High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

My Photo
Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

This is fiber optic cable, which is the future. This is culture, which is delicious.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest 2016

Once again, I did this. Made it to Round 2 last time. We'll see how it goes this year.

Genre: Ghost Story
Object: A Wish
Character: A Translator

Childhood Glosses

You are a wish we call James. 

It’s my first memory. My first patchwork of memories. The sway of the rocking chair. The groan of one protesting floorboard, a counterpoint to my mother’s voice and the sheltering warmth of her body. My father’s voice and the rasp his beard against my cheek. 

It was ritual. The words from one, then the other. Hours apart sometimes, but every night from the time I was nearly weightless in the crook of an elbow, deep into the years I’d turn my face to the wall, shrinking from it. Love, unabashed and unwavering, that seemed hopelessly childish to me for too long. 

I miss it, now they’re gone. The house is mine, huge and rambling. Cavernous and falling down in slow motion as the woods out back look on, eager to reclaim it. 

I sleep in my childhood room. The same narrow bed, though it’s an afterthought now, crammed in among bookcases and her sewing machine. His rolling steel case tool chest that serves well enough as a night stand. 

I sleep there. Or stare up at the ceiling more often than not. Out the window at the hungry woods and I miss the ritual. 

You are a wish we call James. 

I miss the gentle words and the certainty of her fingers, then his. I miss knowing the dip and rise of the mattress with familiar weight. I miss voices that don’t belong to a ghost. 


I called her Da from the start. 

That’s patchwork, too, of course. Something not quite a whisper, but a rearrangement of molecules in my ear. A name for the chill that always started at my toes and worked its way up my body, night after night as my mother or my father eased the door shut until the hall light was a narrow strip of floor-to-ceiling gold. As their footsteps retreated, the chill would come and the not quite whisper that settled the word in my head long before my body knew how to shape the air into the single, sharp syllable. 

It wasn’t her name. Isn’t her name, I think, though I don’t yet understand how tenses are meant to slide past one another when it comes to a ghost. It’s what I called her, though. 

My parents insisted there was never any confusion. Yee and Ya were always my words for them.  Da was always the ghost, and they took it in stride. My mother, laughing, liked to tell the story so often, it feels like another memory. 

Brown eyes meeting her blue, then his in the dead of night. The gold of the hallway spilling in on their heels as I looked up from my crib. 

Ya, I declared. Adamant and forceful before my gaze traveled up and over her shoulder to my father. Yee. 

Ya, she said a thousand times, splaying her fingers over her own heart. Yee. My father would add, the word and a shake of his head his only contribution. She was the storyteller. The one who knew how to tease a laugh from a sullen, angry soul. How to hold a room full of wide-eyed listeners  in the palm of her hand. 

She’d pause at this point. Always one breath longer than anyone thought they could stand it. Even me, long after the start of yet another retelling would make me roll my eyes. Even I would feel the air rush out of me as she lifted her hand to a point high up in the corner of the room. 

Da. He always called her Da. 


I have too much time to miss them now. Too many things and memories that I stumble over every day of this rest of my life that make me realize how remarkable they were. How extraordinary they must have been to build such an unremarkable life around me, strange as I was. As I am. 

I was the wish they called James. The round-faced, dark-eyed infant who fell into their lives half a moment after they’d each found a corner of their hearts and minds empty.

Not empty, my father would say. Another line of dialogue from his spare repertoire, and my mother would nod. Not empty. Waiting. 

I never doubted the story. That it began and ended with a wish and its fulfillment practically colliding in time. There was a time when I found it disappointing. When I wanted heartache and struggle. Some fantastic revelation or dramatic twist.

But it’s the calm that moves me now. The smooth contours of my life and I see the work of their hands in shaping it. I come across a basket at the foot of their bed, a small pile of things, his and hers and mine, and a note on top. A fold of paper sharply creased and slant of her hand. Mending. 

I open the door to his workshop sometimes. I cross the ill-tended yard and slip the key into the padlock that groans with years and rust and my unfamiliar touch. I peer through the doors, always surprised to find them still there. Tiny squares of paper thinned by time. Rough, full-sized pages from my sketchbook, replete with black, angry strokes. Oil on a clumsily stretched canvas. 

I’m surprised every time to see my own evolution so proudly displayed. To find care and devotion and kindness still around me, every second of this rest of my life. 


There was a time when they worried about Da. About me, I suppose, but it’s one more remarkable thing. The way I never felt the weight of whatever might have troubled them when they’d find me sitting up in bed, my eyes fixed on the high-up corner between the closet and the window. When I’d shiver in the dead heat of the California summer or wrestle with unfamiliar sounds. When I’d blame Da for all her not-quite-whispers. 

I was six that summer. Almost seven. As I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee cooling, I look up, half expecting my mother to be there. Turning from the sink. Correcting me as she dries her hand on a flour-sack towel. 

But it comes from me alone these days. Interruptions from within that are nothing like Da’s not-quite-whispers, the same today as they ever were. 

