A critic's critical look back

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By Doug Deuchler

During the 2½ decades I've been reviewing local theatrical productions, new companies sprang up like weeds while others withered away and died. I once saw shows produced by troupes with names like Delaney Theatre, Dainamite Studios, Act IV Productions, West Wind Theatre, and Oak Park Musical Theater, to name a few. River Forest Community Center, which used to be located in an old bus barn at Lake Street & Jackson Avenue (now the deli and produce department of the Jewel), mounted constant productions. There were also lots of little storefront theaters and church basement troupes back in the day.

In the 1980s, you often saw the same faces on stage and the same credits in the program from show to show. Most of the performers lived here. Now our local theaters draw talent from a much bigger pool, pulling in theatrical professionals who also appear in North Side and Chicago-area productions.

In the pioneer days of WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, when the Lake Theatre had but one screen and a single motion picture sometimes played there for weeks, I started out writing movie reviews. I was strictly a "film person" then but once when my editor needed help covering several new stage productions opening on a single weekend, I branched out.

(There's no truth to the persistent legend that when I was not cast as Peter in my high school production of Diary of Anne Frank I vowed then and there someday I'd avenge myself on the art form that broke my adolescent heart.)

Back in the early '80s, I'd write my review on an electric typewriter and slip it under the front door at the JOURNAL late that night, hoping the custodian wouldn't sweep it into the garbage in the morning. Now I simply e-mail the reviews to my editor. The entire newspaper was produced all in one room and our paychecks were kept in one woman's desk drawer with a rubber band around them. "Cash them quickly," we were sometimes advised.

Two and a half decades ago you could attend any show in the community for $4 or $5. Now tickets are often five times that amount.

I learned early on that there's a lot more to being a local theatre critic than simply providing thumbs up or thumbs down. Few shows are either a "must-see" or a true turkey.

Like a lot of jobs, when you review plays, even in the local weekly newspaper, you can't ever take yourself too seriously. You are not St. Peter judging what shows get through the Pearly Gates. But you also can't sugarcoat everything or speak in vague terms.

Of course, it's always easy to say something mean or insulting. But I rarely let the daggers fly. I have always felt a tremendous responsibility to nurture the growth of local theater while also raising the bar for those who are producing and performing in our villages.

I also try to remember the effect of reviews on hard-working, earnest theater folks, who are either laboring for free or for little more than carfare. I have been lucky enough to have some of my own plays produced, so I personally know the pain and anguish negative reviews inflict.

I used to attempt to jot notes while watching a play. But I'd get home and discover everything I'd written in the darkness was illegibly scribbled on top of everything else.

Looking back over 2 1/2 decades of hundreds of shows there have been too many highlights to mention. The late Wayne Buidens mounted full-blown operas like Rigoletto and LaBoheme at Circle Theatre. Village Players used to host thrilling, sold-out opening nights when they first occupied their "new" space at 1010 Madison St. in the early '80s. Michael Termine's 1940s U.S.O. revue has been running (off and on) five times longer than World War II. Austin Gardens is never more enchanting than when Festival Theatre produces A Midsummer Night's Dream. Open Door Repertory Company keeps taking bold chances that mostly pay off.

Over the years I've seen actors jump lines, props malfunction, and doors jam. I've witnessed missed cues, falling flats, guns that won't fire, and phones that won't stop ringing. But what bothers me most is seldom on stage. It's when my fellow audience members forget their manners. Though we're now reminded to turn off our cell phones, some of us still neglect to do so. A few wait until the most poignant moment in the play to unwrap their cellophane-covered butterscotch kisses. Some folks seem prone to attend theater only when stricken with non-stop hacking coughs. Still others forget they're not seated in front of their TV sets and chat amongst themselves in stage whispers. I often wish theater managers would include pea shooters in our press kits.

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