djonn: (raven)
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.

djonn: (bird)

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.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

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….

djonn: (butterfly)

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.

djonn: (woods)
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.)

Spirit of All the Russias (cover art)

 Baba Yaga has long been one of my favorite myth-figures, and I am very happy to see this story out in the world. 
djonn: (Peter Iredale)

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.

djonn: (butterfly)

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.

djonn: (Rasputin)
Wednesday night, I went to an Oscar prediction "party" sponsored by Portland's major daily newspaper.  It was enjoyable and informative, but I put the word "party" in quotation marks because the event consisted almost entirely of an hour's presentation by the paper's movie critic, held in a small space that was sort of a cross between a collegiate lecture room (rows of theater-style seats on two levels, some tables in the back) and a theater lobby.

As I say, I enjoyed the event well enough.  However, I got home Thursday evening to find an emailed note asking me to fill out a feedback survey on the event.  And the survey included the following question:

5. How unique was the event?
<input ... >
<input ... >
<input ... >
<input ... >
<input ... >

Now remember, this was an event sponsored by a newspaper, with the survey link having been mailed by someone with "name-of-newspaper-dot-com" in their e-address.  It may be optimistic of me in the present day and age, but I retain the fond delusion that employees of newspapers ought to use words properly.

This, therefore, is part of the response I included in the survey question where one is asked "is there anything else you'd like to share?"

Also, a note regarding one of the survey questions above: the question misuses the word "unique".  THERE ARE NO DEGREES OF UNIQUENESS.  Either something is unique or it is not.  The question therefore makes no sense, and the individual who drafted it should be required to carry a hardcover copy of The Chicago Manual of Style wherever he or she goes for at least the next two weeks, with Post-Its inserted to mark the relevant pages (170 and 231 in the 15th edition).

I don't anticipate receiving a personal response to this, but perhaps they'll surprise me....
djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

It was probably inevitable; I have now been assimilated by the Twitterverse.  I may be found here, slowly accumulating a Tweet-stream.

Eventually, I may actually compose a tweet....

djonn: (bird)

Bonus thankfulness this week: I have the contract in hand for a new Uncial Press e-fiction release set for this coming March.  This is a short work entirely unconnected to my other Uncial Press titles:

Spirit of All the Russias

"This is not the Russia I remember."

When Baba Yaga steps out of her ancient chicken-legged hut into a blasted, dead landscape nearly devoid of life, she is confronted with a mystery and a dilemma.  Her powers are stronger than they've ever been, but can she find a way to wield them that will restore her homeland rather than destroying it utterly?

Further details will be forthcoming; in the meantime, readers are welcome to check out my existing Uncial Press titles at any of the major e-fiction vendors.  That said, I should note that Untreed Reads will be featuring 50% discounts on all Uncial Press titles -- mine included -- for Cyber Monday (midnight to midnight Pacific time), with a variety of timed bonus promotions throughout the day.  That includes a wide range of mystery, romance, paranormal fiction, and other genre fare from a good many talented folks, so don't hesitate to check out the sale.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

It is, of course, the last possible moment -- but I will in fact be at OryCon this very weekend here in Portland, and my panel schedule is as follows.  (Yes, on both days I have back-to-back panels, and yes, in both cases they're scheduled in rooms at opposite ends of the hotel.  Fortunately, in both cases I am also the moderator of the first panel in the set, so I can invoke the Dark Powers Of Moderation to wrap things up in a timely fashion.  In at least one case, this may involve the use of stopwatch alarms....)

Friday, 11/8

Synopses, Summaries, Book Descriptions and Other Horrors
Madison • 3:00pm-4:00pm
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.
(*)John C. Bunnell, Mary Rosenblum/Mary Freeman, Sheila Finch, Linn Prentiss

Books to movies, to comics, to movies, to books
Hawthorne • 4:00pm-5:00pm
Modes of presentation and limitations therein.
(*)Rob Wynne, John C. Bunnell, Claude Lalumiére, Viktor Maddok

Saturday, 11/9

Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature turned into good movies
Hawthorne • 10:00am-11:00am
F/SF turned into movies.  What has worked and what should have been left on the bookshelf?  What would translate really well into a blockbuster hit and why?
(*)John C. Bunnell, Steven Hoffart, Vincent P. Vaughn, Sandra Jean King, Jean Lamb

Will Pad Devices replace Desktops and Laptops?
Alaska • 11:00am-12:00pm
Not a religious debate.
(*)Mark Niemann-Ross, Jean Lamb, John C. Bunnell, L. Pierce Ludke, Ben Yalow

djonn: (butterfly)

Well, semi-insta.  I was in a major mall yesterday, abruptly encountered a Major Line (very neatly organized, mind you, but a Major Line), and was trying to figure out what was going on when I realized that I was passing the Apple Store.

