Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Museum Day

So the Lovely Bride and I got out of the house (and away from too many games of Lego Indiana Jones) and visited two art museums today, along with Pike Place market for shopping and lunch.

I took the LB to the Frye this morning. I've raved about the Frye before, as Seattle's best free art museum, and this was the first time I took the LB there, not knowing about what the contents were. Three exhibitions running: One on the Frye founding collection (cue the appearance of Franz von Stuck'sSin, a couple rooms on American Modernism (admitting that Modernism is a loaded, controversial term), and a large exhibit called Old, Weird America, on folk art.

Now I know that most people view post-mod art with the words "I could to this" forming in the back of their brains. I'm that way with folk art. There is always a trippy Addams Family vibe to it, and harnessing that power to deeper meanings about Americana just pushes it to 11 for me. Still, the LB loved the venue, so I probably will be able to drag her to other shows.

Anyway, lunch at Pike Place and a walk down the two blocks to the SAM, for two exhibitions that are also closing soon. The Michelangelo exhibit of the artist's sketchwork is the more popularized of the two, but it feels like an attempt to make more of what was present. A dozen sketches by the Master showing his skill, a sculpture rough by a student, a letter, and several examples "After Michelangelo), It all felt kind of, well, sketchy. My takeaway was the church censorship of the Last Judgment to clean up some of the more irritating bits.

More delightful to me was the Alexander Calder mobiles and stabiles. I didn't expect to get into it as much as I did. But Calder's work is one of the first art pieces I remember, from the mobile Pittsburgh which hung in the rotunda of the old Pittsburgh International Airport (and still shows up in Pittsburgh when its not elsewhere on display). The piece apparently has its own checkered past but when I first saw it, the color "Calder Orange" was imprinted on my brain, so I expected a lot of that shade in the exhibit.

And Calder Orange is present, along with Calder dots, Calder floor-mounted mobiles, Calder jewelry, and Calder toys. In fact, there is a playfulness in the Calder's work that functions better in a mix of different sizes than in one monolithic installation (I'm looking at YOU Olympic Sculpture Park). There are tiny jewel box models and large mobiles with "rings of death" etched in the floor to keep the observers from interacting TOO much with the art.

And to be honest, I really wanted to shove my hands in my jacket pocket, extend them out so the jacket becomes a huge sail, and the then run around the exhibit, kicking up a breeze. Because while the minimalist white wall presentation created cool shadows that added to the art itself, the very lack of breath in the halls kinda kills the importance of a mobile in the first place.

So all in all, a good day, but I think the Lovely B and I have both had enough pressing through crowds for a little while. I think it is back to nesting and having friends over for a while.

More later,

Monday, December 28, 2009

Comics: This is the Year that Wuz

There's an old Doonesbury strip from the Carter administration, how the Energy Czar declared the energy crisis to be over. After all, if you've gotten used to the new status quo, it can hardly be a crisis, can it? And there was much celebration.

That's sort of the way its been within main-universe continuity for the major comic companies this year, though they handle it in very different ways. DC has been trudging through an endless Blackest Night while Marvel has been actually using the Dark Reign mega event for some interesting open-ended world and character development.

Blackest Night first, which has felt like an interminable evening where the dead heroes and villains rise and are equipped with black lantern rings (every color has its own jewelry, these days) and challenge the living. Originally part of a mega-crisis over in the Lantern books, it has spilled over into the rest of the continuity, and though the plastic finger-ware they've been offering is nice (I have a full set hanging on the horns of my Galactus figure), two things become apparent.

1) When you strip the color, insignia, and facial expressions from a comic book character, it is devilishly hard to figure out who is who. Everyone is grey and black, they have the insignia of the Black Lantern Corps, and they have zombie faces. So unless they are wearing, say, a cowboy hat, you don't know who these guys are. Oh, also the fact that they may have been dead, in continuity for several years makes matters worse. And furthermore:

2) We have one story here, as far as the tie-ins are concerned. We open with a couple pages of flashback to remind us WHO this dead character is, then sics the dead character on the living, who defeats (or at least ties) the dead character at the end (for an unstoppable, regenerating menace, there seem to be a lot of ways to stop them). Not since the "Red-Skies" tie-ins of the original crisis ("Look, Batman! The sky is red!""No time for that, chum, the Riddler is on the loose!") have the tie-ins taken such an obvious route.

