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April 20, 2009

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Zev Valancy

I personally really enjoyed Ruined--I think it managed to avoid exactly that trap you were discussing. Nottage doesn't rely on the subject to do the work of making drama, she wrote an excellent play. It's definitely a play in the realistic tradition, and not a hugely experimental piece, but I think it's exciting because it's a moving, involving story that is informative without ever being preachy. I think it's a shame you didn't catch it--it's an exceptionally well-acted and directed production. But I imagine it will have an afterlife--and that we'll see more great stuff from Nottage.

Francis

I thought "Ruined" was terrific, - unflinching in its portrayal of the role of and options for women in times of war - but had, for this particular audience member, an unsatisfying denouement. Great dialogue, brilliantly-written female characters, and then a sudsy, rose-colored, almost naive ending, which flattened the impact of the entire piece. I heard that was also the beef that New York theatergoers had with the play (Nottage changed very little, supposedly, between the Goodman production and the MTC production).

Patrick

"And considering that the Goodman had stashed Lynn Nottage’s new play on its second stage (as did Manhattan Theatre Club in its subsequent run), it didn’t feel like anyone here was considering Ruined a major new work."

Wait a minute Kris. Are you saying that a production on a smaller stage simply will not be as important or good as as one on a large stage? This on a blog proclaiming the good of smaller theatres?! ;-)

The Goodman normally puts more experimental work in the smaller space. This can be for several reasons, but my guess is two are the most likely: 1. They don't feel the production will draw the numbers to fill the larger house, and/or 2. They feel the production is simply better suited to the more intimate, smaller, space.

Regardless of your feelings about a play's PR campaign, subject matter, or how any review may be perceived against the subject matter*, assuming that the venue it is presented in says anything about the quality of the play is wrong. Especially on a blog championing storefront (small) theatre.

*I completely agree with you on that. It's professional suicide to say that an actress playing Anne Frank sucked, etc... To many people confuse criticizing a production with the subject matter/message.

Tony

Maybe they just didn't think Ruined could hold its own with the mighty Turn of the Century.

(That's probably a low blow)

I do think we often confuse what a play is about with what it actually is, so plays about important subjects get done a lot of times when the play itself isn't very well written.

Bilal

*I completely agree with you on that. It's professional suicide to say that an actress playing Anne Frank sucked, etc... To many people confuse criticizing a production with the subject matter/message.

Not necessarily...this would be one of those cases where one would have judge the tenor of the room as well. If an actress truly sucks as Anne Frank and everybody in the room thinks so, then they'll be refreshed to see that reaction validated in print.

What you don't get, with plays like these, is the luxury to be one of the few people in the room to dislike something everybody else enjoyed.

Ed

Actually, to completely digress, there's a pretty funny (if not very appropriate) theatre joke that involves an actress playing Anne Frank sucking. Isn't this from an episode of "The Golden Girls?" As I recall Bea Arthur's line is something like this:

Bea Arthur's character (discussing another actress she hates): I'm not saying that she isn't a terrific little actress, but when she was appearing in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank, when the SS came to the apartment looking for the family, the entire audience shouted "She's in the attic!"

Though maybe the humor of that joke comes from how vastly inappropriate that audience reaction would be in real life- i.e., the actress is SO BAD that she instigates an audience reaction that far over the line of good taste.

Kelly Kleiman

I also didn't happen to see Ruined; but I didn't then feel compelled to write a piece about how the Pulitzer Committee must surely have been rewarding the subject matter rather than the work itself. It's probably best not to assume you know everything a playwright has to say about a particular subject--however predictable you may believe that to be--without actually hearing what the playwright says.

And, if I may say so, it's particularly egregious to decide in advance that what X says isn't worth hearing when X is both black and female. Decisions like that already keep our stages whiter and maler than they should be; they don't need to be echoed by the critical community.

Kris Vire

Kelly, I feel like you're hearing in my post something I didn't intend. Never did I say Nottage's words weren't worth hearing or that the play didn't deserve the prize. I just thought it was interesting that Ruined didn't seem to have made the same splash here as it did in New York and with the Pulitzer jurors. When the supposed best new American play of the year didn't make our top ten in Chicago, that's striking. I don't know if we're wrong or the Pulitzer jurors are, but it's worth discussing.

