Thursday, April 11, 2024

Theatre: Language Lab


English by Sanaz Toossi, Directed by Naghmeh Samini, a co-production with Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble, Arts West, through 28 April.

Another journey to the Junction in West Seattle, and with it yet ANOTHER change is how they handle parking there. Same parking lot, yet every time we're out there, there is a new vendor and/or new process. This one is run by the lot owner themselves, and while we had to work through the menus to park, there was a guy in a hoodie (lot attendant, I hope) walking around and scanning people's plates. 

So there's that. But also, we had dinner at our favorite sushi place in the neighborhood, Mashiko. We've been going there for some time, such that the kitchen knows us (and that we always order a salmon tartar that's no longer on the menu). Great food, and settles us well for the theater.

Oh, the play? Excellent. English is takes place within a classroom in Tehran, teaching for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) with a goal of allowing the students to travel abroad. Instructor Marjan (Vahista Vafadari) demands that they are "English Only", but her students slip into their native Farsi easily out of humor and frustration. The students are a mixed bag - Omid (Emon Elboudware) is the teacher's pet, speaking English well. Goli (Newsha Farahani) is the youngest and most eager to learn. Roya (Janet Hayatshahi) is a grandmother who wants to learn English so she can go to Canada and speak with her granddaughter. And Elham (Shereen Khatibloo) is the class rebel - she's failed the final test five times already and hates English and everything connected with it.

And the conceit is that when the cast speaks English, they do so in accented English, but when speaking their native Farsi, the speak in unaccented English. In Farsi, their words and mannerisms are colloquial and natural, while in English is stilted, halting, and unsure. Even the subject matter in English shows a marked difference from reality (Really, how many conversations have you had where you ask "What is your favorite color?") And yeah, I got a bit of High School PTSD from trying to learn French (I tried to  hit it head-on, looking at it as a problem to be solved logically, and as a result bounced right off it).

Ultimately, another language is a mask of another culture, and embracing it often challenges one's own inherent presentation and identity. Watching the class struggle with the language, with each other, and with their own desires provides a rich tapestry of choice and thought. Each has to answer the question - why are you doing this? Is it worth it?

The actors are amazing and deep in capturing the dual nature forced on their characters. The stage is a backdrop of school chairs cascading from the ceiling, underscoring the internal chaos within the classroom. The scrim behind them is the blackboard, which echoes Marjan's instructions. Both do a lot to support the actors and their interactions.

This won a Pulitzer. Yeah, I can see that. 

More later, 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Recent Arrival: Special Edition

Other gaming products have shown up at Grubb Street, and they will eventually get their own write-ups, but this one just showed up, and I feel it is important enough to merit its own separate blog entry.

Dark Tower by Jennell Jaquays  and others, Goodman Games, Goodman Games, 2024, consisting of a 96-page hardback, a 316-page hardback, a 164 page hardback, additional handouts, slipcased, Kickstarter.

Jennell Jaquays (1956-2024) was an artist and designer of  tabletop and computer games. She was brilliant at all these things. I had an opportunity to work with her when she joined TSR as an artist, producing the covers for the Mystara revision,  as well as a beautiful piece of a wounded Nautiloid for Spelljammer, and she further immortalized me on the cover of a D&D product - Temple, Tower, and Tomb. She passed on in January of this year. Her work spanned numerous companies, some of which she founded, and she was there when the dawn first broke over the horizon of RPGs with Dark Tower

Dark Tower was originally produced by Judges Guild, and was a 70-page adventure dealing with a secretive cult of Set that had taken over a small community. The adventure consisted of that small town (called Mitra's Fist), and an extensive dungeon beneath it, filled with traps and creatures. The tower of the title is underground. But what established itself over other adventure models of its era was its non-linear design. There were multiple entrances, multiple passages between levels, and across levels between two sunken towers. This type of design has since been giving many names, but I'm comfortable with Jaqaysing as its nom du design.

Jaquays produces interesting adventures that veer away from standard approaches. For a linear dungeon design (good for tournaments), you move directly from room to room, and from encounter to encounter. One entrance (usually) and one exit from each encounter. There may be nests and complexes, but the assumption is that you cleaned out one room or section before moving forward. Everyone has the same experience. In as Jaquays-styled dungeon, there are multiple ways up and down and across, and there is no guarantee that the adventurers will hit everything. The original Ravenloft would pull off the same trick years later, but Dark Tower was first, and set a high bar.