I was almost seven. First grade had been an unpleasant shock in many ways. Loud and unkind. Rigid and without laughter. The early days were worst. I saw kids just like me. They saw something to stare at. They saw skin and eyes and hair that were strange to them, even here  where they shouldn’t have bene so out of the ordinary. But they would shout, and I would shout back, and the newness wore off the way it does when you’re young. 

I made friends and fought with them. I went to their houses and never wanted to leave. I  went to their houses and came home crying over some tragedy or other. I went to their houses and they came to ours less often. 

Far less often, though there were reasons enough for that. The long, winding drive from anywhere but here. The sprawling, unfenced property with the woods out back. The ramshackle look that a  hundred years lends to anything, no matter the care my parents lavished on the house. There were reasons enough that I never wondered why my friends’ visits came were so few and far between. 

Reasons enough that it’s only now with coffee long gone cold and oils drying on the palette that  I realize they must have worried about Da.


His name was Luke. Doctor Luke, he’d always say. I didn’t like the way he called himself that or how he’d drop to sit cross-legged on the floor, as though I wanted him there. I remember vividly the dread of pulling into the parking lot. Scrambling up on my knees to look at the cars snugged one next to the other in silver and black and white. 

I remember vividly not wanting to go. My father’s wide palm pressed tight to my back as he lifted me down from the truck to the pavement.  

I know, James, he’d say gravely. I know you don’t want to. One more try, maybe? 

It was always one more try. Just a few weeks, really. I can count them on two hands now, but then it was an eternity. Then it was time stretching out beyond any horizon I’d known as Doctor Luke prompted me with quiet words. 

She’s not for outside, I would tell him, week after week. Da stays home. 

Nothing much came of it. I troubled him, he bothered me, and my parents were practical in their way. The visits stopped a few weeks shy of school and carried nothing with me but the memory of Doctor Luke’s oxfords and the way the carpet felt pressing into my knees. None of us carried anything but the absurd idea that Da was some imaginary friend. That I should call her that and not my ghost. 

Nothing much came of it, though I understood better for saying it out loud. Da had never been for outside. 


The way I wander these days makes her angry. She can’t follow, and I know that. I feel her waiting in the upstairs hall. I step through the spot where she hovers and make an absent note every time that she’s a little farther from my bedroom door each day. That she’s on the steps sometimes. On the second landing if I’ve roamed until the sun goes down. In the front hall, frigid and furious the one night I drive to the ocean and stay until the sun rises behind me. 

I don’t mean anything by it. Leaving her behind or even the silence that’s fallen over me since I’ve been back. I don’t mean to let the noise inside my head drown out the sounds she tries to teach my clumsy tongue to make. 

She must be lonely in the huge, rambling house. My parents must have been some kind of company for her, though they never once felt the chill of her winding up from their toes. They never once felt her not-quite-whisper stirring the air, even at my bedside. 

She must be lonely, but I’m not there yet. I belong too much to them to be lonely here. 


I knew about the fire. Even lagging behind the world as I do, I’d heard or seen something in one of the hundred papers I’ve smoothed out on the kitchen counter every day since the accident. One of the hundred papers I know so little about, because it was his job to read to us. My mother and I, neither of us entirely listening. 

But now it seems like I knew. Standing in his workshop for the first time in a hundred days with the smoke-black canvas in my hands, it seems like I knew. Like I should have done something to keep these walls standing. 

The firemen think I should have. Their arms sweep through the air toward the woods where the smoke still curls up from the black bite the fire has taken out of them. They tell me I should leave now. Take steps if I want to go on being a fool or see the fire for what it is: A wake-up call. 

I hear them. With my father’s workshop gaping open to the woods and the house behind me falling down in slow motion, I understand. But I don’t know what it means when there’s Da and my mother’s basket of mending. When there’s the narrow bed I sleep in and the remarkably unremarkable history of a wish they called James. 


I learn what it means to wake. 

The house calls to me. Everything in it that needs doing. My hands are clumsy with childhood lessons, but it’s something. My mother’s patience and my father’s pride everywhere around me.  And there’s Da. 

She prods and needles, her not-quite-whispers are constant in my ear. I find my voice, dusty and disused. I repeat after her. Out loud for the first time since I was six. 

“Almost seven.” I say out loud just as I open the door. 

“After eight,” says the man I should have been expecting. He looks from the watch on his sun-browned wrist up to the sky. “Too early?”  

I blink at him. The man I should have been expecting. I stare at skin and hair and eyes enough like my own that I almost shout.

He weathers  the moment long after it bleeds into rude. He speaks again. “Koj hais lus dawb Hmong?”  

Short, sharp syllables far more familiar than my own voice these days. Almost meaningless, but not quite. “I never learned.” 

“Ob tiam.” He nods as though I understand. As though I should. “Around the side?” 

He raises the toolbox I haven’t noticed. Reminds me that I should have been expecting him and there’s work to be done. He’s businesslike. Brusque and dubious in a way that wounds me, though he can’t know that. 

“Salvageable.” A corner of the workbench crumbles to ash under his fingers. “Expensive,” he adds.  

