Passing Marks–Getting Beyond Critics in a One-Daily Town


Part of the deal of presenting arts in a city with only one widely-read daily newspaper is that your fortunes become inextricably tied to your coverage in that paper. This cuts both ways. When the coverage is good we prosper, praise the generous and wise coverage bestowed upon us and send links to the positive press in mass emails. When the coverage is not so good, which is to say either critically negative or non-existent, we suffer. We curse the folly of investing so much authority in one publication. We snidely remind ourselves that newspapers are a dying medium anyway with steeply declining circulations, ad revenues and prospects. But we don’t argue the call. Not publicly anyway. To do so is an implicit violation of the deal. Peeing in the well from which you’ll eventually need a drink.

The situation meets its absurd (il)logical end in the theater, where the voice of one critic in particular, hugely impacts the success of a show. Following the jubilation of the great feature article on Sunday, came today’s harsh reality and a heavily negative review from Peter Marks for David in Shadow and Light. He calls it “a ponderous mishmash.” He derides the music as “meandering” and “atonal,” the lyrics as “doggerel” and the production in general as “turgid.” It was a pretty harsh review, as these things go–especially harsh when you consider this was a new work with (I think) a lot of merit. And so, with all due respect to Mr. Marks, we disagree.

The music Marks found meandering and atonal, I actually find quite melodic and complex. Daniel Hoffman’s music draws on middle eastern rhythms that are built differently than the chord, chorus and tonal structure of your average, western musical. To call it “atonal” brings to mind Schoenberg’s critique of the term that, “it is on a par with calling flying ‘the art of not falling,’ or swimming ‘the art of not drowning.'” Which is to say that the review judges the music for what it is not without ever investing a serious consideration of what it is. The critic has every right to consider and reject, but where was the consideration? Where was the acknowledgement that there was anything different happening here. There is great virtuosity in the playing of the music, but there isn’t an acknowledgement of that.

Joined to the complaint of atonality was the description of the lyrics as “doggerel-reliant.” Not sure what our critic meant by this since he cites no examples. He quotes two lines later in the review, both divorced from the “doggerel” shot. One is from the opening number, “Twenty-four frames per second of life/an even division of shadow and light.” The line may be obvious in its meaning, but doggerel?

The second quotation, belongs to the character of Goliath who returns after his death to “taunt his foe with a song that includes the inexplicable refrain, ‘Tra la, la la, David, tra la, la la.'” Now this is just a case of a critic not paying attention to what’s happening onstage. There is a dramatic shift in tone between the living Goliath, the essence of a Jew-hating brute, to the post-mortem Goliath who we learn is actually David’s cousin. From the former quintessence of brutality comes a charming little bit of, yes, doggerel, “Tra la, la, la.” The “giant” has transformed and been humanized. The prototype for the classic foil in the battle of big versus small, good versus evil, is revealed to be not such a clash of opposites as we are first led to believe. They’re cousins. And as the progress of the play wears on, we see they are not that different after all. More to the point, this isn’t a plot device invented by Yehuda Hyman, but a fact revealed by a close reading of those seemingly “inexplicable” genealogies that litter the Hebrew bible. The moment, is actually quite revelatory, even for someone who thought they “knew” the story of David and Goliath. But when a character in a sand and sandals epic is wearing leather pants and platform shoes, you might just assume that everything about them is inexplicable.

There is so much the review leaves out–the handling of the homo-erotic relationship between David and Jonathan. It ignores the context of presenting a musical on the very week of Israel’s 60th Anniversary that includes the prophetic line, “Because you lifted your sword to cut down an innocent man, the sword will never leave your hand.” No mention of the moment during David’s “conquering years,” when there is a mention of seven kidnapped soldiers sparking a war (kidnapped Israeli soldiers contributed to the Lebanon War in 2006) or when the chorus returns to its modified refrain of, “Twenty four frames per second of life/another day over and moving so fast/And going to war and fighting a war/And fighting a war/And fighting a war/And fighting a war.” No contemplation of the statement being made about the ambivalence of Jewish power or the cost of Jewish sovereignty?

Peter Marks’ review goes nowhere near any of this, except to dismiss the whole production as “turgid.” Which is I guess, a shorthand way of saying he didn’t care for any of that content.

But back to my original point. I’m not saying that Peter Marks is wrong and I’m right. Peter Marks is a critic on a deadline, who knows what he likes and doesn’t like and has a pretty good idea of what makes good, compelling theater, and bottom-line, he didn’t like this production or this play. But in a one-paper town, his word need not be the last one on the topic. Not in the age of the internet.

So, who else out there has seen David in Shadow and Light? What did you think of the Washington Post review? Of my response? Let’s have a freakin’ conversation.

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One Response

  1. Frankly, your review does more for me than the Post review. I want those interesting parallels drawn–the sword line juxtaposed against Israel at 60–they are what drive me to see (and enjoy) a performance. Sort of like getting the director’s commentary with a DVD. A good review can become a map to seeing a play and the Post review simply left me stumbling around in the dark.

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