Friday, November 25, 2011

Play: Shaggy Dog Story

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, Directed by R. Hamilton Wright, November 11 December 11, 2011, Seattle REP.

I was listening to conversations at the theater before and after this play. Before the show, the guy behind me talking about Microsoft getting aced by Apple as an investment. On my left, my wife and her friend Patricia talking taxes, on the right a couple talking about a recent trip. That was before the show.

At intermission, and after the show, they were all telling dog stories. All of them. About their dogs, about friends with dogs, about memories of past dogs and about dogs last week. Because this is that type of play, a play that fires your own memories and ideas and everyone is a part of it. Even those of us who do not have dogs.

Sylvia is a four-actor play. Alban Dennis is Greg, who brings home a stay dog to his New York apartment. Mari Nelson is his wife, Kate, who has finally gotten the kids out of the house and has a plan for the rest of her life, one which doesn't include a dog. Darragh Kennan is everyone else (I'll explain the a bit later) who isn't a dog. And Linda K. Morris is the dog, Sylvia.

The play itself is a slender thing, little more than what I just presented, but it bounces along merrily, aided both by its stagecraft (furnishings sliding along a Magritte-shaded stage), and the effusive nature of the cast itself. Morris as Sylvia carries the bulk of the task, being incredibly dog-like, right down to a canine's mercurial temperament and lack of long-term memory. Actually, she's not playing the dog as much as the other characters' projection on the dog. We all anthropomorphize our pets, and part of Syvlvia's rattletrap nature is what her masters expect of her. But as dog or imposed representation of a dog, Morris bounces through the role.

Mari Nelson has a tougher road as the heavy, the Shakespeare-quoting wife who wants nothing to do with the dog. She doesn't have nearly so much to play with, and hers is the treacherous job of providing resistance (so as not to seem weak) without being mean. There a moments she seems to verge on full-fledged MacBethian cackle, but she redeems herself nicely. Interestingly, both Nelson and Morris were in Dancing at Lughnasa last season, along with two of actresses over in Circle Mirror Transformation. It appears that Dancing at Lughnasa is the Kevin Bacon play of actresses at the Rep.

I mentioned Darragh Kennan as everyone else. He shows up as a fellow "Dog-Guy" at the dog park, then transforms into a Lady Who Lunches, a malapropping friend of Kate's, upon whom Sylvia heaps embarrassment (and a cold, wet nose), and lastly as the ambiguously gendered psychiatrist brought in to deal with Greg's obsessiveness with his canine soulmate. He has the chance in the latter to go even broader than he does in the last, and should take it. Indeed, when dealing with a triangle, it is the supporting characters that can do the most work to convince the audience of the central figures sanity. These characters show there are crazier things than Greg and his dog.

Alban Dennis as Greg has a odd problem, in that I've seen and enjoyed the acting work of R. Hamilton Wright, who was the both the original Greg when the play first showed up as well as the director here. And as a result, I kept projecting Wright into the role. The end result makes Dennis' Alban seem too continually perky and mild in the part. Wright has the ability to work himself into a grounded, manic enthusiasm that the Greg portrayed here seems to lack.

The end result? Well, this is a holiday play, not that it's about a holiday, but it is a nice, comfortable piece of theater that doesn't put any great demands on the audience. It's the kind of play you can bring a theater-phobic relative to (particularly if that relative is a dog-person and can stand a cursing canine). I like the production and direction of Sylvia, but recognize the actors efforts better in CMT as being superior. But the writing is fairly innocuous in both plays, living in a very comfortable and innocuous space. An acting class versus a romantic triangle with a dog. Forced to choose, I'd go with Sylvia's writing, but only by a nose.

A cold, wet nose.

More later,

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles Part V (C)

The Long Reach of Evil, Abominations of the Amazon by Mike Ferguson, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

So, here's the last of the trilogy that makes up Goodman Games Long Reach of Evil project, and it proved to be the shootiest Cthulhu adventure I have ever run.

