Often, the critical response focuses on the form and execution of the play, and rarely on what the play is actually about. Shawn's post is a nice reminder (Sean Williams' response to Lesser Seductions is another example) of how satisfying that difference can be.
It's interesting that he found that most noticeable about what I wrote. Honestly, it comes naturally to me. I've never really understood the need to come into a theatrical experience carrying a sort of Platonic Ideal Of Great Art that all individuals works must measure up against in order to ascertain their worthiness. I pretty much do my best to experience a piece on its own terms (or at least admit my own warped sensibilities - such as finding most horror movies hilarious). As a result, I tend to enjoy most of what I see on some level, even if that means I get more out of it by what I bring to it than what's actually there.
For instance, one of the things my mom and I like to do together is go see a movie every Sunday. Yes, every Sunday. When there was still a video store nearby, we'd also rent videos to watch on a weeknight. Mom and I are not what you would call passive consumers. Part of the fun is responding to what we're seeing.
* We'd be great to have on DVD commentaries. Imagine watching a horror film, where the virginal female lead is going back into the house to look for the monster/killer/alien/ghost, and then hear someone say, "Look at this ignorant motherfucker."
To be honest, we've had more fun talking about movies with no redeeming aesthetic value than by watching critically acclaimed films with Academy Award Winner already plastered on the Special Edition DVD packaging. I think it has something to do with being broke. When you can't afford to waste money, you're going to do whatever you can to make your entertainment worthwhile, even if you have to add it yourself.
Which brings us back to the star/thumb/grade model of reviewing. Very often, they read more like consumer reports than the reactions of a real human being communicating their experience of a film or theatrical performance. In and of itself there's nothing wrong with it, but we need more than one way to engage with the work that's out there. But how can we go about doing that in a way that does more than say something like, "I enjoyed the costumes"?
Allow me to take a detour. It'll seem out of nowhere, but it's actually closely related to what I'm getting at here.
If you pay attention to business and marketing trends, there are a couple of themes that keep cropping up lately. The first is authenticity. The second is distinction. The struggle for businesses these days is not to be the biggest and baddest mofos on the market, but to be the little guys everyone roots for because what they do is different and interesting and important. With so much out there bombarding you day in and day out, what's going to grab and hold your attention? The things that have something of substance to communicate in an interesting way.
It has nothing to do with technical proficiency or special effects. Flux Theatre Ensemble will never do a straight-up production of Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark. Just as Nosedive Productions is unlikely to do slice-of-life naturalistic stuff that takes itself way too seriously. There's more to distinction than simply, say, everyone dying their hair purple or speaking Klingon. Those are simply gimmicks. It might work for a time, but if what's beneath it is the same thing that's beneath more conventional fare, it'll be treated just like any other distraction.
In the same vein, voice is not simply style, although style is (or at least should be) directly linked to it. The ways people speak in Dog Act and Finding Harlem Dawn differ from the ways we speak in everyday life. There's more to voice than words, though. It includes every aspect of a performance. And that means something about the worlds these plays invite us to inhabit, which, simply in the act of contrast, says something about the world we live in today.
But there's more to voice than what we put out there. It's also what we bring to it. In today's market, the difference between success and failure is not quality and/or price, but what a product or service or company says about who buys it. People don't buy your stuff because of what you say about it, but because of what buying from you says about themselves. Where have we seen a point like this before? Oh yeah, in theatre!
The audience doesn't come to see you. They come to see themselves.
So the thing I'm interested in exploring with you is: what are the questions we need to ask when responding to a work from a position of making voice primary rather than something tacked on after plot, character, and spectacle?