Thursday, August 30, 2012

Othello, at SF State

All the most powerful characters in Othello hate the Moor of the title.  Brabantio, a Venetian senator and father to Desdemona, calls Othello "an abuser of the world" for marrying his daughter in secret. For him, only witchcraft could explain Desdemona's sudden deviance. Desdemona must have been "abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks." How else could she "have run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"? Iago, as a mere lieutenant in the army, is lower in social rank than both Brabantio and Othello, but Shakespeare's most notorious villain is of course the most powerful character in the play, and he expresses his loathing in typical straight-up fashion: "I hate the Moor." 

Brabantio hates Othello because Othello is a Moor from Africa, a race that Shakespeare's audience would have considered lesser, barbaric and unfit to mix with nobility, particularly nobility from the ultra-posh Venice. Iago hates Othello because the two were competing for a promotion that Othello got. But in Steve Bologna's current production of the tragedy, his master's thesis project at SF State, there's another reason to despise Othello: The dude's just downright despicable.

Othello's race doesn't come into play as much in Bologna's production, which features a very racially diverse cast and even some cross-gender casting. This Othello is supposed to be post-apocalyptic, far removed from some of the restrictive social norms and prejudices that governed Shakespeare's day. Confusingly, however, other long lost norms, such as the routine brutalization of wives by husbands, are retained, as the plot would not make sense without them. In some ways, then, this production picks and chooses what's in period and what's out of time almost as a matter of convenience.

Though the play's original racial dynamics are more or less gone, Othello is odious in a new way because performer Brett Hunt makes him so. When he defends his marriage to Desdemona before Brabantio (Andrew Akraboff) and the Venetian Senate, he is all swagger and easy smiles, winding his way around the stage and invading others' space like an alpha male comfortably at home in his own territory -- a very unusual choice, as many stagings of this moment emphasize the humility Othello demonstrates in his first monologue of substance: 

Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.

But again, in Bologna's interpretation, if Othello's race no longer makes him an outsider, rendering him a valued general who just happens to be a Moor, then he'd have no reason to abase himself before the officials. Still, Othello's disdain for -- or, perhaps more precisely, lack of interest in -- those around him doesn't make him sympathetic, and his conduct with Iago (Michael Zavala) makes him even less so. The two work out and roughhouse while they talk, and Iago must lose each contest graciously, but Othello abuses his power, stepping on Iago while he does push-ups or turning a wrestling match into a strangling -- all while smiling nonchalantly as ever, while Iago must force his gasps for breath to sound like a good-natured chuckle.

This isn't the first time I've sympathized more with Iago than with Othello. Last spring I wrote that Marin Theatre Company's production of the play should be titled, "Iago, the Bad Guy You Wish Were Good." There, because of the way the director cut the play, it was hard not to notice how much more often Iago is onstage than Othello is. As I wrote in that review, "When [Iago] doesn't get the play's last word, the breakneck, action-packed proceedings almost feel unfinished." Bologna, in one of my favorite of his directorial choices, changed all that. He suggested that although Iago gets his comeuppance, his same old means -- money and manipulation -- will quickly restore him to power.

Bologna's production made me realize that Iago and Othello's battle isn't just a contest of stage time; it's also a contest of introspection, of who is allowed to think, to know himself better. Iago gets the time -- perhaps too much time -- to go so deep into his evil as to become the master of it. And Zavala's performance makes you feel uncomfortable, as if you were the captive audience to a classic over-sharer:

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he'll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap'd into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife,
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure. Which thing to do,
If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash
For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,
I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb--
For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too--
Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.
For making him egregiously an ass
And practising upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. 'Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery's plain face is never seen tin used.

Othello never gets time alone onstage like this. The one time he almost does, Iago comes back on and interrupts his thoughts after a line or two. After that, Othello isn't alone onstage until he's about to kill Desdemona -- Is it only when he's raised his hands to strangle that he gets a moment to think for himself?

Hunt's performance, however, made me not care about this question. His Othello is so unsympathetic as to lower the stakes of the entire tragedy. I wasn't convinced he could be a smarmy jerk one moment and then truly love the virtuous Desdemona (Juliana Lustenader) the next. With little to believe in, I had little to lose. 