And my observation about critic-proof subject matter stands whether the playwright is both black and female or both white and male, like Laramie team leader Moisès Kaufman. I think it's fantastic that we had three Pulitzer finalists and none of them are white males; I don't agree with the implication that black female playwrights should be, as a group, off-limits for critical discussion.

Kerry Reid

Kris, three out of the four examples you chose to illustrate what you feel are "critic-proof" plays happen to involve African or African American experience. Why is that? I'm sure you don't think that Liberia, the Congo, Sudan, and 1950s Mississippi are interchangeable environments. For the record, though I didn't see Lost Boys of the Sudan, I did see Emmett Till and Black Diamond, as well as Ruined, and I don't see any parallels between the three, aside from the aforementioned very broad connection of being about some aspects of black experience and history. Nor did I think there was anything "critic-proof" about them. I gave a measuredly favorable review to Black Diamond (interesting story, not bad for a first-time playwright was my short take on it) and wasn't reviewing Emmett Till (I had some serious reservations about it in terms of structure and tone), or Ruined (which I mostly liked a lot, though I do think the ending cops out a bit).

I don't think Kelly remotely suggested that black female playwrights are off-limits for critical discussion. She is simply asking (and I would back her up on this) that you try to see a show before making assumptions about its alleged "do-gooder" underpinnings or simply taking the assessments of your coworkers at face value. There is no such thing as a critic-proof show, at least in the sense you're suggesting -- no matter what Arlene Croce says. I'm afraid I see that stance as a bit of a cop-out.

(You really ought to go to the Reader archives for Laura Molzahn's review of Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here," the piece that launched Croce's "victim art" manifesto, for a perfect example of how to review allegedly "unreviewable" material. It's a negative -- but insightful and evenhanded -- review of what Molzahn SAW, rather than what Croce said it obviously HAD to be about, without having seen it.)

And I would also point out that though it may not have made the TOC Top 10 list, "Ruined" got great reviews in the Reader and the Tribune (can't remember what Hedy said offhand) and the run was extended, so it obviously did well with audiences, even with seemingly depressing subject matter during a redhot election and economic meltdown that took its toll on other theaters. Just because something doesn't register with TOC (or any other media outlet's gaggle of critics) doesn't mean that it's not "making a splash." I'll grant that it wasn't as giddy a reception as August: Osage County got, but I think a lot of that had to with Tracy Letts being "one of our own," and that the play used so many Steppenwolf ensemble members that we've grown to know and love in parts that were largely written with them in mind.

Remember that panel on women playwrights at Dramatists last year, when the quote from the Time Out New York critic vis a vis "Wit" was read? The one about how he'd expected it to be a "whiny victim play?" Yeah. Sometimes the problem isn't the play.

Kris Vire

Patrick--ha, fair enough. I picked up the point about the second stages from a Twitter exchange with Tony and Sarah McLellan; considering that a lot of the discussions I've followed (both live panels and on the blogs) about the marginalization of women playwrights in our larger institutions have mentioned their "relegation" to second stages, I thought it worth noting.

Kerry Reid

Here's the link to Laura's "Still/Here" review that I mentioned. Well worth reading, IMO.

http://tinyurl.com/d8qwpr

Kris Vire

Sorry, Kerry, your comments came in while I was posting my response to Patrick. The Arlene Croce/Bill T. Jones fracas is new to me--I'm just now reading up on it, thanks for the tip--but I think that all of the plays I referenced fall into a category of what you might call "social justice drama"--like Emily Mann's Greensboro: A Requiem, which I loved in Steep's production last year, or Richard Dresser's Augusta, which I didn't care for at all in ATC's production last year--that presents a bit of a challenge for critics and audience members who might be underwhelmed by the dramatization but don't want to be seen as underwhelmed by the subject matter. It's what Chris Jones characterized in his review today of The Overwhelming as "those earnest, grant-family plays about internationally serious matters."

The same is true of Gus Van Sant's Milk. As much as I loved the movie, I'm not sure Dustin Lance Black's screenplay deserved the Oscar. But I've definitely seen cases (especially those involving anonymous online comments) where folks expressing reservations about the film are accused of not caring enough about the struggle for gay rights. It's a tricky thing.

And I'll admit that my thoughts about the Chicago production of Ruined included that it didn't seem to get as much buzz here as A:OC; that might indeed be an unfair comparison. But you and Kelly and I all know that we have to make constant value judgments about what shows we have time to see, and we use our colleagues' opinions to make those decisions.

