Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Exception to the Ruhl?

There are basically two sides to what people call the Macarthur Genius Curse,( these are aside from the fact that nothing you do, at least for a while, will escape the mention of the Macarthur Grant which you have won. )

A. People will be gunning for you because you have the "genius" target on your back. They will be more than happy to point out failure, (as if any genius does not have failure.)

B. People will be more than happy to defend you from the A group, and to label the A group as "haters" or overreacters.

At least for a while, the reactions of both groups will sadly preclude any true critical engagement with the work.

At David Cote's Histriomastix site he wrote a brief post about how, after viewing several of Ruhl's plays, he is now ready to announce that it just isn't doing it for him:

I went in really hoping to like eurydice more than the sub-par production of The Clean House that marked her debut in NYC last season. I've tried and tried with Ruhl, but I find her work to be a tediously watered-down version of the sort of alienating, dramaturgical deconstructions infinitely better practiced by
writers such as Will Eno, Anne Washburn and Melissa James Gibson.

The key to the post is the comparison Cote makes with these other playwrights. I believe the comments section has started to open up a more critical analysis with regards to Ruhl's work. The discussion seems to keep veering towards the suggestion that perhaps certain productions could bring out something more in play.

The Clean House opened at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre this week and Louise Kennedy had nothing but effusive and "Macarthur-worthy" praise for Ruhl. But what about the imbalance of tragedy and comedy that is in the production? Well...

makes it a wonderfully appropriate play for the Wellfleet gang, which brightens the Cape every summer with intelligent, entertaining productions of thought-provoking and artistically interesting new work. And here's hoping that over the course of its run, which ends July 21, artistic director Jeff Zinn's staging of "The Clean House" will find the tricky balance between humor and
tragedy that sometimes faltered Saturday night.

Kennedy does have a comparison. She thought the Trinity Rep production was perfect, she labeled the play a "masterpiece," and she said of its failure to win the Pulitzer:

No wonder the play was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize -- how
could the nominating panel have failed to recognize its brilliance? And no wonder it didn't win (no prize for drama was awarded that year) -- how could the Pulitzer committee have had any clue at all what to make of it?

I like Louise Kennedy's reviews. And, as I will mention below, I do not question Ruhl's talent. But at this point, after reading Charles Isherwood's and Louise Kennedy's effusions, (which threaten to exhaust the thesaraus,) I have resigned myself to the fact that, when it comes to Sarah Ruhl, they may be as critically reliable as a fansite for Eli Roth.

As a reminder, I had this to say about Eurydice when I saw it at Yale. There was much to like in the production, but the issues I had were more about craft and workmanship:

The visual feast this of this arrival and the brilliant soundscapes of the later journey of the doomed lovers out of Hades bookend what for me, (in what I am guessing will be a dissenting opinion,) a relatively mushy center. Ruhl becomes sure of her clever conceit, but then chooses to revel in the more lyrical and melodramatic aspects of it for far too long. I am stealing this line (from Carl Rossi, a critic here in Boston,) but it seems that Ruhl has created in Eurydice's father, just the sort of parent that all of us would like to preserve from death forever.

The running time of the play is approximately 90 minutes and the first 20 – 25 and the last 20 or so minutes are full of the inventiveness that has been heralded of Ruhl’s work, but the center 40 minutes are the textbook example of “second act problems.” We are held in the reminiscence of trees with swings and lovely pastoral images of home life as Father and Daughter reconnect. This is rich territory, but as we watch father and daughter in their little cubbyhole of the afterlife, we realize that what we have to learn from this, we get within five minutes. And to make things more awkward, we are treated to painfully quick scenes of Orpheus mourning or plotting on the other side as he races on and off the stage.

There is a brief shot of energy about midway through this period when the Lord of the Underworld (Zeisler againg) appears, played as a spoiled young child, complete with tricycle. But the brief, intermissionless, running time allows for no development , and the overall feeling I had during all of these scenes was of marking time. Ruhl has figured out an impressive way into the myth, and there is much too see and experience in this production, but a mind that thinks in such a wonderful collage of references should either explore themes to a greater extent, or have the discipline to cut them.

When I say issues with craft I mean just that. The comparison Cote makes of Ruhl to Will Eno and Melissa James Gibson is interesting. From my experience, they seem to be be on two sides of a coin. Eno and Gibson want to shoehorn in sometimes unearned emotional catharsis into an overly structured system. Ruhl tries to jury rig an unearned structure to contain a big blob of emotion.

I am not sure I agree with Cote that that in the case of Eno and Gibson their structure is inseperable from the content. I find their work to be "conspicuously repressive" of anything truly joyful or sad. And aside from Eno's Thom Pain, I haven't been completely sold on any of their individual works yet. But plenty of others have. And I am interested in seeing more from them.

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