April 13, 2013

How I learned to drive

Earlier tonight I saw the best show I've seen in a long time.

How I learned to drive was billed as "for mature audiences", and they might have added "trigger warning!", because this show is dealing with some seriously dark themes about incest and paedophilia. In fact, even a review like this one that just talks about the show might need a trigger warning. And unlike a lot of those "adult" warnings that get slapped on a show because there's swearing or someone in their underwear, where I roll my eyes and tell people that they can probably bring their teens and tweens and just keep an eye on them, this one is one I'd be careful recommending to anyone younger than college age: a true X-rated show, and without a single instance of swearing, nudity, or physical violence. Just highly disturbing sexual mind games.

This scene is set right from the start: the leads, whose specifics we will learn somewhat later, start the show sitting next to each other, in side-by-side chairs (representing a car), and immediately make the audience uncomfortable, with nothing but their conversation and some gestures that are meant to imply touching (though this is cleverly staged with them both facing forward and "touching" the bare air---letting us dip our toes in the awfulness before we get tossed in the deep end later). Everything about this is carefully arranged. The perceptive audience member will notice that the underage girl (Li'l Bit, played by the talented Adrienne Johnson) is seated on the left, and wonder why she's in what would be the driver's seat---only to discover that she is in the driver's seat because the man (who we will later learn is her uncle Peck, her mom's sister's husband, played by Daniel Ellis) had taught her to drive (per the title) and routinely let her drive his car.

I'm going to take a moment here to gush and swoon over Adrienne Johnson's performance. If Longwood has any sort of annual acting award for its students, they have a very easy decision this year, not because the other actors in this show or the other shows were bad, but because she was singularly fantastic (and with extra points for degree of difficulty, as well). In this show she has scenes spanning some 16 years from age 11 up to age 27 (and up to 35 if you count the narrations at the start and finish); and those scenes are played in a radically nonchronological order, without pause or blackout. She only even leaves the stage once or twice. But just with a change of voice or demeanour she makes it easy to see the shift from college back to middle school or back again. Her moods also necessarily turn on a dime, from worried to scared to hurt to something like happiness, but always with an undercurrent of confusion. It's her vulnerability that seals the deal here, because during all of it you can tell that she's confused about what she wants, about what she should want, and about what's expected of her---and we in the audience are frequently struck by the horrific thought that her life is so awful to her that her moments with the paedophile are actually better, or at least seem so to her. When her uncle has gotten her drunk and she kisses him, the expression on her face packs in so much---drunk, shocked, can't-believe-I-just-did-that, edging into panic---and the knowledge that "the line" has moved yet again.

Not to slight the other actors, of course. There was simply no bad acting in this show; it was a small, tight cast that fit their roles and worked well together. However, the particular nomination for Best Supporting has to go to Sarah Breitenberg, whose enabler monologue was both riveting and literally breathtaking; the moment she veered into victim-blaming, I gasped and then caught myself still holding my breath about a minute and a half later. More than any other single moment in the show, that monologue drives home the understanding that this kind of abuse is not only tragic for its immediate victim, but takes out many casualties in the crossfire as well.

Despite subject matter that would in any show be inherently dark and shocking, this production exhibits some excellent choices by the production staff as well as by the author herself that make it both more watchable and more effective. The exact same story told in chronological order, for instance, would be excruciating to watch and very sad, but wouldn't have nearly the impact. The occasional well-played comic relief, even or especially about topics that shouldn't be funny (e.g. Jillian Thompson's speech about sex being painful, which had me in tears I was laughing so hard) has, I think, the effect of underlining the message rather than undermining it. Merely acting through the photo shoot scene would have made us think about how awful it was, but showing the actual photos on the cyc makes us feel the creepy. So creepy. The decision to simply wrap towels around still-visible other costumes---so that dropping the towel in front of everyone reveals nothing at all---has the counterintuitive effect of being more authentic, more revealing, and more mortifying than any concoction involving making the girls "really" naked behind a screen or something. The rule is "show, don't tell", but the author and staff of this production understand well that sometimes a suggestive charcoal line drawing can "show" more than a photographic snapshot.

If you're in the Farmville area, go see it! You still have time to see it more than once, even, which I'm strongly considering if I can find the time; I'm quite certain that now that I've seen it once and know the chronology, there will be a deeper layer to find in many of the scenes. Just in the process of writing this review, I've had several "Oh! Ooooh." moments as I suddenly understood a scene in a broader context.

"When all is said and told, the "naturalness" with which we use our native tongues boils down to the ease with which we can use them for making statements the nonsense of which is not obvious." --Edsger Dijkstra

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December 30, 2012

Les Misérables

I'll start by saying that there's a lot of good things to say about the show.

It started with a strong hand. We knew going in that it had a great story, a good script, and fantastic songwriting. Most of the main characters were also played by very A-list actors, so the expectations were high.

The result was... disappointing.

I mean, what was good was really good. Anything involving Anne Hathaway, for instance; she has a rare mix of a good voice and good acting ability and ability to act while singing, and she pretty much steals the entire show. She makes you absolutely believe that she's at the end of her rope, selling her hair, her teeth (which, wtf?), and finally her body, all to save the daughter she probably hasn't even seen in several years. Her songs are the highlight of the show, and everything she touches turns to gold (and/or tears).

Other things were great. Hugh Jackman has a great set of pipes, and he sings a notoriously difficult repertoire. Honestly, not my favourite voice-type, but it's good for the part, and he does a great job. Amanda Seyfried was by far the least annoying Cosette I've seen; the part is unavoidably somewhat light, but she gives Cosette about as much depth as there can be. And we've heard her sing before, but, interestingly, not like this---all that trilly stuff is part of her Cosette performance, not an integral part of her voice, which makes it that much cooler. The Thenardiers were pretty much brilliant throughout (although singing their entire closing number while being carried out was... odd). The casting for Eponine gave us possibly the best Eponine I've ever seen or heard.

I wish I could say I loved their choice for Marius. In the stage productions, Marius is usually cast for looks and voice; acting ability is largely unnecessary as the character is vapid and whiny. Or so I thought; Eddie Redmayne played a much stronger Marius, one you can actually connect with, rather than one performing arias at a voice recital. But, and this is a crucial and unavoidable point, his voice sounds like Kermit the Frog. This is camouflaged when he's singing in a duet or trio, and blending with the others, but anything he's singing solo? Kermit, Kermit, Kermit. It's like he's trying to swallow his own tongue.

This would be a good point to bring up the sound engineering in this film: it is fantastic. I understand that contrary to the usual movie-musical practice (film scenes, then dub them with studio music recordings), most of the songs were recorded on-set with a combination of cleverly hidden mics and cleverly hidden earpieces. But, you'd never know that the music wasn't recorded in the studio, other than that the lips and breathing match up perfectly. The sound engineers have filtered out all the ambient stuff and then blended everybody perfectly. As a result, I think that at least for the duets and trios, the movie soundtrack are instantly the definitive recordings of those songs.

Well, except for Confrontation. It's not Russell Crowe's fault, really; it's just a damn shame. Their casting director should be blackballed for doing this to the show: they cast a Javert whose voice was in the wrong range. I suspect that they transposed his solos (Stars and the reprise) in a different key, because those were okay, but whenever he had to insert himself into any other song, he was stuck up at the top of his range with no room to maneuver, whether to do some acting or just plain sound nice. We know he can act, and there's enough evidence here that he can sing, but he was dealt a very bad hand on this show.

There were also some curious changes made to the text of the songs. I'm not the sort who obsesses over a movie version of something being slavishly true to whatever it's adapting from; when you switch mediums, you should play to your strengths. So when you shift the backdrop and this necessitates a lyric change, super. Or when you need an extra verse of something to bridge a gap, or you need to cut a verse for whatever reason, fine. What I didn't understand was why they so frequently made gratuitous changes. Substituting a synonym, or changing a word here or there---you know we all have the stage score memorised, right? We're gonna notice. Especially jarring were the four or five times when a change was made that actually significantly changed the character's motivations. (I wish I had been taking notes at the time, because I forgot the specifics of the changes as soon as I walked out of the theatre; the only example I can give wasn't a lyric change, but an acting one: there is just no plausible explanation for why Javert would pin a war medal on Gavroche. Look sad, maybe even show regret? Sure, fine. But a war medal?)

You may have noticed that up to this point I've carefully avoided mentioning one aspect of the film. The comments above this point would lead me to a generally positive review, with a few weak spots. What destroyed the movie for me were the visuals.

I mean, it's a movie, right? Talking pictures. If all I wanted were the audio track I'd buy the soundtrack. We've all seen Les Mis on stage, so we want to see what the different medium can do, right? This movie made three directorial decisions in the cinematography in which it parts company from most other movies (and all movie musicals that I'm aware of); one I'm sort of neutral about and the other two are flat-out FAIL.

The first choice, and the only one of the three I've seen others complain about elsewhere, is to spend a huge amount of time zoomed in ridiculously close to the actors' faces. I'm neutral about this because I totally understand where it comes from: we have all seen this on stage, and so we know what it looks like far away; and what the movie medium can really add to the canon of Les Misérables is a vision of how those characters look close-up while they are emoting through song. It's an interesting choice, and I appreciate the idea. It was weird in that singers' faces, it turns out, are not particularly pretty when actively singing, and visible saliva is distracting at best. So it's a good experiment with some salvageable lessons.

The second choice, which may have been borrowed from "action" movies, is to make it seem as if any non-static scene is filmed by a guy with a handicam (except that handicams actually have image stabilisers). It's not just the true action scenes, either; I saw it a little bit already in the boatyard scene and a lot during Valjean's cross-country trek. I think there might have been some good and epic visuals in these scenes, except that I couldn't actually see them, so they're kind of wasted. But that's nothing compared to...

The third choice, the one that did more than any other thing to ruin the show for me, was that the depth of field was so narrow, in nearly every scene, for the whole movie, that two thirds of the screen was blurry and out of focus. This was obviously intentional, so I will not criticise this as incompetent filming; but it was an absolutely disastrous choice. Probably if they'd done it in one or two scenes, it would be fine. But I think every single shot that included just one or two people in it, and that person was not in ridiculous close-up, had this problem. (My sister has a theory that it's only true in those scenes where a solo singer is singing their thoughts as opposed to singing for the world to hear, but that's basically all of them, so it doesn't really change my point.) I assume the intent is to force the viewer to look at the actor that's singing, but at least in my case, the effect was the opposite: I became much more aware of when my eyes were flicking around the scene to peripherally inspect the background, and my eyes try to focus but can't, so this rises from my subconscious to a conscious level and now I'm distracted. Of course I'm looking at the actor. But despite the fact that you've put all this work into staging an epic spectacle you are now not letting me actually look at it! I'd be slightly sympathetic if this were a cost-cutting measure that let them skimp on set/backdrop work, but I'm almost positive that's not true. The director just decided that we were only going to see what they wanted us to see and blurred out the rest. Ok, smart guy, but it distracts from the singing and destroys my ability to be absorbed into the show---because in real life, when your eye flicks around a scene, you actually see the rest of the scene, not a blurry mess.

If you're paying attention, you might have noticed that these three flaws neatly encompass nearly all possibilities, since we hit close-ups, medium-distance, and large action shots. So the review has to end up a negative one: the singing was good to great, the acting was good to great, but the movie was unwatchable. Too bad.

"We want a government that will resolve every problem we currently face with solutions that require no effort, no sacrifices, and no money. And I have no doubt that we have elected a group of people brave enough to promise exactly that." --Ed, ginandtacos.com

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February 26, 2012

Rocky! (Bullwinkle!)

So I ended up waitlisting my way into the midnight show tonight—Longwood's mainstage is The Rocky Horror Show, which is, yes, the show on which the movie was based. It was a crazy fun experience, because all the serious Rocky fans (who know all the audience parts) were out in force for the midnight show. And unlike a showing of the film with audience parts, in a live show the actors get to respond to them, and pause for the audience line to finish before they delivered theirs. Interestingly, since this wasn't a single crowd of regulars who all knew all the same parts, it made the audience participation even better, because some of the lines the whole audience shouted while others were heckled up by one or two lone voices.

It's always interesting to see how the actors you've seen before will be cast in different roles, but on a show like this, it's especially fun seeing the casting revealed one-by-one. Riff-Raff was played by Chris Swanson, a music professor, which I knew in advance but it was still great fun seeing him emerge (in a pink and blue mohawk!). Brad (Justin Heavner) I had previously seen as a crotchety and somewhat deluded old man, and then as Jesus, but the entertaining part was that it took two scenes to even recognise him because he actually had hair this time. When Rocky (Beau Bryan) got revealed, I had a nagging thought that he looked familiar, but couldn't place him from either Juno or Godspell, when I suddenly realised that he had played Henry V himself last term down at Hampden-Sydney (particularly funny as I was wondering just last night why he was sitting out Picasso!). Janet (Abby Frank) I'd not seen before but she immediately stole every audience participation line she could.

The real scene-stealer for much of the show was the costuming, though. Frank'n'Furter was perfectly stunning in his wispy gown and feather boa (excellent makeup work as well), and quite a few of the costumes struck a careful and delicate balance between being extremely brief and yet functional. (Apparently there were some wardrobe malfunctions during the dress rehearsals, though!) Frank's corset and garters were obvious but well-executed; Rocky wore a gold singlet, which was probably a better choice than the trunks from the movie, as those would have required significant amounts of body glue. And actually, I was quite taken with Janet's slip; its fabric covered more than any of the other risqué costumes, but you got the impression than anyone wearing that kind of slip would feel much more unclothed in it than, say, Frank in his corset. But my favourite little costume detail was that Eddie was wearing a Meat Loaf T-shirt. That right there is attention to detail, my friends.

This show is an immense amount of fun. If you fancy yourself a prude you might not like it, but otherwise, this show is not to be missed.

"In my experience it's the people who are born on third base who are the most enraged at the poor---they want everyone to think they hit a triple." --Kip

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February 24, 2012

Picasso au Lapin Agile

Just got back from Hampden-Sydney, where I saw their production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a crazy little show written by Steve Martin (yes, that one) about what would happen if Einstein had dropped in at one of Picasso's Paris haunts just as Einstein was developing special relativity and Picasso was approaching the end of his blue period. It was, coincidentally, also one of the first shows I saw after moving to Galesburg back in 2003; I remembered that it was smart and thoughtful, but I'd forgotten how damn funny it was.

Part of that is just that Steve Martin is himself smart and thoughtful, and has a wicked sense of humour. His sense of comic timing is brilliant, with a subtle ability to wait just long enough between breaking the fourth wall that you've forgotten it's that kind of show; or the ability to set up a joke, wait, and then drop in the punchline some time later for maximum effect. (In this respect, the show resembles a long-form multi-member standup routine.) Credit also goes to a nice casting job, though, with most of the actors having just the right affect and delivery for the kind of character they were playing. Aside from a nagging tendency to talk over the audience laughter, they did a great job at delivery, both on the comedic lines and on the more contemplative stuff.

All in all, a nice night out. Also playing next weekend, Thursday and Friday. Now to see if I can sneak in to the Longwood show, Rocky Horror, which is already sold out for the whole weekend. Oh well, I had good luck last time with the waiting list, maybe I'll try that again.

"[Republicans] say that we need to keep taxes on the rich low because they're the job creators. They're not. They're much more likely to save money through mergers and outsourcing and cheap immigrant labor, and pass the unemployment along to you." --Bill Maher

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December 23, 2011

Good writing, bad writing

As I mentioned earlier, the current audiobook that I'm working on is Left behind. As usual with my audiobooks, I listen in installments that correspond to whenever I'm driving someplace in my car (for more than a fifteen-minute ride), so I've progressed a bit this week, although I'm still only about halfway through. My early impression is mixed; the first few hours' worth was not particularly preachy (as I had feared), and in fact was setting up quite a few of the characters---all of whom are, by definition, not "true" Christians, not saved, etc---to be very sympathetic, positive characters. Unfortunately, the writing is not very strong. There are a lot of extremely ham-handed attempts at plot movement that amount to nothing but cheap plot devices, hard to believe even within the context of the premise of the book. But, I'm ok with hack fiction; sometimes it's entertaining anyway or otherwise of value.

Then it started veering off in the direction I had been originally expecting. One of the two main threads of the story has begun focusing entirely on one man who is in the process of Accepting Jesus Christ As His Personal Saviour, and his daughter who (so far) isn't---because, clearly, the author decided he needed a foil so he could explain things and persuade the reader. The problem is, he's really bad at it. The "logical" arguments for why she should convert don't even make sense within the context! The author is just not very good at putting himself in the shoes of a skeptic, I guess. (The skeptics that he does invent are impossibly stupid: fully a week after the Rapture, and nobody in the whole world other than the near-Christians seems to have noticed that it is only the devout fundamentalist Christians who were taken away.) And the other main character, in what I assume is about to become the Antichrist plot, is somewhat interesting but a strange mix of clever and stupid, presumably in a bid to make the reader feel smarter than someone who's supposedly clever. That plot has some promise as a suspense-thriller, but characters keep doing things that aren't motivated and/or don't fit their previous actions, so it's hard to really get into (and just as you do, it switches over to the other plot with its plodding pontificating).

The writing style and (lack of) skill reminds me of Dan Brown, whom I've complained about before, except with value-added proselytism.

What takes it from awful to excruciating is what I have to compare it to. Yesterday I was going into the city to meet some high school friends, and I was going to be taking the El partway, so I grabbed a book book to read; I borrowed Kathy's copy of A game of thrones, which I've been meaning to read for a while. This is quality high fantasy, with compelling characters and a gripping plot. When a minor character almost dies in this book (twice so far!), you're on the edge of your seat and unable to put the book down, hoping the character will manage to pull through. As opposed to in the other one, where a character gets blown up and your reaction is, "yeah, saw that coming. Shucks."

Earlier today I actually caught myself putting off driving to the mall for some shopping, because it was going to mean listening to more of the Left behind. It's bad enough on its own, but having to alternate with actual good writing makes it nearly unbearable. I may have to just give it up as a bad job and move on to one of my other audiobooks instead. :P

"The terror of printing the most basic of the earthy Germanic words for human excrement clearly continues unquelled. Except here, of course, because on Language Log we are linguists, and we don't give a shit. We don't believe simple Anglo-Saxon monosyllables will either sear your eyeballs or warp the moral fiber of the young." --Geoff Pullum

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December 19, 2011

Perfect poison

On the road trip home, I listened to the book The perfect poison by Amanda Quick. It was the most singularly curious assortment of genres that I can recall ever reading: while I picked it up at the library thinking it was a mystery/thriller (based on a quick skim of the blurb on the back), it could also rightly be described as low fantasy, or period fiction, or even as a romance novel. Set in the late Victorian period, its main characters are upperclass English with paranormal abilities and its plot revolves around a thinly-disguised rehash of a philosopher's stone; so its low-fantasy cred is fairly well-established. Murders and attempted murders also figure in strongly, with a few narrow escapes, so definitely solid as a suspense novel (which is what I like to listen to for the long road trips). But while there can certainly be sex scenes in novels outside the romance genre, these were somewhat more graphic than I'm accustomed to! On the other hand, I literally burst out laughing at some of the ridiculous descriptions and setups the author used for those scenes---are all romance novels so silly?

Anyway, it wasn't half bad, even with the silliness. I'd certainly be willing to at least try this author's other work.

(After that book ended I got a start on Left behind, which was a bit of an impulse pick because I figured I should read it if I'm going to be critical of the series. So far it's somewhat different than I expected, although I believe I already see a bait-and-switch being set up, so we'll see.)

"Major USA-Asia wars since WWII: one loss, one tie, two in OT. Too bad. I like our troops, but I especially like them alive and defending the USA instead of dead or being made to stir up hornets' nests a world away." --Matt Zanon

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November 03, 2010

Medea

I have seen every mainstage show at Knox since the Fall of 2003, and the current production of Euripides' Medea is without question among the very, very best of them.

The show opens strong. The set---the enormous, stage-encompassing set---puts us all in the courtyard of a (modern) Corinthian villa, complete with a deck, grass, sandbox, the illusion of a canopy of trees, and fallen autumn leaves strewn about. Whereas just about every "classical" play I can think of takes a scene or two to achieve full immersion---for a variety of reasons that I've written about before---Avery Wigglesworth's narration as the Nurse draws the audience in immediately, and much of her activity (hiding the house's sharp objects) explains itself long before she gets around to telling us about it. Almost without realising it, we get the entire backstory as a prologue without feeling like we've been Talked At.

As the play continues, there are a variety of actors that rotate through, many of them for a single memorable scene as a character they have quite made their own. Notable among these is Noel Sherrard, camping it up and, without ever straying a single step from the text as written, giving us a King Aegeus that few of us would ever have seen in a mere reading of the play. Lines that could have been played straight were given a second (or third!) meaning, and the whole scene injected unexpected levity into some very dark proceedings. Jason (Jack Dryden) has only three scenes, one of them fairly short, but manages to pack a lot in there: at several points we very nearly become sympathetic to what he's done, which is only possible because he convinces us that his actions were not due to an evil nature or even rampant egotism so much as a breathtaking unawareness of the humanity of the female sex. That's kind of tricky, actually, considering all that Jason did, but somehow he pulls it off... which makes the ending vastly more tragic than it might otherwise be.

The interpretation of the chorus was interesting. I believe it was written this way in the translation (a recent one by Robin Robertson), but the chorus doesn't recite any of its lines en chœur. Instead, the three women act as a sort of coffee klatsch, sometimes including Medea and sometimes just talking amongst themselves; rather than speaking to the audience, they are an extension of the audience, but since they are women of Corinth, they are an audience for Medea's monologues that situate within the play itself. It was worth keeping an eye on them, particularly Kathleen Donoghue but to some extent all of them, for the meaningful glances they exchanged or the shocked, surprised, or sympathetic reactions they gave to whatever Medea was up to.

And then there's Medea. Nellie Ognacevic has to be all over the map with this character: grief, anger, jealousy, love, happiness, regret, dread, satisfaction (not necessarily in that order). The character herself is a woman of great fortitude and able to set aside certain emotions when she has need to, so at various points Nellie had to play a woman who was deeply grief-stricken, but setting that aside to be devious, but burying that to present as submissive and apologetic. Flawlessly! She turned in a great performance, and it's hard to imagine what the other plays will have to be like to edge her out of this year's Colton prize. There were multiple scenes that---even each by themselves---would have been noteworthy. Her long monologue flaming the crap out of Jason, for starters; it would have fit right in to the best Usenet flamewars, picking at him with scathing remarks and blistering accuracy. Her grand act to convince Jason that she's come around, from the first "Jason" out of her mouth (which drew a laugh, it was so different from Medea's regular speech!) to every time she tells him how submissive she is and how silly women are... and the shadow that crosses her face as she turns away from him to regain composure. Possibly the best scene in the show, where she decides, then un-decides, then decides again that she needs to kill the children: truly chilling. And finally, her "evil for evil, grief for grief" speech, driving home every last tragic little detail of the story.

If you live in Galesburg, or will be in Galesburg sometime this week, or can find some excuse to visit sometime this week, do try to make it to this show. It's worth your time, and it's precisely the sort of thing I'm talking about when I extol the cultural offerings of Galesburg. It's playing through Saturday in Harbach (in CFA on the Knox Campus).

Why major in CS?: "It seems obvious to me that one would have to be an idiot to be employed doing anything other than practicing magic in a world filled with sorcery." --Maxwell Galloway-Carson

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July 19, 2010

Epic production

Just finished a run of Sound of Music, where I played an extra in the party scene and in the concert scene, but tried to be helpful wherever I could---which mostly put me in the costume crew. As much for my own benefit as anything else, I wanted to write down a list of all the different pieces I worked on for Sound of Music. Probably missing a few:

  • Moved buttons on Liesl's play skirt
  • Shortened shoulder straps on Emily's party dress
  • Removed too-short sleeves and set ruffle on Gretl's nightgown
  • Set sleeves in Marta's nightgown
  • Attached ribbon ties to twenty wimple forehead bands
  • Hemmed sleeves and moved buttons on someone's party dress
  • Cut pieces for four scapulars
  • Hemmed Brigitta's uniform
  • Hemmed Max's grey pants
  • Shortened shoulder straps on Liesl's party dress
  • Set elastic for Friedrich's three pairs of knickers
  • Repaired pocket in Friedrich's knickers
  • Attached hook-and-eyes to three nun's robes
  • Took in Lois's party dress
  • Tacked down lace on Maria's wedding dress
  • Added extra hook and eye to Maria's wedding dress
  • Added frog pocket to Maria's ugly jacket
  • Took in Kurt's pajama pants
Also, costume repair:
  • Replaced button on Kurt's shorts
  • Pulled broken zipper from Marta's concert dress
  • Re-hemmed Elsa's sequinned party dress
  • Repaired rip in Gretl's uniform
  • Reattached Max's shirt button
  • Reattached Liesl's uniform sleeve
  • Repaired Louisa's party dress sleeve
  • Reattached zipper in bishop's alb
  • Mended Cassie's yellow lace party dress (four times!)
  • Pinned together Justin's shoe sole and upper
  • Re-crimped chain on Mother Superior's pectoral cross

And despite having some small hand in at least one costume for almost every person in the show, that's a small fraction of what Shari Robinson (the costume director) did, not to mention the thirteen other people who helped on the costume crew. There were over a hundred "regular" costumes (60 just for the kids and Maria), plus almost 30 nun/postulant habits, each of which comprised 3 (postulant) to 5 (nun) pieces. (And I haven't even yet mentioned the sets, which I only helped a little with—some assembly on move-in day, masking the backs of some flats, stenciling the bedroom "wallpaper"—but which comprised four built sets, three drops, the Orpheum itself, and an actual rain machine. This was such a huge production.)

Whew!

"Wall Street has turned the economy into a giant asset-stripping scheme, one whose purpose is to suck the last bits of meat from the carcass of the middle class." --Matt Taibbi

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December 09, 2009

Two books

I recently finished reading (well, listening to) two Isaac Asimov books in the course of my bathroom renovations: The stars, like dust, and Pebble in the sky. In both cases, I picked them up at the library because I'd been thinking I need to buff up my Asimov—despite being generally a sci fi fan, I'd read almost nothing by him—and I had, let's say, mixed reactions to them.

The first was The stars, like dust, which is a space drama about the dispossessed heir to a planetary despot running all over known space to reclaim his title and/or get revenge on the folks that overthrew his father. There are, to be sure, some nice moments in it, but the drama is not very good, the romance isn't very good, and the central plot point is so blindly rah-rah-USA I couldn't help but roll my eyes. I'm going to spoil it here because it was telegraphed so obviously in the very first chapter: the secret weapon, threatening to a galactic empire, that was part of the lost lore of ancient history, that most had never heard of but those who had were literally dying to protect or steal its physical on-paper representation, was, drumroll, the US Constitution. This is only explicitly revealed in the last sentences of the book, but the way they go on and on in just about every chapter, wondering what the contents of the military secret could possibly be, what could the ancients of Earth have known that could bring down a modern empire.... well, I confess I wasn't sure if it would be the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

It didn't help that almost from the first time I heard of the king of Rhodia and his daughter, my mental image was of the king and his daughter from Spaceballs ("funny, you don't look Druish"), but I suppose that part at least can't be Asimov's fault.

Nevertheless, despite being underwhelmed by the first book, knowing Asimov's reputation I decided to try another. Pebble in the sky was considerably better, though not without its faults. This time we see future Earth itself in some detail, with virtually the whole book taking place in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago on a radioactive Earth that has become the backwaters of a space empire. What I found most remarkable about Pebble was its ability to turn a lot of our racial hangups on their head—and how many of them are not a whole lot better now than they were sixty years ago when he wrote it. Though a few discerning scientists know better, the general feeling is that Earth people are necessarily of an inferior race, not suitably evolved for polite galactic society, not nearly smart enough to be worth bothering with, and too savage to be able to bring into proper civil society. For their part, the Earth people aren't much for equality, seeing themselves as the superior race....

The book has two puzzling weaknesses, though, both forms of deus ex machina. The first, which seems basically forgivable, is that one of the protagonists got magically* transported into the future from our own time; this did give Asimov an excuse to portray future-Earth differences as they would be seen from the eyes of current-Earth readers, so I guess it's okay. It's sort of part of the initial premise (and laid out in a prologue before the main action), so it doesn't bother me too much. The weirder one, though, involves one of the characters developing psychic abilities that manage to get stronger in steps just as the plot requires it, with the final plot climax hinging crucially on this ability. Which is sort of explained, except that most others who had undergone the same treatment didn't acquire the same abilities. It certainly didn't ruin the story, and as I said, there's some very nice social criticism throughout. But it still isn't what I'd think of as the mark of a great writer.

* well, by some strange reaction involving radioactivity and uranium. Like I said, magic.

"I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write 'Moby Dick' or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece, the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret. No thanks. I am sticking to my post and recommend that you do, too." --Garrison Keillor

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November 07, 2009

Three sisters

Bored.

That's how I spent much of the first two acts (of four) of tonight's show, a production of Anton Chekhov's Three sisters. That's probably not entirely the fault of anyone in the room there, because I think the dialogue as written was just dreary—evidently Chekhov isn't really my thing. Time after time, throughout the whole show, there would be lines that seemed to come from nowhere, unmotivated by prior line or contextual activity. (Sometimes, though not always, I would get the impression that even the actor didn't know why they were saying the line; and I'm not talking about Vassily's lines, about which more below.) It couldn't have helped that a wide swath of the audience was laughing in the very strangest places, although the actors did appear to take this more or less in stride.

Also affecting buy-in (for me if not the rest of the audience) were the sheer number of things that took me out of the moment. A few of the pronunciations were decidedly odd, although pronouncing the capital as if spelled "Moscoh" was the only ongoing example of that. (For a long, long time the English pronunciation has rhymed with "cow"; it's not uncommon to hear the other one as some sort of deference to the Russian pronunciation, except that the Russian pronunciation is nothing like that—they'd say "Moskva".) A larger problem was that the translation was very inconsistent. Much of the time the characters would be speaking in a way that more or less evoked the turn of the century in a distant place, and then one would pop out with a phrase like "just peachy", or "he's a riot", or "out for a spin", or "pain in the neck", or "c'mon". Jarring. And finally, the set and props made a clear effort at realism: actual china plates metal silverware, antique couches and screens, lovely period costumes, the works. And then someone drops a box with a painted-on clock face, which may have been filled with beans or sand or marbles or something, and another character remarks that it is "smashed to pieces". One character is a "mess from the fire" despite not even being particularly rumpled. Realism only goes so far, of course, but again, it knocked one out of the context.

The funniest line of the show may have been an unintentional one: a sound effect of bird calls, which sound an awful lot like geese, faded across the stage, and someone (Masha?) remarks on them, looking at them, dreamily watching them fly overhead and saying "Swans..." She then pauses for a beat, just long enough for the whole audience to roll their eyes and think, ok, those are definitely not swans we're hearing; and then she finishes the line, "...or geese." No clue if it was intended as such, but it definitely functioned as a pretty good laugh line.

And yet with all the negativity here—and I'm not going to lie, overall I didn't really care for the play—I thought the actual acting was decent, particularly when they could emote rather than just reciting lengthy monologues at each other. The leads, the three sisters, were pretty clearly the top talent. Abby Harms as Olga really nailed the severe schoolteacher, and Nellie Ognacevic as Irina the romantic could positively glow when events followed their storybook form and summoned stormclouds when they didn't. Each took turns at being my favorite sister for a while, but I have to say I kept coming back to Masha (played by a sophomore, Kate Donoghue): maybe it was just the character I best connected with, but I also thought she conveyed the most complexity and hidden depths; and her grief/madness meltdown at the end had to be among the best I've seen.

I can't say anyone acted poorly, but among the rest of the cast I saw only one clear standout—Steve Selwa as both Vassily and Ferapont. Sure, he gets the funny bizarre non-sequiturs, in both characters. That's fun. But I found the Vassily character to be strangely compelling as well, and his halting diction in this character proved really functional. I saw someone quite normal inside but just painfully awkward on the exterior, and I felt more sympathetic with his character than quite a few of the more major ones. I predict that Knox will see more of this freshman in the future!

The plots of this show are pretty much incidental to the point, which was clearly the character development, and so the later acts were easier to take (since by then we basically knew the characters, even if we still hadn't nailed down all sixteen different names they were ever called by). By the intermission I was engaged enough in the characters that I at least wanted to find out where Masha and Irina (and to a lesser extent Vassily) were headed, and I was curious about some of the others. In the end, although I'm not a fan of the play, I was basically satisfied with an evening well spent.

"It is true that coalition governments are necessarily governments of compromise, and are accused of being in a state of paralysis. But this accusation comes from people who call for action, any action, at all costs. Do something, do anything, they say. Not very good advice." --Moshe Arens

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October 26, 2008

Melodrama

I really wanted to like The Saloonkeeper's Daughter, which PPCT put on this weekend. It was at a nifty new venue—the old mall cinema, with a stage built out over the front section. It was a musical written in part by friend of the family Dave Reiser (though I wasn't sure about that part until I came back and googled it). It starred quite a few actors I've seen and loved in other PPCT shows. But alas, alas, alas—it was terrible.

The biggest problem was that the cast they had was just not up to the singing they needed to do. Several of the actors were singing way at the edge of their ranges, and as a result couldn't get underneath their notes. Others would be fine choral singers but had to sustain an entire harmony line on their own, and couldn't. And several just didn't have a very strong voice and were too breathy. While there were three or four solid, strong voices in the cast of twelve, there really need to be more like nine or ten.

Not that it was without its moments. Jamie Kistler, playing Grimy Geezer, had few lines but silently stole more than one scene with his pitch-perfect hillbilly stereotype. Brian Towne, playing bad guy Mannly Rasch, had the very best villainous cackle I've ever heard. The over-the-top melodrama, right down to musical cues for the audience to cheer, boo, or "awwww", was great fun. The venue itself, a former movie theatre, was surprisingly good, although it requires a bit more lighting infrastructure than they managed for this show (two booms with lights mounted vertically—making the contrasts a little too stark).

Ah well. Everyone has a stinker every now and then. Better next time!

"Vista sucks like one of those fancy vacuum sweepers that can pick up a bowling ball." --Andrea Johnston

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October 18, 2008

Round 1: Never swim alone

Tonight was the first play of the school year that I've managed to go to. (Last week's improv was apparently "sold out" more than a half hour before showtime, so I missed it.) Never swim alone is a three-person one-act about rivalry and life choices, with a few interesting dramatic conceits to carry it along.

The only real set-piece is a big lifeguard tower (very tall—maybe twelve feet) on which sits a "referee" judging a series of short contests between the two lead actors on things like mode of dress, death-scene acting ability, and others. The actors spend most of this time speaking in unison or handing off lines to each other, so effectively that I found myself losing track of who was actually saying lines at different points. The characters were very much alike. These scenes were interspersed—in a way that reminded me of noh-kyogen although the parallel isn't really very strong—with monologues by the "winner" of each round, usually one-upping the other but always exposing a bit more of the character. The characters turned out to be totally different.

What was truly remarkable about the performance was how well the leads (Jay Robillard, who I've seen before, and Jack Dryden, who appears to be a promising freshman, already declared as a theatre major) managed to sync up their unison stuff. Right down to a matching "heh heh heh" when laughing at their own/each other's jokes. In one scene they aren't in unison monologue, they're each giving a rapid-fire speech to their side of the audience—each describing failings of the other's father, alleging a like-father-like-son similarity, though the similarity seemed to run closer to their own lives—and these speeches lined up one phrase in every other sentence or so. Late in the show, when the referee comes down from the tower and becomes a girl from their past, all three have a scene where the word rhythms are so planned that I suspect that the script had the parts written out in a musical staff (and if it didn't, it should have). All of this made the piece technically difficult in a rather unusual way; I can't imagine how much time they had to spend practicing.

The play was a good choice for the studio, both because it had the interesting technical stuff going on and because it leaves the audience at the end of the show thinking, "holy crap what just happened?", something that doesn't work as well with more general audiences. I was glad to be able to debrief the play with a few students I knew in the audience, to get the gist of what "the other guy" was saying in the rapid-fire "and his father" speech and then generally to work out what had happened and who was lying about what. (Oh, did I mention? Unreliable narrators, too.)

So yeah, a good start to the year.

Blessed are the ones who make peace
Blessed are the ones who scrape by
Blessed are the ones living holy lives;
here's to the rest of us who try.... --The Roches, "Jesus shaves"

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May 22, 2008

Arsenic and old lace

Already just a few minutes into the show, the signs were not promising. One of the characters was playing with teacups, which was correct, but he was clinking them so loudly that it was distracting from some of the dialogue. One of the first characters we met is (we later find) meant to be the father of a marriage-age daughter, but he carried himself like a college student. It was amateurish, with swallowed or fumbled lines, overenunciation in weird places, and that perennial problem of actors not knowing what to do with their hands and therefore gesturing weirdly. There were some great one-liners ("Oh, religion never gets as high as the choir loft"), but on the whole it was falling flat.

Then the dead body got discovered, and it was like someone flipped a switch and I was watching a different play. "Ok, folks, setup's done, we're going to start the actual show now." Everyone got better! Most of the litany of criticisms that I was amassing actually went away.

It still wasn't the Studio's best work. Russian accents are not German accents; I suppose this was mostly forgivable because it was at least a consistent Russian accent that Eli King ("Dr. Einstein"—"no, not Albert Einstein") put on, although they might have at least changed the line that identified it as German. There were some big prop problems, with matches blowing out, liquids spilt, and not one but two wineglasses breaking (they need to either glue down the ones they don't need to move, or be a lot more careful—there were also a few near-misses). Several of the guys need to learn how to tie ties so that they lay flat and right-side-up. There were a number of missed cues; at one point Eli had a glass of wine at his lips for close to a minute without drinking because the line that was supposed to interrupt him before he took a sip hadn't happened yet, and there were quite a few line stumbles, including one that had to be covered by someone else. (Though, to be fair, there also were a lot of cutoff cues and stage business, this being a farce, and they made most of them just fine.) Though Willi Goehring's makeup (as Jonathan, not Boris Karloff) was Spot On, the rest was sort of hit-or-miss, ranging dreadfully cakey to not enough, and bad grey-hair jobs all around.

But really, after the switch was flipped and we moved from exposition to development, the acting took off and made the show. The dotty old maiden aunts in particular (Liz Roemer and Kelsey Ingle, both freshmen I'd not seen before) pitched the perfect tut-tut no-nonsense attitude that made the other actors' double-takes really work and made the audience howl—and I never once saw them crack a smile over these contextually hilarious lines, a seemingly herculean task. Willi (with, again, a great makeup job) glides into the room and maintains an alarming unhingedness right through to the end of the show; it turns out he does scary sociopath really well, and you really get the impression that the other characters are pretty brave even to talk to him, much less stand up to him. And general props belong to the whole ensemble, because a lot of the laughs in a show like this really are in the back-and-forth delivery, and in giving the audience just a beat to see it coming: for most of the show, they kept us howling.

So it's a mixed bag, but worth the trip. Underattended tonight, but hopefully the three remaining shows will get a better turnout.

"Just insert one more comma, get an extra cup of coffee, and relax." --Eva Sweeney

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May 08, 2008

Hamlet

A lot of plays start slow, and Shakespeare in particular often takes at least a few scenes before I can really get into the flow of the show; this production was worse at that than most, in that I felt it didn't hit its stride until after the intermission. The second half was riveting, but in the first half there were just too many times when a line would go by and either a word or two got mumbled or the grammar just required too much processing and didn't have time to be understood before the next line came. It helped that I remembered the general plot (or I would have been really lost), of course. And different cast members overcame the language problems to different extents and in different ways: Meghan Reardon (as Ophelia), for instance, somehow managed to arrange the declamation of text itself in such a way that I understood it much more readily. Ariel Lauryn (as, primarily, Polonius) was great at conveying the general sense of the lines, through the prosody of the line and body language, and many if not most of the actors gave extra-textual cues to help punctuate the text (for which credit presumably also goes to Liz Carlin-Metz, the director). Still, though, the first half, particularly the exposition, is going to be hard for anyone who isn't already pretty familiar with the text.

I found myself focussing on voices quite a bit. When Joey Firman, who also played Claudius, first spoke as the Ghost, in an attention-grabbing sotto voce about five steps lower and considerably richer than the regular speaking voice he used for Claudius, I thought, that can't possibly be him. It was, though, and it really worked. A bit later, listening to Devan Cameron (Gertrude), I was struck by the silky, rich alto and how iconically this lent maturity to the role (important, since she had decided to play Gertrude as naïvely unaware of Claudius's crime, and naïveté plus her age could easily have misfired and turned the role into some sort of ingenue). Way at the other end of the play, after Ophelia has gone crazy, I was forced to wonder what other productions could possibly do when they don't have Meghan Reardon's lovely singing voice disarming you with surreal pleasantness as you watch her going quite mad.

For a while it looked like Matt Allis was aiming for a depiction of Hamlet as a mopey, vaguely goth character, though that may have just been the all-black outfit and the general poutiness of the first few scenes. I quite liked the reading of Hamlet as, essentially, a college kid, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his college buddies. (Passing the joint around was brilliant.) As the play wore on, though, he developed the character into a much stronger take-charge sort of fellow; and though I seem to recall Hamlet's character as moving from feigned madness to real madness, I didn't so much get that here. He's pissed and occasionally loses control of the anger, but right up to the lamentable, tragic end, he seems to know exactly what he's doing. What really stood out were the monologues—and perhaps I should say The Monologues—which on some level constitute a risk. The meditations on death ("To be or not to be..." and "Alas, poor Yorick....") are by this point so frequently done outside Hamlet that their place in pop culture is as the schlockiest, most clichéed examples of monologue, parodied six ways from Sunday, and so even a decent performance could easily come across as terribly banal. Matt's reading of these was a lot better than decent, and reminds us why these lines (and others) became so famous in the first place.