Many of the other performances, however, are more meritorious. Lustenader's Desdemona exudes sweetness, goodness, and, in one particularly felicitous choice, the strength that comes from righteous anger. Zavala has a sinister, gritty purr that makes him a natural villain. He has an ease and a naturalness in the intimate Studio Theatre that made me mostly not mind when he took his time winding his way through his monologues. April Fritz as Cassio, the fellow soldier on whom Iago pins Desdemona's supposed lust, was one of the clearest performers; her commitment and professionalism elucidate her every line, making me wonder if I under-appreciated her Ophelia in SFSU's Hamlet last spring.

The performance I saw was an "invited dress rehearsal," so it's possible that Bologna will have made some changes for tonight's and other performances. A quicker pace might serve him well, as would reconsidering some of his sound cues, many of which over-explain the emotional timbre of moments when the actors are doing just fine on their own. On the whole, though, I'm impressed with the depth he's brought out in his young performers, some of whom are my students!

Othello continues through Sept. 1; info here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blithe Spirit, at Cal Shakes

(Anthony Fusco and Rene Augesen make artistically dry martinis in Annie Smart's set. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Every once in a while, I see a show that's unadulterated fun and well acted, directed and designed to boot. That's precisely what Cal Shakes's Blithe Spirit is. The company sustains the merriment for two and a half hours -- even my review was fun to write.

Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2; info here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Murder at the Exit, by Catchy Name, and the latest critical roundup

My review of Murder at the Exit has been controversial. In the first day of being published, readers have said it’s “hilarious” and “terrible”; one said he “loved” it.

My writing was inspired by this film review, by Chris Packham of the Village Voice. Earlier this week, my editor sent it to me as an example of "making a review about something more.” Then just today, in a show of unabashed nepotism, SF Weekly awarded it “the best movie review of 2012.” (The two papers are owned by the same company, Village Voice Media.)

The first time I read the review, I felt, in a word, sucker-punched. It surprised me, and it made me feel guilty for most of the pans I’ve written — a lot to accomplish in just 265 words.

Packham is at once extremely critical and extremely forgiving, which feels alternately like a genius balancing act and a cop-out. It’s an unusual approach, and it, too, has generated controversy, much more than my review has. I can only imagine what it’s like to get 37 comments on a review, and I probably don’t want to.

The surprise I felt reading Packham’s piece stuck with me, and when last week I saw Murder at the Exit, by Catchy Name Theatre Co. and the Unknown Players, I decided a similar approach might suit my own review. The result is an article that talks relatively little about theater and much more about my theatergoing.

Because my review is so critical, one of Murder’s artists and I got into a discussion about harsh criticism — a perennial topic on this site, but also one that’s been getting a lot of press lately. The ruckus started with Jacob Silverman's "Against Enthusiasm," in Slate. He argues:

If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you'll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer's biggest fan. It's not only shallow, it's untrue, and it's having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page... Reviewers shouldn't be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it. Our virtue over the algorithms of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the amateurism (some of it quite good and useful) of sites like GoodReads, is that we are professionals with shaded, informed opinions. We are paid to be skeptical, even pugilistic, so that our enthusiasms count for more when they’re well earned.

His point is well-taken, but his gripe seems to be more with Twitter than with criticism that's allotted more than 140 characters. Then Dwight Garner corroborated Silverman's point, addressing the wimpy state of criticism as a whole with "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical," in the Times. But he defines "critical" more inclusively than Silverman does:

The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star... Criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.

Then just today, Richard Brody of the New Yorker retaliated with "How To Be A Critic":

[Silverman's] very title, “Against Enthusiasm,” rankles. Enthusiasm should be more or less the only thing that gets a critic out of bed in the morning, except in the case of ghouls who are aroused by the taste of blood.

For him, Garner, with his use of words like "punishing" and "abusive"

sounds like the strap-wielding father who tells his children that they’re being beaten for their own good, and that’s the institutional menace of criticism—the sense that the critic represents a kind of order or rule to which the unruly artist needs to be recalled.

Brody doesn't condemn negative reviews, but he offers a word of caution:

It’s na├»ve to think that negative reviews have no effect on artists’ psyches or careers, and critics should consider what it takes to recover from wounds before inflicting them.

None of these thoughts are new. In 1950, Kenneth Tynan described prevailing English theater criticism as “bled into weakness and deformity.  It has lost the almost moral intensity it used to boast.”  At best, the critics “address themselves…to the suburban fortresses of semi-culture.  At worst, they shape themselves to please it.”  Their style, what’s more, had “many more semicolons than full stops, many more puns than points, and as in Beddoes’s poem, many more shadows than men.” Nor was he the first (he was just the best!); Bernard Shaw made similar exhortations 50 years prior.

