Monday, February 16, 2015

Play: Love among the MFAs

Dear Elizabeth, but Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Allison Narver. Seattle Rep through 8 March.

I will get to the play in a moment, but let me whine (and whine way too much) about Seattle traffic. This is the first time I have ever been late for the theater, despite living some 20 miles south of the Seattle Center, where the Rep is based. Yet that particular day, I failed to make it before the door shut. I had to see the first act after the play had begun, in (duh-duh-DUM) late seating.

Here's the story: The Lovely Bride was busy in the city in the morning, practicing for a Tai Chi demo, and I told her I would meet her at the theater and bring the LB's mom up (who, I may have mentioned, is an actress). Given the fact that the LB's mom has just celebrated her 80th birthday, we left early to get there with plenty of time, and made it down off Panther Lake to the major highways by 1 PM for a 2 PM show.

So, 20 miles, an hour to do so, should be OK. What I did not know about was road work in the proverbial Mercer Mess, which is the exit that leads from the highway to the Seattle Center (a couple miles). The first warning was when there was a dead-stop backup a mile from the exit itself, at which point it was too late to change plans. Finally making the exit, one could only see a packed road leading ahead off to the horizon. It was that sort of treacherous mess where the lights turn green but no one moves because there is no place to move. A motor vehicle mosh pit.

I mention to the LB's mom that with a mess this bad, there HAS to be a police officer directed traffic at the other end. And indeed, after taking an alternate route that sent us back into the town, rejoining the backup at the very end, there were not one but THREE police officers directing traffic on Denny and doing their part to contribute to a forty-minute snarl between I-5 and the Space Needle.

We worked though the worst of it with (relative) patience and grace, and I manage to deliver the LB's mom at the theater with five full minutes to spare (huzzah). Then I find out that my usual parking lot, which normally is cheap and pretty darn empty, is today full, including a mobile crane. And that all parking was twenty bucks for some event of which I had no idea. AND the parking spot I eventually found was presided over by a machine that obvious served a very long and very hard life, and was bitter about it and moving with the speed similar to that of the Mercer Mess.

And then in the middle of it all, a Seattle moment. Which I was standing there waiting with several other would-be parons for the parking machine to decide if its electronic life was worth continuing, a Dixieland band came down the street. No, I'm not kidding. Bass drum mounted on the chest, some horns, a trombone, a clarinet or two, and a sousaphone (or maybe a fluegelhorn). They bounced there way down Mercer, hooked a right in front of the theater, and were gone. It was just something I never thought I would see in Seattle, and there it was. And it really took the edge off all the rush.

In any event, while I got the Lovely Bride's Mom to the theater in time, the doors were closed before I got there. I was given (duh-duh-DUM) late seating, which meant that I and a few others who had been caught in the Mess had to wait, hearing the play in low tones but like Tantalus, barred from actually witnessing it. Then we were parked in the balcony boxes for the first act, which in the Leo K theater were actually not that bad, though I lost a chunk of the stage that was stage right/house left. It is not a play that moved around a lot, so that worked out.

And while I cannot blame the theater for the traffic, I will note that there is a concierge function in their promotions, which has in the past reminded us that a play starts an hour early or some big event was happening. This time, not so much. So yeah, an email saying "MY GOD, it will be quicker for you to drive around the Sound and take the ferry in from Bainbridge!" would have been appreciated.

Anyway, what all this means is that I didn't get the opening of the play, and was forced to cross-examine the Lovely Bride at intermission about what I had missed. "I got there by the time he came up to Maine to see her." "OK, so when they were exchanging poems?" "I caught the reference to Celluloid Bird." "No, there was stuff before that." So I don't know how the two main characters met, which I feel is a wee bit of a problem when you want to evaluate their relationship.

More than enough whining. Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop (played by Suzanne Bouchard, and it is nice to actually see actors onstage at the Rep who have been there before), and Robert Lowell (Stephen Barker Turner, his hair in the continual upsweep of a man who often combs it with his hand in moments of frustration). Now, about 85% of the readers here will say WHO?. And that's part of the prob. These two are noted postwar poets, and the story talks about their long distance, mostly platonic relationship between 1947 and 1977.

