Friday, March 07, 2008

Crush redux

So if you are experiencing some Shakespeare withdrawal now that “Measure for Measure” has closed at Richmond Shakespeare, Henley Street just opened “Much Ado About Nothing” out at Pine Camp. As many times as I’ve seen the play, I never get sick of the Benedick / Beatrice interplay – it’s always worth taking in a new production just to see those two characters.

A while back, my blogmate MaryB posed a challenging question to me about the influence of crushes on the critical assessment of a play (“Is it possible to weigh the amount of personal emotional reaction to an actor vs. objective criticism?”). While I wasn’t sitting with Mary while she drooled over Justin Dray in “The Late Henry Moss,” I expect this is an issue she also has to grapple with at times. Perhaps she will chime in with her thoughts somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, I’ll respond along three lines of thought: professionalism, self-awareness, and examples.

First off, in many ways, being a theater critic is a job just like any other job. I do a task, I get paid money. In every job I’ve ever had (and probably every job you’ve ever had), there have been opportunities for emotional or interpersonal factors to influence how I did that job. Part of being a professional is managing those opportunities and making the right choices. As a manager, I never gave a project to one employee rather than another because I liked him or her more; I assigned responsibilities based on a person’s skills. As a school board member, I never engineered a situation to benefit a teacher or administrator because I had a crush on them. It’s not only wrong to do so, but from what I’ve seen, it’s also generally ineffective. Think of a director who casts someone in the wrong part because of a crush. Isn’t that usually painfully obvious and doesn’t the whole production suffer as a result? So one response to the “is it possible” question is, "why is it any less possible to do as a theater critic what people have to do on a daily basis in other jobs?”

One of the particular job skills of being a critic, I think, is a level of self-awareness. We critics all talked about this at the Barksdale discussion a few weeks back. I know that I’m not a big fan of farces, for instance, so I bring that knowledge with me when I go to review a farce. And while I may not be a big fan of the genre, I know what constitutes a good one and I’ve been pretty darn entertained by many.

This relates to crushes in that part of my job as a critic is to figure out where any crush feeling I might be having comes from and whether it is pertinent to my analysis of the play. Because of the nature of their jobs, actors and actresses tend to be physically attractive people. For the most part, physical beauty is generally not that impressive to me (I'm in my 40s, people -- the raging hormones have calmed quite a bit over the years...). I am also aided in this respect by being married to one of the most beautiful women in the world (in my humble opinion).

Also, as we all know, a crush is generally more than just physical. So if I’m feeling a crush toward someone on stage, I try to evaluate what in the performance is engendering that response and whether whatever that is serves the play. As an example, the first time I remember seeing Jen Meharg on stage was in Triangle Players’ “The Secretaries” and I remember feeling a tremendous crush on her. Which made her role – that of a domineering, ultimately murderous boss – that much more delicious, her seductive attractiveness contrasting fabulously with her vile actions.

On the other side of the coin, Stephanie Kelly Dray made quite an impression on me in another RTP show, “The Judas Kiss,” mostly due to a scene of full-frontal nudity (I was younger, more hormones...). But that scene was incredibly jarring in the context of the play and Ms. Dray – such an incredible actress in many other roles – was not even directly mentioned in my review.

So in the recent production of “Measure for Measure” that prompted this line of inquiry, I thought the crush feelings I had toward Ms. Blake were largely because she was effective in her role. Isabella impresses Angelo with her intelligence, the persuasiveness of her argument, her passion and her beauty. The crush feelings I had toward Ms. Blake reflected her effectiveness in impressing me in the same way she impresses Angelo. People watching that play are supposed to believe that a here-to-fore straight-arrow is inspired to do bad things at least in part because of his reaction to Isabella. Given Blake’s performance, I was willing to buy into that. I’ve seen Blake in other shows (The Tempest, for instance) where I did not “drool” over her, so to speak. That’s not because she wasn’t good in her role, but probably more because I don’t think I was supposed to.

One final example to illustrate this topic: I had a huge crush on Jill Bari Steinberg after seeing “The Syringa Tree.” Her awesomeness was pretty overwhelming in that production. When I was lucky enough to find myself sitting next to her in a Fan-area bar some time after that production, I was as nervous as a middle school boy. But just a few months later, I saw her in "The Fifth of July" and she honestly did not make much of an impression on me at all, and not because she was any less lovely. The instructive irony of it all is that only since getting over my crush on Ms. Steinberg (well, still working on it…) and getting to know her as the great and generous person she is has my job of reviewing her performances become any harder than it was after that initial surge of attraction. Go figure.

OK, so I’ve go on for much too long here, bored many of you, and probably said more than I should. But Mary gave me a great topic to go on about – me! – and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to ramble. Any comments, questions, yawns of disinterest or cries of outrage?


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you revisited this. I don't have a problem with it at all. Crush equals a response to charisma, and isn't that what we want from performers? Or leaders? I'm thinking of the Democratic Primary race, and I don't have a problem supporting the more charismatic person, in my view. Won't World Leaders respond the same way?

I saw "The Late Henry Moss" last night, and as a result, I think I have a little crush on everyone in the play. (Some stronger than others, natch.)

- Jennifer Frank

Andrew Hamm said...

I share your Syringa Tree crush on Jill Bari. But I have to differ with you about The Tempest. I've had a crush on Liz's grace and talent all the way back to Twelfth Night; even to her performance as Biondello in Shrew.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to share a comment not related to this post. Sorry, I don't know how to start a new topic or paste a link.

Based on past discussion I thought some folks might be interested in a recent New York Times article about the cost & audience realities of regional theatre. D.C.'s The Shakespeare Theatre is mentioned as well as Shirlington Theatre in Arlington, and many other outstanding regional theatres (non-NY).

To find the article on line, go to, select the Theatre section, go to right side of page where it says 'Most Popular Theatre Articles' and select the article called, "The Boosters, Bearing Theatres". Enjoy.