Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Theatre: A Very British Meltdown

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Tim Bond, Seattle Rep through 15 March.

OK, this is more like it.

 After the wallowing in Toxic Masculinity portrayed in True West, I will admit to being chary about the current season, and what little I knew of The Children gave me pause. I usually go into plays with a bare minimum of prep and preconceptions, but the poster (shown here) of a nasty looking gas mask prepared me for a painful confrontation with our ongoing climate catastrophe.

And it is, but is also an excellent play of relationships and intelligence and responsibility. Well-written, well-produced, and well-acted, it was a tonic to True West and its ilk, and while not something I would insist you go out and see (Hey, Kids! Want to hear about a nuclear meltdown?), it was a rewarding afternoon at the theater.

Here's the skinny - a Fukushima-level nuclear accident occurs on the coast of Britain, with similar results of an exclusion zone hugging deadly levels of  radiation. Still life goes on (Hello, jackpot!).
Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (the stalwart R. Hamilton Wright) have retreated to a cottage outside the zone, where no-nonsense Hazel keeps the household running while adventurous Robin goes back into the zone to tend to the cows they left behind during the evacuation.  Then Rose (Carmen Roman), an old colleague, shows up unannounced for a visit. And Hazel punches her in the nose. Accidentally.

And, what is not made clear at the get-go, but soon becomes clear, is that all three are former engineers at that plant, retired before the entire meltdown. Hazel thinks they earned their retirement, even given the discomfort of a glowing nuclear core a few miles away. Robin is a bit more adventurous. And Rose? Well, the play does take its time in explaining why Rose is back and what she wants, but she gets there in the end and kicks off the finale.

And the thing that impressed me in all this is that Kirkwood wrote these three characters as both smart people and as friends. That's tough. Making them smart without chipping off and likability or humanity, making them friends without shying away from their own secrets and indiscretions. They mock and entertain each other throughout. Hazel and Robin are Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe if Martha and George actually liked each other and weren't such utter a-holes. (And yeah, WAoVW seems to haunt every play these days, either by similarity or difference). They can be nasty to each other in that very British way that radiates affection. And in their banter, Kirkwood gives her characters a sense of reality and reliability I haven't seen elsewhere.

The acting is top-notch as well. Wright is the Rep Veteran who has been in more than 50 productions, and who I've mentioned before. Paulsen takes the tough road of being the stable, sane center, to the point of being pedantic and unbending, and still makes her accessible. And Roman is cat-like Rose with her secrets and strength, and yes, sinister in places (Hazel makes the comment), And still they are friends at the end of it, and yeah, transformed in the process.

A good play, a solid piece of theater, and while realistic in its threats, redeeming in its characters. Touchy subject matter, but that's the sort of thing that theater needs to do sometimes. Nicely done.

More later,

[Oh, a program note - there will be no review of Jitney, the next one up on the Rep's list. I will be otherwise engaged and the Lovely Bride and I have seen a Rep production of it earlier - We have been in Seattle long enough that we are now doubling up on our August Wilson plays. Gave the tickets away to a friend, but there will be no review here.]

Monday, February 17, 2020

Books: God Mode

Agency by William Gibson, Berkley Books, 2020

Provenance: This is a book I was looking forward to, and when I found myself in New York City for a recording session, took the A train down to the Strand in the Village to pick up a copy. And they had none (though they would be happy to order one, their initial shipment having sold out). I picked up a collected pair of Nero Wolfe books I had been missing (so it wasn't a total loss), and the next day picked up the sole copy left on the shelf at a local Barnes and Noble, confidant that I had the last copy available south of 37th Street. Now, I don't expect bookstores to warehouse EVERYTHING, but it a good clue that they under-ordered this particular book, sending people to the on-line sales outposts.

Review: This is a Bill Gibson novel, and has the hallmarks of previous Bill Gibson novels. Powerful AI? Check. Criminal mob operating in the background? Check. A lot of running around by the protagonist? Check. Cool use of tech? Cool use of tech assumed as normal and therefore not explained? Check. So put this one down as comfort food - you know what you are getting.

But what this book does well is in the "William Gibson Phone Call", which is a phrase I conjured for that last chapter, where someone, somewhere, calls in and explains what was going on while your protagonists, with their limited viewpoints, were busy in the novel itself. It is here, but slightly subverted, in that it literally happens with a phone call under a table, but you are actually well-prepared for it. It becomes a summing up as opposed to a surprise. That worked.

But let me give you a quick summary. Verity James (an "app-listener" - it IS explained) is given a new product to playtest. Said project is Eunice, an AI that attains consciousness frightening fast, creates packets (like in the internet) that are going around doing things, allowing her to multitask. The company that gave Eunice to Verity realizes they have uncorked a genie and try to stuff it back in the bottle. Verity goes on the run, helped by an ad hoc team of makers, millionaires, and agents from an alternate Earth.

