Monday, April 30, 2012

Any Given Day, at the Magic

(Jim Carpenter and Stacy Ross. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.)

I had the opportunity to read Linda McLean's play before I saw it, and it didn't jump out at me on the page. Act II felt too conventional, its characters thinly drawn; Act I was gut-wrenching in the end, but with too much "Want some tea?" dialogue leading up to it.

Having now seen the Magic's American premiere production of the play, which has just closed, I can say I might be a poor judge of which scripts would work well on the stage. The way McLean writes, with ample line breaks, little punctuation and few stages directions, gives the actors a great deal of freedom—so much so that characters I'd read as dyspeptic were performed as downright giddy. And one character, Jackie, who on the page felt like yet another iteration of a tiresome trope of long-suffering, much-sacrificing female characters, was brought to full and rich life in an enchanting performance by Stacy Ross.

It was an incredible afternoon of theater; I didn't even take notes. The show leaves you with an impression of a capricious, absurd universe, one where miracles are the twin of horrifying catastrophe and each person's experience of a moment is so unbridgeably his own. I'm glad I saw it by myself, so I didn't have to talk to anyone afterward and could spend the whole ride back smiling and crying.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hot Greeks, by the Thrillpeddlers

(Ste Fishell, TJ Buswell and Bobby Singer as the three types of Greek columns and Rik Lopes as Lysistrata in the Thrillpeddlers' revival of the Cockettes musical revue. Photo by David Wilson.)

Rereading this review makes me realize that I have not yet mastered the fine art of not writing a fluffy review of a fluffy show. I left this campy drag musical revue feeling fizzy and giddy, and I'm afraid that's all my review conveys. It looks more like an effusive press release than an actual piece of criticism -- precisely the kind of coverage most theaters and publicists want to receive but not the kind of writing that shows much insight and perspective.

At the same time, criticism should convey how a show makes the writer feel, and if a show makes me feel bubbly, is bubbly prose so wrong? Too serious or high-minded a tone would simply not be true to the spirit of the show. What's more, my (three?) regular readers know I don't always write like that, so the unusual style might convey to them that Hot Greeks really is something special. 

Maybe in the end all I really should have done differently is polish a few of the more egregious sentences. Fluffy prose is probably okay sometimes, but sloppy prose is not!

Hot Greeks, which runs at the Hypnodrome, has been extended through May 19; info here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hamlet, at SF State

(The cast of Bill Peters's SF State production. Photo by Nina de Torres Ignacio.)

Writing this review was difficult for a number of reasons. I knew two people involved in the show, which can be a conflict of interest. One of them specifically asked me to see the show and told me how much it would mean to the actresses to have a "real critic" attend and write a review. Though some professional artists were part of it, it's a college production, which brings up the question of whether it should be held to different standards. (I don't think it should.) Finally, it's not a production at just any university but my university, which further complicates the stab I always make at critical objectivity.

I like to think that though I was quite critical of the production I was at least fair and honest, never making fun of it. One word I struggled over was "excruciating," which is quite strong, but when I reflected on it, it really did capture how I felt. In the end I decided that if a production team can't handle the risk of a negative review, they shouldn't invite critics to come. Ultimately, perhaps all that was really different about reviewing this show was that, much more than with others, I really wished I had been able to write something different.

Hamlet continues through Apr. 28 at the Studio Theatre, Creative Arts Building, SF State; info here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Othello, at Marin Theatre Company

(Aldo Billingslea in the title role and Craig Marker as his nemesis Iago. Photo by David Allen.)

In writing this review, I was indebted to the excellent dramaturgical writings of Margot Melcon, resident dramaturg at MTC.

I once interned at MTC, so maybe I'm biased, but I think the dramaturgy that appears in the company's programs is some of the best in the Bay Area. I appreciate the format: unlike that of some of the other well-funded companies around here, MTC's program never overwhelms you with the amount of writing it offers. Pre-show and intermission furnish more than enough time to read. More importantly, the essays are clear and well-written, informative and thought-provoking, all without sounding either too academic or too pulpy. For example, I hadn't thought about how much one can glean just from the full title of the play before reading this:

The character of Othello exists as an outsider in the cultural context of the play Othello, the Moor of Venice. This fact is inescapable: even the title starkly places the definition of who he (the Moor) is in opposition to the community where he lives (Venice). For us, it immediately illustrates that he is an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. For audiences seeing the play in the early 1600s when it was originally written, the significance was even greater. As a Moor, Othello was the personification of barbarism and wildness and Shakespeare set him against the backdrop of Venice, which at the time was considered one of the most refined and cultured of all European cities.

Kudos to Margot for her work. Good dramaturgy like this sure makes a critic's life easier. I only hope my review did more than steal her ideas.

