Sep 8, 2017
   VANCOUVER GREENROOM 6: Twelve Vancouver Fringe reviews (from Victoria)   

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Colin Thomas is a big boy who can take the ferry all by himself, as he proudly tells us in the pre-amble to an aggregate review of the dozen shows coming from Victoria to Vancouver Fringe. Isn't that exciting? You can read reviews of shows before they even happen, because he reviewed them in another city! They also got reviewed by the reviewers in that city, and also Edmonton, Winnipeg, maybe Calgary, even as far east as Montreal. And there's literally nothing stopping you from reading those reviews, because distance has no meaning on the internet. But those reviewers didn't ride the ferry, because they live there, and when it comes down to it can you really trust the opinion of anyone who isn't smart enough to live in Vancouver?

According to Thomas it's a "good year" because he's willing to recommend four of the twelve shows. This is our first clue about just how jaded he's become after 30 years reviewing theatre: only hating 66.7% of everything he sees counts as good! Imagine the monotonous dystopian hellscape of relentlessly terrible shows when it's not a good year. But like a soldier crossing the desert, no matter how bad it gets Thomas keeps marching through theatre doors, because he has gone to far to turn back and learn a trade, and to stop now is to die. Perhaps beyond that next dune will be something original, something that isn't just a pale reflection of a show he saw 20 years ago. His mouth stretched in a frozen grin revealing sand-polished teeth, he marches onward, because this is a good year and one third of the time, he won't be disappointed. I, on the other hand, hold myself to no such standard and will only be reviewing the best (worst?) 1/3 of these reviews.

Lovely Lady Lump

"You think it’s easy being a theatre critic?" he asks rhetorically as an entry point into this mediocre recap. I do, actually. Register a domain--your own name, say--then go to some shows and write about it on your personal blog. Or maybe you already have a site with your name as the domain to advertise your other job and then you just tack on a blog to post your reviews on because it's easier than maintaining another site. Or write about whatever you want, it's your blog after all. You can tell everyone it's your birthday and beg them to subscribe to your newsletter because otherwise nobody will read your reviews because you got fired by the Georgia Straight. Who's going to stop you? It's your blog. There's way dumber things you could do with a blog than use it to scam a media pass to the Fringe. So yeah, being a critic is super easy. Getting paid to review things, now that would be a trick.

Thomas takes criticism very seriously. So seriously that he wrote an 1800 word essay about how serious he is, including such lofty proclamations as "In my opinion, critics should be specialists, not generalists, well-informed analysts, not efficient recorders. You can always tell when a reporter masquerading as a critic has no idea what to say: they spend endless paragraphs describing the action." That's a high standard, any guesses whether Thomas lives up to it? He also says "Part of my job is to support my arguments as fully as I can, so that it’s clear that I’m making an assessment, as opposed to practicing some kind of reader-pleasing hit and run. If I do that job well, it’s the artist’s responsibility to respond to my argument with counter-argument--if they wish to--rather than strings of retaliatory insults." Sure, but some people aren't doddering has-beens desperately clinging to their former relevance, and can do both.

Drawing on all that experience, he expertly squeezes a lot of mistakes into a very short review. First he lectures the performer about how to do comedy: "this compulsion to illustrate keeps things superficial (Comedy needn’t be)," because clearly an award-winning comedian on a world tour needs comedy lessons from somebody who has never done comedy. He grudgingly admits that she does "get off some great lines", but then immediately gives away one of her jokes, repeating it word-for-word including the punchline. And here I thought describing the action rather than critiquing it was a sign of a reporter masquerading as a critic who has no idea what to say. What is the point of re-printing a joke out of context? Some people won't find it funny and those who do will wish they hadn't had it spoiled for them before they got to see it in the show. Nobody has ever said "I like stand-up comedy, but I prefer to read a transcript rather than watch it." Here Thomas is like the elderly uncle who forwards you joke emails--that's something that happens to you, nobody asks for it.

He finishes by noting that the show has won awards, but airily dismisses them with a flippant "But don’t try so hard, I say. Just tell the story--and trust its depth." Because who are you going to trust, those uncultured philistines in Ottawa, Adelaide, Dunedin and Perth who gave it awards, or unemployed critic and locally-renowned playwright Colin Thomas, whose plays have won awards in Vancouver and Toronto. As someone who won a photojournalism award in 1998 I can tell you, this review offers no reasons to read it and several not to. Other people may respect this review, but don't take yourself so seriously, I say. Just write the review--and trust the performer to tell her own jokes.

