Nestruck on Theatre: Why this theatre critic is happy to be done with star ratings on reviews

Krystin Pellerin’s performance setup for Tarragon Theatre’s online production Orestes.

Krystin Pellerin/Handout

It’s a momentous week for theatre criticism in this paper. On Friday, I’ll be watching a new digital production from Tarragon Theatre called Orestes – and then will file my first review since The Globe and Mail eliminated the star-rating system.

If you’ve read any of our film reviews in the last couple of weeks, you’ll have noticed an editor’s note at the bottom stating that the Arts section has moved to a “critic’s pick” designation for the crème de la cultural crème and abandoned star ratings for film and theatre reviews “in the interest of consistency.”

What does that mean? Well, as long as I’ve been at The Globe, different art forms have been reviewed in different ways. Dance and opera were reviewed without star ratings, for instance, while theatre and circus reviews included a rating out of four stars.

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As for interdisciplinary work – the dance-theatre hybrids of Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, or operettas produced by theatre companies – it often depended on which critic was assigned to review them whether stars were attached or not. (The arts have only become more interdisciplinary during the pandemic: How can you tell a film apart from a television show, and a TV special apart from a livestreamed theatre production these days?)

I’m glad that the performing arts will now be reviewed in a consistent manner – but, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I never was a big fan of star ratings. Sure, it can be fun to slap four celestial bodies at the top of a show that blows you away – and occasionally to court controversy by dropping a zero-star review. But mostly I like to think of reviews as the starting point for a discussion, not a mic drop.

The fact of the matter is that art just isn’t measurable on a single four-point scale – and a star rating can sometimes warp the nuance of what a critic is trying to communicate in a review that isn’t a rave or a pan (which is to say, most reviews).

Indeed, as I learned myself this year buying my first car, a one-size-fits-all rating is only useful up to a point – even in guiding a consumer choice that involves a product that comes off an assembly line.

I subscribed to Consumer Reports in order to find the right vehicle for my family within my budget – and ended up delving deeply into its star ratings of specific aspects of cars that matter to me (such as safety, or how spacious the rear seating is, in order to fit children’s car seats in comfortably).

The car with the highest overall rating that I could afford was not the car I ended up buying – because what matters to me about a car is not what matters to everyone.

That’s what I’ve always hoped the actual text of theatre reviews do – not just present my opinions and analysis, but drill down into what I saw in enough detail that even if you value a play’s cargo space more than I do, or a production’s fuel economy less than I do, you’ll nevertheless find the information there to help you make the best decision for yourself.

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Ontario’s continuing stay-at-home order has interrupted many theatre companies’ plans to create digital productions this month, but Orestes at Tarragon will still go ahead this week.

Director Richard Rose’s online production (performed and streamed live from Feb. 3 to Feb. 14) now opens to critics on Friday instead of Wednesday, however. The theatre company says that’s because of “some initial delays at the beginning of the state of emergency lockdown.”

All the actors in playwright Rick Roberts’s contemporary take on this Greek tragedy will be performing from their own homes – but this is more than a fancy Zoom reading. “With green screens, multiple cameras, arms-length sound and lighting design, each of the 10 cast members will inhabit what is essentially a mini studio,” according to Rose.

While Roberts’s Orestes has been in the works for years, and its online pivot was announced in the summer, the project now seems in conversation with playwright and actor Carmen Aguirre’s recent widely shared essay of “cancel culture” in Canadian theatre. In this version of the ancient story, most famously told by Aeschylus in The Oresteia, Orestes as been “de-platformed” for the crime of killing his mother and is being pursued by an online mob instead of the furies.

La Face cachée de la lune is one of Robert Lepage’s most popular one-man shows – the story of two brothers from Quebec City shaken by the death of their mother, set amid the backdrop of the U.S./USSR space race. (It was also turned into a film in 2003.)

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, Lepage’s production was supposed to tour in 2020. Instead, a performance will be broadcast live from the stage of Le Diamant this Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. (ET) on Télé-Québec, which can be streamed from anywhere in Canada through its free app.

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This will be a special performance as Lepage and the actor Yves Jacques, who often replaces Lepage in his solo shows at a certain point in their runs, will play the two brothers together for the first time. I’m sorry to say there will be no English subtitles, but it’s a theatre event that those who understand French won’t want to miss.

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Alice G. Collins

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