Mar 31, 2013


Among the many things critics can be counted on to have strong opinions about is their own reason for being. Indeed, the why-criticism-matters essay seems as evergreen a genre as the don't-listen-to-me commencement speech. The form persists not only for its obvious appeal as a means of self-justification and sanctimony for a class of routinely despised and insecure souls, but in large part also because it is such a live topic, on the minds and lips of anyone who's ever disagreed with a critic or had a box office line go cold because of a bad review: Who died and made these unelected assholes kings? That's partly why every attempt by a critic to clarify and defend their work and work ethic, like this recent classic example, stirs interest, further debate, even some vestige of understanding on the part of the critic's critics, one would hope--until their next eviscerating review, their next "offense."

As print media gets wood-chipped in the maw of the Internet Hydra, the stakes have only gotten higher, for both critics and criticized, which may be why hand-wringing essays and public forums about the state of criticism have only seemed to increase in recent years. While I used to feel guilty that I made a living writing about theater when so many people making actual theater didn't, I'm starting to feel the ground shifting; while too many people doing theater still don't make enough money, I now fear less for the future of theater as a going concern than I do for the future of paid arts media.

All of which is preamble to a week of posts I've curated at HowlRound, the indispensable online journal of the Center for Theater Commons, about theater criticism as a calling, even an art, unto itself. The assignment emerged from a free-ranging conversation I began with Polly Carl last June, when I was in Boston for the TCG conference and reporting a feature on the Center. And partly in response to Sherri Kronfeld's post on HowlRound (which I did respond to initially here), I had the impulse to seek out pieces that might humanize critics, demystify them--to make them appear, as I know the best of them to be, as passionate practitioners of their often unforgiving but frequently glorious work as are the theater artists I know. That, in any case, was my initial impulse, and it informs some of the essays you'll see this week, including mine, but the topics range beyond that, in pieces by Philadelphia critic Wendy Rosenfeld, Twin Cities dramaturg/director Dominic Taylor, Denver critic John Moore, South Brooklyn critic Jason Zinoman, L.A. hip-hop and theater critic Rebecca Haithcoat, and Seattle critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh. (There will also be a Weekly Howl discussion on Twitter this coming Thursday, Apr. 4, 2-3 pm EST; you can use the hashtag #newplay.)

One essay I wish I'd assigned, but you should read in full as a supplement, is Omar Willey's extraordinary, searching examination of the dysfunctional relationship between theaters, audiences, and critics that's as devastating, and as clear-eyed, as anything I've read on the subject. And I will also direct you, as I do every occasion I get, to my favorite purpose-of-criticism essay ever: Fintan O'Toole's "What Are Critics For?" As I once routinely signed off to my Back Stage West readers: Read on, and tell what us you think.

Mar 27, 2013

Getting Medieval on That Jazz

Pippin at the ART (photo by Michael J. Lutch)

I'd never met Diane Paulus until my recent interview regarding her new revival of Pippin for Time Out NY. We chatted on a rehearsal break at the Manhattan Movement Center on 60th St., blocks from where she grew up on the Upper West Side (and where she still maintains a part-time residence when she's not in Boston running the ART—which, by the way, she never mentions without that prefatory "the"). She told me she grew  up on early '70s Broadway—Dancin', Magic Show, and, of course, that strange medieval-jazz-hands mutant, Pippin, which she's putting a circus spin on for her remount:

“In theater, I always say you live in the moments where things don’t go according to plan, because then all of a sudden everybody wakes up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is live theater!’ In the circus, that’s always happening. When we execute some of the moves in this show, it is real, real, real. And the audience is there, living and breathing with them.”
Personally I find Pippin a deeply puzzling show that could only have been born in the weird collisions of the '70s, when Broadway's hard-headed old-school pros rubbed elbows with, and often threw very sharp elbows at, the next generation of longhaired pop/rock folks. After talking to Paulus, who is nothing if not a great pitchwoman for her vision, I'm almost convinced that her new Pippin might actually have found a way to freshly embody the show's Fosse-vs.-Schwartz frisson (the circus overlay, which she rightly points out isn't that much of a stretch).