This show had a lot of little things to love. Polonius's reading of Hamlet's letter, buzzing through the irrelevant parts and then slowing down to carefully read the lines he wanted to highlight. As mentioned above, the brilliant interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as pot smokers. The first player (Keegan Siebken) totally ignoring Hamlet's stage direction monologue, to the point of nonchalantly climbing a twenty-foot pole to fiddle with one of the can lights. The wonderful presence of Ophelia's mute spirit at her own burial. Ariel's run as the clown gravedigger, just the tiniest bit reminiscent of her Edward from Cloud Nine back in the fall.

The show was staged mostly in Studio Theatre, a decidedly unusual choice for the "mainstage" show. I loved the intimate feel it gave to the piece. The rampart scenes, lit only by the flashlights held by the actors, would have played very differently in Harbach. (And I did like the flashlight-lighting, but I wish there had been a bit less of blinding the audience with careless gestures; maybe there could be some effort to point them over our heads for the most part?) There were some minor technical issues, like actors walking in and out of their light, and poles that sometimes creaked as if the whole thing were coming down. There was also the larger issue of lack of ventilation; by the end of the show, the oxygen ratio in the room seemed decidedly lower than at the start, a problem that will only get worse with the larger crowds that the weekend will bring. And three hours is a long time to sit in a metal folding chair. :P

But I say "mostly" in Studio, because for the last scene the whole audience was moved, via the backstage area, into Harbach, where both the stage lights and the house lights were up. Almost paradoxically, the huge increase in space made it feel even more intimate, as it highlighted the small size of the audience, and as we were ranged about the fencing floor, we got to feel even more like we're in Claudius's court and participants in the spectacle. Which made it unbelievably intense when Claudius screamed in my ear as Hamlet stabbed him, not three feet away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. It pretty much blew my mind; it was a helluva climax to a good show.

"you do begin to wonder who is truly the realist in this debate, and who the romantic. We live, as [Wendell] Berry has written (in an essay called 'The Total Economy'), in an era of 'sentimental economics,' since the promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before it, ultimately demands an act of faith: that if we permit the destruction of certain things we value here and now we will achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future time." --Michael Pollan

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February 22, 2008

Encore

Saw it again tonight. The nice thing about seeing a show like this a second time is it gives you a chance to look at some of the background activity, and let the feel of the thing sort of wash over you without worrying you'll miss something. Knowing what's going to happen also lets you pick out some lovely little pieces of foreshadowing, and you know where to look to see the best bits of physical work.

The discussion tonight was nearly all about the costuming, about which I didn't say anything before, but that was certainly an oversight on my part. Lani Tortoriello is a genius: working on a fairly thin budget, she put together a classy look for the production that gave all the animals just the right hint of whatever animal they were supposed to be; it's about as far as you could imagine from the look of the original production, with full-body animal suits that are more reminiscent of a Six Flags mascot:
Picture of original production in Kassel
Knox's sets were a lot nicer, too, although Ms Kricheldorf didn't take the bait when I asked her to comment on them.

I still have a bunch of questions. Am I going to go again? Maybe I'll just try to sneak in for the question part after the show tomorrow. ;)

"We are not a collection of red states, and blue states, we are the United States of America and in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again." --Barack Obama

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February 21, 2008

Rosa und Blanca

I'm glad that I decided to see this term's mainstage show on opening night, because it leaves me the option of possibly going again, and in particular of asking more questions of the author. Rosa and Blanca is a translation of a recently-authored German play by Rebekka Kricheldorf, and she is in Galesburg from tonight through the end of the week. The translation is "in-house" as it were, having been done by Knox's own Neil Blackadder, who also directed—and so the Q&A afterwards includes essentially all the creative talent that went into the production. A rare, if not unique, opportunity.

The play is a loose adaptation of the Brothers Grimm tale usually called "Snow White and Rose Red" (that other Snow White ;). The scene opens onto a forest, with hypercliché pastoral sunrise music (I'm pretty sure it was first movement of Peer Gynt 1 "Morgenstemning" ("Dawn"), but it looks like it's listed as part of William Tell Overture on the program. Hmm.) fading in; a dwarf in a three-piece suit pops out of a hatch in the ground, turns to the audience, and says, "Fuck you, sun!"***—so we're not exactly following the script of den Gebrüdern Grimm here. (Though this characteristic of the dwarf is not that far off, come to think of it.)

The setting is actually more or less modern, though European, with city and forest closely juxtaposed, and in this tale Rosa and Blanca have fled the awfulness of the city to live an idyllic life in the forest, with Mom trying to talk them out of it but not really able to bring much to the table to force the issue. My memory of the first scenes are already thin, but my usual criticism thereof—that a play starts out sort of stiff until the actors and the dialogue sort of slide into place—didn't really come to bear here. I still didn't know what was happening, of course, but that didn't seem problematic. Other than a bit of odd overenunciation on the part of nearly everybody in the early scenes, everything got off to a great start.

The animals (for what is a fairy tale without animals?) were played in a way that nagged at me, that I finally pinned down as reminding me of (of all things) Family Guy: in that cartoon, Brian, one of the main characters, is a dog. He's the family pet, and definitely a dog in many ways. But also a sentient adult in many ways. The other characters interact with him as if he were human, mostly, except sometimes not. The baby, Stewie, is in a similar situation: his shtick is that he's scheming to take over the world and/or kill Lois, but this is blended seamlessly with his baby characteristics and activities, and which one is at the fore basically just depends on which one the scriptwriters needed at the moment. So also with the animals in this show. The lamb is definitely a lamb, grazing, with sheepy concerns and sheepy interests, but at the same time is definitely speaking and holding conversations with the humans and the other animals. Particular props to the dove, Brian Humpherys, who pulled off the most uncanny scene-stealing snippets of pigeony activity, but the animalia in general were very effective.

But the character I've most been dwelling on as I continue to think about the play is the bear. His entrance, dancing privately to the music of an on-stage boombox, was immediately endearing, his face somehow expressive despite being largely covered by a mask. I didn't even recognise the actor at first, and had to sort of mentally narrow it down to Eric Feltes (which was correct) based on cues like height and build and who I knew to be in the theatre program here. Once he spoke, of course, the voice confirmed it—although the mask did change the sound of his voice somewhat, and actually at times the resonance of the mask actually made the voice sound a bit richer, a nice effect. The bear, despite the ferociousness of the source animal, is essentially a sympathetic character in this play, with a medium range of emotions including insecurity, joie de vivre, and others; though in the end he is, yes, actually a bear, the emotion is not simply stylised or one-dimensional (just slightly limited in range). He worked exceptionally well with his mask, compensating for the loss of subtlety with an increased range of head and mouth movement that conveyed as much or more, I think. Despite having seen him in several shows now, and interacted with him a few times in person, I was basically unable to see Eric behind the mask; I just kept seeing these expressions that don't look anything like him. At this point, I have to go watch the show again just to see if I'm overthinking this.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I also want to go again for a chance to catch another Q&A involving the author. I want to know more about intended social messages—certainly there's a theme of failed idealism, but I wonder if Blanca's line that the other teenagers are "a dwarf army of the society of the future [that] don't develop, they just grow" is more of a character line or intended as real commentary. There's a whole plotline about the dwarf causing damage and death, but Rosa keeps saving him anyway; and when confronted or told to leave him, she just repeats, "But then he'll die," as the only justification she needs or will give. This, too, is an interesting piece of philosophy, making a fairly explicit claim that one should make the effort to save even a life known (or thought) to be guilty—and I wonder where the eventual fate of Rosa, the dwarf, the bear, and everyone else leaves that claim. Meghan Reardon as the mother has a great line that "once you've understood that you're just like me, it'll be far too late for suicide," a suddenly very intimate window into the mother's past life; tonight's discussion touched on this a very little bit, but I'm curious to hear from all the relevant parties** what they think that past life might have been. In one of the few clear lines that we hear from the dwarf (as translated by the eagle), he wonders "why do you only hold yourselves responsible for your thoughts, and not for your feelings?" Given that, as one audience member put it tonight, the dwarf is really set up as the unsung hero in this play, could this line even be seen as The Moral Of The Story? It's not one of the ones I would have first thought of* but I'm a little curious if any of the relevant parties would see it as such, or just as the character perspective of the dwarf only.

In several ways, this show reminds me of The Skriker from a couple years back, both in surface form and in some of the deeper ideas. There are big differences too, and one of the nice ones is that this one is more accessible on a surface level, giving you something to enjoy while you're there while you're waiting to drill down and mull over the deeper stuff later. One of the similarities seems to be that the more you think about it, the more you want to go see it again....

*E.g. "Always listen to your mother", "Don't eat the cherries", "Major in science, not art"

**That is, Rebekka the playwright, Neil the translator and director, and Meghan the actor that played the part. I love that all three will be on stage at once.

***Quote fixed. I had "fuck you all!" in the original post.

"By globalising, we take away from nation states their ability to enforce and to enact the polices necessary to internalise external costs, to control population, to do the things that are necessary." --Herman Daly

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February 15, 2008

Instruments of faith

I just got back from this week's Studio offering, and boy do I have a lot to say. It was a production of "Instruments of faith", a one-act written by Jacquelin Hedeman two years ago, then a junior in high school (at Uni High of Urbana, so she's even relatively local). The subject matter is some pretty heavy stuff: a reaction to Pope Benedict's 2005 pronouncement on gay seminarians. To the extent that the play presents an argument, it is similar in theme to my post "De sacerdotibus homosexualis" from that period, though my post was a response to the pronouncement in general, and this play is more specifically addressing the concurrent investigation of all U.S. seminaries. Other than the brief flirt with donatism near the end, I still stand by the analysis in that post, and so of course I was sympathetic to Hedeman's message.

Not, I should point out, that that message was an unambiguous black-and-white analysis (which would certainly have made for a very boring morality play). Rather, there is some fairly clever use of the different characters to show the different angles on the issue. Good people don't react all in the same way, but the play isn't shy about showing the viciousness of the spiritual attack on many people that the instrumentum laboris consisted of. The vindictive McCarthy character, Father Pascal, is a truly nasty piece of work, and I wish I could say that he was a caricature and there aren't really any Catholics like that, but I am not at all confident of that; I am comforted that at the least none of the Catholics I know personally are like that. The conclusion seems quite open-ended: it doesn't really give any indication what happens to the characters afterward, but of course as a short story (as it were), it doesn't need to.

The production was a first effort for many of the people involved, I think, including the director (Meredith Noseworthy, who was one of my FP students last year) and several of the actors. The inexperience showed in a few parts, but in general, I think they're going places. The start was a bit slow—and the abrupt shortness of many of the early scenes probably didn't help—but once they established a flow, the actors were able to keep it going without dropping the ball. There were occasional line flubs, and quite a few of the actors need to work on their cutoff lines. Most of them were able to shake off the woodenness and monotone of the first couple scenes to give a much more natural "read" to the scene, though, and certainly by the time we moved from tense anticipation of conflict to the high emotion itself they were in good form. Jay Robillard managed to flush his cheeks in anger and hold his voice just this side of cracking on his line about the chaste men in the house of God (a great line which I wish I'd thought to record verbatim—I'll have to go look it up later). Lauren Neiheisel, playing Dr. Turner—the only woman on the seminary faculty—was one of the actors I was seeing for the first time, and also one of the best; she shone as the only actor who never once looked like she was Acting. She was just Dr. Turner. (In that, it probably helped that she was the only actor who wasn't playing a priest or seminarian, and therefore somewhat less outside her own experience. :) Overall, it was a good show, and I just wish more of the local Catholics had gone to see it so that I could talk to them about it...

After a brief intermission, we were presented with a more informal scene reading of a couple of two-person scenes written by Knox Creative Writing majors. It turned out to be Catholic Night in the Studio, apparently; the first of these was about a relationship where Catholicism figured pretty heavily into the "it's complicated", and it at least got a brief mention in the second. The actors in these were somewhat rehearsed, but weren't in any particular costume and were carrying their scripts; I found this decided informality to be quite charming and intimate, and really enjoyed the experience. I do hope that the theatre/creative writing folks try to put these Playwright's Workshop segments together a little more often.

Not that the pieces themselves were perfect, of course, nor would one expect them to be. The first (by McKinley Murphy, who I know from the NOLA trip last year) was a little disjointed and had a hard time nailing the flow of real-sounding dialogue. The character development was a tad abrupt—one character went from "what? you like me?" to "you have to commit to me!" very fast and without enough transition to put her there. And I definitely object to the characterisation of Catholicism in this one, with lines like "Catholicism and Christianity are just different, that's all", and the Catholic character saying he couldn't go to Newman Club because he knew that one member lied, one cheated, and one had had an abortion—not that there aren't such holier-than-thou folks out there, in Catholicism as anywhere else, but a lengthy middle chunk of the play hashed out this point for long enough that it started to come across as some sort of propaganda play for this viewpoint. On the other hand, for all of my complaining about sections that need work, it was a good capture of the angsty, irrational late-teen It's Complicated, and I hope she polishes it up rather than dropping it.

The last piece I have a lot less to say about, other than I wish I knew more of the backstory of these characters! Brittany Alsot (another person I met on the NOLA trip, oddly enough) wrote a fairly tight little play about a college girl visiting Oxford via Barcelona, with some sort of long-distance boyfriend back home in the US, talking to a philosophy student(?) who is from Oxford and who she met that morning. They really hit it off and have some really genuine-sounding erudite dialogue—although, as I commented to her after the show, she wrote some of the geekiest laugh lines ever, and the great thing about seeing this at a place like Knox is that the rest of the audience laughed at them too. :) But (and this just shows that the author drew me in very thoroughly) I still kept feeling like I was being teased with a thin trickle of details as I started investing myself in the characters. Still curious! And then the scene, and show, and evening, end. I did enjoy it. :)

"I encourage us to teach history backwards & outwards. No one's doomed to repeat history just because they think Plato used to be a planet, but we're certain to repeat it if we can't remember the twenty five years before we were born or who built our town's water way." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 03, 2007

Cloud nine

I'm having a hard time even knowing where to start in thinking about Cloud nine, the play currently on the mainstage at Knox. It seems particularly difficult to come up with something that isn't just parroting what someone else has told me about what the play's about, which is strange; I don't usually have that problem.

The first act comes across at first as Victorian farce done badly, with the actors not quite playing it straight (the only way to really pull off a sex farce) and overdoing it, with an admixture of high melodrama in the form of occasional stylistic gestures and sound effects. Of course it isn't a Victorian farce, it just plays one on TV—as an intentionally-that-way piece it strikes more of an absurdist pose; the distinction is driven home quite thoroughly when adventurer Harry Bagley lets out his line "Shall we go in a barn and fuck?", the first of many, many thoroughly explicit sexual propositions and advances and descriptions spread throughout this act. Of course, it's all very clandestine, this being (nominally) 19th century British Africa, and the number one observation that I'm apparently supposed to make about act I is that it's all about how repressive the society is. That, at least, is what the director and all the blurbs and flyers tell me. But honestly, the biggest thing that the first act did was to lay out a set of character cutouts (with occasional, fleeting glimpses of a deeper person behind) and, more importantly, of relationship lines drawn between the characters, without losing the audience's interest; it's all just setup for act II.

Insight is often drawn from contrast, whether between here and there, then and now, expectation and outcome, or anything else. In this case, at the start of the second act we get to see the characters and the relationships redistributed among the actors, so that for instance the actor playing Maud, the mother-in-law in the first act, plays her own granddaughter Victoria in the second act (who had been played by a dummy in the first), who in the second act is in the role of daughter, which had been served in the first act by a third character, Betty, who is in both acts and played by a different person in each case. Some of the characters are retained in the second act, while others have analogous, but new, characters inserted in their stead. It meant that for any given situation in the second act, you were casting a line back to the first act, asking what this actor was doing in this situation then, which this character was doing then, and what this relationship role was doing then, an unbelievably rich web of interactions that makes this play one of the ones that just keeps on giving.

It was in the second act that the real acting happened, too. Ariel Lauryn's monologues as Betty, first when she's chattering on nervously because she's leaving her husband, then later as she reflects on her experiences with masturbation, were some truly great character moments that manage to recall the anxieties of all three of Betty, Edward (Ariel's character in the first act), and Maud (the mother-in-law of the first act). I also loved Eli King's "monologue" conversation at his wife; for all that I might have missed this if I hadn't been primed for it, he manages to come across as likeable and sincere in his desire to liberate Victoria—without ever letting her get a word in edgewise.

I definitely didn't think this at the time, but as I reflect on the show, I'm thinking that some of the most interesting work was done by Shane Donegan, who I'd not even seen before on the Knox stage. In act I he plays Joshua, the black African servant, who upon further thought actually seems to be one of the most developed characters in that act. I mean, theme of repression, sure, but this guy has some serious demons floating around back there, and it shows. (I'd also like to know what happened right after the last scene ended—did he shoot and miss, or what? Clive evidently survives, but....) Then in the second act, he plays Gerry, the gay lover, the loose analogue of the first act's adventurer Harry, and manages to be thoroughly unlikable. Except not: as the act goes on and after ongoing thought, it's really not that he's a bad person, not at all actually, but rather that he has an entirely different value set. It is Gerry that has the talk with Betty that lets her come round and officially accept herself and her (extended) family as they are, and that can't really be an accident. In some way I can't quite pin down right now, these characters are framing the narrative in both acts....

Man, that's just the start, really, but I simply must go to bed now if I'm to get up and drive to Springfield in the morning. Hopefully, I'll be inspired to come back to this later, though. I do wish I had a chance to see it again....

"The great need to distinguish Christianity from Buddhism or Science from Not-Science seems born of the desire to separate that which is given Authority from that which is not. The thing is, if you're giving science Authority, you're already beyond the practice of science. (Same for Buddhism and Christianity, strangely enough.)" --Jonathan Prykop

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October 27, 2007

Maenads

Tonight's entertainment was a production of Euripides' The Bacchae. I had a hard time with it; I was sort of tired and this sort of thing really requires concentration to overcome the cultural gulf between ancient Greek society and here-now. Monologues, a staple of this kind of theatre, are also tricky on the best of days, although I really can't complain too much about the delivery (other than that it was a little overdone at times). Not having read or seen the play before, I can't be sure, but I suspect the translation could've been a bit better, more colloquial, too.

There were a lot of little things that I liked. The scene was set with a little table/altar at the back of the stage platform, with some bowls and cups and a bunch of grapes on it. For reasons I can't really pin down, I found this almost trivially simple set-prop work to be really effective. The lighting was also relatively simple but effective: the whole stage area would be bathed in blue and then switch to neutral-white, or vice versa, or the white light might switch to a warmer, more incandescent yellowish glow at a scene change or mystical event, and really make you sit up and take notice. The scream of agony as Agave (Abby Harms) came to her senses was truly inspired.

Overall, I can't say I was thrilled, though. I certainly didn't think of it as wasted time or anything, but I don't know that I'd do it again if I had a do-over. I suppose I'm outing myself as a philistine again, but this kind of theatre really isn't my cup of tea. On the other hand, it might be just the sort of thing you'd like, if you like that sort of thing.

"How can I have a nine year old? I'm only 25, and have been for twelve years." --Leigh Anne Wilson

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August 26, 2007

Curses

I recently replayed Curses, an interactive fiction offering from 1993 which I'd played back in the mid-90s (although I'm not sure how far I got then—I didn't finish it).

"Interactive fiction" is the name of a whole genre of... works... that was inaugurated in the mid-70s as text adventure games. ADVENT was perhaps not the first, but certainly the first to gain notoriety. Zork became even better known, especially after being split into three parts (to fit micro-PCs of the time) and released by the new company Infocom.

The thing about one of these games is that there are no graphics. Thus, much like reading a book, you are free to establish your own images for how things look, and sound, and everything else. Unlike a book, if there is a piece of the world that catches your interest, you can investigate it further, and there's at least some chance that the program will respond. Other than the very earliest versions of ADVENT, which focussed a great deal on describing one corner of the Mammoth Cave complex in Kentucky, the early games were very much puzzle-driven. Whatever the cover story, the real reason you were there was to solve a whole bunch of puzzles, one after the other, and when you solved the last one you were done. As time went on, the Infocom offerings started becoming much more like a new form of literature, with clear plots and characters, although they never threw off the puzzle paradigm entirely.

Infocom had basically faded from the scene by the end of the 1980s, so when Graham Nelson wrote Curses in 1993 (well, he released it then—he'd been writing it for a while), it was very much following in their tradition. Indeed, he wrote his game in a format that could be run by the same bytecode runtimes that ran the old Infocom games (and to do that, in a rather Knuthian move he first had to write a compiler to compile to that bytecode format, and a programming language for it to compile—known as Inform, it's still in use today).

So, enough history. What about the game?

Well, for starters, it's really really hard. Funny! And extremely erudite. But hard. Which is more than a little frustrating, although of course it makes it all the more rewarding when you can solve the puzzles yourself. I won't lie, I needed quite a bit of help from the walkthrough—I wish it had been in an Invisiclues format, because a few puzzles got spoiled by accident that way—but I also got rather a lot of it on my own. There was a mix of answers that I whacked my head over—I should've gotten that; answers that I was glad I eventually looked up, because the puzzle was one I just never would've gotten; and a few that I felt a little betrayed over because even after seeing the solution I didn't think it was a fair puzzle.

But honestly, I think the game's biggest fault, using the author's own terminology, is that it gives the appearance of being extremely "wide" while actually being relatively "narrow". At one point in the middle of the game (when I'd acquired 195 of 550 points), I identified 28 different puzzles that I had found out about and hadn't solved yet. Of those, two were red herrings, one was a plot device, two pairs solved each other (what is X for?/how do I Y?), but the remainder were really puzzles to figure out. The problem was, most of them simply couldn't be solved at that point, because they were waiting on some other thing to happen first. Some of the things they were waiting on were things I hadn't even identified as puzzles. If there really were 28 different things I could be working on, that'd just be a very "wide" game. But while there seemed like that many, there were actually only five or six things I had the tools to solve then; I just didn't know which ones they were.

Related to that complaint is that the game was unpredictably unforgiving. Better not enter area X yet, because you'll only be able to enter it once, and you don't yet have all the keys to all the puzzles inside. How do you know when you're ready to tackle X? Hell if I know. You just go through, try to solve everything, see if there are any obvious loose ends—and hope you're seeing any loose ends that are there—and if there are, try to solve them or restore to before you entered the area, planning to try again later. There is one in-game mechanism that makes it somewhat forgiving (by letting you return to some areas later), but in order to discover it you have to pay attention to one paragraph very very early in the game, make note of an "action" (if you can call it that) done to one object, and then a few hundred turns later perform the same action on a not-obviously-related object. Or, just read the walkthrough. Even aside from that, though, knowing that there are three areas you can cross into, each irreversible, and they have to be done in a certain order but you can't know what it is... that's just discouraging.

And yet, and yet. You just can't put this game down, because the clever prose and the cleverer responses are worth it. The other has a very dry, very English sense of humour, and throws in classical references like parade candy. There is one throwaway item that you can use that has no real significance but let him throw in the phrase "alea iacta est" in context. And some of the puzzles just need the right background: on at least three occasions, I'd solved a puzzle fairly quickly and easily (though not always without work), only to run across its solution later on in the walkthrough with some apologetic remark about how hard it was and explaining the "tortured" reasoning one might use to get there. Not so! Of course, requiring significant outside knowledge is a bit of a sin for these games usually, and I feel that the very very last puzzle in the game is either dead easy or totally unfair (for me, the former). But solving one of those? It's like being in on a very elabourate in-joke, which always gives a bit of a buzz.

And of course we need to place the work in context. The early 90s were looking to be a dark age for interactive fiction, with Infocom out of the picture and very few people producing any new IF, with much of the output leaning heavily on the puzzle-puzzle-puzzle model. Curses broke that, reviving the best of the Infocom style, and boasting an improved parser and framework that—if imperfectly—reduced the amount of time you'd have to spend playing "guess the verb" or otherwise trying to express your idea in a way the game could understand. It, and Inform, set the stage for an IF renaissance that continues today.

I can't leave this without listing out some of the bugs I found in the game (more or less spoiler-free in case anyone plans to play it):

  • On the ship, there is a flag hanging from a flagpole. In the description, it is described as an ensign; but ENSIGN is taken as a synonym for the flagpole, rather than the flag. This makes the puzzle basically insoluble.
  • In the dream about the octagonal room, if you type WAKE the response is the standard "The dreadful truth is, this is not a dream." Of course, it is a dream, and solving this puzzle requires you to realise this.
  • Perhaps not a bug, but the map of Hamburg claims to have a marked grid. The thing to look up? Looks nothing like grid coordinates.
  • After you have safely sprung the oubliette trap, you can take the stone and the "wedged" message remains.
  • The Rod of Infinity answers to the names FEATURELESS and MAHOGANY even after being identified. This requires a bit of creativity in identifying future rods.
  • In the Lawn Ornaments area, if you go some direction other than east or west, it responds that "there are paths only west and northwest". Oops!

"I can walk into a Christian church and evoke a plethora of symbols that help lead people to compassion. The vast majority of people might suck at loving their enemies and forgiving those who tresspass against them, but at least the words are there to plant the seed of the idea. Whereas I walk into a UU church, and their secular symbols focus entirely on "justice," rewarding the innocent and condemning the guilty." --Jonathan Prykop

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August 18, 2007

300

Just saw 300, the violent action movie about the white guys dying to protect their freedom from the brown people, who hate freedom.

Whoops, I seem to be telegraphing my conclusions in advance. Let me back up.

The premise of the show is that Persia is expanding its sphere of influence, and the god-king Xerxes is currently trying to take Sparta and the rest of Greece. Leonidas, the king of Sparta, wants to bring out the army and go fight, but a contingent of the council doesn't want him to go (because the inbred, lecherous priests told them that the gods did not want them to, though it turns out they were corrupt and in the pay of the Persians). Since the threat of the Persians was obvious, Leonidas flouted the law and brought 300 of the best warriors out to battle—and it's a good thing he disregarded the law, because the very freedom that Sparta so valued was at stake. Despite the lack of support from home, and the active work of traitors in the council to degrade their sacrifices, these 300 fight against incredible odds and hold off an enormous army many times their size. The sacrifices of the fallen were not in vain, because in the end the traitors in the Council were exposed, and Sparta was able to send its whole army, and behind them the other free cities of Greece, to defend against the Persian threat. The movie is based on a graphic novel, which is itself very loosely based on the historical battle of Thermopylae.

I'll certainly say this for the movie: the cinematography was very skillful and considered. It gave it a thoroughly surreal look, although on occasion the matte work was poor, moving from "comic book" into "sloppy matte lines". Considering that the aim was a film version of a graphic novel, they were rather successful, and the overuse of the bullet-time effect can, in this instance, be forgiven.

I also have naught but praise for any scene involving Lena Headey, playing Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas. She plays one of the strongest female characters to grace the screen in recent years, and does so without straying into the trap of "strong woman" meaning something like "unemotional" or "manly".

Ok, that's pretty much it for good things I have to say.

This was really an awful movie. Its least unsuccessful aspect was on the surface level, where it was a hack-n-slash action movie. Though not gory in the "intestines spilling out" sense, there is an abundance of sword-and-spear violence, with limbs flying and blood spraying everywhere. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing, although the heat of battle scenes follow the current vogue of cutting the shots so quickly that you can't actually see anything.

On the next level, it's irritating because of the way it glorifies everything about Sparta; the discarding of defective babies was perhaps an incidental point, but there is almost a wistful nostalgia for the raising of kids to fight from the time they can walk, and actively training them to beat each other up from the age of seven. The movie is unabashedly positive about the "with your shield or on it" admonition. The Spartans gave no quarter, and it was even set up as a comic moment when one asks why they can't be civil in a diplomatic meeting with the opponent even as another is plunging his spear into a wounded enemy after the battle. I certainly don't dispute the historicity of these things; but that doesn't make them practices to be put on a pedestal.

Especially when the nation-state practicing them is so clearly meant to be identified with us. By far the most disturbing part of the movie was its transparent allegory, defending those who flout the law and go to war, and linking this with rhetoric about dying to defend freedom and other deep-seated elements of the American national mythos. When Leonidas decides to assemble a tiny army, in contravention of the law, we root for him and against the law, because clearly he's just trying to defend his nation against this grave, imminent threat from Persia. Why are they fighting with a force so inadequate to the threat? Oh, because of traitors to the city of Sparta that have prevented the full military might of the nation from being deployed, but those few are willing to face near-certain death to fight for their liberty.

There was even an "I'm proud of his sacrifice, but I never told him I loved him" moment.

And where the propaganda veers from disturbing into downright offensive is when you notice that not only are all the good guys white (which makes sense, since they're all Greek, although they're perhaps a smidge more northern- and western-European white than most Greeks) but that every single bad guy, other than the traitorous Greeks, is brown or black—you know, what you'd call "Muslim-looking", if you were one of those people that thinks that "Muslim-looking" would mean something. Nevermind that Persia itself as well as most of the lands they controlled were occupied by peoples who would look "white" to us and indeed, in some cases, lighter-skinned than Greeks! No, Xerxes's army was not cast to look like Persians and Persian subjects, but rather to tap into a racist idea of a scary other.

So basically, 300 struck me primarily as a violent, bloody piece of pro-war propaganda. It pays lip service to virtues we approve of and appeals to more base emotions like revenge and fear of the other, in an apologia for militaristic leaders who live outside the rule of law.

"The secret of success in designing the backdrop is originality: once you can imitate that, all else will follow." --Graham Nelson

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May 12, 2007

The shape of things

Holy cow! Go see this show!

Tonight I saw The shape of things, a bit of a psychodrama about a relationship between an art student and a kind of dorky lit major. It turned out to be one of those Studio gems that gives the mainstage shows a run for their money (not that we have a mainstage this term). Unfortunately, it had the lowest attendance I can remember for a studio show; maybe thirty or so. Really too bad. Hopefully more tomorrow.

Because the show was really really good. The cast of four were all veteran theatre folks, and not one of them could even briefly be accused of just reading their lines. Mike Callahan was fantastically awkward and dorky, especially at first; his quivering lip when confronted with a high-pressure situation was just spot-on. What's more, and this is even clearer in retrospect, a lot of his little dorky mannerisms and awkwardness and so on really comes and goes as the character development dictates. Mikah Berky played a fundamentally very nice girl, not always very sophisticated but always trying to make relationships right and not afraid to speak up when it came right down to it. A lot of her best acting was when other people were speaking; I loved the expressive gestures and facial expressions!

Matt Allis was playing a rather different type than usual—no, that's what I end up thinking every time I see him, and one of these days I'll just figure out that he's a versatile actor. :) This time, he leads off as a boorish, self-centered ass that starts arguments and swears a lot*, but later shows quite a bit more depth. In the last few scenes, the boorish thing starts to seem like more of a façade—not an act per se, but a shield that the character uses to defend himself against emotional hurt. As the emotional drama develops, he comes across as pretty vulnerable underneath it all.

Meghan Reardon plays the manipulative artiste who starts dating the dorky lit major, and like the other three, felt really authentic. A little odd sometimes, and mercurial, but authentic. As the relationship drama unfolds, she is frequently the most sympathetic character in the group, with only the slightly annoying quirk that she's always asking her guy to change his style. He seems pretty amenable to it, though, and takes well to working out and so on, so this quirk seems to be a minor, forgivable flaw.

The show was really well-written, and that helped, of course. All four characters are really strongly developed, and we get lots of chances to get to know them, with numerous scenes with just two of them in dialogue. The relationship psychodrama develops in some ways that border on cliché, but are no less suspenseful as a result. And the script would have been for naught if the acting hadn't been so good. I frequently caught myself holding my breath in tense sympathy for one or the other of the characters that is being wronged (or that is about to be wronged). At a few points (notably near the end) I suddenly intuited the mind game that (I thought) one of the characters was trying to play on another, and the weight of what they were doing would suddenly crash down on top of me, make my heart race, and knock the breath out of me. That's some great presentation right there.

As I write this, I'm struggling a bit with how to say what I want to say without outlining the plot in complete detail; later developments recast the earlier scenes in a rather different light. Suffice to say that the nuanced performance of this ensemble of four was such that it worked great the first time through, and then works even better when seen through the lens of hindsight and complete knowledge. Bravo!

I do wonder a bit if I'm really off-base on this, actually. For the first time I can ever remember, I was the only person standing during the applause. Since I try to reserve standing ovations for when I really mean it, I often find myself in the reverse situation, and I've on occasion been the first to stand or one of just a few. In this case, it could be that the audience was mostly made up of people as picky as I am about standing up. Also, many of them may have known the sequence of events and ending; Kelly Hogan commented that the show hit her a lot more the first time she saw it, and that it lost a little something on re-viewing. Which may well be the reason for the general audience reaction—I think a lot of them were theatre students (like I said, it was tragically sparsely attended), and they may have already read the play.

I don't have a lot to say about the relatively minimal tech, but I do want to say that the straight-overhead spot on Meghan right near the end makes her look positively beatific, and it's a really cool effect.

Overall, though? Fantastic show. I'm told it's Mike Giese's first full-length directorial gig, which makes it even cooler. A great show to try to put on, good effort all around, and, I'd say, success.

*And incidentally, the swearing in this show was much better than in the last few I've seen. At least three of the characters were swearing in various parts of the show, and I never caught that "I shouldn't be swearing in a public presentation" hesitation, at all.

"The web is NOT the best front end for every goddamned piece of information in the world." --Sam Walker

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April 29, 2007

Sylvia

I was mortified.

Halfway through act 2, one of the characters said something so jaw-droppingly surprising, I involuntarily said, "what.", out loud. And not a soft little out loud either; not only did the people in the seats next to me surely hear it, but the theatre itself was so small I suspect that the whole audience must have. That's what it felt like, anyway. This is going to be one of those embarrassing moments that plays back in my brain for years, like the time I dropped the soup bowl in the soup, although that time at least it was only my mom that witnessed it (I think).

But let me back up a bit. Tonight I drove out to Sandburg for the spring Prairie Players show, Sylvia, about a middle-aged man in midlife crisis who becomes an irresponsible dog owner and nearly destroys his marriage—the main characters being himself, his wife, and his dog Sylvia. Despite being a production of PPCT, which often functions as an annex of the GHS theatre department, this evening's show was instead a virtual extension of the Knox theatre department, with the director and all six actors being current or former students thereof.

The acting in the show was pretty polished. Cindy Reiter in particular did a great job as the dog Sylvia—not only in the lines themselves, but in her manner of acting and movement, she came across with a highly canine personality that any dog owner would recognise. Probably by design, it's Sylvia that the audience came to most sympathise with; the owner Greg (Eli King) seems basically nice but deeply irresponsible in a variety of ways, and the wife Kate (Sarah Bigus) is legitimately frustrated with the dog but then comes across as a little mean and far too obsessive. The clear winner in the supporting actor category has to go to Maren Reisch as the marriage counselor, who had the most fantastically expressive eyes and eyebrows when she was listening to Greg go on and on about Sylvia.

And yet I was still a bit dissatisfied, especially with the first act. Perhaps it was just a little too slow-paced (and that might be the fault of the writer as much as anything), but I found myself a bit bored, my attention wandering at various points. It was a weird tension, because I was simultaneously making mental notes on what a good job the actors were doing and what a neat premise the show had, even as I was forming an overall "enh" image of the play.

The second act suffered from this problem a lot less, maybe because I was by this point more interested in how the conflict would resolve. It didn't seem like the sort of show that would have an unhappy ending, and yet the conflict between the dog and the wife seemed irreconcilable and growing. It is perhaps a testament to how engaged I was that my abovementioned slip occurred, but I really don't want to think about that any more. :P

Certainly, in the end, I can give an overall positive opinion of the show. I still think that the first act dragged a little, but the premise was good, the acting was good, and despite a bunch of fluffed lines, the pacing cleared itself up in time for a not quite expected and slightly sad (but ultimately satisfying) ending.

I ask for nothing; I can get by.
But I know so many less lucky than I.
Please help my people, the poor and down-trod—
I thought we all were the children of God. --Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, "God help the outcasts"

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February 28, 2007

Working

It's never a good idea to raise your expectations too high.

I suppose that serves as a sort of apology for what reads like a relatively negative review; I admit I was a little disappointed with the performance of Working that I saw last Friday, even though when I look at it objectively it was actually pretty good.

It's just that I was hoping for it to be great.

I've been involved in musical theatre for, oh, pretty much ever, and since I was little I remember seeing and being in parish plays, community musical theatre productions that involved dozens of people who liked to sing, some of whom were good dancers and some of whom were good actors. And every one of them enjoying participating in productions that involved all three.

What we have here at Knox is dozens of people who like to act, some of whom are good singers and a couple of whom are good dancers; theatre kids who wanted to be in Rep Term, rather than necessarily wanting to be in a musical or this show particularly. Which is too darn bad. I do think that every one of them gave it the good old college try,* but in retrospect I kind of think that musicals are not such a great fit for the Knox theatre group (excellent though it is).

To start with, there were not nearly enough singers in the group. Only one (Annie Ford, who I knew through ballroom, but had no idea she could sing like that!) stood out as sounding like she knew what she was doing on a musical theatre stage, bringing me along with her sadness and frustration (and kind of making me feel a little guilty for assumptions and prejudices I know I've subconsciously made before) when she sang "Just a housewife". A few others (I'm not going to try to name them, I'll forget someone) had singing voices ranging from basically good to excellent, and were given solos, but tended to come across variously as lounge singers, show choir performers, or just performers in a solo recital, rather than as actors who happened to be singing their monologues rather than saying them. Even so, it looked like several of the songs were shuffled, one being spoken over the music and at least one converted to third person and given to someone else. Which, again, was probably a good choice under the circumstances; but, well, it's too bad.

Although, I should also mention Saras Gil: she singlehandedly pulled off the only real dance number in the show, while singing a solo, displaying more-or-less decent breath control** and significant aplomb when she tipped over the wobbly chair she was about to stand on, stepping down and righting the chair, all quite literally without missing a beat. She, too, had some nice emotive moments, and she gets big bonus points for bringing a bit more of the musical theatre (namely, dancing) into this musical.

Because that's another thing that any decent musical has: dancing. Not in every number, of course, but other than Saras's effort, the actors were basically just moving through their blocking, which sometimes included things like swaying back and forth or snapping or jazz hands*** but never really rose to the level of anything you would usually call dancing. Too bad.

The tech work generally did its usual good job of being so good that you wouldn't notice it; there were a few minor kinks (like when the actors were in front of the area actually illuminated by the lights, or when the lights faded before an actor finished her line), but it was generally fine. The makeup was bimodal: some had great makeup that was just heavy enough to counteract the bright lights perfectly; others had bright red cheeks and too-dark eyeliner and various other forms of too-heavy makeup. (That's historically been a big problem I've seen on this stage, especially in its thrust configuration, so this bimodality is actually an improvement---they used to be pretty much all in the latter group.) The sound was the most intrusively problematic thing, with some people miked that didn't need it, some people miked but apparently with the mic turned off, some people that probably should have had a mic, and a lot of popping and breathing sounds from the people with those tacky headset-mounted mics. I don't ever remember this being an issue before, so maybe it's because it was a musical that they brought them out; I do know that even with microphones there were a lot of times when the "pit" band drowned out the lyrics. (Especially when the actor was facing away from the audience---didn't that used to be an acting no-no? It should be, at least when the actor is singing....)

I was even disappointed with the program: I've gotten spoiled, I guess, but there's usually a bunch of stuff researched about the play itself and the circumstances surrounding its writing and its setting (i.e. dramaturgical analysis), but not here. And what kind of a musical production doesn't include a list of musical numbers in the program?

Not wanting to end on a sour note, I've saved the positive stuff for the end. We have a great drama department, and pretty much as usual, the acting was good. Having a large cast of featured players (rather than leads with a supporting cast) makes this difficult, and ability levels did vary some, but I can't think of a single monologue that was a bust.

There were a couple of weird moments, like when Pam Schuller's character starts going on about "us people of the South, we clean your cities", and this "people of the South" business makes no sense until you realise it's code for "black", because Pam (like everyone else in the show) was white and it would probably sound even odder for her to be saying "us black people". And nearly everyone who had to swear onstage sounded a little awkward with it, losing character for the briefest moment when they had to say "shit" or "fuck" in such a public circumstance. (Brian Conley, at least, managed to quite overcome this by the second half of his fireman monologue, though.) Accents tended to drift in and out a bit, although happily not in a distracting way.

But here I am being negative again. The oddnesses were just moments in the overall wash of great monologues. Matt Allis's Cuban-accented story of growing up in a migrant farm worker family was touching. Nick Perry as the oblivious golfing upper-middle-class manager could have turned into a straw man so easily, but the vapid sincerity was a little unnerving: it's not that the character was two-dimensional so much as that he was hollow. Meghan Reardon topped the bunch with her portrayal, where a lawyer walked out on the stage and told us about co-ops and how she spent her time and talent on the underprivileged, and how rewarding that was. Beyond a mere monologue, her scene really felt more than any other (except maybe Annie's sung monologue) like a character interacting with the audience. Nice.

I think if I hadn't let myself get all worked up about this being The Legendary Rep Term, and especially about our awesome theatre department putting on a musical (great actors + great medium = Totally! Awesome! Show! Squee!---right?), I'd've been better off. Certainly a lot of the things I was being picky about are things that a lot of other people might not pick up on (or not care about). Now, on to the Madwoman....

* Or as my cousin Patricia sometimes says, "the college try? No, we really tried." I certainly don't intend to doubt anyone's effort here.

** Certainly a lot better than I'd've done. Even assuming I could dance like that.

*** And let me tell you, jazz hands definitely separated the people who had ever done this before from the people who hadn't.

