Sunday, May 05, 2002

How does gender influence our views?

        A couple of weeks ago, The Smell of the Kill, which is part of Playhouse in the Park's 2002-03 season, tanked on Broadway, opening and closing in almost a blink. What's interesting about this were the New York reviews, in which the majority of critics set upon the plot like slathering wolves.

        They took great exception to the fact that the black comedy, by a woman, is about three unhappy wives whose hubbies are trapped in a walk-in meat freezer. (What to do, what to do?)

        Did I mention that the critics were men? (Their response seemed so overly vehement that Newsday's Linda Winer was moved to comment on it.)

        The season drawing to a close in professional theater locally has had (as usual) its share of interesting gender issues, leading me to wonder: What role does gender play in what we see, to say nothing of how we see it? Does it matter if men are from Mars and women are from Venus?

        “I'd be lying if I said being female didn't enter into my decisions,” Ensemble Theatre artistic director D. Lynn Meyers observes.

        “It's like growing up Catholic. We all have certain interests, tastes and sensibilities because of who we are. There are perfectly fine plays out there that just don't speak to me.”

        Ms. Meyers gave Men on the Take and God's Man in Texas, which opened the Playhouse season, as examples. She adds thatshe thinks Smell of the Kill is “a great play.”

        During the tandem runs of Carter Lewis' Men on the Take and Women Who Steal, produced by Playhouse and Ensemble Theatre respectively this season, opinions were raging to such a surprising degree that I took an informal survey.

        As David Barry would say, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! Preference fell absolutely along gender lines, misters preferring Men, and ma'ams giving Women the thumbs up.

        Cowgirls (not a male in sight) is on stage at ETC (through May 19), playing into a hypothesis by a male colleague who prefers to remain nameless. He says he recently asked himself, “Why don't I go to ETC more often?” and quickly answered “It's theater for women!” The Playhouse, he added, is theater for guys.

        “I wouldn't even begin to know what that means,” Playhouse's Ed Stern says. “It's the same as when people say the Playhouse is "straight,' not gay.”

        Mr. Stern says he tries to be non-gender specific in his choices and when gender plays a role in a reviewer's subjective analysis, “Maybe it's not totally appropriate (but) it's a thing you live with.”

        Cincinnati Shakespeare's Jasson Minadakis takes the opposite view. “Everyone looks at things through the prism of who they are,” he says. “There's no way of being objective.

        “My problem is when people don't try to put their mark on things. I don't want clinical. I want to know their critical aesthetic. I want emotional content, of how and why something hits them.”

        Enquirer movie critic Margaret McGurk observes that “the trained eye is trained to see beyond the limits of self” but notes that she and other female film critics “are more likely to apply harsh judgment to extreme violence, particularly sexual violence.”

        She suspects women critics are less impressed by unmotivated action like showy fistfights and comedy based on bodily functions.

        The same can largely be said of women theater critics.

        At the heart of any discussion about gender and art is the quality of the art.

        If the work transcends and embraces a larger view of the world, subjectivity — whether gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity or a dozen other things — is swallowed up by the greater importance of just being human.

        Still, it's a man's world.

        Women continue to hold a slight majority in the population, and it's well documented that women make the majority of decisions about what to see on stage. But what most of America sees are plays written by men, produced by men and reviewed by men.

        (On the Enquirer staff, women critics outnumber our male counterparts 4-to-2, which is unusual.)

        “It's still white boys in charge,” observes Ms. Meyers, who is Cincinnati's only female artistic director.

        She points out that nationally, only a fraction of professional theaters have a woman or a minority in charge. “You'd think it would have changed in 20 years,” she says, sighing.

        Mr. Stern went on to say that it was only New York critics who came down on gender lines on Smell of the Kill. In regional productions, gender didn't appear to be an issue.

        I don't know if it means anything, but I did get an emphatic, unanimous response from my critical sisterhood: yes, gender matters. And (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, EITHER!) one of the men asked me to explain the question. (But he was probably kidding.)

        Lassoing another nomination: Justin Bohon (UC College-Conservatory of Music, class of 2000) continues to burn up Broadway. He's been nominated for a Drama Desk Award as best supporting actor in a musical for his role of Will Parker in Oklahoma!

        Winners will be announced May 19. (Mr. Bohon also scored an Outer Critics Circle nomination last month, but lost to co-star Shuler Hensley who plays dangerous Jud Fry.)

        Tony Award nominations are due Monday. Awards ceremony is June 2, and Ensemble is holding its first Tony Party fund-raiser. For details, call421-3555.

        Yelling "fire' in a theater: Xavier University's new theater hadn't been open a week when it got to test it's automated fire safety measures the hard way.

        Someone didn't pay attention to the no smoking rule, a couch on stage started smoldering and, theater program head Cathy Springfield says, “We dodged a bullet,” the bullet being the sprinkler system.

        With the fire contained, the sprinkler didn't go off, saving carpeting, theater seats and everything on stage from being a sodden mess.

        The fire curtain came down, the vents opened , campus security and the fire department were notified on the instant. (Mrs. Springfield sends the fire department a round of applause.)

        Damage was contained to a series of stage curtains, including a scrim and a cyclorama. Everything else, including furniture on loan from the Playhouse, was unmarred by water damage or soot.

        While not extensive, replacement, repair and clean-up will add up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000. Mrs. Springfield says the theater's scheduled won't be affected.

        PR winner: Playhouse producing artistic director Ed Stern is recipient of the Cincinnati chapter of the Public Relations Society of America's 2002 President's Award for “his use of public relations toward achieving significant improvement in the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati.”

        Irish writer: Neil O'Shea, a veteran of the Abbey Theatre, will present free performances of the one-man Irish Writers Entertain at 4 and 7 p.m. Wednesday at University Of Cincinnati College of Applied Sciences (Room 204, 2220 Victory Parkway.)

        His appearance is part of the ""Shakespeare and Other Acts of Literature” series. For information call 556-6570 or 556-4883.

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