Friday, July 27, 2012

Enron, by Open Tab Productions

(Nathan Tucker, Professor Giggles, Daniel Bakken, and Alex Plant in the Open Tab production.)

Benjamin and I weren't our usual vivacious selves for this podcast review, of Open Tab's production of Lucy Prebble's Enron, which is at the Exit. As you might have guessed, the play is based on a true story, and it's not a very uplifting one. When we recorded, I was still recovering from a gloomy funk, one I partly blame, however unfairly, on the show. And with that winning endorsement, how could you not listen to our work?

Enron continues through Aug. 17; info here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Marat/Sade, by the Thrillpeddlers

(Bonni Suval and Aaron Malberg in the Thrillpeddlers' production. Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.)

In my review of the Thrillpddlers' production of Marat/Sade, I didn't mention how many times I spaced out. 

There were a lot of space-outs: Peter Weiss's play is dense and complex. If it doesn't absolutely demand a decent understanding of the history and politics of Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary France, the play is certainly better appreciated with a brush-up. And even then, all but the most diligent audience members are likely to feel challenged by Weiss's difficult syntax.

Yet I didn't mind being a space cadet. Russell Blackwood's ensemble supplied more than enough entertainment for my wandering mind.

Still, perhaps I should question why I so hastily omitted my distractedness from my review. We critics are supposed to seem erudite, after all, no lofty idea escaping our sharp analytical abilities. To admit that you fail to grasp every philosophical nuance is to seem unconfident or unqualified. If I'm honest with myself, I must own up feeling reluctant to broadcast the fact that, while watching this performance, I was not constantly firing on every intellectual cylinder.

But at the same time, intellect was simply not that relevant to my experience of this production. And if good criticism is just a well-written account of one person's experience of a show, then this article is true to mine, space-outs and all.

Marat/Sade continues through July 29; info here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Truffaldino Says No, at Shotgun

(Stephen Buescher and William Thomas Hodgson in Ken Slattery's play about commedia dell'arte characters. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)

In my review of Truffaldino Says No, at Shotgun, I decided not to discuss what I thought was a major problem: an uncompelling title character.

The reason why is that I had two other important points to make, one positive, one negative, and once I'd written those out, the review already reflected my mixed reaction. Did I really need to tip the balance further toward critical in the interest of being thorough?

It's possible that I could have addressed the issue without devoting a whole new paragraph to it. I thought Truffaldino the character started out okay: He's stuck in a role in a world that limits him, and he decides to break out of it. But he's so wishy-washy about what exactly he does want that I felt like I was listening to a college student complain about his parents. (It takes one to know one, though.)  What's more, I felt William Thomas Hodgson's performance added little depth to the part. He amped up the whining rather than play his character's adult sadness and anger. Perhaps such a characterization would have felt out of place in a comedy, but the whining wasn't even funny compared to the choices the other characters made.

Now that I've written down these thoughts, I feel a little bit better about the choice I made in the original review. The flaw I decided to focus on there might actually include what I've written about here. 

Truffaldino Says No has been extended through July 29; info here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pint-Sized Plays III, at Cafe Royale

(Allison Page in Megan Cohen's Beeeeear, one of the highlights of Pint-Sized Plays III. Photo by Erin Maxon.)

Last week, SF Weekly published my first full-length print feature, about SF Theater Pub, a small "indie" company that stages shows and readings in a TenderNob bar, Cafe Royale. I conducted so many interviews (few of which I was able to quote from, given my space constraints) that, when I sat down to write the article, words spewed forth with a gusto rarely known to a slowpoke like me. With each paragraph, I felt myself anticipating the questions my readers would have next and, because of all my prep work, immediately being able to answer them.

(But of course the real reason I was excited about this piece was the chance to attempt a New Journalism-y lead and ending.)

Now that I've seen the company's latest show, Pint-Sized Plays III, I feel all the more certain that I selected a worthy subject for my first print feature. There's not a dud among the evening's ten short (some extremely short!) plays. Of all the shows Theater Pub puts on each year, this annual event perhaps best embodies the company's motto: "Make it good, keep it casual, have a beer."

Pint-Sized Plays III continues through July 31; info here.

Going Too Far

After skimming through an otherwise lackluster Sunday Review yesterday ("Where are the fluffy human-interest stories and think pieces I crave?"), I was delighted to encounter this piece about the Times' critics by the paper's public editor, Arthur Brisbane. This position, as I understand it, is an intermediary between the Times and its readers. Brisbane finds trends in readers' responses to an issue, locates the most interesting or representative comments, gives relevant Times employees a chance to respond to the readers, and then finally weighs in with his own opinion.

This week's article centered on readers' negative reactions to the paper's arts criticism -- all kinds of arts criticism: books, architecture, classical music, and of course theater. One line I especially appreciated was this: "Readers sometimes just disagree with a reviewer’s opinion," and then Brisbane moved on, as if that were all to say about this sort of objection (which I think it is). In my experience, basic differences of opinion about a show account for the majority of negative comments. It's great when readers voice them, but it's frustrating when they use them as calls to fire me.

On the other hand, the negative responses to which Brisbane devotes the bulk of of his article ought to give any scrupulous critic pause: unnecessary attacks on an artist's human dignity, perhaps by criticizing the artist's appearance when it has nothing to do with the art, or by speaking ill of the recently dead. It's difficult to think of a justifiable reason to perpetrate either of these egregious criticisms.

