When does a negative review go too far?

After my decidedly negative review of Workhaus Collective's play Little Eyes was published, I received an e-mail from a reader. The reader expressed two basic concerns: (1) It's not appropriate to use my aunt's idea of what's realistic to judge the quality of a fictional stage production that employs deliberately absurd storytelling techniques; (2) the tone of my review was unnecessarily glib, and lacked consideration of the degree of time and attention devoted to Little Eyes by everyone involved with the production.

The reader declined my invitation to be publicly identified or to have the e-mail published, but here is my response. If you have thoughts on this discussion, please share them in the comment section below.

"With respect to your first question, I don't think that every play needs to pass 'the Aunt Judy test,' but characters do need to be consistent within the bounds of a given universe. I singled out the flirtation scene between Steph and Gary for praise, even though it fails 'the Aunt Judy test,' because at that point the emotional stakes were still relatively low and we could enjoy the simple fun of the interaction without needing to 'believe' the characters in a conventional sense. They existed in their own, odd universe, and that was fine. But later in the play, things change as we are asked—or so I perceived—to empathize with the characters, particularly Judy and Mark. By that point, both characters—particularly Judy—have made decisions that are so inexplicable that it's hard for the audience to relate to them. I certainly agree that taking liberties from literal reality in the service of an artistic statement is possible—after all, by definition any play is a departure from literal reality—but liberties like these are very difficult to pull off if you want to keep the audience involved, and I don't think this particular play succeeds in that respect.

"With respect to the next point, it's completely fair to take exception to my tone and style. My goal is to entertain and to inform, and I know that you are not alone in your belief that my comments are sometimes inappropriate. While I agree that each individual review has to stand on its own, I think it's worth noting that my reviews of Little Eyes and Drama a Comedy were two of the most unusually negative reviews I've written among the hundreds of reviews I've written for the Daily Planet since 2007. Writing such negative reviews is not the norm for me, and I don't do it lightly. I was seriously disappointed in this production given Workhaus's track record and the caliber of the talent involved, and I thought it was important to clearly communicate that to readers. Again, though I stand by the [review], I understand how people could find my style to be inappropriate.

"I was certainly under no impression that this production was thrown hastily together, or that anyone was getting rich off this show. The fact that it was a labor of love, though, actually raises expectations rather than diminishes them—if you're just cashing in on a quick buck, then at least you're guaranteed the quick buck! If you're volunteering a lot of time and effort for a piece, the stakes are higher; you're taking risks and asking your audience and your fellow artists to take risks with you. In general, that's precisely the work that most excites me, and I think I've made that preference clear over the course of the past few years. This particular show, though, just didn't work—and though you may have found my tone to be glib, I think it would be even more glib, and less honest, to praise the company for the simple fact of producing new work if it doesn't meet the high bar that everyone involved with this production has set with their previous work. The artistic choices that were made with this production—and I'm not implying they were made hastily—did not, in my view, translate into a compelling production. Instead, I was frustrated and disappointed, and that came out in my review."


Photo: Braxton Baker and Sarah Agnew in Little Eyes. Photo by Kevin McLaughlin, courtesy Guthrie Theater.

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    Jay Gabler's picture
    Jay Gabler

    Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.

    Comments

    Comment

    Journalism=can't please everyone! Stay true to yourself.

    Yes, Barb

    Let's praise critics for "staying true to themselves" while throwing the artists upon whom they make their living to the wolves.

    Clarification?

    Anonymous commenter, could you explain more clearly why you qualify "staying true to themselves" in quotation marks, and how publishing a negative but honest review is throwing an artist to the wolves? Do you think there is a role for critical writing about the arts at all—and if so, what is it? What boundaries should critics respect?