Tiny Rice University has been said to put on as many theatrical productions as the University of Texas at Austin. Why does a school with about 33,000 fewer students put on so many plays and musicals? Is this a good thing for the students? Is this a good thing for those of us wanting to see a thought-provoking and entertaining performance?
I’d say yes to both. Last night’s Noises Off by Michael Frayn at Rice University’s Hamman Hall did not make me change my mind. It was fun, double fun to see students so enjoying themselves acting a farce. One actor was clearly something of a gymnast and tumbled around expertly. Another played a befuddled, often drunk burglar with realistic stooped puzzlement. All were good in an amateurish sort of way. I always like to wonder what a professional company would do differently, and would that be better. I so like the play-within-a-play feel of watching young students explore new abilities, work with a team, and actually transport the audience. Older actors close off that side of themselves, so the new sense of wonderment that “I can really do this” is not visible to the audience. Bad acting from professionals means that a certain person always acts the same character, so they seem wonderful the first time, and progressively more terrible the more you see that actor. But students change over a lot, so you don’t know what to expect from any given person, and that keeps it fresh.
Frayn’s play was just plain good, also. It used the on-stage/behind-the-scene dichotomy to explore the public-private divide and hiding the private to say everything is fine, until that becomes impossible. We saw the same scene four or five times in a way that reminded me of the much more serious treatment of Lawrence Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet. The first three short volumes of that famous book tell the same story from the viewpoint of different individuals, and make us wonder what is really true, and what that even means for human interactions. I loved the Durrell books, but many find them hard to get through. I may have had more patience because I was always curious about Lawrence Durrell ever since I devoured his brother Gerald’s wonderful books. Gerald Durrell said his brother was upstairs in Corfu, typing, typing, typing, while Gerald ran around collecting and studying all kinds of animals, an enterprise he turned into the excellent book, My Family and Other Animals. I was always curious what that typing led to.
But of course, I don’t think I’ll be leaving student theater entirely behind when I leave Rice, so what will I miss? Most of all, I’ll miss the theater at my own college, Wiess Tabletop. They have as much theater as any college, beginning with the Freshman One Acts six weeks into the semester, then the fall play, and the spring musical. The old commons were better for theater, before they tore the sinking building down, but the students make do with the glass box that is the new commons. They put chairs on top of tables for audience seating. They have impressive musical talent to back up the musical productions. And I know the students who are acting, many of them at least. The highlight is a musical called Hello Hamlet, first written by George Greanias in 1967, and put on with great celebration and return of alumni every 4 years. It’s a spoof on Hamlet that incorporates distorted versions of many musicals, and is a delight to watch.
Every now and then there is a truly professional production, a fabulous actor that one gets to see in play after play for 4 years. David Nathan was one such actor. He’s now an English teacher at a high school in Houston.
Rice theater is worth discovering. Find your way to the different colleges and where their performances are, from the basement at Lovett to the commons at Baker. You will be surprised at how good it is. I’ll easily miss it more than plays at the Alley, Main Street, Stages, Ensemble, and TUTS.
You can’t take photos during a play, and I respected that, though this camera can do it without flash.
Everyone goes to the student productions.