Good Grief, It’s OryCon Again!

Thanks to the astonishingly kind and forgiving folk on OryCon 39‘s programming staff (you’re better off not knowing the details), I will once again be a busy and active panelist this coming weekend.  For the four and a half people who may be interested*, here’s where I’ll be:

Friday, Nov. 17

2:00 pm • Voice & Style • Lion King’s Den (266)

Gra Linnaea | John C. Bunnell, Andrew S. Fuller, Catherine McGuire, Dave Smeds

10:00 pm • Historical Figures in Fantasy • Pendleton

Alan M. Clark | John C. Bunnell, Esther Jones, Pat MacEwen, Sheila Simonson

Saturday, Nov. 18

11:00 am • Ghost in the Machine, or Grandpa? • Spokane Suite (266)

Brenda Cooper | John C. Bunnell, Sheila Finch, John A Pitts, Daniel H. Wilson

3:00 pm • Star Trek: Discovery • Lovejoy

Curtis C. Chen | John C. Bunnell, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jennifer Willis, Rob Wynne

6:00 pm • Urban Fantasy Made Real • Lovejoy

Tori Centanni | John C. Bunnell, Craig English, Lee French, Stephanie L. Weippert

Sunday, Nov. 19

11:00 am • Diversity in Fiction: Do’s and Don’ts • Lion King’s Den (266)

Benjamin Hsu | Josh Boykin, John C. Bunnell, Laurel Anne Hill, Jessica Walsh

12:00 noon • Superheroes in Times of Crisis • Wenatchee (166 – Parlor)

Marshall Ryan Maresca | John C. Bunnell, Eva L. Elasigue, Blaze Ward

 

*All right, six.  Maybe seven if my brother decides to get a day pass at the last minute.

Memo to TriMet: Street View Lies

Understand, I like TriMet.  The greater Portland area’s transit system is one of the best in the US.  Although it’s not perfect (the sooner we get more late-night service on my current primary route, the happier a lifestyle non-driver I will be), it’s generally very well operated.

But at the moment, I am laughing at them.

Construction has recently finished on a major intersection a couple of miles from Lone Penman HQ, which happens to be a significant transfer point on two bus routes I use regularly.  Service to most of the affected bus stops on both routes has resumed — except for one stop, where there is an orange plastic sign explaining that that stop is closed “due to construction”.

I needed that stop last weekend, and TriMet’s “Transit Tracker” Web resource appeared to indicate that the stop was alive and well so that one might expect buses to stop there.  No such luck; I found the orange sign and watched the bus I’d hoped to connect with zoom by to a stop two blocks away on the opposite side of the intersection.

So I went home — on the next bus, half an hour later — and wrote an aggrieved email, urging them to either revive the stop or to update the Transit Tracker data to show its true status.  On the plus side, they responded promptly: before the weekend was out, this Rider Alert had appeared on Transit Tracker:

“No service to the southbound stop at SW Murray & Farmington (Stop ID 4068) due construction until further notice.”

There’s just one thing wrong with this: there’s no longer any construction going on anywhere near this intersection.  Google’s street-view images may suggest otherwise, but they’re a good couple of weeks out of date.

Thus, I wrote another aggrieved email, urging them to correct the Rider Alert, and specifically pointing out that the trouble with the text was not the minor grammatical error (“due construction” ought to be “due to construction”), but the significant error of fact.  I may also have proposed a revised text for the Alert, suggesting “FOR NO GOOD REASON EXCEPT THAT WE SAID SO” (caps optional) as more accurate than “due [to] construction”.

I did not expect them to implement that suggestion…and indeed, they didn’t.  On the other hand, the text of the Rider Alert now reads:

“No service to the southbound stop at SW Murray & Farmington (Stop ID 4068) due to construction until further notice.”

Ah, well.  At least they fixed the grammar issue….

Ashland 2017: The Merry Wives of Windsor

When the strongest elements of a given show are the high-powered rock musical production numbers, you don’t usually have a problem…

…unless your show isn’t actually a musical.

This is the trouble with OSF’s Merry Wives of Windsor, and it’s frustrating.  One really wants to like a production that goes all out with the 1980s girl-powered rock vibe — loud, colorful, yet not quite so ear-blasting that the sheer sense of fun gets lost in the background noise.

But the best thing about Merry Wives is supposed to be one Sir John Falstaff, and K. T. Vogt’s Falstaff very nearly fades into the background against all the music-and-dance pyrotechnics.  It isn’t enough simply for Falstaff to play the rogue here — one needs the oversized knight to draw the eyes and hearts of the audience even though he’s being bested left, right, and sideways by the Mistresses Page and Ford.  And Vogt — at least on the night we saw the play — just doesn’t pull this off.  The show belongs entirely to Vilma Silva and Amy Newman as the title wives, with energetic assistance from Jamie Ann Romero as young Anne Page and William de Merritt as her earnest suitor Fenton.

It’s not even clear whether Vogt means her portrayal of Falstaff to be male as the production notes suggest, including a photo where she’s wearing a mustache not present on the night we attended.  Clad in nondescript browns and tans, Vogt comes across as androgynous at best, and that runs sharply counter to the decidedly aggressive romantic intentions Falstaff’s dialogue attempts to establish.  The energy needed simply isn’t there — rather, Vogt comes across as a particularly sad Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, without even Yosemite Sam’s fierceness or Daffy Duck’s acerbic snark.  Audiences might understandably be forgiven for wondering, like Marvin the Martian, “Where’s the KABOOM?  There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering KABOOM!”

At the end of the night, there’s some cause for the wives of Windsor to be merry; Silva, Newman, and Romero do their best to carry the play by themselves, and the energy of the musical numbers comes close to letting them succeed.  But this production of Merry Wives falters badly when compared either to prior OSF iterations of the play or to most of its sister shows in the 2017 season.

Ashland 2017: Off the Rails

The advance descriptions of Off the Rails stress three points: the author is Native American, the script loosely adapts Shakespeare’s often-criticized “problem” play, Measure for Measure, and the story’s major concern involves boarding schools that Native American children were forced to attend in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of these is inaccurate, or at least misleading: as even director Bill Rauch’s notes point out, only one character in the story is a student at one of these schools, and very little of the action even takes place in the boarding-school setting — playwright Randy Reinholz, he says, considered a direct approach to the material “too tragic for any audience to bear”.  (Others have disagreed; the 2011 Portland-based musical Ghosts of Celilo tackled the subject matter head-on, and deserves wider circulation.)

The off-key promotion does Off the Rails a disservice, in that it makes it easy to fault the play — wrongly — for failing to be the show its PR promises.  What Off the Rails actually does — and does very well — is to borrow a difficult Shakespeare plot in the service of presenting a provocative, thoughtfully framed narrative about an equally difficult real-world aspect of American history.

From its opening moments, Reinholz’ story contrasts the popular Wild West of fiction with the harsher, more painful historical frontier.  The denizens of the Stewed Prunes Saloon in Genoa, Nebraska are preparing audition pieces for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but the music-hall atmosphere is promptly tempered by darker matters.   When Genoa’s mayor slips out of town, leaving the head of the nearby Indian boarding school in charge, Captain Angelo uses his new-minted authority to separate and harass a young mixed-race couple who are married by Pawnee standards but not the white man’s. He also yanks title to the Stewed Prunes out from under its Native-blooded mistress and sends armed pursuers after Native children who’ve fled the abusive conditions in the boarding school.

But Barret O’Brien’s portrayal of Angelo isn’t that of a mustache-twirling melodrama villain, nor is Pawnee youth Momaday — the jailed husband marked for hanging, played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett — a Hollywood-issue Indian.  Angelo genuinely believes his strategy of imposing Christian and European cultural identity on Native children will “save” them from their doomed heritage, and Momaday is fully invested both in his past (via exchanges with his grandfather’s spirit, played with wry honesty by Brent Florendo) and his future, represented by his emigrant Irish wife, Caitlin (promising newcomer Truett Felt).

The resonances with Measure for Measure are a good deal more specific than the program notes may suggest; Shakespeare’s plot is preserved virtually beat for beat, with a handful of technical alterations consistent with the Western setting and a separate handful of well-considered changes to certain key narrative points.  But Reinholz’ script is neither pure pastiche nor sharp polemic.  The Native material is pointed yet nuanced; one notable exchange directly addresses Buffalo Bill’s mixed historical reputation yet avoids endorsing a particular viewpoint.  And the show’s final moments take an unusual, explicitly inclusive turn that is better experienced than described.

Ultimately, what’s both ironic and important about Off the Rails is that it doesn’t actually jump its narrative tracks.  The story Reinholz offers is ultimately driven by its characters rather than its politics, and it’s a story both well-told and well worth the telling.

Ashland 2017: Beauty and the Beast

Since making a commitment to musical theater a few years ago, OSF has amply demonstrated that it can do musicals brilliantly and well, on both an intimate scale and a — well, spectacular one, in the specific sense of the word ‘spectacle’.  Which is why this year’s signature musical is — ironically enough, precisely like its title heroine — a little odd.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this iteration of Beauty and the Beast…it’s simply that there isn’t enough right.

Let me amplify.  Disney’s animated feature, the film that launched this franchise, is quintessentially Belle’s story — it’s told chiefly from her point of view, and hers is the strongest character arc in it.  The recent live-action feature film is — strangely enough — more Gaston’s story than anyone else’s, as that script delves more deeply into what makes him a villain and is structured so that it’s Gaston who does the most to drive the action forward.  And the Disney-produced stage musical?  This may surprise you if you haven’t seen it, but to my mind that version’s strongest story arc belongs to Lumiere.

I admit to a certain potential bias here.  The specific Disney stage version I’ve seen is that of the very first national touring company, back in the mid-’90s, wherein the role of Lumiere was played by Patrick Page.  I first met Patrick on the high school speech and debate circuit, where we were both doing expository speeches on stage magic — except that I was your average teen-aged amateur performer, and Patrick was already a seasoned professional prestidigitator.  We bonded over our mutual interest in magic, and when Patrick turned up in my college dorm a few years later as a transfer student, we rapidly developed a friendship.

Returning, though, to Beauty and the Beast — in the “official” Disney stage version, there’s a good deal of added material, and most of that material serves to transform the story from a light animated romance into a full-bore Broadway spectacle.  Specifically, it becomes via both script and choreography a French cabaret show, with several new speaking parts for members of the household staff and a major new song, “Human Again”, which supports both a major production number and a much stronger character arc for Lumiere and Cogsworth.  And the result?  Structurally, the changes transform Lumiere’s role from that of a passive narrator to an active master of ceremonies, creating a much stronger character arc for the talking furniture as a whole — and for Lumiere in particular, by way of a specific romantic interest in particular.

Or so I conclude from the touring show I saw all those years ago, in which Patrick’s Lumiere was definitely the prime mover.  And that brings us to the trouble with OSF’s production.  Necessarily, OSF’s version has chosen not to try and match the visual spectacle of the Disney shows — most particularly, there’s no attempt at all to visually replicate the sweep and wonder that’s the Beast’s amazing library.  Instead, it opts for lightning-fast pacing and nearly instant scene changes, moving the action forward as briskly as it can.  But what the production loses in the process are its character moments — with the literally tiny exception of Chip’s, as young Naiya Gardiner perfectly underplays (and steals) every scene she’s in with the help of Kate Mulligan’s Mrs. Potts, possibly the strongest pure vocalist in the cast.  As an ensemble, the cast is excellent — but there’s no one here who emerges as a focus, for either the story or the spectacle.

And as a result, what audiences have in OSF’s production is more a soundtrack album and highlight reel than anything else.  It’s watchable, and listenable, and enjoyable, and even good — but the power and depth that this story can have just isn’t there.

Ashland 2017: Henry IV, Part I

When word came on Saturday morning that an understudy would be playing Sir John Falstaff in that afternoon’s performance of Henry IV Part I, our tour-group’s faculty guide was less than cheerful.  G. Valmont Thomas is a popular OSF veteran, and one of the company’s most reliably compelling performers.  Then, several hours later, the lights went down at the Festival’s intimate Thomas Theater…

…and viewers were treated not just to an exceptional Falstaff from understudy Tyrone Wilson, but to a uniformly excellent and unusually accessible presentation that scores high marks in every category of stagecraft from acting to set design to technical effects.

It’s not unusual for me to assert that the cast of a given OSF show is uniformly good, though I often follow that comment with some specific note of praise for or dissatisfaction with a particular performance.  This case is different: the ensemble here is not just uniformly good, but uniformly astonishing in the best possible way.  Shakespeare’s history plays are frequently (and not wrongly) characterized as sprawling and difficult to follow; here, the performances are clear, crisp, and beautifully integrated with one another, so that what shines are not individuals but pairings and trios — Wilson’s Falstaff with Daniel Jose Molina’s Prince Hal, Lauren Modica’s Glendower with Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur, and so on.  (Yes, you read that correctly: both Hotspur and Glendower are played here by women; indeed, most of Hotspur’s rebel aides and allies are women here, and they’re just as convincing a band as the predominantly male forces supporting King Henry.)

Modern dress costuming and scenic design — spare and industrial, but cleverly lighted and fitted with a handful of ingenious special-effects tools — also contribute to the production’s crisp and easily followed pacing.  And while purists and those with sensitive hearing may complain about the final act’s extended artillery battle, the fact is that the staging is no louder than it needs to be and relatively restrained in its execution.

The result is a show that combines the brisk action of a modern movie thriller with the nuanced characterization of a thoughtful military drama…and makes the tonal blending work.  It may be the single most purely watchable history play I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been coming to Ashland, and that covers a lot of territory.

Ashland 2017: The Odyssey

The annual pilgrimage to Ashland began this year with an epic production (3 hours 20 minutes, just as promised in the playbill) of The Odyssey, adapted from the Robert Fitzgerald translation by director Mary Zimmerman.  I can’t comment just now on the technical or literary quality of the adaptation — though I will be looking in at the Tudor Guild in the morning to see if OSF has printed one of its limited-run editions of the production script.  What I can tell you is that this is live theater at its most basic — and therefore its most risky.  With nearly bare sets and a very few technical effects — most very simple and striking — it’s wholly up to the actors to determine whether the show will succeed brilliantly, or fall catastrophically on its face.

This being the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, home of one of the strongest acting companies anywhere in North America, what we get is about 95% brilliance.  This is one of the most vocally clear shows I’ve ever heard in the Elizabethan theater; the dead simplicity of the staging ensures that nothing gets in the way of the actors’ words.  Also — or perhaps especially — several effective set pieces omit dialogue almost entirely in favor of crisp, sharp choreography.  I was particularly impressed with a sequence in which Odysseus’ beleaguered and starving crew is seduced into capturing and slaughtering a “lamb”, thereby ensuring their own destruction in turn.

The exception — at least for me — is Christiana Clark’s Athena, whose vocal delivery is by turns both too forceful and too forced, coming across as grade-school speech-reading rather than nuanced storytelling or characterization.  It’s clear both from Clark’s overall performance and the staging that this is a deliberate stylistic choice, and very likely reflects Mary Zimmerman’s directorial vision as much as Clark’s take on the character.  Fortunately, Clark’s physical performance fits into the show far more seamlessly than her speech, and this is really the only off-note in an otherwise compelling production.  Yes, it’s long — but then, odysseys in general are supposed to be long, and this one is the original that defines the term.

Overall, it’s definitely a promising start to a crowded weekend.

Summer Movie Report: Wonder Woman Beats Mummy Going Away

Herewith a quick take on my two most recent summer-movie visits:

Wonder Woman is very, very good — and manages to be so by mostly being a World War I movie rather than a superhero movie.  I am, of course, much too young to have living memories of the WWI period, but one of my grandfathers was an Army engineer in that war, then puttered around Europe for several years afterward doing a variety of field work for the American Red Cross.  My father made a point of writing down and preserving a great many stories arising from those travels, and Wonder Woman surprised me by matching the tone and texture of those stories to an impressive degree.  The members of the team Diana and Steve Trevor bring together feel like people my grandfather could easily have met and understood.  I’ve heard complaints about the portrayals of some of the minority characters, but my sense is that what’s shown is essentially accurate for the time and place — and that the reactions of the characters in question are as true to period as everything else.

Mind you, it’s not perfect.  The scene in which Diana crosses “No Man’s Land” very nearly threw me out of the movie — even in a comic-book world, there should have been too heavy a volume and breadth of firepower for her to survive being shredded using the traditional deflection-and-dodging powers that we usually associate with Wonder Woman and her gauntlets.  That the scene works is a matter of the sheer force of will Gal Gadot throws into the role…and by the end of the film, it’s clear that in fact, Diana’s Amazon powers are more literally godlike than they were in the Lynda Carter era.

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By contrast, The Mummy is a major disappointment.  Tom Cruise tries to coast through the movie on roguish charm, but the script makes him too much of an idiot and cad for that charm to do much good (except to the degree that it persuades the Forces Of Evil to keep him alive).  Cruise’s character literally has no control over his actions for large segments of the film — the resurrected Egyptian princess Ahmanet is pulling his strings most of the time — and even when he makes a choice that looks sort of heroic (notably, resurrecting the film’s other female lead), one can rationalize that he’s only doing so because he’s looking out for his own self-interest further down the road.

But the real trouble with The Mummy is that there aren’t any proper mummies in it.  What we have instead is Sofia Boutella as the aforementioned Ahmanet, and within five minutes of waking her up, the film has her mostly out of her wrappings and into slinky seductress mode, clad in just enough shreds of green to keep her nominally street-legal.  Nor are most of her monster legions mummies; just about all of them are better classified as skeletons, zombies, or ghouls.  The Egyptian — or even faux-Egyptian — folklore is just as thin on the ground.  With no likeable hero, no mummies, and no mystical Egyptian spice in play, all that’s left is a lot of CGI sludge and generic mayhem.  And that’s not much of a recipe for a successful Mummy movie.

Fortunately, I paid for my ticket to the Cruise Mummy by buying a boxed set of four movies from the much better predecessor franchise starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and eventually The Rock (total price well under $20) — a win for my DVD collection, if not for Universal’s current cash flow.

When Free Food Attacks: A Tale of Darkest Suburbia

You’d think that two free restaurant dinners in one day would be grounds for celebration.  In practice, it didn’t actually work out that way….

It so happens that, after the closing went through on the condominium that’s now Lone Penman Headquarters, the realtor on our side of the deal sent along a respectably generous gift card for one of the new online restaurant-delivery services.  For a one-person household who (a) doesn’t drive and (b) occasionally works multiple graveyard shifts in sequence, this was an especially happy gift, and I have been whittling away at that gift card balance with good results.

Until this past Wednesday, that is, when I placed an order for a shrimp ravioli dish from a nearby Italian place, one from which I’d ordered happily before.  As on the prior occasion, the delivery driver actually beat the estimated delivery window by 15 minutes or so, and handed me a hot takeout box (the entree) and a sturdy small-sized pizza box (the extra side of focaccia).  I thanked him, closed the door, headed for the kitchen, and was actually dividing the entree — enough for two meals, as before — into a bowl and a plastic storage container when I realized that Something Was Wrong.

I had gotten not shrimp with ravioli, but shrimp risotto.

And sadly, I am not at all fond of risotto.  Also, even good risotto tends not to travel well.

The ensuing online chat conversation unfolded like a classic series of good news/bad news jokes.  The chat agent promptly got on the phone with the restaurant…but I couldn’t get the right entree sent over, because there wasn’t a driver available.  They were happy to refund the entree price…but we ran into enormous trouble trying to verify that the refund had actually landed on my electronic gift card (neither the delivery service or its gift card vendor had a way to look up the stored balance without the long alphanumeric code on the paper card I’d originally been given).

And by the time I looked up from typing a highly annoyed email to the gift card vendor, two hours had gone by, during which the shrimp-risotto-not-ravioli had been sitting out on my counter getting cold.  I sighed, tossed it (between not liking risotto and the food safety lectures one hears about not leaving hot food out, I wasn’t going to take chances), and went off to take an abbreviated pre-work nap.

Now, one of the few shortcomings of the shiny new Lone Penman HQ is that while the bus stop is a mere five-minute walk from my front door, and the bus ride to work takes maybe seven minutes, the buses stop running much too early at night for someone working a graveyard shift.  And the weather is not yet good enough to commute via bicycle.  I have therefore taken to riding the last bus up to the relevant intersection and hanging out in one of the available hangouts until it’s actually time to report to work. The night in question being a Wednesday, the McMenamin’s was closed by the time I got there, and I was too hungry to be satisfied with Taco Bell, so I went into Shari’s, thinking that at least I could get some dinner there.  [There is also a Mysterious Seedy-Looking Sports Bar in one of the shopping centers that no one ever talks about.  Someday I may explore the Mysterious Seedy-Looking Sports Bar.  Last Wednesday was not that day.]

And indeed, I ordered a small plate of fish & chips, ate the salad that preceded it, took a bite of fish, and was just picking up an herbed French fry…

…when there was a dramatic BLINK, and all the lights went out.

“We’re sorry,” came the sad but still cheery voice of the Shari’s night manager out of the darkness, “but we have to kick you all out into the street send you all out into the parking lot.  You can’t be here when there’s no power.  It’s not safe.”

“On the other hand,” she added, in a cheery but still sad voice, “whatever you were having tonight is on us.”

I managed to snag a couple of the herbed French fries before following the crowd of customers out of the restaurant into a night which was now not just dark, but extremely dark — it wasn’t just Shari’s that had lost power, but everything for at least several blocks in all directions, up to and including street lights and traffic signals.  And as matters turned out, the outage only lasted perhaps half an hour.  I was able to clock in on schedule at work, and the computers were up and running again.

But what I’m going to remember most about that particular night is having been given two free dinners, and only being able to eat half of one of them.

Ashland 2016: The Winter’s Tale

Winter’s Tale has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  I look at its peculiar structure as a challenge rather than an obstacle, and when it’s well-executed, the finale involving Hermione’s “statue” strikes me as one of the most dramatically satisfying scenes in all Shakespeare.  And of course there’s that famous stage direction….

I’ve been visiting Ashland for long enough now to have seen several very good productions.  I can say, however, that the 2016 iteration is among the very best I have seen.  The opening half is beautifully rendered visually, in silver-gray formal garb that deliberately and elegantly evokes the atmosphere of Han-dynasty China court intrigue.  The performances are clean and crisp throughout, even if Steven Michael Spencer is a trifle over-the-top as Autolycus in the second half.  And this may be the only production of Winter’s Tale I’ve ever seen in which the first-act climax* and Hermione’s statue scene match one another for sheer dramatic power.

That’s about as much as I should say about this production’s bear, at least while the show is still running — it’s a scene that really has to be seen to be properly appreciated, and it’s all the more notable for not relying on complex technical trickery.  The only real problem with the execution is that the staging — and in particular the artistic design it employs — created a visual expectation for the second half of the production (for me, at least) that’s completely abandoned by the time we come back from the intermission.

Herein lies my one notable reservation with respect to this production.  Where the first-half portrayal of King Leontes’ Sicilia is visually striking for its artistic consistency, the show fails to show the same respect to King Polixenes’ Bohemia in its second half.  Instead, we get a mishmash of Daniel Boone frontier garb with a 1960s rainbow-hippie counterculture palette — and while I suppose that’s nominally appropriate for some values of “Bohemian”, it nonetheless feels like a curiously lazy choice by comparison to the much more thoughtful visual development accorded to the Sicilian setting.

But if the Bohemian costuming feels a trifle slapdash, the uniformly strong performances — and the entire ensemble’s clear rendering of the play’s text — more than make up for it.  In particular, Eric Steinberg is outstanding as King Leontes; I’d echo the observation from one of my tour-group companions that it’s to Steinberg’s and the production’s credit that this Leontes is not the merely mad tyrant one often sees, a choice that makes his reformation at the play’s conclusion both more believable and more dramatically charged.  [It is a trifle startling to discover, on glancing into the back of the Festival playbill, that this is Steinberg’s very first turn at OSF, and that a sizeable portion of his resume consists of guest-star and recurring roles on popular TV series including Pretty Little Liars, Torchwood, and Supergirl.  It will be very interesting indeed to see whether the Festival can persuade him to return in future years, because his Shakespearean stage career is definitely worth nurturing.]

 

*Strictly, of course, “exit, pursued by a bear” appears at III.3.57 in my 2nd edition of The Norton Shakespeare; I’m using “first act” above with respect to the show as staged, wherein that moment is the last the audience sees prior to breaking for intermission.