The stated purpose of this column is to promote consideration of and conversation about theater criticism in the orbit of the Twin Cities. For this installment, though, I’m turning my attention a little further south, because I’ve been alerted to a review that raises a number of issues I think are pertinent to local theater criticism no matter where you are. A couple of weeks ago the Chicago Tribune ran a review by Chris Jones of Albany Park Theatre Project’s production of God’s Work. In a curious way, it’s a fascinating piece of criticism. If nothing else, it’s had me thinking on it for quite a while now.
First, a bit of backstory. Albany Park Theatre Project is a youth theater company in, according to its website, “one of the three most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the entire country.” Over nearly two decades, they’ve gained a reputation for high-quality work that doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable subject matter, usually drawn from company members’ personal experiences. Again quoting the website, “people directly impacted by sociopolitical issues create original plays that humanize those issues with intellectual rigor, fervent humanity, and vibrant imagination.”
God’s Work is one of those plays, a story of religious fundamentalism and brutal child abuse based on the experience of an APTP member. The production follows Rachel, one of 18 children growing up in a household that’s more like a cult. The father of the clan is a fanatic who believes starvation and other physical and mental torments are the one path to purging sin, and he finds sin everywhere. Although Rachel’s escape and rebirth figure into the narrative, by all accounts God’s Work is a harrowing production, as it would just about have to be. It’s received praise from most of Chicago’s high-profile arts publications, including the Sun-Times, Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago.
The play gets praise in the Tribune too, but along with that praise comes a curious bundle of caveats. “I found God's Work almost unbearable to watch,” says critic Chris Jones. That might sound like a harsh critique, but Jones’ tone is almost apologetic: “I recognize that some will feel differently. I similarly recognize the right of the theater to create a piece on this topic.” Jones explains that “some of that [difficulty] comes from my general lack of comfort with really young people… performing pieces about the heinous acts of adults” and that he’s uneasy with the inherent (and possibly exploitative) theatricality involved in bringing the material to the stage. “At a downtown theater, when a real-life experience has, to some degree, been translated into an artistic experience outsiders pay money to see, there is something about that blending that makes me uncomfortable.”
I have to credit Jones for owning up to his personal bias. There are plenty of reviewers who would have tried to downplay that factor (if they even recognized it in the first place) and simply given the show a negative review. Jones is aware of why he struggled with this production and he allows that many of his readers will not have the same block. Some would take issue with the critic inserting himself so squarely into the review, but that’s part of Jones’s well-established style. Weaving personal essays into arts reviews was good enough for Roger Ebert, after all.
What this review feels like, more than anything else, is a critic coming perilously close to saying this is just the sort of thing that shouldn’t be done on stage, at least not while he’s watching. Jones obviously doesn’t want to say that, nor do I think he believes it, but he can’t in good critical conscience ignore his feelings of discomfort either. All that’s left for him to do is own up to his own difficulty with watching young performers put themselves through onstage torments and offer some carefully worded disclaimers.
And that’s fine, but it leaves me wondering if there’s any way this play could have gotten a fair shake from Jones. I don’t believe true critical objectivity is either possible or desirable – expressing and molding artistic opinions is always going to be a subjective business at its base – and I can’t fault Jones for admitting how subjective his take on God’s Work is. But if a play about an uncomfortable topic staged by a company specifically committed to tackling uncomfortable topics makes the reviewer genuinely uncomfortable, it’s hard for me to see that as a negative. I have no doubt that it’s hard to watch adolescent actors on stage recreating tortures that were inflicted on very real adolescents in the recent past, but that would seem to be at least part of the point.
As for the strangeness of a paying crowd coming out to see a family’s real-life pain gussied up with stage makeup and expert set decoration, I’ll acknowledge that that’s an issue. But it’s an issue that comes into play with every dramatic depiction of real world events. If the events of God’s Work are so raw and real that depicting them for an audience is some kind of violation, there are presumably plenty more atrocities that would have to be likewise off-limits.
The best counterpoint I can think of comes from cinema, Elem Klimov’s Come and See. It’s a brutal, visceral story of a doomed pocket of the Belarussian resistance during World War II, seen through the eyes of a teenaged soldier. Many passages of the film are indeed almost unwatchable because of the real-life horrors they evoke. It becomes all the more taxing knowing that leading actor Aleksy Kravchenko was only 15 during filming, and that Klimov so worried about traumatizing his young star that he attempted (and failed) to have him hypnotized to block out the atrocities he was reenacting. And yet Come and See is a great film – I’d call it one of the greatest I’ve ever seen – not despite of all that, but because of it. It doesn’t allow you to look away. Potentially lurid factors like Kravchenko’s tender age and the film’s pervasive, graphic violence become powerful artistic tools, and portraying them any other way would dull their impact tremendously. As I said, I wouldn’t expect completely objective viewing from Jones or any other critic. But there’s a fine line between acknowledging one’s qualms and asking a work of art not to be what it is.
The irony is that Jones’ review makes me more interested in seeing God’s Work than does any other review I’ve read. No harm, no foul, I suppose.