May 5, 2013

My review of my review...

Now that CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT has ended, I can post one of the reviews of the show. I make it a rule to never post negative press during the run of a show. It is hard enough to get people out to the theatre to make their own minds up without putting up with someone smack-talking your work in the paper or a blog.

To a large degree, I really only see reviews and criticism as marketing tools. If there are a few good pull-quotes, great. If not, oh well. Most reviews are not memorable to anyone but the artists directly involved in the show itself. And though I really like when critics "get" the work and even moreso when they enjoy it, I never really celebrate good press. I also don't really lose sleep over "bad" press. This is because it is really hard to get good, actual criticism. Also, my own awareness of the value and purpose of my work is pretty solid.

That said, I got one of the best, though most unflattering reviews, I have ever received during Sundown's run of CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT. I do not know the reviewer, Kristy Blackmon, and admittedly, The Column is not a leading source of great criticism, but a few things really struck me about the review...

I do not agree with many of her points, such as the definition of fable, the moral message of the play, bringing up questions with the assumption that these questions also must be answered in the piece, and so on. I won't go point by point through the review and nit-pick. All I'm saying is, she had an opinion and I had another opinion.

What I do appreciate, though, is the intelligence she brings to her criticism. She took the play seriously as a piece of theatre. Though it was presented on a  super-small budget, tucked away at a dance studio in Denton, Texas, she approached her review as if she were going to see a new work at the National Theatre. I really, seriously, appreciate this.

This write-up made me, legitimately, question and think about the play. I went back and scrutinized sections of it.

I also appreciate she calls bullshit on a few things like the badly taped rotating backdrops that  looked awesome, but were honestly kinda shoddy.

I also was pleased she was complimentary to the director, cast and crew. On the whole. Their contributions were apparent and recognized, just as they should have been. 

All that said, beyond matters of sheer opinion, I was also bothered by a few things.

Despite some of the more intelligent analysis, I was surprised at how much she misinterpreted parts of the piece or grafted unintended meaning onto parts. Her confusion over cannibalism in the play, for instance, was over-thought and she missed the main point of "eating one's fear." 

She also labels parts of the play "real life" and "fantasy" even though, there is no such differentiation in the piece. Carter has one brief "dream" sequence. I guess the whole thing works as a memory play as well (like The Glass Menagerie). But her categorizing huge sections of action into "real life" and" fantasy" is a fabrication separate from the play itself. 

The same can be said about her assumption that the piece is about how "modern man struggles to find meaning in a meaningless, capitalistic world that inevitably drives him to drastic action in order to break free of the social structure that is crushing his spirit." I suppose Carter is looking for meaning in much the same way as every character in every story is looking for meaning, but this is a given. Water is wet. So? And what do social structures have to do with anything?

She also comes off overly jaded and cynical when saying the content is "tired" and "this is a story that has been told so often it is nearly impossible to make fresh." Perhaps she has seen the story before. Too bad this prevented her from seeing what was new in this retelling of it. 

I will give her credit, even though the final words in her piece stung the worst. She gives me a back-handed compliment by way of encouragement. If I stick to it,  with a little more "experience and seasoning" my work will eventually have "maturity" and  may "cross from provocative into something truly meaningful."

That's fair. That's how I feel about Ms. Blackmon's review as well.

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Reviewed Performance 4/13/2013
Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Sundown Collaborative Theatre's production of Brad McEntire's Carter Stubbs Takes Flight, currently running at Green Space Arts Collective in Denton, brings me back to the underground experimental theatre scene of the 1990s, where exploration of the Post-Modern existential dilemma placed focus on message and mood instead of a traditionally linear storyline. It is a provocative show meant to inspire conversation about cultural norms, identity, and expectations in a modern world. Playwright Brad McEntire classifies Carter Stubbs as a fable, a short tale with a central moral point. According to this brief and most basic definition, the label is accurate. The play is short, without even an intermission, and the moral message is very clear: modern man has forgotten joy in favor of obligation and routine. Many traditional elements of the fable are either noticeably absent or underplayed however, and the classification does more to cloud the intended message than it does to emphasize it.

Director Tashina Richardson presents a bare-bones production that strips all frills away from the show, preventing any technical distractions from the actors and the script. The technical elements such as set and costumes are deliberately simplistic, and their minimalism itself becomes a central facet of the production. Richardson converted a tiny room into the theatre space, placing about fifty folding chairs at the edges of the room and staging the set backdrops against one wall to create an "upstage" area. She and Lighting Designer Natalie Taylor use a simple but creative light design that makes heavy use of footlights, emphasizing shadows and silhouettes in the more fantastical parts of the play. The similarities between Green Space and a traditional black box theater pretty much end there, but it doesn't matter. This isn't a traditional play, and the lack of a traditional space doesn't hinder it. 

