The show that changed everything about what I thought I knew about reviewing theater was Kirk Wood Bromley’s Smoke the New Cigarette.
I should not have been surprised to discover something I didn’t understand about theater (art!) from Kirk. But this particular lesson drew me up short.
Smoke the New Cigarette was part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, where it was performed at the (now gone) Bowery Poetry Club.
The conceit of the show was that it was a live re-creation of a podcast about a neglected indie punk band whose name was The New Cigarette. The podcast narration was done as pre-recorded voiceover in the show, while the excerpted “recordings” included in the podcast were performed live by Bromley and company.
The band within the show were presented as far-out eccentrics: makers of music deliberately without tone or rhythm. As I wrote in my review of Smoke the New Cigarette:
We’re invited to judge The New Cigarette’s work, over and over, as rotten, and in places we may indeed buy into that idea. Certainly there’s an over-the-topness and a blatant disregard for form and sensibility that both makes the punk designation valid and invites laughter or derision or just plain old mouth-dropping-open, depending on how you choose to feel about what you’re hearing and seeing.
The protagonist of the play was not this band or any of its members, though; it was the podcaster, an indie music enthusiast who turned into an indie website operator/writer who fell in love with The New Cigarette. I thought as I watched the play, and still think now, that the person upon whom Kirk based this character was: me.
In the review I wrote (emphasis added):
what I kept coming back to was a celebration of the valor of the crazed, eccentric, misunderstood, terminally alone artist. Not in a too-special-to-live Van Gogh context, but rather in a what-the-heck-is-the-point-of-art-unless-it-means-something-to-the-artist context. What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.
And after you process, think, and write that down, well…it can’t be unprocessed; it can’t be unthought; it can’t be unwritten.
And after coming to all of this, as I said at the beginning, everything I thought I understood about reviewing theater came into question.