The good news with this one is that it bends one of the Goodman Games precepts. Yes, you are invited to a distant land. Yes, the person that invites you is dead/missing (but you have a chance of effecting a rescue). But the big difference is that the Cthuloid threat is not summoning an Elder Thing into the world as the big resolution. (Oh, yeah, grab that spoiler flag, will you?)

The individual that invites you to Peru is Professor Edwards, whom for my team I introduced at the funeral of Sam Avery way back in the Tibet adventure. Naturally, he's not there when you get there - he's gone on to the dig site where he is anticipating discovering the Treasure of Llanganatis. Of course, he and his team are overdue on their return (cue ominous music).

So you start in Iquitos, on non-Pacific side of the Andes, in the part of Peru that is Amazonian in nature. Our native Peruvian in the group (oh, you don't have one?) says that Iquitos has a reputation for alcohol and loose morals, but you won't get any of that from the adventure - it is just a launching point - you are supposed to get on the boat and go downriver after the missing expedition.

And the story of what the expedition was doing is a bit light as well. You have to take a boat to the expedition site, but the expedition is overdue, so why is the boat you are taking back in Iquitos when it should be at the site? Further, how does our guide, Ramon, know where we are going? If he was with the expedition, he would have fallen prey to the Cthulhlian minions. If not, then how does he know where he is going (the map, with a lot of arrows saying "Here's the treasure!" is sort of large-scale, as it shows all of Peru (sort of like finding your street address on a map of your state)). These are the sort of logic problems the GM needs to navigate around - I ended up describing a temporary camp on the river, and a destroyed base camp on the verge of the ruins itself.

And the thing of it is, it is not as if there is not room for this level of detail in the adventure. In these adventures, we go into a lot of history that the players may never see in play, yet skimp on the little stuff that helps build the reality of the world. Plus, inevitably, there is at least a half page of white space at the end of each adventure, indicating that the word count did not wrap up cleanly.

For once, there is no real problem with the maps and the handouts. They are relatively limited (a letter and a rough map on the handouts, a surface and underground map beneath), and are cleanly presented. For the surface map of the ruins, I would put in a place for where the players enter, but it is pretty intuitive it is from the west.

The biggest problem is the read-aloud text. This would be called "boxed text" in the old D&D modules, but is not boxed, but is rather in italics, and is supposed to be read or paraphrased to the players. Here's an example paragraph: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. You know that without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness. As dangerous as the waters of the Amazon River proved to be, you feel as though you may have been safer there. At least on the river, you could see where danger was coming from.
Now here's the thing - I (the GM) am telling you how you (the player) feel in this. Big sin. I can evoke mood or a response in my text, but I should never take over your PC to tell them what they feel, or make them draw conclusions. Players, being what they were, will react immediately in the opposite direction (and mine, coming from so much of the gaming industry, greeted the with hoots of laughter). Here's a better version: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. Without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness.
Also, the read-aloud text would tell you things your PC could not see at that moment. - If you read the text when you're close enough to see the human sacrifice, you should see the well in front of the sacrificial altar, but not the bones at the bottom of that well.

Also, also, if you're going to evoke the spirit of a foreign land and language, a pronunciation guide always helps, particularly if you're going to expect the Keeper to read the text without the Spanish-speaking Peruvian player breaking into the giggles.

There is also the, shall we say, ammunition-heavy nature of the game. There was no problem in this game that was not solved most easily and directly by a direct and intensive application of firepower. As soon as the PCs grokked the idea that their attackers were "not-quite-human" there was an explosion of gunfire at every opportunity.

And it serves to underscore that the combat system for CoC (and for Basic Roleplaying) is wonderful old school kludge. And I think this is why Call is so successful as an RPG while others using the same system seem to struggle -in Cthulhu, if you have to pull your weapon, something has already gone horribly, horribly wrong. Maximum rifle damage is equal to average PC hit points, and when you add bits like multiple attacks, increased chances to hit for point blank, and the dreaded autofire of a Thompson Submachine Gun, and you have a potential massacre limited only by the PCs own moral values and the amount of available bullets.