“You’ll draw up . . .?” My voice fails at the question mark. 

“Estimate. Timetable.” He ticks things off on his fingers. It’s not unkind, but I only half hear him.

We turn back toward the house. I’d like him to go. I’d like to get back to the familiar groan of the floorboards and Da. I’d like to get back to the work I can do, but he lingers. He follows me to the stoop. He stays, even though my hand is on the door. 

“Who is she?” He nods past me. High up and over my shoulder and it’s the first time I think to wonder how it’s always been like this. That she’s always in a high up corner and a chill l winding up from my toes. A not-quite-whisper from somewhere else entirely.  She’s all of these at once.

“Da,” I say. 
“Dab. Tus dab.” He laughs, and I know he’s right. “Ghost.” 

“Tus dab.” It’s closer. Still an experiment on a clumsy tongue, but closer. “It’s not her name. I knew that.” 

He tips his head toward the door. “MeNaag.” He frowns, thinking about it. “Little rain. She wants to know yours.” 

“James,” I say, though she drowns it out. Da. MeNaag. She’s never liked it. I know that suddenly. I’ve always known it.

“No good.” The man shakes his head. “J. Not in dawb Hmong.” He listens again. He holds up a hand and she falls silent. “Xav xav,” he says. “Wish. That’s what she calls you.” 

Xav xav,” I echo. An experiment on a clumsy tongue. 

A wish they call James.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest

So. I did this.

I was assigned to Heat 42 (the answer to life, the universe, and everything!). Genre: Mystery. Subject: A Secret Hiding Place. Character: A Traveling Salesperson. I'm seized with the need to disclaim or explain, but I shan't do that.

Persons Unknown 

Synopsis: A detective struggles into interview a reluctant person of interest in a murder case. 

He doesn’t like anything about this woman. Not the way she leans back in the cracked vinyl kitchen chair with one leg tossed carelessly over the other. Not the way her eyes slip closed and the end of her cigarette flares as she takes a deep drag. Not the way she’s cool and unruffled though the stifling summer heat presses down on every inch of the tiny walk-up.

“I don’t know him,” she says. She sheds a ragged length of ash into a saucer without looking. “I’m afraid I’m not much help.”

“I’m afraid you’re not.” He gives in. He roots around the inside pocket of his jacket and comes up with a limp handkerchief that already feels damp. He bumps up the brim of his hat and mops his forehead. “He’s on your back porch, Mrs. Grey . . .”

“Miss.” Her voice cuts through his. Her lips part in a perfect O, smoke streaming between them. “And it’s a fire escape, Officer.”

“Detective,” he snaps before he can stop himself.

“Detective.” She smiles and stubs out his last cigarette. “That’s right.”

“Miss Grey,” he begins again, trying for calm. “A man is dead. No identification. His head bashed in . . .”

“I know.” She makes her eyes wide. She leans in. He sways toward her, helpless, as her elbows land on the scarred formica and her chin settles on her palms. She whispers. “I called the police, remember?”

“You called. Must be, what, twenty tenants in this building? Thirty?” He jerks a thumb toward the back of the apartment. “But you called. Why is that, Miss Grey?”

He brings a palm flat to the table with force. She doesn’t flinch. She watches the ash jump in the saucer. She gives him a heavy, reproving look, like he should know better than to try the usual on her. Maybe he should. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like her.

“I’m a concerned citizen, Detective.” She raises one shoulder in something that hardly qualifies as a shrug. “What if there were a fire?”


“Walk me through it, Miss Grey.” He leans over the railing, jerking back as the wood groans under his weight.

He turns back to find her still inside, one hand on the rusted bars swinging out from the window. She arches an eyebrow, and somehow he’s there with his palm out to steady her as she steps over the low sill.

“He was here.”

He follows the arc she traces with one peep-toe pump. The gaps in the warped boards are wide enough that he can see red rolling over the white sheet on the gurney far below. The mouth of the alley is thick with looky-loos crowding around the ambulance. Now it is, and he comes back to the fact that she’s the one who called it in. That ninety-nine times out of a hundred that means she knows more than she’s saying. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she knows everything. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions. The thought settles him.

“Walk me all the way through it.” He gives her a hard smile. “Our man was here. Why were you?”

“I live here.” She gestures inside. She holds his gaze. She keeps her peace just long enough that his nails break the skin of his palms. She props a hip against the wall and folds her arms like she knows it. Like it’s just what she was waiting for. “I heard something.”

His hand slaps against his chest, groping for notebook and pen. “Voices?”

“No.” She shakes her head, almost like she’s sorry to disappoint him. “I suppose that’s strange.”

“Miss Grey . . .”

“Evelyn.”  She runs roughshod over his all-business tone. “I imagine you need to know that, right? My first name. For all your forms and things.” She nods to the pen in his hand like she’s waiting again and he won’t get anywhere unless he gives. “Evelyn.”

“Evelyn.” He grits his teeth and scrawls it down. “You heard something.”

