Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review

In compiling his top ten of 2011 list, the Times’ Ben Brantley wrote, “This was a year for celebrating both the enduring power of traditional theater and the creative stealth bombs that can be planted within it, for putting new and explosive life into classic vessels.”  On the other hand, Terry Teachout, of the WSJ, called this “the year of the revival.”  For his own list, Charles Isherwood found a trend in “American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths.”  And Bay Area critic Chloe Veltman has called 2011 “the Year of the Puppeteer.”   
I’m not going to do a top ten list, and I’m not going to reveal my descriptor for 2011 (at least, not until my next review comes out Tuesday night).  But I will use this arbitrary marker of time as an occasion to reflect on my criticism.  Obviously, the big event of the year was switching papers.  But the smaller developments (and some are quite small) deserve contemplation, too.  I’ve now reread every published review of the year (no small undertaking), and here are some thoughts:
Most reviews I now remember so poorly that I can reread them in genuine suspense.  Sometimes they even seem like they were written by another person.  I made some mistakes I’ve mostly overcome (thanks largely to my new editor), like the information overload in this clunker:
These pre-show antics are far from the only contemporary allusions director Jon Tracy makes in Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the Joad family’s journey from the dustbowl to California during the Great Depression. 
But there were also some mistakes I still make: wordy transitions, excessive colons and dashes.  (Periods just feel so harsh!)  On the other hand, a few reviews still feel like well-written essays in their own right, and some descriptions were effective enough to conjure images I’d forgotten about.  Snark, as I’ve written elsewhere, looks harsher than deserved in retrospect.  And I like most of my conclusions that introduced a bigger idea or broader context, to give the show and the review more meaning, but once in a while that device ended up looking cheesy, probably when I tried to force it on the review instead of letting it emerge naturally.
One idea that came up again and again was “insistence on the stage,” a phrase which I should attribute to one of my professors, Larry Eilenberg.  (Just another plagiarizing grad student!)  It refers to a work of art that could only take place, or at least resonate fully, in live stage performance—not, like many plays, on the page, the television or the silver screen.  It’s been helpful to refer to when I’m trying to understand why I’m bored with or enchanted by a production.  More broadly, it also reminds me that I need to constantly ask myself what performance is, how it operates, and why it’s special.  When I keep those questions in mind, as I hope to more consistently in 2012, my reviewing becomes more informed, more engaging and more accessible.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night and was very entertained.  Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has classic underdog appeal, the plot (a murder case decades in the making) is intricate enough to keep you intrigued but not so complex as to be inaccessible, and the underlying ethos, while plagued by a series of rapists and Nazis, as well as a garden variety leading man (Daniel Craig) who has sex with every female character, can get away with calling itself feminist.

As A. O. Scott recently wrote in the Times, however, there are some quaint devices, like the James Bond-esque bad guy who confesses everything right before he attempts to kill the hero in a Dr. Seussian way instead of by just shooting him.  But I enjoyed having my strings pulled by this film, largely because of the compelling character that is Lisbeth.  She’s diminutive—“emaciated”—in stature, with all kinds of earrings and tattoos and a fondness for what an ignoramus like me might dub death metal.  She’s been abused and victimized her entire life, and has all the social skills of an Asperger’s sufferer as a result, but she also wields a remarkable skill set: spying, hacking, researching.  She knows how to get revenge, but she also has her weaknesses (as all female characters must, obvi).  All the same, she represents a refreshing departure from the norm for action film protagonists.

Because I see a lot of theater, film, when I do see it, is a marvel.  Film directors can accomplish so much in so brief a time, suggesting an entire scene in just a few seconds.  The screenplay of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an excellent adaptation, thrifty in its storytelling, brisk in its pace.  (While A. O. Scott found the exposition ponderous, I thought it necessary to the narrative.)  (And my mother, an avid fan of the trilogy, said the film felt quite faithful to the book.)  The experience makes me wonder how many contemporary novels could be readily adapted into plays.  My uneducated guess is not many; current narratives seem to tend toward the cinematic in structure.  And how many novels could limit themselves to only a few scene changes?  Theater might continue to be on its own for a while.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Two-Bit Operation

Today I thought I'd look over my essays from this year's PhD program applications (fourth time's the charm?).  I turned in the last one a week ago and haven't looked at them since.  I was curious to see if they would look any different now that I've shed the yoke of deadlines (or accepted my defeat by it).

Unfortunately, they're not as different as I'd hoped they'd be.  But there are a few excerpts I thought I'd share because they help explain why I write this blog.  Enjoy!

As an undergrad, I was focused on inhabiting the present-tense-ness of performance through the creation of art—specifically, art that discomforts, that makes you painfully aware of the slowness of now, that seems to drift outside time, that insists on the body.  As a playwright, I found an expanse of time in a moment of expressing the need to touch.  As an actor, I let loose the aural and physical wail in a syllable.  As a director, I forced audiences to gaze at a female body and then to deal with their gazing. 

But I struggled with my urge to create.  I didn’t just want to discomfort others; that felt too easy.  I hungered to live with discomfort, to let it churn and evolve in my mind, to deal with it both as an expansive experience intractably bound by the present tense, and as a compartmentalized event to be captured, dissected, reconstructed.  That is for me the joyous contradiction in which I found the highest expression as a critic.  My answers to criticism's most basic questions—What is the project of criticism?  When does it succeed?  When does it fail?—are constantly in flux.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ladies in Waiting, by No Nude Men

My last review of 2011, of a trio of experimental feminist plays, was published yesterday.

