Friday, September 12, 2008

Was there any identification?

No, I'm not talking about a stage version of Law and Order. (Though that is a cool idea, no?) I've been thinking audiences identifying with plays, recognizing what they see onstage, and how it can affect their experiences of a play separate from the quality of the script or production.

For example, I have seen two shows in recent weeks set in eras before I was born: Jersey Boys at the Bank of America Theatre and Nixon's Nixon at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The former follows the lives and careers of the members of the band The Four Seasons, focused mostly on the early 1960's, while the latter imagines the meeting between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the eve of Nixon's resignation in 1974.

I did not like Jersey Boys at all. I found the book to be an uninterrupted series of laughable cliches, the characters two-dimensional, and the whole enterprise vaguely ridiculous. However, the show had several strikes against it. In addition to the fact that I had a terrible seat (the rush seats are cheap for a reason, don't sit there if you want to see the stage) I had no particular love for the music of The Four Seasons, the story of blue-collar kids from New Jersey had no great emotional resonance for a kid who grew up middle-class in suburban Cleveland, and I was not born when the show took place. Now, I like to think that I would've been able to tell that the show was not very good if none of these strikes were against it. But the show's been a hit, often described as an enthralling, well-told story, so perhaps it effectively uses nostalgia to cover its own flaws.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Nixon's Nixon. However, in the 50 seat theatre, there were only three people who did not remember Watergate. I and my roommate, able to go because of our friendship with the Assistant Stage Manager, were two, and the third was a family friend of the actor playing Kissinger. And yet, my general familiarity with Nixon's presidency proved to be enough to help me enjoy the show. I didn't need to remember everyone they discussed to enjoy it, and the flaws I saw had nothing to do with not remembering the era.

A few months ago, however, I was on the opposite end of this problem. I reviewed a House Theatre show called The Attempters. Its central character was a very smart and creative, highly confused 17 year old boy. The play followed his struggles and his realization that, while he was very smart and interesting, he was also acting like a total asshole and hurting the people around him. His finally understanding this and starting to grow up was the play's drama. As far as I'm concerned, this play captured that vulnerable, impossible time of life better than just about anything I've seen, and I absolutely flipped for it, giving it a rave review. Of course, I am not too many years removed from being that character, so perhaps its no surprise that I loved a play that captured my recent past so well.

A few days later, I read reviews from other sources. They all pointed out the play's real flaws--a weak structure, a plot that took too long to get going, etc. Looking back, these things were all true, but I simply couldn't see them past the way that the play hit me emotionally.

So how much can critics and audience members do about this? Can we recognize when something outside of a play is affecting us? Should we acknowledge it? Can we work too hard to remove that bias and take all of the fun out of watching the show? Do we owe the audience a report of what we felt, a more objective reporting of what did and didn't work, or a balance between the two? And have any of you ever had the same experience, in either direction?

1 comment:

Jacob said...

I don't think there's anything critics or other spectators can do about relating to some plays and not others, nor do I particularly think they should try. Perhaps critics should make some effort to inform readers of their own biases in order to not destroy a show simply because they can't relate to it, but everyone is going to relate to art differently; that's inevitable.

What good art can do, however, is give people glimpses into lives outside their own. Usually this is done by giving the audience something to relate to. For instance, early AIDS plays, like The Normal Heart, did so by insisting, even in its title, that the romantic relationship in the play was just like heterosexual relationships. And wasn't that what most critics said about Brokeback Mountain? That it wasn't a "gay" story; that it was a "love" story"? Nothing is wrong with any of this. Theatre is a nice, safe place to let a play hook you with something to which you relate and then expose you to something to broaden your horizons. Maybe it even allows you to carry those expanded world views outside the dimmed lights.