Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The best audience in town

Photo(s): Megan Moore
I'm still pondering The Persian Quarter (at left and at top), Kathleen Cahill's play about the Iranian hostage crisis and its aftermath, which is currently on the boards at the Merrimack Rep. The production itself is superb, with two Broadway-worthy performances from Beth Wittig and Christina Pumaiega, and a crafty turn from Jason Kolotouros that's not too far behind the two leads. The play itself is a bit more problematic, though - even if it's one of the best new plays I've seen recently. What's startling about it is that it daringly attempts to find common ground with the Iranians who "took America hostage" back at the end of the Carter administration.  Cahill doesn't always provide enough of a dramatic engine to power her ruminations on that tragic episode, but she does convey its tragedy, on both sides of the conflict - and a sense of tragedy is a rarity on the new-play landscape these days.

One of the things that struck me most about the production, however, was its audience.  Cahill plays with political dynamite here and there, but the crowd at Merrimack never seemed to pull back in a xenophobic way from what they were watching.  Instead they remained attentive and sympathetic throughout, even to characters who calmly mouthed anti-American clich├ęs. Indeed, I felt during the performance an open-mindedness that I rarely feel in Boston, an open-mindedness that allows one to actually consider history as more than a Billy Joel pop song, as more than a kind of decades-long "show," as more than a demonstration of this or that academic perspective. I was also struck by the sense of trust that's evident in the audience at Merrimack (I get the same feeling at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Canada); the theatregoers in Merrimack don't jump to conclusions because they know that even what shocks or offends them will eventually be limned by the artists on stage in a subtle and humane fashion.  So in a way the audience is itself a product of the theatre that they support.  There's probably no greater tribute you can make to a theatre than that, frankly.  And I wonder, when will a company in Boston proper achieve the same thing - an audience that is not necessarily aligned with the institution politically, or as part of their alumni community, or because of their ethnicity or sexual orientation, but simply supports the theatre because they trust the artists?  That's the dream, everyone.  That's the dream.

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