A friend recently told me that he finds no good reason for the criticism of bad poetry—rather the good ought to be criticized. Except for in the reviewer’s sense of warning someone off of a book they are about to buy, I am beginning to believe he is correct. (There is a tour de force takedown of a single issue of Poetry Magazine underway—and nearly completed—at Poetry Daily Critique website, and with one installment left to go it sounds like A.E.M. Baumann is close to forming that conclusion himself.) My ad hoc opinions on theater tend to be in the form of reviews rather than criticism, yet I do try to tease a bit of critical thought out of them. Theater, after all, is an area in which I have invested a certain amount of intellectual capital.
Othello is being presented at Chicago Shakespeare in what will probably prove for me the definitive performance. It is not a favorite play of mine, actually, but one that I know relatively well, and I expect I will never attend a future performance of it unless something truly unusual comes along. The show is not out of place with Chicago Shakespeare’s repertoire—many of Barbara Gaines’ fallback techniques are on spotlight (vulgar gestures to the penis, prominent use of pop songs—“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”), but, mercifully, without Gaines directing, they hardly detract from the performance. Modern dress settings of Shakespeare bore me—in this case the explosions and enfilades were neither better nor worse than typical but very realistic-seeming, as one comes to expect—but this neither detracted from the overwhelming headlong inertia of dramatic movement.
The reason Othello succeeded was because its principal roles, Othello and Iago, were especially well acted (and well cast); Desdemona was not bad either. For me, the primary requirement was satisfied. So much window-dressing on the side—explosions, songs, lewd innuendos—flew past even as telephone poles outside the carriage window.
Last night, I had the misfortune to observe Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Lookingglass Theater Company—or good fortune, if you consider the opportunity to see something really badly done valuable for what it can teach us. I saw a very good production of Blood Wedding a few years ago at Oracle Productions, which put to shame the version now being mounted—so the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. However it is useful to see diverse interpretations of the same text (though I don’t know if the same translation was used by both companies).
Far from modern dress, the director opted for a hillbilly version—replete with howdy-hoos and barn dancing—set in depression-era, dustbowl California (he claimed) though it felt more like Oklahoma. The characters seemed out of place talking about vineyards, and when Lorca’s character The Moon made its appearance (which at first I thought was supposed to be some kind of ghoul), I began wondering where I might find the moonshine still. Yet the hillbilly theme was not carried consistently throughout: women in the final act donned black veils in the Spanish style—a gesture unsupported by the rest of the costuming, set, and howdy-hooing. (The Moon’s face was illumined by light reflected in buckets that were dispersed around the stage—visually, without the moon there, striking tableau, but with her face stuck in the beam, it felt more like cheap Lon Chaney—yet the charm failed to improve an already miserable congeries.
Lookingglass, as I say, is a theater company that thrives on acrobatics and spectacle—so my animus runs counter to its ensemble’s core, or my bias if you will. The director, Daniel Ostling, talks about the production in the program notes:
Lookingglass has attracted a group of artists who share a deep connection between text and image, and who see spectacle as an integrated element of storytelling. They also tend to blur the boundaries between the various roles of theatre making.
The show was poorly acted, poorly conceived; the set was serviceable for hillbilly milieu, but attention to costume—even Spanish costuming—might have helped to imply ravishing beauty in the female lead (as called for by the script), and a sense of sensual dynamism in her illicit and ill-fated suitor. As it was the characters appeared like schlubs.
The real fault with the production lies in the assertion that the company “blur[s] the boundaries between the various roles” of stagecraft. As I have argued elsewhere, distinctions must be drawn and must be drawn sharply. (That is not to say one person cannot function in multiple capacities.) The director, Ostling, is a company member, and new to directing—one expects he will improve, technically; but nothing can repair a company-wide misorientation for theatrical enterprise, if drama is supposed to be the endgame. It was for Garcia Lorca, of course. He knew the value in amusement, and, without critical standards, the production was amusing enough.
It was Garcia Lorca without duende.