“Footsteps.” She looks up. Her lips move like she’s counting to herself. “All the way from the roof.”

“One person? Two?” He wants the timeline, but he’ll double back for that. He’ll follow the path of least resistance for now. “Try to think . . .”

“One.” She closes her eyes and opens them, smiling a little as though she’s just realized something. “He was in a hurry like he was after . . .” She breaks off with a gesture, like she’s rewinding the moment in her mind. “Something fell. Before him, I mean. Heavy.”

She moves quickly to the railing. She leans on it with both hands. Smiling wide at the give under her weight.

He snatches her back, breath hissing between his teeth. “Careful Miss . . . Evelyn.”

“That’s new.” She points to the wood sagging outward. She runs her fingers along the upright rising to the floor above. “It must’ve hit. Whatever fell.” She jams the heel of her hand against the beam and pushes. The whole thing shivers and moans.

“Must have.” He sounds as pale as he must be. He swallows against nausea and breathes through his nose. “Not safe out here. We can finish . . .”

But she’s already pattering down the stairs. He follows, white knuckled and weak kneed. He doesn’t catch her until she’s three floors down, and even then, it’s only because she’s stopped.

“A salesman.” She’s crouched well outside the sickly spill of the one working light in the alley, but he sees the gleam of teeth. “Of course.”

“Don’t touch anything.” His voice bounces off the brick. She surges to her feet. Into the light, startled for the first time. Her smile vanishes. She hides behind the swipe of her palm. A cool gesture that hooks a stray, dark curl behind her ear. Her face, when it reappears, is hard again. He’s sorry rather than satisfied.

“Evidence,” he says more quietly. He stoops, trying to make sense of the shadowed heap. “A salesman?”

He lofts the question over his shoulder and waits. There’s an apology in the silence, though he doesn’t like this woman any better here than three floors up. She bites before too long.

“Sample case. Right behind the mop bucket.” She steps beyond him, one long leg flashing by, too close for comfort. She runs a hand along the railing. “There should be flowers here. Geraniums.”

“Second victim.” He doesn’t know what makes him say it. He’s a hard man, and not one to joke, but her laugh stirs the air and he’s thinking of changing careers.

“We have to wait?” She looks from him to the line of uniforms pressing back against crowd on the sidewalk. She crouches, suddenly, her skirt pooling around her. She leans in, conspiratorial.
“I’ve got a flashlight upstairs.”

“Flashlight,” he repeats dumbly. “I have . . . “ He presses awkwardly away from her, trying to get at his belt. “Got one.”

She laughs at that, too. The thick-fingered way he fumbles to free the penlight from the tools of the trade she’s made him forget entirely. But he twists the barrel and her attention snaps back to the cluttered corner.

“There.” She reaches past him, pointing to where the weak beam glints off brass latches. “Sample case.”

He fishes his handkerchief out again. He’s clumsy as he tries to one-hand the heavy case. Her fingers close around his wrist. He turns, blinking to find her close enough to breathe in. She’s looking away, though. She’s taking the flashlight from his hand and holding it high.

“It’s empty.” She sweeps the light past the handle and back again. “No name and address,” she adds, when it’s obvious that he’s just not registering the significance of the blank white oblong behind the plastic facing. She bumps his elbow and nods down at the handkerchief still suspended in midair. “Shouldn’t we open it?”

“Open it.” He clears his throat. “Yeah.”

He tips forward to grasp the handle, falling on to one knee when it proves heavier than he thought it would be. She shuffles back out of his way, keeping the light on the case as he struggles to haul it up and out. It’s caught on something he can’t see. The vinyl edging pulls away at one dented corner and it’s snagged. He jerks at it, frustrated and panting in the heat.

“Bingo!” She grins at him as the case thunks on to the warped wood between them.

The sweat streams past his temples, and he wants the handkerchief for something other than fingerprints. He busies himself giving the case a once over, slowing his heart with routine.

“Damage at the corner,” he mutters out loud so it’ll make its way into the notebook later. “Hinges and latches intact.”

“Sturdy.” She sounds annoyed. Impatient, as if she wishes the fall had split the thing wide. “Open it now?” She shines the light right in his eyes. He winces and swipes out blindly, reaching for it, but she pulls it back, just out of reach. “Open it,” she says again.

There’s a pleading note beneath that makes him want to do it. But a red light swings over them both. A door slams and then another, the ambulance getting underway at last, and he remembers a man is dead. He remembers he doesn’t like anything about this woman.

“Why of course?” He stands the case up on its bottom. He drags it out of her reach. “ ‘A salesman. Of course.’ That’s what you said.”

She stands. She twists the barrel of the penlight and tosses it at him. It clatters to a stop against the case. He leaves it there.

“Who else would he be?” Her hands twitch at her sides. He’s halfway to patting his pockets for a cigarette, but she’s long since ground out his last one. She lifts her palms and twists at the waist, taking in the building. The filthy alley and the knot of people drifting away, now the shows over. “Who’d come here if they weren’t selling something?”