Jaquaysing does have some challenges. A linear dungeon works for linear storytelling. You can feed the player characters information over time. Under a  non-linear dungeon, encounters and clues may be missed entirely, so creating a strong story sense can be a challenge to the DM. In Dark Tower, the players slowly piece together what is going on, and may not engage with the entire story, depending on their choices.

In addition, in this form of dungeon, adventurers can quickly find themselves in over their heads, particularly if the dungeon levels are set for different character levels John "Sacnoth" Rateliff ran us through it in preparation of his essay (which is included in the deluxe edition), and I ended our experience suddenly when I accidentally used the door from a Robe of Useful Items to open a passage into the high-level final boss fight room. OK, maybe it wasn't totally the dungeon design's fault, but it did have the potential to go casters-up and then did.

The cover of Temple, Tower & Tomb.
I'm the one screaming.
The new edition, from Goodman Games, is a slip-cased beauty. Goodman has been revising classic modules of the previous eras, updated from modern systems. The re-released the original in a thin hardback, including a number of essays (from Sacnoth, Grognardia and others). For those who have not seen how things were presented at the dawn of time from people other than TSR, take a look.

Volume 2, by Chris Doyle, is a massive translation of the original adventure in 5th Edition D&D (though the game is not directly referred to as such). The text has expanded, and the appendices are almost twice the size of the original, But it brings the classic adventure forward for more modern audiences. Plus there is more on the overworld around Dark Tower. 

Book 3 by a number of folk, is a continuation of the story at the post-12th level, continuing the themes of Mitra versus Set through a number of smaller dungeons. There is definitely a feeling "But wait, there's more" going on here, but it is all begun with Dark Tower, which remains the centerpiece of the project.

This is a Goodman Games production, which means it has old-school black and white interiors and there are numerous player handouts and character sheets (also part of the Kickstarter). The art is solid and evokes the rough edges of the earlier editions of D&D and maps look good and complete (the originals were pretty spiffy as well). The combined projects both show where we have been in design, and where we have grown, and are playable in either configuration.

In short, they did well by Jennell, and the revised, updated, and expanded Dark Tower is as challenging and engaging as the original was. It is an excellent testament to her contributions in RPGs. 

More later, 

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Theatre: Dreams and DREAMers

 Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, Directed by Desdemona Chiang, Seattle REP through 31 March.

First off, parking stories continues. We did get reasonable parking through the theater app, but it was across the width of Seattle Center, which was a long walk for folk of our age, even taking it in multiple stages. On the parking lot elevator, we encountered another grey-haired couple in the elevator who were also attending the same play.

SHE: What do you know about the play?

ME: I don't know much. I tend to go into these things blind.

SHE (Poking her husband): HE'S the same way!

And yeah, we have season tickets, so we're going, even though the matinee has been moved up to noon and we had Daylight savings time to boot. 

Anyway, Sanctuary City. It was very, very good.

The play divides into two neat, well-produced halves. The Boy, simply identified as B (Junior Nyong'o) and the Girl, G (Emilie Maureen Hanson) are both Millennials in Jersey, underage and illegal in a post-eleven America that does not want them. Their situations are not exact, but they team up as friends, G crashing at B's place to avoid a violent stepfather. We follow them through their high-school years in a scattershot of short, short vignettes, the actors dipping in and out of repeated sequences to set up the pattern of their life from school through graduation. On a bare stage, the short vignettes, slammed into each other over the course of years, like the kids are workshopping their adult lives and what they're going to do. Spoiler - one gets legal, and promises to marry the other, regardless of the personal risk.

And it works surprisingly well. Director Chiang tried this sort of thing in Constellations, which did not work, but here, under the fire and talent of the leads, it powers through effortlessly grabs the audience and does not let go.

And probably if that was where it ended, it would have rewarding but not enough to justify a full production. But, then, everything changes, the black backdrops rotate (a deft use of the Rep's often-overplayed stagecraft), to transform into an apartment over the New Year's break, three years after the promise. Things have changed, and the kids have moved from sharp, all-elbows and worry to long-term angst and stress. Their lives have changed. G visits and discovers B living his lover (a sharp Josh Kenji). Relationships are tested, and the characters have to face a no-win situation, that, regardless of the choice, someone will have to sacrifice their future.

