I sent off some correspondence tonight to a friend who’d asked for a general introduction to the world of fanfiction — and realized, in the process, that my own essay on the subject elsewhere on this site was seriously out of date in some respects. I’ve therefore done some light but long-overdue revising to account for changes in the fanfictional landscape. If this is a subject that interests you, feel free to have a look at the new version (and comment if there are points you think I’ve overlooked or under-explored).
Five plays in three days — that’s the schedule for my annual visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, hosted by the Whitman College alumni office (which books the rooms and the tickets) and curated by our designated Whitman English professor (who picks the plays). This latter job is a perennial challenge, as there are usually more excellent shows in the repertory than we have the time or ability to see. Thus, for example, we didn’t get into Pericles, the late Shakespeare play running in OSF’s smallest theater, and we caught Much Ado About Nothing rather than an adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
What we did see, however, was at minimum very good and at the top of the scale…well, we’ll get there in a minute or three.
Both Much Ado and Antony & Cleopatra, the two Shakespeare plays we took in, were very good productions. This year’s staging of Much Ado is likely to remind many of the two best-known film versions: Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 movie and Joss Whedon’s 2013 release. Its visual style and color palette is Mediterranean, like the Branagh film, but the wholly modern tone runs closer to Whedon. It’s funny where it needs to be — one of the best running gags has Rex Young’s Dogberry zipping around on a Segway, and Christiana Clark makes an especially energetic Beatrice. It’s also provocative where it needs to be — actress Regan Linton plays a wheelchair-bound Don John with credible bitterness, lending an intriguing dimension to the darker side of the play’s storyline.
Antony & Cleopatra also walks the line between modern and historical staging; the soldiers wear modern uniforms and carry tommy guns, but the Roman leaders often appear in classic white draping and Cleopatra’s exotic and varied wardrobe makes several nods toward Egyptian iconography. This production, to my mind, is more Antony’s than Cleopatra’s — Derrick Lee Weeden’s performance is simply stronger and more focused than Miriam Laube’s, though it’s hard to tell how much of this reflects the actors’ choices and how much should be ascribed to Bill Rauch’s directorial vision. I also found Jeffrey King’s Enobarbus a much stronger presence than that of Cleopatra’s handmaidens — though this too isn’t wholly the performers’ fault, as Charmian and Iras are saddled with uniquely and disastrously awful costumes throughout the show.
Flaws notwithstanding, the overall execution for both of these plays is very good, but neither quite leaps over the bar into “exceptional”. Much Ado is arguably more consistent overall, but Antony & Cleopatra is less frequently produced, and well worth seeing on that basis.
Sweat is…interesting. It’s a world-premiere production, co-commissioned by OSF from playwright Lynn Nottage, and concerns a handful of industrial plant workers in Reading, PA as they deal with upper management’s efforts to break the union. There are two mothers, each with a son, one with an ex-husband, plus the bartender and busboy at the tavern where they hang out after work. A framing narrative is set in 2008, but most of the action takes place eight years earlier, shortly after the ratification of the NAFTA trade agreement.
As the summary suggests, the script’s politics are in no way subtle. Nottage’s story, though, is less about the politics than it is about the people living with the fallout thereof. We see mostly well-intentioned people make choices that force them into unplanned opposition to one another, and must watch as the inevitable tension leads to unforeseen consequences. One conflict arises when one of the women is promoted into a low-level management job both have fought for…and is then forced to help implement an anti-union lockout against her friends. Meanwhile, the bar’s Hispanic busboy takes a strikebreaker’s job — the pay being far better than he can hope for otherwise — thereby angering both locked-out sons. The repertory casting has intriguing resonances here; Carlo Albán plays both the busboy and Much Ado‘s Claudio, and Jack Willis doubles as bartender Stan and Much Ado‘s Governor Leonato. But there are no weak performances, and it’s clear that none of these characters really want to be at odds. They simply can’t back away from the confrontations their choices have forced on them. Sweat is a show that absolutely requires first-rate acting to succeed — but OSF has the talent pool to pull it off, and the results are compelling if not comfortable.
And now we get to the musicals — that’s right, musicals plural.
Guys & Dolls is easily described. This is an old-school Broadway classic, and the production is exactly that: old-school Broadway. The set is mostly simple with the occasional jet-propelled flourish, the choreography is brisk and eager, the acting is crisp and confident, and the songs are executed with energy and vigor. It’s easily a six-stars-out-of-five production, firing on all cylinders from overture to finale, and even though I am normally stingy with my standing ovations, I was on my feet in three seconds flat at the end of the show.
Head Over Heels is something else again.
Start with Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a work known mostly to die-hard grad students of English literature. Next, consider the entire musical output of the Go-Gos. Now if someone told you these two canons had been fused into a brand new rock musical, wouldn’t your first reaction be “What the heck have you been smoking?” But in fact, Jeff Whitty (father of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q) has done exactly that — which may go some way toward explaining why the fusion works as amazingly well as it does.
I won’t even try to explain the plot. Suffice to note that it occupies a space bordering both Shakespeare’s more convoluted comedies (with more than a nod toward the late romances) and the two Marx Brothers stage adaptations OSF has produced in recent years. Your tour guide and master of ceremonies is John Tufts as Philanax, who’s both a classic Fool (think Twelfth Night and King Lear) and a supercharged version of the Leading Player from Pippin, garbed in raucous patchwork and whiteface. Under his nominal oversight, Head Over Heels doesn’t just break the metaphorical fourth wall, it tunnels gleefully through it and out into the audience. I was studying my playbill five minutes before curtain when I became aware of an animated conversation going on in the row behind me — and when I glanced up, I discovered that (a) there was an eight-foot pool of lush purple skirt taking up most of the aisle behind me, and (b) the skirt’s wearer (Queen Gynecia, aka Miriam Laube) was talking avidly with the lady in the aisle seat just above mine. Another half dozen or more cast members were scattered elsewhere along the aisles, similarly occupied.
It gets wilder from there. At curtain time, Tufts strolled out to center stage, introduced himself (both in character and out), and brought on his castmates for similar double-identitied introductions — king, queen, princesses, shepherd boy, valet, lady-in-waiting. We meet the Oracle of Delphi (eventually rechristened Linda), who knows all because she has a copy of the script. There’s romance, cross-dressing, battles with Fierce Wild Animals, onstage adultery (but not exactly), more romance, coming out of the
chamberpot closet, swordplay, an Oracular deus ex machina, some more romance, same-sex marriage, gender-bending, and a whole heck of a lot of singing and dancing. [A side note for the genre fans in the gallery: it is both disconcerting and delightful that Bonnie Milligan as Princess Pamela is, both visually and vocally, something of a ringer for Seanan McGuire.]
My one and only quibble with all this outrageously entertaining nonsense is one that arises all too often in musicals (and especially rock musicals): at times, the orchestra’s enthusiasm occasionally overrides the vocals so that it’s difficult to make out song lyrics. But this was at worst an intermittent problem; as a whole, Head Over Heels is awe-inspiring in the most literal sense of the phrase. It’s on a completely different wavelength from Guys & Dolls, but no less brilliant for all that, and it deserves all the success it can possibly garner.
OryCon begins tomorrow (where did the time go?), and I have an unusually busy schedule for the weekend. (Three panels as moderator? What was I thinking? What were they thinking? Don’t answer that….) Here’s where you’ll find me:
Friday, 4 pm • Oregon • Funny Filk
*Andrew Ross, John C. Bunnell, Cecilia Eng, John R. Gray III, Frank Hayes
Sharing the songs that tickle your funny bone.
Saturday, 11 am • Idaho • Hold Onto Your Reader
*Shawna Reppert, John C. Bunnell, Diana Francis, Frog Jones
The wrong word choices can throw your reader right out of the story. Learn how to maintain suspension of disbelief.
Saturday, 1 pm • Hamilton • Back Story: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right
*John C. Bunnell, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Matthew Hughes, G. David Nordley, Erica L. Satifka
What to use, what to lose. Writing the details without having to explain every last one.
Saturday, 4 pm • Roosevelt • Improv Writing
*John C. Bunnell, Susan R. Matthews, Todd McCaffrey
Everyone starts the first couple lines of a story and then passes the pad clockwise. We`ll continue each other`s stories for about a page and then read them out loud to each other. Not specifically for writers, any and everyone welcome.
Saturday, 5:30 pm • Grant • Reading
John C. Bunnell
Sunday, 12 noon • Madison • Synopses, Summaries, Book Descriptions and Other Horrors
*John C. Bunnell, Jason Gurley, Matthew Hughes, Bill Johnson, MeiLin Miranda
Few things exasperate writers more than condensing their masterworks into a single page synopsis–or worse, a 150 word book description! What to include, what to exclude, and strategies to keep it fresh and reveal your voice without sounding unprofessional.
Sunday, 1 pm • Idaho • Structurally Speaking
* Dale Ivan Smith, John C. Bunnell, Matthew Hughes, Bill Johnson, Mary Rosenblum
Stories have rhythm. Is there One True Pattern, or can we mess with it? Are we really bound to the Hero’s Journey, or are there other models?
Back from our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — as usual, well-stuffed with (mostly) very good theater.
First up this year was Richard III, a solid traditional production on the Elizabethan outdoor stage, with the bonus that Richard was/is played by fellow Whitman College graduate Dan Donohue. Dan graciously appeared after the performance at our tour group’s discussion meeting to talk about the show. I very much liked Dan’s Richard — played with a dry, self-assured charm and no prosthetics (the appearance of a withered, useless left arm was entirely physical trickery). Others in the group correctly pointed out the strength of the female roles in this production — amusingly, it turns out that Richard III, at least in this staging, easily passes the Bechdel test.
Next we had The Tempest, staged in the Bowmer theater on a spare but ingenious set (we learned later that some of the players referred to it as “the Dorito chip”). Everyone was very impressed with Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as with the rude comics and Caliban and with some of the clever special effects and props employed by Ariel. The major disagreement was over Prospero, played by Festival veteran Denis Arndt. I was greatly underwhelmed by what I saw as a weak imitation of Dumbledore or Gandalf, too much the kindly grandparent with no real gravitas, out of step with the rest of the production; our group’s faculty guide thought Arndt did a good job of making Prospero accessible. (Judging purely by the audience murmurs I heard on the way out of the theater, the “underwhelmed” crowd was in the majority.)
The group’s third show was The Comedy of Errors in the Thomas theater (the newest, smallest performance space), which I am told may have been the strongest Shakespeare play of the weekend. I skipped out on this, however, in favor of the Festival’s brand new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Excellent Shakespeare notwithstanding, I’m very glad I did. On one hand, I have a number of reservations about the structure and design of the script; OTOH, the execution was mostly very good indeed, with a number of excellent performances (including Tempest‘s Miranda as Meg Murry and Dan Donohue as her father). I will likely have more to say about this eventually, but it is a fascinating if flawed adaptation, and worth the viewing.
Sunday brought The Great Society and Two Gentlemen of Verona. The former is the direct sequel to the Tony-winning All the Way, chronicling President Lyndon Johnson’s second term in office, his struggles with Vietnam War policy, and his clashes with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a powerful show with many superb performances, and moves briskly through its 3+ hour running time; whatever one’s personal politics may be, this is a compelling drama and a thoughtful look at the history of that time.
By contrast, Two Gentlemen is mild-mannered and understated, perhaps this season’s most conservative Shakespeare…except that it’s presented by an all-female cast (well, almost all female; I believe that Picasso, the gorgeous and very patient St. Pyrenees dog playing Crab, may be a male). Interestingly, the production makes no changes whatever to Shakespeare’s language; it’s simply that many of the women are playing male roles just as young men in Elizabethan times would have played the female roles — and the staging pretty much ignores this, just as an Elizabethan cast would have ignored the reverse anomaly originally. This got mixed reactions from our group; many viewers wanted more overt nods to one or another feminist sensibility. My feeling is that that’s a no-win scenario, and that the director’s choice to play the script as straight as possible is the best possible way to show how timeless Shakespeare’s stories really are — even in what’s regarded as one of his weakest plays. I liked the production a great deal and thought it made a good conclusion to the weekend.
Counter-intuitive thought for the day: reading a bad book can be good for you.
Yes, really. Let me explain:
From a craft standpoint, sometimes one way to figure out how good prose works can be to look at clunky prose. Looking at someone’s clunky Cinderella retelling side by side with someone else’s lyrical one may — if you take apart corresponding passages word by word — offer insights into why word choice matters and what makes certain dialogue or narration come alive rather than lying (and sounding) flat on the page.
Alternately, if you run into a page or two of text that annoys you sufficiently, it may be useful as a writing exercise to take that specific passage and recast it into stronger, more effective prose — and then look at the two versions to see where one goes right and the other wrong. (That said, I do not advise using this approach as a means of creating a story you intend to market as your own. Entirely apart from the potential legal issues, dealing with that much bad prose is likely to drive you insane long before you finish.)
But that’s only one dimension of the premise. Sometimes a book can be severely flawed but highly provocative in terms of the issues or ideas it develops. There are works that one may not consider “good” in and of themselves, but which are important for the place they hold in the literary or genre canon. There are books that one might classify purely as “popcorn” — to be read for sheer escape or entertainment value, irrespective of any quality stamp. I’ve recommended titles in all these categories for the SF book discussion group I co-moderate, and I’m happy to defend any of those choices. This coming Tuesday we’re looking at David Weber’s first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station — which I’m sure some of our members will decry as a bad book. They may (or may not) be right…but I think it’s worthwhile for the group to read and discuss it regardless.
Personally, though, one reason I read — and even occasionally seek out — bad books is that it helps me maintain perspective. If I only read stories I like, or stories that I expect to be “good”, I’m limiting my sample and narrowing my range. I need a sampling of the negative outliers as counterpoint, so that I can better recognize and better appreciate the really good stuff on the upper end of the spectrum.
So feel free to read a bad book this week. And let me know what it was; I might just check it out myself.
Reviews are beginning to come in for Spirit of All the Russias, and the response to this point has been decidedly positive. From Long and Short Reviews:
“The exquisitely detailed passages in this story made me feel as if I were standing next to Baba Yaga as she surveys the ruined land that she once knew so well.”
And from Mary Patterson Thornburg (as posted to Facebook, Amazon, & B&N):
“It’s beautifully written, chilling, enchanting, and funny all at once. Like that little hut on chicken legs, it’s much larger on the inside than it seems to be from without.”
Needless to say, I am a happy author this afternoon….
The short version first: a Kickstarter has just opened up that I’d like to see succeed. I’ve already signed on; now I hope some of you will, too. Let me tell you the story….
A couple of years ago now, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to read the unpublished manuscript of a new novel set in the world of L. Frank Baum’s Oz. In itself, this wasn’t unusual; Oz fans are almost as prolific as Sherlockians where pastiche and fanwork are concerned. What was unusual was that this particular novel — called Polychrome — didn’t find its way to me through any of my connections in the worlds of fandom and fanfiction. Rather, it came from someone I first encountered during my long tenure as a professional reviewer of SF and fantasy. Specifically, its author was Ryk Spoor, who’s published a number of popular novels with Baen.
That may sound like an odd background for someone writing an Oz novel. And I’m not an easy sell where Oz is concerned. Baum’s books were among the first long fiction I read as a toddler, and remain among my all-time favorites. But Polychrome won me over, and I wrote Ryk back after I finished it with a strong thumbs-up and several specific endorsements written in hopes of persuading a major publishing house to acquire the book.
Regrettably, that hasn’t happened — and personally, I find that baffling. There’s a lot of commercial interest in Oz right now, and of all the Ozian follow-on material I’ve read and seen over the last decade or two, I think Polychrome is the single book-length work most likely to turn into a breakout hit. This is part of what I wrote two years back:
Polychrome is that rarity among homages to the classics, a novel that’s both wholly faithful to the spirit of its source material and striking in its willingness to look beyond that canon. The novel is neither satire, allegory, nor reboot; rather, it’s a freshly conceived extrapolation from Baum’s original series. Indeed, it’s a story I can imagine Baum himself writing if he were reincarnated into the 21st century.
Now Ryk has set up a Kickstarter in hopes of bringing the book out himself. I don’t intend to make a habit of promoting Kickstarter projects in my personal blogspaces; among other things, I still have at least a toehold in the reviewing community, where maintaining a degree of objectivity is an important consideration.
For this particular project, however, I’m making an exception. Polychrome deserves to see the light of day, and I encourage both lifelong Oz fans and casual Oz readers to go forth and contribute. This one is special, folks.
The day has arrived! My newest Uncial Press ebook, Spirit of All the Russias, is live. The title page calls it a “novel byte”; in practical terms, it’s a short story published in ebook format. Which means (among other things) that it has extremely cool cover art (see below). Currently, you’ll find it at Uncial’s Web site and over at ebook-retailer Untreed Reads; it should filter out to Amazon, B&N, and a host of other ebook sellers in the next couple of days.
(ETA2: As of late Friday night, it’s on both Amazon and B&N. That said, one thing to keep in mind about ebooks published by smaller presses: when you buy directly from the publisher’s Web site, you’re showing extra support for that author and publisher, who then don’t have to share revenue with a third-party vendor.)
Baba Yaga has long been one of my favorite myth-figures, and I am very happy to see this story out in the world.
I am not at all sure what the following experience proves, except possibly that my unconscious brain has a wicked sense of humor….
As with most people, my dreams tend to manifest recurring themes. There’s the flying theme, the trying-to-get-somewhere theme, the naked-in-embarrassing circumstances theme, and so on. And in my particular case, these themes often play themselves out at science fiction conventions.
So it wasn’t surprising last night to find that I’d dreamed myself into a convention, and that I had talked someone into letting me take a shower in one of the con’s luxury suites — in which, in the way of this sort of dream, the latch to the bathroom door emphatically Did Not Work. However, a couple of concom folks had agreed to guard said door to avoid embarrassing circumstances…and then, in the way of this sort of dream, inexplicably vanished.
This, naturally, left me in the luxury suite partially dressed, trying to explain to a Famous Professional Writer what I was doing getting ready to take a shower. (Curiously, the dream didn’t cast a specific Famous Professional Writer; this was a matronly lady I didn’t recognize at all, except that she was clearly an FPW.)
FPW: “I have a reservation in this hotel.”
Me: “As do I.”
Pause, freeze-frame, flashback: indeed, earlier in the dream, there had been a sequence in which I’d checked in and dropped off my luggage in my hotel room.
Me: “Wait a minute.”
My conscious brain, as opposed to my dream-brain, processes this, and draws the obvious conclusion.
Me, to the FPW: “I am a complete idiot.”
And I woke up — having, for the first and only time I can remember, gotten myself out of a naked-in-embarrassing-circumstances dream before the nudity actually kicked in.
I know, I know, I’m one of the last three people in the whole world to have seen Frozen…but at least I caught it a few hours before it picked up its Oscars. Some thoughts:
In general, it’s an impressive film, and it’s definitely in the upper tier of modern-era Disney animated features. I don’t think it quite reaches the topmost tier alongside Beauty & the Beast, but it’s a solid companion piece to Tangled and Brave and more of a traditional musical than either of those. One online comment I scanned earlier today referred to the movie as “Wicked Light” — which is both an apt characterization and a very good reason for Disney to be developing a stage version.
The opening setup sequences are troubling in a couple of respects. First, I need a second look at the initial sequence between the sisters’ parents and the rock troll elder. While the trolls are ultimately portrayed as benign, the elder’s blocking of Anna’s memories is a key catalyst for the subsequent crisis — which is a trifle disconcerting when we eventually see the trolls again. The second catalyst is the late King’s and Queen’s spectacular failure to follow up on the elder’s advice that Elsa must learn to control her powers; rather, they reinforce Elsa’s choice to try and suppress them instead. The parents’ deaths are also peculiar. Their passing is decidedly convenient for the plot, and — amazingly — causes no political upheaval whatsoever in Arendelle. It’s unclear how much time elapses between the deaths and Elsa’s coronation, but I had the definite sense that Elsa wasn’t old enough to take the crown immediately. Yet we see nothing about a regency council or royal advisors, and no one objects when Anna puts a wholly foreign noble in charge of the kingdom while she goes after Elsa. This is…odd at best.
The other scene I want to see again is Anna’s initial dockside meeting with Prince Hans. Despite having waited 15 weeks to see Frozen, I had managed to avoid being spoiled for Hans’ character arc, and I entirely failed to anticipate the twist he springs on newly white-haired Anna on her return to the palace. One key reason for this involves the last few moments of that first meeting, in which Hans’ horse drops him into the fjord…and even though Anna is no longer there, the bit is played purely for its comic effect, with no change in the tenor of Hans’ reaction. It’s a very sneaky fake-out, and I’m not sure whether to compliment the creative team for its deviousness or chastise them for essentially cheating viewers with regard to the scene’s true context. In the end, Hans emerges as one of Disney animation’s creepiest villains (offhand, I’d rate only Frollo of the much-underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame as nastier), in which light it’s unnerving that he’s also one of the few who survives mostly unscathed by film’s end.
The preceding reservations notwithstanding, I enjoyed the movie very much. The animators do their usual brilliant work with the various sidekick characters, the deliberate winks at fairy-tale convention are clever — clearly, both sisters have seen Enchanted, the film that introduces the phrase “true love’s kiss” to the Disney canon — and the chemistry between Kristen Bell’s Anna and Idina Menzel’s Elsa is charming throughout. (It may be just me, but I also find it amusing that both actresses were cast against type: the blonde is playing a brunette, while the brunette is playing a blonde.)
My overall grade: B+ (A for voice performances, A for visuals, B for music, C+ for script/story). Not quite a classic, but a very respectable effort.