Thursday, February 18, 2010

Likes and Dislikes

I will confess--I like theater that makes me think.

Yes, I absolutely expect to be entertained when I go to the theater, however, that is only one of many expectations that I have. I also want to be engaged.

There are many ways to engage a person and each person is going to find different things engaging. For myself, I want my brain to be engaged. If you can engage my emotions, that's a plus too. For me, a fine night at the theater is when I've found myself presented with ideas that I have to wrestle with or am given a new perspective on a familiar issue. I like plays that continue to unfold after I've left the theater, forcing me to continue to examine layer after layer. I'm especially fond of shows where there aren't clear-cut answers and I am left pondering and arguing more than one side of something.

Notice those past three paragraphs have a whole lot of the word "I" in there. It's intentional. Nothing in those paragraphs say "this is what makes good theater" or "this is what art is." Rather, they state what my personal preferences are. When I am in the role of critic, it is, quite frankly, irrelevant what I like or dislike or what my preferences are. Why should any of my readers care whether I like a show or not?

My Personal Opinion? Why would you care?

"Isn't that the point of a review? It's an opinion, isn't it?" you might ask. (Or maybe you wouldn't, but indulge me a moment, please).

I would argue no. I mean, yes, it's an opinion and an expression of subjective criteria. But whether I liked it is NOT the point of the review. The point of a review is whether you, the reader, would like it. Most likely, you and I have different tastes in at least some aspects of theater. My telling you I like or don't like a show gives you no information on whether or not you would like or dislike it.

While a review expresses opinion, that opinion should be supported by specific observations--observations that can help you to judge for yourself whether you liked or disliked a show. I may hate farces (I don't, but let's pretend for the sake of argument that I do) and you may love them. If I'm reviewing a farce, I shouldn't be complaining that the acting was over the top or the situations unrealistic. Rather, I should be critiquing whether the play lived up to the conventions of a farce or, if it broke those conventions, whether the choices were effective for the genre and for the purpose of the play. If I've written the review well, the reader really shouldn't know whether I liked the show or not.

I've found that I rarely give a direct answer to the question, "Did you like the show?" More often than not, I'll give some specific reply about what worked or didn't work in a show rather than express my personal pleasure or displeasure--that is, if I'm talking to someone in a professional context.

To be honest, it is the elements of a show that I find far more fascinating to talk about anyway. To say I "liked" or "disliked" it seems so final, so pat. It lumps everything I've just experienced into a single word. Most plays deserve far more than that. They deserve to be heard, to be listened to, to be discussed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Smell of the Kill

It was an excellent weekend for theater. On Friday night I went to see Williamston's "The Smell of the Kill," to review it for Encore Michigan. The next morning I headed out to Holland to take my first stab as a forensics theater judge. That was an incredible day in which three of us were privileged to judge the incredible work done by five groups of students. They did 45-minute cuts of the following shows:

  • Sweet Nothings in Her Ear
  • The Laramie Project
  • Doctor Faustus
  • The Jungle Book
  • Romeo and Juliet

I look forward to doing that again some day and am most grateful to Jane Falion for recommending me.

A Study in Assertiveness

While you can read my review at the link above (go ahead, click on the word "review" and visit the rest of Encore Michigan while you're there), The Smell of the Kill is one of those plays that encourages you to keep thinking. I found myself taking plenty of notes that didn't really fit in the context of a review.

The Smell of the Kill could be a textbook case illustrating the differences between being passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, and assertive. None of the women in the play are assertive.

Let me give you Exhibit A: Nicky, a career woman who enjoys the wealth that she and her husband has accumulated. When he is indicted for embezzlement, she is furious because they are going to lose everything they have. Her reaction is one of very overt anger—she says she’s going to kill him during the first several minutes of the play.

Exhibit B: Molly. It is tempting to think of her as being the passive one. She responds to her husband’s possessiveness by keeping up a smiling, sweet face while striking out to get what she wants. Yet, as the play goes on, the audience learns that she is not passive. She's found her own way to fight against that which frustrates her in her marriage. She doesn't confront him directly, but she goes out and gets what she wants in a very passive-aggressive manner.

Exhibit C: Debra. Debra truly is the passive one. The audience learns almost immediately that her marriage is not a happy one. At least, we learn that her husband is a cad with roaming hands and eyes. Yet, she is the one who defends her husband, who tries to shame Nicky for not being a supportive wife, and who gives up everything she wants.

It's not surprising that all of their marriages are failing.

For a moment, let’s take it out of the context of a play in which the playwright makes choices based on dramatic effect, humor, and entertainment. Indulge me and pretend that these are real women. None of them have marital problems that are insurmountable—at least, not if they had been approached with two partners who were assertive and honest—or at least assertive in the face of dishonesty.

None of them have created a relationship where problems are tackled with a desire for a win-win situation. They're all stuck in the win-lose or lose-lose scenarios. This is a play in which the husbands are cads, but their wives aren't much better. They've cast themselves as victims who can only become "winners" if they turn their husbands into victims.

The play is hilarious and highly entertaining, but it can also be a character study in how NOT to run one's relationships.

A Superficial Smell

Perhaps the other thing that keeps the characters from becoming too sympathetic is their motivations for wanting to kill their husbands--in particular Nicky and Molly. The character who has the most cause and stands to lose the most, is the one who is least aggressive and the one who doesn't have the hunger for revenge that the others do.

Nicky is married to embezzler and is angry because she is about to lose the wealth she has become accustomed to. She's ready to kill for money.

Molly is married to a stalker and is frustrated because she's not getting enough sex and doesn't have the babies that she wants. She's ready to kill for more sex.