And it is sad and beautiful and honest. Hanson and Nyong'o grow up (and apart) before our eyes. And while delving into the depths of the political situation of the age (post WTC, pre-cell phones), it is political but never weighed down by the overwhelming politics of the era instead concentrating on the characters' own situations. They take the politics and make it personal, and in doing so conquer their lives. 

Yeah, I liked it. Glad I went in blind, because it left me wondering how it would all turn out, and it was sad and funny and damned good writing with damned good actors. More of this, please.

More later, 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Political Desk: Pop-Up Primary

We have a lot of "sudden" elections out here. Usually it is some item that for scheduling reasons can't get on a fall ballot. Local school bonds sometimes hit here, or small operations like the King County Conservation Board. Boom! We have an election. We just had one such election just now, north of Grubb Street, in nearby Renton, about raising the minimum wage (Digression: it passed handily, which surprised me, both because these are special elections attract few voters (and those voters are tend to be older and more conservative) and because it had some well-funded opposition from corporate-funded PACs (with some of the worst lawn signs ever - "We aren't Seattle!" is not a winning slogan, even in Renton)).

Anyway, we have a primary in the middle of March. No, not the real state primary, that's in August. This is the Presidential Primary. The state had the primary moved up from its usual June date because by May it is usually all over but the shouting. So it's in March, even though this year it is all over but the shouting. 

And all states have their own method of dealing with choosing delegates for their national conventions. Some have caucuses. Some have primaries. Some have primaries, but real selection happens in the caucuses. Some have their own special rules and conditions. There has been a lot of ink spilled on people trying to get Trump off the primary ballots in some states, but Biden wasn't even on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary (the state party was mad that he didn't want NH to be the "first in the nation" primary - he won handily with a write-in vote). 

Now to be honest, I am a little irritated by the entire idea of party primaries paid for and overseen by the public purse (though I do trust them to do a good job). The majority of folk out here consider themselves "independents", even if they tend to vote for one party or the other. So this is a bit of a subsidy for the political organizations (for local elections with a slew of candidates, fine). But that's me.

Worse, of course, is that it is all over but the shouting. The Democratic Party will be nominating the incumbent President Joe Biden, while the GOP will be nominating twice-impeached, many-times indicted Donald Trump. And most of their competition has already dropped out, so, barring some immediate crisis, it is not really an election for the ages.

Anyway, for this presidential primary in Washington State, you DO have the choice of either voting for the Democratic nominee or the Republican one. You can't do both. That is in part to reduce the "mischief" factor of people who feel that their choice is a lock and want to go over and vote for some other candidate than the anointed one in the primary. There's some of that on both sides, I suppose. But this method also tells people how you voted in the election (not WHO you voted for, but just that you voted in THAT election) and probably gets you on a mailing list of some sort. (I haven't done this, but I DO get the occasional "town hall" robo-call from some GOP candidate in a district I don't even vote in, so that tells you how good the entire process is).

And you DO have a choice, but the deck is more than a little stacked for the party-chosen favorites. Let's take a look at each of them. Your own state's rules can be found here

The Democratic Party is sending 111 delegates to the National Convention in Chicago, of which 92 will be pledged as a result of the primary (we'll talk about the other 18 in a moment). Sixty of those are pledged as a result of elections in the State's 10 congressional districts (3 per district). The other 32 are pledged based on the statewide results, with 20 of those determined as "At large delegates".

The 18 from the general group, and the 12 from the statewide group are what they now call PLEOs (Party Leaders and Elected Officials - also known as "super-delegates"). From the  group of 18 taken right off the top, that is 8 members of the DNC, 10 members of congress (our 2 senators and 8 representatives of the Democratic Party), for the rest, the other 12 are...well, I'm not quite sure who they are, but they're there. The PLEOs will not vote on the first ballot, but are allowed to vote after the first ballot.

Confused? Yeah, me too, a little. But the result is that a healthy chunk (about a quarter of the total) of the delegates come from the "organized party", and if the party is organized (and sometimes it's not), the party's chosen has a significant leg up.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are actually simpler. They are sending 43 delegates to the convention in Milwaukee. This is a "winner-take most" situation, where each legislative district is sending 3 delegates to the convention. If one candidate gets 50% plus, they get all three. If 2 candidates get 20% plus, the higher result gets 2 and the lower 1. If none get 20% or more, or if more than 2 get 20% or more, then the top three get one delegate. I know, it sounds like the victory conditions to a European Board Game, but it makes a modicum of sense.