He hauls himself to his feet, pushing down the urge to apologize. To offer her something. He struggles with the heavy case, muscling it up on to the railing. The flick of the latches is loud. Solid and satisfying. He half peers over his shoulder, expecting her, but she keeps to the shadows by some neighbor’s back door.

“Family.” He hooks a finger under the curling edge of a photograph taped inside the lid. “Wife. Couple of kids.”

“Won’t tell you anything,” she says. “His name.” She lifts up into a different voice entirely. Something high and sweet. “Such a good man.” She scrapes out a laugh. “She won’t know anything.”

She takes one step, then another. Toward the stairs. Away from him, and he should stop her. He should go after her and do his job, but the night is stifling and he can’t bear the thought of that tiny apartment. He can’t bear the thought of her in it.

“Check the bottom,” say says. She’s not facing him. Her hand’s already on the railing. She’s already gone. “It’s always at the bottom. All their secrets.”

His knuckles knock against the base of the case before he’s even decided to listen. It’s hollow and there’s a seam, now he’s looking for it. He pries up the lining and finds a hinge that’s not quite flush with the rest. He presses the opposite side and the lid swings up.

There’s another photo inside. A red-lipped girl pouting and leaning in to the camera. Blowing a kiss. The corners are worn. There’s a thumb print in one corner he can practically feel. He turns the snapshot over and the back is crowded with the round, looping letters of a girl too young for the man in the ambulance. Too young for the pouting red lips.

Jim. Soon. You promised soon. Love, love, love.

The signature is all flourishes. He can’t read the name. It hardly matters.

“You said you didn’t know him.” He leans out into thin air. He twists his face up to call after her.

She’s halfway up the flight above him. More than halfway before she stops, and he’s dizzy again.

“I don’t know him, Detective.” She leans her elbows on the railing. “I just know men.”

Friday, July 05, 2013

Helping a Brother Out: Man of Steel

I think that Zach Snyder falls out of the normal human range for the detection of what looks/seems goofy. Should he be ridiculed and excoriated for this? Should we not extend a helping hand to a brother in need? We should.

So, Zach. Here are some tips.

1. The Dildo Express to the Phantom Zone—Diagnosis: Goofy Looking. It was this that alerted me to the severity of Mr. Snyder's need.

2. Ubiquitous Russell Crowe in Space Jammies—Diagnosis: Goofy Looking. This is followed closely on its heels by Russell Crowe, Obstetrician, but that's Conceptually Goofy. We'll get to that. But while we're here, let's also mention Jor-El's Avatar-asauras or whatever the hell that was.  

3. Space politicians wearing standing rib roast hats—Diagnosis: Goofy Looking with a side of empathy for your Zod-led rebels. No one with a shred of dignity would consent to government by those hats. 

Let's move on to conceptually goofy, though, mostly because I can't find a picture of Supes wrestling one of the cleaning Robots from Wall-E like he's Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster. 

4. Have you tried having Richard Schiff jiggle it? Hot on the heels of poor Amy Adams having to declare "It's supposed to go all the way in." 

5. Superman plopping Lois in a crater and saying "You'll be safe here." And Lois neglecting to tell Supes, "Oh, hey, your dad violated my cognitive integrity and told me how to destroy the ship." 

And never forget, Zach: Every. Single. Thing. about Night Owl is goofy. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sicily Sizzling

Against my better judgment, I just re-read this post about Chicago Opera Theatre's production of Béatrice et Bénédict. (Against better judgment, because I hate my own pompous ass.)

Though, I am surely as much an ass as Dogberry, I think Joss Whedon has, as usual, just said what I was trying to say with his Much Ado About Nothing. It IS all about the hotness of Beatrice and Benedick. Of course it is of course it is of course it is of course it is.

But it can't be without the whole story. It can't be without Hero and Claudio. It can't be without Don John and Leonato. It can't be without the whole canvas being crowded with fools.

There was very little chance that I was not going to love this movie. I almost wish that weren't true before hand because I really loved this movie, and I feel like I landed so far beyond that foregone conclusion that I don't have words for it. Which will not stop me from going on and on and on and on. See above, re: I AM AN ASS.

I love the hand-held camera work and the way the shots constantly shift and play with perspective. It's a play about presupposition and stubborn entrenchment in what each character thinks he or she is sure of. It's about scrutiny and surveillance and the way love is intimate and personal and doesn't mean a thing until it plays out in the public eye. And the public eye doesn't know a thing about what love really is.

I love that it's unabashedly silly. That everyone is a fool at one moment or another, in word and deed and often both. I love that it's unapologetically smart, streaking past some of the best one liners without lingering.  It's something I'll want to see again and again and I don't think I'll ever feel like I haven't laughed at and loved something new.

I LOVE THE CAST. Is that worth saying, given how much I love the Whedonverse? I think it is. I did not love Fred in Angel. I really, really did not love Fred. At all.  And after Wesley kept a woman ball-gagged in a cage, it was really hard for me to care about him as he persisted in not being trapped under something heavy.

