Friday, September 28, 2007

Somebody Stop This Guy!

Note: this is strict opinion, and I fully endorse the right of other critics to have other opinions. I also don't claim to be any better, but I am interested in getting better, so I put this out there in the hopes of sharing my own personal progress as a reviewer, theatergoer, and writer.

I have to justify it because I briefly worked with Matt Windman during the neonatal stages of the New Theater Corps, and I don't want it to seem as if there's anything behind my critique of his critiques. But come on:
Okay, Mr. Hove. We get it. You're a smart guy with intriguing ideas. Nevertheless, wouldn't it have been better to just do Moliere's "The Misanthrope"?
Can somebody explain Matt's language to me? To know that Mr. Hove is smart and that he has intriguing ideas, you need to be watching his experimental modernizations of classic works. Had Mr. Hove done a standard reproduction, a carbon copy facsimile, it would be a simple revival, as bland as any star-vehicle on Broadway (take The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial). No wonder (as was pointed out at the recent Prelude panel I attended) downtown theater has it so rough: a lot of critics are stodgy traditionalists, who refuse to look critically at anything new, and say things like "Frankly, 'The Misanthrope' doesn't need to be updated." Can we expect honest opinions from someone who attends a Shakespearian play thinking there's only one way to present it? I'm all for period pieces, formal revivals, and time-capsule productions, but I'm wide-eyed and eager for the new, too: the chance to resurrect a play, not simply revive it.

Some critics seem unwilling to rise to the challenge of avant-garde, either from a lack of seeing enough "alternative" theater to know what is still avant-garde and what isn't. (This is actually a point I'd like to explore further: how long does it take before something isn't avant-garde any more? I'd say that The Misanthrope takes enough chances that it is genuinely surprising, refreshingly new, not just to the Broadway snob but to the ten-plays-a-week enthusiast. Iphigenia 2.0, which Windman also calls avant-garde, belongs to a style of work that Mee, among others, has been doing for years now, and to call that avant-garde expresses at best a disinterest and at worst a disdain for new works out there, that is, they weren't big enough to really be doing work before, they may have broken ground ten years ago, but only now is worth mentioning that they're groundbreaking.)

What I'm saying is that it's far easier to slap the disaffecting "avant-garde" label on something and to walk away than it is to actually try to process the pros and cons of a production through the filter of accumulated theater knowledge.

Which is, of course, why any theater critic must constantly travel not just to Broadway, but to the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway stages, or even, for completists, to other cities and countries. I'm not saying that Matt can't dislike "The Misanthrope"; I'm saying that the reasons he cites are lazy and based on a personal bias. There's nothing wrong with there being a conservative audience, but a critic must write to teach and expose others, not to pander to that audience. So explain what makes some experiments succeed, and why others fail: don't just condemn an artist wholesale for trying.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Matt's opinions have often been, shall we say, peculiar. He's claimed that Roundabout Theatre productions have "offbeat character" and this week he charged that "Americans can't write opera." I guess that, along with your Van Hove example, these could just be viewed as an honest (though highly unique) subjectivity. Still, I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking that Windman can just plain get things wrong.