Of course, the artists are real human beings before I interview them (unless I'm actually as important as I think I am). But when I write criticism, I'm not reviewing people; I'm reviewing artwork. Interviewing can make me confuse the two.
In the past month, I interviewed two artists before seeing their work -- Eve Ensler re: Emotional Creature, as I previously wrote about, and Alison Whittaker re: Vital Signs, her solo show about her work as a nurse, which is at the Marsh. I saw pieces of the writers in their shows -- Ensler with her unfaltering confidence, her free-flowing syntax, her penchant for listing three or four synonyms for one idea, Whittaker with her unabashed genuineness, her focused presence in whatever she's doing, her warmth and kindness. Both women see their art partly as activism, Ensler for girls around the world, Whittaker for victims of the healthcare system, both patients and employees. I couldn't do what they do. I have neither the confidence nor the passion to take myself and my misson that seriously. I deeply admire both artists in that respect.
(One of the many girl power-y moments in Emotional Creature. Photo by Kevin Berne.)
But I also saw flaws in both productions. Emotional Creature had a few stirring monologues. But they were about topics that, with a strong actress, couldn't help but stir: a raped and enslaved girl in the Congo who escapes and tells her story in the form of advice to the audience; a Barbie factory worker in China who sends mental messages of compassion to both Barbie and Barbie buyers and who only refers to her own plight after first lamenting everyone else's; an Eastern European girl who is forced into prostitution. The staging, the music, and the inter-monologue patter, however, were better suited to a middle school assembly than to a professional stage. One lyric goes, "I wanna touch you in real time, not poke you on facebook, face-book!"
(Doesn't this make you want Alison Whittaker to take your Vital Signs? Photo by David Allen.)
With Vital Signs, I was deeply impressed by Whittaker's writing, which was full of complex structures and astute observations, as well as her impressions of her patients and coworkers, which were brave and vivid. It's not easy, if you're a small-boned white nurse, to create a morbidly obese African-American drug addict, especially if you're relatively new to performing. But she lived so fully in her characterizations that I was able to picture an entire cast of characters that, a week later, have stuck with me. I see clearly one colleague's glistening gold tooth and another's bouncy shuffle, as if rather than working he were "cruising for dates in the Castro." In fact, the only character I didn't see was Alison herself, the narrator. She's meant to serve as a comic straight woman, the better to highlight her surrounding characters' eccentricities. But she's almost like a blank slate, reacting so neutrally to the events around her that not only did I not know who she was; I didn't like her enough to care about her story.
Had I been asked to write a "real" review (i.e., for the Weekly) of either of these shows, it would have been a struggle. I'm still at a stage of my criticism in which I must carefully manage how close I get to the artists I review, whether that means limiting how many interviews I do or how many artist acquaintances I have. One day, I hope to have the maturity and professionalism I see in other critics, who smile and chat with artists one moment and then go home to write trenchant reviews of them the next. But I'm not there yet. So for now, I'll be continuing my not-so-glorious theatergoing modus operandi: speaking to no one, making as little eye contact as possible, then, the moment the lights go down, scurrying into the night, trying to keep pure the laurels or the venom on my tongue.
Emotional Creature continues through July 15 at Berkeley Rep; info here.
Vital Signs continues through July 21 at the Marsh SF; info here.