Friday, November 23, 2012

Phaedra's Love, by Do It Live!

(Not your grandmother's Greek myth. Michael Zavala and Whitney Thomas. Photo by Gabby Battista.)

This review, of Phaedra's Love by Do It Live!, was a pleasure to write. First, I was excited to be able to support this company, which is composed of current SFSU students and recent alums. Discovering and promoting promising young companies are among a critic's most joyous duties.

I was also delighted to rediscover the playwright Sarah Kane, whose work I hadn't seen or read since college. Much in her dramatic universe felt similar to the work of playwright Young Jean Lee (the subject of my master's thesis). They both scoff at taboos, revel in the grotesque, and pay no attention to the way a story is "supposed" to go. 

I hope this is only the beginning of a Kane revisit!

Phaedra's Love has closed, but you can find out more about the company here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Grimaldis Are Dead, by Dane Ballard Productions and Circus Center San Francisco

(Dane Ballard and Theresa Christine as ghosts of the family of the title. Photo by Rachel Golden.)

Benjamin Wachs and my latest podcast review, of The Grimaldis Are Dead, a coproduction by Dane Ballard Productions and Circus Center San Francisco, wasn't pleasant for anybody. Except maybe for you listeners? But we tried our darndest to be honest, and I think it's one of our most polished pieces. I think we're starting to hit our groove as copodcasters.

The Grimaldis Are Dead just closed tonight, but you can find out more about the show here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Epic Poetry and Epic Theater Critic Requirements

(The great Mr. Clurman. You can tell he's the real deal because he's an old white guy in a black-and-white photo.)

In my Writing About Theatre course, we've just started our unit on theater criticism, which, it should come as no surprise, is my favorite unit. It wasn't long into our discussion before a student asked this important question:

What makes a theater critic credible?

And (for once!) I was extremely prepared to answer it.

I had brought with me to class The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, a backbreaking anthology of six decades' worth of cultural criticism from the renowned theater critic. At the front of book is this list, which Clurman published in Encore in 1964 and which I had my students read aloud:

The Complete Critic’s Qualifications 
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of people: 
I. The critic should know the greater part of classic and contemporary drama as written and played. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
II. He should know the history of the theatre from its origins to the present.
III.  He should have a long and broad playgoing experience – of native and foreign productions.
IV. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, music, architecture and the dance.
V. He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).
VI. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
VII. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
VIII. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
IX. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
X. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
XI. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
XII. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff. 
The best theatre critic in the English language since 1895 was George Bernard Shaw.
It's a tall order -- the kind of order it takes a lifetime to fill. But it was this list that I had in mind when I was reviewing An Iliad, at Berkeley Rep.

(Henry Woronicz in the one-man show at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I am so ashamed to admit this that I struggle to type it, but this was my first experience of Homer's epic. In college I stubbornly -- with zeal, even -- avoided the classics. I was interested in understanding only my immediate experience, that which was tangible, accessible, verifiable. To dig into the past was frightening; understanding history seemed to be as much an exercise in imagination as in analysis. It seemed to require empathy and perspicacity and wisdom -- qualities I felt I did not have.

There are major gaps in my theater knowledge, as there probably are in most people's, and the classics is one of my biggest and most egregious educational lacunae. I wonder if this hole would disqualify me in Clurman's eyes. I wonder if it makes me less credible a critic of Berkeley Rep's production. I wonder if it makes my review less informed and informative.

I think the answer to all these questions is yes. 

But it's a qualified yes. I don't know if society today would support, in many senses of the word, Clurman's vision of a theater critic. And even if there are a few critics who might qualify as a "Complete Critic," I think it's important to have more than a few voices who are allowed to publish opinions about theater. I also imagine that, particularly when he was my age, Clurman was not yet an expert in... all the liberal arts. Would he ever recuse himself? Would he ever not write about a production because he had not yet acquired scholar-worthy knowledge of every field a play touched upon? I don't know, but I imagine not. I imagine he saw those shows as opportunities to learn. 

I try to use shows like An Iliad as chances to grow as a theater critic, to expand my knowledge and become more "Complete." But for reasons I've mentioned in this blog before, it's hard for me to take full advantage of those opportunities. I work two demanding jobs, and being a theater critic pays less than half of my monthly living expenses. So I don't know if it's fair to ask me to become as well informed for each show I write about as Harold Clurman demands.

But I try to make up for my failings with one item on his list -- being a clear and sharp observer -- and one item that's not, at least not explicitly -- being honest. 

After my class read aloud Harold Clurman's list, I told my students that his requirements, while laughably difficult, are at least achievable if, you know, you have decades to devote to the task of meeting them. Being honest, I think, is much harder. It's a matter of courage and integrity. It's a matter of self-knowledge. You can't get critical honesty from reading a certain number of books. You get it, I think, from a love of theater that's so deep it's religious, from an unshakeable belief that theater has power, from feeling, each time you walk into a theater, that this show matters.

I struggle to have this quality just as I struggle to be sufficiently erudite. But I think that, even if I'm an ignoramus about a production, if I bring to my criticism the genuine desire to be honest, then I can still have something valuable to say.

Or not! Because every other An Iliad review I've read (almost) says the exact opposite of what I wrote. Despite all my attempts at "honesty," it might be better to go with some of the more educated guys on this one.

An Iliad has been extended through Nov. 18; info here.

Putting the "Uh" in America

(Bowman Wright in Topdog/Underdog, which recently closed at Marin Theatre Company. Photo by David Allen.)

