Friday, March 07, 2008
Theater critic fails to do justice to famed poet's work
I was disappointed to read Joseph T. Rozmiarek's put down of the fine effort by students in their production Rumi at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre at the University of Hawaii, which I enjoyed last week.
Rozmiarek is clearly out of his depth on this. He seems to want to be entertained according to some sort of stereotype:
A shoestring budget keeps the actors in drab sweat suits with only minimal props and set pieces. Recorded music makes an ethnic nod and the entrance and exit dancing is perfunctory — with, sadly, no whirling dervishes in sight.
Plainly, we need more help from the director and actors to sort things out. We need things to watch that are interesting without being blatantly literal, dialogue that lets the words sing like poetry, integrated music and dance, and an exotic wrapping.
Otherwise, if this is your first introduction to Rumi, you might well wonder why Madonna ever sang his love poems.
Madonna might have been tuned in to Rumi, but this critic wants whirling dervishes, music and dance, and an exotic wrapping. Those who have studied or enjoyed Sufi teaching stories and in particular the many translated works of Rumi know better.
Sufi stories don't start "once upon a time" because they are timeless, and they don't end with "the moral of this story is" either. This critic seems to want the comfort of being handed the moral:
... So, somewhere among the thrashing and the slashing and the tussling and thrusting, a moral emerges. But we're never quite sure whether it's meant to be straightforward, funny, or both at the same time.
He misses the point. The interpretation is up to him.
Sufi teaching stories do not require dancing or exotic costumes. They may simply be read or performed. The reader does some of the work, but most of it is for the listener to complete. Victor Olsufiev wrote (snipped from an article very worth reading on its own):
There are many stories and parables which do allow application of more or less simple decoding methods: these are allegorical stories. By taking them in an appropriate context, or layer, it is possible to uncover the meaning of their content, and to interpret it accordingly. However, Sufi teaching stories are not allegories. And if they are, they are not only allegories.
Yes, it's a complicated thing, not to be handed the answer but to have to figure it out yourself. Maybe understanding will come on the spot, maybe later, perhaps never. It depends not only on the stories but on the listener. Maybe understanding will manifest in how the listener reacts to some future event in her own life.
Moreover, this is a lab theater. It's very appropriate to select, interpret and present the works of Rumi to an appreciative and understanding audience. It didn't matter that Rumi was presented in ordinary clothing ("drab sweat suits"!). Richard Burton starred in a famous John Gielgud production of Hamlet acted in street clothes. Burton himself is said to have disliked period costumes. Following Giegud's lead is no mistake, despite this critic's preference for "exotic wrappings."
Check out also the works of the late Idries Shah on Sufi thought and writing.
Shah maintained that spiritual teachings should be presented in forms and terms that are familiar in the community where they are to take root. He believed that students should be given work based on their individual capacities, and rejected systems that apply the same exercises to all. In his own work he used teaching stories and humour to great effect.
I'm sorry that many readers of today's paper may skip this weekend's productions based on the printed review. The few reading this article who may attend won't make up for the loss.
Bravo to the students and the director for choosing to work with Rumi and for bringing it to the late-night audience. Let's have more, with or without dancing and fancy costumes. I'd rather have Rumi tried and presented in different ways. More Rumi, please, UH, and don't let this guy drag you down.
Dear Larry, I just came across this article and I just want to let you know how much I appreciate your standing up for our little production and have never forgotten your words which acted as a soothing balm at the time. Both Rumi and Sufism was indeed very new to us as students and we looked at our story telling as a form of exploration. Our focus was indeed on the stories and we purposefully stayed away from whirling. My vision was that of the traveling Sufies who had taken the vow of poverty and would not stay in one place for fear of gaining an attachment to good reputation. The center of our presentation was an old women cooking and stirring ashes in a fire before each story was told.
One of the reasons Mr. Rozmiarek's words hurt is because I had and still have a great respect for his review skills. He holds an MFA in theatre from the University of Hawaii and even though his words were hurtful, I believe they were coming from an honest place. He is one of the most knowledgeable theatre people I know and I hope he continues to review plays here in Honolulu. Theatre needs him and live theatre thrives on controversy. It is good that our work at UH provoked such different opinions from two such knowledgeable people.
Terri Large Madden
Thanks for your comment. It's amazing that you discovered the article more than two years after I wrote it. Glad you saw it. I suspect that Mr. Rozmiarek never did, though. Such is the nature of the Internet.
I'll check out your blog. By now you've probably graduated UH and are involved in the theater somehow someplace.
FYI. I came across your review while I was cleaning out papers in my office in time for the new year. I was really pleased to find it again. I think someone Emailed it to me at the time. I'm glad I found it again because it allows me to have a more positive perspective of the Rumi project two years after the fact. You are right, I graduated with my MFA last May and am now in the process of building a non-profit community based theatre company called "Playbuilders." The idea is to do theatre written and performed in collaboration with members of Hawaii's unique communities. It is going to take some time to do it right, but expect good things in a year or two. Wish us luck. I still perform locally and just played Aunt March in the musical version of "Little Women" at Diamond Head Theatre. Hope to run into you sometime. Have a very happy 2011.