Polly Campbell: Magic happens onstage and in viewers’ minds

I’ve got the brochures piled up from the Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. There are so many great plays to choose from for the 2023-24 season. We haven’t decided yet which we’re going to take a chance on. Because it is taking a chance: Tickets are expensive, and not every production is a winner. 

Cincinnati theaters have given me some peak artistic experiences over the years, and I’m always hoping for more of those. Certain moments have stuck in my mind for many years, still fresh enough for me to remember. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

When we first moved here, I’d been living in New York, seeing whatever plays I could buy half-price tickets for, so I was ready to keep that up. But there was a bit of a lull after we moved here – tight budget, kids to take care of, plus not a ton of choices: The Playhouse was about it. But I do remember what got my husband and I back into the seats. It was a production of “Nixon’s Nixon” in 1997, a rivetingly acted two-person play about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that had us both saying, “We have got to get to more theater.” 

Others that come to mind: 

“A Woman in Black”  at The Shelterhouse in 1998, a standard ghost story that was directed so well that, with no special effects, a ghostly woman appeared on stage in a way that was so other-worldly I can still reproduce the shiver I got from it.   

A 1993 production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” also in the Shelterhouse, that made me weep in my seat as they sang “Old Folks” and I thought of my grandparents. There was Dale Hodges in “Wit,”  in 1999, baring soul and body while dying and learning from John Donne; the brilliant conception of “Metamorphoses” whose set is a shallow pool the actors wade and splash and fall in. (Which reminds me … the mud pit shows at the Renaissance Festival, which were hilarious, at least the first few times I saw them.) 

There were a few years at the Shakespeare Festival in the 2000s that were just stellar:  I was gripped by grief that seemed real at the ending of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” while also appreciating the carefully crafted plot and the erudition behind it.  

More recently, there was Bruce Cromer re-enacting “The Iliad” as a one-man play on a set of scaffolding at The Ensemble in 2015. At the same theater, a perfect cast of young women kicking soccer balls into a net on stage in “Wolves” in 2019. Audrey Bertaux and William Vaughn of Walterhoope company just before the pandemic,  in a tiny production in a space in Northside, taking on the thousands of words of conversation in a two-person play called  “Lungs,” about parenthood and climate change. I hope we see them again. 

Seeing plays created by or acted in by people I know, at Fringe, especially. A server at Salazar said she’d written a play that was being produced at The Know, so we went to see A.J. Baldwin’s “The Twunny Fo’ ” last year, and loved witnessing a newborn work of art. 

Speaking of knowing people, probably the most profound moment on stage I’ve ever experienced was a production of “Macbeth” put on after a week of rehearsal by the high school students of Shakespeare Festival’s Camp. My shy daughter Louise, who was really no actress, played Lady Macduff in a green velvet dress. In Act 4, she had to scream “My babies, my babies” and she did it, convincingly and terrifyingly.  

She lives in Chicago now and we went with her there several years ago to see the Lookingglass Theatre’s “Moby Dick” in which a whale passes over the heads of the audience, using a bit of thrilling trickery. 

That made me realize that the kind of play I’m most interested in is something that can only be done live, that relies on the audience’s willingness to engage their imagination, staged to create an effect that is not necessarily realistic, but is real. Theater can create something larger than life using the limited choices of an actual stage. 

Covid got me hooked for a few years on quality TV and movies. But those are a different thing. They are moving and profound but they aren’t magic in the same way. Looking back on this list of vividly remembered productions, I’d say what I value is something that is not just a live TV show. I want the magic of creativity and pure artistic effort, the experience that you know the whole time is artifice but that grabs you and convinces you anyway. I want daring and risk-taking. 

It strikes sometimes. Even when it doesn’t, a play almost always has something to notice, to think about, even if it’s just the observation that it’s really really hard to write a good play. I would also like to suggest to people that at intermission, and afterward, you let the efforts of actor, director and designer sink in, talk about it a little, try to understand it before you go back to the usual quotidian conversations I hear in the lobby. 

We’ll see what the season brings.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. 

She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions

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