Several plain black wooden boxes of varying size and two black wooden chairs serve for set pieces. The backdrop is innovative: five cardboard rotating stands, each with three sides, portray the interior of the Stubbs' home, the interior of Carter's office, and the otherworldly tropical island on which the more magical scenes of the play take place. The actors turn each piece as part of choreographed scene transitions, which keeps the action moving quickly. 

It is a creative solution to the problem of limited space, but the packing tape holding the cardboard parts together and the rudimentary stenciling and drawing of different scenic elements draw too much attention to themselves. Minimalism for the sake of artistry is one thing, but it should still be done well. While the set pieces are inventive and seem sturdy enough, their slapdash nature is an unnecessary distraction in such a small space. 

The costumes by Joey Harrington, by contrast, achieve both the creativity and simplicity of the set while still being well made. While the characters in the non-fantasy sequences are in nicely stylized street clothes probably pulled from cast members' closets, the primitive inhabitants of Carter's alternate reality wear attractive and artistic cardboard masks and tropical skirts made of strips of paper that supplement the tribal beats of handheld drums nicely when the actors move. The effect is aural as well as visual, and it is quite successful.

The plot centers around Carter Stubbs, a man stuck in a miserable marriage and a dead-end job folding instruction manuals. He and his wife Felicia may once have had some common ground, but it has long since disappeared by the start of the show. He ignores her in favor of work, and she in turn grows vicious. 

Carter's life revolves around routine, and this theme is echoed nicely in the choreographed offices sequences. His work is predictably mind-numbing, his co-workers are predictably annoying, and his boss is predictably overbearing and merciless. Richardson and Choreographer George Ferrie inject some life into these scenes through the use of humorous and thematically relevant movement sequences, but on the whole this is a story that has been told so often it is nearly impossible to make fresh: modern man struggles to find meaning in a meaningless, capitalistic world that inevitably drives him to drastic action in order to break free of the social structure that is crushing his spirit. The overall feeling that I have seen these plot innumerable times drags the show down.

The fantasy sequences are more interesting. Carter's opening monologue, directed to the audience, is recited as he flies through the clouds, which are portrayed by the ensemble as they hold Tackett up and carry him around the stage. He winds up crash landing on the beach of a tropical island, where the primitive inhabitants inform him that in order to overcome his soft heart, he must fight a tiger. 

The symbolism nearly overwhelms here, so much so that the meaning is lost. The natives worship a king named after a popular soft drink who indulges in cannibalism, which suggests modern worship of pop culture at the expense of humanity. However, it is by this king's command that Carter fights the tiger, which gives him a strong heart. This seems to symbolize an internal battle that the post-modern Everyman which Carter represents must win in order to regain a sense of identity, but by the end of the show, the metaphors have become too mixed to really work. Are the primal islanders something to aspire to or a source of revulsion? Perhaps this is the question we are meant to ask: what is "civilization" and what does "primitive" mean? The problem is not that McEntire doesn't answer these questions for us, but that he doesn't seem to know himself.

If we have forgotten the joys of our childhoods in the mundane stresses of adult responsibility, it remains unclear what McEntire's solution is, or really even what the point of the fantasy sequences is.

All of the actors perform well. Kasey Tackett gives a good performance in the title role, playing the straight man to the supporting characters' comedic foils with a deadpan delivery and spot on sense of timing that keeps the pace moving. 

Lauren Belmore's performance is a high point. She displays a talent for dark comedy, playing Felicia with confidence and committing herself fully to her choices. Her comedic timing provides a much needed balance to her cruel treatment of Carter, keeping the domestic scenes from becoming emotionally stifling. 

David Helms, both as Carter's boss and his fantasy land king, does a good job of conveying all the symptoms of Napoleonic syndrome, and Robert Linder as Carter's soon-to-be-retired coworker Henry provides moments of much needed levity in the office scenes while helping to ground the show with bits of wise advice. As the lawyer, Linder delivers one of the funniest performances in the short play.

With Richardson's creative approach, her and Ferrie's nicely done choreography, and the imaginative and largely successful technical elements, Sundown gives us as commanding a performance of Carter Stubbs Takes Flight as I think possible.

Ultimately, it all isn't enough to overcome the problems with the script, though. The "real life" scenes at times are pat, and the fantasy scenes at times are confusing. For a show just over an hour long, the messages and themes are too convoluted and unclear. McEntire's wit and intelligence are obvious, but the themes he explores are tired, and he brings nothing new to the table with this play. His skill with dialogue is undeniable, and one gets the sense that he just needs some more experience and seasoning to give his work the maturity it needs to cross from provocative into something truly meaningful.
Original post HERE.

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