Tag Archives: criticism

THEATER REVIEW: Midsummer [a play with songs] by David Greig at the Clurman Theater, NYC

David Greig’s protagonists sit on a park bench in his play Midsummer [a play with words], drinking and aligning themselves with a ragtag group of teenage Goths. It’s an example of how this play captures the strange, free-forming social constellations I will always associate with Edinburgh in the summer.

Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), who started their association as participants in a raucous one-night stand, are now spending a wad of cash that’s fallen into their laps – a recurring theme, in Scottish drama, now that I think of it (Danny Boyle’s Millions and Trainspotting come immediately to mind). As their bender progresses, the audience is brought into the experience of the festival city’s summertime discombobulation, always maintaining sight of the wider beauty and spirit Edinburgh offers both residents and visitors when the weather is warm.

Midsummer premiered in 2007 – coincidentally, my last summer in the city where it takes place – and is therefore dislocated from its context in three ways during its current NYC run: in time, in distance and in theatrical context. To see a breathtaking production during the Edinburgh Fringe’s unceasing barrage of plays is a singular experience, particularly if one has already seen dozens of shows. Measures of quality warp over the course of three weeks spent viewing productions back-to-back, and to see a show that found success there performed outside of the Fringe is more like tasting whisky after cleansing your palate than not.

Midsummer is an example of modern Scottish theater in many ways. In its opening, Greig’s language is rich and rhythmic, poetic and intense. This eases somewhat as the production continues, and it’s missed, but perhaps appropriate that as we learn the characters of Helena and Bob, they and Greig rely less on words and more on the knowledge we’ve gained throughout the production.

Under Greig’s direction, Bissett and Pidgeon’s depiction of the physical nature of the production and the visceral emotion of connecting with someone else blend into one. The set – resembling a bed, though at times Georgia McGuiness’ design seems more of a jungle gym (Japanese rope bondage!) – features panels and flip-out sections that enrich the specifics of each of the play’s settings; since the set itself is featured throughout the production it’s no small feat to transport the audience with each of its iterations.

As a “play with songs,” Midsummer features interwoven verses and small choruses that lift the audience from the immediate action and into a space that contemplates the individual experiences of the two characters, as well as the nostalgia it brings to anybody who’s resided there through an Edinburgh summer. While the play may not offer deep social commentary or revolutionize theater, it’s a fair representation of professional Scottish theatre – and a high-quality one, to boot. It may not be Black Watch, but Midsummer highlights a far less flashy tradition of Scottish storytelling in a way that’s accessible to audiences in both Scotland and abroad.

“Midsummer [a play with songs]” can be seen at the Clurman Theatre, New York, NY, from January 9-26, 2013.

Fast Thoughts: The New Normal

Lots of one-liners and snarky comments, quick dialogue – the sort of thing we expect from Ryan Murphy (The O.C., Glee) – and not that it isn’t entertaining – but Ryan Murphy could easily cut the first half of the pilot episode  without losing necessary story points.

As it stood, it wasn’t until potential-surrogate-mom  interviews with potential-gay-dads that the show starts to feel like it’s moving somewhere, and we could have picked that background up through the episode’s later actions.

That said, the first half of this pilot episode is where much of the critical, reflective meat of the episode resides, laying out Murphy’s thesis for the show: that “Abnormal is the new normal.” There are some terrific moments here.

Example:
Kicking off a joke that defends “non-traditional” families with examples including Barack Obama and Mariah Carey, a scene follows where different types of families (IVF/single mom, mixed-race couple with hearing impairments, and a woman with a genetic disorder)  deliver their stories to the camera.
The diversity of the cast is not impressive (and if audiences and the media are going to call out GIRLS for that flaw, shouldn’t a show based on the idea that diversity is normal do a little better on this one?), but hopefully the characters will become a little more rounded as they have time to grow in the next few episodes. Example:
Early in the episode, when the Little-Miss-Sunshine type wise-beyond-her-years daughter of Potential Surrogate calls her great-grandmother out for bigotry. And then unfriends her.

