Like many critics, I found the Transport Group production of I Remember Mama to be a touching endeavor. I would generally recommend it. My mother cried. The performances were great. Unfortunately, it had the same two flaws that all Transport Group shows now have. First, and most importantly, it was staged at the Gym at Judson. Second, programs were not given out until the show's end.
All the world's a stage, but not every "stage" is right for all shows. Pretty much the only thing I've seen actually work perfectly at the Gym at Judson has been Lysistrata Jones. That show was about cheerleaders and a basketball team, so the setting made sense. It hasn't made sense for anything else the Transport Group has done there. The Gym at Judson is ugly. There are the brightly lit fire exits, fire extinguishers, pipes and wires that all add up to make me feel like I'm in a dirty basement, instead of at a space one generally pays to enter. They constantly take me out of the theatrical experience, as do those horrible lights. Stage lighting is an art, one that cannot be practiced in that space. The temperature is never right; whether in winter or spring, it's always stuffy inside the Gym. I am of course not surprised by this - I think it was always stuffy during mandatory elementary school gym class also. (Before anyone writes me, I do know the space is not actually a gym.) Oh, and lets not forget the horribly uncomfortable seats. They make upstairs at the BAM Harvey seem luxe. During intermission of the performance I attended, one of the seats slipped back, despite the protective bar, and a patron almost fell backwards. For the entire second act, I was afraid to move lest I be killed when I hit the floor.
The other problematic thing about the space is it is big. Almost, Maine is an intimate show. Its stories are quirky slice-of-life tales. It doesn't need to be in an expansive gym-like space. Likewise the moving aspects of I Remember Mama would have only been enhanced by an intimate space. I like the Transport Group. I'm a longtime fan. Artistic Director Jack Cummings III frequently casts Donna Lynne Champlin, one of my favorites. The theater company often stages interesting productions, with Mama being a case in point. But I don't look forward to attending shows in the company's current space. I know I'm not alone either--I have asked patrons on the way out! Of course no one is forcing me to attend, and the joyous potential of a given theatrical production often comes before any complaints I have about a specific space, as it should; I just believe there has to be a better home for this promising company.
Now onto the programs. Initially I thought programs were not distributed as part of a "green" initiative. Not so - they give out programs as you leave, albeit ones without biographies (a cost issue). I asked Mr. Cummings about his decision not to distribute them in advance and he cited respect. "We can't underestimate how disheartening it is for an actor to look out and see someone not paying attention," he explained. "If I have any tool to prevent that, I'm going to protect everyone who made that work of art and the actors." Mr. Cummings also stated his disbelief that we, as audience members, would think we needed a program: "You don't get a program at the movies. When you're at a movie, you're at a movie. But you have to have one at the theater or you're going to combust."
I see what he is saying. Truly. Unfortunately you become accustomed to certain things in certain forums. I am a very respectful theatergoer. I always think actors can see me - even in big spaces - and I never want to take away from another audience member's enjoyment. I pay attention when I'm at a show (or at least I try my hardest to do so). But I like that paper in my hand. I like that there is something for me to check when I think: "I know that guy. What is that guy's name?" To me it takes more away from my enjoyment of a show when I spend the entire show thinking: "Seriously, what is his name?!" Yes, I understand that an actor could look up at me when I am taking a look down at the Playbill. I understand that actor might be upset at seeing that. I feel bad about that. It is just a balancing of pros and cons to me - I believe the pros in giving a program outweigh the cons.
All of this is just a matter of personal preference; Cummings and the rest of the Transport Group crew are of course entitled to do as they wish (short of injuring theatergoers). As Tim Sanford will tell you, not everyone likes everything you do, even if what you do is Pulitzer-worthy.