Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ghost Light

Photo/Carla Bellisio

Desi Moreno-Penson's latest play, Ghost Light wants to be a tongue-in-cheek ghost story, but mistakes schlock for shock, with characters and situations so insane that it makes last year's off-the-mark B-movie Mindgame look positively brilliant. It's not that "horror doesn't work on stage," as TV actor Brian (Bryant Mason) points out--check out Temporary Distortion's Americana Kamikaze, or Timothy Haskell's long-running Nightmare "haunted house"--so much as it is that it's hard to pull off in a theater. In fact, director José Zayas, who is more and more creative with each new project, could pull it off if he weren't constantly derailed by sloppy plotting. Instead of being allowed to play with the taut delays of suspense, he has to rush through (before we think too hard), settling for one quick scare--the epitome of cheap horror.

Things start off far more promisingly: Brian and his old friend and soon to be new lover, Natalie (Kate Benson) are in a hotel room. Their initial awkward courting is a bit like Tracy Letts's Bug; they joke about the prostitutes who normally frequent this motel as a means of breaking the ice. Moreno-Penson doesn't miss a chance to add the tropes of a ghost story, heavy-handed as it may be to point out the flickering lights, swarming flies, and weird faces in the mirror. But her laziness shows in these opening scenes, for Natalie then provides jokey exposition about her prescription for a drug--as if it weren't already clear from her flinty attitude and surfacing rage ("I use my hatred as a motivator for my work") that she's a bit unstable. Still, what works about the opening--and this is Zayas's handiwork--is how graphic their sex scene becomes; by being so present in the physical, Ghost Light has the opportunity to slip in the supernatural stuff.

Instead, however, we get Marty (Hugh Sinclair), the motel's security guard, who gains admittance under false premises and starts babbling about the dangers they're in. It's enough of a stretch to believe that a fleabag motel has a security guard, let alone one as reedy and weird as Marty (told that Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for the film Marty, he asks "Who did he play?"). But it's obvious that something's up when Marty--despite having just warned them--decides that it's OK for them to wait there while he tries to move them to another room. While he's gone, Natalie asks Brian, "Why are you here with me?" and he answers, "Because I can," and the play is back on track with something real.

But Moreno-Penson isn't interested in exploring the way normal people like Natalie might as well be ghosts to celebrities like Brian; instead, she takes the easy way out and comes up with a flimsy reason for Natalie to leave and--worse--for Brian to stay in the hotel room with Marty, who--believe it or not--wants to pitch him a play that he's written. In too-neat a trick of meta-fiction, Brian lies back on the bed, and as he listens to Marty's story--which is about a motel security guard warning a couple about the hotel room they're in--he slowly starts to fall asleep--which is what the audience is doing.

This pattern of inconsistencies (I know, ironic) continues for the rest of Ghost Light: Moreno-Penson introduces an interesting twist, or starts down a new road--as when Marty starts getting crude, talking about all the exotic "gash" Brian must get--only to fall back on the comfort of the cheap hotel room and its shallower occupants. (To clarify one thing, though--all three actors do a fine job, particularly Sinclair. If there's any depth to their roles, it comes from their commitment.) There are some fine lines and thoughts--for instance, "the smell of an old man that just swallowed a baby"--but the plot is far too shaky for them to work.

At the beginning of the play, Brian explains that he doesn't want to have an affair with Natalie (they're both married)--it's too messy once you let emotions in. Instead, he wants a comfortable "arrangement." If Ghost Light wants to make its marriage of horror and drama work, it needs to have an affair.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Photo/Gili Getz

At least Hamlet had the choice "to be or not to be." The titular heroes of Tom Stoppard's lively philosophical spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have no such luck. Doomed to the fate Shakespeare wrote for them in Hamlet (hanging) and devoid of any memory beyond the given circumstances of that play--"There was a messenger, he called our names"--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more hopeless than hapless. It's cerebral comedy, though the laughs are meatier than those of Beckett, and there's plenty of physical humor thanks to a compromised troupe of down-on-their luck actors, not to mention the purposeful cast of Hamlet, all of whom are now relegated to the cameo roles once occupied by our heroes.

Cat Parker's direction is appropriately whimsical, but filled with odd choices that distract from Stoppard's existential crisis. The choice to stage it in the round is an excellent one: the audience stays in the center, stuck with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the troupe of actors--notably free to come and go as they please--fly around the outskirts, maintaining the dizzy (non)sense necessary to understand this world. However, it makes little sense to have R&G direct some of their lines to the audience--the show is meta enough; if they can see us watching, then they're not nearly as alone as they frighteningly imply.

Likewise, while George Allison's set is terrific--as always, he transforms the studio space in ways that deepen the play--its symbolism is too obvious: two wooden coffins are used in a variety of ultimately unnecessary ways. The best moments ignore the coffins entirely, or make use of Allison's trick staircase to stick with the "realism" of Elsinore's throne room, where the scenes within Hamlet take place. "Words," says Guildenstern, "are all we've got to go on," so why all the pomp and circumstance?

But the show isn't about the exterior--it's about the interior. What makes a character? Guildenstern worries that "truth is only that which is taken to be true," especially since all he knows is what he's told. (Given circumstances, indeed!) And in this case, Eric Percival and Julian Elfer have made a fine hand out of the cards they've been dealt, leaping into the text with nimble legs and tongues. Parker's best moments come from her nurturing of the repeating gags in the play, and as Rosencrantz, Percival manages to make each moment fresh. Elfer, on the other hand, doesn't even make "moments"--he's immersed so fully in the role that his exasperation is pure, seamless entertainment. (It helps that he resembles Tim Roth, who has the iconic take in the film version.) Both are well-matched by Erik Jonsun, the Player, who--despite dressing like Jack Sparrow--wisely downplays his role, allowing the laughs to come naturally. If Stoppard's play is about identity, it is also about contrasts, and because Jonsun remains straight, it allows him to show the difference between his manic tragedians, the stilted characters from Hamlet (Tim Weinert's a delightful Hamlet), and, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Despite being somewhat imbalanced in the middle--Stoppard's fault, though you can't blame him for being too enamored of his terrific concept--Parker's direction remains fairly smooth. There are nice transitions--one jumps out in which Rosencrantz freezes, mid-coin flip, and awakes in a new scene--and the verbal games (like Questions) have a nice bounce to them, with every back-and-forth nuance connecting. "If our spontaneity were a part of their order," says Guildenstern, "then we'd know that we were lost." It's directed well enough that although these bits are obviously planned, they do seem to be spur-of-the-moment, a mark that both leads have internalized the syllogisms and non-sequiturs that they've been given. Suffice to say, this revival is not lost, and its Rosencrantz and Guildestern are very much alive.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Balaton

"This is not a family," shouts Daniel (Daniel O'Brien), for once taking a stand against his (s)mother, Margit (Kathryn Kates). "This is just you and me fighting all the time." While that establishes what a family isn't, the task Ashlin Halfnight faces in Balaton is trying to pin down what exactly it is. It's a task made even trickier by his choice to set the action in the afterlife, the device being that the afterlife knows who belongs and who doesn't. It's for this reason that Daniel and his wife Vivian (Jessica Cummings) are in the same place as Daniel's mother, even though these two women despise one another; the big question of the play is whether or not Vivian's granddaughter Sabrina (Sadie Scott)--who may or may not have Daniel's blood--will be permitted to join them.

As Sabrina wanders through limbo--appropriately enough, the aisles of the audience--the actors on stage are forced to relive moments of their lives, as if by testing their own bonds, they might be able to pin down what connects us. It's a good, original concept, one that is only occasionally bogged down by superfluous meditations on nationality (they're from Hungary, where Lake Balaton is located). It also allows Halfnight to showcase his romantic side without succumbing to it, trusting that he can sum things up in a vivid image. (For instance, the first time they meet, Daniel just stares at her for a full three minutes, while Viv, who is far more confident, allows him to: "Go ahead. I'm here. Look.")