Right. Alternate Earth. This is the sequel to Periphery, set in the same meta-universe with some of the same characters. Verity's Earth is, well, not quite an alternate timeline, but a "stub" created of the main timeline from about 150 years after the setting in 2018. The main stub sounds like our timeline, but because of earlier meddling, Verity's has some differences - Clinton won in 2016, the Brexit vote failed, and Notre Dame did not catch fire. Probably Harambe the Gorilla is still alive. But everyone there is tense and freaked out anyway, because Verity's Earth is also heading for nuclear war. The gang from the first novel (both from the "future" stub and from a previous stub) help Verity and Eunice in their world.

And the repercussions of this set-up is still in the works. First off, no one we've met knows exactly the science behind the stubs - they may be Chinese, but maybe not. One character seems offers that it is a colonization effort to some degree (though physical objects don't move between stubs, information and telepresence does). And the more advanced main universe (defining itself as being the group that creates stubs, and no one else can, because reasons) is meddling with other universes - benevolently in the case of this particular bunch, less-so in other cases. I am still waiting for the payoff of this last one.

 What I do get is a better handle of some of the other things going on. Gibson is very light on the expository dialogue ("Well, Bob, as you know..."), so you get everything in bits. The Mainline is set after "the jackpot", an extinction-level event that kills 80% of humanity and most of the other vertebrate life forms. Now, earlier SF was big on the sudden nuclear attack/killer snowstorm/pandemic that suddenly changes everything. The jackpot is just a series of catastrophes that wipes out large chunks of the population, but nothing delivering the killer blow. Given that we've had a pandemic, wildfires in Australia, the final Brexit the impeachment of a president and a cyclone hitting Iceland just since the beginning of the year, I tend to feel this jackpot is about right for the end of the world as we know it.

Because it is a slow apocalypse, unevenly distributed, the mainline universe gets a chance to develop tech to, if not fix everything (There is a big garbage patch in the Pacific, big cleaning airstacks dominate London), but to mitigate the damage somewhat. They have assembler and nanotech and AIs and a lot of bots (we wipe out 80% of the population, the lower working classes are filled with imitation humans of various degrees - because we get lonely). The true 1% (mostly criminal, mostly corrupt, often Russian) is still there as the klepts, sorta the secret masters of the surviving world, who are kept in general check to keep them from screwing everything up again.

As noted above, I was reading this book in NYC and on the plane ride home, alternating it with an Ellis Peters mystery set in the Middle Ages. The difference between the styles was a bit of a whipsaw - Gibson's sparse writing style (I finished many short chapters wondering "what have I learned here?") against Peters more opaque language of the assumed middle ages (going to the dictionary to look up psalter and brychan).  Yet both have their own rewards, and Gibson's very shortness telegraphs home his events.

Ultimately, I want some answers, and, these being Gibson books, I don't know if I'm ultimately going to get them. That's OK - we are along for the ride, and it's a pretty good ride.

More later.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Political Desk - Tale of Two Ballots

So this Tuesday (the 11th of February), I am voting in two different elections with different methodologies. One of them has gotten a little more attention.

The first is a financial issue for Kent School Districts, To be exact, it is the Kent School District No. 415, Proposition No. 1 - Replacement of Expiring Educational Programs and Operations Levy. It is a levy, put on your property taxes and based on how much your property is valued at. It is a levy, and by law it required a simple majority to pass. A BOND, on the other hand, would require a supermajority of 60% (just in case that comes up in conversation).

As noted, this is a replacement of existing levy that has run its course, and now the schools have to go back and double check if paying for your kid's education is cool with you. And yes, having seen a lot of the kids (and adults) in Seattle, I am all in favor of making them as smart as possible. So I went with YES on this, and mailed it in a few weeks back.

And yeah, I mailed it in. We have paper ballots as a thing here in Washington State. When we first moved out here, we had polling stations where you would go and ... fill out a paper ballot, that would then be shot through a counting device, the physical ballot put aside in case of a recount, and you go on your way. But it would mean you'd have to get to the polling station in a timely fashion (ours was at a local elementary school, staffed by volunteers) to vote, but it wasn't bad at all (I was usually Voter 9 on the list).

Now, you vote in the comfort of your own home, you get to check out the issues for bigger stuff, and you mail it in. And THEN it gets shot through the counting device and kept aside for later. And because I am old and remember stories of bags of votes suddenly going missing before they are counter, I always go down to one of the handy drop-off locations as opposed to mailing it (even though you no longer have to use a stamp to mail it).

And to be honest, it feels pretty secure. I am sure that someone can mess with the counters, or steal a drop-off box, but in general it feels right.

