I gave a positive review to a show this past week that many other critics hated. I found something original and unexpected in something other critics found boring, inaccurate, and rote. Some people were offended by it. I was moved. Am I broken? Are they? I do not think it’s actually so straightforward. Critics are, after all, human.
But can you really get a review “wrong”?
The artists of Wild Bore think you can if you have failed to honestly engage with the artist’s intentions. Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez, and Adrienne Truscott have built a show out of the text of bad reviews they have received and just out of the words of critics in general. But this is not a straightforward recitation of these reviews or a mocking of them without further consideration. Wild Bore is both a reanimation of those reviews and a deconstruction of the critical gaze. How do we go about reading art on stage, what assumptions do we make, and how does that fall into bias? It also happens to be very, very funny.
In building almost an entire show using the words of others (fully giving these artists credit for the selection of the pre-existing text, the framing of it, and the reconstruction of that text which is the real art here) they’ve also given credence to the power of critics’ words—to be funny, creative, metaphorical, as well as obtuse, reactionary, resistant, and hostile.
We are filled with multitudes. I know some critics have taken issue with the show, with whispers of “Not all critics” and found it a little more than frustrating.
We sit on our butts for 150+ shows a year watching, observing, and absorbing. While we look passive, active thinking is taking place. I’m not sure people always appreciate that that takes a physical toll. I stopped feeling anything after seeing 70 shows in 18 days in Edinburgh one year. It was agonizing.
Occasionally we want to scream “What’s the point of this?” or “Why am I here?” when a work is not speaking to us. Frankly, a critics’ notebook can be a refuge of desperate pleas for help. But sometimes people then just write that as their review. Truscott reads out a truly offensive one-word review she got once: “Whatever.”
Laziness, exhaustion, and disengagement are our enemy. Staying open-minded, empathetic, curious, and hungry is necessary. It’s work. None of this comes easy. We sometimes fail. We all have. But these artists are right to hold our feet to the fire to be better.
Happily, the result of their analysis of our analysis is playful, joyful, ridiculous, and sensational. There’s delightful daffiness in the way these artists patiently argue their case to the audience that what they do is imbued at all times (well almost all times) with intention.
The show begins with a panel discussion criticizing Wild Bore itself, performed by Coombs Marr, Truscott, and Martinez via their naked asses. Butts aloft, surprisingly expressive, they speak from their assholes using text of reviews to talk about the problems with this show and others, punctuating points with props. Words like “hole” and “opening” are suddenly infused with additional meaning in this context. They pop up briefly from underneath the table, faces to us, to give some context about the shows they made and read some bits of reviews about those shows (weirdly this was the moment the audience chose to clap for each–face entrance applause? As if they did not exist as people/artists without faces. Something to further ponder about bodies on stage.).
The show then expands physically and structurally. Ideas and images introduced up front and certain critical phrases (“what’s the point,” “for no apparent reason,” “almost intentionally bad,” “what if this is by design”) then repeat in different ways through the show as floating motifs—butts in varying forms but also the panel table of judgment reappears and disappears, “almost as if by dramaturgical design” (literally labeling the table “dramaturgical design” to just underline their point of intentionality on stage).
The show ends up a fun house of tiny and giant props. They play with exaggeration and repetition. Butts start to overwhelm it all. This is not them hammering a singular message afraid we haven’t “gotten” it but because they are using the tools of comedy, rules of three, and by framing and reframing their actions we see them in a new light with each adjustment and change. Even the butts evolve with grotesque delight. And yeah there are slow bits, and messy parts, and a lot of things going into and out of butts. But isn’t that just life.
They question the approach to criticism involving female nudity, paternalistic dismissal of “women’s” art, and what women are allowed to say and do on stage. They are confronting the critical gaze “head-on.” Bums first?
Of course, people believe their work is good and critics sometimes think it’s bad. We are often confronted with shows that are opaque, confusing, and lacking in coherence. We cannot pretend that is not so and our job is to be truthful in our opinion. That wiggle language we use–“almost,” “possibly,” “maybe”–is not always a mark of a critic’s’ lack of engagement. It can get employed when confronting a hard-to-crack work. Often, we are guessing at intent and we make our best guess.
But the central premise of Wild Bore is, have you given the artists credit for being professionals who act with intent and agency? Their intentions may fall short and their message may not be successful. But the artistic choices on stage didn’t just befall them like an anvil dropping from the sky. Someone put the anvil there.
While this sounds pretty basic for theater criticism, they point to some egregious examples of critics not starting from this baseline.
I also understand some of my colleagues’ trepidation at taking further aim at critics. We’re at a weird crossroads for criticism (and maybe we are always coming upon this crossroads. I’m reading Brooks Atkinson writing in 1970 about criticism in the 1920s and everything is a shade of the familiar). I’m watching every day as our industry shrinks. I think to myself I’ve arrived for the last act of theater criticism and that is a terrible, sad place to be.
On top of that, artists are frequently, openly questioning the utility and necessity of critics. Some of this frustration rightly comes from a critical community that has fallen short on how they have used their critical gaze with respect to artists of color and trans artists.
As critic Kelundra Smith says when speaking to critics, “Assume cultural difference before you assume artistic deficiency” as so often the case critics do not. I understand where this hostility is coming from and how we got here, but at the same time I do not believe the answer is the abolition of criticism or just throwing all energy into consumer criticism. I still believe in the form and the skilled practitioner of it.
But this also raises the specter of the current critical crisis which goes beyond sexism and something that Wild Bore does not center at the start. In the course of one year we’ve seen high-profile New York theater reviews be accused of transphobia, fat-shaming, paternalism, and racism.
As three white ciswomen, the artists of Wild Bore have built a piece that is a reaction to a landscape of overwhelmingly male critics (though not all) who do not give their often-feminist performance art equal weight or take it seriously. But there is a moment within the show where the artists, their privilege, and the act of creating Wild Bore is questioned and challenged by someone outside their identity circle. Without spoiling it too much, it’s absolutely necessary but also as written and staged layered with contradictions, tensions, and provocation. And whether this plays too small a part in the show is also worth considering and something this scene calls attention to. Have we been passively accepting too much “genitals as gender,” 70s-era white feminism and not even been thinking about how small the circle has been drawn?
I really took heart that these artists are not just blithely calling out critics. What a bleak and boring show that would be. But the presence of this point of self-reflection, self-criticism upholds the health and necessity of critical dialogue. For me, its this scene where Wild Bore validates criticism as needed and important. It’s where we all have to take a step back and think, reflecting on something we perhaps had not considered, and isn’t that what good criticism helps us do
Moreover, these artists have taken criticism and turned it into dynamic theater. They are engines of remarkable change and I found something inspiring in this reconstruction, repurposing, and reinvention. Even if at critics’ expense.