- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The darkness is friendly for theater audiences: You feel safe and removed from everyday cares. You can escape into another world of your choosing for a few hours and reluctantly return to reality once you leave the lobby and step out into the street.

However, a growing trend in Washington theater threatens this dusky haven. The scenario has been played out all too many times: You settle into your seat for a night of theater, maybe scootch out of your shoes. All of a sudden, the house lights go up, and the actors have jumped off the stage or are streaming down the aisles from the back of the theater to “interact” with the audience. There they are — actors, singers, dancers — suddenly in the personal space for which you paid. You look up at them and see them sweating, notice that their stage makeup seems, well, stagey. You file away in your brain that, up close, their costumes seem much more humble, and you stare at the telltale lump that is the battery pack for their microphones. So much for theater magic.

In most cases, the audience members get that glassy, deer-in-the-headlights look, and the thought balloons over their heads seem to plead, “Please, don’t come near me. I just want to sit here and watch the show.”

During the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of “As You Like It” at the Kennedy Center, the cast routinely left the Forest of Arden to wander up and down the aisles delivering lines while gazing vacantly over the foreheads of the audience members, just high enough to avoid making eye contact. What’s the point of that? If you are going to break down the fourth wall and yak it up with the masses, why not go for it and lock eyes with the poor soul in Row Q? That’ll give him a theater experience he will never forget — nor, perhaps, care to repeat.

Not only was the mingling in the aisles during “As You Like It” unwelcome, it didn’t make sense theatrically. The Shakespeare play is pure escapism, a romantic comedy about a group of people exiled to the forest who, surprisingly, find romance and their true selves during this time of estrangement from “civilization.” Each time the actors left the forest, the spell was dissipated.

Another show that depended on magic and mysticism, Theatre J’s “The Mad Dancers,” had you entranced by its melding of dance, theater, storytelling and the Jewish school of thought known as the kabala. As you watched this circular, rhythmic tale unfold, you felt transported into an exotic world where anything could happen and time constraints were irrelevant. Then, the audience was hauled back into the present by an off-putting “Peter Pan” scene in which the actors raced up and down the theater’s stairs — even climbing between the rows — imploring people to shout out the names of their loved ones.

Somehow, Jewish mysticism and the theatrical device of calling back Tinker Bell from the dead just didn’t seem like a good combination. It was a jarring moment, all the more so considering how hypnotic and involving the play was before. It was as if the director or the playwright didn’t trust the material and felt “The Mad Dancers” needed that jolt of breaking down the barrier between actor and audience.

It didn’t.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this trend occurred during Woolly Mammoth’s staging of Sandra Tsing Loh’s one-woman show, “I Worry,” at the Kennedy Center this spring. Worries Miss Loh may have; inhibitions, it seems, she has not. Gleefully diving off the stage, Miss Loh did not merely interact with audience members; she stalked them — straddling some of the lucky people who happened to be seated on the aisle, exhorting the audience to talk on their cellular phones and strewing programs and personal items in her wake before returning to her place in front of the footlights. The sigh of relief could have been heard clear up to Frederick, Md.

This breaking down of the fourth wall may once have been daring and avant-garde, but it is rapidly becoming a cliche from overuse. Keep in mind that it was in the 1930s — more than 80 years ago — that Bertolt Brecht and his cohorts pioneered theater that shocked, challenged and confounded by speaking directly to theatergoers and antagonizing selected members of the audience.

The idea that no protective barrier should exist between actor and ticket holder was later championed by Pirandello, Ionesco and other absurdists as well as other modern playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and even Thornton Wilder.

But enough’s enough.

Perhaps directors see it as a way to involve the audience in the production. Why would we want them to do that? We are there to see trained professionals do their thing, not watch our neighbors appear so uncomfortable that they wish the floor would open up and swallow them whole.

If we wanted to be on the stage, we would get involved in a church group or community theater production. Call us the passive TV and video-game generation, but buying a ticket is intimacy and commitment enough for us.

There are times when interacting with the audience is apt. “An Evening With Dame Edna” would not be nearly as outrageous and cheeky if Dame Edna did not cheerfully heckle the audience and call people up onstage to participate in her skits and daft schemes.

This year’s electrifying production of “Medea” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater showed how effective breaking the fourth wall can be if used judiciously. The isolation and cruel exile of Fiona Shaw’s magnificent Medea was keenly felt in her scenes with King Creon — who was initially a booming, disembodied voice from the back of the theater, clearly a man of godlike social status. When Creon finally appeared to deal with the mess Medea’s rage had wrought, you felt something — the greatness and sorrow of a king forced to come down from on high.

Threatening to break down the barriers between actors and audience can be a delicious tease, as seen in Studio Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s “A Play About the Baby.” The Man and the Woman, played with dash and danger by Phillip Goodwin and Nancy Robinette, attempt to establish a cozy bonhomie with the audience. They initiate conversation — and you start to think, “Uh-oh, here we go again” — but then the actors pull back, flirting and trying to ingratiate themselves with the same elegant cruelty they use on the play’s other two characters.

Like any theatrical device, breaking the fourth wall should be used sparingly. Before resorting to it, directors ought to consider this: We like our wall. It affords us a privileged and protected vantage point, and, for the most part, we don’t see it as a wall. We see it as a window.

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