And though comparisons are odious, let's face it: My Beatrice and Benedick are Branagh and Thompson. They probably still are. But I loved Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. I loved, loved, loved them in a way that I couldn't have without Joss telling his version of the whole story and making it. All. About. Them. They're ridiculous and smart and so, so, so ridiculously desirable and made for one another and seeing that all framed—literally and figuratively—by Joss's beautiful mind.

I'm not going to gush about everyone else that everyone knows I love. (Except to say that Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk, and Tom Lenk's manly mustache NEED A SERIES.)

But Reed Diamond? Spencer Treat Clark? I RESENT NOT KNOWING THAT I LOVED YOU UNTIL NOW. Ditto Riki Lindhome. Clark Gregg. Well. Thank Ba'al that Coulson lives. It's unbelievable that he picked up the role of Leonato so late.

And I cannot even believe that Fran Kranz was both Shaggy in Cabin in the Woods (yes, I'm aware he had some other name—it's a pop culture metaphor, youngling) and possibly the only even remotely sympathetic Claudio?

Ok, that's not fair to Robert Sean Leonard. Well, yes it is. RSL is a really good Claudio. A truly odious Claudio. But this . . . I mean, I'd still push his impressionable ass down that picturesque stone-terraced hill, but Fran Kranz's Claudio is eerily familiar and interesting. I feel like I know him and thanks ever so, Joss, for making sure that there's something in everything you've ever made that will prevent me from sleeping at night.

With all due deference to the late, great Roger Ebert, I loved, loved LOVED this movie.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unseen Ambition: City and the City at Lifeline Theatre

When initially announced, Lifeline Theatre's  2012–2013 season seemed to have been ripped from the headlines of the diary where I record deepest Theater Nerd Desires: Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White; Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds; and China Miéville's The City and the City. 

We saw WiW in the fall and it was SPLENDID. The spousal unit, who is disinclined to take my reading recommendations, had to agree that Marian is one of the greatest heroines (and the direct ancestress of Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti, whom he loves) and Fosco  one of the greatest villains in all literature.

Later last year came the announcement that they would not be doing Bridge of Birds this year (although I believe they have it on tap for next year), but they subbed in The Three Musketeers. So what's important here is that they have not strayed from my deepest Theater Nerd Desires.

But that's not why I brought you here. I brought you here, because did you catch how I slipped in "China Miéville's The City and the City"? And did you say to yourself: Madman say wut? Because that should be unadaptable, right?


We saw it this afternoon and it's far more successful than I imagined it could be. Joe Schermoly's set is a simple set of doors fronted by two wide steps with a set of uniform windows above. Otherwise, the scene is suggested by a few pieces of furniture and the costuming (Izumi Inaba) and movement direction (Amanda Link) of the cast as they move through Besźel and Ul Quoma, two cities occupying the same time and space, each politically required to remain "unseen" by the denizens of the other. Brandon Wardell's "nothing up my sleeve" lighting design primarily employs the visible street lamps, while still managing to shift scenes fluidly between the main character's narration and the action unfolding around him. Christopher Kriz's inobtrusive music and sound design also serve the adaptation well.

And Christopher M. Walsh's adaptation is so impressive, given the novel. The novel is nothing short of amazing, but like everything of Miéville's, not exactly straightforward. Walsh translates concept, plot, and character to the stage in a 2-hour production that necessarily simplifies the text, but nothing about it is flat or wanting.

Early on, there's some needful exposition through dialogue, but it is economically confined to interactions with a pair of foreigners who are understandably confused by the fundamental existential differences in this part of the world (c.f. any given episode of CSI or Bones, which squanders easily 38 minutes of every 42-minute episode with main characters [WRONGLY] explaining things to other main characters when it is shit every character ought to know). The main characters, when speaking to foreigners, shift into generic "Eastern European" accents and back out again when conversing with other "natives." (As someone who works on ethnicity and boundary guarding, really, the residents of each city ought to sound accented to one another, however, close their languages are in reality . . . but I quibble because I can and because I love.) It also takes the production a little time to really capitalize on Miéville's humor, but hits all the  right notes once it does.

The adaptation is skillfully handled by the actors and director Dorothy Milne. In a few cases, the repurposing of actors might have been handled slightly more attentively to make the differences between characters more marked and the performances more consistent. For example, Millicent Hurley is impressive as Professor Nancy, the academic advisor of the woman whose murder is at the center of the novel,  but less memorable as the same woman's mother.  Similarly, Patrick Blashill's performance as David Bowden, an archaeologist disgraced by his early forays into questionable scholarship, but less thought seems to have gone into his brief turn as a nationalist villain.

But the leads are solid and consume so much stage time, that any directorial or performance missteps are minor.  Steve Schine is remarkable as Borlú (and, I imagine, exhausted at the end of every performances). Schine has remarkable chemistry with both Marsha Harman (Corwi, the constable assigned to the investigation in Besźel) and Chris Hainsworth (Dhatt, his counterpart in Ul Quoma).

