Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Wicked Stage: Ethically Compromised Edition

Posted By on Sun, Aug 28, 2011 at 9:09 PM

smudgejpg

Longtime readers of my print reviews—as the joke goes, both of you—might have noticed that I’ve never once reviewed an AtticRep production. There’s a reason for that; I teach classics at Trinity, and I actually know, and work with on a daily basis, the artistic staff of the AtticRep, which is currently in residence. (I’ve even given production notes in the past.) So I couldn’t possibly compose a review with the sort of objectivity that readers should expect (and in fact, demand) from a citywide paper. If a tourist picks up a copy of the Current from a newsstand, he should feel confident he’s not reading the print version of Facebook. I’m not always easy on local productions and artists, but I take very, very seriously the necessary divide between a critic and the theatrical community: I am not their friend. I am the readers’ friend (and, in a weirder, more cosmic sense, the Muses’ friend): I look at the art and evaluate the art for readers who care (and should care) about theater. And no critic will ever be trusted if he’s just shilling for his buddies, or, worse, torpedoing his enemies.

That said, it sort of kills me that in the past two weeks I’ve been prevented by pesky ethics from reviewing not only the AtticRep’s Smudge, but also the Overtime’s Ugly People, which is directed by (and you can see this coming) Trinity colleague Kyle Gillette. But I think a continuing blog—which you read now—allows for a somewhat different relationship between reader, critic, and commentary, and while I’m still dubious about the value of this exercise, I’m willing to put into words some scattered reflections, at least about Smudge. After all, I think true, penetrating arts criticism in SA was already on life-support before Facebook: now, we’ve generally reduced trenchant critical commentary to OMG I Loved IT!! Thanx, everybody!! If a blog post can help postpone the approaching critical apocalypse by even ten days, well, then I’ve done my part. What follows, however, is completely and totally ethically-compromised. You have been warned.

So: I liked Rachel Axler’s Smudge. It’s not an A play, but it’s a solid B+, and I appreciate that the AtticRep found a script that made something of a smudgy splash off-Broadway last year. The play’s set-up is this: a mild-mannered couple gives birth to a bouncing baby inkblot, sort of a swarthy Shmoo with one green eye. Obviously, this is an absurd premise—but like any good absurdist play, it touches on real-life uncertainties with a precision and deftness that leaves naturalism in the dust. (The baby’s called Cassandra, by the way, after the manic Trojan prophetess of doom. I’d argue that her name is pregnant with meaning, but that’s a tacky pun, even for me.)

Now, Cassandra is clearly a shifting signifier: first of everyday hopes and concerns about childbirth (what if the baby is sickly? what if she has physical handicaps? what if she’s not ‘perfect’?) and, then, increasingly, of broader concerns about parenthood (what if this isn’t what we ever wanted? what if this ruins our marriage? or our breakfast?). Jade Townsend’s recycled set—from an installation at the McNay—is delightfully off-kilter, and features a wonderful focal point: Cassandra’s life-support perambulator, a sort of theatrical techno-horror. My main concern with the play is that the character of the brother-in-law fits awkwardly into the three-hander: in many ways, he’s given too much to do (including a plot twist), and often channels the concerns of doting Grandma, who remains an off-stage character, but who clearly deserves her own scene and moment in the Smudge. (Yes, I know that makes an off-Broadway play more expensive, but I want Grandma, and I want her now.) At a breezy 85 minutes, the occasionally squirm-inducing Smudge is worth the money, the drive, and the squirm.

(Um, so ends Part One of our ethically compromised series on local theater; perhaps I’ll get to Ugly People later this week. Or write something ethically compromised about Ancient Greek participles. Only time will tell.)

 

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