But this idea of violating an artist's dignity might extend even further. In a comment on one of my recent posts, Mark Jackson, a Bay Area writer, director, and actor, proposed that a critic should never write something that s/he couldn't say to the artist's face. In other words, in addition to the extreme examples above, he might also prohibit many criticisms that feel harsh or cavalier for other reasons. It's a nice, simple golden rule, but for me criticism is a little more complicated than that. I can imagine saying few things I write, positive or negative, to an artist's face. Criticism isn't dialogue; it sparks dialogue. I believe the essay has unique power to delve deep, and that to achieve that depth, either in a single phrase or as a whole piece, a critic must have solitude and reflection. I'm not saying an artist and a critic in conversation can't make spectacular discoveries about a show, but good criticism offers more than just a series of ideas, questions and opinions; it's also enjoyable as a prolonged exploration of one author's voice.

My response to Jackson is really a quibble: "I can't speak my criticism to artists' faces because who reads reviews out loud to their subjects! Nyuck nyuck nyuck!" If I were friends with a review subject, I'm sure I could force myself to recite my article -- pretentious diction, awkward syntax and all -- to his or her face. But "Could I look you in the eye and say this?" simply isn't as important or difficult a question for me as "Am I being honest?" is. What might surprise artists is that asking myself the latter often makes me temper my criticism. For me, extreme feelings, positive or negative, often arise from the urge to make a point in a pretty or provocative way rather than to reflect my genuine opinion.

Brisbane's article is thus a welcome reminder to keep asking myself that question. If I do, hopefully I'll be working toward what Jackson describes as criticism that's "forceful, effective, and vigorous"  without resorting to humiliation or attack, if not quite in the way he proposes. In the meantime, until I have the Times's budget, I'll have to keep being my own public editor.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Salomania, at the Aurora

(Kevin Clarke as Oscar Wilde and Madeline H.D. Brown as Maud Allan, who performs in his Salome, in the Aurora's production. Photo by David Allen.)

Something didn't feel quite right about this review, of Mark Jackson's world premiere at the Aurora. Maybe I had to work too hard to make the Arthur Miller parallel, and without enough  payoff. Maybe the guessing game conceit was silly. Maybe, as my editor suggested, I didn't furnish enough detail to put the reader in the audience's seat. Maybe I simply tried to do too much, which, ironically, is also my central criticism of the play.

Last night I was talking to a friend about Salomania, trying to compare it to Jackson's God's Plot, which was at Shotgun last winter. Both shows are long shots of communities rather than close-ups of individuals. Jackson paints pictures of entire societies and networks of relationships rather than penetrating psychological studies of one mind. But for some reason, I thought God's Plot was much more successful in that regard than Salomania was. Maybe it's that Salomania's society -- London in WWI, and to some extent all of England and even beyond -- was too unwieldy to encompass in a single drama, whereas God's Plot's -- a tiny town in colonial Virginia -- was just the right size. Another problem might have been the characters. Looking back at God's Plot, which I saw seven months ago, I still remember clearly each character, his/her virtues and vices, the journey each took over the course of the play. Salomania's characters, on the other hand, felt a little fuzzier in all of those respects. 

I'm not saying that a play needs to be the epitome of realism, with relatable, accessible characters and a clear narrative arc, for me to like it. But this play seemed to want to be realistic, at least in part, while also wanting to be perhaps too many other things.

I'm still unsatisfied with the way I expressed my thoughts about Salomania, both here and in my review. But even if my review of the show was mixed, in another way, Salomania was wholly worthwhile: It's important to see shows that challenge my critical vocabulary. Often, I already know what I'm going to write about a show when I'm walking out of a theater -- sometimes even before the show has ended. And if not then, ideas usually fall into place shortly after I begin writing. But once in a while, I still don't know what I'm going to write even as I'm already writing. I have no idea where these reviews will take me. Beginning is a struggle; no lead feels quite right. I settle on one approach almost arbitrarily, only because deadlines loom, and I remain dissatisfied throughout my writing. It's unpleasant, but it's also what makes criticism interesting and what gives me a chance to grow. If every review were easy, then I'd be a hack. I'd also probably be saying the same thing all the time.

So while this review is a little too big for its britches, it's also different. Perhaps the same could be said for Salomania.

Salomania has been extended through July 29; info here.

Hedwig, at the Boxcar

(The many Hedwigs of the Boxcar's Hedwig.)

Every time a critic walks into a show, he or she must want it to be good and believe that it has the potential to be good. This quality is so basic to criticism that it's easy to take for granted: Why would you want to be a theater critic if you dreaded seeing shows?

While hopefully all critics will tell you that they love the art form, I'm sure that most of them would also say they don't always walk into every single show exuding good will. I know I've occasionally caught myself harboring spite, even if it's almost unconscious: "Oh, I know this artist's work. He's not going to be any good. Bwahaha!"

Of course these thoughts are silly, but for all but the most angelic critics (and how many of those are there?), negativity inevitably crops up. The trick is to recognize it for what it is and talk yourself out of it: After all, there's no reward to spite and cynicism, aside from the possibility of being right and feeling superior. And for that to happen, you have to see a bad show. Is it really worth it? On the other hand, being open-minded and ready to absorb each show as a new work of art offers the possibility of seeing a good show, and also much more: It rewards your capacities to be surprised and to suspend your disbelief. It endows your criticism with integrity. And it humbles you.

I was delighted to write a laudatory review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Boxcar for similar reasons. When I first started reviewing, the Boxcar was among my worst victims, and I don't use that word lightly. I was much harsher then, so much so that my erstwhile editor actually wouldn't print one of my Boxcar reviews. 

After that, I took a break from covering the company for a while and only started seeing Boxcar shows in earnest again this year. Two of them, A Lie of the Mind and now Hedwig, have been among my recent favorites. I wouldn't say I was surprised by my reaction because I think I took enough of a reprieve that I was able to approach the productions with fresh eyes.

This is not to say that I've vanquished my petty thoughts. On the contrary, my small-mindedness remains a worthy foe. But it's nice to know that, with time and perspective, the critical instinct can win out.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through July 8; info here.