So it is thundering along for a while, as important things happen in the main title, and eventually Bruce (Batman) Wayne will be back (Oh, like you're surprised).

Over at Marvel, the Dark Reign starts with a seemingly equally iffy proposition. In the wake of the Skrull War Norman Osborn is put in charge of SHIELD, an idea almost as stupid as making Tony Stark the Secretary of Defense (oh, wait a minute...). Anyway, the former Green Goblin puts together his own illuminati of villains, with the idea that, now they have power, they aren't going to lose it.

Normally this sort of thing may be a couple issues, and the villains always lose it by overstepping their bounds and everyone realizes the heroes are cool and everything snaps back into place. But they've been going is some interesting directions with it, such that the original mob has broken up, so Osborn has recruited a new mob, Dr. Doom has been renovated back into a first class bad guy, and parts of the Marvel U that are usually kept apart are being brought back together. And at the heart of it has been the Avengers family of books, which has dealt with fake Avengers, rebel Avengers, and new Avengers (which feel decidedly West Coast in nature).

Problems? Yep. There are a couple plots that played over and over -
- There is a challenge that requires fake Avengers to fight alongside real heroes, and no one dies.
- Norman Osborn gets punked.
- One of the heroes is captured by Norman Osborn, and Must Be Rescued!
- The Sentry, created as the latest Marvel Superman Clone (see: Wonder Man, Gladiator, et al) and retrofitted into their continuity, continues to get slapped about with amazing regularity. The best Sentry story was actually an X-Men tale (what did I say about parts of the universe working together) and does not even feature the Sentry, only his supposed Dark Half.

Oh, and Steve (Captain America) Rogers is back (in a badly bungled return in which he is showing up in regular books before his "return" comic is completed). Comic book inertia rivals gravity when it comes to pulling all the pieces back together again.

But in general, there is a lot more life and opportunities in the Marvel Universe crisis than in the DC version. A lot of writers over at the MU were confronted with the new bag of apples and made new types of applesauce, while at DC we saw the same recipe again and again.

There have also been some major behind the scenes things in comics in the past year. Disney has bought Marvel (which probably will have less of an effect on the continuity), while over at DC, long-term veteran writer and president Paul Levitz was replaced by someone from within the Warner hierarchy (which probably WILL have more of an effect on mainline continuity).

And yet the biggest behind the scenes thing in comics is something that I'm not sure is official, but it feels like it. I think the comic book companies have switched up how they figure profitability of their books. Instead of looking for a particular title to deliver X number of sales, they are looking for a particular week to deliver the required numbers. That would explain the sudden explosion of one-shots, bookends, miniseries, hiatuses, secondary stories, and other stunts that have showed up recently. I'm not 100% sure if I am right about this, but it sure feels that way. Which again, will have more of an effect on continuity than we assume.

More later,

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Beef Is Red

So, this Holiday Feast, we took a small excursion outside our culinary comfort zone, got a might bewildered, but in the end found our way back.

Let me explain. We've done holiday feasts before, Christmas Day, for several years now (so much that some of the seating tags have given up the ghost and now must be replaced). Usually that means a brined turkey, prepared in the manner prescribed by Uncle Alton Brown, with lots of sides brought by the other participants.

This year, we did a turkey for Thanksgiving (to good reviews and minimal leftovers). So a month later we decide to do a poached salmon and a beef roast. And there the fun begins.

Now the turkey is a noble bird, not in the least because it comes packed with copious amounts of two types of meet, so dark meat fanciers are as satisfied as their lighter meat companions. Beefeaters are divided into two main camps - the welldones and the mediumrares. And while the mediumrares are united in name, I have found they include the "rares" and the "mediums" who figure they will find a couple pieces they like.

