Thursday, April 24, 2008

Critiquing the Critics, a guest spot.

I'm not entirely enamored with Tony Adams' "Critiquing the Critics" project, but I do agree with holding criticism to standard as much as criticism is trying to hold theatre to a standard. And since Tony is otherwise engaged and has temporarily suspended the project, I feel the need to step up and address what appears to me to be a critical injustice in Tom Williams' recent Not Recommended review of 18: A Year With Footnotes, penned by Michael Burgan.

In the interest of full disclosure, Michael Burgan is a friend of mine and I have seen the show. However, the injustice I perceive is not because I am friends with Michael, or even because the show is Not Recommended -- the show certainly has its problems, Michael Leslie's performance being a large chunk of them -- but Williams's position as a critic demands a degree of accuracy and reason that I fail to see in this review.

Jean Cocteau, in his preface to The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party, wrote, speaking of new work:

"[Critics] forget that they are at a performance which must be followed as attentively as a "popular success." They think that they are watching a sort of street carnival. A conscientious critic who would never think of writing, "The Duchess kisses the Steward" instead of "The Steward presents a letter to the Duchess" in his review of one of these "legitimate" dramas, will not hesitate, reviewing Wedding Party, to make the Bicycle Girl or the Collector come out of the camera - which is absurd enough."

While I am a friend of Michael's, I met him since I have moved to Chicago. Prior to seeing this show, I knew as little about the past presented in 18 as Tom Williams did. Yet, reading through the review, I can point out a number of factual errors in the plot, from simple timeline errors to shortchanging an entire lovely and complex relationship by referring to Jaime as "the only girl he knows" -- a ridiculous statement for anyone who has ever been 18.

Now, I understand that you only get one go around and it is impossible to get a show's plot down word for word. Mistakes are bound to happen. And in an instance such as Faster, for example, where it wasn't uncommon to have a review refer to the play as set in Chicago or an unnamed suburb (it was very specifically Joliet) or referring incorrectly to my character as the older of two brothers, I can understand the mix-ups. The play doesn't revolve around these facts and if you miss an expository line or two in an already fast moving show, you've lost your one chance to get them straight.

But this is an autobiographical one man show. There's no weird elliptical plot structure going on, no spiderweb of interlocking character studies, no red herrings or MacGuffins. It's a straightforward story of the events in this man's life. Meaning getting the events straight is pretty important. Compound this with the fact that the glut of almost all of Williams' reviews consists of him retelling the plot in detail and it becomes very important. Compound this with the fact that this is a self-produced one-man show running off nights in one of the smallest venues in the city, meaning the show will get zero press and that even a review on is a big deal, and suddenly it becomes essential that Williams provide a portrayal consistent with the show being produced.

But questionable accuracy is one thing; questionable reason is a whole new ballgame. From Williams' review:

"Burgan’s life story doesn’t contain enough compelling events to sustain a 90 minute play."

Those events, as listed in Williams review, include: a near fatal sledding accident, skipping Senior Prom to drop acid with "the only girl he knows", virginity-driven suicidal thoughts in Venice, a sexual relationship and eventual marriage to his high school teacher, a stint as a roadie for a rock group, and his friend ("the only girl he knows") self-destructing into a whirlwind of drugs. Now, I ask any playwright in the blogosphere, because I know there are many: given an outline of the above events, do you feel you could create a compelling 90 minute play? And a question for the entire class: How many 90 minute (and longer) plays have been sustained by less?

If Williams doesn't find the play compelling, that's perfectly valid. But I shudder to find the person who's life story doesn't contain enough compelling events to sustain a 90 minute play. Or the audience who judges the value of the story by the extremity of the events therein (and has a bar set as high as Tom).

And that closing line? I don't have the time or energy to deconstruct the term "vanity project" and how it at once applies to all and no theatre, but suffice it to say that anything being called a vanity project on smacks of deep, deep irony.

I don't know if Michael will read this or not, but for the sake of honesty, it's not an amazing production. The acting is limp and, as will be the case with small self-produced one man shows, the staging is bare-boned in a less than appealing way. But it is an bracingly honest show, and the words, if not always played compellingly, are much more often than not grounded in a stark emotional nudity -- a nudity at times gleeful and others shameful -- which is always compelling no matter the story being told.

Working on Tom's scale, I would probably only give is a Somewhat Recommended. I can understand a critic giving it a Not Recommended. But in doing so, especially when the critic is likely the only outside authority available to a potential audience and one who only tends to give out a small percentage of Not Recommended ratings, the critic needs to be able to represent the show, not the scribblings on his notepad after. Not an easy task and not one I envy -- I much prefer my opinion to a representative one. But that's why I don't pretend to be a critic so much as just plain opinionated.


Unrelated offshoot:

Despite not, as of yet, having a Don Nigro convo with Ronan (and now Slay), I have continued delving, as I am wont to do. Anima Mundi utilized a formal tarot element that I had been toying with myself and contained some beautiful moments towards the conclusion, but was all in all much less inspiring than Ardy or Armitage. But Glamorgan is treating me well and starting to fully set in place Nigro's stylistic and thematic leanings and why they are clicking with me (and some I wouldn't have expected to click with me.)

Rockin' dude, that. I'm definitely on a kick.


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