Whose “Body?”

Here in the Lemon Shack at least, Tanna Frederick’s production of Why We Have a Body at the Edgemar has gone a bit viral.

Editor Colin Mitchell has featured two separate reviews of the show (by Jason Rohrer and David C. Nichols) as Critiques of the Week, and Ms. Frederick herself has added to the brouhaha with an ill-advised response to Rohrer’s merciless vivisection. (By way of disclaimer, I confess I haven’t seen the show and I don’t know this particular play.)

But as to Mitchell’s contention that the two reviews in question represent a study in contrast or, as he put it, the writers having attended “two completely different shows,” I’m not seeing it. To my way of thinking, Mr. Nichols and Mr. Rohrer saw the exact same play; the difference in their reviews is something best measured in cc’s of blood.

Where Mr. Nichols rather gently suggests the director might have profited by someone looking over her shoulder to correct the production’s “mugginess,” Rohrer jabs in the scalpel, taking Ms. Frederick to task for what he sees as egregious directorial miscues.  Both reviewers had issues with such odd contrivances as the on-stage jazz ensemble, for example, but for differening reasons.

No, what truly separates the two reviews is their approach to the material itself, and that stirs up an interesting kettle of fish.  Nichols’ explanation for the dramatic weakness of the piece is that “. . .narrative isn’t what [playwright Claire] Chafee is after.”  Rohrer, less tolerant of such structural flaws writes, “I can’t say what it’s about, not for fear of giving away the plot but because there isn’t one.”

Other productions of Body have occasioned similar observations. A staging in late 2011 at San Francisco’s Magic Theater elicited generally favorable notices for acting and production, yet reviewers found this meandering collection of monologues “elusive,” “disjointed,” and “confusing.” Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times about a 1994 Off-Broadway staging drily noted it “doesn’t offer much in the way of a plot.”

Given that, we have to wonder at Ms. Frederick’s initial choice in selecting this piece for a lavishly financed showcase production.  Of all the plays in all the world, why this one?  Did her calculations include some hoped-for degree of insulation from critical rebuke? There is something in her notably petulant reaction to Rohrer’s essay that suggests utter shock that any critic could treat this material with such disdain.

Even though Nichols’ short review is full of negatives – “loopy” direction, “sitcom contoured” acting on the part of one actress, mere “potential” on the part of another –  his write-up feels guarded, almost self-consciously so.  Rohrer is not so circumspect; in fact he is determined to confront the production, the play, even the genre itself (what he terms “Womyn’s Theater”) in a deliberately provocative manner.  Now certainly as an L.A. Times stringer, Nichols writes for the sort of outfit where only the top dog gets to bark to his heart’s content.  The whelps are kept penned, caged in by miserly word counts and column inches metered out in fractions. But does that truly explain the difference in tone between his review and Rohrer’s?

What, with certain kinds of plays, explains the seeming eagerness on the part of reviewers to temper their reproaches by noting shortcomings but then tiptoeing around them?  How is it that weak plots, shallow character development, and slothful playwriting are forgiven whenever certain subjects are broached?

Do we find ourselves at times standing on the threshhold of the House of the Sacred Seven?

Whenever a play is thematically focused on one of the Seven, appearing less as characters than symbolic representations of an aggrieved political identity, a strange timorousness appears to overtake audience and critic alike.  (The Seven, in no particular order, are: Women in General, Lesbians in Particular, Gay Men, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and The Unfortunates – people whose disabilities or afflictions have made them the subject of bullying and cruelty.)

Is there in fact a different set of aesthetic criteria that governs such works?  It seem so.  Audiences award even the most mediocre of these identity plays with rapturous standing ovations, their true feelings about the evening’s virtues or lack thereof only emerging in hushed conversation on the way to the parking lot.  Critics likewise seem to withhold fire from their analyses, perhaps in order not to appear unsympathetic or boorish. In both cases, the seated targets of the harangues and guilt trips that invariably attend what we might more properly term Ambush Theater appear to seek absolution from accusations emenating from the stage, directly or by inference, by setting aside both expectations and standards.

Now this phenomenon may have nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Nichols’ essentially tepid review, but given the tenor of Rohrer’s objections, it cannot be ruled out either. Rohrer may be here immoderate, but he is also fearless. It takes an intrepid soul to sail against the prevailing winds and he certainly qualifies as one such, as does Stage and Cinema’s ever-brilliant Tony Frankel who, to my mind, courted charges of heresy last week with his uncompromising takedown of Richard Montoya’s angry, racially-tinged American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.

I’m not sure that Ms. Frederick understands the great service Mr. Rohrer has done her.  Regardless of his ultimate conclusion as to her production’s merits, he has brought the totality of a highly developed sensibility to bear and crafted a passionate and painstaking response to her work.