"While there's obviously priority involved, I'm prety damn sure that pileups are closer to LIFO than FIFO." --Neal Groothuis

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January 13, 2007

The story of Vernon and Irene Castle

Ages ago, I TiVoed a showing of The story of Vernon and Irene Castle, a Fred-and-Ginger flick about the founding mythology of modern ballroom dance. I knew of the Castles, of course, but not a lot about them; and (as usual) the effect of the movie was heightened by not really knowing its outcome in advance. When I see a movie like this—which is not now exceptionally well known, not exactly one of the AFI top 100—I kind of wonder about the state of modern film, because despite being a "dance genre" movie, "just" another Fred and Ginger vehicle, it certainly has its share of drama and foreshadowing and suspense, though none of it of the hamhanded variety that makes you cringe at its obviousness. (Well, maybe a little of that.) Modern movies? It seems like, not so much.

That aside, this is a worthwhile movie for anyone in ballroom dancing, if only to see some of the genesis of the different dances we now do, like the foxtrot and tango. Even the samba shows up, indirectly; one scene depicts the "Maxixe"—those x's would be pronounced as 'sh'—which was a precursor to the American version of samba. Even today, the step known as the corta jaca in International Samba is known as a maxixe in American Samba, and this move certainly appears in the movie's Maxixe, as do moves recognisably analogous to samba rolls, voltas, and whisks, although the styling is quite different.

"Food are always in caves. They're like the grocery stores of the ancient world." --Sam Heath

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November 10, 2006

The ruling class

This weekend's offering at the Studio Theatre is The ruling class. Go see it, it's good (and showing at 2pm and 7:30pm tomorrow).

I nearly didn't get in; as usual, I was cutting it close to the wire, and when I got there at 7:29, they told me the house was closed. Then they asked if I was by myself—there were two seats left, actually. So, happily, I got in after all.

After some brief delays, the show started, and our introduction to the family Gurney is a speech by its highly eccentric earl, who turns out to be partial to pink tutus and hangman's nooses. The earl is played by Matt Allis in the first of three brief but very funny roles where he gets to be quite the scene stealer. The other character in this first scene is the butler, played by Pam Schuller, also a scene stealer through the rest of the show.

The rest of the cast is a bit more serious, though they all have their moments. Not a one of them did a bad job; this show is the sort of show that makes me brag about the Studio Theatre to people who ask me how I like Galesburg. But the clear winner here is Evan Sawdey, the star of the show, the gravitational well around whom everyone else is orbiting. I don't know from psychology, but he sure looked like he was convincingly rolling through several stages of some schizophrenic disorder to me. The role was technically very demanding, just in terms of having about a million lines, many of which needed to be spit out at (literally) insane rates of speed; but it also requires some pretty radical character development through his various God complexes, which he pulls off without even batting an eye. Nicely done. It makes me a little sad that, because it went up in the Studio, this part isn't eligible for that one acting award that gets voted on at the end of every schoolyear, but then, there's three more mainstages yet, so he'll have another shot.

The show was not without its foibles, of course. One actor kept cracking a smile at his funny lines; another kept forgetting to limp. The actresses all need to learn better how to walk in heels (and that's been an issue in a lot of different shows I've seen here). But overall, the problems I saw were so small as to just seem nitpicky compared to all the good stuff. I haven't even gone into how great the script is, lots of subtle lines, little things that small subsets of the audience would pick up on; and I won't. I'll let you go check it out for yourself.

"Not here---last time I was kissed in a garden, it turned out rather awkward." --Peter Barnes, The ruling class (Jack)

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November 03, 2006

Leonardo's last supper

I just got back from watching a truly awful show. Leonardo's last supper is the work of one Peter Barnes, an English playwright; it is an absurd little story about Leonardo finding himself come back to life in the workshop of the gravedigger scheduled to bury him.

Absurd is fine; last year's Titanic was perfectly enjoyable, for instance. But the script on this one just rambled, and while there were certainly a few funny lines, I spent most of the play glancing at my watch or staring off into the rafters.

This was unfortunately exacerbated by the inexperienced cast. As a rule, their emotional reactions were awkward or unconvincing (or both), and the line delivery was modulated in just one of two ways: talky, or shouty. I'm sure it can't be easy to convincingly portray a character so clearly absurd, but regardless of the difficulty level, they didn't quite hit their mark.

The show was sort of disappointing in the technical arena as well; it looked like costume and makeup kind of half-assed their way through their jobs. Leonardo's beard kept threatening to fall off; Angelo's "beard" was smudged and oddly-shaped; and assorted other minor problems. Nothing too terrible, but I've gotten accustomed to expecting better out of the theatre crowd here.

So I'm afraid I can't recommend this show. Which is too bad, and I hope none of the actors gets discouraged; I could tell they had the energy (and the memory for lines!) to be good if they keep at it. Everyone needs to start somewhere, right?

Where is WMD?
What a kick if he has none
Sorry about that --Col. Steve Rotkoff

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October 28, 2006

A four-show weekend

I managed to catch tonight both the Terp show and the KJE concert, so with the play last night and the choir concert tomorrow, it looks like this'll be a four show weekend. I do understand the necessity of packing in lots of shows to one weekend (it's Family and Friends Weekend!), but it's still kind of irritating that it clumps like that.

About the shows themselves, I don't have a whole lot to say. Terpsichore was about as usual, a couple stand-out pieces and a lot of Very Modern stuff. There was one piece this time that was Indian (as in, the subcontinent)-style, which was really nifty and definitely worth the trip.

The show was short, so when I got to the KJE concert, they were just in the middle of their first piece. I grabbed a program and stood outside the door, peeking through the crack and waiting for the song to end. A moment later, a stream of about a dozen people just walked in the other door. Shortly after that, someone walked past me and said, "I'm just going in." So it was just me and a mother-and-son pair standing out there and not being rude; at least in the case of the one who went in on my side, it was even clear she knew the rule and was breaking it. Why do people do that? It's not like you couldn't hear them from outside the auditorium. There is just no reason you'd need to go in and distract all the people who got there on time. Grrrr.

Jazz isn't especially my thing, but I do like going to Knox Jazz Ensemble concerts. It's really amazing how much volume can be generated by twelve brass instruments! And with nearly the entire group being freshmen or sophomores—and really good—I can't imagine what it'll be like in two or three more years.

I nearly didn't make either one, though: after getting a bit of a slow start, I spent all afternoon doing assorted prepare-for-winter tasks around the house, mostly caulking my windows. After a long, hot shower, I really didn't particularly feel like going out again, although in the end I'm glad I did.

"Are we Christians going to be held to the same standard? Are we going to start hitting Google News every morning to make sure we apologize on our blogs or in letters to the editor for every atrocity committed in the name of Jesus Christ? Because that is what we in the West are demanding of Muslims---apologies for every single thing done in the name of Allah that we find wrong." --Chris Tessone

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October 27, 2006

Our town

I remember that in my freshman year at St. Viator, the drama club put on Our town, but my main memory is that they put a sign over the auditorium door with GROVER'S CORNERS and its population—setup for a cast member to come out before the house opens, update the number, and announce to the waiting audience, "Twins!"

But I didn't actually see it (not sure why) at that point. So I was walking into tonight's show more or less cold. And sort of stayed cold for a while; the show had a very slow start, unusually so for a Knox mainstage. Everybody was stumbling over text that was written in light dialect but being enunciated as if Standard English. Few of the actors were up to the task of a prop-less set, with nearly every interaction with an invisible item, be it a horse or a teacup, looking awkward and not very believable. How big is that newspaper supposed to be? Have you ever even seen a push-reel lawnmower? (Exception: the missuses had their kitchen routine down pat.)

Happily, though, once the stage was "set", as it were, most scenes turn to a very strong focus on dialogue. The super-minimalist set only helps here, since with nothing but two people and a bunch of chairs on stage, well, you pay attention to the people. And so, from about halfway through the first act, things started looking up. They did a good casting job, and from there on out, the characters were permitted to shine. Every little nervousness, worry, joy, sadness, it all came through. The chemistry between George and Emily (Matt Allis and Eden Newmark—both of whom I've written of before) was positively electric (if I may be permitted to mix a metaphor). In the soda shop scene I was just a bundle of nerves watching the two of them. It was fantastic.

The graveyard scene was suitably creepy, and watching the character changes was interesting. It was at this point that I finally put my finger on something else about the staging: arranging the invisible sets as they did gave the whole affair a sense of displacement in a strict etymological sense. That is, it takes a basic sense of place, and bends it and twists it around. This grave is both over here and over there. This ladder is representing what actually lies up those stairs behind it. The patch of stage right there is either the lane leading up to the house, or the back of the kitchen, depending on what direction they're moving. This displacement, perhaps even more than the proplessness and the setlessness, engenders a sense that this, all this, is an abstraction of real life, and therefore much more broadly applicable than any mere concrete story could hope to be. Which is probably why, despite the (more or less) period costume and the age of the piece itself, this play doesn't seem dated and certainly is not a period piece. I really wish they'd done their usual dramaturgy for the show, because (aside from giving something to read during intermission) I find that reading the dramaturgical analysis gives me a foundation for this sort of speculative streak—not to mention a vocabulary with which to talk about it. :P

The ending was worth particular mention: through the wedding and through all the terribly sad stuff that happens in the graveyard, nothing, but when George walks out at the very end? Without even saying a word? I totally cried. How do they do that?

"All the 'tipping point' theories in the world won't protect Sprint from the basic truth that the LG Fusic user interface could basically serve as an almost complete textbook for a semester-long course in user interface design, teaching students of usability exactly what NOT to do." --Joel Spolsky

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October 22, 2006

Bleh

Tonight I finally managed to get to a KGS (Knox-Galesburg Symphony) concert. I've been meaning to for years but something else always managed to come up. KGS has a great reputation, and I'm pretty sure I've heard that they've won a bunch of state awards.

I confess I was a little underwhelmed.

Not that any of it was bad; I just had somewhat higher expectations. The first piece they did was entitled "Two Latino sketches", and it was a poor attempt at a fusion piece involving Latin American rhythms and orchestral styling. The second movement in particular was far too weak in the percussion to pull off what it was trying to do, and I found it extremely distracting that it kept almost but not quite quoting the overture to West Side Story.

The second piece was the one with the guest performer, a violinist, performing Sibelius's violin concerto. She had some technically very difficult bits that she executed quite well. But the piece as a whole failed to come together; if it had been a chorus I'd accuse them of not blending enough, though you might call it something different for instrumental work. The score also failed to keep my interest, and in this piece more than the other two I found myself drifting off and thinking about other things. Which is not a terrible thing, but not the optimal condition for a symphony concert.

After intermission was a symphony by someone named Carl Nielsen, whom I'd not heard of before reading the program, and it was certainly the best piece of the night. I'm not sure if it was just better-rehearsed or what, but it felt like the orchestra had it together a lot better. Although my mind still wandered a bit on this one, it both held my attention the best and sounded the best.

So overall I was a little disappointed. On the other hand, I certainly intend to come back for more; next month they're doing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, and in February they have a harpist as their guest performer; hopefully I can make it to those concerts too....

On 9/11: "We looked inward rather than outward, and sadly, did exactly what our president asked us to do. Kept shopping. Not conserving. And certainly not sacrificing. Most of us, myself included, have given up nothing except, of course, a few treasured constitutional freedoms." --Carol Marin

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October 06, 2006

Drawn together

Drawn together is an offensive little show on Comedy Central that just gets better each season. Part of what makes it great is that although there's no shortage of potty humour and over-the-top cheap-shot jokes, there are layers and layers of funny, some of which are pretty subtle (and not explained!). The fraternity that Captain Hero starts this week? "[phi-alpha-gimel]"—that last letter is Hebrew "gimel". The Jewish fraternity is meant to be "[SH-L-M]"—i.e. "Shalom"*—although it's in fact "[M-L-SH]", because they wrote the letters backwards, in left-to-right order. The terrified little Greek kid shouts "[evcharisto]!"—which, not that the majority of the audience would know this, means "thanks!".

Ling Ling goes meta: since he speaks in pseudo-Japanese, you need to read the subtitles to know what he's saying, and just as you're cursing the bunch of idiots at Comedy Central who put a Daily Show ad up as a superimposed lower third—blocking the subtitles—the other characters react as if Ling Ling is talking about TDS ("Oh, I love that Jon Stewart"). Magnificent!

And that was just the linguistic and metalinguistic humour in this one episode. The best line in the show had to be the one tied to one of Toot's bizarre Asian-themed euphemisms:

Toot:
I deserve this money! I've been letting Jun-Jee ram his tank into my Tiananmen Square!
(aside in confessional, mournfully:)
Sadly, he always ignores the little student.
Although the line about George Takei was right up there. By the time they flew to Greece and disembarked at Rydell High (get it?), I was just howling. The full-on musical number at the end was just gravy.

*Even this would be incorrect, as the Hebrew for "shalom" has a vav in it, I think. But, I'm pretty positive that's what they meant.

'Can't offer details on individual units, but Kim, TiVo was made for you. Somewhere deep in TiVo central, someone's saying, "I can't believe she hasn't gotten one yet. I mean, we made it just for her."' --Jonathan Prykop

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September 04, 2006

Contact

My initial reaction... well, my very initial reaction was that I liked the intro sequence. But when people started getting involved in the story, it seemed to go downhill. Clichés everywhere! And incredibly ham-handed. When Jodie Foster's character finally came out with her mathematically illiterate line about there being millions of planets with intelligent life—less than twenty minutes into the show!—I had had it, and had to pause the show and take a break.

But, I'm supposed to be reviewing this as a potential text, so I had to go back to it. It got a bit better later. But I spent a huge amount of time rolling my eyes at the clunkiness of the whole thing; particularly, I noticed, in scenes that involved Matthew McConaughey. Not that he was doing a bad acting job, per se, but more that when his character was in play was when the worst of the glaringly obvious cinematic ploys were taken.

That, in turn, probably has to do with the reason this show was picked in the first place. It positions itself as a debate between faith and science—with McConaughey cast as faith, and Foster as science—and is furthermore painted on a backdrop of alien first contact, as is The Sparrow, one of our other texts this term. This territory is staked out quite early in the film, and as soon as McConaughey becomes the avatar of faith, it becomes clear that science avatar Foster will clash with him a few times before having some experience that converts her to the cause of faith. Oh, and she'll sleep with him. (They got that part over with quickly enough, anyway.)

Other characters, though entertaining (or infuriating, as the case may be), were also poorly drawn. We had the Supportive Coworker, the Slimy Supervisor, the Eccentric Tycoon, and so on. Several deus ex machina devices to advance the plot.

Am I being too harsh? The movie certainly had its nice moments. The human reactions to the existence of life on Vega were probably spot-on, and very funny. Some of the graphics work was very nice (although some of it totally fell flat). Foster and McConaughey did what they could with what they were given. But even aside from the sometimes-schlocky writing, I also found it hard to get past the plot holes.

Spoilers (highlight to reveal): For instance, just how many years is Clinton supposed to be President for? Even assuming the first message was received in 1993 (though it seemed like it was supposed to be "now", i.e. 1997), there appeared to be months of trying to fit the pieces together, and then months of assembling diagrams, and then there were clearly *many years* of construction and ‘naut selection and so forth. And yet, Clinton was president through all of this?

Or, the bomb. I mean, not only is the personnel security going to be a big deal, I'm guessing they'd at least have, say, a metal detector for the workers on the single most expensive, most international project in the history of the world. Right? I mean, even in 1997 you'd've had a hard time smuggling that much explosive onto a plane in the US, and I'd have to guess that security would be even better at this operation. (I also wonder why that guy would've waited so long to detonate, but whatever.)

Or, when the skeezy guy running the hearing asks how you could fake a signal from Vega. Foster says "well, ... a satellite...", which was the answer he was looking for, and the hearing continues on that basis. But, hello, they were doing triangulation with massive antenna arrays; they placed the source quite a bit further away than a satellite. To fake it, you'd need a device actually sent outside the solar system to send the signal back. They'd both know that, or at least she would.

But perhaps the worst is the 18 hours thing. First, it's not clear how she knew her subjective time was 18 hours, since she was apparently unconscious for most of that. Second, if the recorder really did record 18 hours of static, how in the world did that never get mentioned during her interrogation or the hearings, or if nothing else, why wouldn't someone have leaked it? And would it have been that hard to run the wormhole machine a second time with somebody else?

Part of me says that I can't in good conscience assign a movie that I wouldn't be able to sit through again myself, and ugh, I couldn't bear it, I don't think. But part is saying that the themes explored really are interesting ones, meshing excellently with some main ones running through The Sparrow. I kind of feel like I'd be inflicting it on my students, which is not the highest of recommendations; but maybe I'm just being a philistine (not the first time), since the movie seems to have gotten all sorts of nominations and awards for things.

Can't... decide.... Fortunately, I can put this off for now. I'd sort of hoped that writing would help me clarify my thoughts, but no dice. Guess I'll just leave it off the syllabus and stew on it for a while.

"The fall contest between Stroger and Cook County Commissioner Anthony Peraica shapes up to be as snippy as the governor's race. It will go something like this: Stroger: My name is Stroger. Peraica: His name is Stroger." --Carol Marin

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August 05, 2006

Godspell

I schlepped over to Monmouth tonight to catch the last showing of Godspell. I'm glad I didn't call ahead to reserve a ticket, because they were sold out (all three shows had sold out in advance!), but as it happened someone didn't show up and I was able to claim the very last ticket.

I had never seen it before, and was keen to; I'd heard some of the music and was generally aware of it as a JCS-ish 70s rock opera that retold the Gospel according to St Matthew. Seeing this instance of reinterpreting religious text and subtext into a popular mode made two things clear: why this might ever have seemed like a good idea, and why it might not be a very good idea. It seems nice that it gets people all fired up about Jesus or whatever; but there is a danger that it can somewhat cheapen the religious experience, making it just another rock concert.

Which is not to say the show was without a few powerful moments. There were only a few, unfortunately. Seen simply as spectacle, the picture brightens a bit; there were several beautifully-executed comedic moments, and the music was fabulous. There were a few of the usual suspects up on stage, plus a few I'd not seen before. Jesus, as played by Mike Axtell, had a striking singing voice, and even showed off his piano skills, accompanying two of the numbers himself (including one where he was also the lead singer). I almost feel like the musical talent in this show was squandered, because there was so much unison singing—this cast could have pulled off music considerably more difficult than this.

It sort of made me wish this had just been a musical revue. The non-musical parts were much more hit-or-miss. As I mentioned, there were some powerful moments and many comedic moments, but for the most part the acted parables dragged considerably. There could have been lots of reasons for that, but based on the R-M article about it I'm going to blame the improv nature of the scenes and guess that they just hadn't had enough rehearsal to work out their dramatic/comedic timing. Alas.

I will say this, though: picking Matthew's Gospel for this show was certainly no accident. When the writers were putting it together in the early 70s, Matthew's hippie Jesus was certainly an irresistible show topic, with messages of peace and love laced throughout nearly every parable. The betrayal and death and resurrection, while present, are not the focus. I just wish that the calling-out of the hypocrites and the Pharisees, written 35 years ago and based on a 2000-year-old script, didn't read so strongly as an allegory of our country's current political atmosphere....

"I buy Cosmo occasionally. I get a kick out of finding out what men are really thinking." --Neal Groothuis

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June 09, 2006

Ya-hoo!

I'd about given up hope that he'd do it! Last Saturday, at graduation, Stephen Colbert (yes, that one) gave Knox's commencement address and got an honorary doctorate from us. It was a brilliant speech, and that alone would've been worth the price of admission. Not to mention he deserves the award for what he's done, both politically and socially. (I would link to a video of the speech, but amazingly, YouTube only has clips from it; although, you should at least watch this one, which contains a bit of the speech that got, er, amended out of the printed transcript.)

But ever since it was announced, once we thought about it, we were all sort of hoping Knox would get a shout out on his show. I mean, think of the PR! And given his persona, how could he possibly resist bragging and demanding that people call him a doctor? But the whole week went by with no mention of us. Too bad.

Tonight, though, at the end of the Report, there he was standing there in his Knox D.F.A. hood (just the hood on his regular suit, none of the rest of the regalia), and he mentioned Knox, and Galesburg, and the size of the graduating class (250, close enough), and the degree itself got a bit of screen time with the big KNOX COLLEGE across the top. Woo! Yee-ha!

Not that we're hurting for applications right now anyway. But you simply can't pay for that kind of national exposure. This is so exciting.

'Somewhere in the quiet, leafy recesses of the Bush family, somebody is thinking, "Wrong son. Should've tried the smart one."' --Garrison Keillor

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May 20, 2006

All the world's a stage

That's from As you like it, unfortunately, because it'd be an even better title for this post if it'd come from Hamlet. Tonight I saw this week's Studio offering, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, by Tom Stoppard, which isn't really based on Hamlet but might be said to be affiliated with it.

I have my usual assortment of notes scribbled on the back of the program, but I'm having a hard time putting them together into a coherent post; they all seem too picky, that is, the ones that aren't embarrassingly gushy about how great the show was. I've a note about how well Doug Porter did sycophantic and how well Eric Feltes did creepy-crazy, and a few notes about how well Matt Allis did all sorts of things. These notes don't really lend themselves to critique, and I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts together in a coherent fashion.

Part of the problem is that the show is just so odd. I've certainly never seen anything quite like it. Billed as "theatre of the absurd", it's one non sequitur after catfish,* and it started making a lot more sense after I stopped thinking about it too much. Kind of an impressionism of the stage—back off and look at the big picture, and you can actually see it, or at least get a feel for it. Even though there was very little explicit fourth-wall humour, I felt throughout the entire show that we the audience were much more involved in the production than usual, partly because the characters, though addressing each other, seemed to be talking to us a lot of the time.

The main characters, onstage for the entire play, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bit parts in Shakespeare's version of events. Here, though, they talk to each other, trying to figure out what the hell has gotten into Prince Hamlet but mostly trying to figure out why they're there. Where "there" is is usually left somewhat ambiguous between "in this play", "in this room", or "alive", though it's clear that all is at least allegorically referring to this last, larger question of existence. Matt Schmalz's character is more the serious one, with Matt Allis as more of an, I don't know, "ingenu", more easily distracted and maybe not quite as sharp, though in the end just as concerned about answering the existential question. The two of them were well-cast, sustaining between them over two and a half hours of dialogue while remaining expressive and snappy. Allis in particular had the most amazing range of facial expression throughout the show, and both of them had their dialogue down so well that it sounded completely natural and perfectly timed—the "questions" scene was so flawlessly executed that it inspired a spontaneous and well-deserved round of applause from the audience.

The chemistry in the supporting cast was pretty darn good, too. For the leader of the acting troupe, we saw Morgan Cohen, and although the part seems to have been written for a male actor, she (along with, presumably, director Jason Cascio) figured out how to make it a truly female role. It fit perfectly as such, other than the "he"s and "him"s, which I'm a little surprised they didn't just tweak in the script. Although, if you're going for "absurd"....

Part of me really wants to see another production of this, now, to see just how much of it was Jason and the cast putting their stamp on it. I loved the silent part(s), for instance, and I'm curious how much of that (the blocking, the length) is shared among all productions. The "what next?" at the end becomes so pointed as a result of it; "what indeed?", you find yourself asking. This is how they spend their whole life, sitting around and waiting for the next thing. Heck, it's how a lot of people spend their life, just sitting there and waiting for the next task someone hands them.

This show was very long and entirely weird. I got the impression that the weirdness put off a lot of the audience; which was too bad, because Jason and his cast put together a really tight little (well, not that little) production. I still don't really understand it. But I thought it was fantastic.

On potential two-person activities: "What did you have in mind, a short, blunt, human pyramid?" --Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

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May 12, 2006

small letters period

That was the name of the informal dance concert I went to tonight. As usual, it was sort of hit-or-miss, but there's so much variety at the informals that I think any given person is pretty much guaranteed to like some and dislike others (with the "some" and "others" varying from person to person). There was a tap dance to "Singing in the Rain", which was sort of unpolished but a lot of fun. Unfortunately, having to tap on the marley really subtracted something; I hope that if there's more tap dancing performances they figure out something to do about that.

Some of the pieces were essentially conventional modern dance, except that the dancers focussed more on working with the music than on trying very hard to make it meaningful. That's good, because if you have to pick just one and you go with "imbue meaning", well, it's a lot harder to watch and doesn't really convey much anyway. I wish more dancers would spend time in the fluff pieces first, polish the skills, and then move on to the interpretive dance. At least that way the intermediate stage is fun to watch!

The best piece of the evening was without a doubt the Mother Africa bit. It was not really a skit in the theatre sense, but a lot more than just dancing; there was a script and a story to tell. And the live drummer was awesome (both meaning "great to listen to" and "great for the piece").

There were some clinkers too, but I'm not going to dwell on them. Too much negativity lately. Overall, nice show!

"Two facts: He loved us. And we killed Him." --Nicholas Patricca, The fifth sun (Anne)

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May 06, 2006

Leo Tolstoy, I want those two hours back

In another round of FP reading, I read Tolstoy's The death of Ivan Ilyich, a 60-page short story about a banal man that lives a banal life comme il faut but realises on his deathbed that none of it was worth anything. I thought it was terrible. The obvious question it poses could be just as easily posed in a short essay of a few pages; after reading it, I kind of wanted those two hours of my life back. It was really boring reading, too, and I had to force myself to keep reading through to the end. I felt no connection with any of the characters and I just couldn't bring myself to care.

I do hope it isn't selected as a required FP reading, although I suppose I'll manage if it is. (If so, in the inevitable event that one of my FP students finds this page in the archives, hi! I hope class is going better then than I'm envisioning right now....)

"I do not agree with them—but I do not judge them." --Nicholas Patricca, The fifth sun (Rutilio)

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Happy are those who are called

Tonight's offering in the Studio was The fifth sun, a play about assassinated archbishop Óscar Romero. Had it been a play being workshopped, I would have said "right on": the premise was solid, the topic was interesting, and there were many instances of good lines and good acting. As a finished work, though, I found it a bit lacking.

It was handicapped from the start by the script. Though sprinkled with some great one-liners and a few good dialogues and monologues, it really needed a lot of tightening up. There were several places where the writing got a bit tedious, and some awkward interactions between the characters that no amount of good acting could have saved.

And there was a bit of good acting, but not as much as I'd've liked. I was surprised how few of the Studio Theatre regulars were involved in this production; with, I think, two exceptions, most of the actors were very inexperienced. It showed. Romero himself kept doubling over in what I gather was pain from an ulcer, but it was pretty unconvincing. The papal nuncio could probably have been played either as evil or as aloof or even as self-absorbed; there were stabs in these directions, but a lot of it just felt like he was reading lines. Many of them still hadn't overcome the beginner instinct to stick their neck forward and move their hands awkwardly. Nearly everyone had a few nice moments, but then fell back into reading lines again.

Emily Richardson was lucky enough to get a part with a lot of witty lines, and she really came through as a slightly sarcastic feminist nun, flawed and human but full of compassion and concern for the social injustice the Salvadoran people were being subjected to. She served well as Romero's conscience, the angel on Romero's one shoulder against Jon Gripshover's devil on the other. The character dynamic between these two was among the most interesting and effective in the show, with the debates between her pragmatism and his marxism providing some good exposition of the ethical, religious, and political tangles through which they navigate their common cause.

The staging was interesting. The stage itself was a dais on the long wall of the studio, extending out in a thrust configuration with seating on three sides. That presents many of the usual in-the-round difficulties, but there were only a few instances where the actors did any weird and unmotivated walking around (that I noticed, anyway). The top of the dais was a pulpit, which Romero took on a few occasions for a homily or a Mass; good dramatic placement. Most interesting, though, was the everpresent group of dancers, a sort of Greek chorus—four of them, switching between playing Mayan goddesses, villagers, and the occasional bit part, and sitting in quiet observation for the rest of the time. They frequently spoke in unison, and did modern dance during their parts that highlighted their otherworldliness. For all that I diss modern dance from time to time, it was deployed very effectively here.

The director, Chris Storey, had mentioned to me a few weeks ago that he was doing this play, and he especially recommended that I come; he thought I would find it especially relevant and interesting since I'm Catholic. Which was probably an accurate observation, but particularly given that he was aware of this important aspect of the show, I think the most disappointing thing about the show was how thoroughly it dropped the ball on its Catholic ties. While the show clearly has its merits for non-Catholics and even non-Christians, there are many, many places that draw on Catholic experience and can be quite a bit more dramatic and powerful for those familiar with Catholicism.

For instance, in the last scene we see Romero celebrating a Mass, working his way through the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There is all sorts of powerful symbolism in this scene, and major tension because the audience all knows that the archbishop is about to be assassinated. And yet, it is painfully obvious that the guy who played Romero has never seen a Mass celebrated. It's a little distracting, and it robs the scene of the transcendent power it could have had.

Speaking of distracting, the costuming was bizarre. Post-Vatican II priestly garb has got to be the easiest costume in the world—black shirt, black pants, and a white tab folded over the collar, but nobody wore that. One of the priests wore this poncho thing that looked a little bit like a Franciscan habit (but he was a Jesuit, I think) and a little bit like Salvadoran native garb. The archbishop and the nuncio were wearing billowy black PhD robes with, respectively, a red stole and a white stole. Meanwhile, the nun wore more-or-less modern street clothes (which given the character was probably accurate, but certainly marks the proceedings as distinctly post-Vatican II). Now, I'm not looking for a perfect facsimile of bishop's garb, not even if the show had a budget to work with. But especially for the priests and arguably for the other two, they'd've been much better served to simply go with all-black plus a roman collar. If they felt they had to go with something cassock-like, something that actually resembled a cassock would've been good, maybe with purple sash and skullcap as easy and cheap accessories. As it was, the costuming was distracting and gave the (possibly inaccurate) impression that the nearest any of them had been to a Catholic priest was hearing someone tell them about a movie about Baptist ministers.

All of which is not to say that it was a terrible show. Disappointing, yes, but still worth seeing. Particularly if you find it thematically interesting—for Catholics, for social-justice progressives, and for those interested in Latin American history, this show is one you really ought to see.

"God is a good marxist, Monseñor. He takes from each according to his ability, and gives to each according to his need." --Nicholas Patricca, The fifth sun (Hector)

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May 05, 2006

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

I've just read a book that is (among several others) under consideration for next year's FP: Michael Haddon's the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. An incredibly easy read, and just 226 pages including the proof at the end, it took me a total elapsed time of maybe three or four hours to read it today. It's about... well, its protagonist is an autistic teenager. I'm still trying to decide what it's about.

My inclination for much of the book was to wonder why anyone had ever suggested it for FP, whose main theme is making choices. As I finished it off, though, I started to envision a few angles for discussion, along the lines of the sacrifices various other characters make on Christopher's behalf. Perhaps even Christopher himself; it feels like he's just swept along, but he's doing a lot of his own thinking. And for all that he comes across as barely functional at times, he believably manages a few things rather better than some "normals" that I can think of.

I do recommend the book as an interesting and light-but-serious read. The trick in bringing it into FP will be in conveying a sense of relevance. Why should a non-autistic 18-year-old care or identify with any of the characters in this novel, after all? What it could do is initiate some interesting conversations about unexpected (and perhaps unwanted) responsibilities. Christopher's parents didn't ask for an autistic son, but when one came along, they did their imperfect best. Sacrifices both explicit and implicit come along with some regularity, but they choose to bear up under the responsibility as best they can.

I dunno. I think I could manage to teach it, but I'm not sure I'd pick it as a first choice. On to another one from the proposed reading list....

"Masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality and about the safest sex there is. You won't contract any sexually transmitted diseases or cause an unintended pregnancy, and you don't have to worry about performance anxiety or ever leaving your partner unsatisfied. And really, there's no need not to respect yourself in the morning, unless you didn't respect yourself before." --SDSTAFF Jill, The Straight Dope

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May 03, 2006

Tonight's concert

I think Rachel Ries gets better every time I hear her. She was in Galesburg tonight, kicking off a two-month tour with a performance in the Gizmo. Much of it I'd heard before, but at least four were brand-new; she's putting together an album for release next winter, and it sounds like it will be a worthy offering.

The best part of this live performance, though, was that Knox's Adam Prairie (a talented post-bac who turns up at a lot of musical events, most recently as the composer and musician for As you like it) had emailed Rachel two days ago to ask if she had an opening act, and would she want one? Not only did he open for her, he backed her up with banjo and vocals on "Valentine", a peppy number that benefitted greatly from the backup—the blend was different from either the album version or Andru Bemis's version the last time Rachel was in Galesburg, and that's why live performances are so neat. They had rehearsed it exactly once (about fifteen minutes before the show). That's the sort of thing you get when talented musicians meet.

And Rachel's the best. Her big news since the last visit is that she has now gone pro: she was making enough from her music to be able to quit her day job. Awesome! More time to make albums for me to buy. :)

"Any organization based around a common ideology will act like a church when given political power." --Jonathan Prykop

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April 29, 2006

Nora

I confess that after two mainstage comedies (Noises off and As you like it), I was a little scared of what sort of depressing tragedy the theatre department would come up with to balance them. As it happens, my fears were unfounded (well, maybe they were founded, but they weren't realised), and the spring mainstage was not tragic and only slightly depressing.

I knew going in that it was Neil Blackadder directing it, but I think I could've guessed anyway; the the scene changes, the sets, the whole feel of the show bore a marked resemblance to last year's Round Dance. It even involved an actor smoking an actual cigar, although this one was a much more well-behaved cigar, not filling the performance space at all. This despite the space being considerably smaller—in a novel turn, he staged the show in the round, on the Harbach stage, with risers with chairs on them. It thus had the feel of a studio production (and could easily have been staged there instead, aside from the fact that it was officially this term's mainstage show).

The show got off to a bit of a rough start. The acting was far from wooden, but still seemed a bit... disconnected, as if the actors were delivering their lines with just the right intonation and feeling, but in a vacuum rather than actually in response to the line before. There was also a lot of unmotivated walking around the stage, presumably to make the in-the-round work, but it was a little distracting nonetheless.

Happily, both of these problems seemed to diminish as the play went on. By the end of the first scene, the actors had found their flow, and we could settle in for Nora Helmer's flightiness and Torvald Helmer's sobriety; for Nils Krogstad's creepiness and Kristine Linde's sensibleness. Dr. Rank's depression I never quite felt; he was dressed like a dandy and always seemed much too cheerful to match up well with the deep depression the other characters kept seeing in him.

I wonder why we haven't seen Anjalika Kapur before in a lead; I know I've seen her in smaller roles before, and my program tells me she's a senior. Perhaps it was just a wait for the right role for her, which this seemed to be; her Kristine Linde had just the right air of sophistication, a worldly sensibility without a hint of arrogance. Marty Helms (Krogstad) is another person we haven't really seen in leading parts before. He certainly did fine here, although I thought he didn't act creepy enough. (On the other hand, if he'd been too creepy, we would have found the match with Mrs. Linde to be too unbelievable.)

Nick Perry's Torvald seemed sort of distant, which I guess is about right, but I still wasn't satisfied with the performance somehow. I did think that he had a really good angry voice in the second-to-last scene, and the character seemed reasonable in the earlier scenes. The distress he showed in the last scene was less good, but mostly I think he was unconvincing as a thirty-year-old banker.

The TKS review said that this play was about "Victorian feminism" and went on to riff on this topic for a few paragraphs. As the play went on, I really was just forced to disagree; Nora, as competently played by Saras Gil, was flighty and then stressed and moody (Saras actually looked like she'd been beaten up in the scene after the party), but was not portraying any sort of strong feminine. The character did display some initiative, but was fundamentally dependent.

But that last scene was amazing. Her character arc through the play does not end with "stressed and moody", but progresses right on into "willful" and "independent" and "not gonna take it anymore". Saras is certainly making a creditable stab at the best-actor award here; there is a lot of character development in this show, and particularly in that last scene she conveys a great deal of conflicting emotion. Her realisation that "No... I don't" love Torvald anymore is sudden, and we are perfectly convinced that she had to evaluate the question on the spot and was surprised and anguished by the answer. Knowing how it ends and what a dick he's going to be later on*, her ability in the early scenes to be so flighty and light-hearted is even better in retrospect.

By and large, I loved the costumes in the show. I can't say whether they were perfectly period or not, but to the untrained eye they were convincing. They fit well and, aside from a certain plastic bra strap that was glinting through a sheer blouse in one scene, worked perfectly to set the scene and tell part of the story by themselves. When Mrs. Linde walks in and takes her cloak off, you notice immediately that she's dressed in mourning. When Nora takes the stage in the last scene, her costume says everything; you sit up and exclaim to yourself, "those are travelling clothes!"

Which is why it was so odd that they fumbled on the last costume for Torvald. He's to be in bed, and so he takes the stage (before the scene starts) wearing only his boxers, and gets in bed. Setting aside the apparent mandate from somewhere that every show here needs to have a guy in his underwear, it made all his movements in that whole scene awkward and unnatural, because he needed to be concerned with keeping the covers arranged over him. He pulled on a shirt at one point for no clear reason, but still had to stay under the covers because there were no pants to put on. The real irony here is that (to my understanding), it would have been perfectly period for him to wear a nightshirt, which would then resolve all of the blocking difficulties as well.

Other tech work was good, too. There were some really nice lighting fades between the scenes. The makeup was way better than usual, without the crazy overdone face lines that tend to prevail in mainstage shows (though, come to think of it, I think As you like it was okay in this regard too). The props were generally fine, although the nylon pantyhose were a funny substitute for silk stockings, and technically, not that anyone else in the audience would ever notice this, Norwegian knitting is usually done in the round. :)

* Seriously. In the scene where he reads Krogstad's letter, I wrote down "What a dick." A few moments later I was compelled to add: "DICK DICK DICK." Yikes.

"Above all else, I am a human being, just as you are." --Ingmar Bergman, "Nora" (Nora Helmer)

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February 18, 2006

As you like it

Groovy.

This term's mainstage was a really clever reinterpretation of As you like it in 1960s Berkeley (or at least, in that mythical 1960s Berkeley that is now part of the American story). As director Liz Carlin-Metz put it, this sort of re-setting of Shakespeare lets you "double your pleasure, double your fun"—rather than having to slowly learn the characters and the backstory through only the text, with pretty but unhelpful period costume, putting it in a different milieu gives you a lot of that for free. You might never have heard of the Forest of Arden before, but see it filled with a bunch of tie-dyed hippies, and a whole truckload of cultural connotations snap to mind with nary a word spoken.

There was so much to like about this production. The cast dynamic was convincing, a true ensemble; the text itself very, very funny and the director and cast skilled enough to bring out the best in it; individual actors with a clear character that tells you what the text doesn't; and everywhere a plethora of little things going on off to the side that add to the overall scene.

The music was an unexpected change from the usual, if there can be said to be a "usual" for Harbach productions. Set up far downstage right was a drumset and amp for a band, which by the time I got there was already playing some Beatles classics (and dressed in the black-and-white Old Beatles uniforms) that had much of the audience dancing. During the show they accompanied the songs (60s-rock-style accompaniment by Adam Prairie, lyrics by William Shakespeare) and during the intermission they returned to rock standards by the Beatles and the Who. They were a key element in making the Berkeley setting work, and Adam should totally publish his music for other troupes who want to do this kind of setting for the show.

BEST SET CHANGE EVER.

(And yes, I noticed the gold lamé boxer shorts. Check.)

I think the award for best actor in this particular show has to go to Morgan Cohen-Ross, who played a Celia with such casual elegance that she stole nearly every scene she was in, and yet her airiness and sense of entitlement didn't extend to an uncaringess or sense of superiority that would have made the character an unsympathetic one. Put her in a gathered hippie dress and she blends (elegantly) right into the commune. But mixing a martini on top of her luggage in the middle of the Forest of Arden? Priceless. It came out in the post-show Q&A that this is not a common reading of the character. Liz claimed it was all there in the text, but it's more than that; Morgan's reading of "Orlando." as a snarky mimic to Rosalind's shrieky, swoony "Orlando?", that was pure genius. And her melodramatic rendition of the bad love poetry, ending with a rhyming couplet that pairs "have" with an inevitable, unapologetic, and completely hilarious "slav(e)", that deserves an award of its own.

Matt Allis didn't (for some reason) strike me as the theatre type when I met him earlier this year in unrelated contexts, but I now realise that this is the third production I've seen him in (and I see from the program that he is indeed a Theatre major). And, theatre type or not, he did a great job. He took his lovestruck Orlando pining for Rosalind—which should by rights be a completely annoying character—and made him believable but funny and fun to watch.

In a similar vein, Supporting Actor props go to Nick Perry, who played such a pitiable Silvius that the whole audience couldn't help but go "awwwww" (well, the ones that weren't laughing, anyway) when he yet again reached for his hanky, lip quivering, and let out an anguished sob. Poor Silvius!

There are so many great lines in this show, even compared to other Shakespeare. "Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse." Scansion humour! A lot of linguistic jokes, actually. "You ... show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest." That's a joke grenade right there—a measurable pause between the delivery of the line and the audience's laughter. When Rosalind talks about "Ethiope words, blacker in their effect than in their countenance," I had to make a note of it; I still can't decide whether it's really racist or not, but the turn of phrase is just too clever.

What more is there to say? The script is clever. The director's interpretation is clever. The ensemble has made their parts their own, and the play is very, very funny.

"For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets!" --William Shakespeare, "As you like it" (Rosalind)

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February 12, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Finally saw it. Fantastic movie. I really can't think of anything to say that I haven't already seen in a million reviews, so I'll just say, go see it if you haven't already. Wow.

Ok, actually, I take it back. One of the things I found most compelling about the movie was how much was made clear without being made explicit. This Ang Lee guy is masterful; nothing was in there by accident. A flick of an eyebrow, the shadow of a grin, every "huh", none of it was left to chance. The payoff is rich, deep characters that you feel like you know much better than you should be able to in two hours, especially with as little as anyone said.

