Monday, April 28, 2014

Belleville and the Role of the Artist as Critic

I went to see BELLEVILLE this afternoon, Company Theatre's production of the Amy Herzog play about Americans in Paris.

The script owes a debt to GASLIGHT, but is really more about the cognitive dissonance contained in the space between a young American couple's aspirations, and their actual life.

Abby is a girl who'd be at home in a Woody Allan film.  She's trained as an actor, but works as a yoga teacher. She's a neurotic as a cat, can't hold her liquor, and is trying to withdraw from prescription anti-depressants.

Her husband Zack, trained as a doctor, and is in Paris working for Medicins Sans Frontieres, on a cure for HIV in children.  He smokes a lot of dope with their landlord, the male half of a house-owning couple of African immigrants, with two children under five, who lives downstairs.

Zack says they're in Paris because he wants to cheer Abby up.  Abby says they left the States for Zack's career. Early on, we find out the couple is four months behind with the rent.  Abby is unaware of this state of affairs, perhaps because she doesn't speak French.

I just saw BLUE JASMINE, and my question in both these pieces was the same:  who the hell are these university educated women in 2014, who don't know how, or if, the rent is paid?

I don't know: maybe this is commonplace among the bourgeoisie on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. I don't know a single woman of any age, in any class, who doesn't know how much the roof over her head costs, or who is footing the bill, or if the bill is paid.  It's a ridiculous, antediluvian premise, but if you can get past that, the script has merit.

BELLEVILE's strength rests on Herzog's nuanced examination of the marriage of two emotionally unstable people on shaky ground.  The couple reminded me of the twenty-somethings I see in GIRLS. The play works as a study of race, class, and culture. It absolutely nails the fact that French adults in that same age demographic are not, still, semi-adolescents.

Does it work as a thriller?  Almost: but not quite.  A thriller is a twenty-one jewel watch.  It requires a structure of exquisite mechanical precision. This is a collection of intriguing, but not quite functional parts. There was too much telegraphing of plot points, and the ambiguous ending felt lazy, and fell flat.

In the end, because of the script issues, the acting and solid direction by Jason Byrne couldn't sustain the tension he and the cast so carefully built up in the first 3/4 of the play. There's a meal here, thanks to fine work from Allan Hawco, Christine Horne, Dalmar Abuzeid and Marsha Regis. It's worth seeing for the acting, but don't expect great noir.

Now on to topic number two.

There was a very smart and interesting set of articles on theatre criticism on #CanCult Times last week.  Michael Wheeler, the director at Praxis Theatre and a sharp (and delightfully acidic) blogger, political commentator and fine stage director, wrote an article about why Praxis decided not to review their fellow artists' work on their blog. I think he has a valid point: reviewing pushes you outside.  It probably doesn't help you much when you go to be peer-reviewed by arts council juries, either.

There does seem to be a consensus that the community really needs more open and informed discussion about work onstage from more sources, a point well made by reviewer Carly Manga in her #CanCult article on the state of current professional theatre criticism.

When I started this blog back in 2009,  I decided to undertake critical examination of my colleagues' work because I wasn't seeing much writing about why scripts worked or didn't, or about certain issues in the community. I am trying to write less as a reviewer, and more as a writer thinking critically about writing for the stage, and, as an artist writing about the experience of working in the theatre.

There was some discussion by both Manga and Nikki Shaffeeullah about whether reviewers who are not members of a particular community are qualified to discuss work made by that community, an issue several theatre practitioners have raised this winter.

Are there many more theatre creators working now, coming out of a tradition that is not white, or Western?  Sure. It's about time!  Could we use more critical writing about theatre from practitioners who are not middle-aged men, mostly white?  Absolutely.  #CanCult Times issue did just that in a very thoughtful way this week.

For the record, I am a member, not yet carded, of the Metis Nation of Manitoba. My ancestors fought at Batoche.

I had a guy walk up to me in a restaurant over a year after I wrote about a show I didn't think worked very well and tell me we needed to support each other in the Aboriginal community, and that by writing critically about a play by a fellow Aboriginal artist, I had effectively betrayed the community.

I invited him to sit down and join us and discuss the show, and my criticism of it, but he just wanted to talk at me, not to me. After looming and finger-wagging, he walked off.  

Is there anything more patronizing, belittling, and demeaning than assuming my fellow artists, Aboriginal and otherwise, can't tolerate a critical discussion of their work?  Are we really that insecure?Are we to treat each other like kindergarten students, and hand out gold stars just for showing up onstage? 

I'm not going to tell someone that a show works when it doesn't, and I don't care what "community" created the work, even if it is my own, especially if it is my own.  No talk about hegemony excuses a bad show.

THE  PENELOPIAD used an all female, mixed race cast, to talk about war.  It  was brilliant.  Pamela Sinha used  South Asian myth and dance in CRASH to great effect, in a play about a violent sexual assault. She won a well-deserved DORA.  Aboriginal writer and performer Cliff Cardinal made an array of characters come to life in HUFF, and served up an incendiary cocktail of rage, pain and inter-generational abuse, placed very specifically on a reservation. He and Sinha are both at the Playwright's colony at Banff this week.  I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

I have been reviewed since I was eleven years old as an actor, director and writer.  I have had good reviews, mediocre reviews, and bad reviews that smarted like a smack up the side of the head. Some of them were well deserved, some weren't.  I wish more of them had been written by actual theatre practitioners.

If anyone can spend time and money at a show, hopefully it'll be reviewed by the mainstream media.  Why? Because good reviews are free p.r. and sell tickets (duh!) I don't think there's anyone making theatre, who could use less box office revenue.

Like it or not, this still means that means a play, will, most likely, be reviewed by white men, and a few women. If we, as a community, want that to change, more of us are going to have to stick our necks out, and talk about each others' work.

I wouldn't want my work to be reviewed exclusively by mixed race, middle-aged, unmarried, straight, feminist, left-leaning, theatre-making women, anymore than I only want to be seen by that group. Call me willfully naive, but I think if I'm willing to take any one's money for a ticket, anyone who saw the show, can weigh in on my show.

I hope that by thinking long and hard about why my fellow theatre practitioners' plays work, or don't work,  I'll become a better writer myself.  I see the critical thinking required to write about theatre as an important part of my artistic practice. I am trying to write from inside, not outside.

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