Monday, June 27, 2022

Essays: Young Jorge Borges

 A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges, Translated by Norman Thomas Giovanni, E.P. Dutton, 1979, Original publication 1935.

Provenance: From Sacnoth's library by odd happenstance. The company that helped put together miku, and the gods, is putting together another show called She Devil of the China Seas, about the Pirate Ching Shi*. I had brushed up against this legendary figure a number times in my life - including as model for an unpublished character for Crucible.. I mentioned it to Sacnoth at one of new post-Covid gatherings, and he plucked this book off the shelf, which contains a short essay by the renowned Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges on the subject. 

Review: Jorge Luis Borges is sort of that distant relative to most fantasy  gameplayers thkat they have heard of, maybe see at weddings, but never really had a good talk with. People may have read "The Library of Babel" or "The Book of Imaginary Beings". but Borges was not one to follow the traditional fantasy quest traditions, so gets overlooked by our rank and file. He is a founder of the school of Magical Realism, which is thought to be installing fantasy elements into traditional settings and writing, but has revolved over the years into a genre that means Elves as London Coppers. 

The book is a collection of essays and short works that break down into three categories. First there are fictionalized biographies of particular villains of the past - Bill the Kid, Monk Eastman of the Gangs of New York, and the aforementioned Widow Ching. As a hinge in the presentation there's a short story written in first person about young urban punks, and then finishes up with a collection of "Etcetera" - short parables, for lack of a better word. The biographies are more eloquent, less factual, Wikipedia entries, and the Etcetera are short enough to merit a multi-entry Twitter chain. Indeed, if Borges' medium was the net and not the printed form, these would have been lost to the ever-widening electronic gyre of Facebook. It was good he was writing when he did.

These essays are from early in Borges career, yet immediately set himself out as a master teller of tales, his work based philosophically in their underlying morals. They can be a great underlying foundation for a campaign setting or adventure, but lack the deep exposition, quest-like plotting native to our sub genre. What they do have is a lyricism and magic that sweeps the reader along to a brief resolution. The are as eloquent as they are brief. Magical realism, indeed. 

The originals are in Spanish, and the English translations (in Borges own opinion) are excellent. Still, in reading foreign translations, it feels like attending a play and standing in the lobby, while a stream of people come out and tell you what's on the stage. Yet even in translation it is worth it to hunt this down and read it, if nothing else as to indicate philosophical underpinnings to potential settings. And because it is a darned engaging set of reads. So need to go down to my library and pick up the Borges Collected Fictions that I have had on the shelf for a while.

More, later,

*An incredibly famous female pirate you've never heard of, Ching Shi (also known as Zheng Yi Sao, Shi Yang, and Shi Xianggu, all of which translate as "Wife of Ching" or "Widow of Ching") inherited her pirates from he husband, and built the family business up to an armada that terrorized the mainland. The fact that we name her in the shadow of her less-successful husband is telling.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Theatre: Beauticians and the Beasts

 miku, and the gods by Julia Izumi, Directed by Alyza Delpan-Monley, co-presented by Pork Filled Productions

This one left me confused. 

I'm not alone. The Lovely Bride and I always wait to get back to that car and start the drive home before discussing a play, mainly because we've had strangers dip into our discussions with their own insights (not a criminal offence, but not appreciated). And as we made our way down off the hill of West Seattle, she said, "That was ...." and she paused.

"Weird?" I said.

"Weird." She repeated almost immediately. "Nice costumes though."

And it was weird. More performance than play, it was narratively frustrating. It started strong, but threw me off the path about forty-five minutes in and I never quite recovered. Even now, I have a hard time describing what the play was ultimately about.

OK, here goes for a summary: Miku (Lola Rei Fukushima) is a brilliant 12-year old who lost her brother in an accident in a river. Determined to fix an unjust world, she seeks out the One Who Is Wise (NEVE), an acid-tongued beautician to find out how to become a god. She also encounters Ephraim (Ben Symons) who wants to become an Olympic-level swimmer. Seeing connection between Olympians and Olympians, she recruits Ephraim to help in her god-quest. Meanwhile, Miku's grandmother Seiko (Naho Shioya) is dealing with dementia, aided by Shara (Sherif Amin), who is a minor god of Beauticians and War. Or maybe just a beautician. We're not quite sure.

And that's about as far as I can go before I get kinda confused. I am not sure exactly who the story is about and whether it is real or in one of the characters' headspace. There is interpretive dance. There are announcements. There are muffled announcements, and I'm not quite sure if that was intentional. There is a strong feeling if these characters are the characters they have declared themselves to be, or are gods, or mortals, or memories. The play has good bits, but defies me to put them together in a coherent order. Which, since they are talking about gods and mythology, may be part of the point. The play ends softly, and again, I am not sure that it has ended, except for an announcement that "The Play Has Ended." But has it ended? Really?

The actors are great, committing to characters that are over the top gods and super heroes - you know, maybe. Fukushima had been at the Arts West previously, and brings that same direct energy into holding the center together here. The stage is minimalistic and effective, bringing the question of where are we to the front. 