It's not a perfect production, but the flaws are so minor and the undertaking is so ambitious that any shortcomings rapidly fade from memory. Unspeakably impressive job with something really challenging.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Thank you, Mrs. Hopkins, wherever you are.

I am grading papers. I will be grading papers. I look forward to the time, many moons from now, when I will be able to say that I was grading papers.

Some are good. Many are bad. Some have the goodness buried beneath really terrible writing. Those make me the saddest, for my sake and for theirs. For my sake because I have not learned the art of skating through and assigning a grade, so I often spend hours and hours trying to unearth the good and make comments that I hope will help the student let the good shine through. And I don't have that kind of time. For their sake because with the size of my intro classes getting bigger and bigger and bigger all the time, I just can't help them as much as I'd like to. Neither of us has that kind of time.

Grading always makes me think of Mrs. Hopkins, my Honors English teacher, Junior year, British Literature. She was fun. She was disorganized. She was zany. (As a class, we bought her a rubber chicken for Christmas, because she wanted one for her props box.) She loved the material and made us love it, too. But most of all, she taught us how to write.

I think my very first paper for her was on Hamlet. I got a B-- (yes, minus minus). I was shocked. I was appalled. I was disbelieving. I had always gotten As. Always.  I soon learned that mine was the highest grade in the class. Fs abounded. Fs! Can you believe it?

And then she spent several class periods teaching us How to Write—the mechanics: "That" is for things, "Who" is for people. Punctuation generally goes inside quotation marks in American English. If you put a comma before "which" and the sentence sounds funny, you probably meant "that." She taught us how to outline (and better still, WHY to outline, rather than giving us a busy work assignment forcing us to do it): For every I, there must be at least a II. For every A, at least a B. For every 1, at least a 2, and so on. If any topic level doesn't have at least one partner, it's either not part of the fabric of the paper, or it should be organized with some other point under an existing topic level.

She taught us that there was real joy in bringing order out of the chaos of our own thoughts, of disparate sources, of scattered notes that we thought we'd never be able to make sense of. She made us work hard, she gave us the tools to work hard, and she showed us the rewards for hard work—elegant, persuasive writing.

She was awesome.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Love's Bitch, Poet Enough to Admit It: Tales of Hoffman, Opening Night @ Lyric Opera

Opening night of the 2011 season. FINALLY.  Especially as I was deprived of avant garde opera earlier this week.

I'm always well and truly ready for opening night by the time it rolls around, but especially so this year as it was a brand new (to me) production of an opera I know little about. My pre-show nerding out was somewhat disrupted by the fact that someone's coat and program were ON MY SEAT when I arrived early with the full intention of completely digesting the pompous program before curtain.

Unwilling to compound the problem by sitting in someone else's seat, I just sort of hung around in the lobby until I couldn't stand it anymore about 10 minutes before curtain. Of course when the owner of the things showed up, it turned out to be a very nice woman who had mistaken a 3 for a 1 because she didn't have her reading glasses, and then I felt like a jerk for being so huffy. (I wasn't huffy to her, I was just huffy on the inside, but I have an overdeveloped guilt-generating machine.)

In any case, I only just had time to skim the synopsis before the lights went to half. And stayed at half for, like, 10 minutes while people filtered in veeeerrryyy slowly and in chattily, which returned me to the brink of huffiness. (This is partly post-traumatic stress from a couple weeks ago when The Paramount Theatre production of My Fair Lady used the overture for old school purposes and people talked all the way through it. I admit that this is my baggage.)

But I need not have feared: Butts were in seats (or outside the doors) when the curtain rose on James Morris in his Ringmaster Ned get up in front of yet another curtain painted like oversized circus ads, featuring the "Mistress of the Writhing Monsters" front and center. It's not that Morris does not rock the tall boots as Lindorf, and it's not that I don't appreciate an Eve metaphor as much as the next gal, but this was the moment of the design that I didn't really "get." I loved the look and feel, but it's really out of step with everything else in a really tight, wonderful design, and even in a work that is pastiche within pastiche . . . I don't get it.

Of course, I hadn't SEEN the rest of the design at this point, so I was enjoying the old timey circus goodness and tall boots on their own merits, when a very terrible thing happened: James Morris sang . . . badly. It was downright creaky, no depth. Unpleasant. Now, as mentioned above, I am not terribly familiar with Tales of Hoffman. So, thought I, perhaps "Dans les rôles d'amoureux langoureux" is just an ugly piece not to my taste. Well, I've just watched my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend, Bryn Terfel, sing it, and let's just say that's not the problem.  I am very, very fond of James Morris, so this weirded me out a great deal. Fortunately, whatever was going on seemed confined to the opening scene.

The circus curtain rises on Luther's tavern and Ezio Frigerio's gorgeous, GORGEOUS set. It's framed by a metal skeleton that suggests a mammoth clock face just settling into the earth. At center stage, the top half of the "clock" forms a second proscenium, stained glass alternating with metallic ribs. The upstage wall is translucent wall of more delicately traced arches converging on a rose window. Beautiful. Plus! Barbie townhouse elevators at stage right and left.

