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Panning potential greatness

With theatre critics like Peter Birnie writing as aesthetic barometers of Vancouver culture, performance artists don’t need enemies. They need…

By Tracy Fuller , in Blogs Engaging the Stage , on January 25, 2008

With theatre critics like Peter Birnie writing as aesthetic barometers of Vancouver culture, performance artists don’t need enemies. They need protection… and Prozac.

As part of this week’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Italian director Romeo Castellucci is presenting Hey, Girl!, an avant-garde performance art piece that “explores the female body and sensitivity, evoking the slavery, violence, and servitude that still too often afflict women.”

According to Birnie, whose view was featured on the front page of the Vancouver Sun’s Arts section today, “You won’t find a more pretentious piece of pap to giggle at than Hey Girl! … While the wacky world of performance art always gets away with being bombastic and bizarre, it rarely ascends to the heights of silliness seen here… ”

Need I go on?

Although others think the performance is unnerving and engrossing, Birnie’s pan will keep many would-be-curious theatergoers away from the Frederic Wood Theatre this weekend.

Forget PuSh’s mission to “showcase contemporary work that is visionary, genre-bending, startling and original.” Birnie will have none of it: “The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival reaches a crescendo of kookiness in Italian artist Romeo Castellucci’s orgy of oddities.”

Conservative patrons can breathe a sigh of relief: Birnie has once again saved them from being challenged and <gasp!> uncomfortable at the theatre. Three cheers for sequined spectacles and forgettable fictions!

While researching a paper I wrote last semester, I interviewed Jerry Wasserman, who is a veteran Vancouver theatre critic and the acting Head of UBC’s Theatre, Film and Creative Writing department. We were talking about a critic’s right to voice her honest opinion, be it positive or negative, and the impact reviews can have on the success or failure of a production.

Speaking specifically about Vancouver’s theatre community, Wasserman said that a negative review from a well-read critic like The Vancouver Sun’s Peter Birnie, “can make a big difference for a small show that’s struggling to compete in what’s become an increasingly competitive [theatre] environment.”

Fortunately for Hey, Girl!, Mr. Birnie’s rebuke can do little to harm Romeo Castellucci’s career, considering the Italian artist’s internationally lauded reputation.

The “Birnie burn” will harm Vancouver’s ability to receive experimental and difficult works with an open mind and willing attitude. People must blindly trust Birnie’s judgment, as not many will catch one of Hey, Girl!’s 3 performances. With his rebuke as the authoritative cultural evaluation of the performance’s impact, Vancouverites may never see, and never invite, another Castellucci production here again. Woe unto us, if that be the case!

As Wasserman states, modern critiques serve the public in three ways: they offer consumer reviews, the reflect current social tastes, and they provide feedback for the artistic community. Credible critics are sometimes unkind, he says, but most try to be constructive, even when they pan a production.

Hey, Girl! did not receive such a kind fate.

Following the recent premiere of His Greatness, Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor revealed his feelings about reviews at an audience Q & A. Having received a pan in The Georgia Straight that began: “His Greatness isn’t great. Much of Act One is a waste; but the script contains one passage of real beauty, and there are three excellent performances in this production…,” I asked MacIvor how he felt about it.

“I haven’t read it,” he replied. “I don’t read them.”

The three “excellent” actors then chimed-in to say that none of them had read the review either. But they had all heard about it.

Although MacIvor, who is a multiple award-winning playwright and actor, pays no attention to reviews, he still thinks critics are “an important part of the theatre industry.”

“So long as they have an actual interest in the community,” MacIvor mused, “it’s important for there to be a space for commentary — even if it is fucking obnoxious sometimes.”

Whether or not Romeo Castellucci will agree with MacIvor’s apt opinion regarding Peter Birnie’s review, I know not.

But I do know that I wholeheartedly agree: there must be space for commentary and sometime it is f***ing obnoxious.