Friday, October 31, 2008

Electronic Underscoring

Because we left at the intermission, I'm not in a position to write a review of the play Michael and I saw last night, but the reason we left is worthy of commentary. Actually it is worthy of complaint because it ruined what might have otherwise been a worthwhile production.

The play was written by (I hate to use this word, but I will anyway) arguably one of the finest playwrights in all of history, and the production was well directed and, with the exception of a few uneven bits of casting, well acted. The actors did not use amplification, and they projected their voices well in a decently-sized theater with excellent acoustics.

What ruined the production for me was an almost omnipresent electronic underscore. The first distraction was some Darth Vader-like breathing that served as a kind of "white noise" over which the actors needed to yell in order to feel that they were being heard. Then came some soft pseudo-recorder music under some quick exchanges of dialogue. I thought that it could have been someone's cell phone ringing on a low setting, or someone's child playing with a 1980s-style casio keyboard backstage. This distraction made it impossible for me to concentrate on the play.

Perhaps the worst moment of undermining underscoring came during a very famous soliloquy that was turned into a duet for synthetically-generated woodwinds (including an almost realistic flute) and obbligato speaking voice. The overwhelming presence of electronically-generated music coming from speakers in the hall dominated and controlled the actor. The actor was reacting to the music, and because the audience reacts to what the actor does on stage, the audience was forced to "re-act" to the music as well.

Maybe this trend in theater (if it is a trend) comes from the use of underscoring in film. It is important to remember that underscoring in film works because everything in a film is synthetic. There are no natural voices. The voices of the actors become a track to be mixed and balanced. In a stage play using electronic music as "underscoring" actually becomes overscoring. It is the synthetic nature of electronically-generated music that captures our attention when we hear it. In this case it succeeded in drawing my attention away from the voices of the actors, and in its abundance, away from the play as whole.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with music being used in plays (if musicians are actually present and playing their instruments in real time). There are many ways that music serves well, especially in plays by this particular playwright, but this just isn't one of them.

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