But ultimately is does not bring me anywhere close to enlightenment or closure or comprehension. Gods, death, memories, all sort of get thrown up at once. That's cool. Some forms of art don't engage at a cerebral level or an emotional level, but rather at a quasi-mystic feeling. Ballet and poetry come to mind, which are spider-webs, beautiful but incredibly delicate, unable to withstand a harsher examination. I didn't hate it. I was just puzzled and frustrated by it. The play ultimately feels like it is still trying to figure out what it is.

Nice costumes, though.

More later

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Theatre: The Bigger Boat

Bruce, Music by Richard Oberacker, Book & Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, Based on the book The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore. 

Spoilers: I loved this, and strongly recommend that others go see it. Fair warning: The Lovely Bride did not, but we will get to that.

Long ago, musicals would show up on Broadway, then turn into films in Hollywood. Now the opposite is true - Intellectual Properties arrive from films and TV shows and are turned into comfortable songfests in NYC, then tour the nation in road companies. And this particular project goes even further - it is a musical based on a book about a movie about a book. So I will admit I was a little cautious going into this one.

And I enjoyed myself tremendously. I thought it was great. This is one of those performances I want to heartily recommend to others. Five years ago, I got to see Come From Away at the REP before it got big and was floored by the production. Bruce had the same effect on me. It a musical about the making of one of the first big modern Hollywood blockbusters. And you should go see it.

It is about the making of Jaws, and Bruce is the name for the infamous, problematic, mechanical shark that almost sunk the entire production. A young film-maker off his first modest success gets the nod to bring a best-seller about a killer shark to the big screen. At that time the best-seller was not yet published, and did not even have a final title. This was the first of many hurdles in the process.

And the show is all about the process. Putting together the initial team, casting, planning to record in a real ocean, finding the set location. The first chunk of the musical is laid out on a three-by three vertical grid, where the various component parts are spinning and people are contacted, recruited, convinced to come together. Like Jake and Elwood Blues, they are going to put the band together. Like Judy Garland and Micky Rooney, they're going to put on a show. About a shark.

And then they go to the island itself - Martha's Vineyard, and as with every plan, it disintegrates upon first contact with the greater reality. Problems with locals. Problems with scripts. Problems with the weather.  Problems with the actors. And most of all, problems with the mechanical shark that fails spectacularly and repeatedly, forcing the team to shoot around it. In the process, they succeeded with the shadow of the knife as opposed to the knife itself.

The cast is fantastic here - strong-voiced and solid, top to bottom. Jarrod Spector is an idealized Steven Spielberg at the start of his career. Ramzi Khalaf is a pugnaceous, insecure Richard (Ricky) Dreyfus. Hans Alwies is a drunken veteran Robert Shaw who acts the diva right up to the Indianapolis scene, where he disappears into Quint's character. Beth Devries is Lorraine Gary, whose character in the movie gets sidelined by the three male stars but here is a supportive foundation. Geoff Packard is the production company's Dad-figure as Roy Scheider. But it is the people behind the scenes, Alexandria J Henderson (as talent director Shari Rhodes) and E. Faye Butler (as film editor Verna Fields) that are fantastic, even if their real-life counterparts of that era were much paler. Top to bottom, everyone was brilliant. Heck, they even have you rooting for the producers (Eric Ankrim as Richard Zanuck and Timothy McCuen Piggee as David Brown).

How much of the story is ultimately true? Don't care. This musical actually hit me where I live and work. I have spend much of career as a corporate creative, working with teams of talented people, sometimes but not always in a leadership position, and the things found here ring true to me. I have done casting, I have been in the room where the deals are made, I know the chaos that often results in looking like we had it all planned. In many ways, this play gave me the reverse of PTSD - it was joyous and my eyes were wet by the end of it (It might have been the smoke, but hey, its Hollywood). And to honest (and a little cynical), while the actually making of the film involved a lot of plucky young professions working against long odds and nasty conditions, the original book got a huge promotion from Doubleday and the movie itself had a major ton of promotion, licenses, and distribution.  Don't care. It really hit me.

I even marveled at the set design. I have an allergy to "gizmo plays" that have flying sets and sliding furnishings and multiple levels of production to fill vertical space. But the Hollywood Squares initial set-up actually WORKED, and when everyone decamps to the island, that set splits apart to reveal a wider, more open world, and I was completely taken in. It was Dorothy stepping into Oz. 

The Lovely Bride did not care for it. In fact, she used the word "deplorable". And the big reason was that for her is did not work as a musical. I think that's a fair cop. A lot of the tropes you get from a Broadway Musical are missing = There is the "Statement of Purpose" song at the beginning, but there is not a lot of toe-tapping memorable melodies here. There is no catchy little comedy number or showstopper solo or big production number right before the intermission (heck, there isn't even an intermission). She felt it was closer to opera, and she doesn't care much for opera. But I liked it. I would buy the CD (Do they still do CDs?)

And, to be fair, would it have the same effect as it had on someone my age as on someone who had never seen the movie it was based on, or knew anything about the stories that have grown up around it? I dunno, go find someone who doesn't know about the film that traumatized a generation about swimming in the ocean. I can wait.

Summary on Bruce? Let me oversell it. I think it is great. I think this was a tonic for everyone who is involved in creating things in the real world. It made me want to return to projects that have been abeyance for a while, and return to my daily creative task with new vigor. 

So yeah, I think you should go see it. 

More later,