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Thursday, March 19, 2015

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest—Round 2

My first story placed fourth in its heat, so I advanced to the second round. I was very surprised and really pleased by the constructive feedback from the judges on round 1.

Here's my round 2 story for Heat 3.

Genre: Ghost story
Object: Statue
Character: Waitress

Our Lady Of

Synopsis: A waitress arrives in the town of Aching, bringing peace, however brief to its residents.


No one in Aching ever saw the ghost. No one but Paula. 

Heard. I never once saw her. 

My chin snaps up at the sound of her voice. My elbow hugs the cracked vinyl bend in the high-backed booth, and I look for her. I always look for her, though shes long since left Aching and the diner and me, I suppose. 

Shes long since left, and the ghost along with her.  If there ever was one. 

Paula never said it was a ghost. She never said it wasnt, either. Paula never said much of anything. More to me than most, though I figured that out too late. I figured that out when Id swept together the few, sorry things I knew and went turning over stones and rooting around the couch cushions, looking for more. But it turned out shed never said much of anything to anyone. 

She was a year or two younger than me. Im pretty sure of that, though its another thing she never said. When I think of the four or five smiles she ever let slip, I can count the lines around her eyes on one hand. A year or two younger than me, I think. 

She wasnt from Aching, any more than I am. Looking out the window now at brittle winter ground, even with the sprawling roots of old timers tangling my ankles under the table, its hard to believe anyone has ever been from Aching. 

I didnt know what brought her here until the end. In a lot of ways, I still dont know.


She left four winters ago. Not three, as my pen wouldve had it just now, but four full winters since the whole ghost business was over, almost as soon as it had started.

I knew right away she was too good for Aching. Too good for the diner, certainly, though she never complained. She poured coffee and balanced plates. She was efficient and pleasant, if not quite friendly, and she never once complained. 

The place had been called Brendas once upon a time. Or maybe Glendas. Some old-fashioned name attached to a cheap, garish statue under glass by the register. No one but a few of the lunch counters permanent fixtures cared to argue the the point any more. 

It had been the Aim to Please for years by the time Paula showed up. But the name was a joke all that time before herthe surviving cursive on a dying outdoor sign. Shes the one who made it mean something.

Shed been in Aching half a year, though long months went by before anyone in town noticed. Not her. The ground would go hard and the world would bow under a thick, white weight before anyone but me really noticed Paula. The rest wouldve been hard to miss, though. 

The Aim to Please was buzzing day and night. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, the bell over the door was swinging long and loud enough to make something like music. Knots of people were dancing by one another in the doorway, coming and going and coming and going. 

It wasnt new faces. Achings never seen a lot of those. It was just the town showing up. The whole town it seemed some days, and theyd linger. Everyone began to linger after Paula showed up. 

Early morning regulars would haul themselves up from the counter, only to make their way in twos and threes to tables at the fringes. The lunch rush would swarm in to take up the still-warm stools. Theyd sit elbow to elbow, tucking in and only thinking to eye the clock when they were already edging into late. 

The lull between noon and after school fell away. Young mothers would shoulder through the door. Their little ones would trail behind, going wide eyed when the high school kids poured in a little while after, their voices loud enough to rattle the silverware waiting in tight bundles on the wire rack.

It started with them. Even in a dying town like Aching, it started with the kids. 


I wasnt watching Paula for once. Thats not how I remember it, but a half a dozen words in the margin of that September page make me a liar. Or a writer, but I suppose thats much the same. 
Stoop. Grace. Whisper. Light. Spill. Bliss. 

I must have been watching out of the corner of my eye.

The sun was just leaning west, and the Aim to Please was roaring. Voices and the hiss of the griddle met the clash of cup and saucer. There wasnt a square inch of empty flat surface, and the register rang out high overhead. 

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Paula smoothed the skirt of her uniform. Her knees dipped almost to the floor and her fingers curled over the dented chrome corner of a table. She leaned in, and the soft words she must have spoken were forever lost in the ear of a sad, shy little boy.

She was already gone by the time he stood on his chair and turned his mothers bag upside down. Already safe somewhere out of sight in the belly of the kitchen when his mother's silverware clattered to the floor, raining down alongside lipstick and wrapped mints and loose change. 


Her voice rose shrill enough to quiet the place all at once. Shrill enough to draw every eye except the boys. Hed dropped to his knees on the cracked vinyl seat by then, hunched over the empty bag hed turned half inside out.

Benjamin . . .” 

It was a gasp this time, almost lost in the sound of fabric tearing. Entirely lost when Benjamins grubby fist opened and the thin gold band resting on his palm caught the light. 