Mine you, a mobster with a Tommy Gun versions a saurian abomination did result in a dead abomination and a completely empty Tommy Gun. And our mobster, stripped of his projectile protection, started to get the shakes.

Our particular game was truncated by our archeologist, playing the consoles in the first room, through random pressing of buttons rolled randomly into the self-destruct button. That put a very short timer on any exploration of the underground, as they had to clear out as quickly as possible (they had also brought the sweaty dynamite down from the top of the pyramid and stored it by the main entrance, for additional explosive fun).

All in all, it was a averfage adventure. No one really discovered anything about what was going on, other than there were serpent men in those there pyramids. The rebel serpent man who could have "explained everything" was not found in the pell-mell search to find the missing professor and escape. As a Cthulhu adventure, it lacked the creepiness (that it tried to force in the text) but as an adventure tale, in the Indiana Jones school of archeology, it was OK.

Overall, the total Long Reach of Evil project was good, not great. The cold opening of Sumatra has stayed with the players, and that is their favorite adventure of the three. I felt the Tibet adventure was good, though Tatters of the King walked those lands more effectively. And Abomination was very much a D&D-style adventure that revealed some of the challenges in CoC/BRP combat.

More later,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Play: Group Therapy

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, directed by Andrea Allen, Seattle Rep until November 20th

Let me get to the point here: I didn't care much for the play, but the acting was amazing. And there will be a dissenting opinion.

CMT is an actor's play. That is both to say that it is about acting and actors, and that it is also a great opportunity for actors to act. As the former, it shows all the indulgent nature that makes me dislike plays about actors. As the latter it shines.

The setting for the play is the community center in Shelby, Vermont, which is to playwright Baker what Lake Woebegone is to Garrison Keillor. Five people are gathered together for a six-week acting class - Queen bee and instructor Marty, her understanding husband James, effusive new-to-town Theresa, wallflower teen Lauren and relationship wreck Shultz. And the acting class consists of acting exercises as opposed to reading and portraying particular parts. Now, acting exercises are all about making the actor comfortable with his body, with what can be done with it, and translating the natural of everyday life translate onto the unnatural of a stage with people watching. Acting exercises are also pretty silly-looking to the uninformed (a group including most of the rest of us). And the exercises here are live social grenades that, in the hands of an Albee, would kick off screaming fits. Over the course of the play you are sort of waiting for the screaming fits to set in, as many of these exercises kick off the internal response of "Oh, yeah. THIS is going to end well".

And things go about how you'd expect. Relationship wreck and effusive new-to-town get together, old marrieds fall apart, wallflower blossoms. And there is nothing wrong with all this, but it just takes forever. Portrayed in a series of blackout sketches over a period of weeks, you feel time crawl like you are, well, watching an acting class and waiting for the drama to really start.

This problem is the writer's domain, but is made even more excruciating by the director's pacing. Leisurely is a kind way of describing it. The long pauses, the interrupted conversations, the frequent black-outs, it feels like the writer and director are actually getting in the way of the play itself, preventing forward motion because otherwise, things would wrap up too swiftly. Keillor keeps his radio bits to about twenty minutes. At two hours, the play feels thick and ponderous (and the play lacks an intermission because there is no Act 1 cliffhanger, and polite escapees among the audience are thereby foiled).

The actors, though. Ah, the actors. Michael Patten as Shultz is freaking brilliant in his slack-jawed thoughtfulness, a deep and real portrayal - yeah, I know this guy. Heck, there are days I've BEEN this guy. Anastasia Higham as Lauren is amazing as well, and for all its sins, the play has to be commended for taking the time to let her move out of her shell and become the center of the play itself. Of course, you're still an hour in while she's bunched up in a fetal squat as the others carry on, but her blossoming is one of the things that makes this a comedy (in the classic sense - with a upbeat ending).

