English 105:  Play Review

Overview ///  Areas For Discussion  ///  Definitions  ///  Student Samples 

A review is one of the most common forms of critical writing, and as such, it is a type of writing which you are very likely to do outside of academic or technical purposes.  

In the review you are asked to include comments about the literary, aesthetic (acting), and production-technical aspects of the show you see. You should assume a general audience interested in seeing the play. However, do not overemphasize one aspect to the slighting of the other two. Also, divide your discussion equally between objective reporting and evaluation. Use the standard guidelines for good composition.  

Areas For Discussion 
Here are some of the areas of discussion you will want to include. You do not need to give equal attention to each area.  

  • Very brief synopsis 
  • theme (s)



  • symbols* and Literary merits 
  • technical aspects - set, lighting, sound, costuming
  • acting/characters



  • audience reaction
  • final comment and evaluation
  • emotional impact
  • overall impact (in terms of the entire production)
  • thematic impact (values derived by viewers from this play, this production)



By objective comments, I mean that you simply point out the facts and the details of the category you are describing. By evaluative comments, I mean that you are engaged in the job of reviewer, that is, you are pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the play in its handling of the particular area under discussion.  
*Symbol is a word or phrase or image that stands for a larger ides. It is customary to divide symbols into three types--natural, conventional, and private.  

A natural symbol is a word or image that suggests its larger meaning to the reader without the reader having to be instructed in that meaning. The image of a journey, to stand for life, may be a natural symbol.  

A conventional symbol is an image that has, by tradition and by certain people in the course of time and in a limited space, been assigned a meaning beyond itself. The cross or star of David could be considered conventional symbols. 

Finally, a private symbol is one that one author, or perhaps a small group of writers or artists, has made for his or her own purposes. The scissors in Kafka's story "Jackals and Arabs" is a private symbol.  



Two Sample Play Reviews and a Letter 
( written by students) 
"Gambit": More Poetry Than History  -- Mark Wood  
If Aristotle was correct when he said that poetry "is a higher thing than history," then "Royal Gambit," which opened Friday night at Pentacle Theater, is, I suppose, on the right track.  
For those who were expecting a representational treatment of the life of England's Henry VIII, "Royal Gambit" was a shock, if not a disappointment. Those who sought poetry got it, although of a very dogmatic and simplistic sort.  
This unusual, highly presentational play by Hermann Gressieker, directed by Ed Classen, is an indictment of modern man as a ruthless opportunist. The Tudor king is a representative of a rationalizing, shifty society which has become "superior to the highest" while "wallowing in the depths."  
As Henry uses the banners of "reason" and "humanism" to obtain the dispose of his six wives, so modern man uses them for his own pleasure and glorification, uses them to wage war in the name of peace, to hate in the name of love.  
Such is the grim theme pleasingly presented by a company of seven actors, who performed their roles energetically, if unevenly. The presentational acting style employed here is difficult to perfect. It should be theatrical, yet believable; aimed at the head, yet acceptable to the heart.  
Louise Larsen was a standout as Catherine of Aragon, Largely because she utilized this presentational approach and was not afraid of open theatricality. Her flamboyant stage presence, which needed to be toned down in her recent role in "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," found full vent here.  
Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was portrayed by Gale Rieder, who quickly became an audience favorite. Her thick accent was letter-perfect and her direct humor was a welcome contrast to the bitter satire of the rest of the play.  
The other four actresses--Kathy Stratton, Marcia Engblom, Polly Bond and Patricia Sloan--each had their exceptional moments. However, they generally seemed tied to more conventional, representational acting styles.  
Ron Fox was superb in the role of Henry. Tuxedoed, leering with the look of a demonic marionette, the vacant stare of a deranged orator, Fox dominated the stage fully, commanding both in voice and stage presence.  
The technical elements of the play were more than adequate. Musical accompaniment was appropriately sparse and simple.  
At one point the play, King Henry roared, "In my realm I decide what constitutes tragedy!" Ironically, Gressieker strips modern man not only of his possibilities as a tragic figure worthy of any sympathies at all. In the final moments of the play, Catherine of Aragon announces the death of modern man and the birth of a new era. It is a scene of great hope, but it is not as profound as her earlier pronouncement to her husband that "the ways of the world are not so cut and dried!"  
  For my own part, I wish that "Royal Gambit's" statement were not so cut and dried. By making man out to be such a simple monster the play defeats its own purposes and turns poetry into scathing dogma, which is probably even less interesting than, say, history.  


