Not that they likely care (and maybe they shouldn’t), I admire the hell out of the Porters of Hellsgate. I gave them a bad review last week, not for the first time. The critique was not as hardnosed or as much of a lampoon as some I’ve written, but I’m not sure I avoided rudeness. I’m that guy.
Colin Mitchell, august editor of Bitter Lemons, saw fit to promote the Lear review I wrote for Stage and Cinema as Critique of the Week. He also ran a separate feature encouraging me to go and review, incognito, the latest production from a Santa Monica outfit that helped me to a little notoriety last year after I brutally panned some of its work. That theater has promised not to give me or Stage and Cinema any more tickets to its shows, a promise I hope it keeps. Though Colin and I have benefited from the kerfuffle, I think we agree that the point of my nasty reviews should not be to aggrandize myself nor to insult anyone’s efforts. I’m right to have a problem with critics who give a pass to poor showings, but I too have my responsibilities.
People let me into their theaters on the generous pretext that a critic is good for business: impresarios recognize even online reviews as cheap advertising. And of course I want to assist, in an advisorial capacity, the advancement of a lovely art. (That is the other sweet notion behind criticism.) But we’re in the wane of a cycle, in that age that comes every century or two when the influence of criticism fades along with the influence of theater itself. Some productions – a certain big Broadway revival last year, for instance – don’t give tickets to any critics, for the perfectly sound reason that from a business perspective, two free seats is not the investment it once was. And as I’ve mentioned, some joints just would rather not have me back.
But the Porters, and most companies, still honor that traditional intersection of mutual courtesy. And so they should. Just so, in reviewing Lear I should have had the couth to mention that I envy their enthusiasm. They and everybody in and around every play is, on some level, the better for it. I benefit from the experience, whether or not I enjoy seeing a show. And getting any show up, I am frequently reminded, is a damned difficult thing to do, so I could have mentioned more strong performances in the Porters’ sizable cast. I ought to have praised Ian Hickey’s outstanding Deco poster art. And I might have said also that attracting collaborators the likes of this Lear and Gloucester (Larry Cedar and Leon Russom) is an impressive coup and one that has doubtless been an invaluable learning opportunity for the less experienced members of the production.
It’s probably easier to be specific about a show’s problems than about its strengths. Harmony simply pleases and one does not easily interrupt it to ask why. But disharmony by its nature alerts us to itself, and so we notice and categorize its manifestations almost unconsciously. And sitting through a production that doesn’t meet one’s criteria for excellence is not a pleasant undertaking; this, too, factors into the tone of a review. Perhaps it shouldn’t. That primitive urge to lash out and hurt a show that has hurt me is not an emotion to be encouraged. A scathingly funny review is good for my readership, but since my claim is to be of value to the development of the form, I can at least be polite about it.
The great thing about artists is their optimism; if art is worth making, then humans must be worth stimulating. Hurrah for everybody passionate enough to communicate with his neighbor. And hurrah for every company that still lets me in even after all the shitty things I’ve said about them.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.