The filk trigger, however, didn't hit till this morning, when I caught a snippet of a morning talk show in which the co-hosts were discussing this very issue...and proudly showing off their new toys, one in each color.  The first verse was automatic; the second took just a few minutes to settle.

So, without further ado:

Silver or Gold
words: ©2013 John C. Bunnell
music: "Silver & Gold", Johnny Marks, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Silver or gold, silver or gold,
Ev'ryone wishes for silver or gold;
Don't you deny that it's true,
You with your iPhones so shiny and new...

Silver or gold, silver or gold,
Doesn't much matter to me;
When the time comes for my upgrade,
I'll take the one that's free!

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

For all that Ashland audiences are often very, very theater-literate, in recent years they’ve become absurdly generous when it comes to standing ovations.  At least in theatrical circles (as opposed to TV game-show studios, for instance), a standing ovation should reflect truly exceptional accomplishment, should recognize performances at the very pinnacle of the theatrical experience.  In short, they ought to be rare.  If every show gets a standing ovation every night, the worth of the honor decreases.  (The Heart of Robin Hood got one earlier in the weekend; as entertaining as the show was, it did not deserve it.)

This past evening’s performance of My Fair Lady also got a standing ovation – which was, for once, entirely and unequivocally deserved.  The production and the performance really were and are that exceptional, and Amanda Dehnert (credited as both stage and music director) deserves full marks for conceiving and assembling a truly memorable experience.

What’s perhaps most striking about this staging is its intimacy.  The set is, essentially, a theatrical rehearsal hall, its rear occupied with a few rows of metal bleachers with a pair of grand pianos set in front of them, and the ensemble is, in effect, portraying a cast of actors engaged in a run-through of the show they’ve been hired to perform.  This does not preclude occasionally elaborate costuming and choreography, but it constrains it to an intriguing and surprisingly effective degree.  Two violinists, both also part of the acting ensemble (and one a high-school-aged student performer, every bit as polished as anyone in the company), are the only complement to the pianists, but this cast doesn’t need more complex orchestration to drive the familiar score and songs.

The two leads – Jonathan Haugen as Professor Higgins and Rachael Warren as Eliza – are both outstanding on all points; in particular, if the only Higgins you’ve seen is Rex Harrison, having a skilled vocalist in the role is a revelation.  Understudy Dee Maaske was wonderfully warm as Prof. Higgins’ mother, and Ken Robinson as Freddy rightfully steals every scene he’s in.  But this production belongs as much to its ensemble as it does to its leads, and there is no moment when it’s less than captivating, from the pre-opening minutes wherein members of the ensemble are going through physical warm-ups on the set to the final moment between Higgins and Eliza, hauntingly staged halfway up the stairs alongside the audience.

I’ve been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for almost four decades now, which is long enough both to get used to OSF’s high standards for both creative and technical craft and to get a little jaded about that standard.  But I can honestly say that My Fair Lady is among the very best and most memorable shows I’ve seen in that long series of summer tours.  This one’s not just worth the price of the theater ticket, it justifies the travel expense, the hotel room, and the best dinner you can find in town.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

Where issues of sexual politics are concerned, this production of Shrew unabashedly takes its cue from Lucy Van Pelt’s perpetual duel with Charlie Brown – no matter how many times the offer is extended, nobody ever gets to kick that football.  For modern viewers, the text raises the issue over and over – and the present version executes it crisply and energetically, neither apologizing for it nor using stage business to undercut the dialogue.  Which isn’t, in the end, an unreasonable choice.  An honest rendering of Shakespeare’s text, after all, puts fewer barriers and complications in the way as viewers grapple with the play’s take on marriage and women’s issues, letting the play speak more or less for itself.

While the production nominally retains the play’s Italian setting, the specific rendering gives us a mid-20th century carnival boardwalk, complete with neon, primary-colored signs (“Welcome to Padua”), and a fast-food counter complete with roll-down steel curtain.  There’s also an onstage rock band cranking up musical energy, and the performances are similarly tuned – Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is the brunette Bad Girl, while Bianca  (Royer Bockus) is the squeaky-voiced blonde.  Ted Deasy’s Petruchio mixes more than a bit of Happy Days’ Fonzie with a touch of Elvis and a dash of Evil Knievel, aptly conveying the character’s self-assurance.  The show’s one direct nod to modern cultural sensibilities is the casting of African-American actors Wayne T. Carr and Tyrone Wilson as Lucentio and his father Vincentio, the former Bianca’s love interest; the players take just enough note of this to add texture to the play’s own comic potential without relying on undue stereotype.  There are a handful of other period-related anomalies, one involving Kentucky Fried Chicken and another involving a wickedly funny dueling-video moment between rival suitors Hortensio and Gremio (I’m fairly sure “Let’s zoom in just a skosh, shall we?” isn’t in the original Shakespeare), but for the most part the atmosphere is solidly grounded.

And it’s really a combination of that atmosphere and an emphasis on plot that drives this production, rather than character chemistry.  It isn’t that Deasy and Geisslinger lack chemistry; it’s simply that here, it’s the serial courtship of Kate and Bianca that gets the greatest focus, so that the show is more of an ensemble piece than one often finds in productions of Shrew.  You’ll find more thoughtful stagings than this one, but few with greater overall energy or brisker pacing.  I don't know that this is a genuinely stellar production, but it's a solid and watchable one.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

With the possible exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (not on our tour schedule this weekend), The Heart of Robin Hood is probably the most purely entertaining production in the summer’s eleven-play repertory.  Which is mostly a good thing – except that it’s a highly entertaining production of a severely schizophrenic script.  Almost none of the flaws can really be laid at OSF’s door, but they’re enough to take the show from being an unalloyed winner to a watchable yet troubling success.

The Festival’s promotion makes clear one point that the title does not: properly, this is really more Marion’s show than it is Robin’s.  In this light, David Farr’s script – billed as a US premiere – is an entirely apt fit for Ashland’s Elizabethan stage. Our heroine, faced with an unwanted marriage orchestrated by her guardian, flees to Sherwood Forest and adopts boy’s disguise, first in hopes of joining Robin Hood’s band and then – when Robin proves less heroic than anticipated – in the service of a career as his more charity-minded rival.  Kate Hurster is entirely winning as both Marion and “Martin”, but John Tufts misses his mark slightly as Robin.  Tufts’ over-gruff accent gives the characterization a shade too much seriousness, which cuts into the comedic chemistry between Robin and Marion.

Also problematic is the villainous Prince John, played with oily enthusiasm by Michael Elich.  The performance itself is ably executed, but Elich is hampered by a script that sometimes calls for melodramatic mustache-twirling (as in John’s early courtship of Marion), sometimes for genteel theatrical evil (“why yes, I am staging a revolt against my older brother”), and sometimes for outright sociopathic nastiness (a threat to hang two hundred innocent children).  John’s motivation’s and true character are never made clear, nor does the script quite make up its mind whether he’s a proper evil genius or merely – as his final scene suggests – a mere Malvolio with delusions of competence.

Fortunately for viewers, and despite a minor excess of subplots, the production mostly emphasizes both physical and verbal comedy over the darker elements.  In particular, Tanya Thai McBride gives a wonderfully animated physical and vocal performance as a dog named Plug, who steals most of the scenes in which she appears.  The staging can’t entirely get around the script problems, which make the show just creepy enough that I’d hesitate to recommend it for kids under eleven or twelve.  But warts and all, it’s still a lively and often very funny evening, even if it’s nowhere near being a definitive treatment of the Robin Hood legend.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

I’ve seen a good many Lears in the years we’ve been visiting Ashland – medieval and modern, spare and opulent, willful and wan.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so accessible a King Lear as this year’s production.

Not coincidentally, this version is being staged in the Festival’s newest space – it’s finally been named the Thomas Theater, after several seasons of being called simply the “New Theater”.  It’s a small, highly reconfigurable black box – in this case, arranged in the round with just a few furnishings and props. But I’m not using “accessible” in its purely physical sense here, even though that’s part of the show’s success.  Nor am I thinking only of one of the Fool’s first scenes, in which a couple of audience members were briefly drawn into the stage business, though that’s part of it too.

Rather, this is perhaps the first iteration of Lear I’ve seen that seems to me to break unreservedly out of its Shakespearean shell and really connect with its audience on a personal level, irrespective of whether one is a theater buff, a Shakespeare scholar, or a literature geek.  The language is just as it’s always been, so it will satisfy loyalists, but the production as a whole assimilates the language and delivers a show that speaks more viscerally and directly than mere words can convey.

Two performances in particular drive the intimacy: Michael Winters (one of two actors alternating as Lear) is utterly compelling; he balances Shakespeare’s dialogue beautifully with a characterization of Lear that is at once vivid, powerful, and familiar – rarely will you see a Lear described as “charming”, but there are moments here where the word fits, and others where Winters’ delivery is as easy and conversational as you might hear around a card table at your neighborhood senior center.  And young Daisuke Tsuji is a bright, personable, and perceptive Fool, with all the energy of a street comic and the careful precision of a master sensei.  These two stand out among a uniformly excellent cast, and the staging is brisk and energetic, with performers ranging among the audience and into the rafters as the show progresses.  And for all its accessibility, the production doesn’t lose touch with the classic elements that make Lear one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies.

