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.
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.
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.