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The Boro Beat: The best review comes from someone who knows

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I am a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts who majored in theater. After high school I spent some time working professionally in the theater and trying to break into film. But a writers’ strike hit, auditions dried up and I decided to go to college.

Though I continued acting in college, participating in school plays, I eventually turned my back on the theater and focused on journalism. The hours the job requires and the desire to spend time with my family have pretty much limited my ability to commit to anything else.

In my time here at the TimesLedger, my interest in the theater has been rekindled, based mostly on the fact that Queens has such a well-organized family of community theaters that consistently produce entertaining musicals and plays.

The people who frequent the various theater groups, and, indeed, the members of the groups themselves, have a devout love for the theater. For the audience, the ability to see well-written pieces by accomplished playwrights performed without charging an arm and a leg is fantastic.

For the performers, their reasons are different. Acting, like any other art, is not just a hobby, but a need. A great painter does not put brush to canvas just because he or she wants to make a pretty picture. A great painter simply uses the brush as an extension of the hand, putting onto canvas what is stirring in the soul, what must be released before the artist is consumed. This is how the great artists assuage their inner demons.

The same is true for any other artist — sculptors remove the excess stone to reveal the image hidden beneath; writers pour their souls onto the page; dancers move in the direction the music compels them; and actors cast their doubts, frustrations, fears, unfulfilled dreams, romantic desires and exuberant joy into their characters.

It is for this reason that when the job of critiquing art is handed out, the people best prepared to cast their thumbs up or down are those who feel the artistic burn themselves.

At the TimesLedger, we have been through a vast array of writers and reviewers over the years, and a small handful since I took over the Qguide in January 2002.

Last spring there was a brief battle in the borough waged by the community theater groups for more attention. They won, as they should have, and the Queens weekly newspapers do offer more coverage, better calendar listings and excellent reviews of productions (put out in a timely fashion to allow readers the opportunity to actually see the play which has just been reviewed).

At the TimesLedger, we have had two past reviewers whose names I have heard praised in my time here — Roy Fox and Anita Raymond.

Both of them had backgrounds in the theater, and both were able to write reviews that the performers could respect, regardless of any previous affiliations or current friendships they may have had within active theater groups.

After they left, the theater review position was filled by a host of free-lancers whose background in the theater was minimal, who didn’t know the people behind the scenes and who wrote puff pieces without challenging the merits of the performances.

And then came Kent Mancuso. Quite frankly, whether or not such a person really exists is of little consequence.

When I first spoke with Kent about the reviews, he told me that he has a vast and knowledgeable background in Queens community theater. He knows who the key players are, he has been attending shows for several years and he is a self-professed student of the theater world with a diverse knowledge of plays and playwrights.

In addition to all that, Kent is a supporter of local theater who preferred to remain anonymous. He didn’t want any special treatment, he wanted to pay for his own tickets and he wanted to write without fear of reprisal.

To me, this sounded like the ideal person to write about Queens community theater.

At least that’s what I thought. Apparently some people in the community theater industry have a different view.

They want to know who Kent Mancuso really is. Rumors have run rampant within the tight-knit world of community theaters. Is Kent really a former actor? Is he a current director? Is he a little old man who never likes to give his name? Is he several people? Is he a she? Is Kent really me?

The truth is ... nobody knows for sure. He is a mystery, and his identity shall remain so.

The rumors have led to bold statements. “If he is who I think he is, I don’t want him to review my show,” a representative from one theater group told me. “If he is involved in one organization, how can he fairly critique another,” a second person asked me.

It seems the general concern is one of trust. If Kent has an interest in certain performances or groups, how can his opinion be unbiased?

For as much as actors and directors dislike negative criticism, they are able to take it when they know that it is honest. On the flip side, just in the way dishonest criticism has little value, so, too, does disingenuous praise.

The main concern I have heard about some of Kent’s reviews is that they would be worthless if it turned out that he were somehow involved in the community theater.

Poppycock.

Honesty and integrity are the cornerstones of Kent’s reviews. He does not pull punches or heap praise where it is undeserved. I have heard from many of the theater groups about their agreement with Kent’s reviews.

Add to that the breadth and depth of his experience in the theater, and he stands tall as a genuine, qualified and knowledgeable reviewer.

Even if he is friends with some people in the theater world, even if he may have acted in local plays, even if his real name is not Kent and even if he is a she, Kent is a good reviewer. Quite frankly, in my 10 years in journalism, he is the best theater reviewer with whom I have had the pleasure to work.

And he will continue to lurk in the shadows, to keep incognito and to write fair, balanced and credible reviews of Queens community theater groups.

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