The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound, Shakespeare Theatre Company

More and more these days, we've been hearing debates about the role of the critic in the theatre today.  What purpose are they meant to serve for the audience? For the creators? What's the place of a critic in a world when traditional journalism gives less and less space to theatre? And what do we do with the--saints preserve us-- theatre bloggers?

Left to right: Naomi Jacobson as Mrs. Drudge, Robert Stanton as Moon, John Ahlin as Birdboot, and John Cagtron as Simon Gascoyne in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of "The Real Inspector Hound," directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman. 

Michael Kahn's paired productions of two one act plays (Richard Bridley Sheridan's The Critic in a new adaption by Jeffrey Hatcher, and Tom Stoppard's more recent The Real Inspector Hound) give us a chance to realize that these same debates have been around for at least the last several hundred years.  It's a distinct pleasure of this particular pairing to actually have the opportunity to see two different masters of the theatre approach the same topic and craft their own particular spin on the same joke.

Of the two pieces, The Critic is probably a little more uneven, if only because of Sheridan's specific structure of his play. Its first scene is overlong and exposition-heavy to introduce us to a trio of theatre critics, including Robert Stanton's Mr. Puff, a critic who cheerfully and audaciously pursues his own interests and has, in fact, written his very first play.  All this seems to be in service of a few jokes at the expense of various Types of theatre critics and exists to bring us to the second scene, in which Puff presents a rehearsal of his glorious monstrosity of a play, impishly worsened by the friendly assistance of his critic friends (John Ahlin and Robert Dorfman).  While the ensemble plays up to the comedy of Puff's terrible play admirably, and there are some delightful gags to be had, I found Stoppard's Hound to be a much tighter piece and one which, to the modern audience, has a more interesting point of view.  Rather than "look at how ridiculous theatre critics and terrible plays can be," Hound gives us the opportunity to poke fun at these targets while also giving us a surreal and reality-warping night at the theatre for two critics.

While this is a wonderful night for Stanton, it must also be noted that I would happily watch Naomi Jacobson gruffly dusting knick-knacks as Hound's Mrs. Drudge for two hours and call it a splendid night at the theatre. It's also quite nice to see Hugh Nees take a fine turn in both acts, first most notably as the theatre's prompter roped into the action of Puff's play, and then as Stoppard's Major Magnus, recklessly wheeling himself across the stage and making menacing pronouncements.  Kahn's direction finds wonderful moments for everyone in the ensemble, giving opportunities for physical comedy both broad and subtle, just as the moment demands.  James Noone's scenic design and Murell Horton's costumes both likewise go deliciously over the top for The Critic and then scale back to very careful precision for Hound.

For good or ill, critics will always be among us, whether they dissect the play over beers in the bar after the show, write in the most revered of newspapers, review for academic journals, or even have a theatre blog.  Each critic has their own audience and shares their assessment for others to take as they will.  Some aim for pull quotes, some for a chance to flaunt their intellect, some even for an opportunity to sell their plus-one ticket, apparently. While I don't bemoan the state of newspapers for writing about world events like Mr. Dangle in The Critic, I do write because I enjoy seeking out and taking part in the discourse that surrounds my favorite art form.  While it can be a little unnerving to watch actors poking fun at theatre critics for two hours, one can't deny them the opportunity to have a little fun at our expense when they've weathered our own opinions for so long. I found Kahn's dual production to be great fun, and one that largely avoids the pitfalls of veering into too much inside-baseball-style playmaking.  Come for Puff's magnificent wig, stay for the Stoppard to come- you won't regret it.


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