Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Heart" to heart

I admit I'm fascinated by problems of taste and perception, and what they say about us. We all, of course, shrug off differences in taste as just part of the normal variety of life (which it is) - but that doesn't make them any less of a mystery, now does it. It would be one thing, of course, if taste were entirely random - but individual tastes tend to correspond, either harmonically or inversely, as if there were secret principles operating behind them.

What's really fascinating is the way perceptions of different people tend to be precisely inverted. I'm often struck by the fact that what I perceive as deep certain other people perceive as superficial, and what I perceive as superficial these same other people perceive as deep. The only argument I have for my own point of view, of course, is a purely historical one - what I have perceived as deep has generally turned out to be deep, and even classic. Does that mean, however, that I myself am "deep," or just a superficial person who likes deep material? Could those who worship before the superficial actually be the deep ones?

These thoughts are top-of-mind this morning because I've just read a round-up of the reviews of Light in the Piazza, and have once again been reduced to mute wonderment by the opinions of - wait for it - Louise Kennedy. I regard Louise, as most readers of this blog have probably guessed, as kind of a bane on local theatre, and it's always dismayed me that via her perch at the Globe she holds the most commercial sway over the scene. I will admit, however, that with Jenna Scherer now seemingly ensconced at the Herald, the average IQ of the print reviewers has crept up a notch. Unlike the Weekly Dig- which is essentially a humor magazine - the Herald keeps a tighter rein on Scherer's snarkiness, and this actually throws her brains into higher relief. She's writing for South Boston, yes I know, which throws a political straitjacket over her. But she's still braver (and blunter) than the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay, and so has far more salience as an actual arbiter of the culture (as opposed to a kind of hostess of the culture, which is how Clay sees herself). Not that I always agree with Jenna, mind you - but when I don't, I usually understand why; she has her generation's prejudices, while I have mine, for instance.

Now Jenna, Louise and myself all recommended Piazza (see my review below). But Louise's reasoning reveals a true mystery - as her reasoning often does. Take her review of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice - my friends and I are still chuckling over its pretensions, while Kennedy found in it "Grief. Joy. Energy. Terror. Laughter. Tears. Comprehension. Mystery." How is that possible, I ask myself, particularly since I don't actually doubt that her reaction was honest? I don't believe she's consciously talking down to her audience; but how could such obvious claptrap induce such a breathless response?

Perhaps her review of Piazza offers a few hints. I've long noted that director Scott Edmiston subtly sands down the edges on his material; he adds songs (or little dances) to lighten "downer" endings, and tends to cuten rather tricky relationships within his productions; I heard him once describe his job as "just loving the characters as much as I possibly can." But doesn't he really mean he sees his job as making the characters just as lovable as he possibly can (which is hardly the same thing)?

Needless to say, Edmiston pulls his usual tricks on Light in the Piazza; in one key moment, for instance, where in the original the heroine impulsively grabs the penis on a statue, Edmiston has her grab its buttocks instead - and so turns her action into a funny, rather than disturbing, vignette. He also soft-pedals the moral quandaries of the piece in several ways, and determinedly makes his hero and heroine more closely matched both intellectually and emotionally - I actually applauded these distortions, because the issues raised by the original weren't worked out successfully; but I still recognize that they are, in fact, distortions, aimed at subtly undermining the very premise of the piece.

To Louise, however, these little white lies amount to a revelation. "Amazingly, Scott Edmiston's production finds a subtlety and humanity in Craig Lucas's book that I simply did not see before," she writes. "This 'Light' is not just lovely to listen to and to look at; it's brimming with passion, forgiveness, and love."

Weirdly, she goes further: "What makes the difference? For one thing, Edmiston has downplayed the more caricatured aspects of Lucas's story . . . What's new at SpeakEasy - and it makes all the difference - is that now it touches the heart."

This fascinates me. "The heart." Whenever anyone mentions to me that something has "heart," the piece in question almost inevitably strikes me as synthetic. What does it mean, though, to view the synthetic as genuine - to even thrill to it? I actually mean no insult in saying of Edmiston that I can sense he's a very canny operator - because I sense he knows that, too. In short, it takes a high degree of smarts to insinuate sugar so subtly into a production - the kind of smarts, in fact, that require self-awareness; if you produce a sense of "heart" by clever manipulation, then you know it is not, perforce, actual "heart."

Louise, however, seems to perceive the (admittedly awkward, but still intriguing) difficulties of the original as "caricatured," while opining that the new, smoother version is "brimming with passion, forgiveness, and love." Indeed, the original's (slight) moral complications seem to have confused her (rather like Clara, the heroine of Piazza). This goes to the "heart" of her method, it seems to me - the soothingly calculated she proclaims as "passion," while thornier issues are "caricatured" - they're not as "honest," "real," or "true" - three of her favorite buzzwords. Likewise, she's a bit diffident before true greatness - just read her reviews of Shakespeare - while a sucker for the likes of Sarah Ruhl. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure she really feels that way, deep down inside. But that's what puzzles me.

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