Director Kristjan Thor is once again called to help Halfnight communicate these terse moments, though it's a harder task--their previous effort, Artifacts of Consequence, has a fixed, albeit science-fiction-based world, and Balaton lives in an undefinable void. Thor goes with abstract minimalism--three white walls, upon which images of Viv's mourning son, Julian (Peter O'Connor) are occasionally projected and distorted. But this conflicts with a set of eight podium-shaped tombstones, behind which objects from the real world are hidden: vacuums, phones, and other props that help the dead relive their pasts. Considering how the scenes are rooted in the physical rather than spiritual aspects of life, it's unfortunate that the play ends up visually divided.

Linguistically, Halfnight has settled on a more rhythmic approach here than in his other work, a choice that, while occasionally artificial, helps to pick up the pace of transitions and to lend more substance to the world. It also ties things back to a Blake poem that his characters keep quoting, one that discusses hope, death, and how we're all connected. Appropriately, this is where Halfnight, Thor, and the cast cohere, using the direct physicality of their bodies along with the soft direction to evoke sad yet happy parallels, as in the way one scene compresses a fight Daniel has with his mother and a fight he's had with Viv, who has cheated on him.

The trick, done right, is in allowing these sad moments to transform into happy ones, to help us connect in the good times and the bad, to find the common purpose--togetherness--that is a funeral's only point. Once again, Halfnight has hidden a lesson in a fantasy, and while Balaton occasionally gets a little too leaden, a little too loose and airy, his work remains very much alive.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Commencement (the pumpkin pie show)

Photo/Cedar

Clay McLeod Chapman must be the cruelest man alive. It was one thing for him to have the victims of the Richmond Fire poetically describe their demises (in a volume of smoke), but that was 1811. And although Hostage Song was raw with the beauty of hope in the face of hopelessness, at least it happened overseas. His latest, part of the monologue-based Pumpkin Pie Show, not only maintains that gallows eloquence, but also strips us of comfortable distances and the easy notion of innocence.

Commencement
, which details the aftermath of a school shooting, starts by transforming crayons into bullet casings, describing coloring books as "hemorrhaging Crayola." Though the play lingers--sweetly, at times--on the heavy power of incidental details, like the empty shelves of a library ("How's the library supposed to get those books back?"), it continues to build, bubbling with black humor, using three different narratives to change our perspectives of victims and murderers alike.

Chapman is further cruel--again, in a good way--in that he makes long-time collaborator Hanna Cheek portray all three of Commencement's characters. It's not a question of whether or not Cheek can do so, she's a terrific actor, and at the top of her craft here, but rather a matter of price. It can't be easy to walk away from the tightly clenched jaw and uncontrollable shakes of Sarah Havermeyer, the shooter's mother, especially when the next character you play is the determinedly bright, if not giddy, Julie, whose secret scribblings to the shooter, in the margins of books like Brave New World, offer a different perspective of the shooter. And then there's Mary Keady, one of the mourning mothers, who is rapidly losing her ability to remain prim, demanding that her daughter have the opportunity to graduate and read her valedictory speech. To her, the memory of bullet holes are evoked as the red ribbons of a state fair: "Second place, second place, second place."

Dramatically, though there's no director, Commencement makes all the right choices. The plain white outfit customary for all Pumpkin Pie Shows--like a nurse's--helps to project a lost purity and also gives the characters something else in common. The Under St. Marks space is, itself, tight and appropriately gloomy--its walls are not the only thing exposed in this performance. The interstitial music is well chosen, and in a way that allows the final lines--zingers, all of them ("Kids'll put anything in their mouths")--to haunt us across characters. It also neatly ties all three stories together: let's just say that resolution isn't always a good thing. "We can be anything we want," but what, exactly, do we want?

Given all this, Chapman is perhaps cruelest of all in that The Pumpkin Pie show is only served one month a year, with Commencement ending on Halloween. Don't miss your chance to graduate to some real theater.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapters 17-19)


23 October.

Ah, I love "the classics." Imagining a world where it's considered chivalrous to tell a woman that she has "man's brains" but nonetheless needs to stay home because she's the weaker, fairer sex; well, that's downright hysterical. Or is that the sort of horror novel that Stoker was really writing? Some sort of prescient neo-feminist tract in which its most liberated woman, Wilhelmena Harker, nonetheless politely acquiesces to absolutely everything asked, nay, demanded of her as a woman. She makes a pretty good secretary though, right? I mean, they at least let her type up everything for them, before they dispense with her.

I hazard this guess because Stoker's novel isn't actually scary at all. I'm too damned irritated by the characters, at this point, to empathize with anything. I mean, they've all read the record of Lucy's falling prey to sleeping sickness that leaves her pale, and Van Helsing has exposited his way through a description of Dracula's powers, which includes a thick, coalescing mist that creeps in through gaps of any chamber in the darkest hour of night. And yet, even when Mina faithfully records her dream of exactly this happening, even when her husband, Jonathan, observes how much she is sleeping, even when Van Helsing is prevailed upon to provide her with a sleeping draught, as she's not really feeling that refreshed, nobody even hesitates to consider that their next door neighbor--who was notably not at home--might have been the culprit.

Once again, we're back to this idea that unless we see the act itself, we don't believe in it. Which I guess brings us back to faith again; even given everything these four "vampire hunters" have seen, they're still supernatural atheists, and they refuse to believe what is not directly before them. This is why religion boggles the minds of so many "intellectuals": it's because you can't argue for or against it with facts, and the sooner Stoker's "heroes" realize that their precocious observations are doing very little, the better for all of us readers who are (un)dying for a little action. I'm sorry, but telling me that Dracula's crypt seemed as if "corruption had become itself corrupted" don't impress me much.

The one interesting bit is Mina's observation (back in Chapter 17) on the difference between the recorded word and the written word, and this is where Dracula falters as a novel (and perhaps may have set itself up to be a film). Seward's phonographs allowed Mina to "hear [his] heart beat," and must never be heard again. The written form, however, which has been stripped of some inscrutable level of "soul" is deemed appropriate to be processed. Guess which version we got? Journaling is already once-removed; now we're twice-removed. This is why I hate "the classics."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

metaDRAMA: Parabasis on Younger Audiences

Isaac Butler recently wrote about what it takes to attract younger audiences:

  1. Do work they want to see.
  2. Endeavor to do it well.
  3. Offer it at a price point they will find reasonable.
I bring it up because I'm reminded by the press release for Soho Rep's latest season that 75% of their demographic hits the 18-40 range. Not sure specifically how much of that is in my demo, 18-26, but it's still impressive. Last year, they had two of my favorite shows--Sixty Miles to Silver Lake and Blasted, and this year, they'll be producing Young Jean Lee's new play, Lear, and work from Cynthia Hopkins and Gregory Moss, both of whom I'd love to be exposed to.

So what exactly is Soho Rep doing? Well, for one--their price point is $30 during previews, $40 during the run, and with instantly-sold-out $.99 Sundays (which beats NYTW's $20 seats). For two, they do their work exceptionally well. Their aesthetics are remarkable, and they're not afraid to mess with our conventions of a theater space, as they did with last year's Rambo Solo. For three, not only do they do work I want to see, but they've convinced me that their work is work I need to see. I mentioned before, in defense of bloggers-as-critics, that everything boils down to a matter of trust; you keep reading my words because you trust that they're at least coming from a genuine place, even if you disagree with them. The same goes for theater companies: you need to trust that even when they produce a show like Philoktetes--which you may dislike--you're still better off having had the experience. (I would argue that BAM has a similar mission, albeit a much higher price point. St. Ann's Warehouse and The Kitchen might be better analogs; how do those spaces do?)

Isaac followed up his post by talking about "the internets." Well, Soho Rep's on that, too, producing work that's meant to support, enhance, and enrich their season, rather than to simply advertise the hell out of it. Wittily enough, they've called this program FEED, and they've extended it, too, to actual live events--which reminds me of the program David Cote ran for a little while last year, in which he'd do a pre-show conversation that would help to contextualize the upcoming show.

