Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Base of Biases

As I continue to explore what it means for me to write criticism, one class I took in college keeps coming back to me, ENG 450N. The whole purpose of that course, "Evaluating Literature" was based upon coming up with a series of criteria (which would evolve over the semester) and then straining them down to a list of recognizable biases that could identify what works and doesn't -- at the most primal level -- for us. In the interests of being fair to my own writing, and in continuing to grow it, I wanted to explore why I had such an emotional reaction to Fabrik. This came out in part from Matthew Freeman's self-awareness after Happy Days, and also from a series of comments I received from Anonymous in response to something I'd blogged about Apartment 3A for the Show Showdown race.

First and foremost: Fabrik is, as I say in my review, the second play that's ever made me really lose myself in tears. I'm not talking about choking up a little, as with Journey's End: I'm talking about needing to sit in the theater after the show for a few minutes afterward, unable to really speak intelligibly, and then having a lump in my throat for the rest of the night. In other words: powerful stuff. Thinking back, the only other time that'd ever happened to me was seeing a college production of Cabaret, and I knew that had hit home only because I knew the actor playing Herr Schultz. That's when it hit me: I could've seen myself in his shoes, too, standing there in my fruit shop, a Nazi youth having just thrown a brick through my window, and me, remarking naively that it was OK, they wouldn't do anything to me, for I was, first and foremost, a German, just like them. Sobering thought, especially given how false that thought turned out to be. But whereas I'd usually be able to pull back behind the fourth wall and hide myself from any real feeling (the tragic flaw of the audience), knowing the actor forced me to confront the scene, and from there, every effect was amplified across the boards and into my heart.

But Fabrik is about a puppet -- why was it able to hit me? Could've been the intimacy of the theater -- the miniature scale of the action itself made the small, delicate movements all the bigger. It could've been that I was sitting in the front row, just feet away from the giant German boots stomping a puppet prisoner to death. It could've been the soft classical music reverberating -- I'm always a sucker for an emotional score. More directly, I think it was again that it spoke to me through my work as an artist: this time, the aestheticism of the violence pulled my strings, so to speak. Not to mention that, due to some bad memories of Hebrew School as a child (don't ever force a kid through years of religious study), I had the repressions of my own making rising up in me.

So then, what do I want to see on stage? First -- and this should be no surprise to those who have read my reviews -- I prize aestheticism above all else. A show that is elegantly and creatively directed already has an advantage. If it's going to be a black-box, then the performances need to be unique, otherwise it seems like a reading to me, and if it's going to be a reading, then there needs to be something noticeably different about the script, which may explain why the scripts I've been reading lately are alternative narratives, found in Clubbed Thumb's Funny, Strange, Provocative or Jordan Harrison's magazine, Play: A Journal of Plays (and also why even though I didn't like Doris to Darlene, I identified something in the writing as being superior to the rest of the show -- also why I ended up loving Amazons and Their Men).

Second, I prefer works that dispense with the fourth wall, either by the necessity of the space, or by the unconventionality of the drama. I didn't love Peter Handke's production of Offending the Audience, which I saw last night, but I loved the idea of changing our perception of the space that the performers and actors share. (I said the same thing with a similar play from The Flea and its Bats, seating ARRANGEMENTS.) The same goes for what Nature Theater of Oklahoma's done with No Dice and, more so, with Poetics: A Ballet Brut. And don't get me started on site-specific work: though it wasn't open for review, I loved Lisa D'Amour's Bird Eye Blue Print, and was thrilled with the broken anonymity of Small Metal Objects (to say nothing of what Rotozaza's been doing with works like Doublethink and Etiquette.)

Third, I like work that challenges more than the superficial. That's why I have such negative reactions to plays about the here and now, like Hunting and Gathering, but such respect for works like Crime and Punishment. This goes for politics, too: if you're going to just joke about the system, as with the trivial November, then I'm going to feel as if my time's been wasted; show a sign of real political struggle (or personal experience), as with Widows, and my heart starts to go out to the show.

Which is not to say that I can't enjoy other sorts of theater, but I need to be affected: I can't stand leaving a theater feeling nothing, or without something pushing me to consider the world in a new light. If the only sort of theater out there is really the everyday, then Charles Isherwood is right to suggest that we head to the nearest Trader Joe's to get our fix during the next strike. Luckily, I'm happy to report that the city's inventiveness shows no signs of flagging, and my apologies in advance to the shows that I don't appreciate: they, too, are doing their part in widening the variety of theater out there, opening up the way with each failure for something new and exciting. I'm far from recognizing the perfect show, but I get closer with each day to growing not only an opinion, but myself.

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