These are all static elements of the set that are accentuated or downplayed as appropriate by Jason Brown's amazing lighting design. The tale-within-a-play-within-a-fable nature of the opera calls for a fluid, but easily understood, sense of time and space. Brown's lighting answers the call and keeps an already-long opera moving along.

The moveable pieces are equally wonderful. Luther's tavern is established with bright brass wagon-top still that buildings on Frigerio's steampunk cathedral aesthetic. Something inside one of the still's elements turns merrily all the while, suggesting both a calliope (hmm . . . am I going to have to rethink my position on the circus theme?) and Modern Times.

If I'm picking on the circus thing, I should probably wonder why there's a train in Spalanzani's living room. But the answer is obvious: There is a train in Spalanzani's living because (a) it's an awesomely cold, industrial thing that is still somehow rodent-like and (b) it sets off James Morris's superfly steampunk get up to its greatest advantage.

Train or no train Spalanzani doesn't know how good he has it, because dude, Crespel's living room is totally haunted. Haunted with incredibly creepy self-playing instruments (to say nothing of James Morris's steampunk pony cart—which, RUDE driving that into a man's living room, particularly after having [probably] killed his wife and [definitely] plotting to kill his daughter), his late wife, who may or may not be stuck inside a pipe organ (it might have been intended as a window, but the frosted vertical lines read pipe organ). Act III: Magnificently creepy gondolas, candelabras (nerve wracking in juxtaposition to a large chorus), and extremely well-managed fog.

Cannot say enough good things about the set design. Lovely to look at, excellent framing device (literally and metaphorically), and easy to block a large chorus on it.

I don't know who to credit with two other notable marvels: The design for Olympia, the automaton, and the ghostly instruments. The self-playing instruments only merit second mention in that their motion is simpler and more repetitive. But it's still really, REALLY freakin' cool.

But Olympia? Olympia glides—and I mean literally glides—hither and yon around the stage while every blessed cast member (or near enough) is on stage. Hell, she WALTZES with Hoffman at one point. She's clearly on some kind of rolling platform, but how it moves I have absolutely no idea. Stupdendous.

Of course the technically amazing movement is only part of what amazes about Olympia. Her make up and costume are wonderfully false and terrible (also, kudos to whomever affixed that wig!). And Anna Christy is quite simply amazing. Her physicality is the perfect mix of photo op princess and golem. And, of course, her voice is sublime.

In this production, Lyric deviates slightly from the usual (if there is any usual for an opera whose composer died long before orchestration was finished) in casting 4 different principals to play Hoffman's loves. I have no beef with this. As pompous essayist Roger Pines notes, "Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta are radically different (how remarkable that any one singer has ever been able to take on all three in one evening)." Also, I got to see both Anna Christy and Erin Wall, as well as Alyson Cambridge for the first time.

Wall bears the burden of pathos with Antonia, and she bears it beautifully, both in her arias and singing with Matthew Polenzani. Dramatically, she plays the material—up to and including her death from vaguest villainy—for all its worth. As for Cambridge, I really enjoyed her voice (and isn't that Barcarolle delicious), but didn't get much of a sense of her dramatically.

Other than the split casting for the love interests, the rest of the production is fairly typical: Morris plays all four villains (deliciously); Rodell Rosel plays the servants (I didn't much care for the overly hammy Harpo Marx schtick as Cochenille in Act I, but I loved deaf, dumb, and Frantz); and Nicklausse is a trouser role. A trouser role played BRILLIANTLY by Emily Fons. Her comic timing is flawless, her voice is divine. I am so unendingly grateful that Lyric decided to insert her Act II aria, which is to die for.

Perhaps the best part of Fons' performance is her pairing with Matthew Polenzani, who plays Hoffman so very earnestly and without an iota of irony. He relies on her rendition of Nicklausse to play the perfectly over-the-top exasperation with him just so, rendering any self-awareness on his part completely unnecessary.

I love what this take on the role does for the ending, which could easily descend into pat-yet-awkward opera ending #532. The Muse of Poetry, also played by Fons (and I wish—oh, how I wish!—they'd dispensed with the awkward 11th hour costume change; it's FUNNIER if it's Nicklausse [or the muse, if you prefer] all along!), shows the folly inherent in the pursuit of love and urges him, instead, to dedicate himself to her. But what lends brilliance to Hoffman's tales—what makes him a poet—is his ability to fall in love, wholly and sincerely, every time. Polenzani's Hoffman is wrecked and ruined at the end, a slow, gratifying burn, but you wouldn't be surprised to find tomorrow to be another day, another declaration of undying love.

SUCH a satisfying opening night.

HOLD THE PHONE! I'm editing to add that I cannot believe I neglected to mention David Cangelosi and Christian Van Horn! Cangelosi is always amazing, but he's particularly satisfying as the mad scientist. Christian Van Horn is just right in how he plays both the comedy with Frantz and the fear and eventual heartbreak over Antonia. The trio in Act II with Morris, Polenzani, and Van Horn . . .  I don't have words for it.

Labels: , ,