I would add that the marketing Soho Rep is doing is also incredibly smart. They're selling the scripts to each new, contemporary play--in a nicely bound (collectible, even) book form. Did I mention that these are only $5, a price so affordable that I actually bought the scripts to Philoktetes (which I didn't like) and Sixty Miles to Silver Lake (which I did), even though I already had a printed copy of the script (so as to review the shows)? I don't know what sort of partnership they've entered into with Samuel French, but this seems like a win-win for everybody, artists and audiences alike, and it's just one more way to carry the conversation out of the theater. And on a level that's more than just touting art as a product, i.e., those "witty" one-liner T-shirts that you buy at a Broadway theater so that you can brag about what you've done on your vacation. On a level that's meant to help you revisit and relive moments that Soho Rep genuinely hopes you will enjoy. Now that's investment.

In other words, Soho Rep has more or less followed Isaac's steps. Now we'll see if it works.

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapters 14-16)


22 October.
(Undelivered.)

Okay. So I'm walking home from work one day, and I see a man pull someone into the alley, bludgeon him to death, and then sever the head and walk away with it. A few days later, I slap my palm against my forehead and realize, hey, I know that guy. (The bludgeoner, not the bludgeonee.) I'm on my way over to his place, actually, to hang out and play some XBOX, when I notice bloodstains on a dumpster, and decide, on the off-chance that it's ketchup for some appetizing meal, to walk over and take a look. Nope, it's just a dead body, evenly vivisected into what now look like giant bloody maggots. Delicious, I'm sure, but not really what I'm in the mood for; besides, I had Thai last night.

It's on the elevator up to my friend the murderer's apartment that things start clicking in my head. Or perhaps it's the odor, coupled with the strange density of flies in his hallway, that does it. I decide, you know what, maybe I should call, first; besides, there's a horrible wail coming from inside his apartment, like a baby that's having its guts ripped out by a pendulum's blade. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's your thing, but I'm now considering that perhaps there are things about my friend--well, I actually only know him from work--that I don't quite understand. Like those runic symbols that adorn his desk. I'm not quite sure they're just transliterated fortune cookies, and where did he say he was from again? Not that I'm racist, or anything, but you know, those sorts of rituals aren't done here. (Probably because we're too lazy to go about getting the proper knives, let alone actually doing all that work; we'd rather watch it on the Food Network.)

"Great Scott!" asks Quincey Morris, one of my fictional friends. "Is this a game?" Dr. Van Helsing (no relation) replies: "It is." And that's when it dawns on me, re: Dracula, that of course it's a game. Stoker can't let go of this whole cat-and-mouse narrative; it's too much fun for him, and he's not all that interested in the bloody details. Besides, it's more fun to crack jokes about stealing the Host (for vampire-slaying purposes, which I guess makes it alright), than anything else, and it certainly explains why this whole group of would-be hunters allow the Un-Dead Lucy to claim another victim or two--just to be sure--before finally staking her. Why it has to be Arthur who does it, why there's less than a paragraph to describe the crushed garlic in the mouth and just-to-be-sure beheading (all that foreplay has left me with blue brains), forget about it. There's little else making sense, unless English etiquette dictates that we ought not to kill children-snatching, fresh-blood-soaked walking corpses until we're absolutely sure that they're the evil kind.

"I heard once of an American who so defined faith: 'that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.'" And on that note, I believe I see my friend coming this way now; I believe he's brought me an axe. And it's fresh, too; I can see the paint dripping right off the handle. I'll write once more once I'm surer; you can never be too sure about what to believe in this days, now can you now can you now can you?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Avenue Q

Photos/Carol Rosegg

When Avenue Q first premiered in 2003, first at the Vineyard and then soon after on Broadway, it was a wild, rowdy shot of fresh air: a full-on puppet sex scene (a year before the film Team America), a porn-loving monster, and video snippets that drove the Sesame Street parallels home ("1, 2, 3, 4, 5 night stands--one-night stand"). This wasn't just a parody, though: the tale of Princeton's search for "purpose" resonated with audiences, so much so that that the musical ran longer than The Producers. In so doing, however, time did to Avenue Q what it has done to a ton of once wild neighborhoods: it gentrified it.

But so what? Plenty of people prefer to live and learn in the safety of comfortable musicals, and if anything, this brings Avenue Q closer to Sesame Street than ever. Besides, what really matters--Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's music--is as catchy as ever, from "Schadenfreude" ("Fuck you lady, that's what stairs are for!") to "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" ("If everyone stopped being so PC/maybe we could live in harmony").

The puppets hold up, too--perhaps the biggest compliment one can give to Anika Larsen is that she is so expressive with Kate Monster (and Lucy T. Slut) that at times, you forget she is there. Seth Rettberg, on the other hand, is so visible that it actually lends another dimension to his portrayals of Princeton and especially Rod, who gives a new meaning to "double takes." And through all that, Cullen R. Titmas and Maggie Lakis are still able to steal the show as the adorable, noose-toting Bad Idea Bears.

On the flatter side, however, however, are the character actors. Sala Iwamatsu overpowers the role of Christmas Eve--which is saying something, considering that she's a dominating Oriental...ahem, Asian-American...lady. Danielle K. Thomas is a bit too much like Gary Coleman in her portrayal of him: you get the feeling she's just barely showing up, a feeling reinforced by her lackluster number, "You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want." Worst of all is Nicholas Kohn--granted, he's playing Brian, a bad comedian who mopes and lazes around all day, but his low energy brings down every group number.

For all that, I still sat through Avenue Q--my third time--with a stupid grin on my face. (And if ever a show has earned both the "stupid" and "grin," it's this one.) Despite being gentrified, the neighborhood's still as charming as ever--those singing shipping boxes are still as cheap as ever, and Jason Moore's direction--particularly of Trekkie Monster, who pops up all over the stage during "The Internet Is For Porn"--is delightfully cheesy. And this is how Avenue Q manages to hold on to the sweet moments of romance ("Mix Tape," a song that will never grow dated) and true observations ("I Wish I Could Go Back To College"). It's a mystery why children delight in learning from puppets, but it's no surprise that adults can delight in and learn from them, too. Welcome home, Avenue Q; we missed you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Creating Illusion

Photo/Zack Brown

Oh, that Jeff Grow. He's far too charming to even need an ace up his sleeve. Or your money, somehow stuck into a can of wasabi peas. And yet, at least so far as the latter, it seems as if he's been gifted with both: a con man's patter, but a magician's touch. As he explains in his show, Creating Illusion, what makes him different from hucksters like ad-men is that he acknowledges up front that he's going to lie, and it should therefore come as no surprise that he does. And yet, watching him light an invisible cigarette--that suddenly sparks into a real one--it seems that the real difference is that this is a con man we don't mind getting conned by.

His trick is fairly obvious--he plays a casual Joe Schmo, apologizing from the moment he steps on stage, endearing us with promises of secrets and confidence, and using his relaxed posture and unassumingly old-school outfit to hide the deftness of his palms. Even his verbal tic, in which he constantly reaches out to the audience with a "Yeah?" (as in, "You follow me?"), must be deliberate.

But while his affects may be obvious, his effects are hardly so. That cigarette twirls invisibly through the air. Crumpled-up bills travel through solid steel cans. Sundered newspaper reassembles itself, and though Grow continues to emphasize that he's just playing with our perception (he likens it to a bar bet involving the circumference of a pint glass's rim), his performance is what makes this more than a mere Escherian optical illusion.

There are really only two things to complain about, and they revolve around the same thing. First, Creating Illusion is only an hour, give or take, and any audience willing to show up at an underground bar at 10:00 at night is more than willing to stick around for more. Second, much of Grow's performance revolves around a rather simple "mind-reading" trick, and while he executes it nicely, it keeps the show from being as varied as it could be. This goes for the play's punchline, too; it's not as if there's a really strong plot--Grow's framework for performing the tricks is loose enough to accommodate improvisation and riffs (as when an audience member answered their phone and started talking)--and yet, Grow ends the evening with a far less satisfying trick than the penultimate one. Oh, that Jeff Grow, indeed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Thickness of Skin

Everything you need to know about the Barrow Group's explosive revival of Clare McIntyre's The Thickness of Skin can be summed up by its climax. Eddie (Michael Chenevert), a homeless carpenter, had been living with the too-empathetic Laura (Alison Wright) before his stubbornness led him to violence. Now he's broken back in, drunk, and in the process of getting drunker. He hits the Christmas tree (among other things) as he tries to clear a space to sleep, which is when Laura returns-- with her wealthy and entitled brother, Michael (Myles O'Connor); her sister-in-law, Roanna (Karin Sibrava), who is weary on account of being so anal; and her college-bound nephew, Jonathan (Eli Gelb). They've been to the theater, and are in their finest; Eddie, indignant, can only muster up the strength to ask why he, too, was not invited.

