Wednesday, June 03, 2009

metaDRAMA: Mr. Big Stuff (a k a Who Do You Think You Are?)

Well, if you've read the comments section for Isaac's post about the Huntington's Michael Maso's request to have his audience rebut critic Louise Kennedy's review of Pirates!, then I guess I'm in deep trouble. I reviewed Brian Dykstra's A Play on Words a few weeks ago, coming up as one of the few outliers on Critic-O-Meter (I'd argue that Jenny Sandman's review is a bit lower than B+, but who gives a hang?). And, unlike Louise Kennedy--I didn't acknowledge that the audience "hooted and hollered." (Including my father, and he tends not to like comedy.) Instead, I argued for what I felt strongly in my gut--that the show was filled with cheap, unearned laughs, untethered to character or plot. From what I've read in the comments to Kennedy's review, that would mean that--although I didn't laugh--I must have some ulterior motive.

In fact, an anonymous responder over at Critic-O-Meter said as much about my review:

It didn't read like a review to me just an angry person venting for some reason. When I was at the play it seemed like everyone was having a great time laughing and laughing. It was so much fun being in the theatre that night that it is hard to imagine someone feeling so hostile about it. I can understand some people liking something and others not. That's cool.
And you know what, I appreciate his/her honesty (I said as much there, too). When you really like something, it's hard to understand someone not liking it. It can make you imagine anger or hostility--or bring it out in your own responses, which is what I suspect happened to the readers egged on by Maso to respond. For better or worse, America has changed to a sort of communication-by-melee, in which the loudest voice "wins," and so you can't simply respond with an opinion--you need to attack with one. And it's in that light that I read this anonymous comment (from the Huntington Theater Blog):
To have a critic form an opinion of a show while attending without the general public is one thing. But, to attend it with them and come away with total disregard for the audience's positive response to talent and performance brings to mind two words...'brain dead'.
First off, I'm not exactly sure when exactly it is that this reader things a critic attends a show "without the general public." But nitpicking aside--and back to the main point, and title of this article--a critic should ignore the audience. If a critic's job is only to reflect the audience's opinion, then there is no point for criticism. In fact, there's no need for that critic to get any experience, because they can simply stand outside the theater, with their ear to the ground, and collect pull-quotes of their own--from the audience. Let's not pretend that criticism is anything other than what it has always and should always be: an opinion. Hopefully that voice is educated, hopefully it's not lazy, hopefully it's not asleep at the wheel. But let me correct this anonymous commenter: to attend a show, have a gut response, and then to totally disregard that in favor of the audience's response . . . that would be brain death.

The audience has an easy go of it: they get to see the show and either enjoy it, or not, and can then decide whether or not they want to continue thinking about it. The critic has to see the show, be receptive to having an honest response, and then actually figure out (often with a word count) how to explain why they felt that way. That, by the way, is not an ulterior motive. That's transparency (which, coincidentally, is something that David Cote is talking about w/r/t Terry Teachout). I didn't like A Play on Words for a specific reason: I found it to be fast-food theater--perhaps occasionally tasty in the short run, but long-term, unhealthy to the theater because it lowers the standards of playwrighting. So I got Michael Pollan on it, and tried to explain why it was a bad play. That's my job. Your job--especially if you don't agree--should be to try to convince me, with the same transparency, why it's good.

And that's why I need to jump back to one final thing Anonymous said (my Anonymous, the one who replied to A Play on Words). He said, "I just didn't realize that he was actually a reviewer," as if the value of my review was somehow weighted by whether or not I was an "official" reviewer or simply an "unofficial" blogger. As if the words themselves somehow magicked themselves to mean something different, depending on the circumstance. Folks, there is no difference. Any one of those people who replied to Kennedy's review could've been a critic. The only difference is that they didn't try to validate their opinion, or shore up their stance. They offered oceanic dissent--which is to say, the wave of their opinion rolled in and then, unanchored to anything real, washed back out again.

Those of you who have read this far--you know that I'm aching for conversation, that I'm open to dialogue, about each and every single one of the shows that I've reviewed. At pretty much any time. I have strong opinions because I have strong feelings about these shows, and I'll continue to write and fight for those opinions (and for those shows). Let's agree to disagree. Just let your disagreements be honest.

Rant over.


Chris Caggiano said...

