We have read the play. We have seen a performance of this particular production. And now, it is time to capture our feelings about the story, the characters, the set, the emotions, the performances, and to capture those feelings in writing. The experience of a play is fleeting — it happens in real time and then it is over, unlike a film you can pause and rewind and watch again and again. Thinking about a play and a performance, the details of light and sound and language and story and acting all come quickly and powerfully. You need to pay attention to it all as it happens and be able to draw upon those memories and write about your reactions in a good review.
First, some general comments.
Because the performance of any play is a live experience, writing a play review can be an exciting, though difficult, task. You are both a spectator taking in and enjoying the performance and a critical analyst of the production itself. In your written reaction to the play you will provide:
- a very brief summary of the play,
- a close objective analysis of elements of the performance you attend, and
- an interpretation and evaluation of staging, acting, directing, and other elements that address the selected points of your analysis.
You are asked to be objective not impressionistic. A critic is not someone who simply “criticizes,” but a person who studies, analyzes, and then renders a rational judgment or opinions on what he or she has seen.
This review assignment asks you to analyze some elements you carefully select of one performance of one production: Black Tie at Primary Stages in New York City. You are not going to summarize the plot with all its details, or give an opinion of the text of the play you have read as you were asked to do in an earlier blog post. Now your next task, this review assignment, is focused on the performance of Black Tie we all saw at the student matinee at Primary Stages 59E59 Theatre on March 3, 2011.
Your job is to describe the production in an accurate but limited way, and then make a judgment of it based upon what you have seen and what you expected based on what you read. The assignment allows you to share what you learned when you read the play and what you experienced as an observer and critic of the performance you attended.
Now, for our task: write a focused review.
You will concentrate on a few ideas and aspects of the production and focus on only what you consider the most significant parts of the production itself. For our review of Black Tie for this project, you will not cover the entire wide variety of production elements (for example, the performance of every actor, the look of very costume, the location of every piece of scenery). In your review, you will give a general sense of the production and then develop a few specific thoughts about your experience of the play on the page and on the stage. You might choose to focus on one of the characters, or on some of the costumes, or on the set, or on how any of these details surprised you based on what you read of the play on paper. You will do this in several steps:
- an introduction
- a statement /thesis
- the review (interpret, analyze, evaluate)
- the summary and conclusion.
Step One: Write the Introduction
The introduction should include, in logical flowing sentences, information you should be able to find in your Playbill or you will know from your notes taken at the time of seeing the play.
- The title of the play, the name of the playwright, and any historical information about them you’ve learned and that seems appropriate to mention. For example: Are there other similar works by this playwright? Are there other similar works that you’ve seen on television or in movies or read in stories that deal with weddings or young people opposing tradition that are similar to or different from this play’s treatment of those themes?
- The name of the director, the place and date of the production (and performance) you attended, the name of the production company.
- The thesis of your review (your general impression of the production, focusing on the limited number of points you want to make)
“Black Tie, the newest play by A.R. Gurney,directed by Mark Lamos at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, tells a story of tradition, celebration, and family. Middle-aged parents Mimi and Curtis, on the evening of their son Teddy’s wedding in an Adirondacks hotel, discuss and debate their feelings about tradition and family with daughter Elsie, son and groom Teddy, and the memory of Curtis’s father. The humor of the writing, the simple staging of the spirit/ghost of Curtis’s father, and the gentle resolution of this story allow for hope in the evolution of long-held traditions, and allow for a lot of laughter.”
[In other words, in my example, my thesis is that the humor of the play is enchanting and enhances the playwright's point that traditions change or are at least adapted over time.]
Step Two: Write the Statement and Summary
Include a brief thematic summary (but not a plot summary) of the play, and support that summary with concrete evidence from the text. You can include this summary in the introduction (as I did in the underlined text in my example above). Or if you wish to expand the summary, you can include it in a separate paragraph following the introduction.
Step Three: Write the Review
As briefly and precisely as possible, describe in detail the physical aspects of what you saw performed. Keep in mind that whatever you include here must in some way contribute to the assertion you make in your introduction and thesis. Focus on particular scenes or performances that will provide the evidence for your final evaluation of the play.
“Black Tie provides constant movement in its 90 intermission-less minutes that begins with Curtis and his long-dead father who arrives out of a modest hotel closet in full black tie (and fades on and off stage when Curtis no longer needs him), debating traditions out of Chaucer and Mark Twain and medieval sayings of “below the salt” and formal presentation concepts such as “off the cuff” and ends with Curtis departing to participate in his son’s wedding. Curtis is the only character who sees this ghost of his father with whom only he converses during the play, yet wife Mimi feels the presence of the long dead father-in-law as long married people do. Mimi says: you’ve been talking an awful lot about your father … he’s hovering in the room like Hamlet’s Ghost. Unlike Hamlet’s Ghost in this play, however, our paternal spirit is friendly, advice giving, sometimes a little too traditional, always well-meaning. Daniel Davis as this hovering spirit provides a beautiful and gently quite hilarious performance as the black-tie suited ghost.”
[In a full review I might examine the pacing of the revelations by Teddy of the surprise guest at the rehearsal dinner -- the ex-husband of the bride who expects to do stand-up at the dinner and his gay partner, and how Curtis and the ghost react to these new revelations. In this example of a focused review, the details are pared down to the illustrations of the humor of the play and the theme of holding onto and then modifying traditions.]
Step Four: Interpret, Analyze, Evaluate
Finally, you will evaluate the elements of the production you have described in the earlier sentences. If you focused on describing the setting of the play and the design of the hotel room in Black Tie, here is your chance to talk about whether it works or doesn’t work. Does it look as you expected from reading the play — and if not, why not?
In my example of humor and pacing, I might describe the entrances and exits of the multiple characters, and reflect on whether there were too many of them and whether they all worked similarly well. For example, in my reading of Black Tie, I thought there were too many appearances and exits of Elsie — in performance, as performed by Elvy Yost and directed by Mark Lamos, those three appearances all seemed quite necessary. In this case, my reactions from my readings of the play were altered by seeing the play on stage.
You will come up with your own examples, your own favorite moments and themes to address, your own details upon which to focus. You’ve all had reactions to what you read and observed — now our task is to put some of them on paper.
Some of the text above has been freely adapted from a few paragraphs that appear in the University of Wisconsin Writing Center’s Writer’s Handbook section on “How to Review a Play”.
The full original Wisconsin Writing Center Handbook source: