Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Play: Holmsien Romp

 Sherlock Holmes and the Precarious Position by Margaret Raether (Based on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Taproot Theatre, through 22 June

The regular theatre seasons are winding down, so, as has happened before, we (the Lovely Bride,  and friends Janice and John, (who best known to the blogosphere as Sacnoth)) set out to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood for a whopping good dose of Sherlock Holmes. The Taproot is a small but feisty acting company is a small but charming theatre. The stage is thrust out, flanked on three sides by audience, with a narrow balcony above with a precipitous view of the stage. The LB notes that despite the close quarters, the seats are still more comfortable than the Arts West.

And the Taproot's performances tends to aim towards the positive, with uplifting stories and classic characters. And by the latter, we're looking at Austin's Pemberley, Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves, the occasional Oscar Wilde, and this time out, the Great Detective. 

Holmes has evolved over the years  a width and breadth of his character, and there has been a plethora of portrayals. There have been cerebral Holmes and action-adventure Holmes. There have been young student Holmes and elderly beekeeper Holmes. Functioning sociopaths and drug addicts and cartoon characters. Taproot's current Holmes, played by Calder Jameson Shilling, is a brilliant social maladroit, a positive Homes who worships at the altar of logic and deduction and doesn't care if no one else sees it that way. His Watson, well-played by Nathaniel Tenenbaum, is his social intermedium to the world at large, a good friend who tolerates his companion's eccentricities and explains them to those who might judge Holmes harshly. 

Everyone else - cops, robbers, elderly sisters, clerks, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade, are played by David Roby and Ariel Rose, who don a multitude of costumes and accents to populate the rest of London orbiting around the binary star that is Holmes and Watson. Ariel Rose in particular shines, swapping off roles easily, effectively, and charmingly. She got the best role of the bunch, and is up to the task.

And yes, this is a comedy, the characters broad and the humor chuckling. Watson narrates exposition to the audience and gets called upon it by the other characters. Holmes finds his bastion of logic under siege as he talks to two elderly sisters. Mrs. Hudson is frustrated by Holmes' behavior and Lestrade is a bit of a glory hound. Add it all up and you have a bit of light, comic theatre.

The stage itself aids for quick changes and locations. The thrust part of the stage is left open, which reduces the amount of blocked shots from the seats (a problem with theater-in-the-roundish). The backdrop rotates its back wall to quickly transform interior scenes and not get into the way of the actors and play. A nice presentation.

The plot may be familiar to Holmes' fans - a pair of elderly women who run a shop for women's apparel are hired to transcribe the encyclopedia, then mysteriously fired (unpaid). There is also a stolen gemstone involved from a separate case. But its not so much the mystery as the delivery. Fast-paced, witty, barreling through the lanes in a delightful take on the characters.

So. It's a rouser, a romp, a bit of light amusement. A gemstone set in a jewel box setting. A worthwhile bit of theatre for the evening, and in the time it has taken for me to write this up, it has extended it's run. Good show. 

More later

Monday, May 06, 2024

Book: Early Stout

 The President Vanishes by Rex Stout (Originally published as Anonymous), Farrar & Reinhart, 1934.

Provenance: Purchase from Half-Price Books, off the shelf. I've pretty much tapped out the original Nero Wolfe series over the years, and have been wandering around the canon's periphery since.

Review: One of the challenges in following a writer for a particular series is that you might not always enjoy their other works as much. I have been a noticeable fan of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, but I've found his related Tecumseh Fox mysteries, which had the same level of twists and turns, to be less engaging than the domestic squabbles of corpulent detective Wolfe and his wisecracking leg-man Archie Goodwin. 

And there's a similar challenge with The President Vanishes. This one was written after the first Wolfe mystery, Fer-De-Lance, but was published first. And it much more a political thriller than a mystery. It was initially published anonymously, in part to create the impression that someone with strong political connections penned it, but that pseudonymous fig-leaf did not last long (a 1934 Times review points the finger strongly at Wolfe, and he admitted it a few years after publication). 

Here's the plot - Europe is at war, and some movers and shakers from the business community want in on the racket. They've got Congress, the Press, and a bunch of neo-nazis called the Grey Shirts, under the control of a charismatic leader Lincoln Lee all gunning for war. Against them we have the president, who is pacifistic and doesn't want to send US boys into battle. Then, right before a major vote on war, the president, well, vanishes. Kidnapping is assumed and there is a mad scramble of the various inhabitants of Washington to find him, as the powers-behind-the-throne push for the Vice President to step in or ignite a populist Grey Shirt rebellion. Either way gives them the war they want.

The book scatters its main characters, starting with a lobbyist working with the conspirators, then moving to the Secretary of War, who is in charge of the investigation, and finally settling on Chic Moffat, square-jawed, wise-racking Secret Service agent. He feels like an early draft of Archie Goodwin, but more willing to slug his girlfriend (Alma, a secretary for the First Lady) for her own good.  Stout also gets into the details of the Grey Shirts, their organization, secrets, and Lincoln Lee's patriotism. Lee is a true believer, and gets some dandy speeches, and Stout pulls it off well. 

The plot has its echoes in the past. The year before, a group of businessmen sought to launch a coup against FDR and install retired Major General Smedley Butler as a dictator. Butler dropped a dime on his co-conspirators, and this all came out about the time the book was written. Also, we have the earlier example of Woodrow Wilson being incapacitated, and his Vice President being unwilling to take the office. And we had our home-grown fascist groups, like the Silver Shirts in the Pacific Northwest. So there was some grounding on this.

The nature of the war itself (This was 1934) is left a bit vague. There are battles in Siberia. France is a opponent, and the US leans towards helping Germany, but the nature of the players and causes is left unexplained. Which makes sense because the action is all in Washington DC, and war, any war, will do. 

The book generated a movie of the same name, which also hit in 1934 (Paramount started filming before the book was published). There are a lot of demi-familiar faces from that age of the studio system, including Rosalind Russell in one of her early roles as well as perennial cowboy sidekick Andy Devine. The conflict is simplified a bit, but it pretty much follows the same beats as the book itself.

So how is it? Not bad, showing a lot of Stout's strengths with character and plot. But I'm pleased with the fact that Wolfe and Goodwin took off, and that there was a lot more them in the future.

More later, 

Friday, May 03, 2024

Book: Occupy This Book!

 The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement David Graeber, Spiegel & Grau, 2013

Provenance: This was a gift from the (now former) Housemates, Anne and Sig. I'm an easy person to buy for - just send books. The thing they didn't know when they picked it up was that the late David Graeber was also the co-author of the History of Everything, which I read earlier, but that's just a bit of serendipity.

Review: I finished this books several months ago, but has taken me a while to write this one up. I've been pulling this entry out, writing a few sentences, removing some others, and then putting it aside for awhile. As a result, I've ended up with a big pile of books stacking up behind it. Because this book's given me a lot to think about.

The Occupy Movement was over a decade ago. Its primetime was in 2011-2012, consisted of protests in most major cities around the world, and its tactics were a variant of what the oldest of the old guard would call sit-ins and teach-ins - literally occupying (usually public) space. It was vocal about money in politics and the ongoing bankrupting of the next generation. It didn't have demands so much as questions. The best-known example was in New York City, on Wall Street, where thousands camped out to occupy public space and protest. This did not go over well with the money-makers and their contribution-seeking pols working in the area. 

The late David Graeber was one of the instrumental members of the organization, in addition to the author of later works on Debt and The History of Everything. I can't say he was a leader of the movement, because by definition the movement didn't have leaders in the traditional sense. It was extremely decentralized, to the point of being a democratic anarchy. So David Graeber is kinda a leader - near the center but not at the center.

 And this history is kinda a history. It is more of an overview of the problems that brought about the movement and the challenges of protest. It is, like the movement it describes, not organized along recognizable lines. 