Zev Valancy

A few points that have come up:

1) The "Second Stage" thing--Ruined, while not in MTC's Broadway house (which rarely hosts new works), is at Stage One of their Off-Broadway space, so it's not shunted into their smallest space. Arguably still the second stage, but I think it's a distinction worth making.

2) Hedy was, if anything, more positive than the Trib or the Reader--she said that it should win the Pulitzer in her initial review. I wonder if anyone had discussed that in the press before she said it?

3) Ruined is a play that is solidly within today's theatrical mainstream. It doesn't take any huge formal risks, and isn't what I'd call "experimental" in any way. This is something that is true of most Pulitzer and Tony-winning plays. There's a lot wrong with the mainstream, maybe, but I think that many people will overlook a really outstanding play (which I think Ruined is) because it isn't experimental. That's unfortunate, because quality and solid writing are hard to find, no matter what the play's form is.

4) It's completely impossible to tell whether any work will enter the canon of popular/"great" plays. Look at the plays which have won the Pulitzer and the Tony some time. Sometimes the winners had staying power and the runners-up have faded, other times it's the opposite. Guessing how things will end up is a fool's game.

Zev Valancy

Oh, and to temper my praise--yes, the ending was a copout, but I semi-accepted it because it was sincere and sweet and I wanted that after such an emotionally tough play. Call me sentimental.

Tony

Patrick, here's the problem I have with you comment. Ruined is not an "experimental" work. Now I'll grant you that often work on smaller stages is better. Often the work in the Owen is better than the Albert.

And if it were an isolated incident I might be more inclined to agree with you. However, it is a systemic problem nationwide. Depending on the year 20-25% of productions are by women. Non-white men don't fare much better. Most of those are on second stages.

In fact productions by women and writers of color are almost exclusively presented on second stages.

Could you justify selecting technicians by color and sex, and then taking the white men into that mainstages at $60/hr. and hire the women and minorities in the second stages at $10/hr.?

Because that's what systemically do with writers.

Tony

er, should have been "Because that's what we systematically do with writers."

need more coffee . . .

Kerry Reid

Well,I guess I still don't see the problem, Kris, or accept the premises of your argument. I trashed Corpus Christi as a plea for tolerance of gay men (white gay men, in the production I saw) that used misogyny and classism to make its arguments. (And yeah, the letters are still in the Reader archive.) Suzan-Lori Parks' "In the Blood" was eviscerated by Justin Hayford twice to my knowledge (and I know I reviewed it negatively at least once). How can someone negatively review a play about a homeless exploited black woman written by a black woman? Again, go to the Reader archives and find out! Tony Adler, I think, reviewed David Barr's Emmett Till play negatively. It's not only not hard to do -- it's been done. A lot.

Most plays with any pretensions to lasting importance take on difficult subject matter. But again, I wonder why the examples that came to mind easiest for you in your initial post were all about black experience. Would reviewing "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" be "difficult" because it's about a severely handicapped kid and who wants to beat up on the experience of handicapped kids and their parents? I just don't see the problem, I guess. Sure, you may have people who will accuse you of insensitivity or narrow-mindedness if you give such a play a negative review. But who cares? That comes with the territory. (Anyone who gets into theater criticism to be popular has been misinformed. And don't get me started on the waters in Casablanca!)

The worse critical sin, in my view, is to pre-judge something based on hearsay or personal assumptions, or to avoid reviewing it because it might cause discomfort around our ingrained senses of privilege as white first-world people (which most theater critics in America are, let's face it -- and that's the real problem, IMO -- more gender and especially racial diversity in arts criticism might alleviate some of this. Or not). Thinking that "Well, this is about oppressed black third-world women so I have to handle it gingerly or risk being called a jerk" isn't the way to go. Neither is ignoring it altogether or assuming it's a "do-gooder" play in order to avoid dealing with it.

Alice Singleton

The (un-existential existence of) Kris Vire: Proving that once again the the accurate definition of "affirmative action" is, and always has been:

"I have no real talent to speak of; I'm emotionally and intellectually stunted; I'm physically insecure and awkward in structure and thought; I've never had a profound thought from zygote to current life cycle, I never mastered walking and chewing gum at the same time nor any experience, education or knowledge on the subjects that I speak (of), BUT, I'm white and male - it's always "Morning in (my) America", and dinosaurs still roam the earth - and I'm a baby triceratops! It's Manifest Destiny that I rule the earth - after all, the Good Book says God gave the White Man dominion over all things, and no one gets to do nothin' without my permission and approval. It's Good to be the King of the World."