It's a wonderful picture, one that captures McIntyre's guiding question in a nutshell--"In what ways are we responsible to help our fellow human beings?"--and yet a picture that does not reduce the complex question of status and humanity in America to simple moral relativism, that does not swiftly and uncomfortably blame everything on capitalism in an effort to move on. In fact, many of the scenes in The Thickness of Skin, save for a few tentative ones at the play's beginning, are as terrifically crowded and thought-provoking.

Some of this has to do with the framing: Jacob White's direction is so tight that the on-stage arguments appear to be sloppy, as verbal fights often are in real life. His aesthetic selections are dead on, too: Eddie's clothes may be dirty, but he's proud of their name-brand logos, and there's much to be made of Jonathan's lazy and mismatched attires. Even the set reflects themes of the play: all the furniture (save for a table) is made out of simple wooden chairs (stacked, they become a wall, or a bureau). It's a mark of Eddie's profession, but also of deliberate function over luxurious form.

There's only one part of The Thickness of Skin that comes off as accidentally rough, and that's in the circumstances explaining why Laura invited Eddie to her home in the first place. While some of this is explained by some persistent flirting, especially given Laura's loneliness (the shelter's manager [Wendy Vanden Heuvel] points out that Laura didn't try to save any of the less attractive homeless), there doesn't always seem to be a real connection between Wright and Chenevert. It's not just Laura who "just wanted a problem that you could fucking solve"; it's McIntyre, too, never mind that the problem isn't, perhaps can't be, solved.

The cast is very strong, but it's Chenevert who makes this show: Eddie doesn't hide anything, and neither does he. His directness allows us to empathize with his inability to compromise or even to recognize his own flaws; it also gives a voice to the homeless that is so often missing: the voice not of a victim, but of a survivor. "It's all middle-class bullshit," he says to Michael, who attempts to duck the issue. "I have no home, I have no job, what's difficult about that? What don't you understand?" Ultimately, the thick skin Eddie's grown to survive what he perceives as betrayals in his life, has made him unable to alter his sense of self-worth (and to some degree, why should he reduce himself to charity?), and by settling for nothing less than he deserves, he winds up having to settle with nothing.

McIntyre has another trick up her sleeve, too: an unbalanced woman named Imogen (Heuvel), who lives near Michael and has developed a crush on Jonathan--mainly because, innocent in his youth, he doesn't scorn Imogen just for being vociferously different. Heuvel nails this role, though part of her success is that we're in a closed space and so can't get away from her, as we almost certainly would if we were on a train with her. Which emphasizes a different sort of thick-skinned person: we, in the audience, who try to remain uninvolved. The Thickness of Skin isn't exactly a cry to action, but it is a cry all the same, one that begs that we at least actually look and acknowledge our fellow man.

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 13)


16 October

It's hard to build up suspense when your novel turns into a series of vignettes--encounters, really, and their aftermaths, with Count Dracula. There's a marked lack of commonality, so far, and everyone is segregated into their own worlds. There's some truth to this, in that (as I said yesterday) everyone sounds the same despite their unique experiences, or to put it another way, that we are united by our resistance to evil incarnate, but it's frustrating.

I don't mind that this isn't a classic case of good versus evil (that is, we get the neat digressions from the newspapers, and the random cameos from comic older men with silly accents, like the graveyard guy in Chapter 6 and the zookeeper in Chapter 12). I get, too, that Stoker introduces stuff so he can come back to it later. However, in Infinite Jest, Wallace's use of this technique paid off; Dracula's doesn't. For instance, Quincey Morris's return: who cares? You can't just have the man conveniently show up in the nick of time to complete a "blood wedding" (the transfusion) and chalk it all up to the man being a "moral Viking" (whatever that means). And you can't just keep flinging Renfield at the walls (or at Seward's veins) without giving us *some* understanding of how the patient came to be there. Dracula is a classic novel because so many have borrowed from it, but I fear that one of the nasty habits writers were infected with here was the sacrifice of character to plot, a trait of hasty horror novels worldwide.

But let's mention things I liked, too:
  • Arthur to Helsing: "I shall not trouble you with questions till the time comes." A hundred years from now, this is the common convention upon which shows like Lost cling to. If we were to simply explain things from the get-go, or to ask the necessary questions, there would be no suspense. However, it's frustrating here in that Helsing has all the answers, and just refuses to explain them--especially since if he weren't so damned arrogant and had actually managed to impress the severity of the situation upon Lucy and company, he probably would have saved them.

  • There are fewer asides now that the plot has taken over so many sections, but Helsing's monologue on "King Laugh" is terrific: "Ah, we men and women are like ropes drawn tight with strain that pull us different ways. Then tears come; and , like the rain on the ropes, they brace us up, until perhaps the strain become too great, and we break. But King Laugh he come like the sunshine, and he ease off the strain again; and we bear to go on with our labour, what it may be." So with the pacing of Dracula, which every so often has a comic digression (or accent like this), all the better to break us again later.

  • As in 28 Days Later, it's revealed, ultimately, that the real monsters aren't actually the supernatural forces, but rather our own base actions. They have many chances to save Lucy's life, and yet each time, she is undone by human weakness: the mother's mistaken compassion, the friend's fixation on other business, the telegraph carrier's laziness, the thief's stealing of the gold crucifix, and even friendship itself, which here has prevented anyone from sparing Arthur--who already suffers at his father's sickbed--from having to worry about Lucy, too, when in truth, he would spend every night with her if he could. This is established right from the get-go, when Harker and Hawkins, trying to earn money, set up this mysterious stranger--Count Dracula--with a place in London (and who cares where his money comes from, nor what his intentions are?); our desires are what enable evil to walk amongst us. How deliciously religious.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blackouts

Photo/Chantel Lucier

If you were to black out for the duration of the first act of J. Anthony Roman's Blackouts, you wouldn't have a missed a thing. Well, nothing you hadn't seen or heard before: now that Eddy (Max Woertendyke) has a child by his wife, Sarah (Jamie Klassel), he's in do-or-die mode, trying to sell his artwork. When he fails at this, he turns to increasing amounts of coke, unable to take the advice of his best friend and neighbor Phil (Zachary Fletcher) on account of how miserable Phil looks, being "responsible" for his needy wife, Janine (Lisa Snyder). The actors have some life to them, but the script is lifeless, no matter how desperately they fling themselves at it.

It's as if they realize how superfluous the first act is, considering that the second act--which takes place in the same Hell's Kitchen apartment, 26 years later--quickly reminds us of the past, being as the focus has shifted to Eddy's son, James (Woertendyke) and James's wife, Evy (Snyder). And knowing that doesn't make the second act any better: 1977 and 2003 are the two years in which there were major citywide blackouts, so it's clear that Roman is attempting to set up some parallels, but those echoes are no less hollow in the second act than in the first. There is nothing solid for them to bounce against, only generalities. (Nothing solid in the play, that is: Jen Price Fick's realistic set is terrific, with so much functional space on an otherwise cramped stage that you'd want her to design anyone's New York studio, and Shane Rettig's sound design perfectly captures the angry, yet comforting, bustle of the city.)

James grew up without a father, but that's not stopping him--now with a son of his own--from walking out on his cheating, alcoholic wife, nor does it make it any harder for him to make this decision; given that, what then is the point of either act? It doesn't help, either, that the "friends" are again relegated to comic relief, with Corbin (Fletcher) and his girlfriend Cyan (Klassel) showing up long enough for us to learn that Corbin can't commit--and absolutely nothing else.

