Phantom of the Op'ry (1991)
by Tim Kelly
Goddammit. I hated Kelly's last play, but I thought it was kind of cute in a well-intentioned way, and it took some chances that I appreciated. But not so this one. Those of you watching the progress bars may have noticed that it took me over a week just to read through a 72-page play; this is because every time I picked it up and read a few lines I felt the overwhelming urge to join a nunnery instead.
First, I'm going to complain some about the play's technical writing problems. I've whined about this in most of the last several plays I've read, and every time I do it I feel like a galloping jerkface because I know that the plays are intended to be seen and not read. And yet, that does not, unfortunately, absolve them of needing to be understandable; if anything, it's a major tool the playwright needs to communicate their words to the actors. Plays have to be read before they are performed - and that means they have to be readable, not only to satisfy pedants, but so that the performers have an idea of the tone and intention of the piece as they start working on it. Commas signify breaths in a line, semicolons and ellipses provide specific emphases... and yet, these things are ignored in a lot of small, independently published plays.
In the same vein, stage directions have to make sense. Regard this gem, from the very first page:
"Permeating the darkness, a spotlight picks out a figure with its back to the audience, Center."
Permeating? What? When light permeates darkness, guess what? IT'S NOT DARK ANYMORE. We want a word like "penetrate" here, since you're spotlighting one figure and leaving the rest of the stage dark. And whatever word we use, we want it to make sense to a director, because if they don't know what you're trying to suggest they do, there's a good chance they might end up not doing it.
So, anyway, on to the play's actual content. I've mentioned before that I'm leery of humorous versions of the story, because it is so very easy to do humor badly. And I've read some good and funny things so far in this project - Ebert's serial and Pratchett's novel come to mind - but this play is a prime example of why I fear comedies. It's very much in the spirit of a campy spoof, but the camp isn't funny. It's excruciating. We are introduced early on to our cast of characters, including such cleverly named figures as Guppy Gopher, the maid (whose name is spelled two different ways throughout, so damn if I know which it is), Minerva Hotchkiss, the former manager, Louisa Pampermouse, the new manager, and Lt. Farleigh Good (har har), the Raoul character. My desire to hate them because of their weak and unfunny names was luckily borne out by their later weak and unfunny dialogue.
The highlight of the show is the second musical number, "He Who Can Creates (He Who Can't Writes Reviews)". Obviously, this is entertaining from my perspective as the reviewer here, but it's also the best song in the show. It's not great or anything... but it sucks less. So there's that. It even approaches clever sometimes! The song is a general lambasting of critics as talentless jackasses who take out their bitterness at their own lack of talent by abusing the artists that do have it. Sadly, the song doesn't particularly motivate me to agree - in fact, its distinctly cranky tone makes me think that Kelly is the bitter one here. Yeah, there are plenty of critics out there that just get off on tearing down the work of artists that they couldn't ever hope to equal, but there are plenty of critics who have interesting, lucid things to say and intelligent points to contribute to a discussion of literature (in fact, as I mentioned above, Roger Ebert, primarily famous for his work as a film critic, is a great writer himself and no stranger to the creative arts). This hatred of professional criticism will be carried on throughout the show in the person of Silky Acidtongue (hilarious, right?), the local theatre critic who is a big fat meaniehead who drove the op'ry house out of business with his bad reviews and will generally serve as auxiliary villain in addition to the Phantom.
While I'm entertained by the use of the phrase "Bronx cheer" in the stage directions, in general the entire body of dialogue makes me sad. Blah blah blah pronounced accents to make sure we remember we're in a "country" setting (it's the Skunk Creek Opera House), blah blah blah really not funny interludes and conflict that had me trying to snooze through the badness in the hopes that I would process the rest of the play via osmosis.
There are actually a few interesting things going on here, starting with the inclusion of Christine's and Carlotta's mothers. The 1925 Julian/Chaney film is the only previous version to include Carlotta's mother, and the treatment of her there was very similar (a formidable, overblown woman safeguarding her daughter's career). However, to my knowledge, no version to date has included Christine's actual mother (the original novel had her guardian, Mama Valerius, but her mother was dead), and since she is treated in pretty much the same light as Carlotta's mother, it seems like kind of a crapshoot to try to tie the idea specifically to the 1925 movie. A few other small touches, such as a rat-catcher and a heated torture chamber (well, a heated room, anyway) suggest that the play is probably based mostly on Leroux's novel, though the mention of the Phantom wearing a hood did give me a bewildered moment of wondering if it had anything to do with the Ye ban ge sheng franchise.
The final realization that the Phantom is a failed opera performer who's started haunting the house after Acidtongue's harsh review (that jerk!) is just kind of the icing on a severely under-risen cake. I tried to write something down about how this supported Leroux's idea that we create evil via our own actions, but I decided it'd be more profitable to start drinking instead and subsequently lost the thread of the idea.
One of the characters, Humphrey, looks apologetically at the audience at one point in the show and says, "Don't blame me. I didn't write this stuff." This is how I imagine any performer in this show probably feels. I was alternately bored out of my skull and deeply offended by the truly terrible humor in this show. It escaped failure very, very narrowly, mostly because I'm sure someone, somewhere, enjoys it. But it sure as hell isn't me.