A Critic Question

As I was writing my latest essay for Oregon ArtsWatch, I  found myself turning over a lot of questions about critical best practices. Both as a dramaturg and when I’m reviewing a piece, I find it important to approach a work in the spirit it was created. That is, to accept its premises and goals, to not evaluate it on the grounds of wishing it were something other than what it’s trying to be. But when does it become appropriate– or even important– to ask questions about what a show is trying to be?

Luckily for me, that question more or less exploded into the broader theatre world conversation between the time I submitted the piece and when it got published. This recent review of the musical Big River sparked a contentious conversation (and a snippy letter from the Encores! artistic director) about the role of a critic in discussing not only what a show is, but perhaps what it ought to be. I really admire Laura Collins-Hughes’s willingness to engage not only with the show’s aesthetic merits, but to ask questions about its treatment of gender and especially race. Seeing the backlash to Collins-Hughes’ work stiffened my own resolve on the topic. My piece isn’t really a review of Astoria, of course, and I would have framed the questions differently if it had been– but I still would have asked them.

There is, frankly, limited space on American stages– if one story is being told, another isn’t. If we really are committed to diversity, at some point, we do have to begin evaluating not just what plays are talking about, but what they’ve decided not to talk about.

Oregon ArtsWatch

I wrote a series of reviews for Oregon ArtsWatch about shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Check them out!

Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Perhaps the most stirring realization of the evening was the depth of talent evident in the cast. Even minor characters felt fully realized (Celeste Den’s ridiculous Thurio deserves mention), and not a line of verse was out of place. Both Gomez and Clark’s skill interpreting and delivering text places them with some of the best actors I’ve seen at the festival. It’s sobering to realize how little opportunity these women have to display their abilities within Shakespeare’s canon, and exciting that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was willing to become one of very few professional theatres interested in producing an all-female Shakespeare play. Far more than a gimmick or a superficial gesture towards equality, this production offers ample proof that all-female casts can transform and illuminate the familiar texts—and in this case, perhaps even improve them (at least to the modern eye).”

Richard III.
Dan Donohue takes the [title] role, in his first appearance at OSF since he played Hamlet in 2010. His Richard is great. I will risk hyperbole and say that it approaches the perfect. He strikes all of the contrasts that make Richard so endlessly compelling and so unlike any version that had come before: the hilarious charm with which he courts the audience from his first moment and the blithe, remorseless recourse to murdering his own family; the fantastic confidence and profound self-loathing.”

Into the Woods. 
Like a good fairy tale, Into the Woods is deceptively simple. The morals of the story are easy to find, when the characters don’t state them outright. But much of their power is in this simplicity. As the show itself reminds us, fairy tales are used to teach lessons to children, so the point is not to bury the message too deeply. When it’s well done, Into the Woods, similarly, is less revelation than reminder of difficult truths. The actors and director here succeed beautifully not because they reinterpret, but because they inhabit what is written fully and truthfully.”