The show continues through tonight only, but don't worry that the blog is taking a break for the rest of the year!  Though I'm off to Texas this week, there are still a few treats in store for this site.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Surprisingly wise words from an animated film

 (Note the scarf, pale complexion and nearby glass of wine.  So accurate.)

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends."

-- The Critic's Speech in "Ratatouille"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

God's Plot, at Shotgun

(Most of the ensemble.  Photo by Pak Han.)

In my latest review, of God’s Plot, at Shotgun, I allocate space in a way I’ve been criticized for in the past: discussing themes and context at the expense of design and performance.

Every critic brings a unique background and set of predilections to his or her writing.  Previous incarnations of Lily include a director and a playwright, but I’m not an actress, and I’ve never even tried to design.  It’s no wonder I so often find myself drawn to write about the categories in which I have some experience, where I’m not just better informed but also more imaginative: There, I can more easily envision alternatives to artists’ choices.

What that means is that I sometimes don’t talk as much about costume, lighting, set and sound designers or actors as I do directors and playwrights.  And in a play like God’s Plot, in which I thought all aspects of the production were very fine, I’m neglecting to praise artists of merit.

A critic has two conflicting imperatives: to review a play holistically, and to relate a predominant impression, i.e., to talk about what moved him or her.  It’s tough to do both, especially the holistic part.  There’s always another detail you could include, another shout-out you could throw in. 

And maybe even with a universally well-done show, I’m still entitled to write about the parts I found most intriguing.  Attempting to name everything, after all, can start to look like a laundry list.

Still, I wish I could have named more names in the article.  Info about the show, which continues through Jan. 14, is available here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes, by Trannyshack

Last week, I saw my first drag show:

Let's just say that, should I ever catch a re-run of the sitcom on Lifetime, I won't be able to look at it quite the same way.

My review is available here.  The show continues for a couple more weeks; info here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Dardy Family Home Movies, at the San Francisco Film Society

In many ways, contemporary theater is trying to be more like film, and not always for the better.  Movie star names are practically a must for Broadway marquees, and, as one of my professors likes to note, video projection is now so common a stage device that the Yale School of Drama has started offering a design degree in the subject.

So when I heard about The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey, a "live performance with video projection" at the San Francisco Film Society, I imagined the tables turning:  Now it's film -- or at least a film society -- that's trying to be more like theater!  Bwahaha!

(Erin Markey, not Stephen Sondheim.  Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)

But as I discussed in my review of the autobiographical solo show, I found its filmic elements to be its least successful.  The piece is quite strong; the emphasis on multimedia only clutters it.

The show continues through this Sunday.  Info here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Tennessee Williams Reviews

I still remember the first time I read this opening stage direction:

The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism. 
The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.

That's The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, one of the plays that high-school Lily carried around like a mental talisman.  Words like this exist.

Last week, I saw a production of the play for the first time, at Marin Theatre Company.  Fire escapes did feature prominently in the industrial set (designed by Kat Conley):

(Photos by Alessandra Mello.)

But as I tried to convey in my review of the production, it was one character who had me enthralled, and it wasn't the character I was expecting to follow.  When I first read the play, I was enchanted by Lauraso sweet, but so withdrawn.  But MTC's production surprised me in how much it made feel for Tom, Laura's brother.  I'm going to keep my eye on Nicholas Pelczar, the actor who played him (above left), from now on.  

The Glass Menagerie continues through Dec. 18.  Info here.


The previous week, at SF Playhouse, I had another pleasant TW-related surprise when I saw his Period of Adjustment, a show I'd never heard of before.  It's a Christmas comedy, which sounds sufficiently out of character for Williams that I had rather low expectations.  I hope this review shows how wrong I was.

(SF Playhouse shows that TW can in fact do Christmas romcoms.  Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)
Period of Adjustment continues through Jan. 14.  Info here.


In retrospect, I've been wondering if I should have written these two reviews as one piece, to see if juxtaposition could reveal further interesting points.  But at the same time, the two plays might not have much more in common than their author and their general high quality.  Either way, I'm starting to look for pieces I could write for SF Weekly that would be more than just a review of a single production.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Criticism and Yogurt

A friend turned me on to Charles Isherwood's Yogurt Shop, a delightful little blog mocking Charles Isherwood's theatre criticism in the Times.  If you want to learn how the site got its name -- and why each post features an incongruous photo of yogurt -- the "about" section offers only this quote by way of explanation:

‘[T]he prospect of five more [plays] next year ... frankly leaves me contemplating abandoning my vocation to open a yogurt shop in Long Island City.’ (Isherwood, NYT, 10/7/11)

If Isherwood has such disdain for his work, why should we treat his opinions so reverentially?  Perhaps I have, I realize, and perhaps I need to dig more deeply into his writing and compare him to his peers before taking his reviews at face value.

Each Yogurt Shop posts contains a quote from a review that, when taken out of context, does look pretty silly, an alluring photo of yogurt (presumably to give Isherwood that final push he needs to change careers), and tags.  Of the latter, some favorites:

  • Classic Isherwood Metaphor
  • Isherwood Openly Not Being Good at His Job
  • Isherwood Celebrates Mediocrity
  • Isherwood Asking the Tough Questions

Of course, such close scrutiny of a critic is its own kind of reverence, and, more generally, no matter how you write a review, someone can always find fault with it.  But Yogurt Shop serves as a refreshing reminder that the stakes of these reviews aren't necessarily as high as we think they are, and that one critic's opinion -- no matter what publication s/he writes for -- needn't be worth much more than a single-serve processed dairy product.

Overheard at the Ashby Stage last night

"There's no gluten in a margarita."