Continuing my periodic discussion on the value of criticism, today I will address the subject of how best to know if a “review” can be trusted. That is, if the writer has sincerely endeavored to offer an honest account of his or her reaction to a show.
Because very few circuses — as holds true for stage shows or films — are thoroughly perfect or thoroughly awful, we expect most notices to reflect both the good and the bad.
I am looking at a review published in The Brooklyn Paper of Cole Bros. Circus, and I believe it. It is very mixed, full of both praise and put downs, and I believe it. I do not believe it because I agree with anything in particular that the critic, Jared Foretek, says, for I have not seen the show. Nor do I believe that Foretek is necessarily right in every regard. But because he seems quite able to affirm and reject, I consider his opinions worthy of serious attention. In general, he was well entertained by the aerial acts and the animals, though not the camels, whose “synchronized” work he found “boring.” He termed the Toprasta's seven-high wire walk “incredible,” the wheel of death, “undoubtedly one of the best.” What he did not at all like were the clowns (“a drag’) and certain of the ground acts, calling them “Neanderthals of entertainment.” For example, Foretek was not impressed by a juggler manipulating bowling pins — “I’ve seen better on You Tube.” Now to me, the idea of a somebody juggling bowling pins amuses.
Overall, Foretek’s notice began by calling Cole Bros.“better than average,” and concluded on a warm note: “I must be a kid at heart, because when I left the Aviator sports complex, I had a smile on my face.”
Can a review be of any value? To circus owner John Pugh, who takes great pride in his show, it might. That is, if some of the criticism is in sync with feedback Pugh might be getting, or with his own perceptions. Indeed, he might be motivated to address areas of weakness, which will only lead, theoretically, to a better show and greater customer satisfaction. Surely, from the average circus fan, Pugh will get none of what The Brooklyn Paper has given him.
Newspapers tend to print real reviews such as the above (very rare these days) or general feature stories, usually published in advance of the show’s opening, in essence heralding circus day. There are a lot of these, especially in the smaller papers which virtually never send out reviewers.
Of late, there is a third very clever form, which the Felds may have had a hand in engineering, a form that vaguely lends the impression of being a review but upon closer examination bears the unmistakable marks of either a die-heard fan or a reporter flaking for a circus. This was what I found in a recent issue of The Denver Post, in a story headlined “Zing Zang Zoom Puts New Spark to Trad Circus Model”
Cruising the piece quickly, you may get the impression that the writer, John Wenzel, is endorsing the show. He extensively quotes Kenneth Feld, whose voice colors and directs the article’s affirmative tone. (In reply to an e-mail query I sent Mr. Wenzel, he confirmed that he interviewed the circus boss for the article.) I could not find one specific item in the show that Wenzel critiqued as a critic would, but I did find a couple of statements he made that arguably reveal a pro-Feld stance which permeates the entire piece. Exhibit A: “no other circus act comes close to the vibrance, scale and general appeal of a Ringling Bros. Show.” Notice how Wenzel uses words “of a Ringling show” and not “of Zing Zang Zoom.” He is not focusing in on Zing. He has, quite obviously, turned the story into an endorsement of the Ringling products. Exhibit B: In acknowledging the reach of Feld Entertainment, Wenzel makes a blatantly misleading claim that Kenneth Feld has had his hand in “numerous Broadway hits.” I checked the Broadway database. The Felds, indeed, invested in the hit musical Barnum during the late stages leading up to opening night, for the right, I believe, to pitch concession in the theatre lobby. Other Feld produced shows have had woefully short runs. Even Kenneth Feld’s critically acclaimed Fool Moon lasted but six months on Broadway. His other efforts trod the boards from seven days to four months. "Numerous Broadway hits" they were not.
Here is how the story opens: “Ferocious Bengal tigers and death defying acrobats. Disappearing Asian elephants [there was but one] and whirring blades of steel. Human cannonballs and clowns galore. Sounds like a good old fashioned circus, doesn’t it?’
This is neither a review nor a serious feature story. It is a veiled pitch for Feld Entertainment, plain and simple. In this instance, John Wenzel, whether he intended to or not, was turned into a part-time Ringling press agent. He would not be the first nor the last. Beware.
[photos: top image by Boyi Yuan; the Toprasta Troupe with Cole Bros.; Ringling Bros. Zing Zang Zoom clowns]