So we bought an 8 pound roast and I spend a good chuck of Thursday trying to figure out the logistics. This is supposedly my "thing" when I'm doing sou chef work with the Lovely Bride - I build the master schedule and figure out when stuff goes into the ovens (we have two), and how to coordinate them and the stovetop so everything arrives at the table at the correct moment.

Anyway, the recipe we were using was from Bon Appetite and believed in the fast-sear/slow-roast school of cooking - 450 for 15 minutes, followed by 350 for about 30 minutes to get us to medium. No mention of how long for well done. So I started hitting the other cookbooks in our possession as well as the Internet to figure out, if we divided the eight-pounder into 3 and 5 pounds, how long it would take, and if I would need both ovens.

And I found a generation gap. Most sources agree that medium rare is 140-145 and well done is 170. However, the older cookbooks use this as the temp where you pull the beef, while the new recipes take into account carryover heat (the meat will continue to cook after you remove it from direct heat). So I had a plethora of times I could pull it, along with other unmentioned factors, like whether it was bone in or not (it was). In the end, after numerous scratchpads of calculations, I figured that a small roast and a large roast in the same oven would hit the finish line at the same time with different levels of doneness. Which was good, since we needed the other oven for other things like twice-baked potatoes and spinach pie. After all the calculations, the doneness would be determined with a thermometer, and to be honest that sort of thinking plays hobbs with my schedule.

Oh, and the other thing the newer recipes had differently was a bitter hatred of well done. If you like your beef well done, you, sir, are apparently worse than Hitler. This cheeses me off because, while I like my beef pink in the center, I have respect for those who like theirs, as one diner put it - "crunchy'.

Back to the story. I put a sage/thyme/rub on the beast, and the guests arrive and I pop the combined roasts in the over. At the appropriate time, I pull them out and...

The internal temperature at the heart of the beast is 54 degrees. 65 degrees for the smaller, to be well-done roast, but no amount of carryover is going to make up the difference. And I've got rolls waiting for the oven space and the twice-baked are ready and all the sides brought by the guests are queuing up.

Exactly what happened to the roast I cannot tell until the CSI team is done with the crime scene. Perhaps it was a bad recipe (every other beef recipe I found as a low-and-slow roasting of several hours, so I can't compare things). Perhaps it was the fact that the beef was frozen solid 24 hours prior and while we thought it was defrosted, we were in serious error.

Fortunately, we had several things going for us.
1) The Lovely Bride is level-headed and used to such culinary challenges.
2) We had a lot of appetizers, including rumaki (bacon wrapped olives and scallops), sausage-stuffed mushrooms, cheese, and seafood salad that was pretty amazing.
3) Our thoughtful guests brought a plethora of sides, including but not limited to broccoli and cheese, mushrooms, green beans and mushrooms, a brown rice mushroom risotto (that was to die for), a coconut-infused brown rice (completely different and ditto), squash, and corn cut fresh from the cob.
4) Out thoughtful guests brought a lot of wine, which we refreshed while the LB and I were scrambling in the kitchen.

In short, we had enough sides for two courses, so that's exactly what we did. We led with a poached salmon, and after about forty-five additional minutes, the welldone was done enough to rest and serve, and the mediumrare was in good enough shape to just slice up (as I said, some of the mediumrares were really fans of rare, and some were really fans of mediums).

Wine was consumed. Plates were passed. Given the length of the meal, there was very little in the way of leftovers, the deserts (baklava, cookies, fresh fruit from Pike Place, and a perfectly acceptable cheesecake) were fantastic. The conversation bounced along nicely, since our guests (brilliant that they are) can be left alone to talk while the LB and I are putting out culinary fires in the kitchen.

It is always nice to have a plan, but a requirement that you have to figure out what to do when that plan meets reality. In the meantime, I think I'm going to be figuring out the mysteries of the roast in the coming year.

More later,

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Grubb Street is closing briefly for the holidays.

May all our readers have a safe and thoughtful holiday season. May all travelers reach their destinations, and may we all celebrate the season with those we love.

More later,

(Detail from Rest on the Flight to Egypt by Olivier-Luc Merson, 1880)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bits and Pieces

So, the results from the King of the Monsters contest, which I helped judge, are up and running over at Kobold Quarterly. So far we have revealed the new Afanc and the Echidna (the mother of monsters, not the marsupial hedgehog), with eight more to go, followed by a vote for the King of the Monsters.

