Within a play: Reviewing the ‘troupe of actors’ method

Zach Barr, Theater Columnist

No one said theater is easy.

In film, at the very least, each project is its own individual work, which, unless it’s a remake, has never been done before. Even a remake will have a different script and creative decisions being made. With theater, every production of the same show uses the same blueprint. Like it or not, every production of “Rent” you see will open with the lines “We begin on Christmas Eve…” and close with “…no day but today.” It logistically must.

However, that doesn’t mean every aspect of the production should remain the same. Indeed, I myself am a great proponent of reinvention in theater, working through the written text to find new meaning and new ways of staging oft-produced and oft-replicated scenes.

So, it’s interesting and slightly frustrating that so many productions this year decided to use the same re-interpretive lens: the “troupe of actors” method.

For those uninitiated, the “troupe of actors” method is the process of staging a show by adding another metatheatrical level on top of the written script. For example, let’s say you’re staging “Wicked.” Instead of having your leading actress play Elphaba, you have her playing an actress playing Elphaba. Thus, the entire production is staged as a fictional troupe performing the piece, instead of just the story. Suspension of disbelief is loosened, since the audience is aware that what they are watching is a play.

Even though it’s already a play.

Yes, this method can get very confusing at times, but that’s not always cause for concern. I think the method can work very well, when implemented for a purpose beyond just being a gimmick.

So, how many shows this year used this lens in a non-gimmicky way?

A few.

What I noticed when looking over this year’s shows was that the plays that used this device the best “The Lilliput Troupe,” “Marat/Sade,” “Man of La Mancha” were using it well because the device was written into the show. Indeed, with “The Lilliput Troupe,” the device is in the title. Other shows imposed this device onto works that did not originally use it “Sweeney Todd,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Peter Pan”  and results were more varied. This has nothing to do with the overall quality of the performance, but rather the success of the device on its own. Indeed, “Sweeney Todd” was not hindered by using the “troupe of actors” method, but it didn’t particularly aid the production either.

What I began to notice in some productions, even some with the device written in, was that the method was not being used to enhance the story, but rather as an excuse for not having perfect production values. Yes, the wig looks terrible, but because it’s a troupe of actors, it’s “supposed” to look terrible. In short, the method becomes a sort of catch-all to remove suspension of disbelief.

But I want to suspend disbelief. I know you can’t really bring “the vasty fields of France” into the Louis Room, but I’m not expecting you to. I want you to represent those fields onstage, not apologize for not being able to represent them literally.

Now, this can go the other way. “Henry IV” did a great job of suspending disbelief during the performance, which made the pre-show and opening (in which the actors, as themselves, wandered around the theater and talked to their friends) somewhat random. Not bad, but random. Why break the fourth wall when you immediately construct it once the show starts?

However, if “Henry IV” had made reference to the actors within the piece, it might have made more sense. “Lilliput” had a very clear reason to be a play-within-a-play: The “actors” were just as important as the “characters” in the overall story. In “Marat/Sade,” the audience’s inability to tell when the “actors” are playing characters or “themselves” adds to the fear of the asylum.

Comparatively, in “Man of La Mancha,” we get to learn about the “actors” portraying each character, but this doesn’t affect the play-within-the-play. We could have just watched the interior work alone, and it wouldn’t have been altered. Yes, having the two layers together adds to the overall experience, but the enhancement is only one way: interior level helping the exterior level. For the “troupe of actors” method to work, the story of the actors putting on their play has to be just as interesting and important as the story they are putting up. When the “actors” are fully-realized characters, this is a rewarding method. However, when the method is just being used to guard against criticisms of production value, it becomes a gimmick that neither hinders nor helps the performance.

Editor’s Note: Zach Barr was on the production teams for “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Sweeney Todd.”

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