And in many ways it is like attending someone else's high school reunion. I am not a poet and find poetry one of the harder things to get through - I find myself lulled by cadence and stop I paying attention to the words.. [Important digression however - one poet I particular like is Lester Smith, who has the benefit of being both very good and still alive. Lester's stuff I can read all day, though I would be hard-pressed to categorize him as either "raw" or "cooked" (which is a Lowell quote). But back to the play.] I don't know either of Bishop or Lowell or their work, and instead of the play opening new doors for me I found myself at the wrong booth in the cafe, overhearing things I know about only tangentially at best.

So, Ruhl has compressed the written correspondence into a dialog, filled with starts and stops and parts of life - marriage and lovers and suicides both potential and realized and stays in the mental hospital. And mixed with it are bits they are working on, ranging from getting published to reviewing other works. And as a word-cruncher by trade, the concept of fretting about the perfect choice of a phrase for weeks at a time seems like an alien concept. I fret about the right words,but I live in a world where deadlines loom like ogres with clubs, just waiting to pick off the slow ones.

And through it all, I was stunned by the idea that these folk are poets, yet get to go to Europe and Brazil. How the heck does that work, financially? Checking the wiki (the play gives us little clue) part of it is through teaching and grants, but also Lowell is listed in the wikipedia as being a Boston Brahmin (which means money in the family) while Bishop is mentioned as having an inheritance. Still, their presence in the greater world seems to not matter as they fight with their own creations, which in turn are mentioned only in passing.

That may be the biggest problem with this play - I'm not sure if it about the authors' work or their struggle or just a very polite relationship. It shows an affection between the two but doesn't really engage. Passions reserved for the work, which, like polite children, remain offstage. The closest thing to a conflict is case where Lowell converts his second wife's correspondence into a series of poems, which Bishop finds scandalous, which is very meta since Ruhl is turning THEIR correspondence into a play.

The actors are just fine, but the play itself is pretty flaccid, neither raw nor fully cooked. I cross-examined the Lovely B and the LB's Mom for further enlightenment, in case there was a central thesis put forth early on that I missed, but no, there was no early statement apparently that bound it all together. It was what it was, and getting there on time was no rescue.

Would I recommend it? Let me damn it by saying that if you like this sort of stuff (as in "the lives of post-war poets"), then you will like the play. After three strong courses of LBJ and August Wilson, anything would be a let-down, but this one made me wonder where that Dixieland band was heading.

More later.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Play: August Wilson's Ghost Story

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Directed by Timothy Bond, Seattle Rep through 8 Feb.

I never expected a ghost story from August Wilson. His body of work deals with the African American experience, in particular the effects of the Great Migration up from the South into northern industrial cities, in particular Pittsburgh. Yet here we have what is on one side a conflict between the rural past and urban future, and on the other a story of vengeful ghosts and protective spirits.

The play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh, in the home of Doaker Charles (Derrick Lee Weeden), a railroad cook who lives there with his niece Berniece (Erika LaVonn) and her daughter Maretha (Shiann Welch). Among the belongings is the piano in question, a venerable upright carved with the family's history as slaves in the south.

Setting the play in motion is Berniece's brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his buddy Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) , who arrive with a truck full of watermelons of questionable provenance and news that the owner of the land their family worked (and the descendant of the family that had owned their family in slavery) had died, fallen/pushed/disposed of in a well, and the land was up for sale. Boy Willie figures that with his current savings, the profits off the watermelons, and selling the family piano, he can afford to buy the land for himself.

