Friday, March 21, 2008

metaDRAMA: On Perfection

One can't be a good critic through limitation (any more than they can through imitation), so to bring other conversations back to theater (which to be fair is a type of magic itself), here's a quote from Adam Gopnik's "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life" (The New Yorker, Mar. 17, 2008):

[T]he Too Perfect theory says . . . that any trick that simply astounds will give itself away. . . . At the heart of the Too Perfect theory is the insight that magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world. Magic is the dramatization of explanation more than it is the engineering of effects. . . . But the Too Perfect theory has larger meanings, too. It reminds us that, whatever the context, the empathetic interchange between minds is satisfying only when it is "dynamic," unfinished, unresolved. Friendships, flirtations, even love affairs depend, like magic tricks, on a constant exchange of incomplete but tantalizing information. . . . When we say that love is magic, we are telling a truth deeper, and more ambiguous, than we know.
There's a lot to digest there, but I think it may help to explain my feelings on Hello Failure, a show which has sparked discussion over at Culturebot and The Playgoer. For me, Kristen Kosmas's play is too perfectly stylized -- the emphasis is so strong, that one spends more time looking at (or for) the trick more than they do within the world of the work. (Similar, perhaps, to the problems people have with, say, Infinite Jest.) It is not enough "the dramatization of explanation" so much as it is "the engineering of effects." Furthermore, the play forces a resolution -- in this case, by shifting into direct address -- that diminishes what really should remain tantalizingly incomplete.

I have similar feelings about Dead Man's Cell Phone, which has a great first act and then a second act (written a year later, and it shows) that changes the pace (and plot) of the play. It survives the shift because Sarah Ruhl turns the break into a shuffling of the deck (so to speak), and keeps teasing out new details which, while superfluous, keep us bound to this "credibly imperfect world." (It doesn't hurt to have Mary-Louise Parker, a real magician, grounding the show.) It's dynamic while being quietly quirky, and it's the sort of play that one wants to puzzle over a second time. It's not, in other words, Too Perfect, and that's why I can stand it.

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