Help I'm American

"Other people laughed" begins this review, and immediately alarm bells start ringing and red flags are unfurled, because from this point onward the review is not going to reflect the experiences of the actual audience. But if that was too subtle, he ends his description of the show's sole performer, DK Reinemer, with "I just don’t think he’s funny." Other people--people who aren't shell-shocked veterans of a thousand battles with artists and art, who can still enjoy a simple, fun show--they evidently do think he's funny. Thomas then spends a paragraph describing the show (ok seriously, are critics supposed to do that or not?) and ends with "Less impressively, Reinemer presents two bits in which he becomes the captain of the Titanic: transgression is not the same as wit." First, the Titanic sank over a century ago, it's not too soon to make jokes. And second, was it really not the same as wit? Or was this one of those times when other people laughed? Because I would bet it got more laughs than the Titanic had lifeboats.

All of this was just prologue, however, a Shyamalanesque extended appetizer before the short but surprising main course of blood sausage and tripe that is the final paragraph. "Interestingly, the show is soaked with sexual energy," Thomas writes. "It’s there in Reinemer’s vibrating presence and in his constant references to dating. I hope he gets laid." And with that, the red flags unfurled in the first sentence are removed, revealing a towering phallic monument to jealousy and sexual frustration which was there the whole time, we just couldn't see it. Reinemer is a handsome, charismatic man, so it's understandable if Thomas is simultaneously threatened and attracted. However, rather than address that like an adult, he instead expresses his infatuation like an eight-year-old, metaphorically pushing Reinemer down and running away. But as we learned in Thomas' essay, he believes "the most reliable way to read criticism is as autobiography," and that a review should allow critics and artists to "maintain [a] serious dialogue." And with that final reveal, who Thomas hopes Reinemer will sleep with is made clear. But surely, in this age of email and Twitter and a dozen variations on text messaging, there's a better way to ask somebody out than negging him publicly in a review.

The Inventor of All Things

The next review begins with another unsubtle warning: "Usually, Fringe favourite Jem Rolls performs his poetry. This time out, he’s telling a story--badly." When a reviewer feels the need to tell us what an artist used to do, what they're really saying is that the work is not being judged on its merits, but against the unmet expectations the reviewer brought with them. Rolls is Bob Dylan in 1965 and his story is an electric guitar--whether or not he masters this new instrument, some people just hate the fact he's playing it at all. Although in this case, there is no source of lasting controversy. There are all the people who raved about the show, giving it awards and five star reviews and telling their friends to get tickets before it sells out, and then there's Thomas, stamping his feet and shouting at anyone who'll listen that Rolls' performance style makes sense for poetry, but "when he’s trying to tell a more sustained story, it’s exhausting." We get it, you liked his old stuff better. You could've saved everybody a lot of reading and ended it after the first paragraph.

The Man Who Sold the World

This is the final review and one assumes, though it's never stated, that they were ordered from least to most-hated. He begins appropriately by paraphrasing the patron-saint of being impressed with your own cleverness: Oscar Wilde. By this point Thomas isn't even pretending to write a review and merely says "Spoiler alert: I’m about to give away the entire plot," and then does exactly that, uncluttered by any of that well-informed analysis I thought I read he values somewhere. Apparently being an efficient recorder rather than supporting his arguments as fully as he can (or in fact making any arguments at all) is fine when you're just doing it to be a dick. And he fully admits that he enjoys being mean, even if he doesn't realize that's what he's saying.

As he tells it, there came a point in his march across the desert of unending theatrical torment when he stopped pretending to sympathy he didn't feel, and "My reviews grew flat until I finally tore a strip off a show I loathed and felt a rush of honesty." As someone currently riding that rush I can tell you, that's not honesty you're feeling, that's just the joy of talking shit. Talking shit is fun--lord knows I've spent multiple hours ripping on a 60-minute show--and there's a reason I only write reviews of bad reviews: it's fun for me and for you.

What's written here is neither honest nor even a negative review, it's just a couple of petty insults and a plot synopsis. There isn't even enough of a review for me to review, as you are currently experiencing, which I'm sure is disappointing for everyone. What can I say other than "this does not meet the standards you yourself espouse"? I guess, when there are no arguments to meet with counter-arguments, all that's left is the other response he's used to: the string of retaliatory insults. Colin Thomas has crawled so far up his own ass that he's become a proctological ouroboros, an ego with no beginning or end. His haughty pronouncements presume an authority unsupported by either argument or achievement. He is the embodiment of pride that kept goething even after the fall. If the most reliable way to read criticism is as autobiography, the story he's writing is The Road. I hope he gets laid.

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