The show also moves into some extremely uncomfortable ground regarding the commodification of women’s reproductive rights, and while Murphy’s heroes are motivated by their desire for a family, seeing multiple men sitting and discussing what makes a woman’s reproductive abilities “desirable” is slightly uncomfortable, given the current national “dialogue” on women’s agency and rights in reproductive matters. This kicks off around when the IVF (Salesman? Doctor?) compares potential surrogates to EZ Bake Ovens (with no legal rights to the cupcake).

If a combination of Raising Hope and Modern Family appeals, check out the pilot episode on Hulu and let me know what you think.

All Your Edits Are Belong To Us

It’s stupid o’clock at night and I’m up and staring, bleary-eyed, at a monitor filled with prose.

I am inserting commas and full stops, changing tenses, and occasionally leaving what I later realize to be horrifically acidic commentary in the margins – calling out a character’s actions, bringing up the effect the writer’s having on me, as a reader, and advising as to whether I feel that’s the appropriate effect for the moment.

I’m in the middle of editing another writer’s first novel. I am fucking tired, and I’m terrified I’m going to miss a typo’d pronoun.

There’s not a lot I can say about editing that isn’t going to make me sound like a jerk. I’ve done it for over a decade. I’ve done it professionally. I’ve done it and gotten paid for doing it (and yes, I can send you a rate sheet).

I’ve edited as part of teaching undergraduate journalism. I’ve edited my own work, I’ve edited the work of my peers, and a few months ago on this blog I re-edited part of The Hunger Games to highlight  the entirely lackluster job done by its editor.

I tweet Twitterers from my home stream and correct their grammar, and call out people I’ve never met before (and whose points I agree with) because they’re lazy with their language in conversation. My excuse? “It’s the editor in me.”

This marks the first time I’ve ever edited someone else’s novel. It wasn’t easy, but it was a hell of a lot easier than writing a blog post about editing. Because what can you say about editing?

You’re essentially telling a parent with a pretty decent kid – all the limbs, everything where it should be, no vestigial body parts and no major diseases – that their happy, healthy kid isn’t good enough yet. You’re pointing out every pimple, every crooked tooth, too-short eyelashes, the pouches of fat around the kid’s middle. “You don’t say that like that,” you say. “Wait. Wait. Take an extra beat there before you keep talking.” It’s like pageantry coaching, only on the page instead of the stage.

Now imagine you’re doing this to the firstborn child of one of your close friends. And as much as you respect your friend’s dedication to their child’s career, there are a few things that could really up her chances of winning. Or in this case, honing a successful and clear representation of the author’s original intention, in the author’s voice, plus finding all his typos. And you don’t just have a responsibility to the parent who hired you, you also have a responsibility to the book itself (or the toddler and her beloved tiara). If you slack or try to spare feelings, it will ultimately hurt more than it helps.

I’ve been reading pieces and versions of this book for a few years now. I’ve seen a couple different incarnations of the book, and I’ve peeked in intermittently, over the years, on the journey the author’s had in writing and now self-publishing it. This time, I fixed typos, changed pronouns, and did my best to help make the experience of reading the book frctionless. It was the first time I sat down and read the book all the way through. Beginning to end.

Saying anything more would be spoilers.

HE GOT MY EYEBALLS! Effective Targeted Marketing Online

This morning, I re-downloaded RedditIsFun for my latest replacement phone.

After installing and activating it, a message popped up: the developer, “just one guy,” had built in a pop-up that offered the user a choice of whether to allow a single ad per post at the top of each screen. In the pop-up, the user is also informed that the ad option can be toggled on and off at any point in time.

This came hot on the heels of a conversation about how Twitter has started pushing ads from streams its users don’t follow into their twitter streams. On Twitter, my response is to block the twitter account of the corporation that’s paid Twitter to impinge on my eyespace.

With RedditIsFun, I clicked “okay.”

I don’t normally subject myself to ads, because the average American already sees thousands per day – and living in Manhattan, I’d guess my daily average is compensating for the other tail on the bell curve – but here, I agreed. If the ads are obnoxious, I’ll turn them off. If not – if the developer of RedditIsFun is selling his adspace smartly – then I’ve now agreed to see what he’s schilling as a way to help subsidize my use of his program.

So rather than being met with annoyance, his advertisers might actually find themselves making sales to an interested member of their target market.

Smart sale of adspace means I don’t want:

– Ads that demean women.

