A Critical Quandary

Enough already with trying to figure out whether or not newspaper theater criticism is still relevant, and on to imagining that it is, and that readers are interested in hearing about the process from the inside. I'm talking specifically about personal ethics emerging during the course of a review. 

It's not that old question about letting an actor or director take you out for a few beers before his/her opening. You already know the answer to that one, and it's the same no matter how cool s/he seems. (Are you listening, you acting/directing sirens?) No, these days I'm worrying about a real, honest-to-goodness dilemma that involves the confluence of a reviewer, her ethical biases, and a production that violates those ethics. 

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I've got a show coming up that I'm not even sure will be assigned to me, but am already offended--I cringe just typing the word--by its mere presence on the roster. It's no fun feeling like Jesse Helms (R.I.P.), and coming from someone whose deep affection for performance art blossomed after seeing an '80s-era Karen Finley show, it's a bit of a contradiction. But there it is. 

In short, this year's Philadelphia Live Arts Festival (check out the festival trailer for a brief peek at the show in question) features Argentinian Rodrigo Garcia's Accidens (matar para comer). This performance, written and performed by Garcia, a former butcher, involves a duet between man and lobster, which as you might imagine, ends badly for the crustacean. The trouble is, I'm a vegan and recently wrote a feature for the Inquirer's food section about this gustatory transformation (but for some reason only the sidebar is still available online. Sorry.), and I just can't abide a performance that intentionally causes the death of another living creature in order to make its point. It recalls the Habacuc controversy earlier this year, which also used an animal's suffering for its own ends. What is it with South America? First Amores Perros (well, really Pixote was first), and now this? You'd think life was brutal down there, or something.

So ok, without having seen it, I get it, and probably, on the whole, agree with Garcia. His point, at least as expressed by the Live Arts fest's p.r. folks, is really not too far off from Michael Pollan's. Food is packaged, sanitized and renamed so as to completely divorce it from the life that ended so we might feast--obviously, you can extend the metaphor as you wish. Here, Garcia and I are aligned. But when it comes to taking that next step, sacrificing a beating invertebrate heart on the altar of artistic license, well, to me, that's barbarism, and the very opposite of what art was created to combat.

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But let's get away from the concept's logical extension and back to the actual creature. I'm not particularly sympathetic to lobsters. After all, they're cousin to the cockroach, a creature that just happens to be the source of a serious personal phobia. But Garcia's lobster is alive, that is, until it's not. David Foster Wallace didn't used to think much about the critters either, until Gourmet magazine sent him to cover a Maine festival whose monumental scale of lobster massacre was more decadent than anything Caligula could have dreamed up. (Most unintentionally hilarious part of the piece? A clueless little toque dingbat at the feature's end.) Still not convinced? Here's another article from the Daily Mail on the subject. 

Still, it really, really pains me to recoil from a piece on principle, because dammit, I'm a theater critic, and it's my job to divine meaning from the cultural winds, be they foul or fair. However, I also know I'll be unable to judge the piece on its artistic merit alone, which is what every artist deserves, unless they're really, really depraved. 

But that, of course, is a moral judgement, isn't it? The question here is really this: do a critic's personal morals or ethical code have any place in a review? And conversely, humans being the way they are, how can one possibly pretend they don't? Though it's an issue I've struggled with this season, I still don't have an answer. 

July 28, 2008 11:00 PM | | Comments (6)

6 Comments

Thanks for the report, Michael. Yours seems to be the general consensus--a lame waste of time. PETA tried a letter-writing campaign, but I've heard there weren't any protesters. It's probably best that the show (and the lobster) went out with a whimper. Maybe that will convince Mr. Garcia that he ought to try suffering for his art, not making other sentient creatures (audience included) suffer.

According to the Live Arts catalog, the creator of this piece, Rodrigo Garcia, was once a butcher before starting his own theatre company. (Me, I was just a lowly ice cream truck driver.) The central statement, quoted in the catalog and projected on a giant wall in the Ice Box space, is “…One has to have a lot of imagination–and I lack it–to tremble in the face of death while opening a can of meatballs at home in the kitchen.” Nice semantic trick, that. Reference what should cause us to tremble, then undercut it by saying, oh, I don’t have what it takes to actually tremble.

