Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Are Critics Just Bloodthirsty Freaks?

It seems just what critics were waiting for. Just what the doctor ordered. The recent one-two punch of the Sugan’s Gagarin Way and the ART’s Olly’s Prison seems to have satiated a bloodlust in our city’s critics. Or has it merely given them the taste for more.

Terry Byrne in the Herald proclaimed Olly’s Prison to be a "grim thrill." And Carolyn Clay at the Phoenix admits:

"And the violence in Olly’s Prison hardly ends with the murder of the first scene. The play builds toward a bloody, whole-home-wrecking dust-up in which, through a twist of plot that hammers home Bond’s agenda, the forces of "law and order" play a lavish part. Olly is not a pleasant work to watch…"

Bill Marx seemed to be in heaven, but he had a little caveat about Gagarin Way: "Director Brendan Hughes handles his performers with aplomb, though the scenes of violence are not very convincing." Even with his numerous reservations about the overall dramatic worth of the play, his review is clearly a recommendation, with the title even coopting Aerosmith's instruction to "Walk This Way."

But, before we think that this phenomenon is localized, check out the raves about Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman on Broadway. One of my favorite critics John Heilpren raved about the new work, which actually seems to take the idea presented in the Doug Wright play, Quills a few steps further. The audience is actually privy to horrible stories of child murder which the protagonist, a writer being interrogated by police, has written.

Maybe critics are just anxious for visceral experiences on stages that increasingly present more and more studied character pieces. Or maybe they are just fed up with dramaturgy and press releases that promote tepid shows as "cutting edge," or "extreme."

Witness the backlash of critical response to Culture Clash at the Calderwood Pavilion. It is a good show, and, as Will Stackman has pointed out on his blog, (And Then I Saw) the group has an all-inclusive sense of humor that is incredibly refreshing. However, much of the pre-show publicity for the trio was driven by the claims of their hip, edgy, in- your- face type of humor, which is not the experience they delivered. Some critics responded with less enthusiasm than the audiences. Remember, part of the job description of media employed critics is to be a consumer advocate.

Andrew Taylor, the writer of the blog The Artful Manager has often reminded his readers that, "in marketing your show you are not selling the actual experience, you are selling the promise of an experience." Theatre marketing departments must think that if their competition is Grand Theft Auto, let’s advertise our product that way.

At the recent 48Hour Film Project screenings at the Kendall Square Cinema, one team presented a film that started with the familiar PBS logo. Suddenly a large X appears in front of the letters. The calm and tempered voice-over says, "you are watching Extreme Public Broadcasting." Beat. "Bitch." That instant of satire was dead on.

Perhaps Gagarin Way, Olly’s Prison, and The Pillowman simply deliver on long overdue promises for something horrifying and visceral on stage. But then we must also ask ourselves, are these cases of artists just pushing the envelope with nothing more than sadism as motivation?

Charles McNulty in The Village Voice is not the first critic to call out Neil Labute, (The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, Etc.) but he is the first to do so in an in-depth piece that is the type of thing we should all like to see more of in our own community. The title of his article is "Misuses of Enchantment" and he is interested in the overwhelming critical response to what he terms as "sadism."

"The spectacle of sadism rivets both McDonagh and LaBute, which is why they can't help treating characters like lab rats in a cosmetics factory. Taking their cues from the movies, they subject their unsuspecting protagonists to the most manipulative plots, stretching them on the rack of contrived setups and torturing them with unhappy ends. Object lessons these are not. (Didacticism isn't their shtick.) It's flashy storytelling the truculent lads are after. They're fabulists with a lurid, contemporary bent, who relish playing a rough game of cat-and-mouse with their audiences….These playwrights aren't so much commenting on our time as symptomatic of it."

His harshest comment though is for the Stars of these productions and the Critics who cheer them:

"Under the guise of artistic seriousness, these works afford actors the chance to enjoy onstage the same frissons that they're accustomed to on-screen—a drama of violent sensation unburdened by the anguish and introspection that emerge
from genuinely harrowing experiences."

Now, obviously Gagarin Way and Olly’s Prison are different animals than the New York Productions of which McNulty writes. Edward Bond (Olly’s Prison) is an intensely political writer whose whole career has circled around his intellectual struggle with the existence of violence. Where is the breaking point though? Should we care? If this is what it takes to get good reviews what will subscribers think? Can the public trust critics, (who are too thirsty for something visceral,) to warn them off sadistic geek shows? (Remember that Bill Marx had a special place in his heart for the Neo- Guignol piece It Only Hurts When I Laugh in which the audience watches the dismemberment of Sadaam Hussein.) Is it all just critical navel-gazing?

Of course, the nature of criticism allows for the very possible explanation that these are significant dramas which are worthy of critical praise.

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