Also, this is a movie you really wish had been filmed in IMAX. The shots of Wyoming (which were really shots of Alberta, but who's counting) were gorgeous.

"Suppose you could insure everybody in the US today, right now---now and forever---but in exchange there would never be any more improvement in medical care at all.... Would you do it? ... For many people that is the crux of the matter. What I think is we're actually rich enough to do both. So stop your whining and raise taxes." --David Cutler

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February 04, 2006

A mixed bag

Tonight I breezed into CFA at 7:29 to head to the latest Studio Theatre offering, and paused briefly to ask what it was they were setting up in Kresge. It was the Knox-Galesburg Trio, and the ticket-taker suggested I should go there instead of the studio shows—"the first one is really bad," they said, "although the second one's okay."

I don't know that I'd call it "really bad", but I did feel that Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview wasn't all it could have been. Written by Jon Stewart (yes, that one), it's about what you'd expect (and you can read most of it online). For whatever reason, the director cast both parts as female, and this was a poor choice. You could tell that the script was funny as they were performing it, but half the humour or more comes from the clash between a stiff, awkward, and deeply evil military man on the proverbial therapist's couch, breaking down and crying, etc. That tension just wasn't there. I had to keep reminding myself, "Oh, right, that's Hitler, that's why it's funny." To be fair, it's a tricky line to walk: if you were just handed these lines and told to act them out, you could do a perfectly adequate acting job that just wouldn't be funny. You have to first convince me you're Hitler, and then do the emotional stuff.

The second one was a real actors' show: The Actor's Nightmare takes the archetypal actor's nightmare—being placed on stage in a part you've never rehearsed and don't know any lines for—and runs with it. Since it is a dream/nightmare, normal rules don't apply and non sequiturs carry the day. It was a fun show, and funnier the more you knew about the different plays they were quoting snippets of. (And I'm sure I missed quite a lot of them, too.) The ensemble did a good job with the shifting, drifting characters they were playing, surreal in the way that only dreams can be. The lead, Chris Guthrie, was a lot more grounded (appropriate, since it was his dream), and although he had a tendency to get a bit shrill at times, he did "confused" and "frustrated" pretty well.* The whole cast got a bit shrill at the end; from about halfway in I could see this was going to be another show with an interesting premise and a fun exploration, but no ending to speak of. (I guess conclusions are hard even if you are a creative writing type.) Sure enough, the show ended with everyone onstage, shouting (because that's funny, right?), and finally the lead "dies", ending the show. They did a cute gimmick with the "dead" lead not moving for curtain call, but they ruined the moment by breaking the scene before the audience had a chance to uncomfortably decide whether to pick up and leave or not. Alas. But in any case, the show as a whole I found clever and very funny, and pretty well executed.

*Oh, and chalk up yet another play with a guy running around in his underwear. I'm telling you....

"Everybody knows Carville's not playing with a full deck; I know where the missing cards are." --Paul Begala

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January 20, 2006

Dancing with the stars, season two

I'm not going to run a weekly commentary on the new season of Dancing with the stars like I did last summer (1 2 3 4 5 6), but I do plan to check in from time to time.

It's pretty amazing, quite frankly. With the exception of the surly guy that got eliminated the first week and the big galumphing elephant that will hopefully get eliminated tomorrow, the talent here is quite good. There is definitely significant competition at every step along the way. So far, I have agreed with nearly everything the judges have done, except for their curious love affair with Drew Lachey, who is far from bad but not nearly as good as the judges make him out to be.

This week was certainly the women's week to shine. All four of them were better than all four of the men. Even Freaky Lips Lisa looked good out there; hers was the only jive that really had the triple-steppy bounce of the dance down. And that's a dance to show off the follower, and a hard one to follow—she picked a hard task, and really did well at it. (Probably a wise choice, as I don't think her tango would be as good.)

The top three performances of the week were the other three women, though, and Giselle got totally rooked on her tango. From a non-dancer perspective, I'd love to see the final dance-off come down to Giselle vs. George, because they both have the wittiest banter and play off each other very well. But as good as he is at the dancing, she's got him beat, and she got my online vote this week.

Not needing my help at all were the other two women. Stacy's tango was so sharp, I was sitting in my living room shouting at the TV: "Holy cow! Look at her head snap! Oh my God!" Good choreography and good song choice, too. The judges were surprisingly negative in their commentary, and I had resolved that if she got anything less than a 27, I'd have to throw something at the TV. No need, although I still think it deserved even more. Tia's, then, was just as precise, and she had the emotion and aggression the judges claimed they wanted, and she threw in some positively gorgeous Argentine moves that really enhanced everything, so I thought she'd have to tie or beat Stacy, though there again I was slightly disappointed.

So much good dancing! The elimination choice this week is easy, and I hope the audience doesn't screw it up, because I can't take another week of "Master P", and I feel really really bad for his partner, who is a real trooper. But after he's out, there are still seven left and it will be genuinely hard to decide who I like least. At this point, they've all given some really good performances, and it will start to come down to consistency, I think.

(And when I think, geez, these guys have only been dancing for a month and a half, well, that just makes the outcomes that much more impressive and enjoyable!)

"It's still possible to get locked out of a private home, but usually this requires the help of another in the form of a playful spouse, rowdy friends, or just a toddler who pulls closed a door for whatever reason toddlers do most things." --Snopes

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January 10, 2006

Shallow grave

Me and my Tivo, we find some interesting stuff sometimes. I just caught a show that aired on the Indy Film Channel called Shallow grave; a really neat trip through what a suitcaseful of money will do to the friendship of three roommates. Though it dragged in spots, there was a lot to appreciate; Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor have a compelling chemistry going on, and the plot is far from formulaic. After watching it through, I spent another twenty minutes going back through and watching little snips—some great character moments in there—and it really made me appreciate the character and plot development a lot more. And the fact I went back and immediately rewatched bits of it, if that's not the sign of a good film, I don't know what is.

The thing about watching a film with Scottish actors, though, I love listening to them, but afterwards my internal monologue runs on in a Scottish accent. Not that I can speak in a Scottish accent, no, I'm just thinking in one. That's loads better, I'm sure. :P

"It is horrifying to have to fight our government to save the environment." --Ansel Adams

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January 06, 2006

The Book of Daniel

Jonathan is on the AFA list—that's the "American Family Association", damned if I'm going to lend them my Google karma—for laughs, and from time to time he posts some of their funnier stuff. The latest was a dire alert about needing to boycott NBC for a new show called Book of Daniel that none of them had seen but they were sure was going to be very very bad and nobody should see it.

Why? Because it depicted Christians, of course.

But they're real people too, and so of course they aren't perfect; it is prime time TV, so there has to be drama of some sort. Turns out, it's actually pretty good. The AFA notwithstanding, I think this is actually a pretty positive portrayal of Christians. (I can understand if the Episcopalians get their noses slightly out of joint, but I don't think the show ever meant to say that the ECUSA had a lock on imperfect people.) It reminds me of a slightly edgier Seventh Heaven. I think 7H has dealt with drugs, racism, and end-of-life issues, anyway, though I'm not sure about homosexuality. (The BoD writers throw in some really funny scenes with the gay son, though; not to be missed.)

In any case, I've season-passed it on my Tivo, at least for a few weeks. We'll see where it goes from here. Thanks, AFA! You always pick the best stuff....

"I have found this to be true in 90%+ of all applications I've used: command line IS faster, more robust, more flexible, less resource intensive and less conducive to error and physical [health] problems such as RSI, than GUI. It's just not as 'pleasant'." --Hans Forbrich

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January 04, 2006

Digital fortress

Well, up we come on another academic term, but first I need to warn you about an absolutely execrable book. As my faithful readers will know, I like getting audiobooks for roadtripping; I got started "reading" them on the long Providence-Chicago runs, and kept the habit. Of course, now I'm making shorter trips, generally, but that just means that one book gets stretched over a few round trips.

I've read many of the CD audiobooks in the public library that aren't juvenile or non-fiction, so every time I'm in there I feel like I have to look a little harder. This time, a few weeks ago, I picked an offering from renowned author Dan Brown: Digital Fortress.

What. A. Mistake.

I mean, it seemed like a reasonable idea. The Da Vinci Code wasn't fantastic, and it had some plot holes, and it made stuff up. But still, it wasn't that bad. I'm ok with a certain amount of mediocrity in my hack fiction. This novel is so much worse than that, though.

The characters act without motivation, even routinely acting counter to motivation. The descriptions are spare, and then suddenly florid, neither tactic particularly working. The plot is entirely predictable (and not very interesting) from just a short way in. And, most crucially, the characters are really, really stupid, and computers just don't work even remotely like he claims they do. When two—no, three—world class cryptographers can see two names and not spot an obvious anagram that I could catch without even seeing it in print, what the hell am I supposed to think? The book is littered with examples like this: Dan Brown is not a smart individual, but he wants to seem like one, so he builds characters with great résumés, bills them as really smart, and then has them act like morons.

He also tries to give a patter of technobabble that is detailed and convincing, but is in fact just painfully and obviously wrong. And in ways that even a single reading by a mediocre computer scientist would have caught—and been able to propose an alternative that would be correct and still let Brown's unimaginative plot proceed apace. He would have been better off staying really vague on the computer details, or taking the Star Trek route and inventing new words (though I imagine he'd do a job on those, as well). But after catching a lot of the run-of-the-mill stupidity, the computer scientist would be forced to explain to him a few very important things:

  • There is no way to send an email to an address and cause some "probe" to automatically emit a "tracer signal" that says where that email was forwarded to. The best you could hope would be to send runnable code and hope the recipient was stupid enough to run it, but this would still require them to open the email first, and you'd have to know their OS in advance, and it still wouldn't be able to report the destination email address, just the computer address (at best).
  • When you decrypt an encoded message, you are not running it. It could say "Attack at dawn" or it could say "rm -rf /" but either way it's just a bunch of text; merely viewing it does not cause it to execute.
  • Cryptographers and system security specialists would know this.
  • Computers may do many things when they unexpectedly divide by zero, but returning 999999999.99 is not one of them.
  • When someone puts up an encrypted message for universal download, password to follow on later payment, it is not useful to substitute your own version of the file later, because the relevant recipients will have already gotten it, even if they haven't decrypted it yet. Changing your copy will not change their copy. Furthermore, in any modern system, even if you had the password to decrypt it, you would be wholly unable to encrypt your own message to use the same decryption password.
  • Cryptographers would also know this.
  • If the entire encryption/decryption system is itself encrypted and posted, having a password will not be sufficient to decrypt it: you also need the decryption program, because the encrypted executable is, y'know, still encrypted.
  • A world-class cryptographer will not have a five-character alphanumeric password, and if she did, she sure as hell would not think of it as "highly secure", whether it be made up randomly or not.
  • Even assuming that a message were decrypted, and turned out to be runnable, and someone ran it, for a "virus" to do anything on a custom-built, custom-programmed machine, it would have to have been designed specifically to run on that machine, by someone who knew that machine inside and out.
  • And cryptographers and systems security specialists would definitely know this.

The whole book is so maddening. Infuriatingly and needlessly wrong things are on practically every track of every disc. (In an early dabble in "making shit up about the Catholic Church", he informs us that in Spain, they take Communion at the beginning of the Mass. WTF? And at a communion rail, to boot.) I've still got two CDs left (out of ten), and I am just completely uninterested in actually finishing them. I don't normally stop books in the middle like that. This is even what is (presumably) supposed to be the exciting part. But, gahh. Avoid this book at all costs.

"For those who read the Lewis books as a Christian parable, Aslan fills the role of Christ because he is resurrected from the dead. I don't know if that makes the White Witch into Satan, but Tilda Swinton plays the role as if she has not ruled out the possibility." --Roger Ebert

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December 13, 2005

Back now

I didn't mean to take a weeks-long break from blogging. I can't even say I was really busy; a lot of it, I was just distracted. A quick rundown of what I saw and did:

Rent
I went home for Thanksgiving on Wednesday and we went to see the movie version of Rent. The music was great, but parts of it didn't totally make sense. Then someone pointed out that the characters are all supposed to be 17-20 years old. That made a lot of things clearer. Very angsty, but sort of immature, you know? Anyway, now I need to see La Bohème.
Harry Potter, take 1
Pretty much as soon as I got home I started reading book 4 in preparation for the movie. I quite liked it. Although I've heard everyone saying for years now how "dark" the series gets in book four, I don't think that's exactly true. Book 4 is really two books in one: a 500 page book, the "real" book 4, more or less like the first three; and a 75 page book that should be entitled "Book 4.5: Everything changes". The last couple chapters fundamentally shift several alliances and signal a sea change in how the series is going to go. A number of people have told me that I wouldn't be able to keep up my "eh, I'll read the next book before the next movie" pattern after book 4, and they're right. I have to read book 5 really soon now.
Thanksgiving
Mmm, sweet potatoes. Boy, are my cousins all getting tall.
Harry Potter, take 2
Day after Thanksgiving, we went to see the movie. It was fine, I guess, but not nearly as good as the third movie. While I'm not averse to changing things in order to fit the medium and time frame better, it just wasn't done as well this time. They partially left the reporter in, but didn't really do anything with her. They made Beauxbatons into an all-girls school full of flakes and weaklings, introducing a sexism that wasn't really in the book. They made Harry's motivations a lot more ambiguous than in the book, especially towards the end of the maze. Because they omitted all the "book 4.5" stuff, Dumbledore's speech at the end doesn't make much sense. Oh well, win some, lose some.
Visit
After the movie, we went to visit Loren and those taller people she lives with. She's so adorable! And those taller people make good cocktails, too.
Wicked
Saturday, then, we went to see the musical Wicked downtown. I read the book a couple years ago, and had heard a couple of the songs off the soundtrack, but I still wasn't sure if it would be any good. It was! They did a great adaptation, among other things fixing the ending, and it preserves all the counter-cultural flair of the original. Imagine turning the Wizard of Oz into a commentary on governmental control and the seeds of fascism—and with music!
The trial
The audiobook for the trip home was one of the mysteries I'm so fond of, except that in addition to drafting a whodunit, author Robert Whitlow was pamphleteering. We got to see how every character's life was better for being born again, or worse for not being. The rest of the book was fine, I guess, but by the end all the witnessing was getting pretty tiresome. (And the epilogue was glurgy beyond belief, oy.)
Grading
Also sleeping. But grading was most of what I did for that first week after Thanksgiving. The wages of procrastination is... a helluva lot to do right there at the end.
A Phule and his money
The third book in Robert Asprin's series. Fun as extremely light reading that you don't want to think about very much. I haven't done enough of that lately.
Concert
I joined the Galesburg Community Chorus this term, and our concert was the 3rd. We sang the Schubert Mass in G, the Vivaldi Gloria, and a few carols. It was the first big ensemble I'd been in since graduating Quincy; lots of fun, although I actually sang better in the dress rehearsal than in the concert itself. :P The CD sounds ok, though.
Civ III
I'd had a serious jones for a game of Civ since well before Thanksgiving (thanks to everybody talking about the release of Civ 4). I didn't dare install it until my grades were in, though. I sat down to install it on my laptop... only to discover that my DVD drive is busted. Won't spin up a disc. It worked as recently as the first week of November, but no longer. SO frustrating. I ended up going in to my office, installing, and playing there until six in the morning. Then, in a brainstorm after I got home, I realised that if I VPNed in I ought to be able to remotely mount my work machine's drives on my laptop, and the Civ3 CD was still in the CD drive, and sure enough, I was able to remotely mount it and install to my laptop. So over the course of three days I probably got forty hours of playing in, mostly sating me. :)
Lilypond
A while ago I discovered LilyPond, a music engraving package in much the same way that LaTeX is a text typesetting package. I have a lot of fun playing with it, understanding how it works, and contributing documentation. This is how geeks relax, folks.
Fac search
The CS department is doing a faculty search, so I get to go through all the applications and rank them. There's a Dilbert cartoon that keeps popping into my head during this process: "Hey! Dot matrix!" Not quite that bad, of course, and there are a few promising ones. But, boy, the middle and bottom of the application pool, yikes.
House walk
The Galesburg Civic Art Center has a neat fundraiser they run each year: they get five houses in town to let people wander through, and then they charge those people $12 to see all five houses. The houses on the tour range from grand to cozy, but there's something to see in all of them; the ones you expect to be plain are sometimes the most interesting ones to see inside. It's fun hearing people say "ooh, check out this bathroom!" or "what a great place to put an office!" The last house I went to was Steve Jones's, and it has a pump organ that he'd had restored, and the guy that restored it came to play for a while. Really cool.
Same time, next year
Sunday, I was following my usual routine, and sitting in Uncle Billy's reading the Zephyr, when I noticed that Coffee Bean is putting on a show next weekend. No wait, this weekend. Crap! No—I'm in luck, they have a Sunday matinee. Which starts in 25 minutes. Run! As it happens, I made it to the show (in the community room of the mall) with minutes to spare, and settled in. The premise is that each of six scenes take place in the same hotel room, five years apart, as discussions between a man and a woman in a deep long-term relationship. They're married—just not to each other. The two actors did a pretty good job with it; I think the guy overdid the guilt scenes a bit, but mostly they hit the full range of emotions right on. The rapport was excellent, and it was easy to believe that the two had been a couple for a long time; I found out later that the actors had been dating for several years. How did I find out? Well, at the end of the show, the guy signals to the sound tech to cut off the music, pulls out a speech from his pocket, and starts reading it. And he proposed! Right there in front of the audience! She was totally stunned. Most of the crew didn't even know about it, and of course the audience wasn't expecting anything of the sort, although his moms in the front row were well-prepared with cameras, so presumably he'd clued them in. :) He was heard to say afterwards, "That was what I was so damn nervous about all week." I bet.
Still no roof
But there are hints of progress. After the 30th—which was itself the first time I'd seen the roofers in two weeks—it snowed, and it's been snowing every few days since, which makes the roof too treacherous to work on, I guess. But today I was awakened by clomping on my roof, and it was the head roofer guy shovelling off snow. He promised that the crew'd be back tomorrow (today, now) to continue work, and that they would subsequently be tarping it each night, so they'd be able to clear any snow each day. Why they didn't do that in the first place, I have no idea, but at least they're doing it now. I again have hope that this thing will be done before March. Ideally, by the end of the week. Then I can actually start planning my budget again.

Now, this week, I need to get cracking on stuff for next term. Once I go home next Monday, there will be no work done (whether I want to or not) until at least the 2nd... and classes start the 3rd. Wish me luck!

Even now, in the nostalgic glow of nonpartisanship, I am tempted to point out that, in his otherwise carefully composed self-encomium, Clinton's "working together, America has done well" is a prime example of a dangling modifier. It could be corrected by changing the subject "America" to "Americans" or "the American people," which would be a plural subject that could be "working together." But in the father of our country's paraleiptic tradition, I will pass over this grammatical lapse in utter silence. --William Safire

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November 15, 2005

Exposing the evil empire

I saw the Walmart movie tonight (the anti one). It wasn't very good. Its production values sucked---the sound mixing was terrible, and frequently drowned out the speaker with "background" music---and if I hadn't gone in knowing a bunch of stuff about Walmart, I would still be a little skeptical. In one interview, they kept flipping the image horizontally, I suppose to make it look like multiple camera angles. In nearly every interview, there were obvious splices, right in the middle of sentences, and while this may have been done to make the speaker sound more coherent, it's also hard to be convinced it wasn't changing the meaning of what they were saying.

I did learn two things, though, that I didn't already know: 80% of crimes committed at Walmarts occur in their parking lots, making them one of the highest-crime areas in many towns they invade; and appraised property values automatically go down throughout a town as soon as Walmart arrives, because the appraisers know that so many stores are about to close, empty space will soon be available.

It was neat to see that the showing required not one but two overflow rooms to seat everyone---many college affiliated people, but also some from the town---and that a lot of the attendees stuck around for discussion afterwards. There was actually a really good one in the room I was in, because there were two guys who were, if not pro-Walmart, at least pro-big-business and very free market about jobs (after all, if Walmart's not paying enough, the workers can just leave, right?). It's good for me to actually have to argue against an opponent in person every now and then. (One of the others in the room was a R-M reporter who took my name---I hope I'm not quoted to say something ridiculous tomorrow. :P)

In other news, I woke up with a slightly sore throat this morning, which maintained itself all day and started getting worse about two hours ago. And yet, all I can think is, if I was going to get sick, THANK GOODNESS that it waited until now. The very last immediate-deadline anything that I have for this term is FP meetings tomorrow; then after that, grades are due in two weeks. So I have time to recover, whew.

Mein bratwurst has a first name,
It's F-R-I-T-Z,
Mein bratwurst has a second name,
It's S-C-H-N-A-C-K-E-N-P-F-E-F-F-E-R-H-A-U-S-E-N. --Tony Nuval

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November 11, 2005

Titanic

I just saw the strangest show.

This week's offering at the studio theatre is Titanic---no, not that one---directed by Jason Cascio. As is my wont, I entered the show knowing nothing about it; and in this case, I think that was an exceptionally good idea. If you're at Knox, go see it tomorrow, then come back and read the rest of this post. But get there early---I arrived ten minutes before the show started and the main seating area was already full. I'm not sure if they turned anyone away, but in the end they were seating people upstairs in the tech loft....

So anyway, the show started with several well-to-do folks eating a meal, dressed in turn-of-the-century costume, obviously on the real Titanic. So innocuous! Saras Gil's polished accent contributed to the atmosphere of elegance, and we settled in. But after a few moments, her character and her husband get into a spat, and she informs him that Teddy---who is there---is not his son. His response is that Annabella is not her daughter... wait, was this a comedy?

Rather. A lewd and extremely funny one. Aside from a few of the actors cracking smiles early on, there was little to mar the humour and bizarreness of the show. The floppy blue silicone dildo was a nice touch. I did see the gun in Brent's jacket, or at least, I saw something in there and intuited that it was a gun. But I certainly wasn't expecting it to actually fire!

I do hope whoever's playing the captain's wife takes every opportunity to cause mayhem. I mean, when the cast can see you and the audience can't, it's practically your duty to do something.

And Jamie Bellian's character-establishing monologue was masterful. I don't think she's a regular in the theatre crowd here---this is the first thing I've seen her in---but she must have had incredible fun with this part. How often do you really get a chance to reach under your skirt and feed a well-embedded seagull, after all?

And let me post an addendum to last week's notes about Noises Off. A thought that ran through my head then was, "huh, funny---this time Evan Sawdey is the only guy who we don't see running around in his underwear," a comment that may only make sense if you read my post about last winter's mainstage. I decided not to post it, because I'd look obsessed, or something, but I'm really starting to think it's not me that's obsessed with guys running around stage in their underwear. In this show, three of the four male characters spend a considerable amount of time wearing nothing but undershirt and boxers. That makes four shows and something like eight different characters in the last year, and that's just of the shows I've seen. This can't be a coincidence.

Not that I'm complaining. The underwear merely adds to the suave, elegant ambience established by the dildo and the hamsters. High literature it was not, but I found this show to be enormously fun.

"Another possible economic factor in explaining the roles of Utica and Rochester in the religious revival is that Finney arrived in both places at a time when the boom brought on by building a section of the canal had declined, and the townspeople had reverted to more thought upon their religious condition and to concern about "sin," a commodity that moved with considerable facility along the canal." --Hermann Muelder, Fighters for Freedom

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November 05, 2005

Noises off!

Kathy will be jealous: I saw the Knox mainstage production of Noises Off! tonight.

Unfortunately, despite my eager anticipation, they didn't make use of the fact that Harbach's stage rotates (due to the fact that the proscenium side has extra rows of seating). Too bad. On the other hand, the set they did use was pretty damn impressive; it was a single enormous wagon that took ten people to rotate between acts. Each rotation actually garnered applause from the audience. And it was solidly built, with each of the seven doors being heavy wood doors that closed with a satisfying ka-clunk (that is, when they weren't closing with a satisfying slam). Of course, the set layout is the same one in every other production of the show, since nearly everything about the set is plot-crucial, even moreso than in most English farces. Still, it was quite impressive.

Other technical work was decent if not overwhelming. Of course, the real goal of the techie is to make you not notice their work, and in that sense the, say, lighting design was good (hi Chelsea!). The costuming was fine, although several of the skirts and dresses just didn't appear to fit and flow right. The makeup was overdone, as usual; this seems to be a running thing for Harbach mainstage shows that use the front of the thrust stage, where the actors are much too close to the audience to be able to count on bright stage lights washing out their faces. I could see distinct lines---and not just chin lines---on nearly all the actors' faces. :P

The three acts of the show take place in very different contexts, and I found that different actors did better in each one. In the first act, the most normal of the three, with the company in rehearsal, the action was establishing the characters both of the actor-character (i.e. the actors being played in Noises off) and of the character-characters (i.e. the characters the Noises off actor-characters are playing in the play-within-play entitled Nothing on). In terms of line delivery, Doug Porter and Nathan Thompson stood out most here, Doug for his pouting and fainting as Frederick (Phillip) and Nathan for his delightfully understated wit as the director. Many of the others seemed to have trouble slipping into their inconsistent array of British accents, or were overplaying their character a bit too much. (Although as far as that goes, Mikah Berky seemed at first like the worst offender, but in retrospect that may have just been a reasonable interpretation of Belinda.)

They made up for it later, though. Act two is a ballet of sorts, in the "shhh!" backstage of the show in actual production. It's got to be incredibly tricky to pull off, because even without actors saying lines to draw attention to the action, the audience still needs to be able to follow what's going on. Morgan Cohen (Dotty) really took over here, I thought, successfully turning up the volume on her body language so we could hear it way out in the audience. I wish I could see the whole show, and especially act two, about a hundred times; even knowing more or less what was going on, it was very hard to remember where to look next. And the action moves around a lot, handing off a hatchet, a cactus, three bouquets, and a fifth of jack between all the various actors making their entrances and exits, and unable to carry these items onstage with them. (Morgan reportedly used a pedometer and clocked her movement during act two alone at over a mile and a half. I can believe it!) Even with the fairly precise instructions in the script correlating the offstage and onstage action, choreographing it all to the specific set and props, and making it work, is a really impressive bit of ensemble work, with credit due to Doc Bob and all the actors for managing it.

It's too bad that the show has to go on to act three. It's definitely the weakest act as written, and it's hard to sustain the energy to the end of the show after things completely fall apart. Still, these guys did good work with what they were given. In this act, I think Meghan Reardon as Brooke (Vicki) did her best work, playing an actor-character who's sort of an ingenue playing a character-character who's sort of an ingenue, but who is at this point more with it than most everyone else. She keeps dragging the show on, kicking and screaming, even as nothing goes right and everyone else gets flustered. Evan Sawdey deserves extra special mention for an amazing fall that seems like it could not possibly have been just a stage fall, and which appeared to pose a real danger of snapping off a bannister. I found myself checking whether he was breathing.... Doug also gets a mention in this act, since I wrote down what a great, smooth pratfall he'd executed over some slippery sardines, but it appears from some post-show consultation that this part was, ah, not exactly in the script. Nice recovery, though. :) And throughout the cast, the actors kept deceiving me into thinking they were doing some really good ad-lib recovery for mistakes, e.g. when Morgan laments forgetting the sardine, espies the plate sitting on the end table, and exclaims, "Oh! No, I didn't! ... I'll go make myself another plate, to celebrate!" Of course, I reminded myself, they were scripted to do so. (That's good acting too, though!)

This show is the ultimate meta show. The action occurs, and is funny, on so many levels, it makes your brain hurt. And boy howdy does it ever make you laugh. I have not been to a production of anything here at Knox that had the audience so riled up as this one. Being a fairly loud and rowdy laugher myself, I was happy to not have to keep it bottled up for a change. Now I just wish I hadn't had stuff all the other nights it was on; I really should have come to see it at least a few times. Maybe I can speed back from Urbana tomorrow night and catch it then (7:30 in Harbach, if you're in town---don't miss it!).

"Povsyuda idu, iz Londona do "da Bay," I vsegda "Hammer idi, Hammer yo, Hammer M.C. Hammer, I drugiye mogut idti igrat'!" --as translated by Mike Peil

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October 12, 2005

Good night, and good luck

Tonight I saw Good night and good luck, the new George Clooney indy movie about Edward R. Murrow, at its midwestern premiere here in Galesburg. (Nice, eh?) It's pretty fabulous. I gather from reading a Wikipedia article that a few details have been shuffled around, and from a Slate review that the film makes a lot of things black and white that shouldn't have been.

I don't care. It's still fabulous.

I concur with the Slate editorial that the movie is tailored as a message to modern audiences as much as it is a historical depiction. Of course! This is clear from the opening few bars, where Murrow starts lecturing an audience about the demise of independent journalism and the importance of dissent. The movie, for all that it is basically historical, is an extended metaphor for the recent attempts to suppress dissent and label defenders of freedom as unpatriotic. It's not particularly apologetic about that.

And what a setting. The attention to detail is incredible; and real clips from the period are mixed with modern footage in a truly seamless way. As fancy CG techniques go, it's pretty unremarkable, but nevertheless highly effective. All footage of McCarthy himself is real and original---an excellent choice on Clooney's part, because any actor trying to replicate that would be accused of setting up a straw man. No, the junior senator from Wisconsin really was that much of a dick, and happy to just make stuff up if it would serve his purposes.

Sound familiar? But anyway.

A documentary this is not. But if that doesn't bother you, go see this movie when it comes out. It keeps you in suspense even though you know the ending. And it's a stark reminder that there is nothing new under the sun; those who ignore or do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work" --Thomas Edison

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October 04, 2005

C-in-C again

They showed a debate at Brown University! Which is plausible enough, except that the debate venue didn't look even remotely like any part of Brown. :P Also, although its prestige makes such an event plausible, Brown is lacking in auditoria of significant size.

And even though the diary thing is defused, you know that it foreshadows something---in particular, what is it about the brother that she wrote that would've been politically embarrassing for the President? I'm guessing it's that he's gay. We'll see, I guess. Maybe sooner rather than later, since the preview for next week's ep includes one of his friends being incredulous that he's not dating (and sleeping with) any of the girls from the school. But they'll probably lead up to it for a few weeks first.

Did Geena Davis always talk through clenched teeth? She's great, but when she does that it sounds really odd. Otherwise, though, I thought this week's episode sustained the level of the previous one and still has the potential to fill West Wing's shoes. Oh, and Donald Sutherland is so delightfully eeeeevil. You gotta love that.

"The "melting pot" theory works in some areas in the larger cities. The "salad bowl" theory works rather well for other towns and cities. But I propose a third theory that covers vast areas of the US. The "child's plate" theory. In this theory all of the foods are separated into their own groups and if the ketchup touches the green beans all hell breaks loose." --Brian Pyle

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September 27, 2005

Commander in chief

The new ABC series Commander-in-Chief looks quite promising, I'd have to say. Geena Davis plays the first female US vice president, suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the position of being also the first female president. The premise seems at first to be somewhat derivative of The West Wing, but there are enough differences to make it far from a clone. Among other things, the President is an independent, but she had been the running mate of a Republican; the entire cabinet is thus somewhat to her right. (We'll see exactly where she sits on all the issues, but it certainly seems that they're placing her right in the middle, maybe a shade left.) The Speaker (played by Donald Sutherland!) is a shady, nasty Republican, and very hostile to her, since he wanted the presidency for himself.

And her first real act as president---I hate to spoil anything if you've taped it, but this is basically laid out in the first few minutes---has to do with projecting power and saving a woman in Nigeria sentenced to death for adultery. To be honest, some of the sequences here were a bit ham-handed, but I'm inclined to forgive them that; the rest of it was well put together.

The show as a whole has a good ensemble, with a few known stars but mostly unknowns. They have laid out some intriguing character dynamics both within her family and among her political associates. And, in my opinion, the pilot alone was more West-Wingy than West Wing itself has been for years.

"The biggest threat is terror? Yes, I agree. But we have terror of many things. We have terror of being ill---especially if you have no medical insurance...." --Yevgeniy Yevtushenko

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August 28, 2005

The Brothers Grimm

I found The Brothers Grimm to be thoroughly enjoyable. It managed to work in references to a lot of fairy tales, without ever really overplaying their hand; the main story was not based directly on any of them. There is a nice setup of Jake and Will as skeptic vs believer (in "fairy tales"), in an almost Mulder-and-Scully sort of way, and this fuels some very nice character development scenes.

Terry Gilliam's hand can clearly be seen in a number of places in the movie, injecting a bit of subtle humour into otherwise serious scenes.

It's still not exactly high literature, but I do think it was a pretty good movie. I understand that a number of critics have been panning it, but I suspect it's because they went in expecting something else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun afternoon movie with a good mix of action and relatively intelligent humour.

"Today, 30 years into feminism, we have models who look not just weak and unsophisticated, but also dumb and victimized.... Is this how women in fashion see themselves?" --Karen Lehrman

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August 07, 2005

These things happen...

It seems a little like déjà vu. You're reading a mystery novel, and a detail comes up that seems slightly familiar. Oh, but perhaps the author used it also in another novel. Or... not. You get three chapters in, and more of it is coming back to you; you sort of remember the trick of the thing. Another chapter in and you remember the exact point on which the whole story turns.

And yet, there are little details that elude you. So you do what any good mystery novel reader would do: skip to the last thirty pages and read from there. :)

(How did that book end up on my unread shelf, anyway? I wonder if this is still leftover from that time Kevin rearranged my bookshelves to annoy me.)

"When artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them, they also find, as they learn to trust those responses, that these oddities are what constitute their value to others." --Kathleen Norris

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August 02, 2005

Catching up #3: The cloister walk

For FP this year we will be reading most of Kathleen Norris' The cloister walk. I'm really pleased that it got into the list; it is about so many different things I can't even decide what I most want to talk about. Kathleen Norris, though herself a Presbyterian, spent a lot of time in and around Benedictine monasteries, interacting with monks and nuns and praying their songs; this book is a bloggy sort of memoir on the experience.

For the Catholics in the crowd, there is a lot of material on the personal history of the Church. Real people, some later sainted, some not, living real lives with real struggles.

For the poets in the crowd, Norris discusses the relationship of poetry and metaphor to liturgy and truth.

She writes about the similarities between communal monastic life and communal small-town life.

She writes about feminism in and in reaction to Christianity.

She writes about the roles of sexuality and celibacy in a monastic community.

And I think her most important contribution in this book, to our course if not to the world at large, is the pervasive idea throughout that religion can be a radical way of life. One can find people on both sides of the debate who would agree that religion encourages a mindless complacency, one side concluding that mindless complacency is therefore good, and the other that religion is therefore bad. Norris casts a plague on both their houses: that wouldn't be good, but that's not what religion is, or at least not what it can be. Religion is in the stories that reflect our human condition and help us get a handle on ourselves. The psalms are a constantly recurring element of the book; she points out that many of them seem at first blush to be very un-Christian---angry, vengeful, even cursing. What they are is human; and we can all relate to the emotional content therein, even as we rework our thoughts into a prayer that we can rise above the temptations.

Catholic or not, I think everyone that claims to spend time thinking about religion ought to read this book. I can't possibly do justice to Norris's thesis in a blog post; I can't even summarise it well, because she is a writer and a poet who spent years carefully fabricating a text that teases around the edges of a lot of ideas that are, in a phrase coined by my friend Jonathan, "only approximately effable".

"I sometimes get in trouble when I refer to the Incarnation as the ultimate metaphor, daring to yoke the human and the divine. To a literalist, I have just said that the Incarnation isn't 'real'. As a poet, I think I've said that it is reality at its most alive; it *is* the new creation." --Kathleen Norris

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Catching up #2: Kiss me, Kate

This past weekend, I saw the Prairie Players production of Kiss me, Kate in Harbach. It reminded me a lot of a high school musical, not least because nearly all of the actors were high school students or recent graduates. I don't know if this is usual for PPCT's summer show or not, but it seemed a little strange. On the other hand, most of the kids seemed to be pretty good, so I don't think it's a bad thing.

However, that's not how it appeared at first. The opening number, "Another op'ning, another show" was incredibly weak. The singing was weak, the choreography was weak (and poorly executed), and the whole thing just went clunk. I was squirming in my seat, worried I was going to have to endure another two hours of this. Argghhh.

Which is a shame, because that was probably the only really bad part of the show. The rest wasn't perfect, but I was able to get into it after that. I really wonder what happened. Perhaps it was just overambitious; I don't think any other number tried to move as many people around the stage on that scale.

Note that I haven't mentioned the music yet. The "pit" consisted of just one guy, the musical director. I wondered for a while whether he was playing on a cheap synthesiser or whether the music was canned... if the former, he was doing a great job of playing, but why did his keyboard have to be so cruddy, and if the latter, what the hell kind of crap canned accompaniment was this? It didn't include a single authentic-sounding instrument, and I know that our synth technology is better than that these days. Asking after the show, I found out he had played all the music through his iBook, and that he had sequenced it---track upon track upon track---all on his own. So, he gets really good geek points for sequencing it all through his laptop, and musician props for playing it all and putting it together. But I found that it really detracted from the show to have all the music sound like that. It also made a lot of the scene transitions a lot more self-conscious; having all the music pre-sequenced made it impossible to vamp while everyone got in place. Was it really so impossible to find a four- or five-piece pit orchestra? It's not like we need the Boston Pops, here. The high school musicals seem to manage just fine. (And the most gratuitous part of all of it is that he ginned up a canned "orchestra tuning" sound that went on for, like, a minute. Come on.)

After putting the first number behind them, the actors turned out to have perfectly good singing voices. Many of the songs were a real stretch, range-wise, which was a little unfortunate, but this is one of the hazards of doing musical theatre with a very small casting pool---you tend to be able to cast a given role for the acting or for the vocal range, but not both. The problem was compounded by the fact that the canned music was much too loud and the microphones seemed to have some... issues. I'm not sure why they were miked at all, actually; the mics were turned down or off for the spoken lines, and the voices carried just fine. Couldn't they just turn the accompaniment down? I definitely found the jaw-mounted sports announcer mics to be conspicuous and distracting. And even with the extra volume, the lyrics were often quite hard to understand. (Not that Cole Porter lyrics always make the greatest sense to begin with. :)

That rear projector in Harbach is just a problem. Does nobody else notice that the main light shines right through the cyc, and gets in your eyes? I'm pretty sure there are ways around this (mounting it much higher or much lower, for instance), but this is not the first time I've seen this happen here.

One funny thing I realised partway through the show is that the plot of KMK is really quite similar to that of Moon over Buffalo, playing concurrently in the next town over. Aside from taking place around the same time, both revolve around a play-within-a-play, with an actress estranged from her stage roots, and her former lover, thrown by circumstance back on the stage and into the company of that former lover despite a current engagement to another, who is also hanging around backstage. Hijinks ensue. MOB has more farce and less singing, but the similarities are certainly striking.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a Cole Porter extravaganza unfolds. Light on continuity, but heavy on one-liners, word play, and individually great songs; the advantage of this is that even with a clunker of an opening, and occasional fuffs thereafter, the jewels were able to shine unimpeded. Cole Porter wrote some really catchy tunes, which were for the most part done justice. "Why can't you behave?", "Too darn hot", and "Tom, Dick, or Harry" will probably all be familiar to people, even if they're not sure where they came from---the last of these, performed with a perfect deadpan, had me busting a gut at the constant innuendo. "Wunderbar" is another familiar one; I suppose it was sung well, but I was too distracted by the dreadful attempt at a waltz. I really have to make all the local directors know that I'm perfectly happy to give crash courses in these things. "Where is the life that late I led?" continues to drive me crazy, because I know it from somewhere else, but I can't decide where. I have a nagging suspicion it's a Silly Song, but I checked the list from the collection and none of them seem to match. Argh.

The pinnacle of the show is certainly "Brush up your Shakespeare". It bears no connection by plot to anything else; it's just a litany of puns and jokes on the titles of a couple dozen Shakespeare plays. Many of which are only funny when performed with a vaguely Bronx-Brooklyn-mobster stereotypical accent, as indeed Jeff Cervantes and Kevin Dean did. Bravo!

Compliments also on the stage presence of the entire assembled cast; when a large set piece fell over backstage, knocking one of the onstage set pieces askew, the most anyone onstage reacted was a brief glance in that direction, and most not even that. The show goeth on....

Watching this play with a modern eye is a bit difficult. The plot (such as it is) has a bunch of men working to break a strong-willed woman, and succeeding. As played, the first scene where Fred is fighting with Lilli and holding her down felt very uncomfortably like rape. The spanking scene can be played a number of ways, but this show's Fred looked like he was angrily beating Lilli; I seem to remember another production (the movie?) where Fred at least was played as exasperated and jovial---not a huge improvement, I suppose. And it would be difficult to redeem the final scene, where Lilli goes on and on about how subservient women should be. This production tried to mitigate that a bit, with Lilli winking at Lois; I suppose that is supposed to mean, "this is what we say for the men's benefit, but it's a bunch of bull." But it's too subtle and (I think) can't be reconciled with the rest of the scene.

This show was decidedly a mixed bag. There were a lot of shining moments, where a funny line was well delivered or a good song well sung. But a lot of little problems conspired to make this show a lot less than it could have been. I certainly don't think my time was wasted, and I definitely plan to attend future PPCT shows. But I do hope that they go a bit better....

"I'm not saying that the Canadian system is perfect, or even awesome. I am saying that we pay twice as much per capita as they do already, so we could probably have a system that has the Canadian virtue of universal coverage and the US virtue of enough money thrown at the problem to produce, Voltron-like, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts." --Mike Kimmitt

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August 01, 2005

Catching up #1: Moon over Buffalo

More than a week ago now, I hopped on 34 and drove down to Monmouth to see Coffee Bean Theatre's production of Moon over Buffalo. Somehow it managed to take me almost ten minutes just to get out of Galesburg---curse those poorly timed downtown stoplights---and so I arrived a minute or two late. For a wonder, the production had begun on time (what kind of a theatre company do they think they are, anyway?), so I had to stand in the back while my eyes adjusted, waiting for a scene change or something to find my seat. The Rivoli is an old theatre that must have been beautiful once, but after Kerasotes bailed and the seats and carpet were stripped out, what's left is more reminiscent of a warehouse. Seating was in chairs that had been set out on the bare concrete; more than adequate, of course, but not your typical theatrical experience.