I was there for Saturday's performance. A live lobster was hung from a wire, and a microphone attached so every amplified twitch would reverberate throughout the cavernous Ice Box where the killing would take place. It took all of 3 or 4 minutes for the beast to give up the ghost. There were perhaps three big thrashes, which caused a few ladies to jump reflexively--and one to leave the auditorium--but all in all it was a pretty un-dramatic death.

The actor poured a bottle of water over the thing, apparently to revive it a bit, prolong the agony, draw out the conceit...y'know, about how inhumane we are when dealing with inhuman things. Unfortunately, at Saturday's performance, the lobster didn't play along. It was already dead dead dead. Not that any of that mattered.

This was a soggy, half-baked excuse of a show.

If this was supposed to be a “dramatic deconstruction of consumer culture in the industrialized world,” as the Live Arts guide tells us, then please tell me why Garcia, the FORMER BUTCHER, used a crustacean to illustrate his point?

OK, fishing is an industry, too. Demand has never been higher since those Omega 3s got so damn popular, and the sea is being emptied one Red Lobster (and Costco and Safeway) at a time. But, seriously, the creator of ACCIDENS was a meat-grindin' man. Like, poultry and swine and cattle. The actor uses an enormous--obscenely, comically, I-get-the-pointly enormous--butcher knife during the piece. In a video that is our only text (since the actor and lobster don't speak), he references a fatal car crash (dead meat); and dwells on a can of MEATBALLS. So...the best Carne Garcia can do is have his actor kill a crustacean?

I know it sounds harsh, but I truly believe this work is gutless, not to mention lacking in imagination. I agree with Ian (above) that "There are many options Garcia et al. could have used to tell the same story without killing lobsters-- which if done well would have made the same point without a genuine act of violence." Peter Brook had an actor burn a "butterfly"--actually a piece of paper--in his production of US, and there was outrage.

But if Garcia insists, in our reality-saturated world, that he's gotta really, REALLY kill something to make a point, I argue that he's being disingenuous by equating the 3-minute torture and death of an oversized cockroach with the months-long agony and drawn-out death of higher-order animals to satisfy the demands of our agri-military-industrial-business complex.

At the very least he should have killed a chicken. If he had real rocky mountain oysters, he would’ve butchered a steer. The Ice Box is enormous; there’s more than enough room to do the business.

If the piece is taking on consumer culture, isn’t it fair to say that lobsters play a relatively small role in American consumerism…compared to the chicken and pig and cow factories that dominate “farming” in our country? And, not to be too literalist, but meatballs are made of the flesh of cows…I think…certainly not crustaceans or any other kind of seafood (unless maybe at Whole Foods). Garcia takes the easy way out by presenting death that’s not all that dramatic, and not really connected to his thesis statement.

It is definitely a slippery slope, but I don't think you have to worry about Central and South America having a monopoly on barbarity. There's plenty of that to go around.

We'll see if anyone else agrees soon enough. The show opens tomorrow night.

I am embarrassed to say I am Argentinean. This man along with Vargas Jimenez from Costa Rica give a bad name to people in Central and South America by making us look as if we are barbarians.
Vargas Jimenez should be in jail for what he did to that dog. And this Argentine fellow may follow one day the same route Jimenez took: one day you torture a lobster, then another day you torture a turtle, then a cat, and before you know it you torture a dog. What does your conscience tell you at night or when you are alone? Nothing. This would most likely be the answer these two fellows would give.
What I do not understand is why anyone would go to any of the shows or exhibitions. As long as they have an audience, they will continue to display their moral values (or lack of them).

You ought not apologize for having moral sensibilities.

There are many options Garcia et al. could have used to tell the same story without killing lobsters-- which if done well would have made the same point without a genuine act of violence. The performance could have incorporated some combination of mime and puppetry to create the illusion of a lobster on stage. A pet lobster (I don't really know if that's feasible, but Garcia should have asked that question) could have played the role of the ill-fated creature and then be switched with a stage replica.

The audience would give an emotional response even to the illusion.

You don't have to be vegan to feel that watching the death of another living creature for any kind of aesthetic pleasure is inherently barbaric. This isn't really a quandary. Don't go to the show, and more power to you.

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