This is not to slight Gretchen Krich as queen bee Marty, a woman looking for activity in her life, and Elizabeth Raetz as the larger-than life former actress, who holds the fort as the center of attention before acceding it to Lauren. And Peter A. Jacobs as the husband James, obviously the guy who was dragged into this and is being supportive, hits a lot of the right notes. All three sell us on very real, very human character- they are actors portraying people who are learning to act, and you can feel their diverse reasons and emotions.

Now, as mentioned at the start, the theater department at Grubbstreet is in dispute about this play - the Lovely Bride thought it was brilliant throughout, and gave it a (one-person) standing ovation at the end (yep that was her). She felt that this was an accurate portrayal of life - how is lingers, waits, and moves forward in stops and starts. I agree that it does all that, but disagrees that such a portrayal is good theater. We are agreed, however, that the actors are just bloody brilliant, and we both want to see them all again.

More later,

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles Part V (B)

The Long Reach of Evil, The Fires of Sumatra by Richard Pett, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

This is part of the continuing reviews of the Goodman Games The Long Reach of Evil product. The product is broken down into three adventures, each by a different author, so it really merits three separate entries. Now, I tend to review stuff that I've played/moderated, so such reviews take a while to move through the entire pipeline. And as always, here be spoilers.

The basic pattern of the Age of Cthulhu adventures goes as follows - you are summoned to a distant location by someone who will probably not be alive when you arrive. There you find something squamous and rugose, usually in the department of people summoning an Elder Thing. Rinse, lather, and repeat.

And that's pretty much what happens here. But what makes it cool is the cold opening (unfurl that spoiler flag, willya?). You can start the adventure in media res, with the protagonists waking up in a cave, having been infested with a nasty little spell by the bad guys. Said nasty little spell puts a sense of urgency as the play unfolds, as does the big empty space it creates in everyone's memory. The adventure does provide the option of running the initial capture, but that really consists of throwing ever-more-difficult challenges at the player until they at last succumb to the inevitable and start the adventure proper. In my opinion, go with the cold opening.

Since my group consists of long-standing players - the mobster, the writer, her subject, the photographer, the archeologist, and Thurston Howell the Third, the cold open was a bit of a shock, and gave them a lot of drive to figure out who is behind this and, more importantly, how to get rid of those pulsing cysts all over their bodies. Oh, and filling in the hole in everyone's memories. Oh, and getting their stuff back. Those are good drives as well. The cold opening in cave gave them a LOT of motivation.

A note about the cave - the opening throws in some NPCs who were kept there by the cultists. There were five people also in the cave besides the PCs, driven mad by their own mystic infection. That's good for showing the results of what the players are confronting, but once introduced, these NPCs are never mentioned again. Are the players responsible for them? What should they do with them? What happens when they do an autopsy on one of them? I reduced the number to three, used one to show why you don't attack the initial monster, and had the second one kill the third one and threaten the party in the back of the cave.

Oh, yes, one more thing. The cave has camping equipment that includes paraffin. That's a British term for kerosene. Sweet, flammable kerosene. I had forgotten that, but my Brit-based players caught it immediately.

Once they flee the cave and reach Panang, the adventure needs some filling out. What is there on the city is a bit light, and the characters did some of the things the adventure anticipated (checked out the port of entry, went to the local hotel, where they pretended they had already checked in to see if they HAD checked in). But the adventure did not do a lot for some other options, like hitting the local bank to try to draw funds, or the telegraph office, or finding a doctor, or, most importantly, what it was like on the street for little matters like clothing and food (thank you, Wikipedia for filling in a lot of the bits, particularly on rendang and street vendor culture). They attracted enough attention to flag both the bad guys responsible and the local rebels, the latter of which is a good thing for their continued progress through the adventure.

