Sunday, January 31, 2016

Play: Pickapath Universes

Constellations by Nick Payne, directed by Desdemona Chiang Seattle Rep, through 21 February

Constellations is a quirky little love story set against the theory of multiple universes. It consists of a series of vignettes between beekeeper Roland (Max Gordon Moore) and cosmologist Marianne (Alexandra Tavares) on a bare stage. They meet at a mutual friend's barbecue. She flirts, he says he's involved. A bell sounds, they start again. She flirts, he says he's just broken up and isn't interested. Bell sounds, start again. She flirts and he responds, then mentions he's married. Bell sounds, start again.

It goes on like this as we move through the cute meet, the first date, the relationship, the breakup, the reuniting, the marriage, the diagnosis, the choices we make at the end of life. Starts and stops, alternate scenes in alternate universes where the characters are the same but not identical. A bell sounds, we start again. And it is a perilous path for a playwright to take and a challenge for the actors. The third time that  Roland tries to use an explanation of bee society to a marriage proposal is funny, the sixth time we are deeply into Monte Python looking to wrap up an episode. 

Moore and Tavares are very good in all this, but the play often feels like they are looking for the right line reading in rehearsal, trying the words on with various levels of engagement and intensity. Tavares in particular has the tougher time as she shifts convincingly into the ravages of her cancer and out again as the play messes not only with alternities but with time itself, foreshadowing with future scenes and leaping back to earlier temporal nodes. But ultimately, as the Lovely B noted, nothing here that Dr. Who has not addressed earlier and better. 

(And yes, I am using British comparisons because it is set in Great Britain and everything sounds better in British. I wonder if the play would fly as well as it does if Roland and Mariane were Ronald and Mary Anne from Chicago.)

There are deep ideas rolling around in here beneath the surface, and the play gets marks for not calling them out to dance on the stage, but rather uses them quietly to power the action. The title, while not directly commented on, reflects part of the quandary of quantum physics - Constellations do not truly exist, except in the minds of those on Earth gathering stars into particular patterns. The observers are determining the nature of the universe. Time and free will exists because we determine it to be so. But while the play opens the doors for the curious, I don't thnk it delivers on them. A pair of ladies behind us read a summary of the play from the program book (loudly), and one declared, "Well, I read all that and I still don't know what its about". I fear the may still be in that boat at the play's conclusions.

In a season when the Rep has been knocking plays out of the park right and left with amazing accuracy, Constellations is a bunt, or maybe even a base on balls. It was OK, and probably would not disappoint in a normal year. But the Rep has gotten so good recently that it just feels like an average theater outing as opposed to must-see stagecraft. 

More later, 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

DOW Breaks 16000!

So this happened last week. After floating above the 17000 mark for some time, stalled in its supposedly inevitable climb, the market took a dramatic shift southward. This is either short term (which they call "a correction") or long term (which they call "the start of a new recession ohmighod!"). Since that time, it has engaged is leisurely 200 and 300-point sweeps up and down the new posting of 16000.

Most times, when there is a major milestone crossed (up or down), there is no one thing one can point to, and the analysts are clustered around a grab-bag of theories. In this case, conventional wisdom seems to have coalesced into two big things - Oil and China. Neither is completely true by itself, but combined makes a market skittish.

Oil is in oversupply right now. Saudi Arabia is overproducing in order to drive other, more expensive oil production venues (like oil from Dakota shale or the Albertan oil sands or deep-water drilling in the Pacific) off the market. Add to that the fact that, with the end of sanctions, Iranian oil will be coming back online. As opposed to the era of OPEC when a gathering of like-minded oiligarchies gathered together to boost the prices in the 70s, now we see a lot of price-slashing.

And this should be a good thing for you and me, and indeed, gas prices have plummeted (well, in most places - not so much in the Pacific Northwest). Prices below two bucks a gallon are getting common. We should be happy, right?

Not exactly. The stock market has made as one of its foundation stones the idea that prices will continue to go upward, making the oil reserves a more valuable trade commodity. Taking that away makes them very nervous.

China has been booming over the past few years, and continues to grow. But the volatility of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, boosted by an influx of mid-level investors, have created a number of financial bubbles that have required the government has had to step into to fix once they burst. Given the size of the economy, when China sneezes, a lot of other folk catch cold. It is considered volatile and therefore bad, and as a result the other markets are volatile.