In any case, you can RTWT.

Mar 17, 2013

I'll Drink To That

I was raised by Germans and Eastern Europeans but discovered a few years back, when I tracked down my birth mother, that in fact my blood runs Dutch and Norwegian, with a smattering of Irish. Chalk it up to nurture, then, that I've never had a great affinity for St. Patrick's Day. This year I'll visit the world-class Musical Instrument Museum with my young kids and their cousins, and the combination of some Eire-themed special events and their presence should make this a memorable green day.

Prior to this iteration, though, the only St. Patrick's Day celebration I cherish is one from mid-1990s Los Angeles, a matter-of-fact multicultural pileup I have often used as shorthand to illustrate why I came to love that benighted sprawltown: The evening found me with a Korean-American friend at a German pub, where some impromptu live karaoke saw the pub's owner get up to sing "Besame Mucho" in Spanish and our waitress offer a passable rendition of "Jambalaya." She got a nice tip. 

Mar 11, 2013

The Body Always Wins

As there always is, there was more to my interview with Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek than I was able to fit into my Times piece. She asked, through her translator Gitta Honegger, if she could publish the entire interview, and who was I to say no? The entire email transcript is here. A key excerpt:
Q: I haven't counted the lines, but I'm pretty sure Jackie talks more about Marilyn than about her husband Jack. Though she continually calls Marilyn not a threat, a nobody, she spends a lot of the play talking about her, almost to an obsessive degree. Is this meant to undercut Jackie's veracity--to show she's an unreliable narrator, someone whose protestations we can't take at face value?
EJ. That’s possible. Women are often more preoccupied with their rivals than their cheating husbands. Of course Marilyn was never a danger to Jackie, but there is the dichotomy between one woman who defines herself through thinking and another, who is primarily a beautiful body (I am conscious of the injustice, since Marilyn was much more intelligent than her public image and Jackie probably more superficial than one assumes), but the body always wins. A woman gains value on account of her youth and beauty (both had it! But Marilyn was a creature of light, who defined herself through her exterior, the body, and you can’t object to the body, because the body can’t be contradicted, at best it can be surgically changed), rather than through thinking and working. A man is what he makes of himself, a woman is what she is. Objection overruled. A woman succumbs to this injustice; she cannot elevate her sexual value through knowledge and know-how. A man can. And, of course, Jackie knew that.
Meanwhile, the New York critics have weighed in, mostly positively though with some misgivings, on Jackie's debut.

Mar 5, 2013

A Widow Word Play

Apologies, I've been too buried under deadlines to even point you in the direction of one of the stories that put me under the gun: a piece in the paper of record on the U.S. premiere of Elfriede Jelinek's one-woman play Jackie, indeed the U.S. premiere of anything by Jelinek, a reclusive Austrian Nobel Prize winner, in a production by Women's Project, which is on something of a run lately (their last play was Laura Marks' crackling Bethany). The subject matter of the play alone would be enough to draw attention, but Jelinek's writing is bound to make a splash, as well:
Three male mannequins, their collared shirts duct-taped to plastic-foam wig stands, lie in a pile in an Upper West Side rehearsal room. They are the first signs, at an early read-through of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Jackie,” that this Women’s Project production will not be a traditional bio-play about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The next warning comes when the actress Tina Benko, a rail-thin blonde with a husky voice, begins the play by reading aloud the playwright’s opening stage directions regarding the mannequins: “Those dead men, Jack, Bobby, Telis (‘Ari’), they’ll be quite a load, so, how shall I put it, she should drag those dead ones behind her like in a tug of war. Or like a Volga boatman with his boat. Sorry, I can’t make it easier for you.”
As fine as the story is, though, the Times really went all out with the multimedia here, including this cool/creepy interactive before-and-after photo of Benko's transformation into character and this video excerpt from the show. Wish I could claim credit for these, but I just do the words part.