Debra is married to an adulterer--one who is ready to divorce her and throw her out of her home. She is about to lose everything just so she can still have custody of her child--a child who hates her because the child thinks it was her decision and not the husband's to put him in military school.

It is fascinating that the one with the most cause is the one who holds out the longest and who keeps up the fa├žade the longest while the one whose loss is the most superficial is the one most quickly incited.

Go ahead, go see "The Smell of the Kill" at Williamston and when you're done laughing, spend some time thinking about these women.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On being able to write

There are many reasons I have not been writing lately--and being busy is not one of them.

In many ways, I have been the opposite of busy. I have been in a funk that has kept me from doing much of anything--a funk that started last July and that I have struggled to shake.

As a matter of philosophy, I typically avoid getting too personal in my blog just as I avoid inserting myself into reviews that I write. I'm starting to rethink part of that philosophy, even though I still wish to carefully guard the privacy of my family and those who are close to me.

Moved to Write About Altar Boyz, and yet hesitating

However, I had a bit of an epiphany this past week as I thought about "Altar Boyz" and how I wished to write about it. I wanted to talk about the final song and how and why it brought me to tears. I wanted to talk about how the art reached me and how it was so powerful because it spoke to me where I was. There might not have been anyone else in the audience who was hearing what I was hearing because they might have needed to hear something else. It's not the sort of thing I would put into a review because the message was a personal one.

In this blog, where I want to talk about theater and the connections it makes with people, how can I not talk about the connections art makes with me?

Getting Personal (or more than you want to know)

As those of you who know me personally are aware, this past year has been a challenging one. I have withdrawn from many activities and people that I love because I have needed to heal. I have had many days where I could not function on even a most basic level. That has kept me from writing because every time I started, I would end up revealing more about myself than I was comfortable with. I knew I was not in a good place. I knew I was not being my best self or even my somewhat-good self. I did not want that aspect of me put on public display when I was barely able to look at myself without contempt.

In July, I was struggling with an emotional crisis that I'm still not willing to talk about except to say that I was barely holding things together. Then Richard and I lost our sixth pregnancy. After that, I wasn't holding it together at all. I'll spare you the psychological details, but suffice it to say that in layman's terms I had what could be called a mental/nervous breakdown. (Yes, I know that medically there is no such diagnosis. It's a good shortcut phrase, though, that communicates things well without a lot of technical descriptions.)

Since then, I have cocooned. I've forced myself to do as much as I could where it was required--at home, at work, in my column. This blog fell by the wayside. There were several shows I missed simply because I could not face people and keep a smile on my face. Nor was going out without my smile an option. I would feel naked. My column has suffered, but I did what I could to keep it going and make sure things got at least minimal coverage even if I couldn't give it what it and the local arts organizations deserved.

There were times when I felt myself again and thought I had recovered. Those times would last a few days, sometimes a few weeks. I constantly counted my blessings, reminding myself how much I had to be grateful for. I thanked God for giving me a husband who was patient, understanding, and nurturing. As I slipped into paralysis, he stepped up to the plate and took over the care of our family and my needs. He encouraged me, never giving up on me and reminding me that I would recover. He kept me smiling and made sure that I laughed even when things seemed the darkest. There's a reason (several actually) why 25 years after we first met that I'm still head over heels for him--and he for me.

Finding Solace

Since Christmas, things have started to pick up, albeit in small ways. I'm reading again. I'm going to the theater again. I'm crocheting again. Playing the clarinet for the first time in decades has been wonderfully nurturing. I'm still having difficulty focusing and I have days where I cannot do the things I love. Work that used to be easy and fulfilling is still difficult and sometimes impossible. I still find myself caught in a past that I would exorcise if I could. I'm also far more emotional than is typical for me and far more vulnerable than I am comfortable with. But those things are starting to subside and more and more often I'm finding myself in the mirror again instead of the stranger who has been there for so many months.

While I have tried to practice compassion for myself and be patient with the healing process, I have not always succeeded. One of the things that has frustrated me the most has been the elusiveness of writing. Writing is often a gauge of my mental health. I am not one of those who writes well when depressed. In fact, I find myself unable to write at all in those times because all of my thoughts are focused inward. For me, writing has always been a means of communication--a way of making connections with people, with ideas, with life. If there is no connection, there is no point to writing.

Wrestling with Writing

So the questions that I wrestle with now are these: Can I find a way to write about my experiences in a way that can make a connection with others? Is it better to not write in this blog until I have healed more? (Not writing at all isn't an option given that I still need to feed my family.) For that matter, can I really write about art--something that I have often said is life-changing--without bringing at least some pieces of myself to that writing? Which pieces? At what point does it become unprofessional?

They are good questions to wrestle with, but while I'm engaged in that mental exercise, I can't make any promises that I will blog more or that I won't. I want to find a way to write things that are meaningful without being self-indulgent.

In the mean time, I'm going to quote from the lyrics in Peppermint Creek's production of Altar Boyz that left me unable to stop the tears from falling as the song's message spoke so much to where I've been since this past July and the hope that I have clung to when things were bleakest:

One beam of light, is enough to see where you're going
One wrong turn, is enough to lose your way
One choice, is all you have to make
One ounce of faith could save the day
I believe, that I came to know you for a reason
I believe, that the things that you say will come true
I believe that with you in my life I'll make it
I believe in you

One Mistake, doesn't have to mean that it's over

One bad day, only means there's work to do

One night, is sometimes all it takes

To realize one thing is true
I believe, that I came to know you for a reason
I believe, that the things that you say will come true
I believe that with you in my life I'll make it
I believe in you

Take a picture of me now, take a look at who I am
Yesterday I wasn't half as strong

[Abe, Juan, Luke, and Mark]
Take a picture of us all, what we've been and what we are
Look at that, and tell me I'm wrong