What We Talk About When We Talk About Theater

In 1964, when I was five years old, my father told me that Patty Duke didn't have a twin. Naturally I recognized this information for what it was -- a bald-faced lie. Every week on The Patty Duke Show anyone could see there were two teenage girls, not one actress and a body double. No revelation about stage tricks could convince me otherwise. And why should it? As every budding critic knows, illusion is almost always more fun than reality.

Years later I still wonder about this phenomenon. How does stage illusion work on our imagination? Shakespeare, for example, got away with spinning seemingly ridiculous stories about twins separated at birth and statues that come to life -- and yet even today we feel these dramas are meaningful to us. Is there any end to the variety of tales can you tell if you stretch reality a little bit? And what about the other end of the spectrum? Why do the extremes of realism and naturalism -- the Henrik Ibsens and the Sam Shepards -- also ignite powerful drama?

It's a privilege to be paid for worrying about these things, I know. Indeed there are worse jobs than going to the theater. It's a serious task, though. I don't enjoy writing reviews about bad productions -- every negative review represents hopes dashed, potential lost, an evening that could have been better spent. At the same time, few experiences are as thrilling as great theater, and nothing is more gratifying to write about.

As I don't always get a chance to explain myself outside the confines of a critique, and because Hurricane Georges canceled the shows I had planned to see that week, this space is devoted to answering some frequently asked questions about theater critics.

What do critics want?
Critics want audiences and actors to come together -- whenever they meet -- in such a way that everyone goes home transformed. Today, though, the biggest threat to theater is empty seats. Television long ago replaced commercial theater as our primary source of formal entertainment. I love television, too, but I think viewers should get off the couch more often. If they did they'd see for themselves that there's no type of dramatic performance more powerful than live theater at its best -- and that includes the work of every film genius from Steven Spielberg to Akiro Kurosawa, and every TV impresario from Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) to the geniuses who write Frasier.

Are critics necessary?
Audiences need critics in the same way coal miners need canaries. With countless entertainment choices competing for your time and money, it's essential to have someone evaluating the alternatives. If you feel you would have missed something crucial if you hadn't taken a critic's recommendation to see Angels in America, for example, then you availed yourself of one service critics can provide. You certainly don't have to agree with the reviewer on the merits of a particular production to acknowledge that theater producers are in business to make money, and that somebody ought to be examining their product.

Consumer guidance aside, another part of the critic's job is to question the status quo. If you felt trepidation when you shelled out $75 to see Rent, then suffered through the mediocre acoustics at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, then wondered what the monumental fuss was about because you didn't even like the show -- well, you know it's not such a bad idea to have a contrasting point of view aired alongside the hype that accompanies a hit show.

A good critic will also step back and try to figure out where the power of a work comes from. Is the play all flash, or is the playwright saying something new to us? Is a monologue just fun to sit through (nothing wrong with that) or is it commenting on our lives?

Why do I say bad things about your best friend's show?
I am not an advocate for the commercial theater community, and I am not a cheerleader for local actors. I am here on behalf of the audience, which I always thought was obvious. Still, a few weeks ago I took some friends to see a production that turned out to be dreadfully soporific. When my review was published, one of these friends (the one who had spent two hours at the theater checking his watch) said, "I thought you were going to be nice." Nice? So other people could suffer the same excruciating boredom? The critic's primary job is to report whether a show succeeds in telling the story it has set out to tell in the best way it can. If a shows fails and a published review doesn't point that out, how can a critic expect to be taken seriously?

What are the strengths of South Florida theater?
As my former Miami Herald colleague and fellow former New Englander Fernando Gonzalez once put it: "Miami is not Boston with a beach." His point being that this city -- barely 100 years old and influenced as much by the Southern Hemisphere as by, say, New York -- defies comparison to other cultural centers. Our expectations are provoked daily, which is one reason it's such a pleasure to be here. Likewise South Florida theater has its own rhythms. For one thing, it is not encumbered by 300 years of tradition and the stifling of creativity that inevitably accompanies it. Innovative projects such as the Summer Shorts Festival can incubate here in a culture that isn't burdened by long memories of failed artistic experiments.

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