?

Log in

Ashland 2015: Much Ado About Nothing

On the one hand, Much Ado About Nothing is arguably* in the second tier of the Shakespeare canon, even if one is looking mostly at the comedies (Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Comedy of Errors being the best-known and most respected of those).   On the other, Much Ado has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, dating from the Kenneth Branagh film in 1993 to the much more recent (and very good) Joss Whedon version released in 2013.

This year's OSF staging falls somewhere between the two movies in atmosphere -- it has a Mediterranean visual style not unlike the Branagh film, but the execution is distinctly modern.  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. 

The trouble is simply that while there's nothing really wrong with the production, it just doesn't sparkle as brightly as OSF's home-run shows of the current season -- it lacks the zip of Head Over Heels or Guys & Dolls, and can't match a play like Sweat on the social-relevance scale.  It's simply a very good staging caught among a handful of flat-out spectacular shows, and it can't help but feel a little bit overwhelmed by comparison.  For what it's worth, I'd count Much Ado as the slightly better show of the two Shakespeare plays we saw -- Antony & Cleopatra is a bit more unevenly executed. 

In terms of the weekend as a whole, though, this feels like one of OSF's strongest recent seasons, and I'd happily go back to catch several of the shows we missed on this visit (notably Pericles and The Count of Monte Cristo, though tickets for the former are reportedly very hard to come by at this point).

 ===
*Our nominal tour leader (an English professor from my alma mater) would argue with me about this.  She expressed the opinion several times during the tour that Much Ado is possibly Shakespeare's *best* comedy in terms of craft and characterization, which is one of the reasons she chose to have the group see it rather than the Festival's production of The Count of Monte Cristo on the outdoor Elizabethan stage.  Me, I'd have picked Monte Cristo....

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42831.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Guys & Dolls

By contrast to Saturday's shiny new material, Sunday brought us two solid theatrical standbys.

Discussing the matinee, Guys & Dolls, ought to take less space than yesterday's shows...simply because what we got was an absolutely classic old-school Broadway stage production.  Simple set (with a few flashy touches), briskly enthusiastic choreography, uniformly confident acting, and musical numbers performed with energy and verve.  A sufficiently trained ear might have caught one or two performers switching registers in order to hit one or two particular notes -- but that ear wasn't mine, and as far as I'm concerned, the door I walked through into the Angus Bowmer shell might as well have been a portal into the New York theater district.  The show was just that good, and while I am usually stingy about handing out standing ovations (unlike most of Ashland's theater-goers these days), it took me less than three seconds to get up at the end of this performance.

I'm struck, though, by one observation.  Where Head Over Heels (see yesterday's entry) got much of its energy from direct interaction with the audience, Guys & Dolls draws virtually all of its oomph from its own onstage presence.  It's not that the audience isn't on board and enjoying the ride -- far from it -- but the energy that drives this production is essentially self-sustaining.  And while this is far from a bad thing (overall, it's an indication that the show has been and will be consistently superb from its first to its final performance), it's a marked contrast to much of the Festival's other recent work.

Mind you, I'd still have liked to see Pericles Prince of Tyre, the rarely-produced Shakespeare play running opposite Guys & Dolls in the Festival's black box theatre that day.  But the show I did see was a six-stars-out-of-five production of a first-rate musical classic, and that's an experience absolutely worth having.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42588.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Head Over Heels

Strictly speaking, in one respect I am totally the wrong target audience for Head Over Heels, as prior to viewing this musical I couldn't have told you that the Go-Gos were, in fact, a genuine (and highly successful) '80s rock group.  Nor, despite having been the archetypical liberal arts English major back in the day, had I taken more than a passing glance at any of the versions of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia.  And if you'd told me that someone had decided to fuse the Arcadia and a whole catalog of Go-Gos music into a rock musical, I'd probably have asked you what you were smoking.

I am now here to tell you that someone has done exactly this, and that the result is, to apply an over-used but apt modern superlative, awesome -- and I use that term in its classic sense, of "something which inspires awe".  I should add that where theater is concerned, I am not easy to awe.  Specifically, the librettist for Head Over Heels is Jeff Whitty, perhaps best known as the father of the Tony-winning Avenue Q, which may go some way toward explaining why this show actually works.

I'm not even going to try to explain the plot (such as it is), except to observe that it is (a) in the broad general neighborhood of Shakespeare's more convoluted comedies and late romances -- it is perhaps not a coincidence that OSF is also producing Pericles Prince of Tyre this year -- and (b) also in the broad general neighborhood of the two stage adaptations of classic Marx Brothers movies OSF has produced recently.  What's of greater importance is the degree to which the show doesn't merely play with the metaphorical "fourth wall", but gleefully tunnels right through it into the audience.  And that's no metaphor -- John Tufts, as a classic Shakespeare-league Fool crossed with the Leading Player in Pippin (and this show's nominal master of ceremonies), spent part of the intermission strolling through the house, plopping briefly down in one of the best seats in the theater while talking casually to various audience members.  At least half the cast began the evening by stationing themselves at intervals throughout the aisles several minutes before curtain time; I realized this when I looked up from my playbill, noticed an eight-foot pool of purple skirt stretched across the concrete behind me, and realized that the animated (and entirely off-the-cuff) conversation I'd been overhearing from the next row back was taking place between one lady in the aisle seat and one of the principal female players.

