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Dreamlands for Our Critics : If you could enjoy your favorite pastime anywhere, where would it be? Calendar’s film, music, pop, theater, art and TV critics reveal their wishes. : If Not Gielgud in Cairo, Try the Pier

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

There’s nothing like the first time. The first snow, kiss, boyfriend, the first bite of chocolate, the first taste of theater. Live. Tremulous. Overwhelming.

For me it happened at the Cairo Opera House, watching John Gielgud do “Hamlet.” Years later, as a rookie arts reporter, I interviewed Gielgud and told him how that experience had changed my life. In return, he told me how those performances in Cairo had been his farewell to Hamlet. Getting too old for the part, he said.

But the damage was done. He’d turned me into a theater junkie. In post-World War II Alexandria, where I grew up (a city with no theater tradition of its own), I watched for the arrival of touring companies from Europe--and haunted the uppermost balcony of those movie houses temporarily transformed into legitimate theaters to accommodate them.

It was there that I spent my teens and my weekly allowance, in “the gods,” the cheapest seats, with all the other dramaphiles too young or too poor to afford anything else. From that dark at the top of the stairs, I underwent my rites of passage, seeing Donald Wolfit or that French master of all theatrical trades, Louis Jouvet, tottering around the stage as the wheezing old geezer Arnolphe in “School for Wives” or investing the chilling Commander in Moliere’s “Don Juan,” with stony calculation sheathed in a Baroque suit of gleaming white.

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Magic then, magic now, many moons later in 1991 Los Angeles, where the balcony remains a place of choice. It’s still the spot from which the experience of theater is sexiest and most surreptitious--a secret banquet shared by you alone with all those intimates on stage.

But in the intervening years, I’ve found new favorite haunts. Any place that’s not a theater:

* The end of the Santa Monica Pier, where El Gran Circo Teatro de Chile performed “La Negra Ester” (1990), and where the San Francisco Mime Troupe likes to unload its truck and its political baggage for overflow crowds happy to sit on the boardwalk.

* Santa Monica beach, where Le Cirque du Soleil created its grand illusions under its high-tech Medieval Big Top.

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* The Hollywood sound stages where Le Theatre du Soleil performed its Oriental Shakespeares during the Olympic Arts Festival and where Peter Brook’s “The Mahabharata” unfurled its wisdom three years later.

* The hangar at the Santa Monica Air Center where we saw the elaborate pageantry of the Bread and Puppet Theatre.

* The city park in Tulare where El Teatro Campesino staged its actos when the fervor of the grape strikes was still ardent and new.

* Flatbed trucks, stone quarries, street corners and the naves of churches.

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What makes all these appealing? A sense of stealth, of playing hooky by borrowing venues neither designed nor intended for theater. They almost always reward us with the unexpected: A thrilling sunset, a backdrop of city lights, a mound of grass, a breeze in a spot of shade in the parks.

There’s a lot to be said for the hoary cliche of boards and a passion. If the art is urgent, strong and heady, that’s really all it takes.


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