Thursday, December 22, 2016

The "Meh" Factor

Many people start using the word "factor" in middle school as they learn about multiplicationdivision, and begin to get acquainted with algebra. As they grow, the word begins to be applied to different parts of their life.
Another, more insidious phenomenon, has become all too familiar in recent years. Whether the "meh" factor signals a lack of enthusiasm, political apathy, or audience fatigue, it's a fairly good indicator that something (or someone) is not living up to their hype or the audience's expectations.

Curiously, "meh" seems to have found its way into our vernacular with the same kind of generic passivity as "whatever." Whether used as a lazy adjective or a listless expletive, according to Wikipedia the origin of "meh" is unknown.
"Some have speculated that the term's origin is Yiddish because of its similarity to the interjection 'feh,' which appears in the 1936 Yiddish song Yidl Mitn Fidl. In Alexander Harkavy's 'Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary' the word is treated as a bleating or baa sound. Hooray for Yiddish by Leo Rosten uses the word 'mnyeh,' which is speculated to be an early variant of 'meh.' 'Meh's' popularity surged after its use on The Simpsons. It was first used in the 1994 episode 'Sideshow Bob Roberts' when a librarian reacts to Lisa's surprise that voting records are not classified."

Wikipedia also informs us that:
"Meh (/mɛ/) is an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom. It may also mean 'be it as it may.' It is often regarded as a verbal shrug of the shoulders. The use of the term 'meh' shows that the speaker is apathetic, uninterested, or indifferent to the question or subject at hand. It is occasionally used as an adjective, meaning something is mediocre or unremarkable. Also considered a non-committal response, 'meh' can be used when disregarding a question or to refer to something they have no opinion or emotions about. In expressing an opinion, it means the speaker's opinion is that of apathy. However, some may respond with 'meh' simply to avoid creating an opinion on the matter at all."
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Although Mae West famously purred "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," the "meh" factor can become an occupational hazard for theatre critics who, over the course of a calendar year, may review more than a hundred performances. The sheer mathematics of the process produces a bell curve which reflects the normal distribution of values (ranging perhaps from 1 to 10 or "godawful" to "faaaab-u-lous"). As a result, some productions, though they may deliver reasonably acceptable performances, might fail to inspire or impress a reviewer.

I recently attended such a performance and was surprised by how I felt upon leaving the theatre. While there was a definite "meh" quality to the experience, I had a hard time pinpointing the cause. Let me explain.

Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron appear in
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

Now in her mid-fifties, Sandra Tsing Loh has become a familiar voice on radio. After graduating from the California Institute of Technology with a major in physics, she became an art professor at the University of California, Irvine before embarking on a career as a writer, performance artist, and media personality. A frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, she has published six books with titles as diverse as Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles and Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! In the period between writing The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones and the book's publication, Philip Himberg (the artistic director of the Sundance Institute's Theatre Program) invited Loh to participate in a laboratory being held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art where she was given a chance to work with dramaturg Janice Paran and Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Associate Director, Lisa Peterson.

“I’m a humor monologist rather than an actor, and instead of listening and reacting in the moment to another actor, I’ll just wait for them to stop speaking so I can speak,” confesses Loh. "Monologists don’t think about scene partners! The other characters are the audience; your timing is based on their reaction. So when monologists go into the acting world, they tend to cut people off.”

“I’d done many solo pieces in my 30s and early 40s. Then I had a midlife blowup and left theatre for a few years. I came back to it as a 51 year old in this midlife moment and realized at that point (in terms of turning the book into a play) that I didn’t know how to do it in my earlier mode of solo performance. I’d done six different solo pieces and I felt I’d just done them every which way, but I literally had no idea how to transform this book into a theatre piece," she recalls. "Lisa has been very precise in the direction, so there are all these internal determinations of when the action is going out to the audience and when it’s going inward, which is fun to perform.”

With a strong emphasis on the challenges women face as a result of menopause and other aspects of the aging process, the stage version of The Madwoman in the Volvo premiered at South Coast Repertory in January of 2016. The show had its Bay area premiere  this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on a handsome unit set designed by Rachel Hauck with costumes by Candice Cain and lighting designed by Geoff Korf.

Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in a scene from
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

Unlike her previous monologues, this outing matches Loh with two other actresses (Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt); a move which proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Whereas, as a monologist, Loh is used to telling her own story, Aaron and Holt are accomplished character actors who, rather effortlessly, manage to steal the show. That leaves Loh center stage, flogging some old material along with her writing from the book version of the Madwoman in the Volvo. One can't help but suspect that the written word may be a stronger form of communication for her than reshaping her most recent book into a piece of entertainment that is shared with two other actors.

As Loh describes her adventures with two friends from her women's writers group as they travel to Burning Man, the audience learns about a subsequent affair with her agent, the end of her marriage, her frustrations dealing with menopause, and slowly begins to lose patience with her narration. I have no doubt that cutting 15 minutes off the running time of this show would help Loh tighten the power of her storytelling. In its current state, The Madwoman in the Volvo is surprisingly underwhelming and rates a genuine "meh."

Sandra Tsing Loh and Caroline Aaron in a scene from
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

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