Meanwhile, the podcast at Dial P for Pulp reviews the short story collection Worlds of Their Own and gives a nice mention of my story "Catch of the Day". "Catch" was one of my favorite stories, and I always want to get back to that world and write more. Dial P also takes a good look at AE Merritt's "Ship of Ishtar" and features "Two Minute Danger Theatre", with a bit that could very neatly into an episode of "A Prairie Home Companion". Check it out.

And finally, Leo Lynn posted a letter which cartoonist Jon Kovalic posted on his site and Jessica Stover made a video and Stan! brought to my attention by his blog. It covers some of the same ground as Mike Selinker's own most excellent musings (which is why I sometimes list my faith as "Peanuts Presbyterian"). Ain't the Internet Grand?

More later,

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Word Dreams

I dreamed up a new word the other night. Literally. I was dreaming, and in the middle of the dream, I encountered the word, asked what it meant,and was given the following meaning:

Binter (adj) (BIN-ter): to disappear or become anonymous within a corporate organization. No one has seen Bob for weeks - he's gone binter.

The dreams themselves don't give me much meaning - they were about serpent women (don't ask), so I don't know where the word, or its meanings, come from. Here are three possible origins.

From Bint, Noun, BRIT SLANG (Offensive), for a girl or woman. Used as a pejorative in the long-running series My Man Sam on the BBC. For example, in describing his three hapless helpers, Sam describes them as "Bint, Binter, and Bintest". Only the second word caught on to refer to an ineffective presence in an all-male domain.

From LEWIS BINTER, AMERICAN, developer of the three-hole punch, which was one of the most important office tools of the mid to late 20th Century. They were always found in offices, even when those offices no longer used three-ring binders. Therefore, to be ubiquitous in an office is to be binter.

From Bunt, Noun, AMERICAN BASEBALL, to purposefully tap the incoming pitch, forcing the catcher or pitcher to field the ball, usually used to sacrifice for another runner. Through a typo in The Guide to America's Sport (1972), a recurrent typo from early computerized typesetting referred to this as a "bint". From there, it traveled into common parlance to represent an otherwise invisible component in life, observed by many but never seen.

So yes, I can't even get away from English in my dreams.

More later,

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles II

Madness in London Town by Rick Maffei, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

Since I am in a Cthulian mood, I should review the second offering (Vol. II, it says in the upper left hand corner) in Goodman Games' Age of Cthulhu series. The series is supposed to embrace the pulpier end of the Lovecraftian spectrum, and a lot of what I said about its predecessor, Death in Luxor applies here, both for good and ill.

As far as the good is concerned, I could repeat much of the previous write-up. The writing is solid, and the pacing good, though given a team of regular adventurers that did not sabotage themselves, can at the end be running about a day ahead of schedule, so that the imperative of driving them forward with a harsh deadline was not as dire as it might be.

My group were the surviving members of the previous adventure - a best-selling authoress and her adventuring hero sidekick whose adventures she is chronicling, an archeology student, a Chicago mobster who plays the cello, and a photographer (replacing the Egyptian cabbie who was dragged to his death and eternal torment by an elder god in the previous version). The typical CoC "odd lot" of adventurers, and as opposed to waiting 2 years to gather them together again (and coming up with another reason for doing so), I placed this adventure three months after Death, with the group hanging out together in civilized Paris to recover from the Egyptian adventure.

And that's the first challenge with the new adventure - there is not much of a link between Vol. II and Vol. I. Apparently it is assumed there would be a TPK at the end of Death, or that interim adventures would wean out some previous adventurers, since there is not a word about how to make the two adventures fit together. There are a slew of new Pregenned PCs in the back (so you don't have to have Vol I to play Vol II), but the in-story linkage that is supposed to bring Death and Madness together is incidental and dead-ends quickly without letting the PCs get any further with it.