And in addition to the 30 from the district results, there are 10 at-large delegates based on the statewide results (with similar restrictions as above) and only 3 RNC delegates selected by the party (National Committeeman, National Committeewoman, and the chair of the Washington Republican Party). All of these 43 delegates are bound only to the first round of ballots, and after that can do as they see fit at the convention. Which is actually a little clearer and fairer than the Democratic side, and puts a lighter thumb on the scales for the national-level party choice.

But it doesn't matter, really. The Democrats are going with the incumbent, and the GOP is going with their former choice, who has pledged to drain their coffers dry in his attempts to stay out of jail. That last one bothers me only in that Eugene V. Debbs, the Socialist Candidate in 1920, ran for president from prison, where he was serving time for SEDITION, and got 3.4% of the vote. So jail is hardly a recommendation, but is not a career-ending fact.

In the end, we're looking a push-poll, as effective as those Advisory Votes I always rail against. Something to note in the press for that week, then move on. Sure, go take a look at the Candidate list and their statements in the Voter's Guide (The one for Trump suspiciously has no ALL CAPS and less whining), and if the spirit moves, go for it. Make your voice heard. I probably will. But I, for once, am a bit cynical about the process.

But I will see you in August, when the REAL primary shows up.

More later, 

Friday, February 09, 2024

The Significance of the Chocolate Donuts

 So, Jeff Grubb Day (8 February, mark your calendars) has come and gone. I have explained the story of Jeff Grubb Day, and the Roger Moore Connection. Friends like Stephen Schend have kept the celebration alive, and it has spilled out over the Internet and Facebooks. Next up, we shoot for Federal Recognition!

And many who know have responded with mentions of chocolate-covered donuts, which have become part of the celebration. But I have not explained the significance of the little chocolate donuts. 

At several times during my tenure at TSR, I was put in the position of product manager. This wasn't a real position (nothing on the business card, no raise, often the name changed), but I was responsible for keeping an eye on the design/editing of various lines. I didn't have any real authority, so I was what is now called "a dotted-line report" - I was supposed to keep tabs on things and help make deadlines, but had no real power to make stuff happen. So my responsibility consisted mostly of running the weekly meeting where everyone would report in on what they are working on (yeah, standups are not as a new business thing, either). And for my teams, this involved little chocolate donuts. 

Mind you, chocolate donuts are bad for you. They are heavy, dense little torus-shaped nuggets covered in a waxy chocolate coating. Saturday Night Live did a great false commercial on them. They are definitely not good for you, so if you're going to have one, you'd better have a damned good reason to do so. In fact, you should have done something to DESERVE a chocolate donut. So every week, at these meetings, we would play "What have you done to deserve a chocky donut, dammit?".

And, spoilers, everyone always did something to deserve a chocky donut (dammit). But there was one interaction with the mighty editor Steve Winter involving them that sticks in my memory. Here's the gist of the interchange:

  • Me: So, Steve! What have you done to deserve a chocky donut, dammit?
  • Steve: (laughing) Well, I've been working on the CRAPfest of your most recent Spelljammer turnover. so there's that.
  • Me: Here. Take the box. 

So that's the significance of the chocolate donuts in regards to Jeff Grubb. And now you know.

More later, 

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Play: Best Frenemies

 Born With Teeth by Liz Duffy Adams, Directed by Mathew Wright, Arts we through 25 February.

This one is bloody brilliant, probably the best I've seen at the Arts West in the post-COVID years.

It's a two-person play. Shakespeare and Marlowe, at the start of Shakespeare's career. Marlowe is the established superstar of the era, and supplements his writing with adventures in spycraft and larceny, trusting to his patron (and his own sense of self-preservation) to keep him from prison and torture. Young Will is an actor by trade, but would rather disappear within his work and not make any waves. Because the Elizabethan England as conjured by Adams is an authoritarian police state, its oppressions covering for "endless wars and bad harvests" with a continual hunt for foreign agents, traitors, and Catholics. 

The characters are the same age, but Marlowe (Michael Monicatti) is more experienced in the world and its double-dealing. Egotistic, talented, and sure-footed, he plays the mentor and the seducer, seducing both for his world of spycraft and sexually. Young Shakespeare (Ricky Spaulding) is in comparison the country mouse, with the family back in the hinterland that he wants to keep fed. For Shakespeare, writing is a way to support his family, for Marlowe writing is a flashy sideline while proving his true worth for his elite masters.

