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MIT Theater Arts

With a vast array of performing groups, the best show you ever saw might have been right here at MIT.

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

MIT, this haven of geeks, nerds, computer wizards, and the general population which usually talks even about its everyday activities in some sort of a complicated code (as in, “I’m taking eight-double-oh-one in twenty-six-one-hundred”), is famous for its humanities. Justly so, of course: just check out, for example, the plethora of excellent musical concerts held year-round.

Of special note is the MIT theatre, spanning the interval from strictly amateur (but highly enthusiastic) performances to the professional-quality full-scale productions, aided by an extensive program of theatre courses. With courses offered in everything starting from basic and advanced acting, to costume, set, and lighting design, to the director’s craft, to something as esoteric as art and science of stage combat, the resulting variety and quality of local theatrical productions is wild and exciting.

Sketch & Improv

There are many theatrical groups, including some which are rather borderline theatrical, such as Plush Daddy Fly, an original sketch comedy, and Roadkill Buffet, an improvisational comedy group. Both of these are vastly amusing, and, what’s more important, provide priceless experience of stagecraft by encouraging the participants to act off each other. It also aids in creating such essential actors’ qualities as being light-footed and quick-thinking, and a talented improv/sketch performer is usually easily recognized by the overall ease and enjoyment of being on stage.

MIT Community Players

Another regularly performing group is the MIT Community Players, usually putting on one or two shows a year, mostly a full-length play in May and an evening of one-act plays sometime in late August or early September.

While their productions are largely enjoyable because of the infectious enthusiasm of the performers and not the polished quality of their performances, the Community Players are consistently excellent in their choice of plays.

MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players

The MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players are always consistent -- overall attention to the inherent strengths of every G&S show, namely, Gilbert’s insanely quotable dialogue and hilarious lyrics, as well as Sullivan’s music, simultaneously exciting, hummable, and lyrical -- is clearly the main priority of each MIT G&S production, and it pays off handsomely.

The overall quality of the singers and the orchestra is usually adequate but not extraordinary, with the usual exception of two or three very strong leads (both singing- and acting-wise) in each show. But this is usually compensated by the general clarity of action and delivery; for example, in last year’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, every sung word was audible.

Another reliable feature of G&S is that the overall stress is almost always on the show’s humor. It always works, after all, G&S did write comic operas, although in some cases, like The Mikado and Ruddigore one wishes the darker aspects were more pronounced. But in their last production, the relatively dark The Yeomen of the Guard went for serious, and succeeded.

MIT Musical Theatre Guild

MTG is another case of an amateur group most notable for its infectious enthusiasm rather than for the polished quality of their productions.

MTG is most certainly commendable for selecting big and complicated shows (like last fall’s The Fiddler on the Roof) and working hard to ensure the internal coordination of a full-scale production, with usually elaborate costumes, sets, and lighting design. It’s probably a consequence of the group’s targeting such large-scale productions that the organizational aspects once in a while feel more consistent than the dramatical ones. When both of these sides of the show are well-done and balanced, the results can be as joyous as, say, the hilarious second act of last Independent Activities Period production She Loves Me.

There’s one major and fortuitous exception, though. Like the unwavering rule of even-odd Star Trek movies, MTG is consistently excellent when working on Stephen Sondheim shows. From the bloody, nightmarish, and darkly humorous Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street a few years ago, to last summer’s transcendent Into the Woods, to their latest, hilarious A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, MTG is at their best.

Shakespeare Ensemble

One of the two professional-quality theatre groups at MIT, Shakespeare Ensemble is closely working with the Theatre Arts department, with the faculty members or visiting theatre lecturers usually directing the productions.

The results are always lucid and illuminating. In Ensemble productions, Shakespeare’s language is delivered with such clarity -- both vocal and thematic -- that it acquires both the immediacy of regular spoken speech and the graceful fluidity of poetry. The same applies to the characteristically complex interweaving of stories, dramatic lines, and character arcs. This results in essential qualities of urgency and emotion, so much that Shakespeare feels thoroughly modern in the best meaning of the word, and such plays as last fall’s Measure for Measure are thoroughly riveting.

As a matter of fact, the Ensemble always brings such clarity of vision that once in a while it feels that the weakest element of each show is the source material. For example, in this term’s Pericles the overall attention to the dramatic throughline highlighted the fact that the play itself, from the structural point of view, is to some extent a mess. To the Ensemble’s credit, even in such cases their work is never less than exciting.

MIT Dramashop

It’s very hard to describe Dramashop, since none of their shows fit in the same mold, and span a huge spectrum of theatrical works. Not only do they cover musicals (Grand Hotel), grand drama (The Good Person of Sezuan), but Dramashop also ventures in the works that are skillful combination of disparate elements (The Illusion) or are, to certain extent, experimental (like the current For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf). There might be only one thing common to all the Dramashop productions, and that’s the overall excellency.

There’s one curious exception to the rule, though. In the fall, Dramashop presents an evening of student-written, student-directed one act plays, and they work mostly to demonstrate the amazing skill which goes into putting on a theatrical production -- since in one evening one can witness work ranging from excellent to terrible, from professional to amateurish.

But the other productions, usually directed by MIT Theatre Arts faculty, are of mostly professional quality; there’s not a single amateurish aspect in, for example, the transcendent For Colored Girls.

In some cases, Dramashop transcends even professionalism, such as was the case with The Good Person. The works of Dramashop and the other groups have been so well-done that it’s quite possible that one’s favorite theatrical production was one performed in Little Kresge -- not anywhere else, not on Broadway or in the Boston Theatre District -- but right here, at MIT.