Then there is the other election, which has gotten a lot more attention because it is voting on-line. This is for the King County Conservation District, a state-authorized nonprofit which provides information and technical assistance to landowners in managing natural resources, including water, wetlands, and land use. It doesn't have any authority as far as I can tell, but does sponsor a lot of volunteer clean-ups, water testing, and awareness. Good works, in other words. But perhaps because it is not part of the government (other than being authorized by it), it is not part of the ballot process, so has had to fend for itself.

It is NOT part of usual election process run under our Secretary of State, so if you hate all this, don't yell at her. Not her idea. It is using the drop-off booths and apparently the format and counters, so there is similarity, but as an election for a nonprofit, it is not her department.

I did vote in this election about ten years ago, and my experiences are here. It was interesting, but, yeah, I can see the problem similar to one back when we had voting stations on election day - only those people who could show up got to vote. But the cost of putting stuff on the regular ballot would stress out the nonprofit, so they could not upgrade to the standard format. So, they are experimenting with on-line

But it is on-line, so I took ten minutes to read my way through it, checked out the candidate statements (which is about all I know of them) and made my choice. Both candidates looked good, but I went with Stephen Carl ("Dutch") Deutschman over Chris Porter, though I really liked what Mr. Porter was saying about bees.

And it felt - weird. I mean, I'm doing the same thing at home as I'm doing with a paper ballot, but it still felt a little disjointed. I am feeding information into a counter, but suddenly I don't quite trust that counter. But as I'm doing so, I'm thinking about how to game the system. The Lovely Bride won't vote in this (probably), so what's to keep me from just using her name, birthdate, and email address to get an extra vote (I mean, besides my scrupulous morals)? And yet, if it were a paper ballot, I could do the same thing, but it doesn't really occur to me (both paper and website used electronic signatures, which means you had to move your mouse around like it was a pen, which it does not do). So suddenly I'm concerned about security.

Maybe I'm just really getting old, but I don't particularly trust it. Mind you, I COULD still go down to the King Conservation District's Office, at 800 SW 39th St, Suite 150 (or as locals would say "Just up the street from the IKEA") if you want the old-school vibe of actually voting as an event. So ion-line voting has the advantage of ease of use (it has taken longer to check my facts and write all this up than it took to vote). But the main result of all this will be to check out how many people actually voted here. It has been around 4000/year for all the time I've been checking, so this is something to look at.

Oh, yes, the link if you want to vote, is here. If you're a registered voter in the district, go check it out.

More later,

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Book: Four of the Three Musketeers

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas, Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2019

Provenance: Christmas present from the Lovely Bride. I had read the predecessor book, The Red Sphinx (written later, but inserted into its proper place in the timeline canon - Hey, if you can sort out all the Star Wars films, you can handle that). It is part of taking The Three Musketeers and turning it into its own Expanded Universe.

Review: Let me give you the bad news first - this is not the complete novel of Twenty Years Later. It is about half of it, setting up all the pieces and sending its characters all over the place and setting up (hopefully) threads that will resolve themselves later. The publisher does not do a very good job indicating this, other than a mention in the Editor/Translator's intro and the sudden announcement at the last chapter that "The Story Continues in Book Four - The Son of Milady").

And you know what, that's OK. Dumas originally serialized these stories in Parisian Newspaper, Le Siecle - The Age), So the initial assemblage was of a thing of pieces. And, given its serialized origin, the final work is sprawling and over-sized - this first half of the story runs about 450 pages, including front and back matter, and a complete version might be larger than the doorstop that was the Red Sphinx.

The original Three Musketeers was a smash hit, yet when the sequel showed up, it was a bit puzzling. Instead of picking up with our heroes immediately, Dumas went, well ... 20 years after. That's a easy thing to do when you're doing historical fiction, since you have the general gist of things, though Dumas played fast and loose with the timing of historical events and the ages of the characters through-out (His audience did not have a Wikipedia to check things, and an Internet upon which to complain about them).

So. twenty years after the events in the first book.The band of Inseparables has separated. D'Artagnan is still with the King's Musketeers, but Aramis has become a priest, Porthos married into the landed gentry, and Athos is a Count as well. King Louis XIII is dead, and the Prince, to be Louis XIV (The Sun King) has not yet attained his majority. Cardinal Richelieu is no more, and his replacement is Cardinal Mazarin, more of a greedy bumbler who makes the previous Cardinal look more godlike (as noted elsewhere, Dumas really liked Richelieu, though most American versions present him as a bad guy).