Berniece will not hear of selling the piano, and that sets the plot in the motion. LaVonn's Berniece is the centerpoint of the play, resisting arguments from all sides as to why she should sell the piano. Boy Willie wants the money for the land. Berniece's suitor Avery (Ken Robinson) thinks that it would help her move on from the death of her husband. Doaker claims neutrality, but sees the parallel between Bernice's husband's death and the death of her father, Doaker's brother, and the effect it left on both women. Berniece remains resolute, through for the wrong reasons, and the depth of the character is brought out by LaVonn.

But Boy Willie was not the only thing that came up from the south. The vengeful spirit of the dead man apparently as followed as well, demanding its own compensation. So while the heart of the play is the contesting of a family relic and with it the family's heritage, the resolution comes from the ever-ratcheting haunting of the house by the descendant of the family's owners.

To be honest, the supernatural is a hard sell on the stage, where the immediacy of the audience creates a danger that it can go into farce. What grounds this particular haunting is the people and their stories. Everyone has their tales in the group, and August Wilson creates a lyrical patter for everyone, in particular Boy Willie, such that you feel after a while that the only thing that keeps him aloft if the stories he tells about himself. There is a long stretch in the final act which is effective monologue as Williams drives everyone else to silence with his nonstop chatter. And indeed, this long running of the mouth provides the perfect setup for a comeuppance at the hands of the ghost.

There is also an undercurrent of violence within August Wilson's works, and guns appear from the outset and haunt the stage with their own presence as well, as the words and tales may go too far and spill out in bloodshed. Blood is rubbing into the finish of the piano itself, with the blood of slavery that it depicts.

So the lesson of The Piano Lesson refers to both the story of the family on the piano, the story about the piano (a variant of the parable of the talents from Matthew) and a lesson of the power of the spirits of the past. I have often dinged the Rep for the shortness of their modern plays, but the past three have been three-hour powerhouses, and exercise the full potential of the stage.

More later,

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Big Game, Big Story

Humans, we love our stories. It is something about us, our desire to make connections, to seek out links, to explain, that fuels a need to create narratives. It may be what defines us as humans. Something cannot simply exist. Events cannot simply occur. Things must have a reason. Actions must occupy a continuity. The world must have meaning over and above the obvious.

So, this weekend, there's a big football game. The champions of one group of teams (The Seattle Seahawks) will meet the champions of the other group of teams (The New England Patriots) in a head-to-head match up for all the marbles and bragging rights and rings and bonuses. And there will be music and fireworks and fans painting themselves and expensive commercials that you've probably already seen on YouTube and, I dunno, dancing bears.

And there will be stories.

In the two-week gap between determining the combatants and the game, something needs to fill time, and that becomes the narrative. Who are the white hats? Who are the black hats? Who are the upstarts? Who are the veterans? What does this say about the teams' home regions? What insights do we gain?

Looking at this year, and several past Super Bowls Seattle was a part of, the general feeling is that the mass media doesn't really get Seattle at all. We're quirky. We're tucked away in the northwest. Too much coffee. Too much rain. Young. Technie. Distracted by our phones. Not serious about our sports.

The first Super Bowl Seattle played in was against Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh's aura as a heavy-lifting steel town predominated (never mind that the biggest industry in medical services these days). The coverage was overwhelming about how the Steelers, who had the right stuff, would dominate the other guys, who would be the Seahawks (The Steelers won, confirming this narrative).

The second Super Bowl Seattle played in had a similar vibe. The opponent was the Broncos, under Payton Manning, and in the weeks leading up to the event, the national media treated it as a coronation of Mr. Manning as the Greatest Player Evah (And he IS real good) and the game as just a confirmation of that obvious fact. Seattle defeated the Broncos soundly in that game, leaving the media without a narrative and scrambling.

So you would think that, this time out, there would be a little more love for the Seahawks? Not so much. Most of the week has concentrated on the scandal of whether the Patriots kept their balls properly inflated. There is some real science about this, but pretty much it has gone in the direction you would expect it - people looking for reasons to say "The Patriots' Balls".