Tomorrow is the last day of Othello's run; info here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Becoming a Professional

Although I've been a theater critic for a few years now, and although I get paid to do it, I often have a hard time believing that what I do is "real" -- as in, a legitimate, grown-up job. Part of this undoubtedly comes from my own neuroses and insecurities -- which I won't go into even though this is a blog. (I can already see my partner rolling his eyes, thinking, "Oh no, not this again!") But part of it also comes from how others react to my line of work. When asked what I do for a living, I for a long time couldn't even say, "I'm a theater critic." Now that I can, the response is often something like, "What are you going to do with that?" or "Is there any chance that could turn into something?"

I understand where these questions come from. Most of us know all too well the declining state of our country's journalism in general and of arts criticism in particular. Nonetheless, what I want to say to these queries is, "It already has turned into something." If I evaluate my professional situation honestly and rationally, I feel only that I am precisely where I want to be. Still, the insecurities nag. 

Yesterday, I spoke about my profession to a college theater class. It was at SF State (where I'm getting my master's degree) in an undergrad seminar called "Writing about the Theatre." I got this opportunity because (hopefully) I'm going to be teaching the same course there this summer, and its current professor invited me as a "working theater critic" to be a guest speaker for her unit on theater criticism.

Though I consider myself a poor extemporaneous speaker, I didn't prepare anything. I simply sat down and launched into my story: why and how I got into this line of work, how my career has evolved, the mechanics of reviewing, my critical philosophy. And it was so much fun. I'm in the midst of thesis writing right now, so I haven't thought much about how I'll teach the course this summer. And when I have thought about it, it's only been stressful things, like how much reading and planning I'll have to do to create the curriculum. But yesterday served as a useful reminder that I actually love just teaching -- not that I was teaching per se, but it was public speaking -- or shamelessly hamming it up -- in a classroom setting. Now I feel excited about the course all over again.

It also made me feel, for a little while, like I was a "real" theater critic -- not just because it was flattering to be asked and because I actually knew my stuff; it felt real because I think I got across a point that's really important to me and that not a lot of people outside theater criticism realize: That criticism is my art. Many others might not regard it that way; indeed, my advisor in college wrote a play in which critics are described as people who want to touch art -- not people who make their own. 

But for me, when I write an essay that's worth the read even for people who have no intention of seeing the art I'm discussing, my work, too, is art. I think this is a valuable point to impart to other theater folks -- the "real" artists -- who often feel themselves in an antagonistic relationship with critics. We don't just write to be mean, or because we love theater but failed as actors or playwrights -- we write because we love writing, and the thrill we get from seeing a well-crafted sentence come together is not altogether different from what other thespians feel creating a beautiful scene.

That's a point I'm going to try to convey in my teaching this summer as well. I'm going to try to get students to feel that criticism and text analysis aren't the boring, academic, required-class part of theater but rather another, just as valuable mode of expression in the art we all love.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Collection, at the Exit

(Christian Cagigal and his unique brand of magic. Photo by Julie Michelle.)

For this show, the artist, Christian Cagigal, made a difficult request of reviewers: to "not reveal a single thing that happens in order to maintain the surprise and mystery of the show."

I'd already written a lot of details by the time I remembered that precept, so I had to delete them all. Yet I still had to give readers an idea of what the show is about. I tried to be evocative without being specific, and I think it might have worked -- at least, I haven't received any angry e-mails yet.

But in general, I wonder if that's an acceptable request to make of critics. Oughtn't critics be the judge of what's appropriate to write? If you don't want audiences to know what happens in your show, why get reviewed at all?

I have read reviews whose gratuitous spoilers made me cringe, but at the same time, I'm not sure how often I commit the crime! In most cases, however, I believe a critic should be able to reveal however much of a plot he/she thinks would serve the review. It's likely that The Collection is a genuine exception because it is, in essence, a magic show, which depends more on surprise than most regular theater does. 

The Collection continues through Apr. 13; info here.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Interview with Dyan McBride of 42nd Street Moon

(Tony Panighetti, Riley Krull and Michael Kern Cassidy. Photo by David Allen.)

I don't often cover musicals, but I learned so much from this interview, of the director of 42nd Street Moon's production of Sugar, the musical inspired by Some Like It Hot, that I'm definitely reconsidering how I allocate my scarce word space!

Sugar opens Saturday and continues through Apr. 22; info here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Caretaker, at SHN

(Tony Award winner Jonathan Pryce as the title character. Photo by Helen Warner.)

I was interested to see that in reviewing this touring production of Harold Pinter's play, Chad Jones, a critic whose work I quite respect, and I both centered our articles on how the show hovers between humor and menace -- but that we had very different opinions as to whether that choice succeeded.

I also wonder if I would had a very different opinion of this British-directed production if I too were British.

The Caretaker continues through April 22; info here.