In addition, the sequel has the problem that its plot is much the same as its forerunner - the adventurers are invited to a distant local by an old friend, who might as well be signing his own death warrant by inviting investigators over to "just come hang out". And the ending also consists of an eldritch beast slouching its way into our dimension. But between the two points, Madness gives a number of nice set pieces in Jolly Old England - Dinner parties! Wax Museums! Tea Shops! Standing Stones! Sort of like watching old black and white reruns of The Avengers. Each occupies its own chapter, making it easy to jostle when the players go off the rails of the adventure (and yes, they will). The best of the chapters is at the start, where there is a reception at the British Museum and, in a nice move, the adventure provided a page worth of what the various attendees/suspects looked like. I photocopied the page, cut up the pictures, and put them in a hat, letting the PCs schmooze at random.

The adventure also suffers from the Curse of Cthulhu in regards to the maps. There are doors that are mentioned in text that appear in different location on the maps, houses without windows, and doors on the maps that are not mentioned in the text that exist on the map (The flow of the Wax Museum chapter was short-circuited when the players ducked back down the alleyway that was on the map but nowhere in the description). The full-page "map" of London is a disaster of lick-and-stick, and resembled more of a color-your-own stained glass window than the City in the Smoke.

But the greatest challenge to the DM is getting so much factual material wrong. You don't get off a passenger ship at the docks in London. You don't check out books from the British Library (that's why they had their great reading room). Contrary to the Internet, there are no tigers in Kenya. These are no pedantic quibbles - our group includes a couple top-flight game editors, amateur historians, and a Tolkien scholar, and several members with access to Wikipedia at their fingertips. There is a cool historical nature to playing CoC, and such laughable errors do nothing to help establish the bona fides of the world.

More of a challenge, even to a GM without such an intelligent group, is that the book does little to address how a group of (assumed) Americans would deal with British laws and law enforcement. Scotland Yard is out in force early on, but afterwards they vanish, even though the PCs leave a trail of dead bodies, burning buildings, car crashes and a full-fledged massacre in their wake. Yes, this is high adventure pulp, which makes it all the more important that we have an idea of what the local constabulary will do when the PCs arrive in their small town, bringing wounded from a car wreck that involves obvious bullet-holes. I made that section up out of whole cloth, forcing them to spend some of their precious time that had previously earned being interviewed as "People of Interest" in the case.

And the lack of research hurts, I'm afraid, in that the final encounter deals with a famous British Monument, which was undergoing its own challenges in the late 20s, when the land it occupied was handed over to the National Trust and renovations occurred which may have altered the original appearance. This would be a nice piece to work in, which we did in our game, as well as the fact that maps of the era show a small cafe less than a mile away that made a suitable launching point for the final encounter.

In general, despite all of the above going against it, Madness in London is an OK adventure. A good GM can tailor it to their players and their own needs, but it will require a little more work. Death in Luxor was the better of the two projects, but I remain interested in seeing where the entire adventure arc ends up (If is does end up - there are no other adventures currently on the Goodman site, and when my turn to GM comes around again, I may go forward with Cthulhu Britannica.

More later,

Friday, December 18, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On The Road Again: The Apology Blinker

Ah, the holidays. The time of year when people who have no business driving in the first place set out in weather that would normally keep people home. In Seattle, such weather means heavier rains than normal, slick roads, and early darkness. And the end result is bad drivers aplenty.

And the latest incarnation I've noticed this week is the Apology Blinker. The car in the next lane over pulls into your lane. It may be a rapid cutoff or a slow, unyielding merge that ignores your presence in your lane. Yet AFTER they have completed the merge, always without a turn signal, and they are in your lane, THEN and ONLY THEN do they turn on their turn signal.

This behavior baffles me. What are they saying? "This is what I just did"? Or do they feel that they've righted the cosmic imbalance they've committed by flipping on the signal later? Or is it an apology blinker, a sheepish admission of "Yeah, I screwed up"?

I dunno, but I've had it happen three times in the last three days, and I for one am sick of it.

More later,

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More on the Trailer

I mentioned earlier that we've released a new trailer for Guild Wars 2. Now we have a "behind the scenes" video for the trailer with interviews with Steve Blum, Felicia Day, Kari Wahlgren, and Troy Baker.

