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Vanishing Acts: Theater Since The Sixties

A precise and tireless observer of playwrights, directors, and actors, Yale School of Drama professor Gordon Rogoff has been on hand as an intelligent eyewitness in American and European theater for close to four decades.

A precise and tireless observer of playwrights, directors, and actors, Yale School of Drama professor Gordon Rogoff has been on hand as an intelligent eyewitness in American and European theater for close to four decades.

Originally allied with the Open Theater of Joseph Chaikin (whose artistic defiance in the face of a devastating stroke Rogoff evokes movingly in an essay called “The Presence of Joe”), Rogoff has helped to educate a generation of younger critics within the academy, and reading through this collection gives one a sense of just how rich and engaging an experience it must be to sit in his seminar room.

In this collection of articles from such publications as the Village Voice, American Theatre, or Theater Magazine, Rogoff’s concerns are blessedly non-commercial. .

“After being dragged to Cats in London years ago,” he says at one point, “I haven’t risked a return for more punishment. Nor am I keenly curious about helicopters onstage. For that matter, I don’t give a damn about most musicals these days, since, as a lover of singers from Melchior to Merman, I haven’t yet acquired a taste for the amplified voice.”

Rather, Rogoff prefers to discuss Ariane Mnouchkine or Joe Papp (“Few of us are lucky enough to find renown simply because we’re the right monster for the historical moment,” he writes.) On the subject of style, Rogoff reserves some of his well-wrought ire for the affectations of postmodern directors who privilege their own self-expressions over the clarity of their text. Rogoff takes a few of these helmers to task: Why, for example, does Anne Bogart insist on having the actor Greg Mehrten play the role of Worm in Brecht’s “In the Jungle of the Cities” with his face painted a jarring sea-green? What can Trevor Nunn be thinking when he commits an act of literary “grave-robbing” — staging the unproduced work (“Not About Nightingales”) from the juvenilia of the dead, defenseless Tennessee Williams without the playwright’s assent. Rogoff asks incisively: “Am I alone in my knee-jerk regard for Williams’ privacy?”

A few of the essays get tangled up in a parade of names and references, leading one to wonder what the principles of editorial inclusion were for “Vanishing Acts” (was it just that Rogoff was loath to see any of his ephemera discarded?).

Nonetheless, the critiques included are thoughtful and provocative, and Rogoff’s reader will likely enjoy the chance to wade through the tangle of actors, writers, helmers and productions summoned in these pages. On the other hand, a chronological index to the stagings discussed would have been extremely helpful, giving the reader at least a theatrical locus to help map the individual threads of “Vanishing Acts” before they, too, vanish.

Vanishing Acts: Theater Since The Sixties

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.