Toward the very end of the play, Roman attempts to tie things back to Eddy's best piece of art, a painting that crosses out the word "need" in order to say "All You Have Is Love." It's a good message, but it's drowned out by the other point he makes: "The good life ends as soon as reality becomes bigger than your imagination." By sticking to real-world stereotypes of cocaine, alcohol, and blackouts, there's too little imagination left to make anything good.

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapters 11 & 12)


15 October.

(CONTINUED)

It occurs to me that while it's neat, the way in which Stoker cuts around in narratives to tease out new suspenses (how will this escaped wolf play into things? what delayed this crucial telegram?), he has lost the immediacy of those first few chapters, those isolated descriptions and strong voice. Everybody sounds the same now, high-literate and overflowing with descriptions, from Lucy quoting Ophelia to Seward's bland recitation of plot, from Patrick Hennessey's report to Mina's letters to Lucy (the saddest thing so far is the tragic subscript for these: "Unopened by her"). Most egregious of all, the "Pall Mall Gazette" and its rather loose editorial standards, that it should phonetically reprint such awful accents.

Under these conditions, I find it much harder to care for Lucy's struggle, and less so for her mother's death. I find it harder, too, to understand Dracula: while we know that he likes to play with his victims, it seems absurd that he would need to break a domesticated wolf out of the zoo in order to have *it* shatter the window of a house--a house that he has obviously already broken into, in order to dose the wine with laudanum. I suppose one could read into the Count's battering and flapping at the windows as a sort of courtship, and he's obviously obsessed with her, but come now: he's not even drinking her blood any more, he's just using her as a glorified goblet of globins.

There is little else to say; the plot moves now as briskly as the undead--that is, it is lifeless.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 10)


15 October.

Much delay following the unfortunate delay of new PDF files; have now purchased Signet Classic edition. This brings up two meta-issues: one, presentation is important. This edition uses a "blood-curdling" font to note each chapter, and the journal entries are now presented in such crushed, uniform ways that it loses what little authenticity of narrative voice it had. There was something far more thrilling about reading Jonathan McNicol's version, especially as loose pages, printed out a day at a time, in serial form. There was the feeling that anything could come next, whereas now, I'm constantly reminded of the last page. (The opportunity for surprise is perhaps the one nice feature of an e-book reader.) The second issue pertains to something missing from the Greybean edition: a disclaimer (from Stoker, I presume) that verifies what I've guessed at for the last few posts: "All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact."

  • Of course, that disclaimer also states that "there is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them." I think what Stoker meant to say was more along the lines of Van Helsing's pending note: "knowledge is stronger than memory, and we should not trust the weaker." It's a funny caveat, given that the entire novel is presented as untrustworthy memory, and that knowledge time and again proves to be everyone's undoing. Then again, here's the real horror of the novel (from a modern perspective): if we cannot trust what we remember, and we cannot trust what we know, what can we trust?

  • Van Helsing also has some notes on Stoker's form of suspense (and again, I find it very hard to separate the broken English of his character here with the action-hero version from the films). Helsing explains that the reason why he does not come forth and explain everything to Seward from the get-go is because "I have sown my corn, and Nature has her work to do in making it sprout; if he sprout at all, there's some promise; and I wait till the ear begins to swell." That is, only a fool rushes to conclusions: a real doctor must dismiss nothing.

  • As long as we're speaking of madmen, I much like Van Helsing's line "All men are mad in some way or the other; and inasmuch as you deal discreetly with your madmen, so deal with God's madmen too--the rest of the world." Let's never puff ourselves up so greatly that we forget that we are all crazy to someone--and if you believe in one (or many), then you must be especially crazy to God.

circle mirror transformation

Photo/Joan Marcus

The question is not whether Annie Baker’s new play circle mirror transformation is any good. The question is whether a play set entirely in a Vermont adult community center’s six-week creative arts class can connect with an audience of non-actors. The answer to the first question—it's not just good, but excellent, as in the best new play I've seen all year—is also a resounding answer to the second: work this honest and genuine is universal, regardless of theme. “The point,” says the free-spirited "teacher," Marty (a terrifically comfortable Deirdre O’Connell), “is to be totally present," and it's everyone's struggle to do so, from Marty's husband, James (a strong Peter Friedman), to the young, awkward Lauren (Tracee Chimo), that is so engaging.

The traditional tropes of drama are here--romances that bloom and wither, secrets are revealed, family issues are confronted--but the presentation is unique. By setting everything in an acting studio, Baker has taken on the much harder task of emphasizing not just actions, but reactions, and while it's not exactly as subtextual as Chekhov, it is grippingly nuanced. The truth is, we don't need to actually be knifed to feel as if we have--in fact, one of the reasons for going to theater is to live vicariously, at least for a few hours, with other feelings. To that end, Baker fills her play with scenes in which nothing actually happens, and yet in which everything is revealed.

It's no surprise that the exercise Baker keeps coming back to is one in which the cast lies starfished on the floor of a dark room, attempting to count to ten--a different person on a different number each time--without overlapping. This neutral scene serves as a marker through which we can observe the growth of the characters and check in on their moods as the play jumps from week to week. The same goes for the budding relationship between lonely Schultz (Reed Birney, as impressive here in a gentler light as he was in Blasted) and the overachieving Theresa (Heidi Schreck, playing a more grounded, realistic version of the Tracy Flick-archetype); sure, there's some overt flirting in the class, thanks to a hula-hoop, but for the most part, we only see their feelings reflected in their acting-class physicalizations. One of the most affecting scenes in the play--whether you've taken a Meisner class or not--comes from a conversation consisting only of "I want you to go" (Theresa) and "I need you to stay" (Schultz). Now that's embedded emotion.

Baker also has a lot of sweet humor, most of which comes, ironically enough, in a sour form: Lauren, in her youth, is skeptical of the work they're doing, and frequently huffs in exasperation, sulks her way through activities, and interrupts to ask "Are we going to do any actual acting?" (She serves a meta-purpose, too, for she directly addresses the observations of skeptical audience members, keeping them engaged enough to transform as she does.) Chimo performs the part with a genuinely humbuggish charm, and one wonders what sort of facial exercises she performs in order to have such range: has anyone ever embodied a more sullen baseball glove?

Despite this being performed at Playwrights Horizon, this review would be remiss not to lavish praise on Sam Gold, who was already a master of subtlety before he took on the task of directing last year's Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and its larger-than-life miniature puppets. Baker's provided an incredibly detailed script, flush with detail, but it's Gold who has figured out how to make all those details thrive, who has distilled an entire week of events into a piercing glare, and who has managed to make the simplest of acts--walking through a room--bustle with character. Everyone has to walk before they run, but Gold's direction here gives the entire cast (already marathon runners, each of them) a healthy head start.

There's an old saw that when showing up to a party, "your presence is the best present," and that's never been more applicable than here. For nearly two straight hours, the cast of circle mirror transformation is entirely present, and I can't think of a better gift to theater fans than that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

metaDRAMA: Disclaimers

Chris Caggiano has a great post over at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals about the new FTC policy coming into effect in December that requires bloggers who write reviews to fully disclose any "material connection" they have to the product--in our case, that we received free tickets to the show that we're reviewing. Apparently, there's an $11,000 fine for not doing so.

I don't understand the logic behind this policy. Producers and publicists don't have to disclose the nature of their pull-quotes. Newspapers and magazines, which employ freelancers like myself, don't have to note at the bottom of every review that they've gotten free tickets. Why am I being forced both to defend my right to an educated opinion and my work as a critic, simply because I self-publish? That's blogcrimination, if you ask me--it's an accusation that I have been bought off. (I mean, I don't even run ads--and I have been asked.) Sure, if a publicist offered me an envelope with cash instead of tickets, I'd need to write that--but do I also need to disclose tickets that, say, my mother gave me for my birthday? (You never know, she might have an agenda.) When I get free tickets in exchange for ushering, or house managing, do I need to shout that from the rooftops?