Mazarin summons D'Artagnan to put the band back together to deal with a would-be rebellion from the nobles and bourgeois. This rebellion, known as the Fronde because of the slings used by the rebels, was centered on the bourgeois and bureaucracy, but supported by the more powerful nobles and the usual suspects of other potential heirs to the throne. D'Artagnan accepts, but discovers that not all is well with his former comrades. Aramis, now a priest, is on the side of the Frondeurs, and is sleeping with one of the ring-leaders. Porthos has land but no respect from the other gentry, and wishes to become a Baron. Athos, previously known as a drinker and a cynic, has cleaned up his act and dotes on his young protege, who is not-so-secretly (because everyone except the young man realizes it) is Athos' illegitimate son (through a turn of events which is pretty damned wacky).

And that son, Raoul, quickly takes over the book. D'Artagnan disappears for about 100 pages towards the end of this installment, and his absence is not noticed, as the pages are filled with other characters. The former servants are back, now in different ranks and lives since 20 years ago. Raoul gets a traveling companion of similar status in the Comte de Guiche. And the son of Milady, Mordaunt, comes into play as the chief bad guy, in the service of Oliver Cromwell (England is having a Civil War as well at this time, though bloodier). This half of the book ends with Athos and Aramis heading for England with Lord Winter (brother of Milady's second husband) to help Charles II while Mordaunt taunts them from the jetty.

What I find interesting is that, with age, the Inseparables are plagued by their doubts. They have been on the wrong side of history before, aiding the Queen and opposed to the King in the matter of the Queen's Necklace, and now they must admit that Richelieu was a great man (even if they opposed him years before). And their trial and execution of Milady at the end of The Three Musketeers is coming back to haunt them in the form of her child, who is evil, but evil-with-a-justification.

The text is lively and engaging and captures the swashbuckling nature.  Ellsworth de-bowdlerizes earlier translations of the Dumas text, and restores a "lost chapter", which features none of the main characters, but rather a member of the Frondeurs that is almost ridden down in the streets by D'Artagnan. Said mild-mannered revolutionary goes home, but the result of his encounter brings a mob of supporters and more and more powerful visitors (with their attendent doctors) to his house, resulting in an aristo version of the stateroom scene from A Night A The Opera. And it is the little bits like this - the dinners and the conversations and the small scenes, that really move the plot along nicely.

So, yeah, half an oeuvre is better than none, and I look forward to the resolution of this translation. Yeah, I can get it in more complete(ish) form elsewhere, but I will wait for this one.

More later,

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Theatre: Who's Afraid of the Toxic Male?

True West by Sam Shepard, Directed by Braden Abraham, through Feb 16

Well, that was cringeworthy.

I really want to just leave it there with a Twitter-friendly put-down, but I can't. True West is one of those plays that makes me question if I am capable of understanding theater, or at rather theatre. You've seen me tilt at this particular windmill before - plays that are Pulitzer-nominated (like this one) or Pulitzer-awarded that just leave me scratching my head and asking "Why this one?" What makes this a brilliant play? Why do people like this?

Because I'm not getting it.

Here's the shuffle and deal - Austin, a screenwriter (yes, it's another damned play involving a writer), is house-sitting for his Mom while he's in LA to do a deal on his new project. His older brother Lee, a drifter and petty thief, arrives. They don't like each other. Lee gets the movie deal with a horrible but earnest idea and a lot of BS. Austin is broken by this turn of events. By the time Mom gets home, they have trashed the place with their arguing, which turns violent. Toast is involved.

It IS billed as a comedy. which means it has funny moments. But a lot of them are that "uncomfortable funny" of personal humiliation.

Lee is a bully and a thief. Austin is a milksop. The first act is pretty much Lee abusing Austin verbally and Austin just taking it. Then in the second act, after Austin breaks, he gets to turn on Lee, who, while he can hustle a deal, can't really write. The play consists of looping arguments that don't seem to go anywhere, except to provide ammo for future arguments.

And the set is a well-appointed Southern Cali bungalow with a too-big kitchen. Which gets trashed.

It is a play that uses a lot of blank space. Conversations are cut off or just trail off. Lots of pregnant pauses. Blackouts to show there has been time passed. At intermission, the lights came up, and no one in the audience moved. There was nothing to build to that moment to cue them. No cliffhanger. No rising tension. No indication that now is the time you should go urinate.

And in the end, there is no resolution, just another blackout. The play could have ended five minutes earlier or five minutes later. It doesn't matter. It is a comedy in that funny things happen. Not a comedy is that it doesn't have a positive outcome. The Revolutionists was a curious play for me that redeemed itself in the last 15 minutes. This one, not so much. And it left me angry.

The Lovely Bride and I don't share our views usually right after the play, instead walking to the car and making small talk (we have voiced opinions publicly before, and had strangers join the conversation to argue with us). This time was particularly frosty because the play was just upsetting for no good reason. Two hours of toxic masculinity that makes you want to slap the protagonists with a golf club by the end and yell at poor drivers on the way home. No lessons learned, no larger point made.

The Lovely Bride and I came home and she made toast. So there's that.

More later,