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Spoiler Warning

November 6, 2007

Theatre is one of the most powerful storytelling mediums I know of. But as a theatre critic, it's amazing how often I have to remind myself not to spoil the plot of a play for my readers. When it comes to writing a review about a show, it's tempting to see plot as somehow being secondary to -- or less worthy of a reader's attention than -- other aspects of a theatrical production like the themes, the mise-en-scene, the visual metaphors, the context etc.

Yet there's nothing more exciting than going to see a great play when you don't know the plot. That feeling of being on the edge of your seat and wondering what happens next is magical. But it becomes less common the more plays you go and see. Theatre critics, who sit through multiple productions of many of the same plays, sometimes forget about the wonder of being caught up in a good story. You lethargically imagine that everyone knows what happens in Hamlet and is familiar with the thread of the Three Sisters. But that's not always the case.

Sometimes, though, it's tempting to give away a play's storyline in order to make a point in a review about something important or interesting in the staging. In such cases, whether to divulge the denouement or not can be a hard call to make. Are there any rules that help govern the decision?

A few days ago, I asked myself this question while writing about The Rainmaker for SF Weekly. ACT's production of N. Richard Nash's sweet 1950s play was great in many ways, but the full impact and release of the narrative was slightly deadened by the ending. The producers went to a lot of trouble to produce a downpour of real rain, but instead of saturating the drought-weary characters, the sheet of water hit the front of the stage like a curtain or screen. The actors stayed completely dry behind it. I thought it to be a bit of a cop-out, though I'm sure the costume staff must be relieved at not having to deal with sopping wet costumes every night after the show. Mentioning the above would have tied in nicely to the larger point I wanted to make in my piece about the theme of climate change. But I decided to omit my feelings about this anti-climactic bit of staging because to do so would have spoiled the plot for many of my readers.

So how did I come to the decision not to write about the ending? I think the best way to gauge whether it's a good idea or not to reveal the plot of a play or not is to think back to the experience of seeing a show: I had never seen The Rainmaker when I went to the Geary Theatre to experience ACT's production last week and, as usual, I resisted reading the script until afterwards. I found myself completely immersed in the story. I wanted my readers, should they decide to see the show, to feel the same way too. This is why I left the part about the final, failed rain shower out of my article. Had the plot been less compelling, I think I would have felt fine about giving it away.

Of course, now I've gone and messed up the ending for readers of this blog. I'm sorry about that.


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