Worse, it accuses my readers of being brain-dead. Assume that I did lie about a show in exchange for money, and further assume that that convinced an innocent reader to go and pay for something I actually think is awful. What are the odds that that reader, after The Worst Night of Their Lives, is going to come back to my site and actually trust me? Because, sirs and madams of the FTC, that's essentially what I "market" here--and I know this might come as a shock to those of you buried neck-high in government--I market my own trustworthiness. The moment I stop doing so, the moment my site shuts down.

Chris makes a good point that because bloggers aren't as insulated as John Simon and Ben Brantley, there may be the fear that they'll be more likely to pull punches, in the interests of keeping their doors and options open with all the publicists. So here's a disclaimer--to publicists (and artists): I won't be pulling my punches. If I don't like your show, I'm going to say so, albeit as constructively as I can. I'm not really worried about being pulled off a press list: the sort of shows likely to be represented by someone with a distaste for honesty are probably the sort of shows that cannot survive without a healthy slathering of lies.

Chris leaves us with a question: "Is complete objectivity even possible in a task that is, almost by definition, subjective?" My answer: no. If the FTC's going to go after anything, it might as well be the hyperlogic of capitalism, because if I've learned anything from the last three years of running this blog, is that on stage, objective facts are often lies, but subjective emotions always speak the truth.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 9)


12 October.

(CONTINUED)
  • (Wilhel)mina, upon meeting up with and marrying a recuperating Harker in Buda-Pesth, is told by the Sister caring for him that "the ravings of the sick were the secrets of God," which seems to me another subtle jab by Stoker at the religious powers of Dracula--for after all, the secrets Harker spills are those of the bloody Count.
  • Mina, writing to Lucy, mentions that "I must not wish you no pain, for that can never be; but I do hope you will be always as happy as I am now." Is that an optimistic or pessimistic view of the world? I ask, because Mina represents the attitude of the very educated English--is Stoker writing a Gothic horror in order to show us the light through the darkness? Or is he attempting to blot out the sun itself with his bleakness?
  • Following up on that thought is Dr. Seward's view: "We lunched alone, and as we all exerted ourselves to be cheerful, we got, as some kind of reward for our labours, some real cheerfulness amongst us." As if cheerfulness were something that needed to be worked for, or--worse yet--as if they have mistaken the pretense of happiness for actual happiness. Are they fools for fooling themselves, or is this the wisdom of ignorance?
  • There's more philosophy in Dracula than I thought, but I still think it's clumsily done--at least by modern standards. Seward hits the nail on the head with this description of Renfield (which could double as a description of Stoker's writing): "[it] seems rather to indicate than to show something directly. I cannot quite understand it." This is the game the author plays with us: he indicates things, particularly to an audience well-vested in the legends and lore, but is far from direct, and not good at all at showing us things--only telling them to us.
  • I must say that I do admire Stoker's descriptions--I only wish that he could restrict them to characters whom you'd expect to describe things. It's unclear as to why Seward's journal of mainly medical observations is cluttered with reflections onto the city. Still, would I cut the following? "It was a shock to me to turn from the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water, and to realize tall the grim sternness of my own cold stone building, with its wealth of breathing miser, and my own desolate heart to endure it all." I would not.

Oleanna

Photo/Craig Schwartz

Of the many lines repeated in David Mamet's hyper-realistic masterpiece Oleanna, the most common one is "You see?" Thanks to the brilliant work of Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, I really do. This time around, the power struggle between the student, Carol, and the self-important teacher, John, is more evenly matched, and these actors have pulled out every nuance from the script.

Mamet's writing tends to emphasize our cruder sides--not the glossy, sitcom-speak you'll find in, say, Superior Donuts--and it takes a lot of hard work for actors to take these deconstructed thoughts and reconstitute them on stage. Luckily, Pullman's had plenty of recent training given the terse, strangling roles of Edward Albee plays (The Goat and Peter and Jerry), and Stiles has been growing into this role since she first played the part opposite Aaron Eckhart back in 2004. Furthermore, both are directed with Doug Hughes, who has--as he did in Doubt--helped to massage out all those subtleties, especially by slowing down those awkward, agonizing beats with John on the telephone.

The only thing that doesn't work in this production is Neil Patel's set (which has some unfortunately fake landscaping out its office windows) and Hughes's use of the venetian blinds to needlessly re-stress what the play already says about points of view. But that's--pardon the pun--just window dressing: Oleanna itself is as incendiary as ever, from the first scene, in which John attempts--in his unfortunately misguided self-appointed role as "paternal" teacher--to help a failing student, Carol, to the third and final scene, in which Carol--having stripped John of his chances at tenure--now presents John with her demands, and gets to teach him a lesson.

For the record, I still side with John. Though Pullman manages to show the character's preening obliviousness, he still comes across as well-intentioned. Stiles, to her credit, shows a lot more emotion and vulnerability in this role than I thought either were capable of, but Carol still winds up coming across as a remorseless goad at the end. Still, it's a closer fight, and that makes it a far more engaging one to watch. It also re-emphasizes the idea that just as removing context can change an desperate plea into an accusation of rape, adding context--a teacher's choice to abandon a student in need for, say, a surprise party--can transmute the lines once again. Ultimately, power is what determines which view is correct: right and wrong are irrelevant.

There's another oft-repeated line in Oleanna: "I don't understand." Ironically, that's probably the only line the audience won't get--what's not to understand?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Radnevsky's Real Magic

Photo/Discovering Oz

Illusion is integral to the theater--if a show cannot make us forget, for a while, the seats we are sitting in, then it has failed. For that reason, a play about "real magic" plays at even higher stakes, for even the slightest mistake pulls the audience out of its world. (On a personal note, I am that egghead in the audience determined to "solve" the trick, so I guess I hold shows about magic to an even higher standard.) Radnevsky's Real Magic has a few deft tricks (limes and a sealed envelope), but not nearly enough to sustain a show, and certainly not enough to get away with calling itself "real."

The thing is, Paul Zimet--who wrote and directed the show--seems to know that. His tale of a master magician, Radnevsky (Peter Samelson) and his brash and gaudy protégé, Harry (Dennis Kyriakos), fills the La MaMa "magicopolis" with Ellen Maddow's deliberately cheesy music (from the literal "lyrics" of the more mystical tunes to the blaring lounge-magic songs). The dialogue is filled neither with wit nor wisdom, and David Wiggall's projections are just as campy as Zimet's performance in them. If only this could be chalked up as the sort of necessary distraction that allows "close magic" (i.e., slight of hand) to work; instead, the one trick they pull of flawlessly is the one in which common sense disappears.

Bad enough that the plot is derivative, but the magic seems redundant, too, and it doesn't help when something goes wrong (i.e., you see the quick change taking place behind a mispositioned curtain). Zimet throws in lines about Criss Angel and David Blaine as if that will somehow give Radvensky's old-school magic a rebellious spark, but it only makes the audience more aware of what's missing: charisma. Kyriakos doesn't come across as arrogant or smug--he comes across as playing arrogant; the same goes for Samelson--it's hard for us to call him mad when he so methodically works himself up to that state.

Still, if you forget that Radvensky's Real Magic is seriously attempting to be a play and indulge its script purely as the wrapping paper you have to get through for the magic, it's much easier to be impressed, especially when the tricks do work. This is recommended for children--just not those of all ages.

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 8)

12 October

How fitting that the first thing I read--after lapsing in my entries for a week--is an admonition from Mina Murray: "If it were not that I had made my diary a duty I should not open it tonight." I love to read, don't get me wrong, but it does seem that sometimes I only get things done if I make them duties first. But to Dracula: Mina's entry, which promises to be daily, proves what I've been saying--Stoker is editing the entries that he chooses to show.

This being a work of horror, this selection is clearly done for suspenseful reasons. (As is the choice to write horror at all--according to Stoker-as-Murray, "personal fear...seemed to wipe the slate clean and give us a fresh start," that is, horror as the positive effect of forcing us to see things anew, with clear eyes, and is that not the goal of all novelists?) In Chapter 6, we watch, in weekly entries, as Mina continues to record Harker's absence. Were this to be shown to us in daily increments, we'd swiftly grow bored. In Chapter 8, Stoker sticks to the day-to-day because he's chronicling the rise-and-fall of Lucy's health as she is preyed upon (in secret) by Dracula. Now we actually get multiple entries on the same day, and the element of horror now has turned from suspense to panic--it's more immediate.

Here's a clever stylistic thing: whereas the Harker chapters wrote supernatural things off as being mundane, Murray's chapters detail ordinary things--that will grow to become supernatural. To wit, she really does prick Lucy's neck with a safety-pin; but Lucy will soon be fed on in that exact location. Dracula's eyes really are "great eyes like burning flames," but that dark figure we see is clearly not him--after all, the natural event is the glint of red sunlight off St. Mary's Church." No wonder Dracula makes Mina sleepwalk to him, though he could just as easily flit to her window and feed on her; no wonder he takes the form of an obvious giant bat, though he can assume any shape--he knows no polite Englishman will raise questions. (And he's killed off the old man in the graveyard who might have.)

Two quick things which I'll end with because I'm not sufficiently educated in these subjects:
  • Murray's seeming disdain for "the 'New Woman'" seems in itself to be more of a mark of the "New Woman" than anything else. She has liberated herself from the need for self-defining labels, and is clearly the most independent person in this book.
  • Dracula has taken up residence in the chapel of a mansion, only a few pages after Dr. Seward had written of Renfield's growing fixation on a "Master," which Seward mistakes for delusions of becoming God. The only thing--aside from what we so far interpret as "evil"--that makes Dracula less than a God is his vanity: "The real God taketh heed lest a sparrow fall; but the God created from human vanity sees no difference between an eagle and a sparrow."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Assember Dilator

In principle, X-ray vision may be a neat fantasy for hormonal teens, but in practice, you'd be seeing bones, not breasts, and as your eyes grew more advanced, you'd be seeing through those, too, to a point at which you wouldn't actually be seeing--well, registering--anything at all. Such is the case with 31 Down's The Assember Dilator.

The show opens simply enough: a throbbing hum, a flickering light, and the sight of a nurse (Caitlin McDonough). Occasionally, the disembodied voice of a narrator explains that this nurse and her doctor (Ryan Holsopple), are performing a clinical test of X-ray eye-drops. Side effects, says the voice, include euphoria and also paranoia. The doctor, after his carefully choreographed treatment, sits there, a Faustian glow about his head, staring fixedly across the stage at his slowly undressing nurse. The voice explains that he can't stop looking at her panties: to wit, the stage will soon be flooded with over a hundred simple white pairs. In one of the more giddily disturbing images--the only thing The Assember Dilator has going for it--the doctor kneels beneath the nurse, pulling down her panties, kicking his legs and silently squealing like an infant before a mobile.

31 Down seems to want to physically represent vision, using a uniquely synthetic self-controlled lighting design to produce a sense of synesthesia. However, their experiment--which has a lot of lights flickering on and off--only causes physical headaches (epileptics beware) and mental migraines. It's already hard enough to see what's going on in The Assember Dilator: hazarding a guess as to what a rain of gel-cap pills represents shouldn't actually feel hazardous to the viewer.

To 31 Down's credit, they successfully distress the audience's visual perceptions, and their use of ambient sound and styled motion has a neat atmospheric effect, one with echoes of Kubrick. But ultimately, no matter how wide these images may manage to make someone's eyes, they leave us with nothing to focus on and even less to care for.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 7)


8 October. (My birthday.)

And I thought House of Leaves was involved! Here, Stoker writes Mina's journal (and lends her credibility by backing up with records from Lucy and Harker, the realities of both of which are also supported by still other sources), and within Mina's journal places the clipping of a newspaper writer, within which is the log of the Demeter--which is itself translated from Russian. It's a clever trick: provide citations and ordinary forms of narrative to make us forget that the story itself is fictional. I don't think Stoker has the chops to differentiate enough between styles to make us forget his own authorial voice and presence, but it's still fascinating. (Furthermore, Infinite Detox has a great post--as always--on the way this particular section manages to evoke the "sublime.")

To an extent, however, it does work. Horror only works when it is rooted in fact, and Stoker makes the wise choice not to trust blindly in mythology alone. It's like a wedding of styles, so he's got something old (legend), something new (his updating/editing of those myths), something borrowed (the narrative styles), something blue (the overall mood).

He's also got this: "Rough weather last three days, and all hands busy with sails, no time to be frightened." (Emphasis mine.) By taking his sweet time, Stoker correctly manages to scare us more than if he were simply to start with blood and guts and continue throughout. This is one of the many reasons why Alien and Predator are good franchises on their own, but terrible when set against one another. You need those hauntingly quiet moments in which the adrenaline fades long enough for us to worry. Ironically, he manages to get himself more time by condensing time itself into little chunks--it occurs to me that what is here just a mere snippet aboard the Demeter could have been a novel all on its own (like, say, Dan Simmons's Terror). He also scares us more: if this section is not frightening enough to merit further details, what greater evil lurks in wait for us?

To be fair, though, as The Valve neatly points out, that's not really a compelling enough reason for me to keep reading. What is all of this in the service of? At least with the aforementioned House of Leaves, there's a real sense of character, but so far, I'm just not getting enough out of the characters--though some of that may be a matter of historical perspective. (In fact, there was a whole discussion in the Infinite Summer comments about whether or not Harker was a sissy, or if modern society has just inappropriately grown to label polite--yet secretively strong--people like him as "girlie men.") I can't go on, I'll go on.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 6)


7 October.

I wrote earlier of the danger of an unreliable narrator ("How well the man reasoned," writes Seward. "Lunatics always do within their own scope."). I spoke also of Stoker's manipulations: the way in which he translates Harker (and presumably Mina's) shorthands for one, but also how he chooses to reveal certain things. (It's also interesting what Stoker doesn't bother to translate--Mina's horrendous rendering of Mr. Swales's horrendous accent.)

For instance: what journal entries have we not been exposed to? I assumed, earlier, that Harker simply stopped recording the cat-and-mouse temptations of the Count, but maybe he clung fastidiously to his details after all, and Stoker just decided to cut to the good bits. I bring this up because Chapter 6 begins on July 24th, and for all we know, this seems as if it's the first time that Mina starts worrying about Harker (who was only supposed to be gone for a few days--at first--and then, coerced into writing letters, still should have been home shortly after June 29th).

The same goes for Dr. Seward's Diary entries, which are intensely focused on one patient, and which--despite being written weeks apart--seem as if no time has passed at all. 5 June: "He has at present such a quantity [of flies] that I have had myself to expostulate." 18 June: "He has turned his mind now to spiders, and has got several very big fellows in a box." 1 July: "His spiders are now becoming as a great a nuisance as his flies...." For the record, my expectations of what an asylum is like have now been shattered, too. (Also, is the chronology screwy or is Seward still pining over losing Lucy two months after being rejected?)

Now, if one agrees that Stoker is manipulating the text, part of the game becomes trying to figure out why he left certain sections in. The abrupt shift to Mina and Lucy and Lucy's coterie of suitors is for the means of suspense (Mina: "This suspense is getting dreadful"). There's also a bit of the author's smug self-satisfaction, in that he gets to know more than we do. But lingering on in details in the graveyard, as he does: why?

Well, first there seems to be a dig at Mr. Melville ("I thought he would be a good person to learn interesting things from, so I asked him if he would mind telling me something about the whale fishing in the old days"), and then we get the meatier bit--on the subject of legends: "It be all fool-talk, lock, stock, and barrel, that's what it be and nowt else. These bans an' wafts an' boh-bhosts an 'bar-guests an' bogles an' all anent them is only fit to set bairs an' dizzy women a'beldering'...invented...to get folks to do somethin' that they don't other incline to."

So here's the question: in choosing a supernatural menace for his otherwise realistic novel, what is it Stoker is trying to get us to do that we would not otherwise do?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 5)


October 6.

