Friday, January 2, 2009

Wishful Thinking, or: A Girl's Guide to Top 10 Lists

Like many other Bostonians, I've been looking over various theatrical "Top 10" lists, and just repeating "What the fuck?" to myself over and over, very softly. It's not that there's nothing good on every list; it's that each list encompasses bizarre incongruities. One list, for instance, assures us that Eurydice was as good as She Loves Me, which was as good as Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking. Another says Voyeurs de Venus was as good as Angels in America, which was good as . . . (wait for it) Wishful Drinking.

Wow. That Wishful Drinking. The critics seem to agree it was the equal of Merchant of Venice, Othello, A Delicate Balance, Angels in America and Look Back in Anger. Who would have thought old Princess Leia had it in her?

Still, even if we grant that Carrie Fisher is a genius, we're still stuck with the strange artistic standards that insist A Christmas Carol = A Delicate Balance = Fiddler on the Roof. You get the impression some of these critics have more clashing criteria than Sybil had personalities.

But maybe that's the point.

Indeed, Top 10 lists suddenly make a lot more sense if you stop looking at them as expressions of a coherent critical viewpoint - or even a coherent personality - but instead look at them the way an admissions officer ponders an incoming freshman class: as a set of various slots to be filled with differing requirements. It's ridiculous, for example, to compare the empty slot on the wrestling team to the opening on freshman crew; each requires the best choice based on completely different - even, perhaps, opposing - standards.

So with that in mind, and with one backward glance at those lists again, I began to come up with roughly the following analysis:

A Girl's Guide to Filling a Top 10 List for Boston Theatre:

1-5. Well, of course there is artistic quality to consider, i.e., roughly the combination of a worthy play and an excellent performance. But that should only account for five entries, tops, on your list. Why? Because most of your audience hasn't seen Othello or A Delicate Balance, you idiot, and you'll look like a jerk if you fill up your list with high-falutin' classics done superbly. (And there probably won't be five really good plays done really well in any given year, anyway!) Of course you should include some challenging plays (if only to reflect well on the other winners), but be sure to include at least one from a major company people have heard of, plus one "wild card" from a young company performing in a basement somewhere to show you're cutting-edge. Don't worry if you've only seen one such company in a single basement, go ahead and pick it anyway. If the show featured lesbians or people of color, all the better! Remember: keep white men to a minimum, even gay ones. Gays don't count as a minority in theatre!

Even within these general guidelines, however, you can expect the top five to break down into something like the following pattern:

1) The traditional one that the Huntington did really well for a change;

2) The weird one at the ART that either: a) had an intermission, or b) that you got to do a feature about and so could expense lunch;

3) The one which was either set in Nazi Germany, or was performed by black lesbians;

4) The one by that guy who was a rival of Shakespeare's but whom everyone has forgotten about and whose work has never been done before so there's no standard of comparison;

5) Hopefully there will be both a classic set in Nazi Germany AND a classic performed by black lesbians. If not, just go with a show that screws the text to promote women - this will be thought of as "progressive." Or throw in a "controversial" choice that no one else will possibly understand. Feel free to pick this out of a hat.

Okay, now the intellectual heavy lifting is over! The rest of the list is a piece of cake by comparison:

6. What was popular that was funny - i.e., what show did you actually like? The funny, popular show should definitely be on your list, preferably right after the prestigious 'artistic quality' section, for obvious reasons.

7. What was your friend in? Okay, her show wasn't great, but it wasn't that bad, and don't you want to keep her as your friend? So it's on the list, silly! If you don't have any friends, did you see a show out of town? Put it on the list, particularly if it was in New York, although the Berkshires are ok. This makes you look cosmopolitan. Besides, nobody else saw it, so you're safe.

8. What did your editor like? You were probably chosen as a reviewer because your taste was virtually a clone of your editor's anyway, so you've probably got this covered unconsciously. Still, it doesn't hurt to bring up the season casually in conversation and see if he or she mentions anything. But whatever you do, don't ask directly. That would be unethical!

9. Who reads your paper? Whoever they are, be sure to flatter 'em! If it's rock fans, throw in a show about rockers. If it's Jews, throw in something by Wendy Wasserstein, or maybe something civil rightsy, like To Kill A Mockingbird. If it's the Irish, throw 'em some Celtic shit, or something about a violent alcoholic who is redeemed. If it's black lesbians - well, you've probably already covered them. And whatever you do you don't want to be too obvious.

10. What does everybody else seem to like OR who won a lot of awards last year? If in doubt, and you've still got a slot to fill, go with the crowd. I mean, can everybody else be wrong?

And there you have it - 10 choices! Next: how to write that year-end wrap article. (Hint: this was the year the rebels took on the establishment and won!)

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