In this sequel to All the World’s a Stage Fright, our hero—fallible local theater critic Asher Kaufman—once again finds himself in an uncomfortable role: acting in a professional stage production so he can write about the experience for his newspaper, the Cleveland Jewish Chronicle.
This time, the show is the angry, bloody, and brilliant musical Sweeney Todd. And in addition to mastering the musical’s famously challenging lyrics and performing its dark, enigmatic melodies, Asher finds himself in the middle of an unscripted, onstage, opening night murder.
The police detective leading the investigation is a no-nonsense crime solver but a fish out of water in the world of theater, so she asks Asher to be her cultural advisor on the case.
Now, he must help find out which of his quirky castmates is a killer. They all claim innocence, but as Asher knows firsthand, they could just be acting.
Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic (a Novella)
Paperback book / 144 pages
Read a sample …
The rough draft first paragraph of Gwen’s review of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was typed out on her computer just before she left her near west side efficiency apartment for downtown Cleveland’s Hedley Theatre. It read:
All of us deserve to die. So sings the homicidal [or deranged, perhaps unhinged] title character in Sweeney Todd, which reinforces the pitch-black theme that drives this remarkably angry, bleak, and brilliant musical. Set in grimy [or grungy or decaying] 19th century London, we find the barber avenging his wrongful imprisonment and the senseless destruction of his fledgling family by whittling away at his clueless clientele and turning the fruits of his labor into meat pies to be sold in the shop below.
The paragraph was to be revised and the review fleshed out with astute observations, carefully honed opinions, and clever writing upon her return from the sold-out opening night show. It would then be posted in time for tomorrow morning’s deadline and published in the next issue of the Chronicle. Instead, it was recovered from Gwen’s laptop by the police.
The notepad she used while watching the North Coast Theater production was no doubt filled with insightful reflections about this evening’s performance—the acting choices, the rendering of Sweeney’s decrepit Fleet Street dwelling, and the goth-inspired costuming. Very little was legible because of the blood.
I have been with the Chronicle for about twenty years, reviewing the dozens of regional playhouses, classic repertory companies, and national tours that make up the thriving Cleveland theater scene. But prior to my life as a theater critic, I had been a professional actor. I quickly realized that the name Asher Kaufman would be better placed in the byline of a show’s review than in the dramatis personae of its playbill. I got work, but almost always in small supporting roles in plays penned by Schwartzes, Bernsteins, and Simons. I once asked a casting agent what it would take for someone who looked like me—short, solid, and alluringly Ashkenazi—to land a romantic lead in something other than a play chronicling the Jewish diaspora or taking place during the Holocaust. She said, “the unexpected comeback of radio drama.”
And so I left the stage, just not the theater.
But I recently dusted off my acting skills and landed a small role in North Coast Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It so that I could write about the experience. The professional theater company is a partnership organization that shares production costs and performances with another theater, so As You Like It was rehearsed and opened in Cleveland before moving to the Taos Shakespeare Festival in New Mexico for an additional three-week run.
The idea that I write a series of articles about what takes place on the other side of the proscenium arch came from my boss, Mark. The man is straight out of central casting from the classic 1928 stage comedy The Front Page, where characters are fast-talking, hard-boiled, big-city newshounds who somehow come across as appealing and approachable. Like them, he wears suspenders, as if the news cycle was so unrelenting that there was no time to strap on a belt. There’s no explanation for his bow tie.
He called our clandestine operation “doing a Plimpton,” noting that it was named after the American journalist who, in 1963, attended the preseason training camp of the Detroit Lions of the National Football League under the pretense of being a backup quarterback. Plimpton also wrote about sparring boxing champion Archie Moore, who, at the time, had a record of 171-22-9, earned largely by having great defense and a strong chin. Neither was required when he met the journalist in the ring, who was an intellectual heavyweight but pugilistic lightweight. Plimpton, a glutton for punishment, also wrote about absorbing slap shots as an ice hockey goalie with the Boston Bruins.
Treading the boards seemed so much saner and safer, so I thought I’d give it a go.
The As You Like It experience was, in a word, terrifying. I found myself struggling to memorize Elizabethan prose, wrestling with iambic pentameter, and failing to keep pace with the very same classically trained, passive-aggressive North Coast Theater company members whom I had brutally panned in the past. Prior to this, the only Shakespeare I’ve ever performed professionally was The Taming of the Shrew, but only after Cole Porter had transformed it into the lovable musical Kiss Me, Kate.
Mark was ecstatic about the interest my painful and very public attempt at experiential journalism sparked among the paper’s readers and advertisers. And he was delighted to have my awkward opening night attempt at Shakespeare-speak reviewed by Gwen, who was starting to find her voice as a journalist at my expense.
He was still supportive when the company offered to cast me in its next production, Stephen Sondheim’s challenging musical Sweeney Todd. This was a North Coast Theater decision clearly based on the publicity I offer a production by writing about it and not necessarily what I bring to the stage as a performer in an ensemble role. Famous theater practitioner Michael Chekhov, a nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov and a student of performance guru Konstantin Stanislavski, once said that “an actor has to burn inside with an outer ease” to win over an audience. These days, I tend to embrace the advice of the Hippocratic oath in my acting: “First, do no harm.” …
Meet Asher Kaufman … When a critic takes an acting role with a top-tier theater company in a stunt to boost readership and gets more of a story than he bargained for. Despite a debilitating Shakespeare phobia, he must share the stage with actors he’s panned in the past and avoid getting panned himself by fellow critics. Vivid, realistic, behind-the-curtain action.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic and entertainment feature writer in Cleveland, Ohio, which has the second-largest theater district in the U.S. after New York City. He is also a professional actor who, as a younger man, appeared on Broadway and so far off-Broadway it was Connecticut.
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