Tuesday, January 20, 2009

metaDRAMA: What to Review?

Garret Eisler, who you all probably know as The Playgoer, recently put on his critic hat to make a great point about critical integrity--or the lack thereof in Claudia LaRocca's New York Times review of Wickets. (Eisler's is here, mine is here; there's also one by Helen Shaw, here.) What Garret takes exception to is mainly Claudia's glossing over the fact that this is an adaptation (she says "based on Maria Irene Fornes’s play 'Fefu and Her Friends'"), although he coats this with the (accurate) disclaimer that this may in fact be an editorial choice, to, as Eisler points out, make this more "the vox populi" review than the "expert" criticism.

In any case, where I come down on this issue--and here's a clear call for the authorial "I"--for, like Garret, I'm also unfamiliar with Fornes (which comes of being born in 1983). I think that if you have to research your criticism, you are distancing yourself from actually reviewing the play--what you actually saw is crowded out by an intellectual interpretation. However, I think liner notes (and there were many provided by Trick Saddle, not just in the press materials) are part of your experience of the play, for they are provided to the entire audience, and you can refer to them while still being "in the moment," so to speak, bridging the gap, then, between "expert" and "vox populi." Garret describes his process as reading a little about Fornes before seeing the show and then reading Fefu and Her Friends afterward; I did the same (although I'm technically one of those "uppity bloggers").

Our reviews, however, focus on very different things (and this is why I'm all for aggregates, as on Critic-O-Meter). I, for one, am all about the physical effect of the set (and the way this helps the intimacy of the show--and hence, the overall message), whereas Eisler speaks eloquently on the plot and style: "While interrupted by parodies of standard flight-attendant routines, much of Fornés's drama—about lonely affluent women seeking a safe space for female bonding and desire—remains." Shaw speaks to the feminist similarities (and differences): "Galilee and Rogers show us how surreptitiously awful our pre-Steinem days were—the women snatch conversations in cramped galleys or hiss them across passengers while offering pillows and warm nuts."

The real problem with LaRocca's review is how little it focuses on the actual play. It's not that she doesn't focus enough on the Fornes connection: it's that she doesn't deal with Rogers's adaptation. She describes the set, but not its effect (she spends more time talking about the entryway to the 3LD Arts & Technology Center). She calls the characters archetypes, but doesn't mention a single actress's performance by way of example. (This is a generic sort of writing that I think is far more crippling and dangerous in modern criticism.) In the worst line of the play, she dismissively renders one scene as "lesbian action" (even if she's a bit tongue-in-cheek) and then, irreverently, gives an example of that by quoting an audience member. Of all the things available to review, she chose the audience? Her third paragraph hints at what she's able to offer as a critic--it's a neat paragraph, one that accurately describes Wickets (so who cares if it doesn't kneel at Fefu's feet)--and her conclusion is pretty good: "Their secret lives, in the end, are not so different from our own."

I don't really agree when Mike Daisey says that LaRocca missed the thrust of the play; I just think she chose to describe what happened in, say, coach, rather than in business or first-class. (Which is actually rather appropriate, considering the environment of the play.) I just think that she spent so much time taxiing on the runway that it became hard for more critical readers to see her take off, and (to tie things full circle) that's why I'm so much in favor of being viscerally affecting writing (though I admit, I don't always succeed). The play's the thing, innit?

1 comment:

Mike said...

"It's not that she doesn't focus enough on the Fornes connection: it's that she doesn't deal with Rogers's adaptation."

Maybe we're not actually disagreeing all that much--I just don't believe she actually knows it's an adaptation, and that's why it isn't dealt with.