"Wood Fantastic" (letter)   --Jane McDowell  
Mark Wood's review of the Pentacle show Royal Gambit was one of the best I have read in a Salem paper. It was just, literate, and highly readable.  
As an actress, I have played several roles in Pentacle productions, and I have always found the backstage consensus to be the same about reviews: they tend not to be reviews, but recapitulations of the story-line and characters (not the actors' performances, but the people they play).  
While Wood did not neglect these aspects, his remarkably literate review involved a more theatrically oriented viewpoint.  
Honest, evaluative comments such as Wood made regarding script-writing techniques and their effectiveness, the actor's work, and the general mise-en-scene are much to be commended.  
With this kind of review available to us, I can see potential for great improvements in the quality of Salem production in general. Exposed to evaluation of all the aspects of a show--literary, esthetic, and productional/technical--it will be possible for audiences to become more discriminating. Also, the actors will work harder to give stronger, more professional performances. These two things will combine to upgrade the quality of any Salem cultural endeavor--and the quality is already fairly high.  
Thank you for this review by a "student of the theater"--may we hear more from him!  


A Review of KING LEAR, performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival  -- Julie Havel   

The opening scene of King Lear greets the audience with what appears to be a traditional king with his traditional kingdom, complete with three beautiful daughters and loyal servants. But tragedy brews in the air as the audience is led to a closer look.  
The aging King Lear, played by Dennis Arndt. plans to divide his realm among his three daughters. The one catch to this division shapes the theme of the play; the daughters must each declare the potency of their love for their father. The two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, played by Carla Spindt and Joan Stuart-Morris respectively, play the game accordingly and declare that their love for the King out weighs even life itself. The youngest, Cordelia, played by Gloria Beigler, refuses to speak something that isn't true, and sparks a ruthless rage within the King, who promptly banishes her.  
From this point on, the play descends into a devastating sequence of events that strips the once almighty King of his power and turns him into a madman. Dennis Arndt does an excellent job in portraying this transformation and I found myself repeatedly wanting to rush down and comfort him in his madness and agony.  
Most of the other characters played their parts equally well, but there were only a few who really stood apart. The ruthless bastard son to the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund, played by John David Castellanos, went to great lengths seeking land that was rightfully his. His energy level was exceptional for the spiteful character which he portrayed.  
Edmund's father, Gloucester, was a bit ambiguous, He seemed too innocent and naive to be totally convincing. William MeKereghan as Gloucester, played a sorrow ful father who had been swindled by Edmund and had cast out "legitimate" son Edgar. Douglas Markkanen as Edgar does will in portraying a "lunatic out o'benlam."  
On the brighter side, Cordelia seems to be a sort of backbone to the play, with just the right amount of simplicity. She becomes a favorite of the audience because she represents hope, truth and goodness; the only glimmer of light at the end of a dark kummel of madness.  
However, her two sisters, Regan and Goneril, take on the appearance of Cinderella's ugly step-sisters. Both play their parts effectively and they succeed in drawing hatred and disgust from the audience.  
The technical elements of the play went right along with its grim theme. The moving monoliths and hard bare floors symbolized the feeling of doom and tragedy. The dim lighting that gave way to darkness also carried the nature theme. In the storm scene where Liar descends into his madness, the sound effects were especially effective.  
Although much of the scenery symbolizes tragedy, it comes up shout in terms of portraying a kingdom. The only ones who fit the "royal parts" were Regan and Goneril. The rest consisted of leather and hide - this is probably because the feeling of nature and natural elements, such as hides, are more prevalent in Shakespeare, especially in a tragedy such as Lear, than gaudy jewels and silk robes.  
The overall impact of the play was dark and tragic, just as Shakespeare had intended. The theme that "honesty is the best policy" was carried out effectively as the audience witnessed the trap that Lear fell into because of the dishonesty of those that he loved, and the distortion of his perceptions of love.  


Chemeketa Community College Salem, Oregon