But the weirdness in all this underscores the nature of the DOW and other stock markets themselves. They seem to be based on fantasies of a magnitude greater than those spun by Tolkien or Dunsany. Low oil prices should result more money for the consumers which should result in greater consumer spending. China continues to grow in the midst its free-market teething problems (Oh, and on the West Coast, a lot of the money being made is being poured into US real estate).

This sense of fantasy is reflected in the reception of news on individual stocks as well. Company A had an amazing year, but because the forecast was for an even MORE amazing year, its stock has fallen. Company B shipped more units than ever this year, but next year looks less productive, so its stock has fallen. Company C has seen some key sales slip, but beat profit estimates, so its stock has risen. Go figure.

It does feel all kind of mystical, where things happen in outer world and then are retrofitted to justify whatever is happening within an economic hothouse environment. Yet I suppose that provides more economic solace than a Lovecraftian economic universe, where the invisible hands of uncaring finanical titans move without regard to the ripples of their passing make.

More later,

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Play: Hail to the King, Baby!

King Kirby by Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman, Directed by Rob Raas-Bergquist. Ghost Light Theatricals

Jack Kirby was one of the great creative forces of American comics. His art is dramatic, iconic, and immediately recognized. He built much of the modern comics mythology. His story is that of the rise and fall and rise again of the media. We have movies about superheroes, why not have plays about comic book creators?

The play itself is by Fred Van Lente, comic author, who wrote the excellent Action Philosophers series (explaining philosophy in comic book iconography - think of Plato as the Incredible Hulk) and award winning playwright Crystal Skillman. In fact good sequences of the play first showed up in Comic Book Comics by Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.

The play chronicles Kirby's life, bookended by a Sotheby's auction of his work for prices he was never paid. Tough kid on the lower east side with artistic talent, became an in-betweener for Popeye cartoons before teaming up with Joe Simon to create Captain America, followed by a stint in Europe really punching Hitler in the face, followed by a return to comics upset by Fred Wertham and the comics code, followed by Marvel and the machinating Stan Lee. Through it all Kirby comes through as a brilliant talent who was often too cautious to press for his own rights. First Simon and then Lee were the opportunistic suits/partners who brought Kirby into their plans and encouraged (and often took over) his creations.

The actors are excellent. Rick Espaillat is Kirby, and gets the man down, right down to his smile (I had a fleeting, comic book convention meeting with the original - he was friendly and professional, I was gob-smacked to be in his presence). Espaillat is on-stage the entire play, the rest of ensemble switches in and out of roles with a fluid grace, main characters rising and then diminishing as the years pass. Jason Huff is a sound-bite spouting Funky Flashman of a Stan Lee. James Lyle is a tall drink of water version of Joe Simon, but gives up the role to Anastasia Greeley easily. Greeley for her part is the young Roz, Kirby's wife, who passes it on to Eileen McCann, who is also is the Sotheby's auctioneer. Steven Sterne is delightful as the never-ending slew of bosses who Kirby worked for over the years. They work with a drill-team precision for scenes, and change chameleon-like from major characters to minor ones at the drop of the hat.  Espaillat commands his way through the entire proceedings as Kirby.

The proceedings at the Ghost Light are in the round, which sadly guarantees that for any major scene, there is a one in four chance that you are looking at someone's back. That said, the staging (four entrances to a raised central stage) in minimal and allows for the quick changing of setting, often in mid-scene.

Kirby's story is that of a man who just wants to create, who revels in bringing to life great concepts, but that conception does not line up entirely with the demands of the machine that produces the final product for general consumption. From mobbed-up distributors to government intervention to corporate lawyers, the "real world" has a nasty tendency to impinge on the golden glow of creation from Kirby's fertile mind who ended up creating, but not controlling, a modern mythology.

And yeah, to a much smaller degree, I know the feeling.

More later,

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Case of the Missing Dragon

I don't often talk about what happens at a personal level here at Grubb Street, and when I do its about the positive things (holidays, parties and gatherings). But in this case I'm making an exception.
Lockheed, in happier times.

You see, someone has stolen our dragon.

We had a dragon gargoyle, about two feet tall and about 60 pounds heavy, that for several years has guarded our front stoop. And right before Christmas, the Lovely Bride went out with a Santa hat to put on the dragon, and found it gone.

And it was very concern-making, in part because we don't know exactly WHEN the statue disappeared. It was there for Thanksgiving, but in the rainstorms that followed we were not paying attention and it could have happened up to a few days previously. 

