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Slack-Jawed and Goggle-Eyed

January 3, 2007

People sometimes say to me “I couldn’t do your job. It must be terribly hard being nasty about artists’ work.” I usually respond with some remark like “My primary aims as a critic are to educate and entertain my readers. So as long as I back up all my responses to a work of art – both positive and negative -- with evidence, pithy descriptions and, where appropriate, humor, I tend to be able to look at myself in the mirror each morning without wincing.” There are occasions, though, when a theatrical production is so damn awful, so lacking in mitigating factors, that I feel quite stymied. How to convey something of the horror of experiencing a particular show to my readers without coming across as an angry, pompous, jaded hack?

Michael Feingold of The Village Voice sometimes tackles the problem by avoidance. I once read a review of his about a production of a G. B. Shaw play in New York in which he devoted about 1000 words to a discussion of Shavian wit and about 200 to the actual show. Being brutal can be fun – especially when the people behind a show are the likes of Elton John and Anne Rice (last year’s adaptation of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Lestat, was lacking in eye teeth, to say the least) – but I also think that exerting a little damage control has its place, especially if I’m dealing with the work of a very young company or playwright. The dilemma on this particular occasion is that I’m writing about a show that fits neither category. Publicity materials for Luma, a live light-based production that has been touring, inexplicably, since 1999, describe performances as leaving audiences “slack-jawed and goggle-eyed.” The show did have this effect on me. But I wouldn’t call it positive.

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