I’ve only been writing theater criticism for a few years, but in just that span I've seen many iterations of the same two questions: When does criticism go too far? When does it fail to go far enough? We don’t come up with many new responses, but every time I read the latest such essay I agree with it — even if I recently agreed with an essay arguing the opposite. “Yes, criticism is too snarky, too harsh,” I’ll think; then, when the next article comes along, I'll say, “Criticism isn’t honest enough; everyone’s pulling his or her punches.” I like to think that my seeming ambivalence shows a larger point: that criticism matters, that it’s a vital part of the process of making professional art — often the final step in the process. It matters in the way art matters, so we critics need to constantly interrogate ourselves. And we have this conversation over and over again because it’s the best way to do so; one new well-wrought phrasing of one of these well-worn ideas can and should unsettle your critical practice. Just because you answer the questions one way at one point, any review you write — indeed, any sentence — could reveal that your old answers are no longer the best answers. If that never happens for you, if you never feel that danger when you write, then you, my friend, might well be a hardened hack. (And I feel that way all too often!) "Art is a place of maximal danger," Brody writes; criticism should be, too.

From the three articles mentioned above, these passages, from Brody's piece, resonate most with me:

Criticism is a damned and doomed activity, because critics have (or should have) a sick feeling of bad faith every time they lift the pen or strike the keyboard.

A review, however rapidly composed, may well have an aphoristic brilliance or a mercurial insight that’s missing from a work under consideration (at its best, criticism is aesthetic philosophy practiced in a periodical or is in itself a literary performance). But even in the midst of such inspirations, the critic ought to harbor the shadow of a doubt whether these flourishes are conceived in the spirit of the art or at its expense. 

Criticism, if it’s worth anything at all, is, first of all, self-criticism.

There you have it, friends, the real reason why Lily’s a critic: It's an opportunity to live fully in guilt and doubt in the professional world!

In all seriousness, though, Brody doesn’t paint the full picture. Critical doubt induces dread (and occasionally paralysis), but the danger also thrills. It's tremendously exciting to cast to the wind your notions of what theater should be, what criticism should be, and dive recklessly into the unknown. That's what I felt, in some small way, when I reviewed Murder at the Exit. I hope some other show does this to me sometime soon (but maybe not tomorrow).

Murder at the Exit continues through Aug. 25; info here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Criticism qua Funding Application

(The cast of the devised physical theater piece. Photo by Amy Clare Tasker.)

When one of the artists involved with Dirty Laundry asked me to write a feature on her show, she said something no one else has said in requesting my coverage: 
I am asking both because I value your insight and so that we would have press for funding purposes as we move into a full production rehearsing this fall.

Since I'm extremely fond of googling myself, I see my writing pop up in lots of places, some expected -- company and artist sites -- some less so, like other people's essays or crappy sites like wikianswers. But I somehow never thought about my articles being referred to in grant applications. It makes sense, though: even if you're an unknown company, such coverage could show funders that you're newsworthy, or maybe even good.

Interestingly, the way this artist phrased her request colored the way I wrote about her show. I only have a bit of development experience, but parts of my article sound very grant application-y:

The artists behind Dirty Laundry thus see their method as a small but significant corrective to a gender imbalance in the power structure in Bay Area theater.

I don't have a problem with adopting the tone of a financial advocate; this project, a coproduction by Inkblot Ensemble and the Collaboratory, seemed very worthy to me. I just hope the writing isn't dry and predictable -- little writing is as devoid of life as grant apps can be!

This experience makes me wonder how blurry the line is between positive criticism and development work. Do the writing modes overlap at all? I'm very familiar with the kind of writing produced by marketing and publicity departments, but development writing is by its nature is more private. Perhaps this would be a good topic for an interview one day.

Dirty Laundry has come and gone, but a second "cycle" might well be in the works; we'll have to see how their funding applications go!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Project: Lohan, by Back It Up Productions at the Costume Shop

(D'Arcy Drollinger and entourage conjure the past ten years of Lohan's life, meteoric rises, spectacular falls, and all. Photo by Kent Taylor.)

I'm proud of this review, of D'Arcy Drollinger's Project: Lohan -- not because it's especially well-written, but because I have zero qualms about whether or not I was entirely honest with myself (and thus my readers). I didn't qualify my reaction in the slightest -- a true rarity for a worrywart like me.