– Ads that condescend to their viewers.

– The same ad over and over again. (Yes, Hulu, I’m talking to you.)

I do want:

– Ads for products and services that actually interest me

When an advertiser hits the sweet spot and finds their targeted marketing, their ad dollars can be incredibly productive. Last week, I attended the Barefoot Wine Beach Rescue at Rockaway Beach off the back of my Klout score; I connected with like-minded individuals, did some good for the environment, drank free (and tasty) Barefoot Cuvee, and both tweeted and blogged about the event. Win-win-win-win-win. So I’ll buy into a targeted ad scheme that results in advertisers subsidizing an app that gives access to one of the most useful websites currently out there.

So there you go, indie developer. You got my eyeballs. What are you going to do with them?

 

An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed

From the back cover of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. The following quotes, from other writers in what one might call “related genres,” are meant to draw attention to the positive features of Collins’ work.

Go ahead. Read ’em.

Note that each of these quotes, from luminaries and sources including Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly), Stephanie Meyer (OMG she’s OBSESSED), and John Greer (The New York Times Book Review), talks about the plotting and structure of THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not a single one of the back cover comments brings up the question of the quality of the book’s prose. 

There are many reasons this might be the case: the marketing team may have learned that putting quotes about suspenseful page-turners sell more copies and left out things like “Collins’ prose challenges some of the greats of our era with its artistry and subtle evocation of the stresses that authoritarian governments manufacture to maintain control of their populations.” They could have left out, “Her words added an emotional depth and clarity to this packed, well-paced story.” They could have left out lots of things. I haven’t looked up the full reviews.

My personal feeling is that they cherry-picked quotes about pacing because THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.

Which brings us to this blog entry. Collins is an author who presumably worked with an editor to get her words to this pointI presume they both considered it publishable. (And charge-for-able). Editors do a lot of different things when it comes to getting manuscripts ready for publication. One of those things is language. And I think both Collins and her editor fell down hard on that front.

My background with THE HUNGER GAMES:

I read chapters 1-4 on my Kindle when @tyyche gifted me a copy. I was at the tail end of two weeks of intensive editing work on Hot Mess, and while I could certainly see why Collins’ story was an entertaining one, the actual quality of the writing made it impossible for me to continue. I said at the time, and continue to maintain, that my guess is the book translates better to the screen than most adaptations. If I ever see the film, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

Anyways, fast forward to the end of May. My roommate’s copy is lying on the kitchen counter and it’s Memorial Day Weekend and after walking past the book a few times, I think, well, maybe I should pick that up and just breeze through it, so at least when people start defending it on Twitter I can come back with a more informed opinion than the one I have now, which is based on reading four chapters of the thing on a Kindle.

There was no way in hell I was going to start reading the book from the beginning again. I backtracked about a paragraph into chapter 4, then continued with chapter five, which was badly written but at least kept moving, then headed into chapter six. It wasn’t until the last page of chapter six that I became aware of a string of paragraphs I probably would have let go through without too much rewriting: page 85 in my edition, from the point where the Avox girl is picking up Katniss’ unitard (UNITARD!) to the end of the chapter. This was the first time that the spare, simple voice beneath Collins’ prose really came out to me, and one of the first times (only 85 pages in!) where I felt like Collins had really hit her stride.

Then it was into chapter seven, and that wasn’t any bloody fun at all.

By this time, half of Twitter had figured out that I was actually reading the book I’d been complaining about for months, and I started getting snarky comments from my co-writer, Eric, particularly because I’d given him such a hard time back when he did the reviews of the first book for The Masquerade Crew. One thing led to another and when I started talking about how what I actually want to do is a top-to-toe rewrite on the entire thing, and I half wanted to do red marks all over a page from the book and show people what my editing process was like, Eric challenged me to do precisely that.

So everything after the break is his fault.
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THEATER REVIEW: “To Kill A Kelpie” by Matthew McVarish

First, to declare a bias – Matthew McVarish and I were at drama school together in Scotland, and I’ve previously reviewed his sold-out debut show, One man went to busk (it’s the second review on the page). In addition, he and I will be working on a project about marriage equality together later this year for Glasgay 2012.

