Angels, Heartbreak and Rhyme: Robert Hurwitt Recounts His Three Favorite Shows to Review
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Posted by: TBA Staff
By Sam Hurwitt
Photo courtesy The Houston Chronicle.
When San Francisco Chronicle theatre critic Robert Hurwitt retired in April, it was the end of an era. He’d been reviewing Bay Area theatre continuously since 1978, first at the Berkeley Barb, then at the East Bay Express, the San Francisco Examiner and finally the Chronicle. At the TBA Awards ceremony on December 5, Theatre Bay Area will present Hurwitt with a Legacy Award, which honors extraordinary achievement in and contribution to the Bay Area theatre community.
What were three of your favorite shows to review in all your years as a critic?
One thing that leaps out right away is Angels in America. I didn’t review the premiere of Angels in America Part One at the Eureka. I did review the premiere of both parts together at the Mark Taper Forum the following year, at the end of ’92. I felt like there was so much to say and it was so great to wrestle with that I actually wrote two pieces. I did a regular review for the Examiner, and then followed with a Sunday piece to further elaborate on the themes and the scope of the work. I just felt like there was so much more I needed to write.
One thing that always excites me is when a director brings out new elements in a work that I thought I knew inside out and makes me see it in a whole different way. I’d always felt that Heartbreak House was one of the greatest plays ever written, right up there with Lear and Mother Courage and Oedipus, and every production of it I’d seen had been a major disappointment. I’d seen it done in the West End, I’d seen it done in New York, I’d seen Berkeley Rep do it before, I’d seen ACT do it. But Sharon Ott’s production at Berkeley Rep in ’96 really hit you with the full dramatic impact that you always thought that that play could have. It wasn’t true, as so many critics had written, that it’s not a play to be staged, that it’s only to be read. She made you see the extraordinary depth of Shaw’s writing in that work, emotionally and intellectually and dramatically. There’s the masterpiece that I knew had to be there! By that point I’d begin to doubt myself, and to doubt Shaw. Never underestimate Shaw.
Probably my other favorite to write about was a terrible show. It was called Poe in Person, a one-man show by Conrad Pomerleau in 1981 at the Julia Morgan Theater. This was for the Express. I left the theatre thinking, “Oh, god, nevermore.... Evening dreary…” By the time I got to the car, I had written the whole first verse. By the time I got home, I was pretty well into the second verse. I sat there thinking, “No, that’s silly,” but I was just driven. I pulled out my complete works of Poe off the shelf and opened up to “The Raven” and kept going. The show was on a Friday night. I spent all day Saturday and a good half of Sunday working on it. I wrote it out in the meter, in the rhyme scheme, in the exact verse form. When I finished, I thought, holy god, this looks like it’s about the same length as “The Raven”! I counted, and sure enough, it was the exact same length. I sat there thinking, do I really dare turn this in, or should I get to work and really write my review? But I turned it in and held my breath. Through the closed door I could hear the editor chuckling, and then chortling, and then laughing out loud. Then he opened up his door and threw it on my desk and said, “This is fantastic, we’re going to do it, and don’t you ever do anything like this again!”
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theatre critic for the Mercury News and the Marin Independent Journal. And yes, he’s related to that other guy.
Robert Hurwitt will be presented with a Legacy Award to honor his outstanding contribution to the Bay Area theatre community at The 2016 TBA Awards Celebration on Monday, December 5. Click here to learn more about the Awards celebration and to get tickets to the event.