But about the show. It took a while to get into, and I was a bit disappointed; having been billed as "side-splitting", I found it somewhat funny, but less than uproarious---until the second act. This is when the mildly funny setup from the first act really pays off. I sort of embarrassed myself with the raucous laughter the show elicited at this point, although the director thanked me afterwards. ;)

Tim Holmes as George played a masterful drunk scene.

Good farce is probably very hard to write, but it's fun to perform and fun to watch. It appeared that a few of the actors were making great efforts not to crack a smile during some of the best bits; but who can blame them? The sheer absurdity of the situation is hard to resist. For the audience, it's even better---seeing the elements click into place, and suddenly knowing what horrible misunderstanding will happen next, being powerless to do anything about it but groan in anticipation. Delightful stuff!

I have to compliment the actors and crew on the costuming, especially for the women. The dresses they found were really good period pieces---they might have been off by a few years, but they were very close---and very flattering, as 1950s dresses often could be. (Fashionistas take note!) I was a little taken aback by the aloha shirt on Paul, though; I guess they must've existed in 1953, but the one he had and the way he wore it made him look thoroughly modern and out of place, especially against the rest of the clothing. Ah well.

When I got in my car, I really didn't know what to expect; I just was jonesing for a good theatre fix, in somewhat shorter supply during the summer. I was pleased with what I saw---low budget fare, but talented---and certainly intend to check out Coffee Bean's upcoming productions.

"That we all begin inside a woman and must emerge from her body is something that the male theologians of the world's religions have yet to forgive us for." --Kathleen Norris, _Cloister Walk_

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July 23, 2005

Balance of power

A few days ago I finished the book Balance of power, by Richard North Patterson. Without giving away any more than the book jacket, I'll summarise the plot as follows: a liberal President with an anti-gun agenda is handed an incident that maximises the sympathy and outrage of the American public along every imaginable axis, and yet it is still far from trivial to actually implement even the most commonsensical of gun control laws, due to powerful politicians and lobbies. As you might imagine.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Much better than the last few audio books I've gotten; I don't think there was any point in this one where I felt I was forcing myself to slog through. Indeed, much as with actual book books, good ones, I found myself unable to "put down" the book, popping CD after CD to find out what happens next.

But I think I can review it very concisely. To the extent that the function of a review is to tell its readers whether they'll like the thing reviewed, here's all I need to say: you will like or dislike this book exactly to the extent that, and for the same reasons that, you liked or disliked the first four seasons of The West Wing. Other than that, I don't really need to say anything (except maybe that I really liked the big speech, a masterpiece of persuasive oratory).

"He's just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But that's what we get when Democrats run awful campaigns. Really, Democratic candidates should be more mindful of their responsibility to protect this country from their opponents." --Michael Kimmitt

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June 02, 2005

The vicar of Wakefield

The book-on-tape that I just finished listening to over the weekend was something of a departure for me; normally I go for the suspenseful thriller mystery, since one of its chief goals will be to keep me awake and alert while driving. But this one struck my fancy anyway, billed as the first comedic novel written in English: The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, first published in 1766. And the voice actor's accent alone was worth the price of admission (which was free, but still); the novel itself was a little scattershot, but still a fun read. I was interested to note that the desire to tie up all the loose ends with a nice, happy little bow, currently billed as some sort of American weakness, was already alive and well in 18th-century England.

Indeed, I was pretty surprised at a lot of the ways in which this novel could have been written much more recently. Many turns of phrase were older than I thought, and aside from a leaning towards some now-less-used words like 'assiduity', there were very few places where the language of the novel would be out of place in modern Standard English. (Even the thees and thous seemed to be on their way out; I think by this point they were already restricted to intra-family conversation.) I was certainly pleased to note a bunch of split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, the most delightful being in the second-to-last chapter: "She was now made an honest woman of." Magnificent.

But the most interesting parts of the book were when characters were having discussions about politics and society, many of which are just as applicable today as they were 240 years ago. On class and the accumulation of wealth:

An accumulation of wealth, however, must necessarily be the consequence when, as at present, more riches flow in from external commerce than arise from internal industry; for external commerce can only be managed to advantage by the rich, and they have also at the same time all the emoluments arising from internal industry; so that the rich, with us, have two sources of wealth, whereas the poor have but one. For this reason, wealth in all commercial states is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical.
That's from Chapter 19. On the nature of punishment and the role of the state therein:
Then, instead of our present prisons, which find or make men guilty, which enclose wretches for the commission of one crime, and return them, if returned alive, fitted for the perpetration of thousands....
Chapter 22 has more on this theme, starting around page 224. Some of it, it's like he's looking through time at turn-of-the-21st-century America, and all of us that even existed then was a bunch of colonies across the sea.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Perhaps because of its familiarity in language and politics, it helps to show me just how different some other things were about life in 18th-century Britain.

What could we say? We're only twenty five years old,
with 25 sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold.
This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable;
we'd like to play hockey,
  have kids,
  and grow old.... --Moxy Früvous, "Gulf War Song"

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May 15, 2005

It's here!

My copy of For you only, the new CD by Rachel Ries, arrived today. It's just as awesome as I expected. Apparently she's not doing an official release until late June, but if you happen to be going through the north side of Chicago, you can get one at the coffee shop where she works (details in the "News" section of her website).

"After all, deleting e-mail all day builds up an appetite. And what better way to fill that craving than with a protein-rich square of salty, pink pork." --Wired

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Saturday night at the Orpheum

Over Spring break this year, the Knox College Choir, the Sandburg College Choir, and the Galesburg Community Choir went on tour to perform at Carnegie Hall. Tonight they reprised that performance at the Orpheum. When I got there the first floor was relatively full, but after I found a seat I noticed people up in the balcony, so I went up there. The seats themselves are much better, the sound is better, and the view is much better.

The pieces being performed were Francis Poulenc's Gloria and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem. Aside from some bobbles when they first started, the orchestra sounded great, and the 130-voice combined choir sounded fantastic, except when they were interrupted by the soloist's yawling.

I suppose that's a slightly unfair characterisation. Within the genre of operatic soprano, she was fine, I guess; Laura Lane certainly seemed happy with her performance after the show. And when she was singing fairly quietly, she sounded okay, if not fantastic. But when her volume was anywhere north of mezzo-piano, the quality of her voice was such that it seemed as if she were trying very hard to swallow her own tongue. It's not a pretty sound, and it does nothing for the enunciation, either. Why do people actually like this sound? I feel a little bad panning her performance so badly, because it's clear she's worked very hard to achieve that style, and she's really succeeded. But, egh.

But the choir itself (and, for that matter, the baritone soloist) sounded great. The Gloria had two sections that sounded like they were pulled right out of a Broadway musical, but other than that they were your basic big choral works. The chorus sang them as if they were easy, well-blended and not fighting the orchestra for attention. I wonder how much more I would have liked it if they had just had a woman with a normal voice singing the solo....

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again." --George Miller

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May 13, 2005

Do: you think?

I'm working my way through Lynne Truss's Eats, shoots & leaves, agreeing with her on nearly everything. Indeed, there are a few rules she's set out that I didn't know or wouldn't have thought of.

She and I had our first little quarrel just now over the use of the colon. In addition to its venerable uses at introducing specific things ("three things: bread, milk, and cheese") and sometimes tightly, causally related clauses ("we went to the midnight show: we'd been itching to see it for weeks"---though even this usage seems a bit iffy to me), Truss claims that there are other valid uses:

  • "when there is probably more to the initial statement than has met the eye", e.g. "You can do it: and you will do it." (Ugh.)
  • "as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements", e.g. "Man proposes: God disposes." (Double ugh.)
I don't even think this one can be chalked up to the oceanic divide; even among British writers, I can't recall running across either of these in any significant number. I'd think I would, too, as they are so jarring.

However, having argued on page 119, we made up again on page 120. In demonstrating another use of the colon, she made one of the finest literary references ever:

Gandhi II: The Mahatma Strikes Back
Recognise it? It's from UHF; Lynne Truss is a Weird Al fan!

"The 'A' is for content, the 'minus' is for not typing it. Don't ever do this to my eyes again." --Professor Ronald Brady, Philosophy, Ramapo State College

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May 06, 2005

More Skriking

I went to see The Skriker again tonight. A lot of the problems I noted in my previous post were resolved in a second viewing. The opening monologue? Despite being primed by the memorable phrase "Rumpelstiltskinesque plot" that I had seen when I glanced at the program before the show, the first time through I totally missed the fact that the first two or three minutes are essentially a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Comparatively clear this time around. And I got more out of the rest of that too, although there were still wide swaths that I couldn't comprehend.

There was a technical thing I observed during the monologue that had been commented on after the last show, though I didn't notice it then, but it's like the reel-change dots in movies: once pointed out, you can't miss it, and it's quite annoying. Therefore, if you are planning to see this show tomorrow, again or for the first time, don't highlight the next paragraph:

The drippy sound! Gaaah! Turn it off! "Chinese water torture", indeed.

There were other things I noticed for the first time tonight, some good, some bad:

  • The men-in-black stage crew set the brakes on the hospital bed. It definitely seemed to move a lot less than it did on Wednesday. Did I have something to do with that?
  • The left side of the theatre definitely has better sight lines. That's where I sat last time, and it seemed like I saw a lot more sides of faces and backs of heads tonight. Also, when you're sitting on the right, you can see the light of the rear-projector shining through the cyc (thanks Helen!), where on the left it's blocked by the tall structure at the back of the painted stage.
  • Out of all the surreality and unreality in the show, I think I found a continuity error, if that's possible. Although Josie was supposed to have killed her baby to protect her from the Skriker, and this infanticide is what put her in the mental hospital, she makes it sound like she first met the Skriker in the mental hospital. Maybe I just misunderstood some part of that.
  • Eight. The Skriker has eight subcharacters besides the native one, and a total of ten costumes. There were at least three distinct dialects in there, possibly five.
  • When I was talking to Liz last time, she mentioned the "bar scene", and I thought, "oh, a bar, is that what that was." This time, even with that explanation, I still thought it looked more like a waiting room. Ah well.
  • Nice line I missed before: "You people are killing me, you know that?" More generally, it seems like the Skriker had a line like this every time she was "discovered" or otherwise slipped out of a subcharacter and back into her native persona.
  • But the cutest line in the whole show, perfectly delivered, which I noticed last time too but forgot to write about, was when Lily is trying to convince Josie that no time has passed, look at yourself, look at me, and Josie says: "...yes. How'd you do that?" Comic relief is way funnier in a really serious show where you aren't expecting it, you know?
  • A volcano is not a meteorological phenomenon. Neither is an earthquake.
  • I have no idea what Lily really said, but I heard it the same way both times, and it sure sounded like she wished Josie were (was) "a bag".
  • Being distracted by Black Annis made me miss one of the most important speeches in the show, I think, when Skriker (as Man) gets all apocalyptic. Oops.
  • Man, did I ever miss the shadow play where Josie shot up. Clear as day if you happen to be looking that way, but it totally passed me by before. Partially explains the subsequent scene, though I'm still not totally satisfied.

After that apocalypse speech, I'm even more unsure what to make of the Skriker. She loves babies and needs vicarious life in order to survive, but she revels in death and destruction. Is she fundamentally a predator or a parasite? She's thrilled that "this'll be the big one," but isn't she being damaged by the ongoing destruction of the environment? And I still am not sure whether her desperation and fragility are an act she throws off once she's ensnared someone, or a real condition that actually is cured when she "gets" a new victim.

I was sitting a few seats from Rachel Foresta, and her comment at intermission, and after the show, was, "I love it!" Which was a little surprising given how negative I was feeling at that point on Wednesday. Her secret? She got "so swept up in it"---in all honesty, probably the right way to really appreciate this sort of nonrealistic work, if you're not putting as much work into it as I have.

Having put in all that work, I have a revised verdict. Although I think I continue to disagree with the playwright, in the same vague, nebulous ways I mentioned last time, I have now decided that I like this show quite a lot. It succeeds both as two hours' feeling entertainment and on a more long-term intellectual level; its only failure is as two hours' thinking entertainment, which is of course something it never set out to do. (Come to think of it, it might be interesting to find out audience approval ratings broken down along the Myers-Briggs T-F axis.) In the end, it probably comes out as the best show of the schoolyear.

"When the turn of the millennium came and went without eschatological immanentization, I decided I should probably enroll in Dramatic Criticism, so that I could graduate." --Jonathan Prykop

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May 05, 2005

The Skriker

An email went out about 5pm tonight from Liz Carlin-Metz, a theatre prof and director of this term's mainstage show, reminding us that said show in fact opens tonight and runs through the weekend and we should go see it. I'd planned to see it Friday, but what the heck, I wasn't doing anything tonight. So I went to see The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill.

I have to give two separate reviews for it. The reasons for this will hopefully come clear at the end. Taken together (or, for that matter, separately), these reviews conspired to make my 700th blog entry a loooong one, so I've placed them below the fold:

Review 1

It is the rare perfect confluence of playwright, actors, director, and conditions that let a play bring a viewer immediately into its world. There's usually some stage setting to be done, and for the first few minutes you are watching the play, before you get to experience the play.

So it wasn't really too surprising that I wasn't immediately taken with the opening monologue. But usually I can get the hang of the play within the first few minutes. This play, not so much. It begins with an almost completely unintelligible string of words uttered by the Skriker herself, as she capers about the stage in a twisty, unearthly dance. The babble is very stream-of-consciousness, and pivots on one word after another from phrase to phrase: "gone with the -wind-ow cleaner", "trousers to -wear- have you gone?" There is just enough comprehensibility to convey the fact that some meaning is intended, but you're certainly not going to get it on first hearing, and probably not at all without reading it. (Subtitles would have helped. Where are those augmented-reality geeks when you need them?) And it was long---five pages, I'm told, and it seemed to stretch on forever, though I suppose it was in reality only four or five minutes. It certainly did not make me hopeful for the rest of the show.

"Experimental" is the best word I can come up with for the early part of the show. Loud feedback-y noise and flashing strobes at the scene changes; this gibberish monologue; the music visualiser video projected onto the back wall*; the ever-changing ensemble of mythical characters wandering around in the sidestages. The stage itself had three three-foot-diameter pentagonal holes and one flush-mounted door down into the trap space, but was otherwise fairly conventional, and the lighting and sound (other than during scene changes) was likewise pretty straightforward.

Actually, the holes were a major source of tension in the first act. Back when I was doing a lot of ballroom competitions, a few of us came up with a rule that a dance costume, however good-looking, was a bad one if it was suspenseful: if I am worried that you'll fall out of it, trip on it, or hit somebody with it, I'm distracted from your dancing. And this is what I was reminded of with these holes. In the second scene, there is a hospital bed on wheels perhaps a foot away from the hole, with two characters hopping on and off, and every time they do so it moves, teetering ever closer. I had a hard time paying attention to anything they said, it was so distracting. This suspense continued to a lesser extent as various cast members wandered right past their edge, and occasionally casually backing up towards them. Even in the second act, by which point I was mostly at peace with them, I still occasionally snapped out of the show to wonder whether someone was going to fall in. Very unfortunate. (Not sure how to fix it, though, really. The hospital bed could be moved out slightly, I guess, but the rest is sort of inherent in the design, which I otherwise quite like. :P)

The ensemble dressed as assorted mythological characters (in some most excellent costumes) were their own set of distractions, though that was a little more in-game, as it were. It really makes me wonder what goes through their head, when their job for two hours is to slowly wander around the stage and just move in character. Seems very hard, actually.

As the first act dragged on, there was less dragging, less staring off into the rafters, and I finally started being able to follow the thread of the thing, sort of. In one scene we saw a lead (Lily) talking to a businesswoman who I immediately recognised as Eden Newmark, the infuriating sister I liked so much in Proof.** But who was she supposed to be? I thought there were only three characters. Was she supposed to be the Skriker? What about the other person who was playing the Skriker? Of course, it soon became clear that the Skriker was Newmark all the way down; it's just that the change of costume, accent, and demeanour was so complete that she was unrecognisable at first. In fact, though she kept returning to the rag-clad, spider-walking, Scots-accented*** base Skriker persona, she must've gone through a dozen other characters over the course of the show, making for some really fast costume changes and not a few accent and carriage changes as well. Whatever I might think about the play, she certainly did a good job carrying it.

Which is not at all to diminish the contributions of the other two leads, either. Sylvie Davidson (Lily) was great as usual, and Saras Gil (Josie) looks like a promising addition to the local theatre crowd. They had a good chemistry (ooh, that sounds so cliché) and did a good job portraying, respectively, the naïve and fearful, and the perceptive and despairing, reactions to the evil Skriker; neither one quite able to resist the seductive temptation of easily granted wishes.

So like I said, I finally started following the narrative thread, such as it was, and just as I was warming to the thing... a blaring scene change, and suddenly we're in, what, the underworld? Things go all bizarro again and I don't know what the hell is going on.

Intermission. The lights come up and I immediately dive into the dramaturgical analysis in the program, which at least explains a bit of what's going on. (But what kind of show is it, if you need to consult the Cliff's Notes even to get a basic idea about it?) After describing how the play departs from tradition (boy howdy), it frames the play as an examination of the vulnerability of Woman, responses to the feminist backlash of the 80s, and the symbiosis of humans and their environment. (The name "Gaia" shows up at this point.) Ok, that's something, I guess.

The program also describes all the mythological characters with the cool costumes: the Satyr Priest, who is walking on stilts shaped like goat feet; the Southern Belle, wearing a gorgeous big red ballgown and a gas mask; the Unicorn, wearing an Equus-style wire frame horse head with a big horn mounted on top; and several others, including my personal favourite, Black Annis (played by Helen Drysdale). The costume for that was a mask mounted on the back of the head and a dress with fake boobs stuffed in the back; at one point she was in the down-in-front hole in the floor and moving like all the other mythological characters, but of course she was moving backwards, sort of. Squinting slightly and watching this totally distracted me from whatever the Skriker was saying at that point, because it looked so creepy and cool.

Act 2 begins by situating the end of Act 1; now I get how it fits into the rest of the story. And armed with the descriptions of the program, I can kind of follow the plot (such as it is). Even so, there are things that make no sense. Why does the Skriker need to do this? Is the Skriker's apparent desperation real, or just an act to induce pity? What the heck is Josie doing down there---is she trying to fool the Skriker, and if so, what is that supposed to accomplish? Does Lily actually want this to happen, or is she just blinded by the temptations?

Finally, suddenly, at the end, we get hit over the head with The Moral Of The Story, which seems to involve something about stewardship of society and the environment, which has little to do with anything that came before; it really hits like a non-sequitur. (Nice biohazard suits, though.)

Verdict: I didn't really like this show.

* When I was in high school, we called this curtain forming the back wall something that is easy to pronounce, but I have no idea how to spell it. "Sike"? "Psych"? "Cyc"? I have no idea what it's short for, and therefore no educated guesses on its spelling, and my dictionary isn't giving me any leads. Why couldn't they pick something easy to spell, like "proscenium"?

** Strictly speaking, I recognised her as the infuriating sister from Proof---the name I looked up later. :)

*** I suppose it was North English, because Liz Metz knows way more about British dialects than I do, but it sounded Scottish to me. In any case, excellent dialect work all around, with just a very few noticeable clunks.

Interlude: after the show

I happened to be sitting with Brian Tibbets and Megan Scott, who were chatting with Craig Choma (all three Knox alums, overlapping by a year or two), and he offered to show them the slide and traps, so I latched onto that group. Two observations: that slide is really damn steep; and we here at Knox have got to have about the best stage area in the world.

Review 2

After checking out the stage, I stood out in the lobby reading the dramaturgy boards---a regular feature of mainstage shows whereby various local theatre folks pull together notes about œuvre of the playwright, the genre of the play, the milieu of both the play and the playwright, and literate reviews of the play**** from other theatre academics. All this stuff is tacked up on some boards for interested theatregoers to read.

After a few minutes of that, I had some conversations about the show with various members of cast and crew, and later with the director. I walked out to my car with her, and she was able to fill me in on some of the context and background; it softened me up quite a bit to the show.

The main thing was really sort of a meta-thing. During the show and immediately afterwards, it irritated me that I had to read the program and notes just to figure out what was going on. However, some literature and a lot of textbooks and academic papers take time and effort, and frequently outside information, to digest and understand. Why must theatre be different? There certainly are many shows that are self-contained; there are also pulp fiction novels and pop science articles, but those don't define their respective media, either. Furthermore, as Liz pointed out, the question should not be, "If I can't understand it without outside help, what's the point?". The question should be, "If I set it aside after seeing it and never think about it again, then what's the point?". Just so.

Looking backwards through the show, I can now clearly see that the ending wasn't as much of a non sequitur as it at first seemed (nor indeed was it so clear-moral-riffic as I indicated above). I can see several places in the show that allude to a tension between modern humans and their society and environment. In music theory, we've been learning how dissonances (sevenths, suspensions) are usually prepared in advance: the chord just before a dissonant one will contain the dissonant note, but that note is still consonant at that point. That's just what happens in this play. In scenes throughout the show, there are brief allusions to the loneliness of modern life, its divergence from community, from the earth, and from the mythical-spiritual world. At the time, you think nothing of them; but looking back from the other side of the discordant tones struck in the final scene, they can be reanalysed as preparations therefor.

The business about feminism and Woman makes a bit more sense after further contemplation, too. If Lily and Josie are seen as two instances of archetypal Woman, we can spin out the events of the play into an allegory where the Skriker, as Tradition, does everything she can to turn them into breeding machines, whose chief purpose in existence is procreative, making babies and giving their lifeblood to sustain the Skriker (Tradition). Killing a baby (is this an abortion reference?) doesn't rescue you from the pull of tradition, nor does anything else. Giving in may let you in the end continue your life as before, or on the other hand it may consume the remainder of your life.

Or, perhaps the struggle is more about the Skriker's invitation to partake of her wish-granting---stay with me, she says, and I will grant you whatever you want---set against the women's (Woman's) desire to make their own way, even as they (as Liz put it) "come apart at the seams". But what does the final scene of devastation represent in this model? The results of women making their own way? Is this end seen as inevitable, or preventable?

Possibly we can read it on a level closer to the surface, echoing a theme seen in a lot of fantasy novels including the venerable Lord of the Rings: the age of faeries is coming to an end, to be replaced with an age of Man; the denizens of Faerie can feel the change, their power ebbing, and they try to fight it. If the reading is along these lines, the text certainly comes down strongly on one side: the world will be a far worse place if we lose our connection to our mythological spirit world, and to Gaia, the very embodiment of the living planet that sustains us.

These interpretations are not remotely exhaustive, obviously. But all the readings I can come up with right now have something or other that I'd take issue with. On the other hand, I feel ill-equipped to debate against them, because it feels too much like I've set up a straw man to knock down. Aside from being a generally shady rhetorical technique, once you're called on your use of a straw man, the entire argument becomes suspect. The problem is, I have nothing but straw men to argue against here: can I disagree with something if it was never clearly stated in the first place? Such, I guess, is the nature of engaging this sort of text. (And engaging it must be, to inspire me to write 2600 words about it... jeez, I should get course credit for this.)

So where does that leave me? A lot of the questions I asked in the first review are still unanswered in my mind, but they no longer contribute to a great chaos as they did before. I'm still dissatisfied with where it went, and the ending still seems a bit glib. Now that I see where it was going, I suppose the unintelligible initial monologue makes a bit more sense (though I still wish it weren't so long). A lot of it seems clearer in hindsight.

Verdict: I didn't really like this show, and I didn't like it so much that I think I have to go see it again.

**** Sorry, ran out of cool French words. ;)

UPDATE: See next post for review number three.

"Next year, we're hoping that the Headline Club defines the category differently, narrowly and in a way that plays better to our strengths--- perhaps asking the judges to 'look for offhand observations, snark and the coolest links to places on the Web where you can fritter away the precious hours of the one and only life you will ever have.'" --Eric Zorn

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May 03, 2005

A book

In all my driving this weekend, I finally finished listening to a book titled Absolute Friends, by John Le Carré. I liked it, but I can't decide whether to recommend it.

Characterwise, we have two aging former spies, and for much of the novel we hear about their various exploits earlier in life, including before they were spies, when they were resident in an anarchist squat in West Berlin. Plotwise, well, most of the story is told in flashback, and though it may not be clear at the time, all this flashback is essentially character development to set up the final third or so of the book.

And that final third? Well, there are wingnut conspiracy theorists out there that will claim that that sort of thing actually happens. Others will claim that it couldn't possibly. I think the former position is unlikely and the latter naïve. The ending of the book is something that is scarily possible, and we should all hope that it doesn't happen, and this sort of thing is why I so strongly disapprove of weakening accountability and freedom just because there's a war on.

And that's about as much of a recommendation as I'll make.

"There is, after all, nothing in the definition of `tree' that specifies which sense of `plant' is the appropriate superordinate. That specification is omitted on the assumption that the reader is not an idiot, a Martian, or a computer." --George A. Miller

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A concert

Last Friday night, I went to a concert of the Knox Chamber Singers. Highlights of the evening were when a student, Kira Horel, conducted two songs (and usual director Laura Lane was seen to be singing in the choir, amusingly), and when, after an intermission, they performed P.D.Q. Bach's The Seasonings.

It was neat to see someone conduct what I assume was her first concert ever. Although her beat was precise, you could tell she wasn't really used to giving multiple cues with her other hand; she kind of managed, but mostly just kept the baton beating while looking at the people she needed to cue. (She also probably should have picked a better dress to wear---sleeveless and with a slit down the leg doesn't work very well with a constantly moving arm and a slightly bent knee.) But overall she, ah, conducted herself well up there; I would think she'd be a bundle of nerves, but you could never tell.

The second song she conducted was "Mangwani M'pulele", billed as being in "traditional Sotho", by which I guess they mean Sesotho, unless there's another African language of that name running around. My main observation on that song was that all this music theory I'm taking must be sinking in, because all I could think was, "that's a I-vi-V-I progression!"

The featured piece of the evening was "The Seasonings", reconfirming my belief that PDQ Bach is one of the most brilliant composers of the 20th century. It probably seems like it would be easy to write for kazoo and slide whistle, but it strikes me that it would be even harder to write something that could be performed on them and still sound musical. And it did---the whole piece is very humorous, but this is because the composer knew what he was doing and how to spoof the form. And coming up with an instrument like the "tromboon"---a trombone with a reed mouthpiece that presumably came from a bassoon---that's a good bit of thinking outside the box, and you'd be surprised how well it blends with a pair of slide whistles and a pair of kazoos. And a tuba.

"I think the understanding of the word 'belief' that puts it in tension with reason is born of luddites and politicians attempting to thump their Bibles to support an unreasonable agenda on the one hand, and three centuries of academically authoritative atheist reactionaries willing to neglect all religion on the other. Neither are contributing much to the improvement of religious practice in this world." --Jonathan Prykop

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And a show

Ages ago (which is to say about a week and a half), I went to see a show here called Through the eyes of a raven, based on Poe's poem, by Doug Porter. Looking back at it, it feels like a surreal dream.

I've sort of been putting off writing about it*****, because I'm not sure what to say. I definitely felt like I would've appreciated it more had I ever read Poe's "The Raven", although I suppose I've seen enough cultural references and Simpsons Halloween specials* to get the basic gist. Reading the original, though, would at least give me a better idea of what parts were Doug's additions. It seemed quite clear that portions were direct quotations, and equally clear that others weren't; I just didn't know where the line was.

Eric Feltes as the Raven was a scene stealer throughout. From the time he leapt sidewise onto the stage, clad in a black cloak that he occasionally flapped for effect, to the time he perched right on the edge of the desk, he quite effectively portrayed a completely inhuman character. (Excellent costume and makeup work, on him and the others too.) I think in the final tally he had a sound majority of the lines; generally I was happy with their delivery, although every time he quoted "Nevermore", something about how he said it set off my "acting too hard" alarms. I'm not even sure why, because going into this show I wouldn't have expected a single word to be able to do that.

The interaction between Lenore and the protagonist was bizarrely interesting. After a brief prologue that sets the stage of their relationship, she returns in a scrappy, ragged shadow of her former self, both there and not there. The protagonist stages his conversation with the raven, but also with her ghost; he is speaking right to her, and yet does not see her. For her part, she is speaking the words that he (and we) hear from the raven, but cannot make him feel her as the source, or even her presence at all. Nick Perry and Beth Golemo pulled off the whole there/not there thing really well, I thought.

The whole show certainly left me with a feeling of despair and disturbance, but what was it about? I'm not even sure, really.** At the surface layer, that's the easy one, protagonist loses his fiancée to an early death (of tuberculosis or some similar 19th century disease), and he misses her terribly. Down a level: he remembers her on a pedestal and holds an unhealthy obsession with how she was, and fears that love---once held, now lost---would be forever again denied him. My understanding of the original indicates that both these were present there too, in some measure.

This presentation seemed to furnish another layer beneath that, though, and that's where I get a little lost. Lenore was definitely speaking most (not all) of the words that were heard to come from the Raven, and she was definitely presented as being a ghost or the like. But what did she want? At the time, I got the impression that she wanted him to let go a little so he could move on with his life, though I'm not now sure why I thought that. The clearest indication was that she wanted him to be able to see her. As a ghost? Or just see that it was her saying these things, not the raven? And how to interpret the fact that some of the raven's raving was not lip-synched by her---stuff the raven came up with on his own?

In retrospect, as I think about this, the raven was really acting pretty sadistic, especially with the "nevermore"s. Death and loneliness are yours forever, protagonist! Cheers!

To close on a slightly brighter note, I wanted to say I got a kick out of the set. Using just a chair rail and crown moulding between bookcases to simulate an entire wall---and convincingly, at that---that's pretty clever.

*Which, I suppose, is a cultural reference too.

**Here again, reading the poem might help---one of these days, I will....

***Eh, don't believe it, I enjoy every minute of it. Who needs fifteen minutes of fame when you can have fifteen regular readers of your blog?

****Don't you agree?

*****Indeed, writing this was really frustrating, because I keep feeling like maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention that night. While writing it I considered scrapping it, but I'd already promised several of you that it was on its way---it seems I've become a victim of my own hobby. :P***

"We should not only happily sign over what we owe the IRS, knowing our money goes to even greater good than the coins Jesus exhorted those around him to turn over, but we should look for ways to be even more charitable to those around us. If everything---including our wealth---is a gift from God, we have no right to begrudge any portion of it to the disadvantaged. We didn't earn it through superior virtue." --Chris Tessone

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April 23, 2005

On vinyl

I knew going into tonight's talk by Dr Sandra Steingraber that vinyl was bad. I've been working on decreasing its presence in my life---the last time I needed to replace a shower curtain, for instance, I made one from broadcloth rather than buy a vinyl one. But, as with so many environmental issues, the reality is so much worse than I realised. "Vinyl", see, is short for "polyvinyl chloride", aka PVC. It's that "chloride" part that causes most of the problems.

Vinyl starts its life as salt. When the salt is treated to extract the sodium, it releases chlorine gas as a byproduct. Chlorine gas, you may recall, is the chemical weapon banned after WWI by universal accord as people realised how horrifying it was: it essentially liquefies your respiratory system and drowns you in your own blood plasma. So we're not exactly off to a good start here.

The chlorine is captured and processed, and the next stage in its life is as vinyl chloride (monomer), which doesn't kill rapidly like chlorine gas but is well-known as one of the most powerful carcinogens in existence. Charming! As if that weren't enough, it is also highly explosive. Let's hope no tanker trucks carrying vinyl chloride ever get in an accident or get attacked, because they'd take out everything with a huge blast radius on the order of several square miles.

Further treatment converts the monomer into its polymer cousin polyvinyl chloride: vinyl. The process unavoidably exposes the factory workers, and usually the nearest town, to considerable doses of carcinogenic vinyl chloride, but the fun doesn't stop there. If it is to be turned into something flexible, like a shower curtain or a rubber ducky, it has to be further treated. PVC is actually fairly brittle, so plasticisers are added at this stage. These chemicals "offgas" in measurable quantities for several months---this is the source of "new car smell" among other things---and current research is ongoing to determine for certain whether they are carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous, but signs are not good.

And even if the vinyl is going into something that doesn't need to be flexible---like vinyl flooring, which is what all "linoleum" currently sold in the US actually is---there is the problem that it breaks down over time, and eventually releases carcinogenic vinyl chloride. Many vinyl products have still other nasty things in them, as with miniblinds, which usually have significant heavy metal content in order to delay the PVC breaking down in sunlight.

But wait! There's more! What do you do with something that breaks or is no longer useful? You throw it out or recycle it. Recycling doesn't work with PVC, because all the toxic chemicals used to make it can't get into the regular plastics recycling stream. So you throw it out... in a landfill? That's the usual choice, at which point the plasticisers, the heavy metals, and the vinyl chloride itself leach out into the ground, and thence to the groundwater, and on into our drinking water. Or you could incinerate it... and release all that chemical goodness into the atmosphere, where it gets deposited a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand miles away, messing with the global food and water supplies.

Dr Steingraber's talk was really interesting and helped to give a human face to the problem of vinyl, as well as some other environmental issues she's investigated in the past. I'm looking forward to reading her book Living Downstream. In the meantime, I'll settle for exhorting all y'all to try to reduce your dependence on vinyl---especially, for God's sake don't use it in anything big like flooring or siding.

"Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war." --Donald Rumsfeld

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April 18, 2005

Flunk Day II: Flunk Day Bites Back

My 142 exam was scheduled to go out today and be due Thursday. That seemed a little short, and so I'd thought of switching it to a Friday due date; but I wasn't sure, because this is totally Flunk Day season, and if Flunk Day were Thursday or Friday that would push my Friday due date to Monday, and midterm grades are due that day. So I put off changing it, and worked late into the night to put together the exam, graded homeworks, and so on, and when I finally went to sleep for a few hours I still hadn't prepped today's lectures. This is not unusual, actually, and it's the reason why I tend to spend 3rd and 4th hour sequestered in my office, feverishly writing out notes for lecture.

So I got up, took my shower, and was walking my dog---running late as usual, but hoping to get to my 9:20 Music Theory class close to on time---when Judy leans out her back door and says: "Ok, I have to ask, is today Flunk Day?" And I thought: "!" Because in all my figurings on how this is Flunk Day season, it never occurred to me that today might be the day. And despite not going to bed until after 6, I hadn't checked my email, and so I just didn't know. I rushed inside to find the dean's email: "YES-IT'S FLUNK DAY"

Well, that sure took a load off. At a somewhat more leisurely pace, I packed up a bag of dog stuff (including water bottle and bowl as well as plastic bags and toys), grabbed my dorky Bermuda hat, and loaded Nutmeg into the car to go to his, and my, second Flunk Day.

In all honesty, I simply cannot imagine a more perfect Flunk Day. The weather was the warmest it's been since September, the day clear with just a hint of clouds to accentuate the blue sky. As I arrived, about 9:30, the mud and foam pits were wrapping up, although I got gotten by one of my former students with a supersoaker first thing. Nutmeg was a hit (of course), and we wandered around the campus for about an hour and a half, chatting with people and watching the fun. Walking a dog, by the way, is a great excuse to be just wandering around aimlessly.

I ate lunch a little after 11 and then wandered some more (gotten again, this time by Erin, a ballroomer, who debarked from the slip-and-slide and gave me a great big hug), eventually landing in a circle of math and CS faculty for about a half an hour. At this point, Nutmeg was starting to get a little antsy, so I took him home. Lacking anything resembling a full night's sleep, I decided to take a nap for an hour and a half. This got me up at 3pm, and I thought about going back to sleep, but then I figured, hey, Flunk Day's just once a year, right? So I headed back in for another round.

I arrived at 3:30, just in time to catch the last of the Sno-Cones, and then head over to the Faculty-Friars softball game at 4, to kick the students' asses again this year. It was at this point that I received the first notice that I made the front page of the Register Mail---apparently I'm the photogenic face (or at least the photogenic crouched profile) of the Knox County Peace and Justice Coalition, which dedicated their Peace Tree yesterday.

We did, in fact, kick the asses of the students (well, by "we" I mean "other members of the faculty team", although I at least managed to achieve my goal of not embarrassing myself). Afterwards, I grabbed dinner on the Gizmo patio with Nathan, who was feeling a bit guilty about not granting a Flunk Day extension for a paper due tomorrow---it had already been extended once, but then, it's Flunk Day. I think the thing that tipped the balance was when I pointed out that if he didn't extend it, he'd just get a lot of crappy papers tomorrow. So he went off to send that email, and I returned to my car to trade my hat for a long-sleeved shirt and a blanket to sit on, for the concert.

I think I skipped the concert last year, but this year's was an a cappella group from Minneapolis named Marcoux Corner. The concert was great, hitting a variety of genres and (in true a cappella style) a bunch of songs that you wouldn't have expected to work without accompaniment. After being spoiled by the rich a cappella tradition at Brown, with groups of a dozen or so that rotate as various members graduate, it was fun to see a group of just four guys give such an awesome show. A highlight of the show was when they launched into a song and after just three words, a whole section of students started laughing and cheering. The opening verse didn't seem to warrant such attention, but the payoff was when they hit the refrain: they... well, why don't you just listen? (SO not work-safe. Seriously, don't click that link if there's anyone judgemental around.) If you can't listen to that where you are, I suppose the lyrics will do. (More, though not entirely, work-safe. Caveat lector.) Possibly the funniest part about the whole affair was when Terry Jackson, a Knox administrator who was sitting next to me, kept going on about it, and trying to remember where she'd heard it before---it's a Da Vinci's Notebook song, as she eventually managed to remember.

A few of us hung around and talked to the bass from the group for a while, but eventually they had to pack up, and it was dark and time for the movie to start anyway. The movie, Spider-Man II, was to be projected on an enormous (heh) inflatable (heh) screen, probably forty feet tall, erected (...) in front of Old Main. A much more efficient way to have a temporary outdoor movie screen than the heavy scaffolding I've seen some other places, although you do have to contend with the occasional wrinkle in the projection surface. The movie was great---I'm at least sympathetic to the idea that it was better than the original, though I haven't decided for sure myself. Nathan (who I ended up sitting next to again for the movie) claimed it was, and that it would be even better if the first 75 minutes of angst had been cut to about 45 minutes of angst, which is probably about right. On the other hand, they were certainly getting a lot of mileage out of dumping on Peter Parker every which way they could.

After the movie, the crowds dispersed fairly quickly, leaving surprisingly little mess behind them. I folded Nathan into the passenger seat of my Mini and gave him a ride home, and then arrived back here at about 10:30.

It almost feels like it should be an intercalary day. That tomorrow will be the real Monday, the real 18th of April. (As an aside, wouldn't it be nice if you could engineer that every once in a while?) I shouldn't have to put my garbage out tonight, because I didn't do any of the other usual Monday things. I should be prepping for my Monday classes, not my Tuesday free day.

The experience was fantastic. The vast majority of the college was there for at least one event, and probably most of the college---students, staff, and faculty---went to several. Hundreds of us went to the concert. Hundreds went through the inflatable obstacle course and slip-and-slide. Forty or so people played in the softball game, but at least a hundred people were watching. It's these shared experiences that help the College to bond as a community, and it's these memories that we will reminisce about a decade from now. Flunk Day is a fabulous event that it's too bad more colleges don't have.

"Whatever visceral appeal the "Life Begins When Sperm and Egg Walk Into a Bar" position may hold, it remains factually inaccurate; only a fringe of the medical community accepts the notion that emergency contraception is an abortifacient." --Dahlia Lithwick

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April 16, 2005

More singing

A long time ago, I saw an Enya interview in which she was asked to describe her music in one word, and she picked "melancholy". I was shocked. I mean, so much of her music---in fact, most of my favourites, at least at the time---was upbeat in that ethereal sort of way that she does. But as I thought about it more, I realised that if you really look at the entirety of her oeuvre, there really is an overarching melancholy to it; much as looking at the history of the Irish people shows you a long line of sad, oppressed, dirt-farming poverty that is nevertheless punctuated with a lot of happiness. Found happiness, to be sure; the Irish find happiness because they know where and how to look for it.

It was in this vein of looking at the big picture of the work that I classified the music of Rachel Ries and Andru Bemis last night. I've talked about them before; they were at Knox last night, in Wallace Lounge, and they lived up to my previous raves.

During the course of the performance, I got to thinking about how similar, and yet different, they were. They're both going to fit more or less in the category of folk, or maybe singer-songwriter. And you could even maybe put them both in the general category of sad songs (with a lot of exceptions, to be sure). But Andru's sad songs are a gritty, railroad-and-rust-belt sort of sad. In my brain they situate themselves firmly in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and they have more of the feel of songs of a people. Even when he's singing his own stuff, it sounds like a rendition of something that surely must have been written decades ago and put into a "songs of the hobo" singalong book somewhere.

Rachel's sad songs, on the other hand, are a more broad-expanses-of-the-upper-Midwest sort of sad. And they tend to be more personal, intimate; even when she's singing someone else's song, you get the feeling that she's singing about something that happened to her last week. But it's an upbeat sort of sadness, if that's possible, sadness with a wry grin. I think part of the reason I like her singing so much is that, as with some of my other favourite groups, catchy music is frequently paired with much more serious lyrics.

It was seriously hard not to request my favourite songs that I knew from their CDs, but of course those I could hear when I went home. And I was rewarded: there were quite a few new-to-me songs, including one that hit like a punch to the stomach about some really sad things that happened in Rachel's town growing up. I get to look forward to that one on her next CD, which might be a while as the current one is only just coming out in a couple weeks.