Recently scholars have done the analysis and determined that Marlowe and Shakespeare did team up on what has been previously credited as Shakespeare's first works - Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3). They can track which parts are Marlowe's and which parts are Shakespeare's. And that becomes the frame upon which the twain's relationship is based - Marlowe struts, pouts, and tempts, while Shakespeare tries to keep things on a business level, denying his own interest, and worried about repercussions. 

The stages itself is simple and does not get in the way - a diagonal thrust platform dominated by a single large tavern table where the two are supposedly working. It is both constrained, keeping the actors in the same cage, and open, giving them the ability to range and rage around, across, and onto the table itself. Some sight lines at stage left might be obscured, but it is minimalism in the modern theatric sense, and works perfectly.

And it is all fantastic - the actors fully embrace their parts, every line carries several layers of subtext, and every emotion lands. It is an excellent presentation, and well-worth getting out to the wilds of West Seattle (where, I will note, they've changed the parking procedures behind the theater AGAIN) in order to take it in. It is very much modern theatre, all muscle and sinew, intent on challenging the viewer and demanding they keep up. 

Got see it. More later.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Play: Quixote at the Rep

 Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solia, Directed by Lisa Portes, Seattle Rep, through 11 February.

Let me be honest, I've never read the Cervantes novel, nor have I seen any of the various Quixote movies over the years (though the household has a copy of the cast album of Man of La Mancha). But through cultural osmosis I know the gist of the Quixote story, its origin, and the major plot beats. All of them are covered on the stage here and given a new, updated shine.

The story sounds familiar: Quijano (Herbert Siguenza) is a retired college professor verging on dementia, and about to confined to an old folks home. He rebels and flees into the Cervantes stories he taught, heading for the Mexican border to be reunited with his love Dulcinea, who was a migrant laborer when when they first met in their youth. Quijano/Quixote is aided in his quest by ice cream-vendor Manny, who is his Sancho Panza. 

It is fully an update, Quixote transformed into the modern age. His noble steed Rocinanti is recreated as an adult tricycle with a horse's skull mounted, the castle he visits is a karaoke bar, Sancho's donkey is an ice cream cart. But it also transformed are the underpinnings of the tale, brought into a modern age. Quijano/Quixote has a lot of character development underscoring his actions and his regrets, as opposed to just being a old man who has read too many medieval romances. He is fighting a modern world but is part of it as well. He slips between fantasy and lucid reality easily, living in both worlds.

And he is haunted by the specter of his own mortality. Papa Calaca (Raul Cardona) stalks him as a swaggering Tejano singer, tempting the aged Quijano with his own upcoming death and challenging his fantasy. Raul Cardona is a highpoint (one of several) when when he takes the stage..

The rest of the actors are excellent, most of them from the South Coast Theatre where this work was developed, and many of them proud/honored/delighted to be making their debut on the Seattle Rep stage. They carry their main roles nicely, and as well as other major characters including the day-of-the-dead calacas who dance and taunt Quixote in the darker versions of his fantasy world. In particular, Alicia Coca when when she is portraying Manny/Sancho's wife, a extremely comic turn that serves to strengthen and grounds Sancho's personality, which is often in modern presentation used as comic relief.

And the set contributes to pulling everything off, both having a lot of space for rock walls, bars, and canyons, while at the same time giving room for the dances, a herd of sheep, a trike with a horse's skull mounted on it, and an ice cream cart. There can be a lot on the stage at once, and the stage decor handles it well. 

There are some downsides to the presentation. Parts of the show, in particular the dancing and singing of the spirits, were over-miked, such that the words were blurred and slurred electronically, and were hard to hear. Also, puppets. The Lovely Bride hates puppets in the theatre, but their presence helps strengthen the nature of Quijano's memory in the face of both fantasy and reality. So I can give a pass on the puppets.

All in all, this was an excellent show, and gives the full feeling of what theatre can do. It is worth striking out in our wet season and taking it in. Go see it.

One last thing - as I noted, the show is an honest-to-gosh long piece of theatre,  Running over two and half hours with an intermission and everything. It makes good use of all its time, never lags and captures the heart of the novel. But in our case, we outran our time for parking, and as a result found a ticket with a hefty fee on the windshield (issued ten minutes after the timer ran out - there was little in the way of a grace period, apparently). So, thinking "hung for a lamb, hung for a sheep" the Lovely Bride adjourned to a nearby Mexican restaurant for burritos, tacos, and very strong drinks, since we were already paying the premium price for the parking spot.

More later,