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Queens theater companies should stop playing it safe

By Ron Hellman

Marvin at my gym often wants to know what I’ve seen. He’s talking about theater, of course, ‘cause Marv and his wife get to lots of shows, usually in Manhattan and Off-Broadway. And he gives me his reviews.

What I’ve seen in the last few months includes “On the Town,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Matlida,” “The Flick” and most recently “Penn & Teller” — they made an elephant disappear – and “Something Rotten.”

None of these, I must admit, were in Queens. My local theater attendance has fallen off – I did see “Merrily We Roll Along” by the Astoria Performing Arts Center, and an Isabel Robin cabaret performance at the Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center – and the main reason is that I’ve tasted many of these offerings before.

The mind-set of community theaters in Queens leads them to produce mysteries, light comedies, and plays that have been done many times in the past — with titles that their target audience is familiar with. The problem, for me and I believe a large potential audience, is that these works lack a contemporary edge, excitement and challenge that would appeal to many of those who seldom go to the theater in Queens but instead take the bridge-and-tunnel trip to the city.

Perhaps the fact that these groups are housed mainly in churches and temples limits their choices. Today’s plays often have controversial and provocative themes, including sexual subject matter and language, which may be offensive to the powers that be.

The same goes for musicals. And although we have many local talented actors, the more people you put on stage, the less likely the entire cast will be of high quality, coupled with the requirement of musicals for good acting, singing and dancing. Not to overlook the technically rewarding aspects of elaborate lighting and set changes which our venues lack.

There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between. Hence the need for those expensive and time-consuming trips to Manhattan.

“Something Rotten” at the St. James Theatre scores high marks for cleverness. It takes place in London in 1595 where William Shakespeare is portrayed as the reigning rock star with a Trump-size ego. Two brothers, trying to compete with him, come up with a plan to create the world’s first musical. Lots of Shakespearean quotes abound, and when Will struggles – “it’s hard to be the Bard” – he appropriates some good lines from others. You’ll also recognize bits and pieces from well-know musicals – for instance “how do you solve a problem like Ophelia?” The audience loved it.

Queens can do better, especially with those state-of-the-art theater venues that I have been pleading for. (Hope springs eternal.) In the meantime, there may be some individuals with the time and the energy to form an alliance among the groups to coordinate scheduling, publicity, prop and costume sharing, and doing all that it takes to make shows in Queens a first choice for theatergoers.

A festival or two is a good idea. Manhattan has several – FringeNYC just ended its 19th anniversary season but there are more coming up. Long Island City remains a theatrical hot spot in western Queens, but some borough-wide events would stir things up. As you may have learned from the Bard, “All the world’s a stage…”

Contact Ron Hellman at RBHOFC@gmail.com.

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