Which, by the way, will be excellent. I've heard most of the songs on it, and it'll totally be worth your money. It looks like it's not officially orderable yet, but once it is you should go to her site and order it. Also go see her perform---looks like she's got a few shows in Chicago in the next few weeks.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." --John Kenneth Galbraith

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March 23, 2005

Going Bursar

In a fit of irresponsibility, I stayed up late last night for the sole purpose of finishing Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. As I mentioned earlier, Pratchett has entered a new(ish) era over the last few years; there's no magic left. I mean, there never was much magic actually performed (and even less that was performed correctly). But there was a lot more ambient magic, even in ones that didn't deal with Unsene University, the witches, or a certain Anthropomorphic Force Of Nature.

Don't get me wrong; I love that his last two books have had significant references to information theory and networking. Almost makes you wonder if he's getting a CS degree on the sly. But I think I need to go back and reread some old ones; the new style's good but I miss the old one.

This one wasn't as overtly political as Monstrous Regiment, but it definitely has its moments. Here there is less of a prescription on what to do, as a cautionary tale on what not to allow: runaway laissez-faire capitalism encourages corruption and does little to enhance anything but the ledger amounts of the richest venture capitalists. No surprise or disagreement here; it's why I favour some level of government oversight to keep things from getting out of hand. (Ah, would that we could have a benevolent despot like Lord Vetinari. Too bad it's so easy to get the second half and so utterly impossible to guarantee the first half.)

"It's not that it's impossible to be intelligent and a member of both the NRA and an anti-abortion group. It's just that it's not done." --Michael Kimmitt

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March 19, 2005

On the composition of the military

I started and finished Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment this week on the ski trip. Pratchett makes quite the foray into political allegory here; I suppose it could be said he's done a lot of political allegory, but I'd say that most of it is really more social commentary than specific allegory. (Except, of course, for when he's doing a pastiche of a well-known literary work.)

This one, though... the book starts off with a girl of perhaps 15 decides to go off and join the Borogravian army, which has a metaphorical "No Girls Aloud" sign pinned to the door, and continues in merry Pratchettian fashion through mild absurdity. Who belongs in the army? Why should we select for anything other than merit?

I'm not going to talk about that, though. I am going to talk about the style shift I'm seeing. It was interesting to realise how very different this book was from the older Pratchett stuff; much more serious-feeling. Less footnotes. More explicit thinking.

Not that that's bad, of course. And it's not like he's abandoned his roots completely; characters like Sergeant Jack Jackrum have the usual larger-than-life quality we've come to expect, caricatures of people we don't actually know but now feel as if we did. And it's nice to see Vimes and the rest of the Watch make an appearance. But still, not at all like, say, Reaper Man or Guards! Guards! or the like.

It may be a permanent shift. I'm a few chapters into Going Postal, and I think I see where it's going; different subject, but the same sort of aura of being About Something. Quite good in any case, and if this sort of stylistic shift is what he needs to do to keep fresh (he's written, what, thirty books now?), well, carry on.

"The overwhelming majority of people who feel strongly about consent laws are the teenagers themselves, and they (a) don't vote, and (b) quickly fall into the conservative camp once they have kids of their own. A close runner-up is the powerful NAMBLA lobby, but politicians are curiously unwilling to publicly align themselves---or appear to publicly align themselves---with the pedophilia bloc." --Mike Peil

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February 17, 2005

Reigen

It's too bad we don't have in English a well-known word for a specific dance that happens to go round and round. "Round Dance" seems so... clinical... compared to the original title of the play by Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler.

The play itself has a fairly sordid history; due to its lasciviousness and frank discussion of the ever-taboo topic of sex, it wasn't even performed until twenty years after it was written. It is ten scenes ("ten sex scenes!", one of our drama profs pointed out), each set as a dialogue between one man and one woman, and yes, all but one include a sex scene. (Fade to black, and the string quartet plays.) The concept was interesting, and I was overall happy to see it, but the execution was a bit hit-or-miss.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that unlike most shows (with a few leads and a bunch of supporting roles), all ten actors have essentially equal roles. And they all have exactly two dialogues, so there's not as much time to see the arc of character development: wham, bam, and that's it for that character. So most of my observations on this show are isolated ups and downs.

As big as Harbach is, I was impressed with how well Bri Benson's voice carried, when she was speaking in a clear but basically "inside" voice. This worked well for an opening scene, as it drew the audience in.

As big as Harbach is, it was sort of amazing how thoroughly one single cigar could permeate the entire space. I'm glad I'm not allergic; as it was, the air felt thick to breathe.

Confidential to MC: When the script says "tan-ta-tum", referencing the music at a dance, a little musicality is called for in delivering the line...

A lovely touch was that the stage crew, rather than their usual functional black, wore period working-class costume. The effect was almost as if an efficient house servant staff swept in to tidy up during every scene change (especially as their main function was not moving large set pieces, but changing the decorations on a few stationary ones, and clearing props).

The scene between Ann Hernandez "The Parlor Maid" and Alex Enyart "The Young Gentleman" was made by one thing: well-executed silence. Good job!

The string quartet seated on a platform upstage for the whole show (and playing during romantic interludes and scene changes) was a great touch. But, ah... they need a little more practice.

The Sweet Young Thing got saddled with the singularly most unflattering costume I remember seeing in a long time. There are perfectly good, period outfits that would have looked fine; but her skirt cut her waist funny, and the shirtwaist was this gauzy affair that bloused out and made her upper body appear to be some sort of amorphous blob. Which is really too bad; her corset fit well and looked fine, and I think she just needed different outerwear. This character also got to deliver one of the few clear continuity lines in the show---claiming to have been to a chambre séparée before, but only with a girlfriend and her husband, such an obvious lie the second time she says it that it seems clear it had been the first time as well.

I'm not sure if any of the earlier scenes had anything like this, but in two of the later ones, a stage light was rigged up to point at the floor and be patterned like moonlight through a paned window; once I noticed it, the room snapped into a higher level of reality for me. I had thought, and have said before, that the very best tech work is the kind you don't even notice, but here I'm not sure that's true---until I noticed the window-shadow as distinct from the rest of the stage lighting, it might as well have just been regular stage lighting. Great effect, though.

And what would a Knox play be without Evan Sawdey running around in his underwear? That's twice this term. (Also twice ever, that I've seen, but the last time was just two weeks ago!)

Morgan Cohen has a great presence on the stage. Her "The Actress" was suitably flamboyant and would have been a great scene-stealer if there were any scenes to steal, though the chemistry was better in her first scene than her second. She also lucks out with the best costume award: her initial coatdress and the nightgown for her second scene were great costumes, but her black and red corset was simply fantastic.

Enunciation issues were a problem all evening, usually that people were over-enunciating. Devin Hogan ran particularly afoul of this problem, probably because as The Count he was supposed to be speaking in an upper-crust accent; but he hadn't had enough vocal coaching to really pull it off. There were certain isolated snippets where he really clicked as a middle-aged war veteran nobleman (with greying hair and a goatee in my mental image, oddly enough, though Devin has neither); most of the time, though, the enunciation just sat at odds with the rest of the basically standard American dialect coming out of his mouth. Without the other features of a blue-blood or British accent, unreduced vowels and aspirated stops instead of taps just sound funny. He did a great job with the character, though, acting formally awkward in the one scene and abstractedly curious in the other, in just the way we imagine nobility would do.

And the final note: it was freezing in there. And I was wearing my usual three layers of clothing; I felt seriously sorry for the actors, who by and large were wandering around with a lot less clothing than I was. Maybe the lights kept the stage warm.

Overall, the production was fine, but a little disappointing; I was sort of expecting the mainstage to be better. (Of course, I'm coming off last week's studio show, which spoiled me.) However, while the scenes varied in quality, it was by no means a bad show. And this was just opening night... I'm sure by Saturday it'll be quite a bit better.

"Life is so short."
"Well, that's no reason to---"
"Oh, but it is!" --Reigen, Arthur Schnitzler

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February 12, 2005

Proof

I can't believe I almost didn't go to this show.

Last night, I didn't get back home until almost 7, and I thought I was going to miss my last chance to see Proof, this weekend's studio show. But I whipped up a quick sandwich, fed my dog, and made it over there right at 7:30, in time for the show. I knew pretty much nothing about it, although I'd heard it was good.

It was great! Knox people reading this should make time in their schedules to go see it tonight (or, I think it's actually got a matinee tomorrow, but you should check). The cast of four did a fabulous job at portraying people with various close relationships to the ivory tower, and the writing made it clear that the playwright had a lot of familiarity with the culture. You spend most of your time wondering what's really going on, and just as you think you've figured it out, they throw you for another loop. (Best Act One closing line, ever, by the way.)

Jackie Dehne was the lead, "Catherine" (aka "Cat", "Kit", "Kitty", "Cathy", and a few others---you'd think that they'd be more consistent), onstage for nearly all of the two hour production. She was on an incredible emotional roller coaster, and carried the audience right along with her. One of the things that most impressed me was her ability to take the dialogue and make it her own (some credit for this probably goes to the director, Helen Drysdale, as well): I wouldn't have thought that anyone could utter the word "yikes" unironically, for instance, but she made it sound just right. How can you say something like, "Don't lie to me, I'm smarter than you!"? But she did, and it worked (and she was right). There were a lot of other places where she delivered a line with just the right sarcasm, or frustration, or whatever, to make it sound perfect, where the words printed in the script would certainly not have read so naturally.

Loren Lindgren (known around campus as "Blanket Guy", in which context I've mentioned him before) as the father was quite good, although there were several places where I felt like he was Acting. That is, he was doing pretty good at displaying the right emotions at the right time, but hadn't quite crossed that threshold from "good" to "great" where the audience really forgets that there are actors up there... he was doing all the right things in any way I could identify, and there was still a je ne sais quoi that was missing. I really can't fault it, though, as I might not have even noticed if the others hadn't been so exceptional.

Eden Newmark, as Claire, suffered no such difficulty. From the start, she played a character who meant well, in that sort of abstract way that people sometimes do. She probably gives to the right charities, but only because it's the done thing, not out of any real spirit of charity. She would almost certainly send her kids off to boarding school, at great expense, purportedly to get them the best education---but not unaware that this will also keep her own life less interrupted. None of this came out through the dialogue, of course, but through the acting. Newmark managed to play the most infuriating character, saying the most hurtful and distrusting things, all the more infuriating because you just knew that Claire had no idea how hurtful and distrusting they were, and really thought she was doing the right thing. At great personal cost, she might add. There were really points that she made you want to throttle her, just run up on the stage and throttle her, she was so maddening. (In many ways, she served as the tracks, or possibly the lifts, for Catherine's emotional roller coaster---Newmark and Dehne played off each other really well.)

I'm a little curious whether Matt Allis has any relatives or friends in grad school. He played "Hal", the former grad student and current professor; and seriously, I've known that guy. He has his interests, just like everyone else, and things he gets excited about; and then he has Interests, that he gets really excited about, that will raise his blood pressure and get him talking about twice as fast as normal, all over an elegant but novel deduction about some mathematical theorem. Right on.

The show is about a few really smart, precise people (plus Claire), going through the same sorts of emotional problems as anything else. Abstract out the people and the main themes of the show will be things like trust, and dignity of life, and familial bonds and responsibilities. But lots of shows are about that stuff. This one got a standing ovation from me.

"This is what happens when you don't let gays marry... they start designing out of spite." --Jon Stewart

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February 05, 2005

Chanteuse

Tonight at Innkeepers', I went to see Andru Bemis again---he's kicking off a month-long train tour of the country. With him was a musician friend of his: Rachel Ries is wrapping up her second album, and will officially begin her own tour next month, but Andru talked her into coming along to Galesburg this weekend.

She's pretty awesome. The melodies she sings are complicated and actually pretty difficult, but she executes them with such casual precision that you'd think that they were really easy. She also does some interesting things rhythmically that she can get away with since she's her own accompaniment. And let's just say I wish I didn't play the banjo as well as she "doesn't play banjo".

Strangely enough, I bought her two CDs, and the album from five years ago is... fine, but not as good as her other stuff, just in terms of the writing. The stuff on the EP/demo is much better, and the songs she sang tonight that will be on her next album are fantastic. At one point, she played a song called "Two Sleepy People"---an old standard, apparently---that had such a catchy melody and that she sung so whimsically and well that we actually made her sing it again. Afterwards, she said that learning that song had really changed the way she writes; and I can believe it, because her "Summertime", my favourite, was written right after that.

She'll be back in Galesburg in April, and I hope the new CD is done by then, because I really want to buy it.

Oh, and for the party afterwards I made an apple crisp; an easy recipe from the good old Betty Crocker cookbook made trivial by the clever new apple peeler/corer/slicer I got for Christmas. That thing is so cool and easy to use. I definitely need to start making more apple-based things.

"Faith without works is nothing! And works without faith... is still pretty good." --Jon Stewart

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February 02, 2005

A discovery

I just learned that The Missionary Pursuit, which I saw last weekend and already wrote about, was actually written by a current Knox student. Wow! Hats off to him; I really had no idea. Makes the monologues twice as impressive. :)

"Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

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January 30, 2005

Double header, part two

After a short break, a completely different set of actors launched into a completely different play. The Private Ear it was, by Peter Schaffer. The director was Doug Porter, who I've mentioned here before; his mom, it turns out, was sitting next to me, which led to a nice conversation during the intermission. Doug's brother Brian, who I'm currently advising in an independent study, was there too. Knox is such a great small school.

Anyway, about the show. It was a strange little show. I never did quite figure out when or where it was supposed to be taking place; there were a lot of conflicting cues. Several of the words and phrases seemed to be British---"daft", "bloody", etc---but the place names were around New York City. The timeframe was clearly not in the last decade or two, but beyond that, it was hard to place it. I'm going to guess 1950s Britain, with the place names changed, but I wouldn't put money on it. They should have gone ahead and changed some of the interjections too, though.

The lead, Evan Sawdey, did quite a job at playing a truly awkward, shy, introverted guy. Mere silence isn't awkward; he lent it the tension it needed for a truly uncomfortable moment. Then he punctuated it with that running-off-at-the-mouth babbling that is approximately the only thing worse than awkward silence. Nicely done.

The female lead, Shannon May, was playing "making the best of a bad date". At which she did a perfectly good job. Not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, she managed to simultaneously exude politeness and skepticism in a great mix.

Her costume was something else. The skirt looked like an eye-exam picture, the one with the big dots of colour, except that here it was just black and grey and red dots on a background of white. She was wearing a supposedly faux-ocelot fur drape that was really just a plain brown; they even make a point in the show of mistaking ocelot for leopard---couldn't they at least find something with spots? (I suppose that finding the right kind of fur, even fake fur, probably would exceed the $50 or so budget that these shows have.) And while I'm ranting about costume, I'm almost positive that three-button suits weren't current in any of the possible milieux I'm imagining for this show; they went out in the early 20th century if not earlier, and didn't really come back until just a few years ago. Ah well. Such are the pitfalls of the Studio Theatre. :)

The third actor, Eric Feltes, was in something of a crisis. At the beginning of the show, he's giving Evan's character advice on what to wear; and unfortunately, given our current cultural context, it really came across like a scene out of Queer Eye. This was quite at odds with the character as written, who is very much a playa type, one who knows just enough French and fashion to be smoov with the ladies. For most of the show, the two (stereo)types kept jumping back and forth in my head, which was sort of unfortunate. Several times the lines spoken would be something that didn't even fit either one particularly---every time the word "vino" came up, for instance---and it seemed to jar the scene. At least once, I distinctly saw him almost say "wine" instead of "vino"; I think it might have helped if he had. I don't think it was really until about the last quarter of the show that I got the right mental character in place for him... on the other hand, I'm not really sure what he could have done differently to fix that.

But for all the picking I'm doing here, I actually liked the performance quite a bit. It was pretty dark (the story, not the lighting), and the ending was really rough (in the sense of being a downer, not of being unpolished). By the end, I felt nothing but immense sympathy for the lead character. He's such a nice guy, and he deserves so much better.

"Maureen Dowd once referred to Bill Clinton's sexual escapades in the White House as "maladroit du seigneur," which infuriates me because I didn't think of it." --Eric Zorn

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January 29, 2005

Double header, part one

This weekend, Studio Theatre put on two one-acts. The first was The Missionary Pursuit by Brent Aronowitz. It started a little slow, with the feeling that the actors were just reciting lines, but it picked up after the first few comedy bits loosened everyone up. The show opens with two girls, roommates, chatting about their boring, loveless lives, and how much they hate their jobs; and then there's a knock on the door.

Mormon missionaries: comedy gold.

The two guys who played the missionaries had the act down. Noah, the one that gets smitten with one of the girls, played the naïf perfectly. His deer-in-headlights look was masterful; just as his jaw dropped, his eyes briefly would go ever-so-slightly crossed in the cutest way. I don't know if he always does that or whether he developed it for this part (I've never noticed him doing it before), but it certainly worked here.

The one downside I saw was that there was a lot of unmotivated blocking. Stand up, walk across the stage, say your next line, sit down. In a show that is so dialogue-oriented I can see that it would be tricky to really motivate a lot of it; the most natural thing for whole ten-minute stretches of time really would be to sit there and talk, but that would be too boring, I guess. Possibly related here was the problem of the enormous stage: both this show and the one that followed it took place in supposedly modest apartments, yet the stage, the living room, was bigger than my whole apartment, I think. Perhaps with a smaller set, the walking across the stage wouldn't have seemed so out of place.

The highlights of the piece were a couple of great monologues. They were the sort of life-exposition monologues that people prepare to show off their acting skills, and they were performed quite well. Noah had one (well, a few, really, but one big one) and Erica, the other lead, had one as well. Some really excellent bits of character work there.

I had mixed feelings about the ending; it was kind of a let-down, but at the same time, the last couple of lines definitely capped the piece. Certainly the show as a whole gets a big thumbs-up from me.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" --often attributed to Benjamin Franklin

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January 22, 2005

VAGINA vagina VAGINA

Just trying to do my part to... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

You have by now probably heard of The Vagina Monologues, a performance written and originated by Eve Ensler, that has grown and morphed and blossomed into something of a phenomenon. I first heard of the show when it was performed at Brown, in what had to be one of the very first off-Broadway productions thereof. I didn't go, then.

Tonight, the Prairie Players put on The Vagina Monologues, or rather, The V Monologues, title edited so as not to offend delicate Galesbourgeois sensibilities. The redaction seemed irritating when I first heard about it, because it seemed like the producers must not have gotten the point as I understood it; indeed, the opening monologue, spoken in the voice of Eve Ensler herself, makes disparaging reference to the fact that a lot of publicity amends the name. Having now seen it, I'm completely baffled. The people in the show clearly understood the point, and I have no idea who it was that edited the title. Perhaps the venue (Cherry Street Biergarten) insisted. I guess I should inquire.

Anyway, I showed up about ten minutes before showtime, and asked if there were still tickets available. They sold me one, but when I walked into the Biergarten it was packed. Chairs were crammed in edgewise, some behind the bar; I managed to find a spot in the bleacher seating way in the back, that hadn't been taken because it straddled two bleacher sections; sitting on my coat made it moderately comfortable, as much as bleacher seating can be, anyway. It turned out to be a fabulous seat, actually, because there was an aisle directly in front of me, and I had a totally unobstructed view of the stage. Looking around, there appeared to be no more than ten men in the room (and all of them besides me seemed clearly attached to a nearby woman); there appeared to be at least 200 women, though, of all ages. Like I said, packed.

It was a little hard to get into the intro monologue at first, because it is told in the voice of the author and as if she were the only one performing the monologues. (I understand the original production was a one-woman show.) The lighting was poor and didn't cover certain parts of the stage, so she (and later, the other women) occasionally wandered out of the light. But these minor issues aside, the rest of the monologues began, and it was... entrancing.

I sort of knew already that women didn't look at their vaginas. There are certainly a number of places in pop culture where we hear about hand-mirror-wielding women instructed to take a look; usually it's in a somewhat pejorative context, or at least carries a connotation of "silly thing that is being done for some flaky new-age therapy group". So the thought was out there.

Still, it had never really registered. That there are women out there who have never even once seen their own genitalia. That there are a lot of women out there who have never seen their own genitalia. Possibly even a majority of them. (Almost certainly, if you consider women internationally.) What a crazy, completely foreign concept.

And the extent to which the very idea of a vagina is hidden away in society: it's something that becomes totally obvious as you see the show, and perhaps just on simple reflection. Why? I don't just mean that you don't see vaginas discussed on talk shows; I mean that vaginas aren't talked about at all. Penises and testicles get considerably more airtime, in one guise or another. No vaginas, though. Jon Stewart says "pussy" nearly every night on the Daily Show, but that word in that context is pretty decoupled from anything anatomical. (On the other hand, I'm now wondering if that word shouldn't be just as déclassé as "gay" as in "This assignment is so gay", given that "gay" gets exactly the same excuses I just gave for "pussy". Hmm.)

I think my favourite of the monologues was "My angry vagina". It was really funny, but made some really good points. I think that, being male, I can be excused for not thinking about tampons much, but really, why don't they lubricate them for easy application? I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would be to shove a dry stick of cotton into a vagina, but my imagination is conjuring up something pretty damn uncomfortable. And to do that several times a day for a week?

What really made my day on the angry vagina monologue, though, was hearing the little old ladies laughing riotously at the characterisation of the "cold duck lips". With-it guys like me have, at best, some vague notion of the use and purpose of this tool in an annual gynecological exam; it was obvious that every woman in the room, of any age, knew precisely what she was talking about. Our society is so stratified by age, especially when it comes to attitudes about anything even remotely related to sex, that we expect (say) a 25-year-old woman to have a reaction more similar to a 25-year-old guy than to a 75-year-old woman when something involving vaginas and/or penises is being discussed. So it was kind of cool (and, frankly, just a bit disconcerting) to see the lines drawn the other way.

One of the goals of this show is to educate people, men and women, about vaginas. It's unfortunate that so few men are willing to go; they may find the subject matter intimidating, but I really think it'd benefit them. On the other hand, there was an old guy seated right in front of me who was really damn annoying; he kept saying things at odd times and laughing at the points you would expect a, say, junior-high-age boy to giggle. But, still, maybe this 70-year-old man progressed from "7th grade boy" to the level of maturity that I'd expect from, oh, an eighth grader. It's progress... and at least he was there.

Another major goal is just to get people to talk about them without making "vagina" sound like a dirty word. Actually using it helps: vagina vagina vagina. Maybe throw a cunt in there for good measure. I'm actually already finding it easier to type than it was at the beginning of this post. I don't have quite as much of a personal connection as women do, and I'm not reclaiming a word for a part of me; but I'm happy to do my part to contribute to making it easier for every woman trying to reclaim the word for herself.

Vagina vagina vagina!

"Schweitzer's display of independence worked, and red Montana, like red Wyoming, red Arizona and red Kansas, installed a blue leader, thus turning his state purple -- a color the Eastern analysts seem blind to, but which Westerners recognize as the color of sagebrush and, as the song says, of mountain majesties (whatever those are)." --Walter Kirn

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January 03, 2005

Ten tracks

Someday perhaps I'll give a full rundown on what I did over New Year's---had a lot of fun, got very little sleep, and put myself in a position where I nearly didn't finish both of my syllabi in time for class today---but right now I need to post about going crazy.

I'm sitting in on a music theory class this term. I've wanted to take it for at least ten years, but it just kept not quite fitting into my schedule, so I wasn't about to pass up the chance. With any luck I'll be able to stick with it for multiple terms.

The first assignment in the course is what's driving me nuts. The prof asked each of us to make up a mix tape (/CD) of 3-5 of the tracks of our favourite music. I started with the twenty songs in my list that I'd given five stars. (There's good ones elsewhere in the mix, but I obviously don't need to be adding to the list.) I threw out the ones I liked more for the lyrics and all but the best one by each artist, and a couple others that I could winnow out.

Now I'm down to ten, and I just can't narrow it down further. All ten are musically awesome songs, and they're all very different, and I like each one for a different reason. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • ABBA/The Piper (from Super Trouper)
  • The Chordettes/Mr Sandman
  • Ben Folds/The Ascent Of Stan (from Rockin' The Suburbs)
  • bond/Alexander the Great (from Born)
  • Deiseal/Sí Beag, Sí Mór
  • Maroon 5/This Love (from Songs About Jane)
  • Paul Simon/Kodachrome
  • Randy Travis/Forever and Ever, Amen (from Always & Forever)
  • Bolero (closing credits from Moulin Rouge)
  • Uncle Kracker/Follow Me (from Double Wide)

So there it is, ten of my mostest favouritest songs. How can I pick just five from that list? I'm seriously thinking of burning all ten and telling her to put it on random shuffle and just listen to the first five.

On Intellectual Property law: "Well, there's a lot of bathwater there, so it's hardly surprising that some people are having trouble spotting the baby." --Mike Kimmitt

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December 23, 2004

Oddments

I haven't been blogging much lately, so I suppose an update is in order.

First of all, I'm in Palatine now. I have been from last Friday night, and I'm heading out next Wednesday or Thursday. Not for Galesburg, but for the mega-party I go to in Urbana every New Year's. (Is it one big party or lots of little ones? A true philosophical conundrum.) Which will be made interesting this year by my attempt to bring my dog. We'll see how it goes.

Meanwhile I'm schlumping around my parents' house, mostly. I still have some Christmas shopping to do; I haven't really done much at all, to be honest. I'm hoping to actually shop at stores in downtown Palatine or perhaps some of the other suburban downtowns; malls are for my shopping of last resort these days.

My blog has been blissfully spam-free for a week now. Ahhhhh. I'm so glad I had the brainstorm that made me write BotBlock. Once again, if you have any troubles, let me know.

I've been catching up on some of my net reading (not that I ever really fell behind). Once again I'm impressed with Joel Spolsky of Joel On Software; he's not always right, but he writes so well that it doesn't matter. If you have any connection to software, as a programmer, a manager, or just an interested observer, you really ought to read some of his stuff.

I finally finished Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I'd bought when I was in Providence and had been working on, on and off, ever since. It's a great book; the author plunked herself down in a city with about $1,000 startup money and determined to support herself through "unskilled" labour for a month. And then she did it again, and again, each time in a different city. If the book has a single thesis, it would be that the notion that poverty results from unemployment is pure myth; even working more than full time at quite a bit more than minimum wage, bare subsistence is an iffy prospect, and the existence is not one I'd gladly call human. Why do we let this happen? But I can't adequately summarise in a paragraph; y'all should go read the book and see for yourself.

Finally, somehow, tonight, I've managed to get some work done. I now have most of a syllabus for my smorgasbord class next term, which I'm seriously thinking of just renaming "Some Stuff Every Computer Scientist Should Know", which is both more accurate and less distasteful than the bland "Information and Knowledge Management". The current name makes it sound like some sort of business class. Uchhh. Anyway, at least I now have content!

"There's a real strong tendency to assume that experiments done on large populations of people should work out just like experiments done with chemicals in a high school lab, but everyone that has ever tried to do experiments on people knows that you get wildly variable results that just aren't repeatable and the only way you can be confident in your results is to carefully avoid ever doing the same experiment twice." --Joel Spolsky

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December 22, 2004

Phantom (again)

It's not that long ago that I first saw The Phantom of the Opera onstage, and today I just caught the movie version. The trailers seemed really promising; a show with such spectacle ought to have been a great fit for a silver screen adaptation. It was disappointing.

Not everything was bad, of course. The black-and-white 1919 scenes, and the transformation of the opera house as we slip into the story, were great. A few added scenes here and there fill in the blanks of the story in a very welcome way. Some of the sets and costumes were quite nice. (A few of the scenes seemed designed to showcase their extensive set of the backstage of the Opéra Populaire; a minor transgression, and those sets really were excellent.) Most of the minor parts were well done---I quite liked Madame Giry---and Minnie Driver's Carlotta was fabulously diva.

But the central, focal character, Christine Daaé, just wasn't up to snuff, and the rest of the movie couldn't hold together without her. Christine is not an inherently unlikable character---quite the contrary---but I can't remember seeing a show with such a thoroughly dislikable leading lady. Emmy Rossum's entire claim to "acting" in this show was to put on an utterly vacant expression and let her mouth hang open. Entranced, I'm told, but I wasn't convinced. It's clear that she was cast for her voice alone.

And while I'm on the topic of voice, let's talk about the sound. For the love of God, if you're going to make a movie musical, you should at least make the tiniest effort at making the music sync up with the lips! In every single scene with singing, it was painfully obvious that the soundtrack was dubbed in; not just an occasional, forgivable flub, but a constant failure to line up audio with visual. Even less attention was paid (if that's possible) to synching the motions of the conductor and orchestra with the soundtrack. This proved a constant distraction throughout the movie.

Nor were the errors limited to the audiovisual. The show was rife with continuity and realism errors. Nothing so subtle as a glass of water with changing water levels, either. In the late scenes of the film, Raoul gets cut by the Phantom in a swordfight, and when we see him days later (or at least many hours later) his sleeve is still bloody. He got all dressed up in his finery for the opera, and wore a slashed, blood-caked shirt? Or how about when the insipid Christine glides out of her dormitory in her nightgown, but arrives at the cemetery in a black velvet gown? Which, by the way, exposes at least a square foot of cleavage, which given the snow on the ground would have to be pretty damn cold. Of course, the snow was just one step this side of potato flakes, no realism at all; even in the earlier scene where the snow was falling, it looked bizarre and fake, sticking to their hands and faces until it blew away. Generally, the characters were not very aware of their surroundings; aside from the snow problems, all of the characters breezed right past the ubiquitous gas-flame lights with nary a care that their huge flowing costumes would catch fire. (Really makes you understand why every other building before 1900 seems to have been destroyed in fire, though; it's everywhere.) Meg Giry, who I otherwise liked, is shown at one point traipsing through a dank stone corridor in her toe shoes, walking right through the puddles on the floor. Ruining the shoes. You'd think that even if her curiosity drove her onward, she'd at least steer around the open water.

Plot believability I'm not going to bother to address here, both because it was basically inherited from the stage play and because there isn't really very much plot to believe in the first place. It is, as my dad points out, all about the music; I'd add that it's about the relationships as well, and that's where most of the failure comes in. Raoul was fine and the Phantom was believable if not as sympathetic a character as he's supposed to be. But even knowing the story, it was hard to see where Christine was at any given point. Entranced by the Phantom? Vacant mouth-breathing. In love with Raoul? Vacant mouth-breathing. Pitying the Phantom but wanting to run away with Raoul? Vacant mouth-breathing. You can see my problem here.

Which is not to say that you will necessarily dislike it. Mom, Dad, and Kathy all really liked it, although they at least shared some of my individual complaints. But it's at least an adequate adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical drama about the creepy violent stalker and his brainwashed victim. If you close your eyes and just listen to the music, it's even pretty good!

"The answer is really complicated. I'm going to start with a little economic theory, then I'm going to tear the theory to bits, and when I'm finished, you'll know a lot more about pricing and you still won't know how much to charge for your software, but that's just the nature of pricing." --Joel Spolsky

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December 10, 2004

Superman

I just saw Superman for the first time. You know what? It's really awful. Most of it is seriously B-movie, except less funny. Marlon Brando? Bad. As ever. You can't understand a damn thing that man says, and he only has one emotion he can display---"I'm emoting!"---which is always on.

If you feel you simply must watch this movie, at least do yourself a favour and skip the first hour. The production values are somewhere south of Doctor Who, the dialogue wishes it were even as good as anything William Shatner ever uttered, and the plot goes nowhere that is even remotely relevant to the rest of the movie.

Once we get to Kansas (or "Ruralstate" or whatever), things pick up, although not by much. Toddler Superman gets picked up by a childless middle-aged couple and quickly ages into a teenager who bears a startling resemblance to Sigourney Weaver. There are a few Important Character-Developing Scenes, then Clark's dad dies---from a heart attack, as carefully foreshadowed just five minutes earlier---and Clark sets off for the North Pole, where he throws a mysterious green piece of Kryptonite off into the distance, where it suddenly grows into a huge Krypton-style palace with a floating ice-sculpture head of Marlon Brando, who gives Clark a blue spandex unitard and red underwear and teaches him how to fly.

On and on the movie goes, fluctuating between mediocre and look-at-your-watch dreadful. The scenes with Lex Luthor and his lovely subterranean train station set were generally the best of the lot, although the scene where he logically deduces that a particular meteorite in Addis Abbaba is Kryptonite and therefore lethal to Superman is probably best forgotten.

Finally, we get to the big Superman-saves-the-world-well-at-least-the-country climax. Now, superhero movies are all fine and good, and I'm perfectly happy with the idea of a superhero doing, y'know, superhuman things. But flying all the way across the country in seconds, and then taking like five minutes to actually catch a speeding rocket? Stopping an earthquake by "closing" the fault line? WTF? And come on, a burst dam is going to take a bit more than a few rocks to stop, and if you do it's going to form something a damn sight bigger than a small pond!

And finally, when a voiceover reminded him of his father (John Kent, not that other guy)'s words "you were put here for a reason", well obviously that would inspire him to fly high speed and reverse time. I don't know why I didn't see it myself.

Weak opening, weak plot, weak characters, shitty dialogue, irritating climax, and non-existent ending. This movie does not deserve its excellent soundtrack. What a waste of $2 and two and a half hours.

"Welcome to Illinois: We may not get the worst weather in the world, but we come in second, in every category." --Sam Walker

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December 04, 2004

Andru Bemis

I saw a guy named Andru Bemis perform last night at Innkeepers (and then some more after we retired to Bill and Lisa Stephens' house). He's pretty cool. He has a folky sort of sound that I mostly associate with the crowd that plays at Zach Miller's New Year's Eve events, although I don't ever remember there being a banjo chez Zach. Having released his second album "Singer" (which has in the liner notes a picture of the Singer sewing machine store in downtown Galesburg, though he had never been here before), he is now crisscrossing the country by train.

The most interesting thing about his sound (to me) was the way his singing was musical but not that tightly tied to the playing. That is, the stuff he was singing obviously could be set to the exact rhythm and melody of the music being played, and it mostly was. But without abandoning musicality entirely, Bemis frequently diverged to fit the rhythm of the words and letting the guitar or banjo carry the tune. It's hard to describe it without making it sound like some William-Shatner-esque spoken-word performance, but that's not what it felt like at all. Guess you'll have to just look him up and give him a listen yourself. :)

"This was part of the aesthetic of the early seventies in which folk art was judged by its resemblance to marijuana buds and/or bongs. Macrame looked like both, and was smiled upon." --Lore Fitzgerald Sjöberg

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December 01, 2004

Alexander

Last Friday, while my car was in the shop, my family went to see Alexander. It was---and I realise I've been using this word a lot lately---epic. Showing the life and death of Alexander the Great requires nothing less.

The big battle, the Greeks under Alexander vs the Persians under Darios, was certainly the action climax of the movie, big and somewhat confusing (like war ever isn't?). But as they moved to the different parts of the action, the "location" bar in the lower left actually said "Macedonian Left" and so on, helping you keep track of what's going on. Generally this caption popped up as the action moved around the world as well (and occasionally back and forth in time), which along with the narration by Ptolemy made the whole thing much easier to follow. I read a review that panned it for, among things, the fact that it would have been really hard to understand if it weren't for the narration. I'm not even sure that's true, but certainly, duh, they put the narration in there for a reason.

And then there was the character development. Every review I've seen or heard of has said that the movie makes a big deal about Alexander's bisexuality (and most of them pan it on that basis). What's most remarkable, though, is how little the movie makes of it. In the movie, Alexander is clearly gay, and participates in a lifetime bond with Hephaistion. Several references are made, by Ptolemy, Olympias, and others, that indicate the relationship was sexual. But the movie resisted the temptation to pander to the prurient crowd; and more importantly, resisted the idea that gay relationships are all about sex. I've seen a few online complain that they showed the straight sex but not the gay sex; and that's sort of true, but not really. There were two near-sex scenes. One is when Olympias is nearly raped by Philip, and the other is the knife fight between Alexander and Roxana. Both were vital to the plot and character development, and the actual sex is behind the scenes.

Which, I think, is just fine. The prurient among us are perfectly capable of connecting the dots---filling in the blanks, as it were---and the way most shows show all that sex onscreen these days is just crass. It was really interesting seeing this movie just a week after seeing Gone With the Wind for the first time; both epics following characters through the ravages of large-scale battle and war. And both left a considerable amount to the imagination. Less so in Alexander, of course; the sex and the violence were quite a bit more than you'd've seen in 1939. But both movies got considerable mileage out of not showing a lot of things.

"What many straight people don't understand is that for most of us, our lives are as horribly boring as theirs are. The really nice perk, though, is that we have more money for vacations." --Brian Quinby

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November 27, 2004

Evita

This afternoon my family went to see the touring stage show of Evita at the Auditorium Theatre downtown (and then completed the evening with dinner at Mia Cucina in Palatine).

I've seen the movie before, and I'm quite familiar with the music, but I'd never seen it staged before. Fortunately, this company didn't fall into the dangerous trap of mimicking the movie; for good or bad, most of the scenes were pretty different. (Trying to restage the movie would have been nothing but a complete disaster---the media are too different, and the production would suffer.)

One recurring shtick involved a huge screen that descended over the rear of the stage. A projector at the back of the stage put up images from the actual Perón regime, and some video footage from that era as well. They were used throughout the show to great effect, especially in "Buenos Aires" and "Rainbow Tour". Unfortunately, the digitisation was of very poor quality. Rather than looking grainy (which might've been ok), it just looked like someone tivoed the History Channel and forgot to set the quality high enough. Which was really really too bad. I know that higher-definition is possible, and they really should have used it.

The clear low point of the show was the two "tango" dancers. First appearing at the earthquake charity fundraiser, they danced as Juan and Eva sang "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You". Which is basically a rhumba, but whatever. What they danced was not anything like a tango or a rhumba; the dancers had no connection with the floor or each other, or anything else for that matter. That includes, say, the music. And as the rest of the onstage cast moved off (the various onlookers from the benefit), these two continued dancing all over the stage while Juan and Eva sang. There was no reason for them to be there, the dancing wasn't good, the dancing didn't relate to anything, and they were very distracting. They then had to reprise this role during the requiem montage at the end of the show. Simply dreadful. I'm not that picky---they didn't have to dance a proper tango or anything (although I think a good, y'know, Argentine tango would have been welcome at some point during the show), but in this case having them there was definitely worse than having nothing there at all.

Most disturbing moment in the show goes to the following lines in "A New Argentina":

PERON
It's annoying that we have to fight elections for our cause
The inconvenience--having to get a majority
If normal methods of persuasion fail to win us applause
There are other ways of establishing authority

SECRET POLICE
We have ways of making you vote for us, or at least of
making you abstain

Lines that I remember thinking of as "things that fascist regimes do" when I saw the movie back in the mid 90s suddenly strike rather a lot too close to home.

The show itself basically has three real parts, with three or so very minor parts and a chorus. Eva (Kathy Voytko) and Juan (Philip Hernandez) were great, though I'm not sure I'd say they were better than their movie counterparts. (Voytko was a better-trained singer than Madonna, but Madonna had the advantage of sound studios and re-takes.) Che (Bradley Dean) wasn't bad, but he definitely wasn't as good as Antonio Banderas; this guy used a trained singing voice at the wrong places and busted out the shouted or spoken line in a really awkward way. Of the remainder of the cast, I really liked the performance of "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" by Perón's mistress (Kate Manning); I have never seen good, strong singing so successfully blended with convincing verge-of-tears acting. And the chorus itself is a bit more featured in the stage show than in the movie, with many of the harmonies much richer and easier to discern.

Love, love, love the costumes. The rest of the technical work was generally decent, although solo lines from the chorus were not all very audible (some miked and some not), and there were a number of minor lighting miscues (which you'd think they would have ironed out over the last few weeks of performing in this venue).

Overall, I was very glad to see the show, and I do recommend it. Its faults are minor and its strengths... strong. Sadly, its Chicago run ends tomorrow. Maybe it will come back! Or maybe you can catch it in another city. Most of the cast and crew should be the same. :)

"The only difference in the game of love over the last few thousand years is that they've changed trumps from clubs to diamonds." --The Indianapolis Star

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November 20, 2004

American English

American English played at the Orpheum tonight. They're a regionally-known Beatles cover band, and they're pretty good. I had never seen them before, although Kathy and her friends had, and had spoken highly of them. If they read this, they'll probably be mad; I mean, I like the Beatles like anyone who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century in North America, Britain, or most of Western Europe, but Kathy and her friends are really into them. Neener neener!

When I got my ticket, I wasn't terribly picky about where I sat, so when the lady asked me if box or mezzanine were okay, I said "sure". But the ticket she gave me was ground floor. Right behind the big stack of boxes next to the sound board. There were a lot of people there, but it was hardly packed, so I don't really understand why this ticket was even in the mix. Anyway, when the lights went down and I realised the sound board light would stay on through the show, I moved. The mezzanine looked full-ish, so I went on up to the upper deck. There were maybe fifty people up there, and the front row was mostly empty. A better seat all around---not least because whenever they renovated the Orpheum, the upper deck just got refinished, but they left the wooden seating with the plush upholstery and iron endpieces, rather than the cheap plastic ones they installed below for the more high-use seats.

Anyway, the show. Before intermission was the "early Beatles" part, where they all had the black suits with the narrow black ties. For some of them, it was almost like listening to a Beatles CD. Others were a little different; "Hard Day's Night" was lacking the clanky part that Ryan always does for his dad's band, alas. There were a lot of fun songs here from the Ed Sullivan era.