Aaron: I actually saw Pirates, and I agree with pretty much everything Louise Kennedy had to say. See my review:

If Maso wants better reviews, perhaps he should see to it that the Huntington puts on better shows.

Freeman said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Let me throw something out there:

Producers know that comedies don't generally work as well without a houseful of laughing people. Try watching the funniest movie you've ever seen sometime by yourself, and see how hard you laugh. That's why they will fill up the houses of a comedy when they know critics are coming: they're hoping that if a critic hears a positive response around himself or herself, he or she will be more likely to have a good time.

Which is to say: watching a comedy is one of the most charged environments, I would assume, for a critic. Laughter can truly eliminate some people's reservations about a play... if they laugh, the play has won them over, case closed. Trying to have something close to a singular, independent view on a comedy, (unless it's just not funny) is a really challenging task.

Aaron Riccio said...

Chris - Aye, but here's the rub. You're a musical theater expert. Your "serviceable" is bound to be different from that of the Huntington's audience. Likewise with Kennedy. Based on audience reaction (whether it's canned or not, as Freeman adds, and which I'm entitled to believe, given how many people Maso was actually able to corral), "Pirates" is gold. (That's pyrite to you, pun intended.)

The real question, then, blows back to a different one that was floating around the theatrosphere a few weeks ago: what is the obligation of a theater? This, perhaps, is where critics may be of most use. Passive audiences are willing to forgive a lot in the pursuit of entertainment. Active critics are likelier to be more demanding, in the pursuit of art. In other words, critics--especially those with the ability to "make or break a show"--serve as a check on theaters that might otherwise just water down their product.

In this context, "listening to the audience" is on par with a member of our representational government "taking a bribe"--it's a form of corruption. (Extending this metaphor, Maso's actions make even more sense: he is lobbying for a more favorable "judge" to be elected to the critical courts.)

In any case, what I'm most surprised by is this. Let's say that I liked "Pirates," and then read Kennedy's negative review. Why am I angry? She's asking that Huntington's next show be *even better* than something I already liked. Why would I be against that?

Aaron Riccio said...

Freeman - Agreed. Wait. Does this mean that you'll be filling up the house of Glee Club with ringers? ;)

Chris Caggiano said...

Aaron, Latest development: I received an angry and semi-threatening email from Steve Kazee, the pirate king in Pirates at the Huntington. Or at least I found the following threatening:

"Better yet, I am still at the Huntington for another week and a half so please show up at the theatre and look me in my eye and say the same things that you are so comfortable saying about me in your blog. I would have far more respect for you if you did."

Or am I reading too much into it? Perhaps it's just heterosexual swagger.

In any case, it appears that the Huntington has some PR issues on its hands.

Aaron Riccio said...

Chris, I think this has to do with the whole "reviewer"/"blogger" dynamic that I mentioned in the body of the post. A reviewer is expected to *WRITE* about the show (as opposed to speaking to the cast about it), as they're talking as much to the audience as to the creatives. (Although, as we discovered here, a reviewer is also expected to compromise their integrity for the glory of a somewhat communistic approach to theater.)

On the other hand, the blogger is, I guess, expected not to say anything, because who the fuck are they, exactly, anyway? (Language used for emphasis, but pardon me all the same.) It's somewhat of a double-standard, though, because Huntington is eager for "comments" and publicists have greedily quoted the user reviews of ""

I don't think the Huntington's issue has as much to do with its lackluster PR as it does with their thin skin and egomania. But hey, I'm probably just inviting the wrath of Maso and co. just for writing this.

(By the way, I'm hoping you at least had comps to see "Pirates," because if you bought your tickets, wrote your opinion, and got attacked for it, then I'm confused.)

Chris Caggiano said...

Yeah, I got comps. It's funny, though, cuz Kazee said something to the effect of you paid your admission and have the right to say what you want about it. Um, no I didn't, but I *still* reserve that right.

He also said something about struggling nonprofits in the current economy. I said that I'm not some mindless cheerleader for the theater world. That's the job of certain theater Web sites who seem content to publish rewritten press releases.

I left a message with the press contact at Huntington, saying they're getting a bit of a black eye in the blogosphere, what with the Maso/Kennedy flap, and now this. I suggested that they might want to develop a slightly less contentious relationship with the critical community.

Freeman said...

I confess nothing!