Some of my drama-buff tourmates may disagree (we’ll find out later tonight), but I call this one of the best Lears I’ve seen, period, and not to be missed if the opportunity is available.

djonn: (crow)

An interesting start to our weekend in Ashland this year: this summer, the wildfires in southern Oregon and far northern California have been unusually fierce – and the weather has been just exactly right to cause the air quality in the Ashland area to become unusually ghastly.  As a result, evening performances on the outdoor Elizabethan stage had been cancelled for the three nights just prior to our arrival.  Fortunately, matters improved markedly on Friday, and the scheduled presentation of Cymbeline went on as planned.

From a literary standpoint, Cymbeline is a tricky and difficult play – it’s perhaps the least known of the late cluster of Shakespeare’s romances, and the plot is unusually convoluted.  There’s a political thread (Britain is resisting a Roman demand for tribute), a family-betrayal thread (the princess’s wicked stepmother is trying to have both the princess and her would-be love interest murdered, and a sizeable number of other royal relatives have gone missing under assorted peculiar circumstances), and a more or less romantic thread (the princess escapes, disguises herself as a boy, and has a series of adventures before being reunited with her true love).  And there is a good deal of side action bridging and framing the three major plots.

The present production more or less turns this into a briskly paced action yarn with liberal dashes of black comedy and soap-operatic melodrama.  In a year where the Festival is also producing King Lear, this is arguably a good idea; there’s a lot of room to go very dark with Cymbeline, given what the script does to Imogen (the above-mentioned princess), but here we get something that owes more to Grimm and early Buffy the Vampire Slayer than it does to the television version of Game of Thrones.  And I’m not making these references idly; the production introduces light but overt supernatural elements into the staging, and the set design combines with some very impressive lighting wizardry to give the production a decidedly mythic flavor.

The performances are uniformly good if rarely spectacular; my favorites in this show are Al Espinosa as Cloten, who plays his villain with cheerful vigor, Dawn Lyen-Gardner as Imogen, who wins points for not overplaying her heroine, and Jack Willis as Roman general Caius Lucius, who takes Imogen under his wing (while she’s disguised as the boy Fidele).  Festival veteran Howie Seago gets the title role of Cymbeline, and the production does the Festival’s usual thoughtful and skillfully executed job of weaving Seago’s deafness into the fabric of the play.

All in all, this is a very good production if not a deep one…but again, in a year where it’s in rotation with an intensely staged King Lear (which we’ll be seeing next), the choice to play Cymbeline for melodrama is a reasonable one.  And as one of Shakespeare’s more rarely staged plays, it’s a show I can recommend catching if you visit Ashland this summer.
djonn: (raven)

The domain has been registered for something over a year now, but I have finally gotten the furniture sufficiently arranged to declare it Open For Business.

My old SFF Net Web page has not yet gone anywhere, and will likely hang on for a little while yet (I need to transplant more of the filk lyrics before I turn out the lights), but I have now set up housekeeping as (at?) The Lone Penman, with a new WordPress-driven site.  My last couple of LJ/DW posts are mirrored over there, and -- more importantly -- I've made a tiny beginning at the long-term project of archiving my entire book review file onto the Web. 

Again, this does NOT mean that this/these journals are going away; the great majority of my new posts will likely go up in all three places.  But there will likely be odds and ends that show up here and not there, or there and not here, and I will very probably keep better track of the ongoing review and lyric archiving at Lone Penman than I will on DW/LJ.

In any case, everyone's invited to wander Over There, gawk at the shiny parts, kick the tires, and point out the inevitable bugs.  There may even be a virtual housewarming if I can find the SFX generator (or the pocket dimension it was left in three or four cyberspaces back....)

djonn: Self-portrait (pic#5076703)

As at least some of my readership is aware, I have been a theater junkie -- if a somewhat undernourished one -- ever since junior high school (which is to say, for a scarily long time now).  I have, of course, also been an avid reader of fantasy for even longer than that.  And it's been my experience that there just isn't much modern genre fiction that makes effective use of theatrical settings.  There are a very few exceptions, and mystery has done somewhat better than fantasy in this regard, but even good theatrical mysteries are a trifle thin on the ground.

You may therefore imagine my cautiously optimistic delight some weeks back, when I ran across a new(ish) book at my local library promising just this: a fantasy yarn set against the backdrop of a small musical theatre company in rural Vermont.  The ingredients seemed perfect -- but would they be well blended and skillfully served up?

They would indeed )

djonn: (woods)

I've seen a good deal of reaction over the last couple of days to Amazon's announcement of its "Kindle Worlds" program in which it aims to solicit and publish licensed (!) fanfiction set in a handful of franchise universes.  Both the fanfic world and certain corners of the professional writing community are rising up in mutual astonishment, mostly to point out the holes in Amazon's logic.

At the same time, both the fans and the pros seem cautiously convinced that the program is actually going to work -- that is, that people are actually going to make money on the deal.

I'm not.  I think the odds are against anyone -- writer, licensor, Amazon -- turning a significant profit on the venture.  Let me explain.... )

August 2017

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