When I first started re-reading Dracula, I was fearful of the fact that I remembered absolutely nothing from my initial read. Thankfully, I am not alone--many of the other Draculoggers remember only more recent readings, or viewings of the Keanu Reeves version. I wonder, though, does the brain intentionally forget things in order to allow us to retain that element of surprise? As I read, I cannot help but think how boring it would be to slog through this text if I already knew everything. A book like Infinite Jest dares you to read it again with Wallace-drenched eyes, but as of yet, everything in Dracula is on the surface.

Now, with the transition away from Harker's journal (and regression from that fated 30 June to the happier 9 May), there is at last real suspense, as I don't know if he's survived his precarious climb, or his more dangerous trek through the wolf-riddled woods. The irony is that this suspense is conjured up by departing from horror, and this is the one thing that horror movies have learned well. If you simply shock us again and again, we grow used to it: but if you show us something sinister, you taint even the most pleasant things around us, and can therefore make the rest of the film ever more terrifying simply by playing on our expectations that there must be more to come. (This is what makes Michael Haneke's films so suspenseful.)

And but so, we hear the delighted trills of Lucy Westenra, best friend of Mina Murray, the fiancee of Jonathan Harker. Not only is she thrice-removed from the action, but her mood is quite different ("I sympathize with poor Desdemona when she had such a stream poured in her ear, even by a black man"), and even she serves only--so far--as she introduces us to her three suitors, the American Quincey P. Morris, the young English psychiatrist Jack Seward, and the winning Arthur Holmwood. (Also, I seem to remember the name Renfield: he's a patient at Seward's asylum.) Given the time in which it was written, what sort of novel is this, that jumps through time, narrators, and moods? I've bitten off more than I thought.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapter 4)


3 October.

(CONTINUED)

Continuing from the dreamily erotic ending of the last chapter ("languorous ecstasy," "a voluptuousness that was both thrilling and and repulsive," "some longing and at the same time some deadly fear"), Harker seems to have suddenly concluded that those women were awful, and that they "wanted to suck [his] blood." It's a remarkable shift, though he continues to equivocate by allowing that his "mind was not as usual."

Another shift is that of the narrative, which allows Stoker to cleverly "cheat" day-to-day conventions and to record only the juiciest (and soon to be bloodiest?) bits. The diary, which up until now has been a more-or-less daily occurrence, a labor of fastidious details designed to cling to some semblance of normality, now jumps whole weeks at a time. This has a nice flair of desperation to it--a panicked man's occasional bursts of energetic scratching at the wall--but at the same time, it's frustrating to lose our sense of day-to-day comparisons. That is, without seeing some of Harker's mundane rituals--his "cudgelling" of brains--it's hard to understand what he's clinging to. Or why the Count is still cat-and-mousing him: do they do nothing together any more? Further, if the Count has taken all of his clothes and papers, why not the diary, too?

On the other hand, at least things are happening, and to that end, I can handle the cheats:
  • I don't mind that Harker, essentially an educated banker, happens to be a hyper-poetic observer: "No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be. When the sun grew so high this morning that is struck the top of the great gateway opposite my window, the high post which it touched seemed to me as if the dove from the ark had lighted there. My fear fell from me as if it had been a vaporous garment which dissolved in in the warmth."
  • I can deal with for-the-sake-of-narrative inconsistencies, as when Harker announces that going into the dim vaults "was a dread to my very soul," and yet then goes on to account for the "great boxes, of which there were fifty in all." I'm glad he had the nerves left to observe everything in such detail. Just like I'm glad it turns out that Harker can scale the outside of a castle, ala Dracula.
Now, I'm not a fan of classics, and this is precisely why: we are taught to be forgiving of styles because of how innovative they were at the time, regardless of how often they have been improved upon since. (You would not, say, continue to use the world's first vacuum cleaner if a modern version were available.) Gothic horror is heavy-handed and not my style ("basilisk horror"? really?), and yet, I'm willing to forgive all of this--because now I want to see how my expectations will differ. I've become, so to speak, engaged.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Bite-Sized Blogging: Dracula (Chapters 2 & 3)

(CONTINUED)

2 October.

Before reading, I caught up with some thoughts on Chapter 1: Infinite Detox mentioned the deliberate misreadings of Harker's journal, i.e., one of the many ways in which that first chapter begins to allow for the supernatural to penetrate "reality." He and a few other Draculoggers also quoted Stoker's brilliant line of an "imaginative whirlpool," which every author--especially those who cross into fantasy of any kind--must achieve: they must suck us in to the point where we can believe. (In Chapter 2, Harker says that he is "all in a sea of wonders.") And Chloelikedolivia emphasizes transportation between worlds: "it seems that the east is being set up as being connected to magic, superstition, chaos (and paprika), while the west is order, business, and punctual trains."

What I'm struck by is the start of Chapter 2: the "continued" at the top of the page makes Stoker's presence all too clear; he has broken the journal for "dramatic effect." I'm not a fan of this: why bother with journal entries if you're going to add artificially dramatic endings? (That makes Stoker little more than a classical version of R. L. Stein.) But enough of that:

"I could see even in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather." Things like that allow us to connect true horror with its age-old presence: it creeps out of a darkness deeper than sleep. This fits with Harker's constant waffling about events ("it perhaps seemed bigger than it really is") and his attempts to relegate the slight bends in reality/perception to the flexible nature of dreams: "I must have been asleep," begins the chapter. How naturally we assume anything unnatural to be a dream (a hundred years later, we'll be saying hello to Freddy Krueger).

Stoker also continues to emphasize cultural differences: "We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." (For instance, the ghostly blue lights, which he understands to be an indicator of buried treasure--good--but which the peasants fear as evil spirits--bad.) Take religion, for example: unexplainable events are said to be miracles, but that's a matter of perception. What he's doing here--"But now I am glad that I went into detail from the first, for there is something so strange about this place and all in it that I cannot feel but uneasy"--is establishing an unreliable narrator, a timid and easily frightened speaker, who may not fully comprehend what he sees. What is unnatural to him may in fact be easily explained by custom.

What's interesting in reading this from a modern perspective is that our perception of vampires is different: who sees Dracula as "a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache"? So informed, in fact, that although Harker actually gives Dracula plausible reasons for not being out in the daylight, or not needing to eat, we read right into that as clearly supernatural. As for the bit with the mirror, or Dracula's reaction to Harker's nicked and bleeding cheek, well, these are harder to explain--but we've yet to actually abandon reality. Of mirrors, Dracula warns that we "take care" and beware "vanity": these are good things to remember as we reflect on the novel.

Later.

"Let me begin with facts--bare, meagre facts, verified by books and figures, and of which there can be no doubt. I must not confuse them with experiences which will have to rest on my own observation, or my memory of them." This bit, from Chapter 3, builds a bit more on the idea of Harker-as-unreliable narrator: nothing he writes is immediate, and everything is filtered by time and his own attempts to rationally explain things away. At the same time, it gives more weight to those things which he cannot explain, and also helps us to focus on the bits which Harker himself finds to be of value.

Oddly enough, it is not so much what is said that I find of import, as what is implied. Dracula's speech--the "story of his race"--is rather boring, told in the same sort of arching historical hyperbole that bogged down certain parts of The Lord of the Rings for me. However, it shows us Dracula's intense pride--ironically, a very humanizing characteristic: "We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races."

Also, going back to the idea of religion, which I mentioned earlier, there's the idea that "modernity" is a bad thing. That technology has distanced us from things that are actually true. Well, that's even true of 1890s London, and of the split between the comforts of Harker's city life and those of Dracula's old-world ways: "the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill."

The main difference between this novel and Infinite Jest, however, is that most of these chapters are filled with plot, and I must say that Stoker is rather good at pacing his slow revelations: the tightening prison, Dracula-as-lizard, his coterie of female vampires, each journal entry brings a new danger to light, and each "fact" that we accept makes it harder to dismiss the next, slightly less credible fact. If it were not for this slow build--if we jumped directly to the killings (as most modern slasher films do), the spell would be broken.