This play about cookbook author Julia Child is a recipe for how not to do online theater. To Master the Art falls flat, despite some great ingredients.
This is not how I expected to react. Forced to spend more time at home, and no time in restaurants, I’ve rediscovered the kitchen, going so far as to purchase two new non-stick pans and six wooden cooking utensils, and search online for recipes in order to make good use of them. So, for me at least, the timing seemed good for TimeLine Theatre, the non-profit Chicago theater founded in 1997, to bring back one of their productions which debuted in 2010, and was sufficiently well received then to prompt a transfer to a commercial run three years later. It’s that 2013 production that the theater recorded and is offering for “remote viewing” through June 9th with tickets starting at $15.
I was enthusiastic enough that I even followed TimeLine’s suggestion of ordering a meal delivered from a French eatery – Provencal rotisserie chicken “marinated in homemade brine (fresh thyme, rosemary, lavender, and guerande salt)”, ratatouille, and Shoestring French Fries.
What was evident from the outset was the quality of the cast, led by Karen Janes Woditsch as Julia. She starts as a gawky and out-of-place middle-aged American, accompanying her husband Paul to Paris shortly after World War II. She discovers French food, learns how to cook and spends ten years writing “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which gives her confidence (and made her famous.) Woditsch herself went on to make her Broadway debut in the replacement cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; she was about to celebrate her first anniversary before the show and everything else on Broadway was shut down on March 12th.
But the workmanlike script of To Master the Art by William Brown and Doug Frew goes over much the same story as the 2009 Nora Ephron film “Julie & Julia” (minus the Julie part, thank Heaven.) .
The similarities between the stories on a Chicago stage and a Hollywood screen surely mattered less when the play was being presented live, and had the added feature of not just actual eggs being scrambled and tasted, but also the smell of onion soup and shallots saute?ing in butter.
But that advantage disappears in a screen recording. The play is at a further disadvantage because Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance as Julia Child in the movie is currently available on Netflix. Whatever the relative merits of the two Julia performances, Woditsch suffers from having calibrated her acting for the stage, and Timeline’s offering suffers from the presence of such a seductive alternative. So, the timing turns out to be bad.
And so does the recording. Throughout the entire second act, the audio jumped slightly ahead of the visual; I heard each and every line before the actors actually said it.
Now, in the e-mail in which they sent me the link, TimeLine explained how to contact them if there are any technical difficulties. But they also wrote: “Please note that we are theatre artists and not IT experts; we appreciate your patience….” Etc.
One can sympathize with the struggle of small, regional theaters, and their efforts to keep afloat. But this feels like a lesson for other theaters. Not every success onstage translates well online. Choose wisely; pick the right time. Keep at it, surely, but in the transition to online, try as much as possible to focus on those aspects of the theater that make it a draw — this could mean, for example, original shows performed live. (Either that, or hire an IT expert.)
(Update: I’ve been informed that Timeline has fixed the sound issue in the second act.)
To Master the Art by William Brown and Doug Frew . Director: William Brown . Featuring: Karen Janes Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Juliet Hart, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder, Sam Ashdown, Ian Paul Custer, Heidi Kettenring and Brian Plocharczyk. Keith Pitts (Scenic Designer),Rachel Anne Healy (Costume Designer), Charles Cooper (Lighting Designer), Julie Eberhardt (Properties Designer), Andrew Hansen (Sound Designer and Composer), Maren Robinson (Dramaturg), Eva Breneman (Dialect Coach), LaurenV.Hickman (Stage Manager)and Jonathan Nook(Assistant Stage Manager). Produced by TimeLine Theatre . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.