Monday, November 29, 2010

Faith Based Drama Criticism?

The current Broadway revival of Driving Miss Daisy has prompted a little bit of critical discussion, most of it centering on how well this seemingly sentimental "two hander" holds up.

You can read some of the reviews on StageGrade, which aggregates the critical consensus of Alfred Uhry's play into a letter grade of "B". Meanwhile, on Parabasis the play has few defenders.

I own a few volumes of sermons which the Reverend Peter Gomes has delivered at Harvard, and as I was looking through some of the Advent sermons this past weekend I just happened to come across this:

When in St. Lukes' Gospel Jesus is asked about his family, again, and whenever Jesus is asked about his family by his contemporaries, it is always with an edge because they know more than we would like them to know about Jesus's family. They ask the question that is designed to embarrass and humiliate him: they say, "Who are your people?" and he answers, "My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God and do it." That's who my family is, those who hear God's word and who do it. It is not my mother it is not my sisters it is not my brothers, it is not my great grandfather, it is not my great uncle Harry: family is now redefined in terms of those who hear God's will and who do it.

Because of that consciousness, because of Jesus's redefinition of the family, I always cry in the last scene of the movie Driving Miss Daisy, one of my favorite films. Think of those two antagonists, for that is what they are, from different worlds, thrown together by the circumstances and necessities of life, and bonded, as we watch this film evolve, by an unspeakable love which neither of them can or dares enunciate, a love that transcends their earthly stations and relationships. The family is absolutely useless, bumbling son and obnoxious daughter in-law. It's the chauffeur who in the end is family, and in that last scene we see them sitting together in the nursing home, he feeding her pie and she taking what small pleasure she can in it and in him. You see, it becomes clear here that family is not a function of blood or of heredity or kinship, but rather of call and response. Relationships are no longer static or defined by status: they are dynamic and transforming, and it is called love.

The above quote is from the collection of sermons There Is A Plan! It is the sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Secret Envies of Drama and Food Critics....

Brendan Kiley, theater critic for Seattle's Stranger, gets philosophical about being trapped in a bad theater experience:

Most people seem allergic to the idea of the theater critic bailing before the show's over: It's a critic's job to watch the play, no matter how bad, and he should see every last minute of it before rendering judgment. But why? Is the food critic who sits down to a plate of black, slimy lettuce required to eat the whole thing before she can authoritatively judge that salad unfit to eat? Of course not. Don't be ridiculous.

Some will object to the food-critic analogy on the grounds that it's remote. But only the theater critic and food critic have their consumption of the "product" publicly scrutinized. The book critic can privately skim a bad novel on his couch, the art critic can choose to look at an object for one minute or one hour, the rock critic can pop in and out of a show. The film critic with her stack of DVDs has the divine gift of fast-forward. (Screw invisibility and flight. As a theater critic, I want the superpower of fast-forward.) But the food critic will either finish her plate or not; the theater critic will either sit through the whole thing or bolt. And everybody who cares to know will find out.

Some will object to the food-critic analogy by arguing that rotten theater isn't as poisonous to the mind as rotten food is to the body. But those people are wrong. Bad theater is bad for you. Expert witness: Epictetus, writing sometime around A.D. 100.

That's Refreshing

The Globe has a pre-show piece on the Huntington's production of Vengeance is the Lord's and its playwright, Bob Glaudini:

For him, the writing process begins with an image in his mind. In the case of “Vengeance Is the Lord’s,’’ it involved two characters, one of whom says to the other something that can’t be printed in this newspaper. Glaudini then follows the characters to find out what the story is.

“I don’t use an outline, and so that’s hit-and-miss. There are plays that are definitely misses that no one’s ever gonna do,’’ he said, adding that he nonetheless wouldn’t know how to take a different approach to writing.

That's some refreshing candor about the limitations of the just-follow-the-story-as-you-write method.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Grey Day For a Trip to The Grey Lady

Mel Brooks on The Artist and Critic

Critical Responsibility?

