By Isaac Butler
Making the rounds of the internet today is TheaterMania's new "Bros On Broadway" review of Cyrano. Reading it last night, part of me thought this feature a soup-to-nuts disaste while part of me thought it a hilarious, borderline work of genius. Now I don't know what to think.
To recap: Josh Macin, a bro par excellance-- he's a barback and martial arts champion-- is sent by theatermania to see and review Cyrano, having never seen a play before. He ends up sending back such insights as:
The show started off with a lot of talking. The curtain went up, and a bunch of people onstage dressed like pictures in history books just started talking. I didn't know why, and I couldn't make sense of it. What sounded like animal noises eventually became recognizable words only after I realized every line was a rhyme.
Obviously, the POV here is a bit exagerated in that post-Tucker Max way and kinda fun up to a point (like all post-Tucker Max writing, all the broing gets boring). But I couldn't help thinking while reading it about Howard Shapiro.
Shapiro, Philadelphia's lone full-time theater critic, just took a buyout from his home base at the Inquirer and will be freelancing from now on. That's right, Philadelphia, a city whose theater scene is, by reputation, pretty vibrant, will no longer have a full time critic. And as fun as experiments like TheaterMania's are, I worry about the compelte deprofessionalization of criticism and I worry even more about the growing idea that an ignorant opinion is of equivolent-- or even greater-- value than a learned one. I say this as someone who has been a nonprofessional for most of my writing career.
The rise of the amateur critic in theatre has not been an unmitigated success. Particularly in the field of indie theatre where I cut my teeth, it's been a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, there are exciting, vibrant artists whom we never would've heard of without reviwers willing to spread the word for no pay. But there's also at times a culture within that scene of relentless boosterism, of people publicly overpraising the work of their friends-- or of those they hope to one day work or be friends with-- to such an extent that I worry that we'll lose all sense of rigor. I've probably benefited from this dynamic too, so complaining about it seems odd, but it's something I see that troubles me.
And yet. I do think it's important to have the non-expert and the non-professional voices in the mix (those are two different voices, btw, not every professional critic is really an expert and vice versa). If you overvalue expertise, you encourage the kind of insularity that's become problematic in both experimental theater and poetry circles, where the body of knowledge necessary for even cursory-level entry into the form is so high that most won't bother. If you undervalue it, then everything becomes about mere opinion of a work and, well, you know what they say about opinions and assholes.