibly easy. When I pointed out the absence of a resolution for the babysitter’s character, it was a revelation to the cast members who had spent three months with the piece. If dramaturgs are supposed to be the outside eye, a bad production makes the important notes to give very clear.

Seeing a bad production is my equivalent of binge-watching reality television. All you need to do is get a ticket, grab some Swedish fish, and lower your expectations.

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