The Playgoer: REVIEW: Wickets

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Friday, January 16, 2009

REVIEW: Wickets

In this week's Voice, my review of Wickets at 3LD, a high-flying reimagining of Fornes' modern classic Fefu and Her Friends, set on a super-70s 747.

I must have liked it, since it was really, really tempting to use the line: Get this motherfucking Fornes off this motherfucking plane! Yet I restrained myself.

Now I'm sure some might consider it bad form for me to hold up my review against another critic's, but bear with me a sec, since there's a larger point.

I was pretty struck (though not surprised, alas) that the New York Times review of this same production hardly mentioned the Fornes connection at all and made no attempt to explain how the source material was adapted in this radical deconstruction of it. It seems to me when a piece of theatre announces it's an adaptation of a pre-existing, somewhat well-known play, it's incumbent upon the critic to comment on that, and to elucidate the reader about the extent of the adaptation.

Full disclosure: I plead guilty to having never read nor seen Fefu and Her Friends when I was assigned to cover Wickets. I certainly had heard of it, though. And had seen some Fornes, saw some of her plays, and read some stuff about her--which is unavoidable if you really follow serious contemporary American theatre. Still, I knew that it would be part of my job in a review to assess basically how "faithful" or not the adaptation is to the original. I consider that an automatic, obligatory question to address in reviewing any "adaptation" of another work.

With just three days' notice before seeing Wickets, I wasn't able to read--or even get my hands on--the text of the play. But I figured the least I could do is go on the Internet to get a summary and read up more on Fornes in general.

Long story short--I was really glad I did. Because it's the kind of adaptation where you really have to look for traces of the original. What may seem like a Tony and Tina's Wedding-style audience-participation romp (as framed by the kitschy 70s signposts, as well as everything that's always been ridiculous about commercial air travel), turns out to take the text of Fefu quite seriously. But you wouldn't know that if you didn't realize someone like Fornes wrote all this odd, beautiful dialogue the stewardesses slip in and out of without warning from their usual routine.

In fact, in the day and a half I had in between seeing the show and filing the review, I then made sure I got the Fornes script and skimmed it over, just to confirm that indeed Wickets was following the outline--and much of the specific dialogue--of the play. With only 200 words(!) at my disposal, I obviously wasn't getting into any fancy exegesis. Just enough, hopefully, to communicate the artists' strategy and how well it worked.

So my beef with Claudio La Rocco's Times review is just that it seems like reviewing Donkey Show without actually discussing the parallels to Midsummer Night's Dream. Is Fornes' work as famous and canonical as Shakespeare's? Of course not. But she is kind of an important writer.

I hesitate in picking on La Roccom, though, since the choice is really editorial, isn't it. To his full credit, my Voice editor, Brian Parks, insisted on an extra sentence in my draft summarizing Fefu. (Even extending the word count, eeking out one more precious parenthetical!) Maybe this is just because Brian is aware that Fornes is very much part of the Voice's heritage, and that Voice readers know her work. So: what does that say about the New York Times, and how it views their readers?

Whether the critic and/or editor knows anything about Fornes or not, the point is, a) it's not hard to find out, and b) I suppose it doesn't even matter if you're only interested in covering theatre as entertainment. They're right to assume that an audience/readership oblivious to the history of Off and Off-Off Broadway might not know or care who Fornes is. But I guess they're really making clear now that is who they want their readership to be.

I know the Times could make the case of, hey: if the audience at Wickets isn't expected or required to know their Fornes, then shouldn't we represent what the experience is like for them. Fair enough. Yes, I'm sure the creators of Wickets know full well not everyone--perhaps very few--will be "in on the joke." (Especially since they're marketing it for as wide a young downtown audience as possible.)

But when the program features extensive director's notes explaining the concept and its relation to Fefu in detail, it seems like they do care.

Finally, the question comes down to an eternal one in theatre criticism: Should the critic take the view of the "layman" or uninitiated audience, the vox populi? Or is knowledge and expertise beyond the common actually what is needed from a critic, to discern the truly great from the okay, the stinkers from the noble failures. Wickets poses a perfect case study in this question since it really is two different plays depending on whether you know Fefu or not. And it certainly is a much richer experience if you do know it. If I went in knowing nothing about it, I probably would have considered Wickets pretty trivial.

For the record, by the way, I think there is plenty of room for both kinds of criticism: the vox populi and the expert. Funny thing is, I didn't realize the New York Times has now opted for the former. I thought that was the province of those uppity bloggers.


Mike Daisey said...

I commented at my site:

Playgoer said...

Thanks for backing me up, Mike. And for calling me "exceedingly fair."

Just to make clear I'm not just setting up my own review as any kind of model, I highly recommend Helen Shaw's superior review in Time Out, who gives an even better sense of the Fornes context, within similar word-count constraints:

jan@broadwayandme said...

What I particularly appreciate about this entry is that it goes right to the heart of the argument about what criticism should be about—and makes a compelling argument that it's not where you write (for a newspaper or a blog) but what you write and how much you put into it. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog, and I did like your review in The Voice. I agree La Rocca's peice was very underwhelming, stating very little more than the obvious. As one who also attended the show, I was looking for reviews that penetrated the text a bit more, seeing as I am not familiar with the Fornes play.

I do very much disagree with Helen Shaw's review as well, though. I don't find "Wickets" to be a sweet flight of fancy. After seeing the play I looked up and read the original piece. I think the fun and silliness and sex that Trick Saddle put into the production actually illuminated and updated the feminist ideas and stood in place of the frivolity of the original character's lives. And to be honest, I don't know that I'd care to see a traditional staging of Fefu. This production was entertaining, as well and very insightful.

Anonymous said...

Good points, Playgoer, but La Rocca is such an easy target. ALL her reviews are lazy. She seems to be the NYT's stab at reaching a younger reader, or something like that, by using a writer with a flip, insouciant tone. Seems to me as bad a misjudgment about younger readers as it is about criticism.

btw, Fornes is not just a hero of OOB and the Village Voice. She is on American drama syllabi all over the country and produced at universities a lot (and deservedly.) It's only the NYT that never seems to have understood or cared.

Aaron Riccio said...

You got me -- I wrote about this now, too.

I think there's two types of readers, too: someone like Victoria Lydon is reading post-show, to better understand and process the experience. However, there's also the person who wants to know if they should go to see the show or not, and to them, analysis of the play would almost certainly turn them off (or ruin the experience for them). As I say, my goal is to try and find the middle ground--something that is physically evocative of the mood so that people are intrigued into going or so that those who have already seen it can revisit the show through another's gut.

Playgoer said...

Interesting thoughts, Aaron. Also reminded me how I believe you, me, AND La Rocco were all at the very same performance.

3 audience member, same evening--3 different experiences, eh?