Reporting on the Seattle side? Not so much. The most news we get is about how on of our running backs (who IS real good) won't talk to the sports press, and one of our cornerbacks (who ALSO is real good) talks way too much. Our quarterback comes across as a nice, intense, dedicated. talented youngster, which as a result, apparently, makes for bad interviews and bad television (until he starts scrambling in the open and gives every fan in the stadium a heart attack).

So the story is yet again centered on the other team this year, with some factions fitting them for black hats and others being more charitable (in the manner that one expects charity when you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar up to your elbow) . We have not hit the level where the Patriots are playing for redemption quite yet, because that involves actually admitting there was anything wrong in the first place. And I should be happy from the standpoint that while all the news leans on the Patriot side, the previous Super Bowl champions are cruising along, effective underdogs for the very prize they took home the previous year.

And I don't think anyone has caught that particular narrative. Leading up to this, we kept hearing how teams that win the Super Bowl are not even expected to make the playoffs the next year, yet once Seattle did that, that entire line of thought died away. This is a rarity, but in a landscape scraping for any narrative that doesn't involve "The Patrtiots' Balls", I think the media missed the obvious story of a team of individuals coming together to win games.

I suppose I should be OK with the attention on the Patriots, given that the other big story from the media is that our running back (who, I may have mentioned, is real good) doesn't want to talk to them. And I will be watching the game with friends on Sunday. But I think the media blew it this time with their narrative, Again.

More later,

Thursday, January 22, 2015

PAX South

PAX South, part of the ever-expanding Pax Empire, is this weekend, down in San Antonio. I shan't be there (I wasn't planning of going, and right now I am in the second week of a mindbendingly nasty cold), but a lot of people that I know and like will be there.

Of particular mention would be former ArenaNet colleague Matthew Moore, who will be demoing a new card game called Bring Your Own Book, which combines card play with being well read, as players delve through books to come up with that one perfect line that matches the card. The demos will be part of Pax South Indie Showcase. He said he was going to use a copy of Ghosts of Ascalon for the demo, should he find a copy. That would be cool..

And speaking of ArenaNet, you have probably heard by now that we're going to have a big announcement on Saturday morning, hosted by voice artist Jennifer Hale, who is Queen Jennah in our game, and featuring the equally dulcet tones of Mike O'Brien, our head honcho, and Game Director Colin Johanson. For those who can't make it, the announcement (at 10:30 local time - 11:30 EST and 8;30 ohmighod early west coast time) it will be on a twitch feed. It probably has something to do with this video:

And also for those who can't make it, and are playing Guild Wars 2, we're celebrating the announcement with a weekend of double experience. Well, now I know how I am spending the weekend.

AND, if you don't have Guild Wars 2, we're actually going to make it easy for you. On Saturday and Sunday, we're dropping the price on the digital version of the game to all of $10. Short of me sneaking into your house in the middle of the night and putting it on your drive, that's the best deal you've seen.

But for me? I'm spending it healing up, drinking hot tea, and playing Guild Wars 2. Lots and lots of Guild Wars 2.

More later,

{UPDATE:} And this is what the fuss is all about:

Thursday, January 01, 2015


So, this time of year, we look at New Years Resolutions. But the value of the typical resolution has become so watered down as to become meaningless. The resolution has become the setup of so many disappointing jokes (just check out the comics pages in the paper today - how many of them begin with a character swearing some resolution, and then breaking it before the final panel). In short, the resolution resolves not much of anything.

So I'm going to have intentions instead. Intentions are pretty much what resolutions become. We do not say IT IS RESOLVED that I will go to the gym. Lose ten pounds. Be nicer to my cats. There is no real penalty connected to any of that. Rather, we really mean that we INTEND to go the gym more, or lose ten pounds, or be nicer to the cats, and that the last one only with the proviso that said cats don't call them on the house phone at five in the morning*.

So, intentions.

I intend to read more. I have a big pile of books unbegun and a bigger pile of books unfinished. The latter group is scattered about the house, many of them abiding in a bookcase the Lovely Bride has provided for me to showcase my shame, mental bookmarks in each one where I set it aside, intending to get back to it soon. Real soon.