Project: Lohan continues through August 19; info here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin Theatre Company, and My Charmed Life

(The cast of the metatheatrical play. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

In writing this feature on MTC's production of Circle Mirror Transformation, I got to talk to important Bay Area theater artists like Joy Carlin, Bill English, Lisa Steindler, and Marissa Keltie, all for the first time. I got to meet Kip Fagan, a New York-based director who specializes in new work. I got to have ice cream with Julia Brothers, an actress with whom I worked on Magic Forest Farm, a 2009 MTC production. And one day, I got to bike to Marin and sit in on a rehearsal for this show of which I was not even a part. One actor, L. Peter Callender, told me that in all his years of experience, he'd never had a critic sit in on a rehearsal before. And when that was all done, I got to go home and wax philosophical on Annie Baker, one of my favorite playwrights in contemporary American theater. And this is what I get paid to do.

On the bike ride to Marin, I was reflecting on how charmed my life is. When I tell people I'm a theater critic, they often say things like, "I want to do that one day." And here I am doing it right now: spending my working day biking for four hours and getting to watch artists practice their craft in between. I am lucky, and amidst obsessing over deadlines and applications, my "critical philosophy"and the relentless pursuit of the perfect word, I often forget that fact.

(Feeling characteristically sentimental but uncharacteristically charmed, I even took some photos on the bike ride over.)

(Classic free summertime roadside snack.)

That said, this heightened personal awareness did not make for a better article. I felt obligated to include  all the artists I interviewed so they wouldn't feel like their time was wasted, thus overstuffing my article with quotes when fewer, choicer opinions, coupled with more of my own thoughts, might have been more effective. Because of space constraints, I had to omit a discussion of the glorious ordinariness of Baker's characters -- one of my favorite parts of her writing. What's more, I had no clever ideas about structure, which doesn't matter so much in a regular review but can be tricky when I have to both make the actions of real, live artists into a story and analyze the broader significance of those actions, all while giving my readers a good idea of what the artwork is about. I thus used the same structure I used in writing about Theater Pub -- a very imperfect fit.

I saw the show the week it opened; it's a very fine production but not a transcendent one. The way Baker writes allows for performances that seem to be spontaneous, and these actors achieved that quality only occasionally -- with a "hi" here or an elongated pause there. Most of the time I saw staginess that wouldn't have bothered me with other scripts but was very disappointing here, particularly since I observed Fagan and the actors combatting it so strenuously in rehearsal. What this proves to me is that if the rewards of Baker are rich, the challenges she poses are formidable.

Now it's time to channel my appreciation for my luck into writing better criticism. Maybe next time I'll interview fewer people; maybe I'll allow myself more time to free write, or outline, or simply think before I write. If I want to test my intelligence and writing ability, the time is now.

Circle Mirror Transformation has been extended through September 2; info here.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Black Milk, at the East 13th Street Theatre

(John Bambery, Liba Vaynberg, Anna Foss Wilson, and Josh Marcantel in the Off-Broadway production. Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

Last week I was in New York just long enough to see one play: Black Milk, at the East 13th Street Theatre. My usual +1 succinctly described the play thus: "It's about how life in Russia is very hard." Some of the cynicism in Vassily Sigarev's play feels snarky, even gratuitous. 

But for me the production had other assets. A college friend of mine, Liba Vaynberg, stars as Poppet, a pregnant woman who with her boyfriend Lyovchik (Josh Marcantel) travels the Russian countryside by train to scam the poor into buying toasters they won't be able to figure out how to use. Liba's in the MFA acting program at Columbia, and I haven't seen her perform since well before she matriculated. It was exciting to see a performance style I both deeply recognized and was surprised by: I saw the distinct imprint of a person I've known for many years, but I also saw a range, a boldness, and a commitment that come at least in part from excellent training. Kudos to an old friend for a promising Off-Broadway debut.

A qualification: I'm not well versed in the New York theater scene, so I'm not sure how performances would rank with other shows nearby. But in general Black Milk's performances were on par with the better acting I see in small venues in SF.  

Maybe one day I'll get the opportunity to investigate that oft-repeated truism -- that for American theater, nowhere comes close to New York. For now, though, I'm very satisfied with my own corner of the American stage.

Black Milk closes tonight; info here.