The Critics will be screened Friday and Saturday, February 18 and 19, at the Gene Siskel Film Center
The worst part of being a theater critic—a job I performed for this publication throughout much the 1990s—wasn’t that I came to loathe every show I saw. That wouldn’t have been so bad. After all, I had always been a contrarian bastard, even back in second grade at Boone Elementary where I wrote the only negative review of the all-school assembly and Mrs. Shachter told me she wouldn’t tack my review to our classroom bulletin board. The nastiest thing an editor told me during my tenure as theater critic was, “Your writing’s a lot better when you don’t like a show.” It was probably true.
No, the worst part was the all-too-frequent occasions when I could no longer say for sure if I despised a show or not, when I would sit at my Adler Satellite III typewriter with my notes and memories and find myself at a loss for words. I would have figured that some seven or eight years of seeing an average of two shows per week would have made me a smarter, more astute critic. But the more I saw, the less I could define my opinion and the less I trusted it. I would read pans and raves of shows I’d seen and find myself agreeing with all of them. This was true even of shows I wrote and produced; had I been assigned to review them, I would have been thoroughly capable of lauding or eviscerating them with a thousand words.
Seeing so many plays and writing so much about them had distorted my sense of perception; my world had narrowed and become increasingly self-referential. My standards had become less and less related to the so-called real world and more and more related to other shows I had seen. It seems significant to me that though I saw a fair amount of great theater in the 90s, most of the shows I remember best from that decade are ones I didn’t review, and paid to see—August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at the Goodman; Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants at Steppenwolf; Ionesco’s The Killer at Red Orchid; Christopher Cartmill’s “Light” plays at Bailiwick; a Bailiwick Director’s Festival production of the Lanford Wilson one-act The Family Continues directed by Jennifer Markowitz and starring Joey Slotnick.
I don’t think mine was or is a universal problem—a fair number of my former fellow critics continue to write about Chicago theater with passion and conviction. But the circularity and insularity of my existence had worn me down. I’d lost the excitement and wonder I felt going to theater in my teens and early twenties, a period when I could say that shows like Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, and John Olive’s Killers changed my life.
By 1999 I was pretty much done.
During that year, I wrote a nasty little satire of theater criticism called The Critics. I wrote it longhand in a few nights at the Coq d’Or bar in the Drake Hotel over meals of Bookbinder soup and club sandwiches. The subject was a group of insular, self-referential, backbiting theater critics who find their own private lives exposed when somebody writes a nasty play about them. I directed the show myself at Chicago Dramatists Workshop, largely because I didn’t think anybody else would want to; I cast it using some of my favorite actors I’d worked with before; and I produced it under the name Cave 76, which I took from an old Mel Brooks routine (“Let ’em all go to hell, except Cave 76”). We had a surprisingly successful, even critically acclaimed run, then moved the show (less successfully) to the Trap Door Theater.
To me, the play was mostly a cathartic little “Fuck You” to my life as a critic, and not a whole lot more. If the extra couple hundred bucks a week I made from reviewing plays hadn’t come in so handy, I probably would have quit on the night of the premiere.
But to the filmmaker Jim Sikora, the play was something more than that.
I first met Jim at Beat Kitchen during a party held by Subnation, the alternative arts and culture magazine I edited in the mid-90s. I had been working on a feature article about Chicago filmmakers such as John Covert, Steve James, and George Tillman Jr., and Jim and I started talking about movies. A half-hour into the conversation, Jim was asking me if I’d consider wearing colored contact lenses for It Crawls Inside Me, a low-budget movie he’d soon be working on (luckily, he never asked again). At the end of the party I drove him home, and he was singing along with Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” blasting out of my car stereo.
Jim soon invited me to his Lakeview garden apartment so we could watch his Super 8 movie Walls In The City, starring Paula Killen, Bill Cusack, David Yow, and Tony Fitzpatrick; eventually I’d profile him for the Reader when he was working on the film Bullet on a Wire. What impressed me most about Jim’s work was its compassion for marginal figures. His characters may have been barflies or lowlifes, but he saw their humanity. And to him, my bitter critics were part of the same species—he was far less interested in their office pissing contests than he was in their inner lives and discarded dreams. He said he wanted to plumb the depths of these characters in much the same manner that one of our favorite film directors, Alain Resnais, did in his theatrical adaptations.
Jim and a tiny crew shot the film over a weekend at the Ravenswood offices of the old Book magazine and in quick pick-up shoots on other weekends. Though he used the same actors from my stage production, his approach on set was nearly the opposite of mine on stage. As a director, I tended to employ a laissez-faire attitude that allowed actors the freedom to explore their relationships with each other, with sometimes revelatory and sometimes heinous results. Jim was a sterner coxswain, which had the effect of drawing out characters’ insecurities and vulnerabilities. At least twice, Jim grabbed the camera out of the hands of his director of photography with a “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself” attitude. Those occasions provided two of the best shots in the movie.
Jim shot about ten hours of footage, but had trouble finding the time and money to edit it. In 2000 I moved to New York, worked as an editor, started writing books, got married, became a dad, et cetera; Jim got involved in other film projects, among them, a film adaptation of Bret Neveu’s The Earl, which has some affinities with The Critics, though in Neveu’s script his characters beat the crap out of each other with weapons as opposed to words. Every so often, Jim and I would talk and he would mention that, one way or another, he would eventually finish The Critics, but after a while, I assumed that it would never get done.
A couple of months ago, more than ten years after The Critics shoot, Jim finished the film, helped along by editor Tim Baron. Watching it on DVD on my laptop, I was at first struck with the frustrations of the characters I had written, with the claustrophobia of their existences, with the bile I had been able to summon up. I cringed at my own logorrhea. But as I continued to watch and began to see each character’s inner life, I understood something that I hadn’t realized before. Though I may have been losing my grip as a critic when I wrote the script, I was gaining important insights. As I lost my moorings and my faith in my own judgments, I was learning or relearning an important lesson for an artist, which is to be able to see the world from multiple perspectives, to let characters develop on their own and not dictate or direct their lives. Finding oneself capable of crapping out fantastic, lousy, or indifferent reviews of the same play is hardly a desirable quality in a critic; it is not bad practice, however, for writing fiction, which is how I’ve spent a great deal of my time since leaving theater criticism.
As for the film of The Critics, I’ll leave its assessment to others. In print, I’m sure I could find a thousand words with which to savage or praise it quite convincingly; either way, I’m glad that’s not my job anymore.