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.

Monday, April 18, 2005

In the Guardian, Michael Billington argues that argument itself gets the short end of the stick now that short plays are becoming the norm. Apparently, he thinks the 90 minute play is losing more than just the intermission, and that the audience and theatre are losing more than a bathroom break and a chance to buy a piece of carrot cake. Like many theatre columns lately, I feel he may be treating the symptom more than the cause. He thinks that a standard of 90 minutes is starting to creep into the majority of young dramatists' works, and that is weakening drama's ability to truly explore issues.

It is an interesting rallying cry, and Billington is smart enough to address the recent artistic triumphs in the short form by such artists as Pinter and Churchill. However, when he argues" that Beckett, Pinter and Churchill all began by writing conventionally structured plays and only gradually mastered the technique of creating images that distill a wealth of human experience," it makes his thesis border on begging the question.

Will Eno, a relatively young dramatist, has created Thom Pain (based on nothing) which is a 70 minute monologue that was hailed by the New York Times, as well as almost any critic who has seen it, (there are exceptions of course.) Charles Isherwood of the Times raved that Eno, "is the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." So if there is nothing wrong with a short play, why even complain? And why blame the playwrights?

There is a lot to this dilemna, and Billington is kind of onto himself when he doubles back with "Only a fool would deny dramatists the right to choose the appropriate form.But what worries me is the way relatively young writers are settling into the 90-minute groove: a form midway between pure Beckettian crystallisation of an idea and the once-familiar two-act structure."

Ten Minute play festivals, Evenings of One Acts, (or my favorite, an evening of one act solo performances,) and 48 hour film projects are abounding in the marketplace of entertainment. A Comedy Central offering called Shorties Watching Shorties crunches the already shortened arena of standup comedy to smaller samplings of different comics' best bits. Could it be that just as Wal-Mart consumerism is pushing manufacturing and retail into sweatshop capitalism, so too are we enslaving our artists to crank out less developed pieces?

Billington's conclusion would support this. He claims that short plays don't explore ideas or "connect dots," or even present counter arguments. They basically just present the essence of an interesting idea and the rest is left up to you. Wal-mart products, short on features and quality, present the essence of their use in order to do away with frills and expense. I am a theatre junkie, but I will confess to sometimes deciding not to attend a performance because I saw that the run time was over two and half hours.

When I laid out the parameters for Essayons' Europhochylus, Massachusetts last year, I told the playwrights to write a thirty minute play so that I could give them a little more room to "explore ideas and themes." I think it worked well, but basically the playwrights, including me,were left with unmarketable properties. (Not that that marketable properties was the goal.)

Many contests and theatre development departments like either one-act plays (45 minutes to One Hour) or ten minute plays for their festivals. But a trip through the Dramatist's Sourcebook will reveal that most theatres still are interested in playwrights who can write in a two act stretch. There are numerous theatre profiles that proclaim loudly, "No One-Acts."

If some of the examples Mr. Billington uses in his list of offenders had been expanded to two acts, would Mr. Billington then proclaim that two-act plays are being built on one hour's worth of material? He uses Joe Penhall as an example of a talented playwright who has lately suffered from the shortened play syndrome, but I think that Penhall's good play Blue/Orange, (which recently had a great production by Zeitgeist,) labored its thesis to the breaking point, running out of enough dramatic power about 20 minutes too early.

On the other side, August Wilson's Play Cycle, consisting of ten mostly two-plus hour works, still has not exhausted the spectrum of ideas contained within the African-American experience. However, many supporters of his work will even admit that he could do with some judicious pruning within each of the individual plays.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Noose Tightens but the Burglar Seems Brazen

Brandon Kiley has an update on the Thievery in Seattle:

It seems the perpertrator was caught on a security camera while stealing, once again, from the Oddfellows Hall where yours truly and my gang of Essayons cohorts performed at the Seattle Fringe in 1999 and 2000.

Hopefully it won't be long before the thief is caught.