That said, I’m pleased and lucky to be able to say that this new work, To Kill a Kelpie, offers an hour of drama both light and dark, and is a strong piece of theatrical art with a message. Co-produced by Poorboy Theater company Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse (where McVarish is also involved), and executive produced by Pamela Pine, the show is directed by Sandy Thomson.

The evening unfolds in two parts: first, McVarish’s hourlong drama about two brothers who finally break their own silence as regards something that was done to them both many years ago, then a guided discussion including representatives from various organizations that try to deal with ending sexual abuse.

As one might expect, there is heaviness to this drama. How could their not be, given the topic at hand? And yet McVarish’s script makes a conscious decision to take place in its own moment, as two brothers try to find a way of communicating through the silence that has plagued their adult relationship. As they try to understand what was done to them, the different coping mechanisms they ask themselves and the ways in which they parse the events that took place while they were children reveal two men who have each, in their own way, carried the scars of their abuse for years. Additionally, the quickness with which the two brothers reconnect lends itself well to lighter moments: this is not a play where the audience should be afraid to laugh from time to time.

The play asks uncomfortable questions: one brother reveals that he’s struggled to even recognize his own sexuality over the years, because he had tangled up the acts perpetrated upon him and his own desire to love other men. The other denies any feeling of having been affected, although it slowly becomes more obvious that, in fact, he has. Both brothers have found their relationships to others, particularly children, impossibly strained as they constantly try to sort through their own baggage.

Performers McVarish (as Fionnghall, the brother who seems, on the surface, to b e more of a loose canon) and Allan Lindsay (Dubhghal, who has returned from doing aid work among tsunami-afflicted natives somewhere quite far away) navigate the questions their characters ask themselves with honesty and frankness. Some parts of their conversation are uncomfortable: one admits he is afraid his sister doesn’t want him around her children, the other terrified he may have the potential to cause the same damage enacted upon him onto another. Forgiveness, revenge, therapy and repression are all tried as the characters range for coping mechanisms; in the end, it is conversation – speaking about their trauma, and about how each has begun the journey of unpacking that trauma – that offers the best hope for healing.

As the play draws to an ambiguous ending, the audience is invited to take a few moments to stretch before heading into a follow-up discussion. Led by Pamela Pine, the discussion first invites comments and questions from audience members before asking audience members if there’s anything they think they might do differently in their lives going forward. Aside from stressing the importance of parental and community involvement to determine when children might be at risk, the discussion also creates a space where audience members are invited to share their own stories of surviving abuse.

What was remarkable about this portion of the evening, to me, was the clarity with which one could see how To Kill a Kelpie had created a space where audience members, whose ages covered a large range, felt they could speak openly about experiences taking place around them. On opening night in New York City, audience members spoke – some at length – about how positive they found the play, and about how well it communicated emotions that echoed reactions they’d had to their own experiences.

For more information about Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse, you can visit their website at www.stopcsa.org. To Kill a Kelpie will run in NYC through April 15th, first in the East Village before heading uptown. More details are available on the production’s website.

THEATER REVIEW: “The Beautiful Laugh” at La Mama

Clowning is a respected art with a long history, distinct from other forms of theater. My understanding of clowning comes out of familiarity with more classical European traditions, such as Marcel Marceau and the Commedia Del Arte style captured so excellently in The Corn Exchange’s production of Dublin by Lamplight, or the Harlequin story as viewed through the memory of a production I saw at Tivoli, in Cophenhagen, when I was about seven years old. In these forms, it’s often the precision of physical movement that distinguishes the skilled from the unskilled performer.

The style of clowning used in That Beautiful Laugh is different. It is a physical kind of comedy, related – particularly in the case of performer Carlton Ward – to circus acts and Coney Island contortionists, but it is also a comedy of noises and expression.

At the top of the show, a narrator (Alan Tudyk of Firefly, Dollhouse, Suburgatory and more) explains that there are multiple kinds of laughs, and lists some – as we wind through the cyclical routines presented by Flan (Tudyk), Ian (Ward) and Darla Waffles Something (Julia Ogilvie), the audience is no doubt meant to experience some of these different kinds of laughs. Whether or not the ultimate laugh – that beautiful laugh – is attained is, I suspect, largely in the hands of the audience on any given night.