Also, the folk at Massively did an analysis of the original trailer and have continued the discussion in their most recent podcast. Some points are right on, some points are not. Which are which? Ah, that would be telling...

More later,

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Elliot Bay

Oog. I am currently hip-deep in hip-deepness at work. What could bestir me from my appointed and exhausting tasks? What could rate over reviews, comments, thinking about dwarves as Greeks, Call of Cthulhu as Old School Gaming, and other minutia?

This. Elliot Bay Book Company is relocating from its digs in Pioneer Square up to Capitol Hill, into a low building/former garage next to the Oddfellow's Hall between Pike and Pine. From a beautiful (but creaky) brick building that dominated its corner to a (hopefully to be renovated) structure with smaller total space but more "selling space", situated off in a near-alleyway off the two main east-west streets that cross lower Broadway.

I like Elliot Bay. It is a "first choice" bookstore when I'm looking for a particular new volume. It has sections you don't find in the Big Boxes. Heck, it has BOOKS you don't find in the Big Boxes. It is worth an excuse to go into the city. I like its selection, its help and its ambiance. It has good sections and organization, and it is extremely strong in supporting the writing community.

I also like it, though, as a building. I like the creaky floors and exposed brickwork and multiple levels and small stairs. I like the downstairs area, with its coffee shop and massive amount of space to read and talk. I've worked on books down there, and read while Kate was at Saturday morning Tai Chi, listening to a regular Saturday morning group of astrologers talking about their stock portfolios. I like their performance space, low-ceilinged as it is, and I've listened to Alton Brown and Kij Johnson there and kicked myself innumerable times for not catching other writers as well.

But by the same token, I recognize I am a tourist - I come in from Outer Exurbia, mostly on the weekends and in daylight. The neighborhood can be sketchy at times, but I've hit bookstores in Chicago that in nastier parts of town. My big concern is always parking, and beneath the viaduct is an ideal location, free on weekends and within easy walking distance (The viaduct will now go away as well). And my book purchases are few as I always seem to be playing catchup with my reading. So am I and those like me enough to keep a bookstore moored at Pioneer Square. No. I help, but probably not enough.

So when the press release talks about parking issues, I am unimpressed. I've taken classes in the Oddfellow Hall, and know that parking in the new location is a pain in the kiester on Cap Hill, particularly on weekends (which is my book-brousing time). And safety? Its current region has a slew of urban challenges, but Cap Hill is hardly Kent Commons when it comes to bars, questionable characters, and incidents. I've had scarier encounters with homeless individuals in Cal Anderson Park than in Pioneer Park.

In short, I'm sorry to see Elliot Bay leave its location, and hope that its departure does not create a black hole that sucks in the other smaller bookstores in its orbit. But I note that moving to a "reader's neighborhood" does not guarantee success - Bailey/Coy went under just recently there, and a couple used bookstores I used to frequent, like Pistil, no longer exist in meatspace.

Brick and mortar print is a tough sell, and I hope that the new digs can maintain the charm and raw usefulness of the old. It is a major expenditure to relocate tons of books and an entire culture up the hill, and I hope that it works out. But I will miss the spacious basement and its exposed brick. And the astrologers with their stock portfolios.

More later,

Friday, December 04, 2009

New Trailer

We've posted the new trailer for GW2 HERE. It is our "Races of Tyria" trailer, written by Ree Soesbee, and featuring the voices of Steve Blum, Troy Baker, Jocelyn Blue, Kari Wahlgren, and Felicia Day.


More later,

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Monkey King is a Geek!

Wolfgang Baur, better known as the Monkey King and the publisher of Kobold Quarterly, is the PI's Geek of the Week.

Congratulations to Wolf!

More later,

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Play: Suitable Lies

Equivocation by Bill Cain, Directed by Bill Rauch, Seattle REP, through 13 December.

There are plays by Shakespeare and plays about Shakespeare, and I think the latter outnumber the former. There are funny Shakespeares, romantic Shakespeares, mystic Shakespeares, and completely imaginary Shakespeares. And here we have a political Shakespeare and a work-for-hire Shakespeare inhabiting a sprawling play that has more inside references than a semester of Bardic studies and more levels than a Gygaxian dungeon.