When I was a grad student at S.F. State, I took a class on American drama, and one of the central questions of the course was what makes American drama American. What are its perennial concerns? Some, as proposed by our professor, might be

  • The American Dream
  • American exceptionalism
  • Finding and coming home
  • The Melting Pot

(I think there were others, but this is all I can glean from my notes.)

Now that it's election time and theaters are offering the accompanying goods, some of the shows I've been reviewing lately -- Assassins at Shotgun, Topdog/Underdog at Marin Theatre Company, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhouse -- make me think American drama might have another (if not mutually exclusive) evergreen theme: the compulsion to tell our story, to capture who we are and what we believe in.

(Much of the ensemble of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhosue. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)

I'm sure, of course, that this is far from a uniquely American phenomenon and for that matter one that's not at all confined to theater. And, as Chloe Veltman has amusingly suggested, election season does seem to seem force artificial topicality out of theaters (when they might not otherwise be so inclined to attempt to define our national identity, that teensy little subject).

Still, I wonder if because of the fracturing (and the polarization) of our country, so many groups feel marginalized, so left out of the American Dream, that we, more than other nations, feel compelled to tell our story over and over again, to reimagine it, to hear hitherto neglected groups contest it or lay claim to it -- on the stage. Just in these three plays, we get versions of America from three groups of outsiders: presidential assassins, poor young black men, and frontier populists.

(The nine would-be and actual presidential assassins chronicled in the Shotgun Players production. Photo by Pak Han.)

It's exciting to think of this election as a time that might in retrospect mark a change in our theater. 9/11 was a watershed moment in American drama; is it possible we're ready for another seismic shift? Is it possible that 2012 will be the year we were finally pushed too far by extremists? What would it look like to have a theater and a politics that's not so defined by caricature or motivated by a sense of unbridgeable divide?

These are probably hopelessly naive questions. But as voters and political commentators profess a longing for a discussion of the real issues, I find (or grope for?) a parallel in my theatergoing to a wish for an art of more nuance.

Assassins continues through Nov. 11; info here.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24; info here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Dramaturging

(Tricia Brooks and Neal Honda in Terry Boero's play. Set design by John Wilson. Photo by Rachel Golden.)

These days I write to educate. Twice a week, I sit down to write lectures for my “Writing About Theatre” students. But I also have a new editor at the Weekly who, when we recently met to talk about the purpose of theater criticism, told me that he especially values reviews that teach the reader something. Additionally, for the past two months, I’ve been dramaturging a play called The M Documents, written by Terry Boero and directed by Nara Dahlbaka, which recently finished its run at the SFSU Fringe Festival.

This was my first official dramaturgy credit, though I’ve had dramaturgical moments before. As dramaturge Alicia Coombes recently said in a guest lecture to my class, every theater person is a dramaturge. If you’ve ever thought a script’s second act needed work, she said, you’ve been a dramaturge. If you’ve ever looked up a term or a historical context to better understand a play, you’ve been a dramaturge. Even if a production has no designated dramaturge — and many, many don’t — that doesn’t mean nobody does dramaturgy; dramaturgical duties can (and must) be performed by actors and directors, designers and publicists.

But what is dramaturgy, this scary, distinctly German-sounding word that makes you want to say “drama-turd”? First of all, I’ve been told it actually comes from Greek words that, when compared to other words with similar structures, signify a “conjurer of drama.” Dramaturges are advocates for plays. They work with directors and playwrights to make the play be as true to itself as possible. They are experts in the world of a play. They look at what a script suggests about its world and, through research, flesh it out so that artists and audiences alike have a better contextual understanding of the play.

Dramaturges also have many other functions; there are probably as many different job descriptions as there are dramaturges. For M Docs, I was primarily a researcher. The play examines interstitial moments in a Macbeth that has traces of medieval Scotland but also exists in 1950s America. Its only characters are Lord and Lady Macbeth, and the playwright explored the characters’ marital relationship as well as their childhoods. She believes we can see much of Macbeth’s gender relations — too much — in our own society.

My main task was to provide the actors with information that might help them broaden their interpretations of their roles. I focused on two research aims: finding out how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had been interpreted throughout history, and providing an overview of gender roles in medieval Scotland, Shakespeare’s England, and postwar America. Here are a few of my favorite findings:

Ellen Terry (1847-1928), a famous Lady Macbeth, once said, “Everyone seems to think [L.M.] is a Monstrousness and I can only see she’s a woman — a mistaken woman — and weak — not a Dove — of course not — but first of all a wife.”

I also took another look at Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott's groundbreaking book in search of this quote, which paints Macbeth as a kind of idealist in a world in which the only dream is a self-defeating one: "In a world upon which murder is being imposed as fate, compulsion and inner necessity, there is only one dream: of a murder that will break the murder cycle, will be the way out of nightmare, and will mean liberation.”

It was so great to be involved with a production again, even though my role was small. It’s been three years since I’ve worked on a show in any capacity, and I thought it was high time that as a critic, I remember what it’s like to be on “the other side.” Critics see only finished products; it’s easy to forget how many choices go into what’s presented on opening night. I didn’t attend many rehearsals of M Docs, but in one of the first read-throughs, I especially loved seeing how, even in a cold read, our actors, Neal Honda and Tricia Brooks, brought a special intelligence, a magic, to the words they read aloud that non-actors just don’t have.

I even got to see my production reviewed, so I truly did get a taste of my own medicine, but only because I forced my students to review the show (no conflict of interest for them at all! BWAHAHA). Hearing and reading their criticisms, I felt myself both understanding what they were saying and feeling defensive, wanting to argue with them. Ah, so maybe this is what it’s like, I thought. Except not at all, I’m sure!