Wednesday, March 17, 2010

metaDRAMA: Style over Substance

One of the complaints I often hear from critics (and make myself) is that modern plays (or out-there revivals) sometimes get more heavy with style (especially so-called "multimedia" plays, many of which seem done more out of a need for grant money than a need for the story) than with the substance they so desperately need. Which is why I find it ironic that James Hannaham, writing for the Village Voice, has decided to review Happy in the Poorhouse in what he believes is the vernacular of the show. He makes his point pretty clearly: that he finds the show to be nothing but a screechfest, assumedly several notches below Jersey Shore. But as that's the only point he makes (and one that he's vastly in the minority about), I wonder if he was just so put off by the Amoralist's style that he couldn't be bothered to bother to engage with the show. (And what does it say that the editors of the Village Voice ran this piece? If the Amoralists were a small group, just starting up, this sort of review could be career-killing.)

I've seen plenty of cryptic shows on the off-off-Broadway circuit, but it's helpful neither to my readers, my own experience, or to the artists involved, for me to simply dismiss something that I've seen because it didn't match my standards of theater. Most recently, I was boggled by Radiohole's WHA?!, but I felt that I at least attempted to explain my difficulty with the show, instead of simply WRITING IN ALL CAPS AND DRINKING BEERS. I've similarly expressed reservations with work by Richard Maxwell, and I regretfully chose not to write about Mabou Mines' Pataphysics Penteach, but for the most part, I try to avoid cheap wit because it sets a rather lazy example for audiences--and artists. Nothing can be so utterly boiled down to one dimension, and it's a disservice to pretend that it can be. We should not be afraid to be baffled, to be provoked, to be enraged by a show: these are all things that we can learn from. Simply giving up, as I feel many people did with Young Jean Lee's Lear, cheapens theater's ability to move us, makes people forget that we have to be willing to invest something, too, or at the least, to investigate our absent response.

Especially if style continues to become the substance of America. (For instance, Zombieland, American Idol, or Spider-Man: The Musical.)


Drama, Daily said...

I'm always skeptical of single scathing reviews. This Village Voice review aside, the lowest rating on Stage Grade for this show is a B-; this alone is telling, I think --even if majority opinion as far as reviews go isn't the be all end all when it comes down to a show's worth. The use of all caps in the VV review is sadly reminiscent of screaming at people in emails and texts these days. How disturbing. How unproductive. It's like shock jock for theatre reviewing. With mainstream critics disappearing rapidly, this kind of unprofessionalism really undermines the case for specialized mainstream theatre critics.

The Harpomarxist said...

This is a wonderful post, and much appreciated.

I'm always boggled by critics who bemoan the lack of originality in the theatre scene today and then, when actually confronted with originality, fail to even engage.

silent nic@knight said...

"this sort of review could be career-killing."

Reviews function as one part of a theatre's PR package. If one bad review makes or breaks a theatre, that theatre never had career in the first place.