The Wicked Stage on Vibratorgate at the Playhouse
Well, I’m afraid I’ve been AWOL in the Bay Area while the spectacle of “Vibrator-gate” continues to unfold at the Playhouse (see my initial review of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Vibrator Play” here, the Playhouse President’s subsequent interview here and a fascinating piece by Jade Esteban Estrada for Plaza de Armas here). The good news is that the production of Luis Alfaro’s Bruja that I saw in San Francisco was really deft and affecting and perhaps some enterprising troupe in San Antonio will pick it up; but the bad news is that we’re forced to still ponder the lessons and meaning of what happened in the Cellar in SA. So, some thoughts:
As I suspected, the Cellar did not seek permission to change the script. When I discussed Vibrator-gate with some of my non-theater-savvy friends, they were surprised to discover that licensing agreements generally preclude any alterations to the script, even a single word or setting. Indeed, Samuel French’s licensing agreement states: “The play will be presented as it appears in published form and the author’s intent will be respected in production. No changes, interpolations, or deletions in the text, lyrics, music, title or gender of the characters shall be made for the purpose of production.” This might seem draconian and legalistic, but in fact, such language protects playwrights from renegade productions—like the Playhouse’s—that misrepresent the author’s intention: after all, The Vibrator Play is not the Playhouse’s play. It’s Sarah Ruhl’s play; and if she wants to write about race, or magical realism, or boogers, or anything at all, that’s her prerogative. If the Playhouse didn’t want to produce her play as written, surely they had other plays to choose from, and better things to do.
Now, changing the play is bad enough, but the Playhouse might have at least mentioned the changes to the character and the ending in, say, the program. It’s a sorry situation when someone who has nothing to do with the production—that is to say, a critic—has to point that out. And there seems to be some confusion about the restoration (if any) of the altered text; in the Current, President Asia Ciaravino indicated that the lines were subsequently restored; but in the PDA piece, we discover the following exchange: “After Jenkins pointed out the redaction, Ciaravino asked [director] Fuller to restore the lines, but Fuller says she refused.” (It’s unclear to me how the chain of command works at the Playhouse; but I digress.)
And shall we take a gander at what San Antonio audiences (apparently) aren’t seeing? In a nutshell, Mrs. Givings—the privileged white hausfrau who needs a wet-nurse—is afraid to hire the African-American Elizabeth because she’s worried about the implications of cross-racial nursing: “It’s only that they say morality goes right through the milk. Mrs. Evans said just the other day, oh I wouldn’t use a darkie, the morality goes right through the milk.” A neighbor reassures Mrs. Givings that even though Elizabeth is “colored,” she is still very moral and God-fearing; and the scene and the themes continue from there (pp. 27-29), including a cross-racial nursing scene in the second act. Mindy Fuller argues that if re-inserted, these scenes would now be confusing with a white actress and, yes, I whole-heartedly agree, which is why they should have cast a black actress or scrapped the whole production. (Fuller argues that in the absence of Equity theaters in San Antonio, “The show must go on.” No, it certainly must not. Shows get cancelled all the time, particularly at the Playhouse, which just yanked A Streetcar Named Desire from this year’s schedule, and which has already put next season through a blender.)
About the difficulties of casting a black actress: well, I just reviewed a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in San Antonio; surely, there are black actresses available. (And nobody mentions the changes made to the ending of the play; those alterations should be restored as well.) Clearly, the misguided alterations to the play should never have been proposed, and it’s unclear why Frank Latson, the artistic director of the Playhouse, allowed them to enter production. The changes should have been caught, and squelched, at an early stage in the planning process.
But let’s leave The Vibrator Play for a bit. I want to focus on a specific phrase that Ciaravino uses at the end of her response: “I appreciate all of the feedback from Thomas….” Now, I realize that Ciaravino was likely speaking off-the-cuff, but I think the term ‘feedback’ inadvertently reveals a whole host of misapprehensions about the role of a critic, whether at the Current or anywhere else. It is not the function of a critic to provide feedback to artists; indeed, I don’t believe artists should consider reviews of their own work. Criticism is not a dialogue with the artists, it’s a dialogue about the artists, conducted (ideally) with individuals who like to think seriously and deeply about the arts. Now, it’s probably true that the number of serious theater-goers in San Antonio who are not also theater practitioners is likely to be reckoned around a few hundred (perhaps fewer), but that doesn’t change the nature of criticism. Critics interpret the art that artists offer—whether in film, print, or plaster—as final and polished works, presented (at a fee!) for contemplation: indeed, critics are generally banned from workshops or developmental readings because it is fellow artists who should be giving feedback, not critics. So what I offered two weeks ago was not nebulous feedback on some sort of development version of The Vibrator Play, but profoundly distraught criticism of the expurgated final product, put on sale for $25 and presented as the celebrated, Pulitzer-nominated work of Ms. Ruhl.
The single greatest challenge in San Antonio theatre is this: theater companies have failed to foster an audience of theater-goers that is distinct (and much larger) than the community of practitioners and their friends. Fiascos like The Vibrator Play only signal to future and potential serious theater-goers that the Playhouse is still several years—and perhaps decades—away from theatre as professionally produced as at, say, the Zach Scott Theater in Austin or The Kitchen Dog Theatre in Dallas. Until then, I fear serious theatre-goers will continue to steer clear of San Antonio theatre and commit their energies and resources to performing arts organizations—like the Symphony—that operate at what they perceive to be higher standards of artistic expression and professionalism. And as I offered in my initial review, that, I’m afraid, is the buzz.
–Thomas Jenkins, Current theatre critic.