And it only got wilder from there.  When curtain time did arrive, Tufts strode out to center stage and introduced himself -- both as himself and as his character -- then went on to do the same for several of the leading performers.  Then there was the Oracle of Delphi, who admitted that her gift of prophecy was made possible because she was reading ahead in the script.  (Yes, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem got there first in the original Muppet Movie, but Whitty and the Oracle -- later to be known as Linda -- promote the shtick from an amusing throwaway gag to a key plot and thematic point near the climax.)

What prompts the occurrence of awe, though, is that all of the Shakespeare-grade romantic foolery (including lots of gender-bending) and fourth-wall insanity is wrapped in a 24-karat Rock Musical soundtrack.  As I noted earlier, this was my very first encounter with Go-Gos music, and while '80s girl-group rock is not at all my usual beat, it was impossible not to be drawn in by the energy and vigor of the songs.  My only frustration is that the enthusiasm of the orchestra occasionally overrode the vocals during musical numbers, making it difficult to make out lyrics, but that was only an intermittent issue.

Verdict?  If you are a fan of any one subset of the source material (Whitty, Philip Sidney, Shakespearean comedy, rock musicals, etc.), this is a must-see.  And there may be a bonus bit of off-the-wall resonance for the genre-fiction fans in the gallery.  It occurs to me that Head Over Heels -- and the Go-Gos sound -- blends '80s rock and fantastical elements in a way that fans of Seanan McGuire's music may find especially appealing.  And in the reverse context, one of the more memorable performances in the show -- the role of Princess Pamela -- comes from actress Bonnie Milligan, whom I'd argue is a passable ringer for Seanan....

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42339.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Sweat

[curses oversensitive post-nuking netbook keyboard]

[deep breath]

Now then.  This was the first of two world-premiere productions we saw on Saturday.  Sweat is written by 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.  Most of the action takes place in 2000 (the date being tied to the ratification of the NAFTA trade agreement), but there's a framing element that occurs eight years later.

As the summary may suggest, the script's political slant is about as subtle as King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.  That said, Nottage's real story lies less in the politics -- however strenuously tilted -- and more in the tensions that arise when well-intentioned people make choices that force them into unwanted opposition to one another.  One conflict arises when one mother is promoted to a low-level management position both have been fighting for...and is promptly forced to help implement an anti-union lockout against her friends.  Another occurs when the Hispanic busboy takes a strikebreaker's job at the plant (the pay, unsurprisingly, being far better than his busboy's wage), thereby angering both of the locked-out sons.  Strong performances all around make it clear that none of these characters want to be at odds, but are propelled by circumstance into confrontations from which feel unable to back away.  I'm not sure how well this show might hold up in the hands of a less talented company, but for OSF, it's a compelling if uncomfortable presentation, executed thoughtfully and with conscience.

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42096.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Antony & Cleopatra

Time once again for the annual Shakespeare Festival pilgrimage.  As usual, I'm visiting with a tour group from Whitman College (go, Fighting Missionaries!).  Not usual: my parents are sidelined this year owing to a (minor but perfectly mis-timed) health issue, so I am representing the family on my own.

The Friday night show was Shakespeare's Antony & Ceopatra, which we've seen (surprise) a time or two before -- most notably in 1993, when the then-artistic director was playing Antony and the tour group somehow managed to score front-row center seats, so that we got a row of Roman legionaries marching right along in front of us, close enough to step on stray candy wrappers and drip sweat onto our shoes.

I enjoyed this year's production, though I don't think it was the equal of the 1993 version.  The two best performers, I thought, were Derrick Lee Weeden as Antony and Jeffrey King as his follower Enobarbus.  I've liked Miriam Laube in other roles, but in this production Cleopatra comes off as too much a slave to her emotions rather than their mistress.  To be fair, it's likely this is as much the director's choice as Laube's -- that being OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch in this case.  I also recall the queen's handmaidens, especially Charmian, being more of a force in the earlier production, whereas in this one they were little more than scenery -- and disastrously costumed scenery at that.  [I am not alone in this last sentiment; our faculty tour leader allowed as how she could have made their outfits at home.]  Fortunately, the overall staging and costuming was much better, than that for the handmaids, and I'd count the production as a whole satisfying but short of being exceptional.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41829.html); feel free to comment here or there.

OryCon 2014: Where I'll Be

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?

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41532.html); feel free to comment here or there.

And in the milestone department...

It's official -- I have all the relevant reservations made for my 30-oddth college reunion next month.  (It's "-oddth" because the college has combined my class with the next two in line, so we have a three-year swath of classmates showing up.)

While I've kept up with news of the college over the years, and been to a number of alumni events locally (last weekend's Shakespeare trip was also an alumni tour), I believe this will be only my second trip back to campus since I graduated.  That is much too long, and I am very much looking forward to seeing both the school and the returning classmates.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41463.html); feel free to comment here or there.
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.

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41151.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Why Bad Books Are Good For You

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.

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/40866.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Russias reviewed!

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….



Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/40564.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Confucius Say....

"I am totally a folklore pirate. Ahoy, mateys! Slow down your fairy tale and prepare to be boarded!"

-- Seanan McGuire

Latest Month

August 2015
S M T W T F S
      1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     

Syndicate

RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow