not a who’s Huse

RE: Shannon Huse’s review of The Cape, at Herald Theatre, for New Zealand Herald, Monday February 11, 2008.

The Cape smells like “heaven” but tastes like “hell” to Shannon Huse. She calls its drama “bloodless” and its comedy “not overly funny.” She accuses the dialogue of swinging “back and forth from the banal to the poetic without warning.” If it works, a sufficient recommendation to see the show, I’d have thought. Beats common and simple banality.

The point is here, whose dialogue? Not who’s Huse. I’m going to accuse the accusor, not question her authority. I’m not going to question the judgement. Huse is entitled to her opinion, as long as nobody gets hurt. Just a moment, didn’t she just damn this play to hell? Must have been a rhetorical turn. Let’s see how her case holds up.

“Bloodless.” Lucky for the shooter but hardly draws a bead on it. “Not overly funny.” Meaning, funny enough?

Weak direction. Characters remain stereotypes. But it is their dialogue which is able, an unusual facility surely, to swing from the poetic to the banal without warning, isn’t it?

It gets personal. The actors are singled out. A “hyperactive nightmare.” A “message,” not a “real person.” A “deja-vu.” And, “dazed,” by a “knockout combination” of “cancer and terminal poetry.” Huse, one feels, is happy to sacrifice real people for a good line. Or is it truly that the ‘real people’ here are already the victims of weak direction? Have gone no further than stereotypes? In the service of a bloodless drama?

The usual failure to distinguish the production from the play afflicts Huse’s case against The Cape. Huse implies that the play doesn’t handle of stereotypes and if only the direction had been strong we’d have seen finely individuated characters. Which says nothing about the performances. Nor about the drama – bloodless on the page or the stage? – in the service of which the director directs and the perfomers perform. If it is, indeed, theatre.

Now theatre and the theatre become confused. Huse accuses the director of telling her actors to talk to each other rather than playing up the “vertiginously steep seating block” to the top rows. This is like saying the architecture of the actor should be altered to make up for a deficit in the architecture of the auditorium.

An actor at the Herald should indubitably have a face on the top of his or her head. A true, an actor’s face! Just as, at the Silo, more dwarves ought to be employed. Or actors with faces at crutch height. (Oh. They do, do they?)

Out of this putative architecture, Huse alleges, there were walkers. There “isn’t enough emotional impact to engage the audience.” Apparently there was enough emotional impact in the play to engage a director, a cast, a venue, a whole theatre company, so where has it gone?

And, more to the point, what would it have looked like if it had been there? Which is to say, while Huse avoids the commonplace mistake in her review of giving away the story, her readers are left with the mistaken assumption that there is none. She gives away her giving away now. And, I believe, quite deliberately for her argument.

Huse criticises the actors for ignoring “the rules of the world they’ve created.” The result being “unnecessary distractions that take your attention away from the performers and the story.” Hang on. I thought she was looking in the other direction.

If the act of acting is a creative one, then that world is given immediately, without the mediation of rules. The set, the world of the stage, the actions of the dramatis personae in it, serve the story. The rules apply only insofar as they support the story. A story Huse ignores, except to call it a “messy road trip story.” But she only says that so as to admonish the designer for a set which is “unnecessarily sterile” and, by implication, “discordant” with it.

The set sounds a bum note because it doesn’t represent the messy road-trippiness of the story. Huse is in error if she believes that before they present the reality we call theatre, the elements of a production represent another reality, one which is somehow more critically viable, or in accord, beyond what is actually there.

“Characters and their stories” recur in Huse’s crit. They constitute a category, overstated here to be excluded. An emptied category.

The costumes and music, she maintains are “appropriate” to this category (belonging to that which the review excludes), as well as being “true to the 90s.” But the failure is once more the production’s inconsistency: “This nostalgia for the decade is not picked up elsewhere.” You have to ask, how would consistently investing the production specifically in nostalgia serve the general category of characters and story?

On the evidence given by Huse, “The Cape doesn’t work.” However certain other evidence has certainly been swept under the carpet. The case is not closed.

Huse quotes kiwitheatre company’s mission: to bring “excellent New Zealand scripts to the stage, particularly scripts for young or alternative audiences who were not catered for by existing theatre companies.” The company will have to “try harder to win them over” than The Cape, since they are, she claims, “sophisticated consumers of entertainment.”

This is the question: Are they as sophisticated as the royal we invoked by Huse, when she says, “bad films and mediocre television flood the big and small screen but we just let it wash over us”?

Theatre is clearly a special case, closed categorically, by Huse, as far as this production is concerned. Closed for what? Because it’s flawed: “One of the strange things about live theatre is how much a flawed show can really infuriate you.”

Here we have what seems to be a broader problem and one not limited to The Cape. The more vulnerable an artform is to criticism, the more accessible the artists are, I take it Huse is saying – and greater vulnerability or accessibility than live performance is hard to imagine – the more we want to kick it. After all, in her first paragraph, Huse damned the play to hell!