We start at the beginning with how the situation has evolved. Over the years, money has had a greater and greater role in our politics, particularly since the Citizens United decision of 2009, which declared money to be free speech, and we should not keep large organizations from giving large amounts of money to sympathetic candidates (and reaping the rewards). This resulted in a solidification of the Golden Rule - he that has the gold, makes the rules. It has also intensified such things as predatory loans and killer interest. In particular, for young people, was saddling the next generations with unescapable debt. And in this created a large group of people concerned about their future. Cyberpunk in that Corpos are running stuff, but without the cool body mods. 

The restive group found common ground with others and protested across the board. Most of these protests didn't amount to much, but Occupy did, spreading like wildfire through the year and across the globe. Graeber doesn't really offer a solid reason why THIS protest became widespread, other than to note that it doesn't have any success, until it does. He goes into detail on certain elements of the protest, such as the people's microphone - a pass-along method of relaying a speaker without using electronics. and in particular a decentralized hub. It also adamantly resists the idea of creating leaders or spokespeople to channel and massage the message. 

Graeber takes a break from the narration to get into history - that those in charge have always had a fear of the "mob" - defined as large groups of people that are not on your side. In fact, the word "democracy" has been used historically as a term to defame others and their position. Democracy was a dog whistle for mob rule. Only in the past century, particularly in the WWII era, did we start using the term democracy as a positive trait in comparison to authoritarian governments we opposed. And yeah, recently the Washington State GOP has decided to NOT use democracy since they fell that promotes, well, the Democratic Party. 

We get into some nuts and bolts of consensus government, including the problems of dealing with bad actors - those who are just there to oppose, and will never gain consensus. Again, we're seeing that currently over in the Republican Party, which has logjammed itself into inertia. Graeber also gets into the tactics of the authorities, including elevating a "leader" as a single spokesperson, and such stunts as dumping newly-released criminals and homeless into the area, then using that as an excuse to move against the entire group. 

Finally, Graeber argues for a casting off of capitalistic tropes and thought processes that are ingrained in us, and for a redefinition of labor and of communism (which carries the same demerits that democracy once did). He's not sure about where this would go with a movement that does not make direct demands, but would like to check it out. 

Since this book was first published, a lot of water has gone under the gate. BLM, the Capital Hill Occupation here in Seattle, and most recently the Jan 6 Insurrection. In the CHOP, we saw a lot of authoritative behavior that matches up with his descriptions of the anti-Occupy forces, up to the stunt of the authorities abandoning a police station, sending word out the right-wing protesters were going to seize it, then acting against left-wing protesters grabbed it instead. (We think - any evidence that this was NOT the authorities thinking was "accidentally" deleted from their phones). The Jan 6 attack on the capital is interesting in that not only did it see a stronger pushback from authorities, it continues on with publicized arrests and convictions of those present (and seeking justice against those leaders behind the attack). Most leftist protests seem to be responded to on a catch-and-release program (Even currently - a pro-Palestine group blocked traffic to the airport for a couple hours, and resulted in 42 misdemeanor arrests), and there is often little in the way of media follow-up to arrests (In an earlier protest from January that closed I-5, 6 people are going to trial-that showed up today in the paper.).

I'm not sure I agree with everything Graeber puts forward here - he seems to nod positively towards "direct action" and defends actions of the "black block" (violent protesters) as being a tactic. not a particular group (crimes against property, while not as horrible as violence against people, are still crimes). And to be honest, democracies (including republics) can both make horrible choices that rival those of mad kings - Brexit and large chunks of our population voting for Trump both come to mind.

And yet protest does bring change. Getting back to Graeber's original starting occupy, we are (slowly, after all this time) seeing debt forgiveness for a lot of college students. And a lot of folk are tired of big money in politics. Baby steps are still steps.

Interestingly, The Democracy Project does give me a grounding that I only slowly picked up in his The History of Everything - that the way we traditionally deal with things (hierarchical, authoritarian) is not the only way of governance, even if it is the way most of us are dealing with them. And so it's given me a lot to think about. 

More later,