I intend to write more. I feel I've been coasting. I do a couple essays, stretch myself through a larger project or two, but outside of the day job I've been sleeping a lot and engaged in meaningless timesucks (I am looking at you, Facebook, now buried in a sub-folder of my iPad - Yes, I will still post to you, but not from a portable device). I have a double-handful of pieces in various states of doneness, but sadly they do not look like an artist's character studies, which have a value in themselves, but rather more like the partially disassembled motorcycle you pulled apart in the garage two summers ago with the intention of customizing it. That may mean more honest-to-goodness blogging, a long-form that is quietly dying out there in the newer-than-new media. I've made references to things I mean to get back to, but haven't. Let us see if we can manage them this year.

I intend to watch more. I know this goes against intending to read more, but I really have fallen behind on a lot of stuff I've been meaning to get around to. Most of it is on Netflix - I still use a TV (no video snob, I) , but primarily for events that cool quickly, like sports events. I bailed on "House of Cards" about halfway through the first season, and really want to check out the "Marco Polo". Watching old movies on the TCM app may replace my continual Facebook checking, but I am good with that.

There are more. Take more notes. Improve my memory. Be nicer to my cats. But three will do it for the moment,

More later,

*Oh, all right, let me explain the bit about the cat. We have a pair, who since late summer have been beset by fleas, such that they have taken to perching in areas they have previously avoided. One in particular has taken to nesting on the kitchen counter, next to the phone. Said cat rolled over and hit the button for "find the handsets", which causes those handsets to burble loudly. One of the handsets was on the bedroom bureau. So the cat accidentally called me at five in the morning. She was surprised to find me awake, and since I was just standing there in the kitchen, would I feel her breakfast. No, I was not happy about that.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Hobbits

It has been a couple weeks now, and a lot of people have talked about it, and our group has weighed in on it, including our resident Tolkien expert, John Rateliff. But be warned - this has spoilers within, great and small, regarding the conclusion of The Hobbit films from Peter Jackson, The Battle of Five Armies. Some you've seen before, elsewhere, from others, but these thoughts a mine and belong to me. And in general, I liked the film.

There, I think I've gotten past the amount that gets cut and filled for other platforms. Let us get down to business.

1) I think it is pretty clear that Movie 2 (Desolation of Smaug) and Movie 3 (Battle of Five Armies) should be viewed as one film. One 6 hour film, where you get to get to break for lunch in the middle of it. You are dropped into the middle of a film - no background, no flashbacks. Smaug is descending on Lake Town and Gandalf is held prisoner by the Necromancer. Boom. There you are. If this is your first Hobbit movie, you'll be more than a might confused. And that's OK, as long as you know what you're getting into. We don't get an expositional character summarizing the story so far or a narration. I'm good for that.

2) By the same token, you do feel like you've come into the films a couple reels in. The pacing is definitely that of the middle part of the movie, that the characters are established, the basic goals and motivations are laid out, and all that results are pulling off the reveals and resolving matters.

3) And to that end, Smaug dies fifteen minutes in. I did mention spoilers, didn't I? Yeah, it fits with the timeline for the book, but after two movies of how powerful Smaug is, he's not even the big bad for this one. Sort of a Boba Fett ending for him. You never get the feeling he lived up to his potential.

4) And speaking of big bads, who IS the bad guy of this film? The Necromancer, who is chased off about half-way through the film? Or the two orc leaders, Sword-Arm-Orc and Orc-with-Metal-Plate-In-His-Head? The sense of greed that turns Thorin against the others?

5) Taking down my copy of the Hobbit, Movie one was about 100 pages, Movie two was 100 pages, and this movie covers the last 50 pages. Yeah, we're looking at padding.

6) And you can see the padding. There are a lot of repeated sequences (Bard rescues his family, Thorin yells at people trying to help him, Bard gives Alfrid a task, and he immediately shirks it). And the battle sequences of "character-facing-certain-destruction-but-suddenly-someone-you-had-forgotten-about-arrives-to-rescue-them" actually get wearing after a while.

