Monday, March 30, 2009

Louise Kennedy Can't Be Shocked

Louise Kennedy, writing in the Globe, talks about the underwhelming experience of seeing some recent plays that are supposed to be "shocking." Fair warning, there are spoilers in the article.

The more I hear that a play is full of startling revelations, daring honesty, fearless confrontations with hard truths, the more I dread what I'll be seeing onstage. I do try to lay aside my dread, not least because I believe absolutely in reviewing the play, not the hype, but also because I always hope for a real theatrical experience in the theater. Too often, however, I find that the advance word is only building on the hyped-up contents of the play itself; the playwright, not the publicist, is the one imagining that he's shocking the bourgeoisie rather than trotting out old tropes and twists we've seen too many times before.

Her primary target is the recent Speakeasy production of Blackbird.
The article seems to careen a little too much from one thought to the other. She blames most of it on playwrights who are influenced by too much CSI and Quentin Tarantino.

I have to admit she is on solid ground with her evidence against some of the trends in recent playwriting. However, she doesn't, (it seems,) want to even touch on the suggestion that some blame in recent cases may rest at the foot of performances and/or direction. For instance, Kennedy's comments about Blackbird kept bringing me back to Thom Garvey's charge that the production seemed to dodge some of the more incendiary stuff.

Some of the plays she mentioned seem to have gathered some very positive notices from critics in many places before they arrived here in Boston. Now, that doesn't mean some of those works aren't due for some type of critical puncturing, believe me they are, but sometimes I feel that performers and directors are RELYING on that pre-show hype with which some of these shocking productions have rolled into town.

Then again, maybe that's blurring a needed examination of the craft.

Also, I am not sure Kennedy makes enough distinctions. For instance, she includes The Lieutenant of Inishmore in her affidavit, but surely Martin McDonagh's farcical freak show is meant to make us laugh, not "to shock us from bourgeoisie complacency." Don't people see it as a commentary on Tarantinoesque cinematics, rather than an emulation of them?

There is an unusually active comment thread following the article. My favorite comment, from LoutheFig:

What about "Cats"? I was shocked to learn that felines can talk, sing & dance


Thomas Garvey said...

I actually thought this was one of her best "think pieces" in that it did, in fact, contain a thought, although not an original one (a zillion critics have made it before, including myself): that the theatre has begun to emulate the shock tactics of TV and film, and to deleterious effect. I wish she'd gone a little further and not said that theatre was "verbal, not visual" - theatre is essentially metaphoric, methinks (which doesn't mean film and TV can't be metaphoric, too). And at any rate, her overall point doesn't necessarily validate her opinion of the local productions she discusses - Blackbird, The Receptionist, and Lieutenant of Inishmore. In short, her argument may be sound, but is its specific application to these plays just? Of these plays, I'd argue that only Lieutenant is gratuitously shocking - although the fountains of blood are supposed to shock us into laughter, not shock, as a glimpse of a corset or bloomers might have done a hundred years ago. But The Receptionist is so clearly modeled on our present-day society - which carries on as normal even as we perpetrate torture in Guantanamo and "black sites" - that to claim it is intended "to shock merely to shock" seems at best naive, at worst disingenuous. Indeed, there's a subtle but unmistakably defensive edge to Kennedy's article; after all, people who disagree with a buried cultural or political statement are always quick to insist that they don't find it shocking at all; instead it's merely vulgar, or obscene, or immature. Blackbird is the trickiest of the plays she considers - at times it does indeed seem like merely an exercise, albeit a very intense one. But at other moments it hints at depths that, though sparely rendered, could be perversely moving. It certainly doesn't strike me as a cheap shot of any kind.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I have something of a different take on this at the Clyde Fitch Report,

Thomas Garvey said...

Does anyone else have trouble getting into Leonard's new site? I always get a "timed out" notice.

Art said...

I haven't had any problems yet. I just went there after posting your comment.

Ian Thal said...

Most of the time a play is described as "shocking" it seems to code for "shocking for pedestrian audience members who never go to the theatre anyway."

But on reflection, so much of what passes for shock I've seen on the stage is simply an affirmation of conservative and reactionary values.

Underneath all the naughty language, misogyny, homophobia, and macho posturing of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Last Days of Judas Iscariot was just misogyny, homophobia, macho posturing, and a rather reactionary pre-Vatican II theology.

Robert Woodruff's "edgy" and "homoerotic" production of Richard II at the ART on balance seemed to argue the homophobic case that Richard's unfitness to be king was a manifestation of his desire to hump scantly clad men (as opposed to his militarily and political hackery) and that only a macho man like Henry Bolingbroke could save England (the sad thing was that Bill Camp was the best Bolingbroke I had ever seen.)

"Edgy" is just a marketing strategy at this point.