Waffle Blogging

Several bloggers and critics have been posting briefly on the role of the critic. This is hardly new territory in the blogosphere, but if you are interested in the practice of criticism it is always an attractive subject. Some people are not interested in the practice of criticism, which is OK, - some people are not interested in major league sports or politics, either.

Isaac Butler asks, very plainly, "What is a critic's responsibility?" He raises this question after reading Ben Brantley's piece on the aesthetic challenges faced by very intimate works (Driving Miss Daisy, A Life in the Theater) when they make the move from Off-Broadway to Broadway.

Issac is "infuriated" by the piece:

There's a prime opportunity to educate the public here going completely to waste. The Death of Commercial Off-Broadway (which is what Brantley is really bemoaning here) is a topic that's been floating around in the arts journalism ether for some time . He pays some lips service to these ideas, but doesn't investigate them or think about them in any critical or interesting way. Wouldn't it be good for one of the nation's supposed foremost experts on the art form to actually discuss this issue in a way a little bit deeper than the equivalent of a tossed-off blog post?

Of course, I guess it all comes down to what a reader believes the responsibilities are of someone in Brantley's position. If one sees his job as simply seeing-something-and-then-saying-something, then really, this Critic's Notebook is just fine. But if one believes-- as I do-- that a Critic's Notebook should actually cast a critical eye on something as a way of enlightening the reader, then it's a total failure.

To me the most troubling part of the Brantley piece, (or at least the most eyebrow raising,) is that he considers Gatz to be "the great theatrical event of the season so far." (But that's a different post.)

Issac sees a missed opportunity, but isn't a critic's first responsibility to the art? Brantley concedes right up front to incontrovertible economic reasons. Like Isaac, I would have appreciated even a listing of those reasons, but is that really a critic's responsibility, even in a "critic's notebook" entry?

The trouble, it would appear, is really in shrinking column space. Theatre arts feature articles are increasingly devoted to pre-show publicity-driven profiles, so much so that when critics occasionally have room to stretch their thoughts, we all will most likely have ideas as to how they should proceed and what are worthy topics.

Bill Marx, over at the Arts Fuse, laid into Globe critic Don Acouin's review of Albee's A Delicate Balance, calling into question, Acouin's critical acumen. On this point, Tom Garvey agreed, (will wonders never cease!), but pushed the discussion further, positing that even the critics with the "chops", so to speak, usually are using them to reinforce the cultural assumptions of their readership rather than taking occasions to challenge them:

"What you think already." That really should be the tagline of the Globe's arts section. For the paper's writers are hardly engaged with the art they supposedly cover - instead they're engaged with their audience, and what they think that audience can understand and will pay to hear. In a word, they're mirrors, not windows. It's true that some of the mirrors are smarter than others - but they turn that intelligence into a sharper picture of their readers, not the art they're supposedly writing about. Because, in a word, that's where the money is.

Which brings us back to Isaac's question about a critic's responsibility. Must a critic go deeper than the art that is presented? It would appear that Isaac and Tom would both agree on that they should. But what is the line between journalist and critic? Is there one?

I know many of my readers will disagree, but I do feel fortunate, in some way, to have the Boston Globe arts pages. Without them, would we have such stories as the CitiCenter for the Performing Arts or the American Repertory Theater backstage dealings? But these are the product of reporting and some serious legwork - Arts Editor Geoff Edgers is instrumental in this. However, to Isaac's point, sometimes I have felt that the Globe's critics have seemed strangely removed from the reporting of their own arts pages.

More independent critics - Garvey, Marx, Larry Stark, Sandy MacDonald (a stringer for the Globe, but also a freelancer) - seem more ready to openly challenge the marketing frame that is set forth by the theatre institutions. Whereas, I have often felt that the Globe critics seems much more ready to engage works on the field that that the marketers have staked out - even as their paper may be penetrating some of the marketing myths. (To this I will add that Jenna Scherer at the Herald is more than ready with a pin to pop a conventional balloon as well. Though her space becomes more and more limited.)