After the intermission they came out in full Sergeant Pepper regalia to hit the "psychedelic" era of Beatles stuff... they did fine, I guess, but with a few exceptions those songs aren't as good as the earlier ones. A lot more distortion and noise, and less focus on good singing and harmony. With all the authenticity they were going for, I was pretty disappointed that "George" never pulled out a sitar... that would've been awesome.

A third costume change brought them fully into the 70s, with "George" in bellbottom jeans and the rest of them in brightly-coloured suits, and they rounded out their set. One of the audience members was clearly a Big Beatles Fan and was projecting his approval all the way from the back of the nosebleed seats, before eventually going downstairs right in front of the stage and getting people to dance. They closed with "Hey Jude", ending with maybe five minutes of "na na na na"s, some done by the audience (authentic, I guess).

All in all, worth the price of admission. I might even go again. But unless you're a big Beatles fan, it's an experience you don't need to feel too bad about missing.

"The true test of one's sexuality lies in one's attraction to not-beautiful people." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 19, 2004

Gone with the Wind

Tonight at the Orpheum they showed Gone with the Wind on the big screen. (Badly projected, so that the top part of the frame hit the curtain, but what can you do?) Boy, that's a lot of movie. With a 20 minute intermission, it came in over four hours.

You can certainly see why it's a classic, though. "Epic" doesn't even begin to describe it. I can't even imagine what their budget must have been. The costumes, the sets, even the props showed incredible attention to detail. The roles were big and the actors filled them. Vivian Leigh? That character could easily have been so one-dimensional, but her Scarlett O'Hara was complicated. Olivia deHavilland played a model of goodness and compassion, and even at the end I wasn't totally sure whether she knew or not.

The supporting cast was pretty awesome too. Mrs. O'Hara had all of, what, four lines, and came across as matronly and likable. Mammy---if she can even be considered "supporting"---was spot-on fantastic (didn't she get nominated for an Oscar for this?). Belle Wilder was maybe my favourite character; she's just trying to get by, same as you and me, but she really drives home the fact that the Antebellum and Reconstruction South (not to mention the Confederacy itself) was a rigidly stratified society, and race was hardly the only discriminant.

This is a great movie; so much misfortune befalls everyone, but nearly every single character manages to draw your sympathy. (Ok, maybe not Mr. Wilkinson.) And at the end, somehow, after all the misery and death, it still manages not to leave you feeling down.

"SQL is the Fortran of data bases---nobody likes it much, the language is ugly and ad hoc, every data base supports it, and we all use it." --ORA Lex & Yacc (1992)

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November 14, 2004

A list of authors, part 2

Continued from before...

Robert A. Heinlein was an author I technically started reading when I was very young. I started on Stranger in a Strange Land sometime in junior high, I think, although I only made it about 90 pages in before giving up. Just wasn't ready for it, I guess. And I read a few of his short stories, notably By His Bootstraps, on my dad's recommendation. But what sticks most in my mind from that period was Farnham's Freehold. I read that book when I was maybe nine; the year was 1986 and though glasnost was in the air, the Cold War was still on, and the threat of global thermonuclear war was still a very real one. The lead-in to this book has the warring nations declaring peace, but just as everyone lets their guard down, the nukes are launched, and life as we know it comes to an abrupt end. It freaked me the hell out and gave me nightmares for months. It was to be well over a decade before I touched anything by RAH again.

Robert Jordan starts out good and then he just keeps. on. going. For ever and ever and ever. I started reading his series (and he only really has the one series) my junior year of college. I'm not sure who started me on it, but I think it might have been Mel Hetzel; I know I had some conversations with her about the later books. It was probably a good time to pick it up; all the good books in the series had already been written, so I was able to just plow through them, and when book 7 came out shortly thereafter I could just give up in the middle and walk away from the series completely. I'm told it got a little bit better in book 9 or so, but I'm not going to even consider picking it up again until RJ finishes the series or dies.

Mercedes Lackey I started reading my freshman year of college. She was introduced to me by another freshman named Dawn. Dawn was in the choir and had a beautiful soprano voice; I want to say she was from Columbia, MO, although I'm not sure. I can't even remember her last name! :P Anyway, she lent me one of Lackey's low fantasy novels---aka urban fantasy, with elves and such secretly living in an otherwise modern city. Not really what she's best known for! I kind of avoided the Valdemar books because they looked a little too... girly, I guess. (She was on the Winds series at that point, which really does have slightly girly cover art.) But at some point I was in the library and got By the Sword, a standalone Valdemar book that hooked me in and made me start working my way through. Not long thereafter, I was visiting friends in Champaign (this was the architecturally awful apartment that various groups of four guys lived in---at the time I think it was Mike, Neil, Chris, and Al, though I could be wrong) and one day, Sam Walker and Sara Dhuse were hanging out there. Sara found out I was just getting into Mercedes Lackey and highly recommended the Last Herald-Mage trilogy, which I soon read and still think was the best thing ML ever wrote.

Julian May I discovered entirely on my own. How? Well, she co-wrote Black Trillium with Marion Zimmer Bradley. I liked that book, so I figured hey, why not try her other stuff? I found the Pliocene Exile books and the various associated series to be quite excellent. I lost track of her about three or four years ago, but it looks like she's still writing; I should get back to reading her stuff.

Anne McCaffrey was another Shalom recommendation, I think, though it could have been Michelle or possibly Lee. I'm fairly sure I started reading Pern novels my freshman year of college, because I seem to remember reading at least parts of them at Lee and Vern (and Scott and Jay)'s Broadway house. Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels were later to become the vehicle by which I hooked my sister on fantasy novels. Success!

Terry Pratchett was definitely Shalom's doing. She got both me and Lee hooked on his Discworld series about the same time. I can fairly clearly remember Shalom going on and on about the funny parts of the novels, which is most notable because I can barely remember them myself now. The problem I've always had with Discworld is that although I enjoy reading them, and I can remember characters fairly well, the plots and details of the now-more-than-25 books all run together in my head. I can't even look at a book jacket description in the bookstore and be sure whether or not I've read the book before! Makes it difficult to follow. :P

More to come...

"If [British journalists] want to hole up in their hotels, explore their TV remotes and dream of over-cooked vegetables, warm beer and that elusive invite to their boss's private club, that's their business." --David Staples, Edmonton Journal

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November 12, 2004

A list of authors

I'm sitting here in my living room, looking up at my bookshelf. My eyes fall upon the Tolkien, and I have the thought, "huh, I bet those are the oldest books I own, or rather, the books that have been mine the longest, at least of those that are still on my bookshelf." Looking around to confirm this, I realised that perhaps 95% of my books follow a pattern: I got started on an author, and then bought or at least read everything they wrote. And I find that for a lot of them, I can remember fairly specifically who or what exactly got me started on that author....

Douglas Adams didn't write that many books, but the man practically engendered an entire mythos. My first introduction to his writing was actually his interactive-fiction adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide for Infocom; I think I played that while we were still living in Oak Lawn, or certainly not long after we moved to Palatine. I actually read the first book in eighth grade, checked out of the paperback fiction shelf in Ms. Brandt's reading classroom. I don't think of this as literature for the ages, but there are enough snickers whenever I use the number 42 in my classroom that I know high school kids are still reading it.

Piers Anthony I got started on my sophomore year, at IMSA. Mike McLawhorn was raving about how great Xanth was, including a lot of great puns. I seem to recall reading Man from Mundania out of order, though I don't know if that was the first one I read or not. In any case, I did work my way through that series and moved on to pretty much everything else the guy ever wrote---I think he's over a hundred books now. I still say, the Incarnations of Immortality series was excellent but for the most part his writing after 1980 was significantly inferior to his earlier stuff, before he became a hack. That said, the Xanth series is well-aimed at its audience, and I remember when Josh Nordstrom (a friend of the family, wonder where he is now) was having a hard time getting motivated to read in late junior high, it was my suggestion of the Xanth series that got him over the hump and interested in reading. Chalk one up for Mr. Anthony.

Isaac Asimov is one of those authors I keep saying I should read. I have a bound copy of the I, Robot stories that I still haven't gotten to. I've never read the Foundations series. But I do have several Black Widowers collections that I've read. Those are good.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of the few authors I really can't remember when I started. I don't think Mists of Avalon was the first thing I read, although I know I did read it around my junior year of college. Perhaps it was from a reference by Mercedes Lackey (who got her start writing for MZB's Sword and Sorceress anthology series). But I do know that my first Darkover book was Darkover Landfall, sometime during college, and I proceeded in chronological order according to the mythos, not according to when they were published, and this made for some really bizarre forward referencing and detectable but incomprehensible foreshadowing.

Orson Scott Card wrote Ender's Game in the late 80s, and I'm moderately sure I heard about it around then. But I didn't read it until I was in grad school, at which point I proceeded to work my way through all his stuff, including the implicitly and explicitly Mormon stuff, which was certainly interesting.

Agatha Christie is a great author to like, because her books are available at every library and used bookstore, and they read really quickly. I know we read Ten Little Indians in seventh grade, and that might have been the first. Every now and then I have a craving for a good mystery, so I try to keep two or three unread Christie novels in stock.

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park put him on a lot of people's radar when the movie version was released in 1993, and so it was with me. I read Jurassic Park the summer after I graduated from high school, right around the time we took a trip to Lake Kabetogama in Minnesota's border waters. It wasn't actually during the trip, though, because I definitely remember my dad was reading it during the trip. :)

Greg Egan is an author I like but haven't read much of yet. I hadn't ever heard of him, but then during the 2002 CS recruiting weekend, a prospective named Ryan Newton, and me, and my housemate Hilary were sitting in her room having a great 2am conversation. At some point, he started going on about how great this Greg Egan guy was, and it stuck in my mind; a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw Diaspora. And in fact, Greg Egan is indeed pretty good.

Raymond Feist I started reading during my junior year of college, working my way through the Riftwar saga. I think it was Shalom that put me on to that one. Reading his stuff is completely maddening, because there are tons of characters, and as generations pass the children get named after uncles and grandmothers and friends of the family, which may reflect reality but makes it really hard to keep everyone straight! I made my way through to the Serpentwar saga before losing interest. Maybe I'll pick it up again, although I think I'd have no hope at all of keeping everyone straight now.

Alan Dean Foster writes a lot of standalone novels. My first exposure to him was Quozl, which remains one of my all-time favourite books, and I'm pretty sure it was Al Kinsella raving about it that put me onto it, though I could be wrong. I then continued to read a new ADF book about every other year before going on a big kick late in grad school.

Terry Goodkind. Which one of you was responsible for starting me on him? I'm pretty sure I read Wizard's First Rule around my third year of grad school, and it was good enough that I got dragged along through the next four books in the series, which take place over the course of about six days and go nowhere at all. Auuugghghhh.

John Grisham is nothing at all like Michael Crichton, but they share the same niche in my brain. The Firm came out about the same time as Jurassic Park, and I read both during the summer after graduating high school. Although, if I recall correctly, I didn't see The Firm until after I read the book; I seem to remember being disappointed at the movie's ending, which seemed like a copout. I do know my mom was reading it at the same time as me, and I think she was about a hundred pages in when I started, so her bookmark sat there while I stole the book and read it myself. :) For years, Grisham's books provided me with predictably mediocre airplane reading (his latest is always on sale at the airport bookstores), but eventually it just got so bad I gave up.

To be continued...

"A large part of the public likes the conservatives' theme music. Now they will be tested on whether they like the lyrics." --Barney Frank

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October 23, 2004

Dancing at Lughnasa

The Fall Term mainstage show is Dancing at Lughnasa. It takes place in late summer 1936 in rural Ireland. It reminded me in several ways of Ah, Wilderness! from last year: both revolve to some extent around a boy in nostalgic but changing times, but are really at least as much about the adults around him. This one a bit moreso, as the boy doesn't even appear as such in the play, although his older self---the narrator---fills us in on his half of the dialogue when necessary. (This particular dramatic conceit was odd and didn't get any less odd as the play went on. But, apparently it's written into the script, so there you go. Saves them the trouble of getting a 7-year-old bit player, I guess.)

Overall I think I would rate this show good but not great. There were a few line stumbles, which are hard to cover up in monologue, although I suppose they'll improve in later performances. It took a solid twenty or thirty minutes to really get into the show, partially because I think it took some of the actors that long to really slide into character. (Perhaps they were thinking too much about their Irish accents, which were good throughout but strongest at the beginning.) I have a hard time pinning down any one moment I didn't like, though.

What I did see was a whole lot of raw talent, and much of it in freshmen and sophomores. Four of the eight actors had never been in a mainstage show before, and I find myself already looking forward to their performances three years from now.

The hardest role, I think, was that of the narrator, played by Nicholas James Perry; aside from a few lines of dialogue as his younger self (spoken while standing off to the side while the other actors interact with the invisible character), what he has are a lot of big, long monologues. And aside from not knowing what to do with his hands for a lot of the time (and this is a hard problem---you try reciting a speech while making your hands neither distracting nor limp), he did a great job. Where did he come from? He's a freshman, and I expect great things from him.

At the beginning, I thought that Sylvie Davidson (whose performances I've commented on before on this blog) was overdoing it this time around. From pretty much the start, it felt like there was something unidentifiably not quite right about the way she was playing her character. In point of fact, it turned out that she was perfectly playing a character about whom something was Unidentifiably Not Quite Right. So, good work there.

In the same vein, I kept looking askance at certain things about the set work or the costuming---"I get that women in a rural household might be wearing something more practical on their feet but... are those galoshes?"---and then later discovering that these things were wholly intentional---"Rose, why do you insist on wearing your Wellingtons all the time?" Ah.

I think that Jason Cascio's main problem is that I don't like the characters he gets. I've not been really thrilled with any of his performances, but I don't think it's actually his fault. Here he played Gerry, the least dislikable of the characters I've seen him do, and he did a decent job at it. (I was certainly impressed when he sang "Anything Goes" while dancing for several minutes, not even sounding out of breath at the end of it.) I'd really like to see him land a more congenial part at some point, though!

I think my favourite performance ended up being Jessica Drew as Maggie, though. She has a great smile and played her part with just the right amount of winking fun; you got the clear sense that even though times weren't great she'd always make the best of them.

I also have to note that this is the second mainstage in a row that had a character actually knitting onstage, a development of which I wholly approve. But for a spinster who makes her living by knitting, I'd maybe expect a bit more familiarity with the process, not to mention needles more suited to the project. :P Between Aggie's knitting (purportedly by a professional knitter) and Gerry's dancing (purportedly by a ballroom dance instructor), I feel like I should've been doing some serious consulting on this show. ;)

But like I said, the show was fairly good. I'll give it two and a half out of four stars---though as any of my students will tell you, I'm kind of a harsh grader.

"They are men and women who would otherwise be civilians at home and to me, that's a draft." --Joe Shidle

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September 18, 2004

Always the Women

Tonight I saw a one-woman show in Kresge called Always the Women. It's an amalgamation of stories from the four Gospels featuring women. Not only the stories, but the language itself is taken; the script is basically a cut-and-paste job from the NIV translation (with some minor adjustments).

A potentially interesting idea that only worked moderately well. In the Q&A session afterwards the actor, Nina Thiele, pointed out that it was important and difficult to make it more than a recitation of Bible verses, and she's right. I think the problem was that she didn't draw from a broad enough palette of emotions (and overdid the ones she did use); everyone was either furious or ecstatic or incredulous. Except Jesus, who was frequently not emotional at all.

There were a few great moments, and these served chiefly to provide a contrast against which to judge the rest of it. These moments had in common that they contained no articulated words---they were voiceless interjections that were pure interpretations, and brought us the sense that she was depicting real people.

The "narrator" character deserves special note, because it was the most frustrating. The narrator spent most of her time amazed, and the amazement was either 1) "I can't/Can you believe this is happening" or 2) "I can't/Can you believe these people don't know what's going on". I don't think either one worked very well, and they worked especially badly in combination. (I think the second kind was accidental, as after the show she mentioned that she was largely trying for a "this has never happened before, incredible!" sort of approach.) I see what she was getting at, but it just wasn't working. Maybe if it had been a little lighter: "wow!" instead of "OMG!!!11".

I do have to say that one of the best, most genuine moments is the very last one: as Mary Magdalene she says (approximately) "He had to tell his story, and he told it to me!" I'm not seeing it in any of the four (the rest of the scene was definitely the version from John), so this may have been one of the few additions; a good one, imo.

I've been going back and forth all evening as to whose fault the problems were. On the one hand, by restricting herself to the exact wording of the Bible, she's set herself a big task and some very difficult hurdles to overcome, and many of the problems might just be the fault of the "script" not being chiefly designed for a dramatic presentation. On the other hand, there were definitely a lot of places where I could envision a specific different way she could have said the same words to improve the scene immensely. But in the end, it's probably a combination of different things. I'm not sorry I went to see it, but I can't really recommend it to anyone else (which is too bad, because Ms. Thiele seems really nice and sincere).

"Osgood, I'm a man!"
"Well, nobody's perfect." --Some Like It Hot

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September 12, 2004

Two movies

Last night, I saw Some Like It Hot at the Orpheum. I've seen it on video before, but this was the first time on a big screen. (It was a DVD version, not film, as became clear when we saw that the subtitles were on---in French!---until they fixed it and turned them off.) It remains a really funny movie, even decades later. Some of the movie conventions of the time seem quaint and even confusing now; like the flashing lights that represent gunfire, or the fact that the darkest nighttime scenes were filmed in broad daylight. That didn't detract, though. The movie is accidentally topical, touching on the subject of same-sex marriage, but what is most impressive is how non-judgemental it is on quite a lot of issues of sexuality that are controversial even today. Also, it's simply riotously funny. :)

This evening I was flipping channels and saw The Royal Tenenbaums. This was another one I'd already seen, but I didn't mind seeing it again. (Notwithstanding FX's new habit of not only placing advertising bugs in the corner of the screen, but having them make noise for like twenty seconds as they cruise across the bottom and bottom-right of the screen. Really fucking irritating, guys. Way to completely turn me off of whatever it was you were advertising.) This darkly funny movie is all about the characters: there's not a lot of action per se, but it seems like a lot is going on. None of the characters are particularly 2D, although some are painted in relatively broad strokes; there's only so much you can do when you have more than a dozen characters to set up in a feature-length movie. My favourite, though, was Etheline, played by Anjelica Huston. She's probably not the first one that would spring to mind for most people, but she's so delightfully subtle. Most of the other characters were well-fleshed-out because of good writing, but hers was done through acting. Then again, I've always been a sucker for the well-played supporting role.

"Yet people crave change, which is why we have seasons in the first place. Places with insignificant temperature changes may brag about their perfect climates, but even perfection requires contrast to be appreciated. Theirs, which they may neglect to mention at the time, tend to be hurricanes and earthquakes." --Miss Manners

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September 09, 2004

Best musicals

In today's Register-Mail, there was a little feature posting some of the staff's picks for the top five best musicals. A response was invited, so here's mine:

  1. The Music Man

    Easily the best out there. Pretty much an archetype of the ensemble-cast musical genre. The plot is interesting without being convoluted, there are a lot of good characters, and the music is simply excellent.

  2. Evita

    This musical has less parts than it seems---there's really only three, four if you count Magaldi. Plus the chorus, of course. But the show manages to be epic in spite of its really small cast; and the music is really diverse (and, again, excellent). I also have to confess that I was floored by the movie version of this, which had great promise and then went ahead and exceeded it. Madonna can act! Antonio Banderas can sing! Who knew?

  3. Moulin Rouge

    It could never be effectively made into a stage musical, but this show is such a clever amalgamation of a classic plot with stunning visuals and a surprising array of music from pop culture. I fear that it won't stand the test of time, but for now it definitely belongs on the list.

  4. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

    Musical theatre's answer to the screwball comedy, any decent production of this show will have you in stitches by the end. The music isn't quite as good or as memorable as with the first three, but it's well-suited to the show. Its chief liability (one it shares with some other pretty good musicals like Joseph and Seven Brides) is that it has a good-sized cast but very few decent female roles, so it doesn't get put on very often.

  5. The Sound of Music

    I had a hard time picking one show to fill this last slot, but in the end I settled on Sound of Music. It gets a bad rap because it is overplayed, but it's overplayed because it really is good. It's just a bit too cheesy to make it to the top of the list, but the wide range of catchy, memorable songs let it buy its way into the top five.

"I mean, look at poor Ann Landers: That woman was always stressing out about fake letters making it into her column---and where is Ann Landers today? Dead! No doubt from the stress of worrying about fake letters making it into her column! Personally, I'd rather have margaritas carry me off." --Dan Savage

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August 18, 2004

The Da Vinci Code

The only real problem with this book is its claim that it portrays fact.

There were some minor things too, but if it weren't for the big page at the front that is headed "FACT:" and lists a bunch of the stuff that makes up the premise of the book, they'd be fine. It doesn't have to be true to make it a good novel; that's why it's a novel. As several characters point out, "everybody loves a good conspiracy".

As a mystery novel, it is pretty decent. The writing is a bit heavy-handed at times, and there are a bunch of places where one character explains to another what that character should already know; this serves an expository purpose for the reader, of course, but it's a problem if the reader keeps noticing it. A little more worrisome were the times when this reader was immediately able to interpret a symbol, and the symbologist and cryptologist "experts" bang their heads for about four pages before they get it. But, whatever.

The word play was also fun, sometimes. Pretty much whenever Brown stuck to English, he was on solid ground; but when he starts doing the cross-linguistic anagramming (as evidence of a connection!) he really starts to sound like the crank many have accused him of being.

Somehow I had thought that the action of this book would take place over a great deal of time, so I was surprised when I realised it was all in the course of about twenty-four hours. A lot happens in this time, of course, and even as the end approaches, and you think you have things figured out, he manages to pack a few nice punches.

Did anyone else notice in the list of Prieuré Grand Masters the name of Nicolas Flamel? For a brief moment I thought this was a nod to the Harry Potter books before it dawned on me that both books drew him from the same source (i.e. real life). In fact, he was (surprise!) an alchemist tied strongly into the search for the Philosopher's Stone. All of which makes me even more irritated that the American publishers of the HP series decided to change the title; but that's a whole other rant, of course.

In any case, The Da Vinci Code isn't exactly a masterpiece for the ages, but it's a decent read. The people that get all worked up about it not being true are correct, but really shouldn't be getting their panties all in a bunch over denying specific points---this evokes a methinks-the-queen air, which of course is rather counterproductive. Just point out that it's a novel. That should be sufficient.

So, anyone want this copy? I got it from Lee and I believe I'm expected to pass it on to someone else, so as not to give any more royalties to Dan Brown. :)

"If you removed every reference to poverty in the New Testament, the Good Book would be reduced to little more than a Not Bad Pamphlet." --Arianna Huffington

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August 14, 2004

The Mask of Zorro

Tonight I did something I've never done before: I watched a movie.

That is, I watched a DVD by myself. I've never been big on watching movies alone (TV never bothered me, oddly enough). I'm almost positive this was the first time in this apartment, and it probably is at least the first time in several years. But, hey, I was bored, not yet tired, and nobody else seemed to be online. I could've read, but I wanted to knit. ;) I did discover that my sound system is excellent, and my TV is a poor match for it. Watching anamorphic widescreen on a 19" from more than ten feet away is somewhat straining on the eyes. I'll have to bring down my beanbag to get closer if I ever do this again; I don't have the space for a bigger TV at this point. :P

The movie of choice was The Mask of Zorro, which DVD I got for---Christmas? My birthday?---from my parents, and hadn't even opened the packaging yet. It was a good action movie, I thought; there were a number of plot holes that kept trying to worm their way into annoying me, but I didn't let them. The swordfighting and concomitant acrobatics were quite gratifying. At the same time, they get by with virtually no gore and a relative minimum of onscreen violence, considering. And there are some great lines. It's not a constant parade of clever one-liners, but there are definitely some moments. All in all, a fun movie that will appeal to a broad audience.

"Man, I'm glad that people in the profession are much more forgiving than I am. If I ran a clinic, I'd force everyone to sign a statement that they believed abortion ought to be safe and legal before undergoing the procedure. Let 'em go try it in the back alleys with a coat hanger if that's how they want it." --Doug Morrow

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August 08, 2004

Cryptonomicon redux

So Friday night, I stayed up until 7:30 in the morning to finish the book. I don't have that much more to say on top of what I said here, here, here, and here. The ending was much in the same vein as the rest of the book, although perhaps slightly rushed (if indeed that can be said about any part of an 1,150 page book). There were a few things that he left hanging, like what was the deal with the guy that died ("onscreen" as it were, not just presumed dead) but was then alive later.

For the most part, though, Cryptonomicon is an incredibly clever, intelligent book, filled with inspired prose about all manner of things. It offers a fairly accessible rundown of cryptography Then and Now, along with some of the sociological motivations and implications thereof. It's a war novel and it's a detective novel. It has an obfuscated Perl script (with typos, beware) that you can figure out before it gets explained in stages later on. It's a word factory, churning out coinages like "Mercato-roentgeno-gram" that never fully explained but make sense in context if, for instance, you know who Wilhelm Röntgen was, or at least what he did.

In summary, people who should read this book include:

  • linguistics geeks,
  • cryptography geeks,
  • computer programmers,
  • WWII buffs,
  • mystery aficionados, and
  • everyone else.

Now starting, not without some trepidation, on The DaVinci Code. We'll see how that goes.

"But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." --Barack Obama

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August 07, 2004

Like the Energizer Bunny...

Nothing like reading a book and noting that the various plotlines are starting to come together, you're nearly done, and then realising you still have more than 250 pages to go. Back in the 70s that would have counted as a whole book by itself. It's like I haven't even started yet.

I love it!

"Several seemed to be privately messaging each other across the table, passing notes, as it were. BlackBerry Nation---where junior high never stops." --Eric Zorn

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July 29, 2004

More reading

I'm on page 590, and Neal Stephenson (via his character Randy Waterhouse) has just gone on a big rant about the proper way to appreciate eating cereal and the ridiculousness of anything other than whole milk, while at the same time giving a credible thoughtstream of a newcomer ballroom dancer. God, this book is good.

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July 19, 2004

Book update

I just got to the part of Cryptonomicon where Waterhouse goes to the embassy of Qwghlm. What. The. Fuck. I feel like I've fallen in a hole and landed in a Terry Pratchett novel. (Which novels are good, but rather different from the book I'm reading now.)

He does, however, manage to invent and use the word "preäntepenultimate". With diaeresis. I think I'm in love.

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July 17, 2004

Cryptonomicon: initial impression

I've started on Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, finally, after years of it sitting on my to-read list. I've read Snow Crash, and liked it, but none of his other books. This sucker is a tome of a paperback, weighing in at a cool 1,150 pages, but it's all good.

I knew it couldn't be bad when the prologue started out with a haiku:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down.
From it, warring songs.
Well, strictly speaking it wasn't the haiku that got me all fired up. It's that I immediately made the mental observation that this guy must pronounce "tire" as something like "tahr", if he was only counting it as one syllable. And then right there in sentences one and two: "...counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question. Is 'tires' one syllable or two?" My kind of book.

Incidentally, it's a little weird seeing a novel written in the present tense. I can't remember if Snow Crash was that way, and you certainly adapt fast enough. But all the stuff that happens in the "present", which due to the format of the book is at least two different years at any one time, is actually present tense. I'm definitely not used to that.

The thing that I most love about Stephenson's style, though, is his way of digressing for a paragraph or a whole page or two, such that you barely even register that this is totally irrelevant to the main storyline. Sometimes the digressions are the history of some word or device or character. Sometimes they just turn around a commonplace event and describe it from a completely different perspective than you're used to. For instance:

He starts up his laptop again. Seeming to levitate in the center of his dark room, the screen is a perfect rectangle of light the color of diluted milk, of a Nordic dawn. This light originates in small fluorescent tubes imprisoned in the polycarbonate coffin of his computer's display. It can only escape through a pane of glass, facing Randy, which is entirely covered by small transistors arranged in a grid, which let photons through, or don't, or let through only those of a particular wavelength, cracking the pale light into colors. By turning those transistors on and off according to some systematic plan, meaning is conveyed to Randy Waterhouse. A good filmmaker could convey a whole story to Randy by seizing control of those transistors for a couple of hours.
See what I mean? Brilliant. He has a way with words, a way that appeals to the geekiest of geeks without (I imagine) becoming so very unreadable to the teeming millions. When his characters are computer geeks, they actually make weird analogies in their heads just like computer geeks really do:
This was just the executive summary of a weird life that Randy only learned about in bits and pieces as the years went on. Later, he was to decide that Andrew's life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.
So anyway, I'm a bit less than a tenth of the way through the book. I imagine it will last me through my trip to Barcelona.

UPDATE: fixed embarrassing typo in second paragraph.

"Saturday, Dolly gets theological: "God never takes a vacation 'cause He can't find anybody good enough to fill in." Poor God. Handcuffed by His high standards. Too bad He can't just slap in two weeks of reruns from 1977, like Bil Keane. And Bil Keane has Jeff Keane to help him out. If only God had a son to help Him out. Oh." --Funny Paper

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King of Torts

The other day I finished King of Torts by John Grisham. It's a depressing book about a depressing, shallow man. While I don't feel that the time I spent reading it was wasted, as such, I really can't recommend it to anyone else. It was relatively formulaic, and without any particularly redeeming quality that I can think of. Hack sci-fi, I like. Hack fantasy, sure. But Grisham is just a plain old hack, and I think I'll start avoiding him now. (Fortunately, I got this one for free....

"I say to our enemies: We are coming. God may have mercy on you, but we won't." --Sen. John McCain

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July 02, 2004

The Fantasticks

So we saw The Fantasticks at the Metropolis tonight. The vocal talent was incredible; the actors did an amazing job with what they were given. The schtick was well performed, and the songs were well sung. The performance had some other issues, however.

One was the piano. I don't think it was actually out of tune, but there was something wrong with it. Maybe I just didn't like the tone; my mom suspects it was miked and then given too much volume. Whatever it was, it kept catching attention in slightly distracting ways.

Another was the microphones. All the actors had these fancy mikes that mounted to their ears, with the mike itself at about their cheekbone. The mikes weren't really needed much---you could tell they were only slightly enhancing the natural volume---but they caused weird interactions when the actors were actually facing each other, or passing close to each other. Unfortunate.

The choreography, meaning the actual dancing, didn't fit. I know that musicals always have this tendency to randomly break into song and dance, and that's fine. But somehow, the dancing in this show managed to seem very... perfunctory? It was as if the director said "they shouldn't just be standing there, and since they're singing, plain blocking won't do. We'll have them dance."

But the biggest thing the production had going against it was the show itself. The Fantasticks was the longest-running show in modern stage history, and you might think that indicates it's the best show out there, but really it has as much to do with the fact that it's low-budget enough that it doesn't need to keep bringing in lots of people just to stay open. It has a reputation, somehow, for having many songs that you've heard before but just didn't know where they were from, but that's not accurate either. (There's one.) Basically, the show is just very Modern, in the 50s/60s rejection-of-convention sense, and it tries too hard to be so.

Which is not to say it doesn't have its moments. A lot of the dialogue, especially in the second act, is very clever; in several segments the actors are speaking in rhyming verse (without making it sound like doggerel, but more like well-performed Shakespeare). The comic relief, in the characters of Henry and Mortimer, is precious if occasionally overdone. And some of the songs are great---generally when they steered clear of the discordant Very Modern things and went with the more musically cliché, it went a lot better.

So in the end, I can't quite decide whether I'm mad that I went to see it. In the abstract, of course, I'm glad to have seen it (in the way one likes to have read great literature). But I'm thinking that I had rather better ways to spend the evening. Ah well.

"Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some stupefying crimes, including slavery and genocide. I see no indication that we are any better at divining the Lord's intent now than we ever were." --Molly Ivins

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June 26, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

This is really a movie that everyone needs to see. More than in his previous work, Moore has constructed Fahrenheit 9/11 from clips of publicly broadcast speeches and interviews. Stitched together with some interviews made for this movie, of course, in classic Michael Moore fashion. But it's a little harder for the pro-Bush folks to spin this one---what can they do, claim Bush didn't say those things?

The movie is, of course, about the 9/11 airplane hijackings to some extent, but its real thrust is exposing just how deceitful our President and his men (some would say our President and his puppeteers, but it doesn't really matter) have been. If there is a single thesis to the movie, it is this: Bush is spending vast numbers of innocent lives, both American and foreign, in order to make himself, his family, and his friends lots and lots of money. A secondary theme: the Bush family is a lot chummier with the Bin Laden family than a lot of people seem to realise, including a lot of Bush detractors.

The thing that I found most shocking about the movie was that, with all the bad things that I've been saying and thinking about George Walker Bush, it's even worse than that. There were a bunch of things in the movie that I already knew. There were a bunch of things that I knew, but had forgotten about. And in addition to all that, there were even more bad things that I wasn't even aware of. (Most of these related to the Bin Laden family and the House of Saud.) Even if you're up on this stuff, Michael Moore does a really good job of putting it all together and reminding you just how bad it all is.

There were two things I was hoping would be in the movie, that were not. One is a little thing: I remember the speech Bush gave in March of '03 announcing the invasion of Iraq, and the most shockingly blunt line of that speech: to the people of Iraq, "Do not destroy oil wells." Unbelievable. Not in the movie, though. (There were other clips from that speech, however.)

The second thing I was hoping he would call specific attention to was the status of women in postwar Iraq. Every time someone says or implies that life is better for the Iraqis now, I think about how that is demonstrably and patently false. It may be better for some, and I won't argue that point though privately I'm not convinced. But every single woman in Iraq is in a worse position than before. Before, they could walk openly on the street; and forget burqas, they didn't even need headscarves. They were safe, they could have jobs, and to some extent they could hold positions of authority. It wasn't exactly a model of equality, but it was quite good for a Middle Eastern country. Now? Rape is the order of the day; women rarely venture out, and when they do, it is with an escort and some serious head covering. It's not at Taleban levels, but it's bad and the trajectory is not promising.

But I was talking about the movie. I'm irritated that they didn't give it a PG-13 rating, because there was not really anything there to warrant an R. I'm especially annoyed at the people that were chirping about them showing a beheading---I was envisioning a Nicholas Berg-style video, and what was shown was a huge gathering of people with, I guess, the beheading on a platform in the distance. I didn't even see it, though I've been assured that it at least happened during the onscreen part of the scene. No, there is essentially no onscreen violence; a little bit of swearing, although not much; and a few bad injuries, although nothing really grotesque. It's not like an R rating actually prevents anyone from seeing it, but it still was a completely politically-motivated rating that pisses me off.

So, yes. Go see the movie.

"Now I live in Washington, D.C., a place where everyone's sissy student-council president goes to live, eventually." --Hank Stuever

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June 13, 2004

Azkaban

On Thursday evening I went to see the third Harry Potter movie, having read the book on Monday. It's already become cliché to comment on how the series is "growing up", so I'll pass on that whole line, but I will say that (as usual) the movie was true to the book in spirit and largely in letter, without being a slave to the book. The tone and basic ideas carried over perfectly. A few of the details were modified, but usually to good effect.

(In the rest of the review, I'll avoid mentioning any spoiling info except inside a spoiler box, which should appear as a blank box you can highlight to reveal the text inside. A "book spoiler" is a detail common to both the book and the movie, so you can read it if you've read the book. A "movie spoiler" is something that might surprise you even if you've read the book, so you might want to skip those.)

Still, there were a few details I was unhappy about. In the opening scene of the movie, Harry is hiding under his bedsheet, doing magic! This is prohibited in the strongest possible way, as has been mentioned in the previous movies and indeed several times in this one. I understand that it made for a more visually stimulating show of him surreptitiously doing his homework, but it was still irritating that it was never even explained.

When Harry first sees the dog in the shadows, it really shouldn't be growling at him. It should be looking menacing and with the scary eyes glowing; but I disliked how they tried to make it more visual (I guess) by actually bringing it forward and growling and such.

BOOK SPOILER (highlight to reveal): I was also really unhappy about the look of the werewolf. We were told earlier that the difference between a werewolf and an animagus was subtle and needed to be looked for; but this werewolf was clearly quite different from an animagus dog or wolf. It's kind of a gangly CG nasty that doesn't really look like anything in particular. Disappointing.

But all that was easily brushed aside in light of the rest of the movie. The score was fantastic; clearly John Williams felt bad about slacking off a little in HP2, and tried to make up for it. The music is linked to that of the earlier two movies, but is a whole new score in its own right.

The scenery is---as usual---stunning. In a typical book/movie departure, a few scenes that were short in the book get drawn out in the movie as an opportunity for some awesome panoramic cinematography. (These scenes often, though not always, involve flying.) This is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I say that the movie was not enslaved by the book; purists might want it to be strictly an illustration of the text, but judicious use of this sort of variance is what makes it a creative work in its own right. It was a little alarming to see Hagrid's hut move from its former location in the first two movies, but one can imagine a story of some magical reason for it. Maybe the Hogwarts faculty transported his hut to its new location to better facilitate his new position. Whatever.

Book spoiler: A time-travel scene can make or break a movie. It is an opportunity for an otherwise good movie to go terribly, horribly wrong; but a time-travel scene well done makes a great movie outstanding. This movie is an example of the latter. It knits together the two time threads seamlessly, with many junction points between them for the sci-fi geeks in the audience to get thrilled by. And there are a few little twists that they throw in that were not in the book, that make this sequence even more fun.

Movie spoiler: For instance, I was initially a bit miffed at how they handled the werewolf scene the first time around---an ill-advised liberty taken with the script, I thought, and how were they going to actually get the werewolf away once Harry confronted it? When the other werewolf howled, I sort of sighed in disgust. What a cop-out! And it didn't even sound like a real wolf; the sound techs had really fallen down on their job. (Not kidding. I registered that it was a female human howling, and didn't make any further connections.) Then, of course, when Harry and Hermione were witnessing the Sirius-and-Harry conversation the second time around, it suddenly dawned on me what happened (and how they were going to actually get rid of the werewolf). Really cleverly done! The book was two-days fresh and I still managed to get roped in by smart, suspenseful time-travel play.

Oh, and speaking of knitting: in this movie, Ron is wearing the most amazing parade of really horrible sweaters that I've ever seen in my life. There must have been at least six or eight of them---competently knitted, but absolutely atrocious designs that just scream "my mother made this and I have to wear it!" Which, of course, is spot-on for the story. Just another example of attention to detail that me and, like, five other people in the world are likely to catch on to. :)

Some casting notes: Brilliant work on recasting Albus Dumbledore; Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is lovely comic relief; Sirius Black was good, for all that we really don't see much of him. Prof Lupin seemed like a bad cast at first (my mental image of him was much better-looking), but he grew on me during the movie. (It took me nearly halfway through the movie to figure out where he looked familiar from---he's the bad guy in Moulin Rouge, and the characters were so very different that it just wouldn't register.) The various children, both major and minor, seem to be growing up at about the right rate, so I don't know what everyone is chirping about---when they're supposed to look fifteen, they'll look sort of mid-teens, when they're supposed to look eighteen, they'll appear to be, surprise!, young adults.

At this point in the series, we just need to hope that we can sustain the entire main cast through another four films. I'd hate to have to resort to the good old soap-opera "the part of Ron will be played by..." trick. :P

UPDATE: The guy that plays Lupin is, in fact, not the guy that plays the Duke in Moulin Rouge. I still say he looks like him, though.

"Miss Manners does not minimize the amount of self-control it takes to look on with equanimity while one's property is demolished. It takes practice. But it sounds as if the circles in which you move are prepared to offer you that." --Miss Manners

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May 22, 2004

Modern dance

Last week I went to the "informal" dance concert here, and tonight I went to the "formal" dance concert. They were certainly worlds apart on a variety of dimensions.

For one thing, there was a lot more diversity in the informal concert. The formal concert was ten pieces, all in almost exactly the same style. Many of the same people were in both concerts, but a number of the best dancers from last week weren't in this one. Several people were in many of tonight's pieces, and they definitely were not the best of the crowd.

It took me a while to really pin down what I found so unsatisfying about the performances tonight. It was that the dancers were so interested in Making Art and doing something with Meaning, they sort of slacked off on fundamentals like facial expression, elegance, and synchrony with the music or each other. It reminded me of a lot of gymnastic floor performances---they're up there doing some stuff, and there's music playing, but the dancing has little to do with the music. There are moments here and there where a few steps line up with a beat, but they're so infrequent that they seem more accidental than anything else. It makes one wonder why they even bother with the music.

And just as you're wondering, they throw in a piece where they don't have music, and then you realise that even if the music doesn't do anything else, it camouflages all the foot-stomping and the heavy breathing and the squeaking of feet along the floor. To be fair, the girls that did that one were better synchronised with each other than most of the other pieces were, which was quite impressive given that they had thrown away their most basic tool in that regard; and actually, it was one of the better pieces in the programme. I just wish they'd thrown in a soft instrumental track under the spoken-word accompaniment.

The exception to a lot of these comments was the third piece: April Morgan demonstrated that the dreary amusicality of (most of) the other dancers was not inherent to the form. Using many of the same moves, she managed to actually choreograph her dancing to the music, and to have a whole range of expressions ranging from happy to defiant to thoughtful. As her piece ended, she walked (in time, of course) diagonally across the stage, and tossed her head in a smile that was the most sincere emotion seen all night. And where all the other pieces got polite applause, people were loudly cheering on this one, so I'm not the only one who perceived its eminence.

I spent most of the night, though, observing how much these dancers felt that their pieces were Art; lacking other redeeming qualities, these pieces tried to rest on their Meaning, which I was generally at a loss to find. And it's true that carrying a meaning that only comes clear on further reflection is a feature of high art; but if that's the route you're going to go, you damn well better have something to hold the viewer's attention while they think about what it means to them.

There were a few pieces where I was considerably more impressed by the lighting work than anything else. There was some great technical design with the transitions from light to shadow and using footlights to create shadow play on the back wall; in a number of cases it managed to actually convey the mood that the dancers were totally failing to express.

