DEINDE Review: Mitch Montgomery, Backstage

Photo by Justin Hoch at Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbuam, Rachael Hip-Flores, Matthew Trumbull, Nitya Vidyasagar, David Ian Lee, Ken Glickfeld

We got our first negative review! When a play is as well received as DEINDE has been this far, it makes it much easier to engage with this kind of response. A negative review, when well written, can actually be helpful: in rare instances, negative criticism can teach a playwright something useful about the play; or, more often, a bad review can teach a playwright about the kind of person who won’t like their work.

After all, a review reveals as much about the reviewer as the play itself, and indeed, in an age when there are a thousand citizen-critics on Facebook and Twitter, there is little point served in a critic extending a mere thumbs-up or down to go with their plot synopsis. Critics who believe they are guarding the gates of culture must surely by now have looked behind them to see those walls fell long ago (and we are all much better for it).

Freed from the need to be cultural arbiters, reviewers can now aspire to be something more interesting – they can try (as we theatre-makers do) to reach behind Woolf’s cotton-wool of life and reveal the shock of a pattern; they can transform their reviews from commercial transaction (see or don’t see) to the thing itself (this is how to see).

That Mitch doesn’t get there in his review is not from lack of talent – he turns tight phrases in his plot synopsis. And where he falls short may come simply from the limitations of his word count (his review seems to end right as it’s beginning).

But we need more from him: for example, he calls the language about bosons purple, but there are only two real moments where the phase transition from fermions to bosons are discussed.  Mac likens this transition from matter to force to “a dog melting into birds.” I would call that precise, not purple, and I expect most language-lovers would agree with me. Perhaps he means a different passage? His review doesn’t tell us (and he was given the script on disk).

Similarly, he claims that Jenni-Mac lack the capacity to explain their experience to the other characters, and rely on “slang and pop culture–ridden putdowns”. It is true than in the very beginnings of their using DEINDE, they struggle to explain the experience, though even then, Jenni only likens Malcolm to a cartoon because she says he can’t understand a six-dimensional mirror. A six-dimensional mirror as a metaphor for advanced time may be difficult to understand, but it is neither purple slang nor abstraction.

Once we move into the second act, and Jenni and Mac gain greater control over their experience, the putdowns and slang disappear almost entirely, and they’re given two arias with which to discover and then convince the others of the necessity of looping in. I’m uncertain why Mitch leaves out what amounts to most of the second act from his review, unless these sections were what he means by “dull abstraction.” Again, we are left to guess, but let’s assume that was his intention.

(Spoiler alert) As response, I offer Jenni and Malcolm’s second act exchange, as she tries to explain the multiplicity of her enhanced memory and mind. She and Mac show off their now perfect memory by quoting a previous concern of Malcolm’s that DEINDE would obscure or destroy the human meaning to life, calling to his deep need to know why we’re here:

How could you possibly know why we’re here, with that poor little human mind of yours, like a broken cup trying to hold the sea of life, every second leaking from your tiny boat of a brain, and what remains isn’t even what really happened, but a story of what happened, rehearsed on that bare stage you call memory, an improvised history you tell yourself to convince yourself you exist. What were you doing on this day five years ago? Ten years ago? All gone, all lost, and what remains is a speech of the self that sustains itself on speech.

Poetry from a cyborg is a wee bit unbecoming.

I’m not a cyborg, I’m more human, because I remember every human moment that happened perfectly; they’re all here, and I can pick up any second of my life and look at it from every angle and remember it exactly right, and I can do that while also living precisely in this present moment, and I can dream five hundred different futures at the same time; I can do all that while my essential self, my human soul, hovers above it all like a helicopter over New York City, and when you see this view, Malcolm, I promise you, you’ll understand the meaning of life; it’ll land in the palm of your mind and burn like a radiant bird singing colors you’ve never heard of; you’ll know.

What Mitch Montgomery’s review teaches me is that the kind of person who won’t like DEINDE is the kind of person who finds this passage purple or a dull abstraction; and doesn’t connect with a mind beyond our comprehension deliberately adopting heightened language in order to seduce a character with a weakness for poetry.

If, however, you’re like me, and thrill to the idea of a consciousness that flies like a helicopter over New York City; well, friend, you should come out to the Secret Theatre before it closes.

If Mitch stumbles upon this response to his review, I hope that he will take it in the spirit of generosity it is intended. You are welcome, and your criticism – whether a rave or a pan – is always welcome. I realize you might take the above as defensive, but if it is so, I hope you understand what exactly I am defending. A review worth the words is either useful or beautiful or both; may my response be at least one of those things you. (And if not, may I err on the side of purple rather than dull).

If you’ve made it this far, reader, what do you think? I know from some polite after-show indifferences that Mitch is not alone in his feelings. Do you also share his reasons?

4 Comments on "DEINDE Review: Mitch Montgomery, Backstage"

  1. Mac · May 8, 2012 at 3:36 am · Reply

    I do find the Jenni & Mac criticism particularly hard to take, given that I found their duologues to be some of the best theater of the year.

  2. August · May 8, 2012 at 10:40 am · Reply

    Thanks, Mac! The Jenni-Mac criticism is a two part problem, I think: one, the review presents the “pop-culture put-downs” as the culmination of their experience, rather than a rather brief pit-stop; and two, they speak of the scientific aspect of their experience also briefly, and purple doesn’t really fit. It’s like he was only paying attention in the first act.

    The dull abstraction seems to me a more legitimate, if misleading, criticism. I think Aaron is closer to the truth when he says the language strains, at times, but that’s a criticism that I’m comfortable with, as they’re trying to describe things that may be unsayable.

    I think a play is innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof lies on the reviewer, as they’re speaking to people whose only encounter with the play may be the review itself. That means that they must strive to be as accurate, exacting and evocative as possible, to bring to life the failings and successes of a play vividly enough that an audience is brought as close to the actual experience of the thing as possible. I worry that some reviewers, when they don’t connect with a play, likewise disconnect from their responsibility to it.

    • Aaron · May 14, 2012 at 6:04 am · Reply

      I suspect that if science-fiction were easy enough to explain, it would no longer be speculative, but a given part of our everyday life. The trick, then, is in what science-fiction can remind us about who we were “then” (i.e., now) or to warn us of what we may be in the “present” (i.e., future). As for the “pop-culture put-downs,” I’m assuming that refers to Mac’s references to the “Fudds” of the world, but as you quote above, that’s the result of his many attempts *to* communicate with them. (If I remember correctly, you use the term “It’s like talking through tar.”)

      I’m not sure how Mitch envisions these godlike creatures resolving the issue: the problem isn’t with their inability to explain themselves, it’s with everyone else’s inability to understand them. (That’s what I like most about Mac’s seemingly psychotic attempts to get his best friend to hear the four-dimensional music he’s creating: it’s also a terrific example of the sort of textual cacophony and translation gap that exists in the formula Mac submits to the lab.) Criticizing the play for not clearly communicating this point, then — when one of the pivotal points involves the difficulty in communication –, seems beside the point: right, but for the wrong reasons or even right, for the right reasons, and yet still wrong.

  3. Jake Martin · May 10, 2012 at 7:05 am · Reply

    On a good day you can find a helicopter tour of NYC for $140, yet for my time I’m certain DEINDE will stay with me longer. The language at times challenges the audience to keep up and stay engaged or risk feeling like “the rest of us dumb humans (who) aren’t evolved enough to understand.” This direct quote from his review I believe is one of the great attributes of DEINDE, as you put the audience directly in the shoes of the protagonists as they struggle with the decision to loop in and evolve or abstain and risk extinction. A challenging, expansive, fun, dynamic and staining ride this show is….an impressive piece that elevates and rewards the looping witness for taking that leap.

    “They say I talk a lil fast, but if you listen a lil faster I ain’t got to slow down for you to catch up” -50 cent

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