How does a Theater Critic Review a Play

During the past three weeks I have been publishing a flurry of theater reviews, thanks to the DFW Fringe Festival hosted by the Dallas Hub Theater in the Deep Ellum area, east of downtown Dallas.

The overwhelming majority of these reviews have been favorable. In fact, I have received a number of emails asking “every review you write is good, how can that be possible?”

I have responded matter-of-factly “that’s because I have not seen a bad show in this fringe festival. Not one.”

That statement is grounded in my background in theater, which spans over 20 years and includes work as a playwright, producer, artistic director, director, actor, singer, and behind the scenes tech work.

The productions I have been affiliated in the above capacities includes dramas, comedies, musicals, experimental pieces, faith-based and inspirational themed, satires, parodies, and sometimes a hybrid of two or more of these genres (i.e., dramedy – – drama and comedy blend).

In evaluating a production, i.e., generating a review (sometimes called a critique), there are objective and subjective elements or parts that make up the analysis (or should). These elements or parts when combined by a reviewer equal the sum total and produces an opinion of the presented theatrical work.

As a theater professional, I can be annoyingly anal about the production values associated with a show. These are the objective parts and are represented by the technical aspects of a show.

I break the technical aspects up into Tech 1 and Tech 2. In Tech 1, I look for:

1. What type of stage is being utilized (proscenium, thrust, arena? Does it drive the story or hinder its staging?

2. How did the set look?

3. Did the set design work with or against the action in the play?

4. Was the staging area maximized or under-utilized?

5. Were non-mainstage areas utilized during the production (i.e., a cast member seated in the audience and then joining the rest of the ensemble)? NOTE: this is not a necessary element and depending on how it’s used, can work with or against the presentation.

6. How is/was lighting used? How is/was sound used?

7. Did either enhance or detract from the production?

Tech 2 is typically focused on the action of the actors on stage per the direction of the director. Those elements include:

1. Were the actors blocked effectively or did their stage actions resemble the childhood game Rock-em Sock-em Robots or a WWE wrestling match?

2. Did the actors deliver their lines clearly?

3. If foreign accents are used, were they convincing? (I once portrayed the Brazilian soccer player Pele and half of my lines were in English, the other half in Portuguese. My rendition sounded more Spanish. The company brought in a linguist to help me perfect the dialect.)

4. If regional accents are used, were they convincing (i.e., New York, Boston, Texas, California, Louisiana, Midwest

5. Did the costumes and minor props help to set the piece?

6. Was makeup used appropriately?

When a reviewer analyzes these components is a personal choice based on their own style. I prefer to review as many of the Tech 1 elements as I can before curtain if the stage is visible as the audience is being seated. Some of these elements like use of non-mainstage areas, lighting and sound can only be gauged while the play is taking place. Components in Tech 2 are evaluated throughout the play.

That may seem like everything but what’s missing now is the subjective element. This step creates the greatest challenge for a theater reviewer because now the information above is systematically synthesized with our own experiences and biases.

A reviewer’s interpretation of a play based on these parameters can affect their critique positively or negatively, resulting in a plethora of adoration about your abilities or chagrin and contempt with a follow-up exclamation “he/she just didn’t get my work!”

Which may be true. I try to look a a production like a blank slate that unfolds before my eyes when the show starts with a completed picture by the end of the piece. I don’t have to agree with the subject matter, what I think was the playwright’s intention was, or how the director chose to interpret the playwright’s words on stage. If what I view is not what I had in mind before the seeing the show, the show can still work as credible art that is enjoyed by the audience.

Art is subjective or as the saying goes: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

However, what may also be true is your production and presentation was really crappy from a technical standpoint. It may be beneficial to consider what the reviewer points out as it may benefit the theatrical elements of your play.

I have had to struggle with some productions that rendered great acting performances but the production elements were horrible. In some of those cases, I opted to emphasize the talent more but still addressed the technical elements.

If a reviewer states in their review “the music was so loud I thought my eardrums were going to pop!”, if your play is not a rock or hip hop concert, chances are you need to reset your volume levels because the reviewer is probably not the only one who noticed it as they had their hands clasped over their ears.

A reviewer once said about an actress who resembled Michelle Pfeiffer in a production I produced and co-directed she “seems utterly at sea, though she may be able to sail by on looks while she learns how to navigate a stage.”

Even though she completed the 3-week run, mentally we lost that actress because she felt humiliated. I personally took responsibility for it because she was still an acting student and as her director, one who has successfully blocked novices before, I should have blocked her better. And it was reflected in the review.