"Most people would die sooner than think---in fact, they do so." --Bertrand Russell

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May 06, 2004

Ah, Wilderness!

The mainstage show this term was Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!. It was a good performance, but definitely the weakest of the four this year.

It's a very day-in-the-life sort of show that covers the growing-up experience of one rebellious romantic. The writing is excellent; unfortunately, there were a lot of scenes where it was the writing carrying the scene. Nearly every scene had at least one character that kept breaking my suspension of disbelief, making it difficult to really get into the show. While the women of the show gave uniformly good performances, the guys were generally spotty at best. The lead actor---playing the teenage romantic---kept reciting his lines, rather than acting, and seemed always to be trying very hard not to break into a smirky grin. Most of the others did at least have their moments. The father explaining the birds and the bees to his son (or not) was executed brilliantly. The alcoholic nodding off and commencing to snore gently was a real scene stealer.

But for the most part the guys looked like a bunch of college kids with powder in their hair. The only ones that didn't look like college kids were the little kid (who was perhaps ten, and is the son of a faculty member) and one of the characters who was supposed to be in college. (The other collegiate type was a short cameo by Doug Porter as a slick playa. He certainly seems to be versatile.)

The women were a lot more convincing. Sylvie Davidson's one scene was a delight to watch; her timing was perfect. "Well, fine, then. *pause* But what happened next?" Jacqueline Dehne as the spinster aunt had just the right faint aura of sadness about her. (She also appeared to be knitting on stage, although I couldn't tell if she was actually doing it---I think she might have been just transferring loops back and forth. She certainly didn't have the casual familiarity with the needles that she might have. ;) Having convincingly affected an English accent in Arcadia, Emily Richardson put on an Irish brogue as the maid in this show, and pulled off a fairly memorable part despite only having perhaps a dozen lines.

The technical aspects were, as usual, excellent. (Well, except for the part where they forgot to raise the chandelier and almost hit it with a set piece.) The set was particularly neat: although you can see that it is a raised platform over the regular stage, it is not apparent that it's actually several tightly-interlocking but irregularly-shaped wagons, until they start doing a set change. The lighting was the sort that you didn't really even notice until you thought about it, the sign of a job well done. The makeup was overdone, again, but not too badly.

Generally, I'm pleased to have seen the show. I just wish that it didn't bookend the theatre year (and I'm especially sad as it's the last show directed by one of our retiring professors---you just wish they could've had a spectacular show, considering). Ah, well.

"One almost gets the sense that [the Gospels] are steps in a developing oral tradition, rather than anything remotely resembling a report of fact." --Jonathan Prykop

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April 23, 2004

Pika-Don

This weekend's offering at the Studio Theatre is Jeff Hendrickson's Pika-Don (ピカートン). Jeff is a student here at Knox---I've seen him in a couple other theatrical productions---and he's made excellent use of the Studio Theatre facility to produce this play.

The title of the play refers to the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima ("Pika" being a bright flash of light and "Don" being onomatopoeic, the word was coined by Hiroshima residents shortly after the attack). A surprisingly powerful device used in this play is that the scenes taking place in Hiroshima are conducted entirely in Japanese, in the style of Noh theatre. Oddly enough, I feel that the language barrier was not nearly as much of a problem as my lack of familiarity with the conventions of the Noh form; it is highly stylistic form that makes use of gestures to convey various emotions. Even despite all that, I was impressed with how expressive a mostly-mute foreign-language masked character could be. Both Jeff and his co-star, Sylvie Davidson, showed a good presence and understanding of movement---I was reminded several times tonight of Sylvie's performance last term as the mad Cassandra, where she nailed the unnerving dance of an insane prophetess without looking either choreographed or like she was just flailing around. That body control appears to have served her well in learning the surely-unfamiliar motions of Noh.

The Japanese scenes alternate with scenes in English, taking place in modern New York, with just-out-of-college kids (played by the same two actors as in the Noh scenes, with costume changes between) doing the thing young urban folks do---trying, with mixed success, to find work and make ends meet. As I read up on the Noh form, I'm discovering that even these follow it after a fashion---the stylised Noh plays are usually interspersed with more dialogue-ful interludes called Kyogen. The percussive music and even the stage design seems to have all been at least inspired by Noh.

Pika-Don presents a newer perspective on the tragedy of Hiroshima and tries to address the fact that already people have "begun to forget the horror we inflicted on ourselves just over 50 years ago." I hope that someone out in the world takes note of this play; the skill set required of the actors is somewhat unique and demanding, and it will always fall into something of a niche market, but I do hope that it gets wider distribution than just Knox College; it'd be such a shame if it didn't.

"Aaah, you can take a 'venti' razor and shove it up your ass, you 'tall'-brained moron." --Foamy Squirrel

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April 17, 2004

The real Inspector Hound

One of the Studio Theatre plays this term is The real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard, which I just saw tonight. (Trivium: this play's first US performance was at Brown, in 1970. Neat!) This play is so meta it just hurts your brain to think about it. I can't even really say anything else about it without giving away more than I'd like. It was well done, although much as in Lysistrata, there were a few people who would have been much funnier if they'd played it just a tad straighter.

Oh, and a command performance by Jason Cascio, as Higgs.

"The most reliably anti-gay, anti-gay-marriage folks out there are over sixty, and thank God, they're going to die." --Dan Savage

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I will fear no evil

I finished reading Heinlein's I will fear no evil. Clearly one of his later books, it is not part of the Future History series, taking place in a rather different future US. It's an exploration of gender identity, yet another of his attempts to answer the question "If a woman was exactly like a certain man except for physical sex, what would she be like?" In this case, the mechanism is a brain transplant.

The book itself is fairly good, but it drags in the middle---that middle two hundred pages really needed to be about fifty. Other than that, it moved relatively well. It's clearly a product of the sexual revolution; Heinlein was never against sex even in his early books, but by 1970 (when IWFNE was written) he's definitely gotten freer about it. The book is also very gay-friendly for its time; written about the same time as the Stonewall riots, when most of the country was either denying or disgusted by the existence of homosexuality, he comes right out and says it's no big deal. Most of the characters have tried it, with no value judgement attached, and two of the characters are in a gay relationship. This is all the more surprising as it's a reversal of Heinlein's stated position in previous books: as recently as 1961, he had written of homosexuality as a disordered state, in Stranger in a Strange Land. The topic of transsexuality was curiously absent from IWFNE, though, considering that it was basically the main theme---no mention was made of any of the varieties of "trans", nor of SRS, although that was certainly not unknown at that time.

I don't think it was RAH's best work, but it was certainly a good book, and I recommend it.

"The senator doesn't have to come for a visit every time you have anal sex, folks." --Dan Savage

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April 12, 2004

Deadlock

The book I finished listening to on the trip home this weekend was Deadlock, by Sara Paretsky; the main character is V.I. Warshawski; I think this was the first of the series.

The novel is generally pretty good; a well written detective novel. In the way of detective novels everywhere, it takes a basically uninteresting topic---grain shipments around the Great Lakes region---and weaves in an interesting murder mystery. Along the way, you pick up a fair bit of knowledge about the random topic, too!

What really made it fun, though, was that A) it took place in Chicago, and B) it took place in 1982. Not so long ago, but imagine a world with no cell phones---they have to keep checking in with their answering services---and no internet---at one point, she can't figure out where a town in Canada is located! Not to mention the incidental stuff, like the Oldsmobile Omega she drove at one point. And the Chicago thing is neat too, because a lot of the goings-on were in places I knew to some extent. Vic (the title character) lives in an apartment on Halsted just north of Belmont, about a block from my uncle's house where my cousins were growing up. She has an office right next to an El line downtown. At one point she's driving along the Dan Ryan, then up the JFK to the Edens Junction. Et cetera, et cetera. Now I have to seek out the other V.I. Warshawski novels. :)

"Basically, I just give talks that are long digressions." --Dan Savage

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April 02, 2004

He was just BAD.

I know that a lot of people seem to think Marlon Brando is an amazing actor; he's an emblem of a generation, yadda yadda yadda. I haven't really seen him in much of anything, so I never was really able to judge. Last December when I was visiting Matt one of his housemates was watching On the Waterfront, and I started sort of watching it, but it was just too painful. Brando sucked. He was reciting his lines and giving the audience no connection whatsoever. Bad bad bad. So I figured, he's probably overrated, but maybe this just wasn't one of his best.

I just read that not only was that one of his Oscar nominations, he actually won the Academy Award. Unbelievable.

'In its heyday, "hussy" was the sort of noun that attracted intensifiers ---any woman worth labeling a "hussy" would almost certainly, upon closer examination, turn out to be a "brazen hussy," a "shameless hussy," or at least a "bold hussy."' --Evan Morris

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March 29, 2004

The American Boychoir

Yesterday afternoon I went to see the Spring concert of the Nova Singers, a professional choral group based in Galesburg and the Quad Cities. Their singing was excellent (as, apparently, usual).

Performing with them was the American Boychoir, which is a few dozen boys in grade 5--8 recruited from all over the country to attend a residential school in NJ and tour the country singing. It was really wild to hear them. I never would have expected such a full sound; they had a bass section that sang impossibly low, given that nobody there was over 14 or so. And loud, too---the low bass section appeared to be just two, or maybe three, boys, with another couple that seemed to be singing a baritone. They blended really well, and they weren't standing in sections, so it was difficult to tell who was in which section except during the very polyphonic parts. :)

Oddly enough, I found that in many of the pieces where they were singing as a whole choir, the sound was almost indistinguishable from an adult mixed chorus. It was only when the solos and duets were brought out that I could really hear the distinctive "boy soprano" sound.

The weird thing, though, was how they acted. While a few seemed like, y'know, normal boys, many of them seemed to move very stiffly with "don't want to get punished for screwing up" looks on their faces. And all of them bowed in the most alarming, creepy fashion---while in their rows on the risers, they just slowly bent at the waist, letting their arms hang like rag dolls; they looked like marionettes or something. And they did it after every song. I have never seen anything like it. In curtain calls for plays, I've seen lines grab hands, raise them, and then fold at the waist; in more solo contexts, people put one arm across the waist and extend the other, or keep their arms at their sides and bow a little more shallowly with a nod of the head. Done individually this would have looked like some sort of stretching exercise; done as a group and in sync it just looked creepy.

"Maintenance, cleanup on aisle three please. We have a can of worms opened on aisle three." --Eva Schillace

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March 20, 2004

Le Fantôme

After an excellent dinner at Berghoff's, my mom and dad and I went to see The Phantom of the Opera downtown. It was... good.

The sets and stage management were awesome. The costuming was outstanding. The singing was good. Part of my problem, I'll admit, is that I just don't like the super-vibrato style that is characteristic of the coloratura soprano; in Carlotta this annoyingness is appropriate, but Christine should be much more pleasant to listen to. That much vibrato breaks all the great duets. Raoul was great, but the Phantom also had a bit too much vibrato to sound really good. My favourite characters (as usual) were the supporting cast; the owners, Piangi, Mme Giry, etc., all put on a great performance. The best scene for singing was undoubtedly Notes, at least in part because both Christine and the Phantom were absent!

Technologically, the most impressive was the first time Christine is brought down to the sewers; the boat drifting around the stage, the candles rising and falling, and the mist all gave a surprisingly convincing rendition of the scene. (I thought the pit musicians were going to suffocate from all the CO2 that was pouring over the edge of the stage; they must have a good ventilation system down there!) The famous chandelier was a little disappointing, as the pulley system didn't operate very fast, and so when it rises to the ceiling at the beginning, it drags a bit, and most especially when it "falls", it "falls" in a graceful, leisurely arc. Ah well.

Nevertheless, it was a fun night. I'm glad I saw it.

"The essential idea of conservatism is a pessimistic view of human nature; however, since a lot of conservatives are basically decent human beings, they tend to make exceptions for themselves.... The concept of the Rule of Law demands that the law be applied impartially, which leads to an an ongoing tension in conservative thought and action." --Michael Kimmitt

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March 13, 2004

Italian Job

I finally got around to seeing it. (I only borrowed the DVD about three months ago... and of course people had been telling me to see it since at least last July, when I announced I'd be getting a Mini.) What a fun movie! And yes, my Mini is just like that, and it can do all those things. Well, except for the racing stripes.

Marky Mark is starting to look disturbingly like Pierce Brosnan as he ages.

Ed Norton needs to be careful lest he be typecast as the traitorous number-two guy (cf The Score).

And the only moment where I lost my suspension of disbelief was when the Minis emerge from the Metro tunnel. An unloaded Mini would tilt forward like that, since the engine is by far the heaviest part of the car. But with a load in the back? Tsk, tsk.

But it was still awesome. If, somehow, you still haven't seen it (hard to believe---to hear people talk I was the very last person in the universe to see it), it's a great movie to rent.

"May I suggest Girl Scout Thin Mint Chocolate Ice Cream? Available now in your grocer's freezer. I mean, if God exists, this is what's in His freezer." --David Singleton

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March 05, 2004

The Trojan Women

The other play put on as part of rep term is The Trojan Women. The play itself is amazingly powerful; and quite difficult, having a chorus part and lots of monologues. It would be easy for it to turn into a bunch of people standing on stage and reciting speeches. But the talented cast really pulled off a masterpiece. I stood as I applauded, and those of you who know me will realise how significant that is.

Technically, the show was excellent. The sets were brilliantly constructed (and used for both shows, with an 18-minute set changeover). The lighting was rather elabourate, with many different cues to highlight a pause in the narrative or a change in the focus; although once or twice people were slightly in the wrong place for their lighting cue, overall it made excellent use of the play between light and dark. The costumes, too, were apt and well-constructed. The makeup was unfortunately overdone on Hekuba---Harbach auditorium is a little too close-up to do that sort of heavy black-line age makeup---but otherwise good.

It was the acting, though, of course, which blew me away. Every one of the six main actors had difficult monologues that they delivered with engaging passion and emotion. Cassandra's insane cavorting was surprisingly convincing; Andromache made us believe her very soul was being torn from her body. Helen's cold reasoning gave way to a more desperate begging, and Menelaos's bitterness practically dripped from his mouth. Talthybios is put in that difficult position of representing parties he has come to disagree with, and the internal struggle that develops there is played out progressively in each successive appearance on the stage. Even the chorus of eight women, despite speaking in a unison that almost resembles a chant, manage to convey the despair of the everyday Trojan women, who lost their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, and now are going to be further separated from each other, sent to a life of slavery. It's perhaps because of the chorus form that we can really see this as representing all the surviving women of the city---I've not seen Greek plays before, but the chorus is a surprisingly effective method of delivery, at least when done this well.

I've left out one person from that list, and that's Hekuba, because she really stood alone. On stage for essentially the entire play, she knits it together, watching as Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen get dragged off to the ships, and as her grandson Astyanax is sentenced to death and killed, and as she learns her other daughter Polycena has been killed to provide Achillles with a companion in the afterlife. Somehow, she managed to sustain the grief and mourning for the entire two hours without lapsing into cliché. And she didn't maintain a constant level of grief, which might burn out the audience or inure it to the pain, but rather makes it wane and then wax again, for maximum emotive effect. She adds other emotions into the mix---worry for Cassandra, pity for Andromache, and vengeful bitterness for Helen---but always with an undertone of sorrow and loss of her great city, sometimes with hope for the future and sometimes with an almost stoic "life, somehow, goes on" attitude. She also has probably half the lines in the play, and if she messed any of them up, she covered for them perfectly. As the play closes with her walking off the stage, she brings you with her; alas the fate of Troy and alas the fate of its women.

Alas for those of you who don't live in Galesburg. If you do, and you haven't seen this show, tomorrow's the last night. This social statement on the bleak lot of the survivors of war is the best performance I've seen in a good long time, and it's worth your time.

"I've come to think of life as a neverending attempt to hit moving targets, and things like spirituality and religion are attempts to slow down the target so that you can nail it real good once or twice before it slips away and you have to start running again." --Bob Murching

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February 01, 2004

Our national holiday

I think New England just likes suspenseful endings. Whew.

Anyway, as the thing went on, I took notes on the commercials. Overall, this was a fairly lame year for ads. Only a couple made me laugh out loud, and I really wasn't as... impressed as I'm used to being by the usual batch of Superbowl ads.

Best commercial:
Cadillac's breaking-the-sound-barrier commercial. Really gets your attention with the dead silence for the first fifteen seconds; and then both talks about the brand and puts it up on the screen, so you actually remember what the ad was for.
Funniest:
Mastercard's Homer Simpson ad. I can't point to one part of it that struck me, but I laughed harder at this one than at any other. (Not that that's saying much.)
Best effect:
Cadillac commercials (two of them) with the liquid-air effects. I mean, sure we've had the effect for years, it looks like something that could've been produced in 1994, but hey, it's still the best effect of the day. (And it did look cool.)
Most irritating:
Boy, was this ever tough. I ended up going with the Pepsi/iTunes commercial, since it was irritating on its own merits. Runners-up included the drug ads that advocated for drugs without telling you what they did, and the four advocacy ads that CBS aired despite claiming that they only aired ads that sold things (and using this as a basis to reject paid-for ads from PETA and MoveOn).
Least effective:
Towards the end was one with a bar fight in rewind, with Jet Li---it's for a video game. The ad was so badly branded that I don't even know what game it was for....

Ok, and now for the individual notes on the commercials...

Tostito's: New bride catches male half of bridal party in back room watching football game; joins them. Cute.

Orange juice is healthy for you: Sure, fine. Enh.

McDonald's: guy puts a burger wrapper in dryer instead of dryer sheet. Cute.

Cialis: "Have you asked your doctor if Cialis is right for you?" No indication whatsoever of what it even does. Implicit message: "Got problems of an unspecified nature? Drugs might be the answer. Think about taking drugs to solve your problems." Great, guys.

NFL: Please honour our fallen soldiers, who have died for our country. I weep at the futility of their sacrifice. Why have we let 500 of our own people die in the name of petty personal vindictiveness and corporate empire?

Bud Light: meh. A beer bottle with ice and water splashing up against it. Gee, we've never seen that before. Feh.

Pizza Hut: Muppets! Oh, and what's-her-name. You go, Miss Piggy. Commercial does a spectacular job of distracting from the product, which actually seems pretty nice---four individual (square) pizzas packed into one pizza box, for the can't-find-a-compromise pizza orderers.

Ford GT: a car that doesn't look particularly memorable or unique being driven around a test course and switching gears. Nothing to get you excited like pounding music or anything. What an incredibly uninspiring commercial.

Bud Light: One dog is trained to fetch beer from cooler. The other is trained to bite first guy's balls to get his beer. Can't decide if it's offensive or funny.

FedEx: Alien studying humans, keeps saying "why don't we use fedex" so the manager doesn't suspect. Enh.

Dodge Magnum: Guy has monkey on his back: finding a family car that's cool. Cute.

Pepsi: Bears invade cabin, open fridge, find empty cooler; use burly "bear" guy's ID to cash a check and buy pepsi. Cute.

Schick razor: Enh.

AOL 9.0: Top-speed is for the *internet*, not for motorcycles jumping over cars. Production values make it look like it was made for central IL cable station. Bleh.

Van Helsing: "My curse is to vanquish evil." Battles Frankenstein('s monster), the Wolfman, Dracula, etc. Hey, that's Hugh Jackman. Looks like it could be a pretty awesome movie.

Bud Light: Goes to massage parlour, finds a bud light, accidentally goes to wrong room and gets bikini wax instead. Ouch. Funny I guess.

Survivor: on tonight after the Superbowl. The less said the better, really. Commercial itself is unmemorable.

Troy: Brad Pitt looks good, Orlando Bloom looks like a dork. Movie looks good, though!

H&R Block: Willie Nelson advice doll! Hilarious! "Bring it oooon!" Nice.

Chevy Aveo: "the mighty mouse of cars". Apparently part of a major new campaign by Chevy to make twenty new car lines in ten months. Seems ambitious. This one seems to be going for the Mini Cooper/VW Beetle niche. Four tall basketball players get in, and are CGed to look dwarfed by the seats. Eh.

50 First Dates: Freaking Adam Sandler. And the premise has been done before in Memento. Meh.

Bud: Ref is ignoring the coach's abuse---he's trained by having a verbally abusive wife. Message? Ummm... something about domestic abuse, maybe. (Augh.)

Monster: Young guy, old guy do similar things to get ready for their work day. Er, no, for a job interview. Ah, a Monster ad. Ok, that was cute. Not enough name placement, I think.

Everybody loves Raymond: I think it was supposed to make me want to watch the show. Ah well.

Sierra Mist: Bagpipers lined up for a parade. Where's Wallace? Getting steam blown up his kilt. Apparently, Sierra Mist is "like that". (Little boy says "Daddy, that's just wrong." I'm inclined to agree.)

Miracle: some movie about hockey.

Levitra: Mike Ditka liking football and dissing on baseball. Apparently baseball could use Levitra. More use-drugs-to-solve-random-problems.

CSI: TV's most watched show. Ok, fine. Commercial's ok but not really a superbowl commercial.

Budweiser: Donkey wishes he were a Clydesdale. Hair extensions on his lower legs. Passes his interview and gets to lead the team like Rudolph or something. Ok, this was cute.

Alamo: "Do you really believe this war is over? It has not even begun." Ooh, looks good.

Without a Trace: Haven't there been an awful lot of CBS show ads? Did they undersell the real ads?

Pepsi/iTunes: I have not the words. "I fought the law and the law won"? Also (as has been pointed out elsewhere), has the RIAA actually _prosecuted_ any of these? I thought they all settled. On another note, though, when she gives her little speech "...and there's nothing anyone can do about it", I know that this is because it's given to her legally, but it still has a bit of a subversive screw-the-RIAA ring to it. Intentional on Apple's part?

Levitra: The Levitra challenge. Call your doctor and ask for a free trial. AAAAUUUGHH. "The first one's free, kid!" Still no mention of what it does.

Mitsubishi: Catchy commercial with the cars racing in parallel and the trucks opening their backs in parallel and the cars hitting each other symmetrically.

Bud Light: Romantic sleigh ride with candle and bud light interrupted by horse farting past the candle and zorching girl's hair. Ok, funny.

Anti-smoking: Kids counting off; every fifth kid stands up, 1 in 5 kids try cigarettes before 13. Talk to your kids. Kids, don't smoke. Ok, so much for "no advocacy, no ads that don't sell anything". Dickheads.

Charmin: Illegal use of hands! Guy has Charmin instead of towel hanging from his waistband. QB is fondling the Charmin. Charmin "for your end zone". This one was hilarious.

Starsky & Hutch: Oh god, not Ben Stiller. Owen Wilson too, that's promising. Snoop Dogg? Well, it might be interesting. Mostly "enh", though.

Pepsi: My girlfriend Aisha, she left me. Here, drink some Pepsi. I get undertones of "fat waitress wouldn't have been attractive otherwise", but there exists an interpretation that omits this, so it's not as bad as it might be.

IBM: Mohammad Ali in 60s "I shook up the world". Him now saying "Hey, shake up the world." It's a Linux commercial! D00000d. The commercial itself is a little weak, which is too bad. Still cool, though.

Visa: Beach volleyball in bikinis in the snow. Mmmm, frostbite. Can't wait for the Olympics? Something something something VISA.

Secret window: Johnny Depp! Some sort of horror movie about a writer whose stories come to life? Ok, looks vaguely interesting, except I'm not into horror. Not an exceptionally gripping ad.

Chevy?: Bunch of kids with soap in their mouths. Nifty hardtop convertible---roof segments separate and fold up into trunk. Kid says "Holy shit!" and gets more soap. Cute. Wait, who was this for again? I'm guessing Chevy because of the aforementioned twenty-new-cars plan, but the commercial wasn't well-branded.

Lays: Bunch of old people tripping each other to get the Lays someone dropped---one of them got it but the other got his dentures, ha ha! And then the guy that dropped the Lays comes back to get it. Overall, cute commercial.

March Madness: French Lick, Indiana---what's there exactly? "Even in French Lick, winners play on". Watch basketball, I guess. I didn't really understand this one.

AOL 9.0: use AOL's top speed technology on something slow---a motorised wheelchair. Guy zooms away. More central-IL production values. Enh.

CBS: We won lots of awards. Watch us. (Wait, when did CBS become the most-watched network? I thought it was in third place after ABC and NBC?)

NFL: Football players saying the spectators inspire them, and they inspire other people. Rather preaching to the choir, no?

Survivor All-stars; Cold Case; King of Queens; Century City: CBS ads.

Lujack Chevy; iwireless; Trinity hospital in Bettendorf: local ads.

CBS: We won lots of awards. Same commercial as before. They definitely undersold real ads.

Grammys: Some surprise will happen that night, apparently. Aside from announcing the winners, presumably.

Everyone loves Raymond; Navy NCIS: CBS show ads. Enh.

NFL Network: Former football players sing "Tomorrow". Great ad.

Joan of Arcadia: See why everyone's watching it.

March Madness: Samuel Jackson talks about favourite HS teachers (his was a 12th grade guidance counselor). Another one I fail to understand.

Ford Focus: a Focus is sitting in a grocery store, "going for 199, can't keep em in stock". The shopper gets one and tells the checkout lady she'll just drive it home. Commercial: Decent. Not offensive, but not particularly inspiring either.

McD's: "I'm loving it." I think this one is not Superbowl-specific, just part of the generic campaign.

Qwest DSL: family makes a big reception for the Qwest DSL guy. Ok.

Local lawyer ad.

Microsoft: Fiona "explores a new world"---her school. It's overdrawn with theatrical curtains, dinosaurs, etc. MS helps make it happen. Good ad, actually.

Sierra Mist: Guy jumps off fifth floor balcony to land *in* a pitcher of ice water. Sierra Mist is "like that" apparently. Eh.

Expedia: Do they have "Magique"? (Daydream of going to cirque-esque show where he gets pulled on stage, his shirt stripped, and his belly drawn on.) "Errrr... no." Slightly cute.

CBS Sports: anchors practicing tongue twisters. Ok, slightly cute.

Bud Light: Frank the chimp hits on his owners girlfriend. "So, how do you feel about back hair?" Classic.

Staples: Bribing the supply guy with food for office supplies. Other guy discovers Staples, and extorts him for a cream puff, with aid of mafioso bruiser. Awesome.

Cialis: Aha! This time they admit that it's for erectile disfunction. Along with the usual run of side effects. (I still always expect these to include "...and death".) Best line: "Erections lasting more than four hours, though rare, require *immediate* medical help." Ok ad, now that they're actually saying what the drug is *for*. (Still sort of enh, though.)

Monster: Bunch of people exercising and/or getting dressed... getting ready for work... "Get ready for a job you'll love." Good, upbeat music. Good ad.

Hidalgo: Essentially the same trailer as before RotK. Looks decent.

Gillette: B&W ad with images of success in business, in sports, and in romance, along with image of guy shaving. "Never want to lose that feeling"---another image of Mohammad Ali, oddly enough. Decent ad.

Century City; CBS Sports.

Ford Freestar: folding up seats with one-hand. Actually, that does look pretty well-engineered. Good work, Ford! Decent ad.

Lennox: Looks like a burglar; actually breaking into a wall safe to adjust the thermostat. Cute!

Hyundai: Totally generic car commercial.

Cadillac: Car drives through the desert with sweet liquid-effect CG. Three other cars zoom in to meet it. Hardtop convertible folds back. Cool!

Budweiser: Boyfriend zooms through the desert to return a lipstick to his girlfriend who's flown to LA... but it's not hers. Oops! Cute.

Budweiser: Crowd keeps cheering for various celebrities... and then for the guy that's the DD. Drink responsibly.

Honda: The raised-by-wolves SUV commercial.

Mastercard: Homer Simpson gets his errands done for various named prices, with assorted fourth-wall breaking by Homer. "Getting your errands done quicker to go spend time with your family: priceless." Homer sits in the bar. "I *said*: getting..." "Yeah, I heard you the first time." Homer stomps off. First ad I laughed out loud for.

AOL9.0: turns car into a turbo machine that poofs off. Then it comes back---guy was in renaissance. Continuing the Chopper Whatever style. Best of the bunch, actually.

Nextel: Earnhart drives on the football field: walkie-talkies are great. Nextel. (Huh?)

Budweiser: Kids do makeup in the car and are clearly going out, only to be thwarted by the convenience store carding them before they buy beer. Eh.

The-truth: Shards-o-glass freeze pops. Heh. "What if all companies sold products like tobacco". Good commercial, but again putting the lie to CBS's claim that it was only airing ads that sold things.

7-up: 7-up truck with basketball hoop drives around---make a slam dunk and you get stuff. People miss and crash into things as the truck stops and starts. Enh.

Two and a half men: TV's most watched new show. Haven't they been advertising an awful lot of "TV's most watched X"? Different categories, I suppose.

Anti-pot: "Life doesn't rewind." Commercial rewinds from girl passed out back through the party she was at and eventually to her house; where her mom, who has found her pot stash, decides that this time around she'll talk to her. Another advocacy ad.

Cadillac: Total, utter, did-they-fuck-up silence as a car drives around, spins out, guy mouths "wow": then the sound catches up with him. Another LOL. Nice.

Survivor; JAG.

Cadillac: breaking-sound-barrier commercial again. Still great.

The Ladykillers: Tom Hanks? Indeed, done up with this weird 19th-century moustache + goatee combo. Some sort of heist movie with a landlady who's a grandmotherly black lady who's actually a badass. Sounds... ok.

AOL 9.0: The first motorcycle one again.

Pepsi: Old-fashioned Coke & Pepsi machines; little black kid picks Pepsi and is inspired by the guitar shop it's in front of. It's a young Jimi Hendrix. The Coke machine had been in front of an accordion shop---close call. Cute!

AIG: Retirement planning. "This game's almost over, but your life isn't." Ha, little do they know---this game's going on into overtime. Well, probably. Ok commercial.

Subway: No, it's ok to *eat* bad, not *be* bad. "Sorry Wang Chung, no reunion tour." Awesome.

Night & Day lenses: way too technical to be a cool superbowl commercial. Ah well.

Survivor all-stars premiere.

Lexus: "Baby it's cold outside" plays as a Lexus SUV crosses the tundra.

Ford Freestar: Converts without removing head restraints. What to do with the head restraints in that other car? "Why'd we buy a honda? *smack* why'd we buy a honda? *smack*" Ok.

Cadillac: Another cool-liquid-effects commercial.

ONDCP: Kid's drowning in a lake; girl turns around and walks away. If your friend was in trouble, you'd help wouldn't you? More advocacy.

Cadillac: We won an award! Enh.

Another rewind commercial, through a barfight involving Jet Li; this is for a video game whose name I missed. Nice branding, guys.

H&R Block: We guarantee a maximum refund, even if you're a dick and just bring in shoeboxes of receipts. Typical commercial (seen it before).

Survivor; CSI.

Cadillac SUV: Like a roadster, that seats seven. You know, all of the various Cadillacs seem to have this weird slightly-angular look to them. Anyway, the commercial is enh.

Bud Light: Paintball game, winner gets a case of Bud Light. Players are dufuses that start shooting at him as soon as he mentions the prize. Actually a pretty entertaining commercial.

Advil relief: Enh

Centrum: Enh

Letterman.

Union ad.

Hyundai: Standard car commercial.

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January 24, 2004

Weekend in progress

Well, I saw My Fair Lady last night. And it has some hilarious scenes, especially for someone who's a linguist. But I was surprised to find that, deep down, it really isn't a very good movie. Like, at all. It's a musical, but one of the leads and a major supporting role can't sing and end up speaking their songs---which is a trick you can get away with for a line or two, but it becomes painfully obvious when it is used and re-used for song after song. Even within the "break randomly into song" context of musicals everywhere, a lot of the numbers make no sense; either they are tossed in with minimal setup to a scene where they are barely relevant, or they make no sense at all. ("I could have danced all night"---eh? But you weren't dancing. Or at a party. Nor are you talking about the past, but the present.) There is some interesting commentary on the role of language in class distinction. But then the promising discussion on the role of women in society seems to be resolved in favour of the "she shouldn't work; she'll only be truly happy if she's at home, fetching her man's slippers". Pretty awful stuff, really.

Today my job is working on catching up with my classes. Unfortunately, I've spent the afternoon rearranging and cleaning my living room. Which is, to be sure, a productive use of my time, just not what I'm supposed to be doing. I actually broke down three boxes from the move (you know, last September?), giving me significant space. The new arrangement reminds me of my apartment in Providence, not because the layout is the same, but because my couch is now in front of a window. Really gives the room a different feel.

"I appreciate the irony of this rich, pampered, oft-rescued son of a president admonishing athletes that there are no "shortcuts to accomplishments." I marvel at how Bush devoted more time to homosexuals than he did to the environment." --Burt Constable

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November 16, 2003

Movie, Dance, & D&D

Another weekend in Galesburg. Friday night I went to the screening of Ma vie en rose by Common Ground (only four people showed :P), an excellent show.

Saturday I slept in, for the first time in ages, then I puttered around all afternoon and went to the dance performance at 7. It was a little too modern for my tastes, but reasonably well executed for what it was trying to do. The leader of the dance company, Margi Cole, was without a question the best of them (of course), and fun to watch. Her solos really made the performance. The student piece was good as well, and I actually thought the part that they had choreographed themselves was better than the pre-existing portion of the piece.

Today I went to Mass at St Pat's and then came back and gamed all day. Except for an hour-and-a-half interlude where I went off and taught my ballroom class. A fairly lazy day, overall.

Note what wasn't in there? Grading. Writing my exam. I really need to get to that....

"If I were tied down and tickled until I had to choose...damn. I really don't know." --Michael Kimmitt

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November 13, 2003

Boys don't cry

I just saw Boys Don't Cry. What a difficult movie to watch, especially knowing the ending. Good, though. I recommend it (though not if you're already depressed, and probably not last thing at night...)

"School boards call it No School Board Left Standing; the teachers just call it No Behind Left." --Howard Dean

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November 12, 2003

Matrix notes

The West, a theatre downtown, is closing tomorrow night (a new 8-plex just got built on north Henderson), and I wanted to go see something there before it closed; so I went to see Matrix III tonight. The theatre was nice, if a bit old-fashioned (i.e. not stadium); it'd be nice if someone bought the place and kept at least one of the screens as an art house/second-run theatre, but we'll see.

As for the movie. Bleah. I guess I'm glad I saw it, because it closed off the trilogy, but good grief. Where the first two played off classic archetypes, this one dredged up tired clichés. I lost track of just how many lines I predicted in advance. My eyeballs hurt from rolling them so much. Having made excellent use of new(ish) fight scene techniques in the first one, and then outdone themselves in the second, they were placed in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between "less impressive" and "ridiculous" for this one---they clearly chose the latter. Overall, I wouldn't say it sucked, but it was sort of lame, and worth waiting and renting it. The advantage of this plan is that you can watch it with a bunch of friends and MST3K the heck out of it, which would be fun (if easy). I do have to say, though, they did a great job recasting the Oracle and just handling that whole situation in general, and the guy that played Bane got the Agent Smith impersonation down cold.

"Even the Costa Ricans have health insurance for their people, and we should too." --Howard Dean

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November 01, 2003

Farmer in the Sky

I knew that Robert Heinlein had written some YA fiction in his day, and I'd even read some of his novels that I later found out were part of that group. This is the first one that I pegged as such from the start: Farmer in the Sky is an adventure told from the perspective of a boy about 14 years old. Aside from reading like a piece of Boy Scout recruiting propaganda, it was a fun read; Bill, the protagonist, gets to adventure out as a pioneer settling on Ganymede, with all of Heinlein's usual attention to the various scientific details of the thing. Plotwise, a bit formulaic. But still worth reading.

"That sounds like a product of the great game of telephone that much American Protestant theology seems to have become." --Jonathan Prykop

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September 01, 2003

Murder at the Kennedy Center

That's the book I listened to for most of the trip. It's by Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry S Truman; she's written a bunch of whodunits set in DC, all of which are quite good, and this one's no exception. What's really wild about this one, though, is that the political sideplot is hauntingly prescient: Ken Ewald is a very liberal Democrat who leapt forward from the back of the pack to lead the crowd in the mid-primary season, but he's receiving dogged opposition from the party leadership and from an opponent who is unrepentantly conservative and openly admits being not much different from the incumbent Republicans.

The book was written in 1989.

Other than that, my trip was pretty uneventful. I stopped for a four-hour nap somewhere in central PA; took a shower in the first Ohio rest area (thank goodness for truckers' lounges in the OH rest areas---driving without A/C in 90 degree weather makes you feel gross); and waited out a blinding sunset in another Ohio rest area. Somewhere in Indiana I finished the book, and started another one---The Last Catholic in America by John Powers, on which is based the musical Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, which I've seen and been in. So I sort of knew the story, but there's more to the book. At least to the beginning of it; the second tape completely chewed itself up, so I had to abandon it there. I plugged in my iPod for the rest of the trip, which wasn't too bad.

My favourite part of the trip was the end. As I stopped in a deserted Illinois rest area around 1am, I looked at a map and noticed that US-34 seemed to make an awfully straight line from Princeton to Galesburg; I couldn't go as fast as on interstates, but the distance savings might be worth it. Especially late at night, and it'd help me stay awake, too. So I took exit 45 off I-80, which junctions US-34 a few miles south. From the point I exited I-80 to the intersection of I-74 and US-34 just northeast of Galesburg, I had 54 miles (and 57 minutes) of windy little roads and small towns. The interstates would have been upwards of 80 miles, so I'm pretty sure this route is not just shorter, but faster as well. And vastly cooler and more interesting. I can't wait to take it in my Mini. :)

"Have you ever noticed how it's explicitly legal in Illinois to have gay sex, but explicitly illegal to marry someone of the same sex? People don't mind queers as much when they're acting like they're "supposed to"---promiscuous, flaming, singing musical theatre. It's when queers ask to be respectable citizens that people get really up-in-arms." --Jonathan Prykop

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April 16, 2003

Death penalty and soccer

Yesterday, I went to a talk by former Illinois governor George Ryan and Northwestern law professor Lawrence Marshall, about capital punishment. Verdict: Ryan is a terrible speaker (he repeats himself and he rambles), but whatever else you may say about him, he sincerely and honestly believes that the death penalty is Just Wrong. Larry Marshall (whose daughter is a Brown undergrad) is a pretty good speaker, though. Together, they presented so many arguments why we shouldn't have the death penalty: aside from being racist and classist in practice, and in violation of norms of human rights even in theory, in the last decade we have demonstrated that even for murder convictions, even with all of the safeguards in the system, we actually convict innocent people with some regularity. Bad enough to send them to prison, but how can we even think about killing them? And finally, about the only real reason to carry out the death penalty is to make the victims' families feel better. And it doesn't even really do that.

Later on, I saw the movie Bend It Like Beckham, which was fantastic. It's a funny, witty film about an Indian Briton who really just wants to play football (er, soccer). But her orthodox Sikh parents don't want her to become a footballer, now that she's a grown woman and should be learning things like how to prepare a full dinner (aloo gobhi et cetera); and she should be helping out with the preparations for her sister's upcoming wedding. It actually came out last year, but is just hitting its American release---probably won't hit the main theatres, I'm guessing, but worth seeking out in the smaller ones.

"Hell, yes, I support our troops! I support them so much that I want them safe at home. I support them so much that, if it were up to me, they would never have been put into danger in Iraq in the first place." --Chronos

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October 14, 2002

Fiddler on the Roof, El Cid

Saw the second half of Fiddler on the Roof last night. Good movie, but a bit depressing. All the famous songs are in Act I anyway. :)

Also saw El Cid in its entirety. Boy howdy, that's a long movie. Good, though---Charlton Heston plays opposite Sophia Loren in a retelling of the 11th century Spanish epic, and they just don't do movies like that anymore. "Epic" is really the only way to describe it. There were a few anachronistic moments (like the rose windows and the sweeping circular stone staircase in the castle, or the 50s-esque pointy-boob bras that Sophia Loren was wearing at all times), but the sets and costumes were great nonetheless. There were a few times when it clubs you over the head with symbolism, but hey, that's half the fun.

"I mean, virgins are everywhere. There's one up in Ohio, several in the Boston area." --Christopher Gill, HI163, on various interpretations of the Virgin Mary

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August 20, 2002

It occurs to me that

It occurs to me that despite the title, this blog has not yet made any particular reference to linguistics, or to dancing, or to any books (good or otherwise). Clearly, I need to rectify that.

I've just finished reading a fun little book entitled Sentry Peak, by Harry Turtledove. I have a difficult time assigning it to a genre---on the one hand, it's fantasy, but on the other, historical fiction. (How's that work then?) It is a novel of war....

When King Buchan died, his appointed successor was the gangly King Avram. But the northern nobles didn't like his attitudes toward provincial prerogative (they were for it, he was against), so they threw their support to his cousin and rival King Geoffrey. In the ensuing conflict, King Avram promised to unbind the blond serfs from the land....

Ok, get it? I'm not even quite sure if this is better with or without a strong grounding in Civil War history; I didn't have much, but I had enough. It is great fun to read this book and figure out what the cities of Georgetown and Rising Rock and the provinces of Cloviston and Croatoan correspond to, and who northerner Thraxton the Braggart and southron General Guildenstern correspond to---you get the idea, I'm sure. Some are obvious immediately, others come around and hit you like a ton of bricks dozens of pages after you first see them. I was sent into a fit of giggles more times than I can count at figuring out yet another one.

But gimmicks aside, it is still a fairly gripping story, and as is Harry Turtledove's specialty it somehow manages to make you root for both sides at once. The book isn't for everyone (my history-grad-student neighbour Sam would absolutely loathe it, I'm certain), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"My philosophy is to "educate and then trust the general public". This philosophy is in line with the basic values of democracies. The government's approach to homeland security is "keep everything secret and trust nobody". This is in line with the basic values of authoritarian governments." --John Gilmore

Posted by blahedo at 12:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack