I, critic 

The three laws of theater reviews

"Subjectivity is objective," said Woody Allen in his film Love & Death. That makes no sense, but it comes to mind when attempting to describe what reviewers do. Criticism is entirely a matter of personal taste, yet must be consistent, systematic and "objective" whenever possible.

If you want to organize something, you should use the geek side of your brain. As I sought to come up with rules of thumb for my job as a critic, I turned to Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics." In books like I, Robot, the sci-fi author laid out the do's and don'ts of robot behavior, beginning with, "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." (You can find them at www.asimovonline.com).

Asimov's model has inspired the following Three Laws of Critics (please excuse the masculine pronoun):

1. A critic must serve his readers by championing superior work, and may not, through inaction, allow readers to see lousy work -- without warning.

A review's true audience is not the local artistic community or other reviewers, but the average reader. On the most basic level, critics are consumer advocates, watching out for the best use of a reader's time and money. My greatest gratification comes when someone who avoids the theater goes to see a good play based on something I wrote.

2. A critic must promote and protect excellence in his field without conflicting with the First Law.

If you're indifferent or lack passion in what you're writing about, you won't do anybody any good. I like to think that I support "Theater" in general but not individual theaters in particular. But a review must focus on a show's execution, and not the good intentions or noble ideas surrounding it: A great play performed badly isn't easier to sit through than a bad one.

3. A critic must write with wit and insight except where such cleverness would conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Or put more bluntly, don't be boring, but don't get carried away. Reviewers should strive to be constructive, but at times pointed and even angry language is called for -- a bad show should make you mad. Zingers can be funny and memorable, but eventually, gratuitous attacks are more about elevating the writer than guiding audiences or advancing an art form.

Asimov's robot stories typically hinge on mysteries or dangers caused when robots find their laws in conflict -- and critics can face their own conundrums. A few months ago, I sat through one of the most godawful plays I've ever seen on an Atlanta stage. Of the four-actor cast, the younger pair were merely mediocre, while the older duo were jaw-droppingly unprepared and over their heads. One had trouble pronouncing the lines properly, while the other found it visibly difficult to remember them at all. This gave the evening its only suspense: When she began a drawn-out speech -- or even a long sentence -- would she make it to the end?

Afterward the question became, was the show too crummy even to review? The First Law would demand I warn away potential ticket-buyers. But opening night had just three other people in the audience, including, I'm pretty sure, the play's director. Writing about the play would draw attention and possibly attract people to the show.

And while reviewing it would call for plenty of lively ridicule, the performers clearly didn't know any better. My editor and I ultimately decided that writing up the show wouldn't do anyone any good, or be a worthwhile use of Creative Loafing's column inches. Not reviewing the show ultimately lived up to all three Laws.

Fortunately, most of the time a critic's job is more simple than that. It's still a long way from being something that robots can handle. No matter how good they are at taking notes in the dark.

Weekly reader

This weekend two staged readings promise to be as uniquely entertaining as most fully-produced shows. At midnight Aug. 15, Dad's Garage reads the screenplay of Tron -- yes, the 1982 computer game action film. Readers include Matt Horgan in the title role, Bart Hansard as the Master Control Program and Doyle Reynolds doing stages directions. Expect it to hilariously showcase 1982's notion of a futuristic computer culture.

Then on Aug. 16 at 3 p.m. on 7 Stages' main stage, Sensurround Stagings presents The Caribbean Chalk Circle, Thulani Davis' adaptation of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Sensurround has yet to schedule the show's full production -- which will feature puppetry and an original musical score by composer Kweyao Agyapan -- but the reading will offer an appetizer.


Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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