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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

GOLDSTEIN: Justice theatre reviews insulting, poorly written

Published: April 8, 2005
Section: Opinions

I dont envy the position of the arts critics here at Brandeis;

those who choose to write for The Justice, or more recently, The Hoot, about the many theatre and music events on campus have their work cut out for them. Talented critics are sharp, concise but effectively spoken, observant, informed about both the work with which they are presented and the works that relate to it and objective about their study difficult traits to cultivate without serious experience or guidance. And as our university lacks an intensive journalism program, little training for newspaper staff writers, and few if any classes on film, theatre or music criticism, it is difficult to find a place on-campus to develop the necessary skills to write a solid newspaper critique of an arts production.

I am writing this column in the hopes of helping any student who wishes to write future reviews for the campus publications. Combing through The past years JustArts reviews online, one notes sad trends among them: too much summary, little intellectual engagement with the performance or piece, a lack of general knowledge that would inform the critic (and hopefully the critics readers) about the performance or pieces field (be it theatre or music, film or otherwise) and an inadequate set of criteria for what makes an arts event effective or worthwhile.

One might think of Jen Pollacks review of Tommy (Tommy odd, not outstanding, December 7, 2004) or Jessica Sedaca-Rosenbergs examination of Closer (Closer far off from reality of relationships, December 7, 2004), both from The Justice, as exemplars of lackluster criticism that, though perhaps well-intended, were far from demonstrative of theatre or film appreciation.

But, what sparked my interest in writing this metacritical piece was actually a much more recent review of Praying for Grace, a play written and directed by Zach Friedman, 05, and reviewed in The Justice (March 29, 2005) by Eli Matzner, 08.

Matzner does a respectable job of summarizing Friedmans play and does offer up a couple worthy points of critique for Friedmans thesis: the play was in some stretches too emotional for too long, and coming in at nearly two hours and 45 minutes, a lengthy performance as well. But by and large, Matzner fails to engage with the plays primary conflicts or critically examine Friedmans abilities as a director or writer. Matzner leaves his readers with the assertion that the play was dysfunctional and beyond some genuinely humorous one-liners, little worth your time.

Matzner comes to this conclusion from two connected thoughts: first, the plays primary figures comprised of a group of thoroughly unpleasant characters, and second, the play falls flat because there is no character to cheer for. Although both assertions are truethe characters as they are presented are relatively unlikable and there is no character to cheer forneither is really noteworthy for negative critique. In point of fact, both points make up part of what makes Friedmans play so interesting;

the unpleasant traits that Friedman draws out in each of his characters are not simply presentations of negative character attributes but the representations of the family members psychological complexities in a time of familial crisis. That there is no easily apparent, dare I say obvious, protagonist in the play should not deter audiences or critics either. Really, it should help viewers remain more objective about the unfolding relationships that are portrayed over the course of the plays duration because we do not become caught up in any one characters struggle. In a complicated literary move on Friedmans part, the plays family make-up becomes the protagonist, not one character that is easy to spot throughout. As a result, we can empathize with the entire family even while we might not choose to strongly identify with any individual member.

Implicitly, then, in each of Matzners beliefs about the plays so-called downfalls are assertions about what makes a play effective: theatre productions should have easily accessible characters and clearly delineated social and emotional bounds within which they function. From a Romanticist perspective, these assertions are true. If a writer or artist wants to draw on an audiences heartstrings, then the writer or artist will probably have to create a clear struggle in which characters end up learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end, to borrow from Charlie Kaufmans film, Adaptation (2002). But, we arent living in a Romantic age and Friedmans isnt a Romantic play and as such, the critiques Matzner lays on Friedmans play are not applicable. The contempo-postmodern worlds contained in Praying for Grace do not follow Romantic guidelines, instead demonstrating frailty, failure, disappointment and hope through the damaged psyches of two of the plays primary charactersMargot, played very capably by Sarah Friedlander, and Martin, played handsomely by Max Louick (As a side note, it should be noted that Martins character suffers from dementia induced by a stroke and as such, his viscerally argumentative tendencies are realistic and do not detract from his character). Sure, the complexities result is a play that isnt easy to confront, but no worthwhile work ever is, and we critics and audiences alike shouldnt balk merely because the work is not mimetic of some vague dream of idealized human life. If one is looking for works that do fall into a more Romantic conception of the world, one need look no further than the oft-criticized but amply-stocked annals of Oprahs Book Club.

Distressingly, Matzner passed on even noting two of the strongest performances in Friedmans playthe doubled-up portrayals of Kyle (Martins chief nurse) and Ron by Gustavo Kutz, 05, and Kate Pouilliards performances as Gail (Martins dead wife and Margot, Paul and Rons mother), Bernice and the nameless Nurse. Friedmans choice to use the two as multiple characters helps to untangle his characters psychological knotsRon, perpetually distant from his family, is mirrored as the occupationally caring but emotionally withdrawn Kyle. Gail, who appears as a hallucination on the parts of Martin and Margot, functions similarly as the Nurse and Bernice, at once drawing the other characters together and driving them apart. As such, Praying for Grace is as much about the ties that bind as it is about the differences that divide family members from one another.

Almost as a footnote, Matzner acknowledges that the actors performed commendably, suggesting that even in spite of his disagreements with the plays basic premises, he saw talent in it. I cannot help but feel that this, too, betrays a fundamental problem with Matzners review, and many of the other reviews written at Brandeis.

That Matzner did not nominally acknowledge Pouilliard or Kutzs performances and only noted the richness of the plays writing, acting and direction in passing suggests that he (Matzner) set out to see Praying for Grace with a preconceived notion of literary destructiveness. This is exactly the wrong mindset in which to engage with a text, or a play, or any piece of art as a critic: if one is simply looking to criticize (i.e. to pick apart, doubt, tear at), the critic will certainly fail to see the greater beauty and truths of the work itself.

In sum, the purely critical impulse is an impulse of resignation to many things, none of them positive, and from which little can be gained. Matzners review (and Sedaca-Rosenberg and Pollacks before) demonstrates this flawlessly. Because no attempt was made to approach the play with a constructive mind, nor to engage or grapple with the characters mired minds, Matzners review falls flat, illuminating no broad points for a wider readership.

Which really is a tremendous dilemma for the Brandeis arts community. A solid intellectual base is needed to help cultivate growth in the Brandeisian art world and one of the main sources of growth is found in good criticism.

When Gwen Tulin, 06, responded to Pollacks review of Tommy in a Letter to the Editor (January 18, 2005) she very clearly articulated how insulting and inaccurateand therefore, damagingsome reviews can be and implicitly acknowledged the need for better critical eyes in Brandeis media publications. In other words, for criticism to be effective it needs to come from a wellspring of respect for both the arts and for the piece that is being examined.

For an excellent example, see Arnon Shorrs weekly column in The Justice;

his love of film and film history is evident and it helps him accurately critique the film or DVD release he is reviewing. More importantly, one does not get the sense that it is for lack of information, respect or technical know-how when he does pan a particular movie.

Praying for Grace, and the critical response to it, demonstrates the exact problems of Brandeisian arts criticism in that a solid and intellectually stimulating piece of work generated from within this community can be flattened to nothing more than two short columns of poorly constructed prose on page 19 of a notoriously unreliable news source.

How, in good conscience, a student critic could do so of a fellow students yearlong efforts strikes me in a powerfully daunting way. If I am wrong in asserting that critical reviews should be in some way constructive toward the pieces they purport to assess, then I should think that the Brandeisian arts critics should go back to a simple summary format which blankly recounts the events of a students afternoon or evening.