Theater Terroir

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In theater, venue is destiny. A play exists acutely, sometimes gloriously, in a specific, unrepeatable place. Different spaces make different demands of performers and audience members; what comes of those particularities greatly informs a show and becomes an inseparable part of a theatergoing experience.

David West Read’s new play, “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” is recent proof of this dictum. Now playing at Roundabout’s black box as part of the “Underground” series, “Dream’s” super-intimate house renders quietness a virtue of the highest degree. When a teacher (Reed Birney) and a student (Josh Caras) spar over an English paper (“Losing My Virgil-itly”), the tiny space allows them to speak at normal, sometimes exceedingly small, levels. That style, in turn, imprints itself into the DNA of the show and becomes an inexorable part of the play’s experience.

The French know what I mean. When talking about wine, they use the word “terroir.” It means (roughly) that wines are innately tied to the region they come from, ie, dirt is destiny. A Bordeaux only comes from the Bordeaux region, same for a Côte du Rhône, same for a Burgundy, same for any of the big French wines. That unknown something of the ground makes a wine unrepeatable.

For me, theater is the same. A space makes actors look, feel, and behave a certain way, and that specificity forever binds a theatergoing experience to its venue. A play is what it is, in large part, because of where it is. The effect, for me, is that I can never, ever forget where I see a show. Plot, character, theme – all those can fade, but if I remember seeing a play, I remember where I saw it. For me, it’s the ground, the “terroir” on which theater often stands.


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