Like Caesar before her, Tanna Frederick is ambitious, and with this perhaps unkind cut by a modern day Brutus the significance of her efforts has been elevated, her agenda advanced.  I’m not remotely tempted to attend Why We Have a Body based on Mr. Nichols’ review, nor on any of the others that have fed the Lemon Meter.  On the other hand, Mr. Rohrer’s write-up is compelling. It makes me want to view the work if for no other reason than to see for myself what prompted such ire.  Conflict, on stage or off, is the heart of theater and we are drawn to it like moths to a flame.  Rohrer just tossed in a little butane.

Anybody got an extra ticket?

Filed Under: FeaturedPonderingstrevor thomas

About the Author: TREVOR THOMAS has reviewed theater for both Drama-Logue and the Los Angeles Times. He is a past contributing editor for Edge Magazine.

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  1. Tony Frankel says:

    My dear Trevor:

    Now that I am editor-in-chief at Stage and Cinema, it has all but eliminated my blog time. However, this is the most insightful piece on theater criticism that I have read in some time. As an editor, I have shied away from this subject, but as a theatergoer and critic, it is time I spoke.

    I attended Why We Have a Body with Mr. Rohrer, and while I was too shell-shocked to be infuriated, I believe that he was kind in his review, especially as it applies to the ever-increasing phenomenon of theater as self-promotion. So many questions: With the money that was spent to advertise this show on the sides of busses in town, could not Ms. Frederick have been an angel to one of the many deserving companies in Los Angeles? Her directorial debut and she casts herself in the lead?! And, as you mentioned, why this project? (The program spoke of the indignities of Prop 8 – why not have a go at The Children’s Hour?).

    Mr. Nichols’ review followed Harold Clurman’s Rule number eleven in The Complete Critic’s Qualifications: “He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.”

    But Mr. Rohrer’s criticism followed numbers seven and nine: “He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life,” and “He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.”

    This is the prime difference between a reviewer and a critic: a reviewer is an evaluator and actively seeks to notice the positive elements of the show. The job of a critic, at least to Clurman and myself,is to eliminate the bad to make way for the good.

    Sound harsh? In a theatrical landscape dominated by political correctness, jukebox musicals, revivals, and playwrights with agendas (not a story) who just love to hear themselves talk; with artistic directors playing it safe and a dearth of over-complimentary friends drowning out critics in the blogosphere; with theater being used to further one’s career or (laughably) to try and make money; with risk-taking, vision and style taking a backseat to shameless showcases and over-produced spectacle, all Mr. Rohrer and I are doing is echoing Paddy Chayefsky, one of the greatest writers of all time, with, “I’m as MAD as HELL, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

  2. Jeff Klayman says:

    You can see it for free, as I saw it (Why We Have a Body) but be prepared for the most execrable, torturous 90 minutes of your life. Just call theatre and ask for a comp. I’m sure that’s why the theatre was packed when I went last night. Having to actually pay to see this abomination would be grounds for justifiable homicide. It’s unbearable. Had I not been sitting in the middle of a row, I’d have bolted after the first 5 minutes.

  3. Angry Timmy says:

    Fabulous article, Trevor. Especially the reference to The Sacred Seven – hilarious and sadly SO true. I also agree with Tony Frankel’s description of theater’s current landscape and, in light of this, I appreciated Rohrer’s brutal honesty. While the review was harsh, I’m happy for it as I was going to take advantage of the comp tickets and am glad to have dodged that bullet. For what it’s worth, I thought Tanna Frederick was terrific as the dog in Sylvia (also at the Edgemar), she’ll no doubt survive this and move on to better things.

  4. Sylvie Drake says:

    Like Trevor, I have not seen this production and feel blessed to be spared. But once very early on in my career as a theatre critic, I was assigned to a terrible vanity production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. As it turned out, it was produced by some obscure little acting school whose prime mover and shaker was a woman in her older age who had assigned to herself the role of Portia, and needed to be helped on and off the stage. After trying in vain to get my editor at the time to forget about having me write a review of this pathetic event, I closed the review by saying that admission was not charged, but sitting through it cost. It sounds as if the same would apply here.

    • Saw this little exchange at the LA Weekly site between reviewer Adamek and supporter of the show Diane Ladrone:

      Diane Ladrone
      Well the story’s not particularly linear but the play it has some very funny stuff in it. I just look at like reading a novel, skipping a chapter here and there but I’m still able to enjoy the story. I love Barbara Bain. She’s hilarious. Tanna Frederick can’t help but be funny. And the band is great!

      Pauline Adamek in reply to Diane Ladrone
      If you’re skipping chapters, then it can’t be an especially engrossing nor well-written novel, can it? And if you’re checking out part way through a meandering stage show, how great can that be?!

      Sounds like a fair review to me.