THEATER OF THE ABSURD

I HAVE A vague memory from childhood of an old horror movie called Theater of Blood, in which all the theater critics in town get iced, one by one. (If memory serves, one corpulent bastard is force-fed his own poodle.) This may not be a vision of the future of the Twin Cities theater scene, but things have been a wee bit tense lately between critics and thespians. Here's the latest news:

Back in November, The Great American History Theatre previewed their holiday show, Let Heaven and Nature Sing, about life during the 1940s in Faribault's institution for the developmentally disabled. They chose mostly disabled actors for the inmate parts, and the show received an unusually long preview from Pioneer Press theater critic Jayne Blanchard. But when it opened, Blanchard says she was swamped with other holiday shows and decided to postpone reviewing it, in light of the advance piece.

Somewhere around that time, Pioneer Press Arts & Entertainment Editor Bob Shaw decided Blanchard shouldn't review it at all. The History Theatre (who have declined to comment), apparently confronted Shaw, who says he told them it was a question of space and the fact that it had already been previewed--and that, um, it would also be a tough show to review. As he explains it, "If you're looking at a piece at the Guthrie and an actor slurs his words or misses a cue, you're going to mention it. But in this production, if this happened your job would be different. You wouldn't know if this was a flaw or the best performance of this person's life."

Word obviously got out, because a group of advocates for the disabled were handing out fliers at the show sharply criticizing the PiPress, and the paper received over 70 phone calls from around the country, not to mention a bunch of angry e-mails, "most of them quite obscene." Blanchard said with typical candor that "we're in pretty hot water," and wound up going to the play Friday. Shaw downplays the public outcry, but concedes making an error in judgment. Blanchard described it as a case of foot-in-mouth: "the more you talk and the more you elaborate, the deeper you dig the hole."

While everyone would like to close this little chapter, the questions it raised remain. Shaw's decision betrays an attitude reminiscent of Arlene Croce's sight-unseen dismissal of Bill T. Jones's Still/Here a couple years back in The New Yorker. It shows little faith in the critic. Why should anything be considered unreviewable? Where do you draw the line; what about theater of the deaf, or wheelchair ballet, or foreign-language works, or class/race differences between performers and writers? Should critics be gagged by ignorance--or fear of political incorrectness?

Meanwhile, in a kind of reverse situation, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, according to publicist Steve Richardson, has stopped providing review tickets and production photos to the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. The reason, according to Strib theater critic Peter Vaughn, is that since the company's last play Honeymoon China was roundly panned, Jeune Lune doesn't want its plays reviewed by the dailies. Blanchard sums up the eternal conflict: "[Theaters] see criticism as publicity, whereas the critic sees it as education or creative writing, and never the twain shall meet. They get pissed off when you're not wearing the pom-poms."

 
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