“The Critic and the Concubine” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival: If I pan it, will a kick line show up at my office?

“The Critic and the Concubine” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival: If I pan it, will a kick line show up at my office?

The Critic and the Concubine is produced by the Grays Players, “a group of young theatre artists working to establish ourselves in the Twin Cities.” The show’s creator, Hailey Colwell, is a rising sophomore at the University of Minnesota who began writing and directing her own shows while attending Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul. While some elements of this production betray the producers’ relative inexperience with professional theater, Colwell’s script is a satisfyingly substantive reflection on the often fraught relationship between critic and artist.

The show, set in 1950s New York, has fictional screen star Genevieve Viero (Aidan Jhane Gallivan) paying an angry visit to the office of a critic (Joe Allen) who has just written a scathing review of her latest film. The critic’s view is that the star is squandering her chops on by-the-numbers cash cows, but the actress swears she’s on the verge of a new creative breakthrough that the critic is jeopardizing by ruining her reputation. Over the course of multiple conversations, the two develop a personal relationship that ultimately affects the way both think about their respective work.

For a show with such a conventionally structured plot, The Critic and the Concubine is charmingly eccentric, and it’s at its most enjoyable when it’s most loose. The exchanges between Gallivan and Allen can drag, and Allen’s accent proves to be a Brooklyn Bridge too far; but the show pops to life when the critic’s editor (Brian Grossman) charges onstage or when the actress enlists a crew of chorus girls (Colwell, Iris Page, Emily Upin, and Annacita Gomez) to show the critic she’s not that boring after all.

What’s most impressive, though, is the way that this script—written by someone who can’t have received too many gloves-off professional reviews in her nascent career—nails a fundamental tension of the critic-artist relationship. Watching the show, I heard Gallivan reciting pleas that, as a critic, I’ve heard many times from many artists (though much more often from playwrights than actors): you don’t understand, I work so hard, you don’t know what this means to me, you’re hurting me for your own enjoyment.

Though I rarely experience either the vindication (“you’re right, that thing I did was a piece of crap”) or the change of heart (“gee, maybe I was too hard on it”) that Allen’s character experiences, Colwell accurately sketches the symbiotic relationship between critics and the artists they cover. It’s like a marriage: we need each other, and though we often hate each other for perceived injustices (I wrote a negative review, but you just took two hours of my life), ultimately we’re happy to be stuck together.

Jay Gabler

This review originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.