7) Let's be frank - most of the movie is the battle, and staging a single battle is tough - a lot of sides, a lot of protagonists. Let's give points for the attempt. But one of the reasons for the frequent swoops into Thorin's mindset and comic relief, and Bard's family is to make it more than just cgi animation of orcs and elves fighting. But it feels weird to have so much of this happening in the midst of battle.

8) The bulk of the film feels like a game of Warhammer miniatures. Part of that is because of some of the visual source material - in the early seventies, Workshop was selling LotR miniatures, and the tall-helmetted, metal skirted elves were part of the look. So yeah, this is part of the Tolkien property but it feels like Workshop. At least the orcs weren't green, but that may be Warcraft thing these days.

9) Yeah, the whole pacing of the battle does feel weird, but remember that Tolkien passed over much of this by keeping the focus tight on Bilbo (and Bilbo unconscious for part of it). We have the dwarves in the mountain. Then the humans reoccupy Dale Town. Then elves show up, surprising both groups. Then the dwarf army shows up, surprising the elf army. Then the goblins show up from underground, surprising all previous groups, then the Gundabad orcs show up to hammer the exhausted allied armies, but THEN the Eagles show up to handle the orcs.

10) But I will admit it makes me amused to see that Radaghast gets the final "And then a new group comes to rescues the others" sequence. He's like the final closed parenthesis.

11) Did it feel like Dale Town got bigger in its architecture as the movie went on? It was ruins, but it seemed to get taller and more impressive over the course of the attack.

12) I've got a new game, called: "What can Legolas ride?" Can he ride a shield down the stairs? Yes he can. Can he ride a manbat of Gundabad? Yes he can. Can he ride a siege troll? Yes he can. Can he ride a disintegrating tower? Yes. Yes he can. Is there anything this elf cannot ride?

13) Oh, and elves are apparently stronger than stone itself. Tauriel takes a battering but survives. Legolas literally smashes apart the tower in his battle. This may be the original source of the problem between elves and dwarves. The dwarves wanted to use the elves as battering rams.

14) Orcs, on the other hand, are 1 minus 1 HD. Bilbo could take them out with a rock. With. A. Rock. But apparently they level up fast.

15) I know this is a minor point, but where the heck did Thorin and company get the battle rams? I know that's a gnat to strain at when, moments before, the dwarven army, driven to the brink by the orcs, suddenly gets rallied by the appearance of twelve reinforcements. But it was a big question in my office.

16) And the entire Dead-Orc-Beneath-The-Ice sequence? Did it remind anyone else of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?

17) Tauriel lives through the film, which surprised me at first blush, then made sense. We had Fili and Kili dying from the book, their deaths being a big part of the movie. We needed someone to directly morn them. One of our group mentioned that they could do the "ongoing adventures of Tauriel" as a result, but I think that unlikely.

18) And let me give Jackson points for wrapping things up with one ending. Even with previous movies in the series, I figured it would end two or three times before it did. This one ends when it ends, even if it does have to do a tie-in to the later LOTR. OK, Jackson gets that one.

19) And there was a character named Tosser Grubb in Hobbiton, according to the credits. No relation.

20) And when is all said and done, I think would like more Hobbit in my Hobbit. Bilbo sort of hit his high point in the last film, and is reduced to worrying about Thorin and delivering warnings here. In the book as in the film, he is knocked out a critical moment, so in the novel we don't have to work through all the boring parts of a battle. Of course, we the viewer still get to be a part of the battle in the film.

In the end, I enjoyed it, but it was tied to the fact the I had to rejigger some initial assumptions that were pretty clear at the beginning. This will probably fit better once everything is on DVD or viewable as a single experience, but as a film itself, it was a perfectly fine ending for the series.

More later,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas ...

... and a happy holiday season from Grubb Street.

More later, I'm busy making the rumaki.