Meanwhile John Kuntz sees this critical assessment of critics by critics to be a net win for artists!

And, frankly, while we all deny it: there is NOTHING more entertaining than a bloody, ruthless, crucifying review.

As long as it’s not about us.

So, if someone’s going to get ripped to shreds, let it be the critics!

Let ‘em eat each other!

It’s their nature, after all.

Telling a critic to stop being mean is like telling a piranha not to snack between meals.

It’s just who they ARE!

Let them be free!

While it may be true that, (as John maintains a little later in his post,) making waffles is harder than maintaining a blog, it is also true that independent critical voices may be very necessary right now. I may be a generally optimistic guy, but I hold out little hope for mainstream criticism to persist in the coming years. When WBUR summarily executed its arts pages years ago, I was convinced that there was little hope for critical discussion, as well as cultural argument in mainstream outlets.

The web presences of theatre institutions, small and large, have increased dramatically over the past few years, and this is welcome. But at this rate it will soon overpower any independent critical voices. It won't be a question anymore of whether or not an online critic (or even a mainstream one?) is right or wrong, it will be a question of whether or not they are relevant.

There may be a tendency for we theatre artists to say, "good riddance," but let's remember that just a few months ago, the drumbeat that many critics online had been pounding out about the direction of one local arts institution turned out to be the same tune many artists, some of them prominent ones, were practicing themselves in private.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

On Annie Baker and Chekhov

Thom Garvey on Annie Baker's Body Awareness at Speakeasy Stage:

Is being politically correct kind of like being autistic?

That's the implied thesis of Annie Baker's Body Awareness, now at SpeakEasy Stage as part of a three-part Baker festival running through November. (I gazed into another side of this theatrical triptych, Circle Mirror Transformation, here, and will see the final panel, The Aliens, later this week.) Though close enough in style to form a family, these theatrical triplets aren't quite identical; if one watched them in the sequence of their composition (that is, Body, then Circle, then Aliens), my guess is one would perceive Baker becoming more and more self-conscious almost scene by scene.

For she is a dramatist all but obsessed, like many millennials, with not being overly "dramatic." Indeed, in the notes to Body Awareness, the playwright expresses pain over even being heard: "Speaking is a kind of misery," Baker (probably) whispers to her interviewer. "We're all kind of quietly suffering . . . trying and failing to communicate to other people what we want and what we believe." She goes further about her own methods of revision: "If I can hear [myself] writing, like if there is thinly-disguised exposition or a nudge to the audience or some kind of obvious point made, I go back and change it."

I was surprised, then, to discover that Body Awareness is full of rather obvious points. Indeed, despite Baker's mania to never seem "stagy," I often perceived melodramatic mechanics operating beneath the surface of her script; people enter in tears, or break down while on stage, etc.

Dan Rebellato on Chekhov in the Guardian:

But also, I think, Chekhov is a mystery. There are some playwrights who are so busily present in their work that it's like you have the author beside you murmuring comments on the action. Chekhov is different; what does he think of his characters? Does he admire them or pity them? Ask us to examine or ridicule? It's never obvious. Chekhov's characters tend to let their mouths run away with them (Gayev in The Cherry Orchard fills a silence with an idiotic hymn of praise to a bookcase that, even as he's saying it, he must regret). It's almost as if Chekhov lets silences form in his play, which his characters nervously fill and thus reveal themselves.

For me, this is why Chekhov continues to be an important model. We've turned away somewhat from "messages" and "thesis plays"; the contemporary preference is for authorial blankness, not of style but of commentary; we like stark juxtapositions and moral emptiness, the responsibility placed on the audience to make the judgment. Chekhov is rightly admired for the complexity of his characters and the extraordinary elegance of his narratives, but beneath that it's the dark, dark irony and pitiless gaze that make him truly our contemporary.

I find these discussions interesting.

Chekhov, of course, was a moralist. And I am not so sure that "we like moral emptiness."