What a jackass...

Kris Vire

Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Singleton.

Laura

"In fact productions by women and writers of color are almost exclusively presented on second stages."

Tony, while this might be true in other parts of the country, I can't let this generalization (though you do add an "almost") slip by. Just look at Victory Gardens Theater here in Chicago: Charles Smith's DENMARK (2006), Carlyle Brown's A BIG BLUE NAIL (2008), Gloria Bond Clunie's LIVING GREEN (2009), Aditi Brennan Kapil's LOVE PERSON (2009). Nary a second stage for any of these writers of color: they were all/will all be presented on the Biograph mainstage. And one winner of their Ignition Festival (for emerging writers of color) will have his play produced on the Biograph mainstage this fall, while the other will have his play open VGT's new studio space - more a matter of rep than anything else.

(Tony, I do agree with you in regards to female playwrights, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.)

Ed

*Ed runs in with an armful of torches and pitchforks*

Ed: Whoa, sorry everyone, am I late?!

Also, is it too late to sign up to be a baby triceratops? I think that would be kind of cool, actually.

Kerry, the common thread from my point of view in the "do-gooder" examples Kris cites are that they are all recent or upcoming productions by midsized-large, prominent Chicago theatres (i.e. Lookingglass and the Goodman, a concert performance at About Face), so naturally they're what came to his mind first when he was writing the post. How much navel gazing are we to reasonably expect him to do about his subconscious motives? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, you know? (a RACIST cigar!)

On the other hand I agree with you that a critic shouldn't be afraid to embrace the challenge of covering a work that makes him or her nervous, or of being unabashedly critical of it if it fails to succeed on its own merits, regardless of the merits of the issue on which the work focuses.

Tony

Laura, that's an average of one a season, by one company. (4 shows in four years)

Does one show a year really undercut what I said? (worth noting that VG doesn't have a second stage right now.)

Do you think that is representative of Chicago as a whole?

Patrick

http://playgoer.blogspot.com/2009/04/to-slot-or-not-to-slot.html

Relates to this discussion.

Laura

Tony, I don't want to completely derail this comments thread with a discussion about the lack of plays in sub seasons by both writers of color and/or women, though I do think it's a topic extremely worthy of discussion. That said, while I think that Chicago succeeds a little better than other cities (in part because rental rates here are comparably cheap, meaning companies partly or entirely dedicated to programming plays by little-heard voices can thrive more easily), it's an ongoing problem.

However, are we only focusing on the Big Regional Theaters when we ask this question? Chicago companies like Congo Square, Silk Road, Rasaka, Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna, and many, many more are trying to diversify the voices we see and hear on stage. Their budgets aren't as big, but a playwright being produced by one of those companies is still a great thing, storefront or not.

Kerry Reid

Ed, this is why it's good to have an editor who can say "All your examples of social-justice do-gooder dramas, except for one, have to do with black experience. Is that deliberate because you're talking about 'Ruined,' or would you like to broaden the scope a bit lest it be misinterpreted?"

I by no means believe Kris is racist. However, when all the examples he cited originally (pace "The Laramie Project") are about black subjects, it's not a paranoid leap to wonder if the problem is with social-justice dramas in general (which encompass a huge swath of plays going back to Ibsen, at least) or with those involving specifically black lives and stories.

I have interviewed dozens of playwrights of color over the years and I've never met one who wanted to be held to an easier standard of critical judgment than their white peers. They just want a fair shot -- which means hoping for critics who get outside their comfort zone and read non-mainstream playwrights from time to time. It also means that they (along with other artists of all races) hope that there are critics who can recognize their preconceptions and acknowledge them. That is, they hope for critics who won't dismiss work as "annoyingly criticism-proof" -- sight unseen -- because they fear the backlash if they give a play with laudable intentions but questionable execution a negative review.

Does that happen? Of course. Tony Adler got called a lot of unsavory names in a letter that ran after his Emmett Till review. But critics get called names for all kinds of reasons for all kinds of reviews. Just part of the job, and it's never a reason not to do the job.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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