Continuing Tales from the Holy Venture, The Turbulent Launch of DAVID

We’ve been taken by surprise on this one and it’s time to reflect — speaking truth only, as we promised on Tuesday morning after reading the first critical stab at our gallant undertaking.  Of note, in all the opinions that have been transmitted back and forth, is Josh Ford’s erudite reading of the play and its score on the 16th Street J Blog.  I completely recommend this thoughtful piece, mostly now, for what it observes about the play itself. Here’s a sample:

There is so much the review leaves out–the handling of the homo-erotic relationship between David and Jonathan. It ignores the context of presenting a musical on the very week of Israel’s 60th Anniversary that includes the prophetic line, “Because you lifted you sword to cut down an innocent man, the sword will never leave your hand.” No mention of the moment during David’s “conquering years,” when there is a mention of seven kidnapped soldiers sparking a war (kidnapped Israeli soldiers contributed to the Lebanon War in 2006) or when the chorus returns to its modified refrain of, “Twenty four frames per second of life/another day over and moving so fast/And going to war and fighting a war/And fighting a war/And fighting a war/And fighting a war.” No contemplation of the statement being made about the ambivalence of Jewish power?

But since Tuesday, as some of our comments have pointed out, we’ve had other reviews come and virtually all have expressed dissatisfaction. Not complete dissatisfaction, to be sure, and we’ll use the quotes praising the singing, the performances, the band, the music, the formidable design elements. And you can be sure we’ll use the DC Examiner “#1 Theater Pick” designation, as well as the “Top 5 Our Picks” from the Washington Post Sunday Source page. When it finally gets published, we’re going to share Georgetowner critic Gary Tischler’s good review of the show as well; he tells us it’s good but we can’t quote from it until it runs next week.

But so many of our friends in the press are disappointed by the show. While so many audience members are kind of on fire–in a really great, passionate way–about the extraordinary quality of what they’re seeing, hearing, and feeling on stage. How to explain the discrepancy?

It’s a first for us. The kind of uniform thumbing of nose from the press, while the audience is abuzz; to be sure, some audience members don’t like this bible story on stage either. I’ve had two people write to me and say they’re not resubscribing next year, even though they liked Miller and Mamet, the work on stage will keep them away until a good review brings them back. Again, it’s disappointing, and perhaps bewildering. Though I do understand this antipathy, because we’ve been down this road before. Twice, in fact, (maybe three times, even four, come to think of it!) where half the audience loved what they saw and the other half was upset. I’m gonna reflect on these 4 experiences in a second. But first, some incredible hosannas from more members of our audience:

“I want to take a moment and share with you how happy Brenda and I were to see your wonderful production. Congratulations on a magnificent show! The writing was clever and brilliant. The score was so elegant and artfully performed. The cast…well let me tell you about the cast….I can still see the faces of every one of the performers. Each of them so beautifully filled their part(s). And then,,,,they started singing! Oh my God! The harmonies were exhilarating. And then they danced! I felt cheated that I had only one curtain call to clap for them. You and your many colleagues must be truly over the moon. You deserve it. We wish you all good things.”

And here’s another:

“Congratulations with David.  We LOVED the show.  The only thing we did not like was that we were too timid to stand up and start a standing ovation.

And this one, from the very first preview:

“I loved it! It was much more entertaining than I had expected. It was the first show so it felt more special. The acting was great and so was the musical performance. At the end, I can’t help to shed a tear. Great job for all the performers!”

So DAVID marches on with an extraordinary company and 4 extraordinary musicians playing now to smaller houses than we were playing to in previews and on opening night. As we try to rally support and presence so that we can continue to inject some joy and artistry into this post-modern retelling of the David tale.

But let’s take a second to consider how we’ve been down this road before, dividing audiences with the presentation of new work.

I know our audiences in the past have chafed at structurally nonlinear postmodernist presentations with somewhat obscure framing devices. We heard similar grumbling about the storytelling in Ariel Dorfman’s PICASSO’S CLOSET, another world premiere, staged in our summer slot in 2006, about a famous figure who contained both darkness and light in his profligate arsenal. The portrait, and the presentation, sharply divided audiences and critics. The frame involved both a Nazi officer whose job it was to keep an eye on Picasso, as well as a fictional journalist who was writing a counter-biography of Picasso, imagining that he might have died decades earlier than his actual passing. That play is soon to go up in London in an ambitious production near the West End and we’re very eager to keep up with its progress.

In a different vein, we remember the mixed response to Traveling Jewish Theatre’s two character play with music performed by our same brilliant violinist and composer Daniel Hoffman, in GOD‘S DONKEY: A PLAY ON MOSES. Essentially, half the critics and half the audience rejected the rollicking post-modern interpolation of the meaning of Moses’ life — the play used irreverent humor, anachronistic melody married to biblical setting, dense Freudian analysis, and bunraku staging conceits to tell an epic biblical biography. The show got hammered and lost money. At the time, we swore “no more bible stories” on our stage. Our tough DC crowd just wasn’t in the mood.

But then we were delivered the gift of DAVID. And we shared its unfolding with workshop audiences two years in a row. And there was such passion for this project. A work and a score of integrity. And guess what? The critical response is seemingly making a mockery of the work. So much of the show’s insights, its drama, its soaring harmonies when characters make vows to one another, or indict each other; all that’s been obliterated in 600 word dismissives. Maybe it’s something in the Potomac waters…

Another show which comes to mind is–dare I say it?–SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS. Perhaps I should. A play we read aloud both in our library during our Tea @ 2 programming, and then at first rehearsal, we were convinced we had a heart-warming, comic winner based on a beloved memoir. But things went awry. The set, much like the set for DAVID, was wildly non realistic supporting an episodic structure and audiences felt a bit unmoored. Further, the play featured an engaging protagonist beautifully played by a bright young performer, but lacking in a strong central action line. The protagonist’s have things happen to them every bit as much as they take strong volitional actions forward. They tell you (in playwriting school) it’s a dangerous kind of protagonist to have. And you find these kind of protagonists frequently in adaptations from existing narratives. There is something utterly emotionally compelling about these figures — and yet they don’t perform in classically dramatic ways. And sometimes, an audience, or a critic, is unforgiving of that, shall we call it, passivity.

So these are all memories of shows that got a little beat up, that hurt our theater, that divided audiences, that lost money, and that we were almost completely proud to produce. Almost, I say, because on some shows we acknowledge that there were things that we could have done differently. Different choices dramaturgically and artistically we could have made. And sometimes relationships play into the issue — and what promised to be an extended honeymoon turned out to be some tough-going.

Collaboration’s like that. New plays are like that. New music too.

In a next post, we’ll reflect a little longer on the misunderstood premiere, as we look at work that has stood the test of time but was roundly ridiculed at its initial unveiling… If you have any examples of works of art like this–that were at first roughed up, but then re-appreciated–I’d love to hear about it and share it with our readers.