Possible means and motive are equally wonky. Our driveway isn't particularly obvious to people driving by, and someone stealing it on-foot would have to lug off a sixty-pound concrete statue. In could have been a prank, but there was an uncarved pumpkin right next to it, a remnant of Halloween kept on to T-Giving, that was unscathed. Stealing it for sale it is equally wonky, since there were other things in the area that could have been scarpered just as easily that were untouched.

It is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Our area is rural turning to suburban, but we have had thefts over the years. The gargoyle itself was a replacement for a light-weight lawn ornament sea serpent that mysteriously vanished one afternoon (AFTER we were visited by Mormon Missionaries, who probably were not at fault, but could have just been Stalking Horses, I suppose). We were outright burgled many years ago (they got old computers, a TV, our CDs, and a skull-shaped pin made from a prop of the Terminator movie; We responded by getting a security system and training the cats in Akido). And in a case that continues to confound me to this day, someone stole our garbage one year (for what, information? Sorry, we shred).

The LB and I are concerned and little uncomfortable that someone came up to the house and pirated our dragon off. On one hand, it is just stuff, but on the other it is stuff that we had a direct connection with (it was named Lockheed. Now you can feel REALLY bad). We reported it, of course, not because we expect an APB on a concrete dragon, but in case there has been a spate of lawn ornament thefts, and if, after long investigation, the Kent police find it with a thousand garden gnomes down in a warehouse in the valley.

Well, there's hope at least.

More later,

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Play: The Demolished Man

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior, Seattle Rep, Through 31 January.

While the Seahawks have ended their football hopes for the year, the REP continues with one of the strongest seasons I have seen for years. The most recent addition is the dark one-act Disgraced, which takes the theatrical trope of the dinner party and pulls it off.

Amir (Bernard White) is what Tom Wolfe would call a Master of the Universe. He is a corporate lawyer in Manhattan who can get Knicks tickets and whose name appears every so often in the Times. He has a stylish Manhattan apartment and an adoring wife Emily (Nisi Sturgis), an artist with a chance at a breakout show. That show is put together by Isaac (J Anthony Crane) whose wife Jory (Zakiya Young) works with Amir at the law firm. They have dinner together.

But Amir has misrepresented himself. He is an apostate Muslim who rejects his faith and heritage to embrace the American ideals of achievement. He has changed his name and lets his co-workers think of him as an Indian, not a Pakistani. He is convinced that, should he be thought of as a Muslim, his world will fall apart.

And he's right. Starting with a favor for his more devout and political nephew (Behzad Dabu), Amir's life spirals out of control, culminating in an explosive dinner party with Isaac and Jory where deeper secrets are revealed and lives are sabotaged.

The Portrait of Juan de Paleja by
Diego Velazquez figures in all this as well.
Amir's story is about race, religion, and heritage. But it is also about infidelity, social climbing, opportunities and art. The two sets of themes cannot be separated, and Akhtar does a fantastic job conjoining them. This is a troubling, unsettling play, and brilliant for it. Political without being polemic, it cricles the subjects and takes stabs from all sides. It is a play which does no hold still long enough to deliver a message one way or another and demands thought and consideration.

The actors are amazing. None of the characters are pure or innocent, all are packing their own betrayals and secrets which contribute to the destruction of Amir's public facade and private pride. The actors balance that public and private face expertly, creating characters with a sense of story and history.

There is mention of Moors early on, which evokes Othello, but this is an Othello with an internalized Iago acting towards his destruction. Amir has more in common with Eddie from A View from The Bridge, where his self-image, pride, and rejection of his heritage sows the seeds of his own fall from grace.

I have railed in this space about dinner-party plays, which take place in a relatively compact space and time and where everyone is nice and proper at the beginning and engaging in cannibalism by the end. And I often think that thing swould be better is someone just left the room, but that never happens. Akhtar stretches out the time frame with several scenes leading to the disastrous dinner, and DOES allow the character the freedom to get out of the room as opposed to immediately turning back on each other in another round of backbiting. In doing so he deepens the reality of the world, allows secrets to come out, and show that the characters are not just rats in a physical box, though they may be trapped in a metaphorical box of their own making.

I'm still working my way through this, which is always a good sign for a play. The play has gotten raves and rightly slow as disturbing and thoughtful theatre. Worth seeing.

More later,