Here's the short form, such as it is: Shag (one of the alternate names for the Bard, played by the dynamic Anthony Heald) is hired by Robert Cecil (played with dark relish by Jonathan Haugen), Lord Salisbury, spymaster for King James, to write on the behalf of the crown a new play - "The True History of The Gunpowder Plot". Guy Fawkes has been found beneath Parliament with 36 kegs of gunpowder, a watch, and matches. The conspiracy uncovered invokes nobles of high station and Catholic faith, and eventually Jesuit priests as well, all tied up in a tidy bow. The official story is laid out neatly for Shag - he just has to dramatize it.

Shag's compatriots in his bickering company ("we are a cooperative venture") are pleased with the royal commission, but Shag is unsure. The story as presented has no real ending - Parliament fails to blow up. And small details niggle at him - if they dug a tunnel underneath the building, where did the earth go? How did noble men dig a tunnel?* His investigations take him into the cells of the conspirators and the accused priest, Father Henry Garnet, who in addition to knowing the conspirators had written a book on equivocation, in effect of telling the truth when the truth is deadly. Shag goes through numerous drafts, from the government end, from the conspirators side, and tries to present a truth he can believe in, all the while unsure where the truth lies.

But Shag is troubled not only by the King's spymaster and his own conscience. He is still in mourning for his dead son, and distant from his daughter (Christine Albright), his son's twin. His company (more of a cooperative venture) is at each others' throats over parts and the danger of speaking truth to power. And Shag himself is near the end of his career, and wondering if he has lost his ability to charm and entertain.

It is a great swath of trouble and strife, punching through at many levels, where most of the characters (Cecil in particular) are presenting their own stories, shading the truth, or at least equivocating. And it is presented beautifully, moving effortlessly from stage to private quarters to prison cells, sparing little of the grisly nature, grasping politics, and religious intolerance of the age (and of this age as well).

The production company is not local, but rather imported from Ashland, Oregon, where the piece was debuted last year as part of the Shakespeare Festival. And while I rail in these pixels about the value of local talent for a "Repertory" theater, I must enthusiastically endorse this company, of the original players of the piece. They bring depth and character to their parts as befits the people who created them in the first place. While I may recommend local chefs, even I can recognize a meal created with the skills of the classically trained and deeply confident with the material. The spirit of Ashland haunts these proceedings, and that is a good thing.

The players, all save for Shag and his Daughter, play multiple roles as well (similar to the earlier "The Thirty-Nine Steps" - perhaps a theme is shaping up this season). Young actor becomes tortured prisoner becomes King (John Tufts), Co-founder of the company becomes accused priest (Richard Elmore), and solid supporting fool becomes accusing prosecutor (Gregory Linington). Their work is brilliant as they meld from one character to the next (and in a choice bit, Tufts gets to play King both on stage and King in the royal box simultaneously).

The downside is a small one - the play is awash in knowing references to the Bard and his career and his stake in posterity. Plays are quoted, noted, and winked at. The hordes of royals and nobles that Shakespeare has slaughtered with his pen are commented upon. Hamlet, Richard III, Cymbeline, Lear, and the Scottish Play are all invoked. A few lines feel like the comments of a Shakespeare scholar and not necessarily the words of the King's spymaster or the Bard's daughter.

Yet on the whole it is a brilliant piece of work, similar to "Opus" and "The Thirty-Nine Steps" in that it is a limited company, but great and deep and holding up the mirror (as in MacBeth) to show us for who we truly are. Strongly recommended.

More later,

* Yes, I will pick a nit here. There was no dirt because (in defiance of the popular myth), there was apparently no tunnel. (Per Wikipedia) Parliament had an undercroft at the time, an open basement that was used for storage, and relatively easily accessed. Fawkes, a war veteran and not a noble, had hidden the kegs of gunpowder under a pile of coal and firewood, had been chased out the first time the officials, warned of the plot searched the undercroft, and then caught when the soldiers searched it a second time.