I found it.He blinked up at his mother. The lady told me where.” 

The lady,she repeated dumbly. She reached for the ring, her hand flinching back, once, twice before she snatched it up and slid it home. She held her shaking fingers up, the gold catching the light once more. The lady.”  


Everyone in Aching knew the story before the sidewalks rolled up that night. By the time Rose pulled the squealing metal grate back and opened the next morning, everyone in Aching had a story of their own. Lost things found and fences mended. Sudden courage to ask the question or face down the decision. Sweet memories surfacing after years and years. A tired old man whose last kindness in life came at her hands.

All good things, and Paula suddenly to thank for it. Everyone remembered now that it was something to do with her. Every story suddenly recalled a smile or a sigh. A low word or two or three. A hand reaching out at just the right moment, and Paula to thank. Our Lady of Aim to Please.  

She didnt like it. Not the hushed me toos and I knows traded over steaming plates and cooling coffee. Not the attention and certainly not the name.

She was the same as always, but the stiff set of her shoulders and the quick rap of her steps said she didnt like it loud and clear enough for even the good people of Aching. But the name stuck and the stories multiplied. 

September gave way to December. It felt that way, at least. Fall came, swift and punishing to Aching. Leaves fell, colorless, to the ground, leaving naked branches to bend sharp into the wind, moaning and creaking under the weight of too-early snow. A ghost story was inevitable. 

I smiled the first time I heard the word. 

Ghost. She listens. Thats how she knows. 

It was a high school kid, of course. Telling his tale in the deafening stage whisper of the still young. I leaned hard on my elbows to listen. To watch them, packed too tight into the corner banquette to count. I followed broad gestures and not-so-sidelong looks as Paula moved from table to table, a half-full pot of coffee in her hand.

I smiled and wished Id been the one to come up with it. I wished Id been the one to pull the threads together in just that way. 

The word came again. 


Full voice this time. It set my head on a swivel, looking for Paula to see if shed like this turn of events any more or less. To see if she liked ghost stories. 

She stilled, as the final t died away. I watched her in the act of coming to rest and thought how strange it was to see her like that. Not in motion for once. 

She scanned the room for Rose. For anyone, though she gave up that idea quickly enough. Her stillness hardly lasted a moment. The kids rose up at all at once, hushed and loud, somber and stumbling with suppressed laughter. She moved to meet them behind the register.   

I dont know if the world slowed or it only seemed that way. I dont know if a synapse fired or it was nothing more than light hitting glass just so. 

I only know I watched it happen. I watched Paulas fingers strike with precise force at the ancient registers stiff, mechanical keys. I watched the kidstoo many to countwhispering and jostling one another, change and limp bills moving from hand to hand. 

I watched onethe storyteller, I thinksnatch the pale green check high. I watched the back of his hand sweep that cheap, garish statue from the counter, glass and all. 

I watched Paula drop to her knees and reach blindly for the million pieces fanning out across the tile. 

Oh,she said. Oh.” 

She might as well have howled.  


I waited for her that night. I never had before, though we were friends after a fashion. I guess I knew that. I guess I suspected, even before turning over stones and rooting through the couch cushions only to find that no one had more of her words than me. 

I waited just at the edge of diners overnight lights for her to pull the squealing gate across the door and snap the padlock home. 

Im going,she said without turning. 

I know.The words surprised me. Why? and Where? and Dont had raced right to the tip of my tongue, but those sorry two had won. I took a cautious step toward her. Another and another, hardly breathing until I was close enough to see her profile. 

She stands just barely in the shade of pretty

Id written that on some foolish April page after shed first come to Aching. Here, in the diners overnight lights, just as she was going, I knew she was beautiful. 

She calls.Her breath hung in the air, the words frosting the glass, even through the rusty diamonds of the gate. I have to.” 

Is it always like this?My hands curved around cold nothing, an empty, all-encompassing gesture. 

Always,she held up one hand to let the light fall on a jagged, angry gash, and then she was gone.


November came, strange and mild. 

People still talked about her, though her real name slipped through the cracks of memory by Christmas. The days began to stretch and the year turned. The Aim to Please settled back into  sleepier rhythms.   

The kids still talk about the ghost four winters on. Its funny, though. Not a one claims to have seen her. They pass the stories on behind them, hushed tones and significant glances at the empty space in the clutter by the register. They gild and embellish until they border on miracles, but everyone knows Our Lady is the only one who ever saw the ghost.

Heard her, I want to say, though I never do. She never once saw her. 

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.

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