The most frustrating thing is that they never get a handle on who and what they are fighting. Half of the named bad guy NPCs are never properly introduced, so the heroes are referring to "Guy with thick glasses" or "nervous German guy". Worse yet, in the overarching aplot (Spoilers flag waving around frantically), the cultists are trying to summon one entity, but end up summoning another. Short of a strong knowledge of the Mythos ("Say, that doesn't LOOK like Cthugha"), that little plot point is lost on the players. Which is a pity, since the ultimate big bad has a pretty cool concept and look.

The maps are maddening even by Call of Cthulhu standards. The hotel map cannot be navigated, and the plantation map's room descriptions do not line up with map key. Oh, and if you say in the text that they ultimate monster appears at location "X" on the map, it behooves you to bloody well put a bloody "X" on the map.

The handouts for this adventure were minimal and could be done away with entire, which is a good thing, since for this adventure supposedly set in the 1920s, the summoning telegraph is dated August 27th, 1883 (and yeah, Krakatoa fits into the adventure, but not here). That seems to give the tip-off that the adventure was originally created for another time period and then ported over to here.

In the end, The Fires of Sumatra requires a lot of GM/Keeper flexibility to handle things not covered in the text (and deal with those awful, awful maps), but has a great hook in its cold opening, which proceeds to drive the PCs forward (as well as slowly driving them mad). It feels like a good convention module that is trying to expand its wings, and only partially succeeds.

More later,

Thursday, November 10, 2011

After Action Report

Back from Paris, currently wrestling with a nasty cold. However, let's take a look at the remains of the election.

In the Puget Sound area, it was a good time to be an incumbent. People in office tended to stay in office. An exception was the head of the Seattle School Board, who was replaced with retired teacher Marty McLaren. The Seattle Times feels that this is not due to the lack of leadership or attention of the school board for all its recent scandals, or a solid and rational ground game by the challenger, but rather those darn unions (I swear, the Seattle Times is so darn CUTE sometimes).

Onto the initiatives. I-1125 (the Eyeman one) went down in flames, not getting enough support from the rest of the state to overwhelm the deep hatred of it in vote-dominant King County. If I-1125 was a movie, it would be one of those Uwe Boll clunkers. the ones that come out that everyone wonders how a movie this bad got made. And in fact, like Uwe Boll movies, the movie is not the reason for the project, but rather the deal to MAKE the movie. And once the deal for this initiative was made to draw off huge sums of money to launch it, really winning the initiative was besides the point.

If I-1125 is a Uwe Boll movie destined for perpetual repeat on the Syfy channel, then I-1183 (the Costco one) is the too-big-to-fail blockbuster that had star power and huge press going in. And like the blockbuster, it had its great opening weekend, carrying handily to allow the poor, impoverished big box stores to market megaliters of Jack Daniels. The deal won't go down for another six months, so we're about a year out before we start seeing the articles about what went wrong with this plan. For the moment, the Times feels we need to make the change immediately! The people have spoken!

(Actually, the Costco initiative not only shows that our initiative system can be bought, it sets a price tag on it - $33 Million (22 from Costco, 11 from the Beer and Wine lobby opposing it). Now we just need an initiative saying that you can pass your own law for $33 Mill, and leave us middle-men voters out of the process entirely).

And then there is I-1163 (the care workers one), the quiet indie picture that pops up, grabs the awards, and then disappears again. Lacking the hoopla of the Costco and Eyeman amendments, it coasted to an easy victory. Of course, the Seattle Times scolds that we don't have the money (having just sold off all our liquor stores) and we should ignore this. The people are fools! (Like I said, the Seattle Times is SO CUTE in its lack of self-awareness).

The Resolutions passed without any problems, and while it is nice to be asked, this is the sort of thing that is the second feature, the lower billed, less talked-about film. Nothing big on those ones, and no surprises.

So that leaves us with election 2011, the offist of the off-year elections. And now begins the slouching towards 2012. Oh joy.

More later,