Monday, December 11, 2017

Play: The Center Does Not Hold

The Humans by Stephen Karam Directed by Joe Mantello, Seattle Rep through 17 December 2017.

Thanksgiving on Grubb Street has for many years been a "Waifs and Orphans" affair, a term I picked up from Zeb Cook, who did something similar in Lake Geneva eons ago. The Waifs and Orphans Feast was set up for people who can't get back to their families elsewhere for the holidays, but has since turned into an event where friends come in from out of town to join friends in a fine meal. I brine a bird, the lovely bride would supervise the kitchen and dining room, and friends bring sides, deserts, and wine. It's pretty good, and I may have mentioned it before.

So imagine my delight at getting the passive/aggressive thrills of internal family feuding found within a  Thanksgiving with The Humans. yay.

Here's the basic info: On Thanksgiving, Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) are visiting daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) in her new, two-level basement apartment in New York's Chinatown, where she lives with her organized boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega). Erik and Deirdre brought with them Erik's mother, Momo (Lauren Klein) who is confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia. Also attending is other daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), who has broken up with her girlfriend, is losing her job, and has a major medical conditions.

Indeed, medical conditions tend to dominate the table talk, which fits in with a lot of American Family Gatherings these days. Erik's got a bad back, Momo slips in and out of lucidity, Richard has suffered from depression, Deirdre is fighting her weight. Aimee is facing major surgery, which she tells her sister but never gets around to telling her parents. It feels like the characters live in a domain where they can survive, but not thrive. Maybe, but I'm not sure if that's the point of the play.

And the apartment is a precarious place itself, in a quasi-gentrifying chunk of New York's Chinatown, in the flood zone of the rising sea, balanced precariously on a hostile future. The unseen upstairs neighbor drops - things- (which sound like battleship anchors) on the floor above, the washing machine churns loudly, the lights flicker and go out. It is a haunted house of an apartment, its inhabitants reduced to cave-dwelling. But I'm not sure that's the point, either.

I'm not sure what the point is, honestly. I've seen some comments talking about the death of Middle Class as a subject of the play, but I'm not entirely sure about that, either. Perhaps if you think about it as individuals who have been clawing upwards who suddenly realize they are slipping back, losing ground, and finally realize that they are not even going to be able to maintain their previous status and lives. Maybe. It's not clear.

Even the title is a bit of a wash for me. Erik dreams of monsters, and Richard talks about how from a monster's point of view, humans are the monsters. But these humans are not monsters - their crimes are pretty petty for the punishments the universe doles out to them. And the monsters that the humans are facing - death, dementia, pain, poverty, the upstairs neighbors, don't seem to be fearing them at all. So I am hard-pressed to tell you what the play is ABOUT. (OK, it's about 90 minutes long, without an intermission. Bah-DUM-bah).

Parts of the dialogue are witty, poignent, and natural, but they don't seem to support a central cause. The actors are excellent (Thomas, Reed and Klein in particular), but seem a little lost on the stage. The set itself feels like a gimmick for the play, the two-tiered stage allowing characters to move easily out of reach of the others and back again. One thing I've noted about these "Put the characters in the room and don't let anyone leave" type of plays is the No One Ever Leaves - they head for the door, but never seem to reach it. The Humans does not do that, but it feels like we're left with characters hanging out, waiting for someone to re-enter.

So that's where I am. The Tony-Award winner is sort of the thematic tent-pole for the season, which talks about Real, Messy, Human, as bywords for promoting the season. And for this they're right. The Humans is human and very messy and real. But it also doesn't seem to have a center.

More later,

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DOW Breaks 24,000!

Last week was interesting. The stock market was rising and falling slowly. but in the general rising, then in the middle of the week everything took off, with one hundred, two hundred, and three hundred point days. It surged forward with a vibrancy of speculation that almost would lead one to think that a tax bill aimed at putting as much money into the hands of corporations was surging through government, with conservatives, who usually were concerned about increasing the national debt, cheering it on.

And yeah, this is exactly what's happening - the Republican-controlled Congress has gleefully abandoned its post, not only declaring that deficits don't matter, but running up the tab on the current one by 1.5 trillion bucks. The Senate voted on its version of the plundering of the treasury in the dead of night, after Friday, on a bill marked up with pen scrawls that they would not let anyone read. The same people who cringe in fright at anything like a minimum wage are gleefully shoving money down the pants of the wealthiest members of our society like a frat boy at his first strip club. 

This was such a heady feeling that even news that one of the President's men has turned state's evidence and making clear his dealings with the Russians could only knock off a few hundred points. And indeed, with the deed finally done, the wish list shoved through Congress, they really don't need him at all anymore.

There's a lot of turmoil on the horizon - even though the House and Senate bills are different, and the fact that in the past week they discovered they botched the job, there is enough pain for the bulk of Americans. The retail apocalypse is still hollowing out the malls, student loans threaten to be the next housing bubble, Medicare and Social Security are on the chopping block, the rich get richer, and the poor get ... children.

It feels all so precarious at the moment, and no amount of learned souls telling us how bad this is going to be seems to have any effect on the ruling party. Button up, buttercups, it's going to be a wild ride.

More later,

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Reading

So, how did it go? Very well, thank you.

Earlier this week, we had a reading for "Human Resources", a play I wrote.  Here's the backstory:

This play had its start in a class at the Seattle Rep. We were supposed to end the semester by presenting a short scene. I wrote one about layoffs. It was well-received. Our class stayed together and formed a writing group, meeting once a month up on Queen Anne Hill at the home of one of our group. We would read scenes. We would start plays, change plays, create scenes out of order, retrench, rewrite, revise. And of the bunch, I finished first, and my question was: What now?

I started looking around for a venue to read the play. Not perform, but just let it out into the wild and solicit comment and feedback. There are a number of small groups through-out Seattle (a theatre-heavy town, thank goodness), and I checked out the Seattle Playwrights Salon at the Conservatory, the WARP group at the Armory, and the Seattle Playwrights Studio at the Burien Actors Theatre. At the last they were looking for someone to read one of their plays. I had said I had one and they scheduled me for the first Monday in December.

And so the madness begins -

I was responsible for recruiting a group of actors. I chose as a lead an actress I had seen the previous month at the BAT. Two old friends with acting/stage experience. A co-worker. A young man I knew who was working at ArenaNet. These were my strolling players. We had a table read at a local restaurant the week before. Rust was shaken off, and the readers got a chance to work out bits of business in the play. We had dinner.

And we sent out invites. Members of my writers' group. Members of my gaming group. Co-workers (telling them that they were not in the play. Really). Friends of friends. I did not count the house, but I had a lot of people show up - on previous evenings the readers outnumbered the audience. We had about 20 folk show up that evening.

The SPS is based out of the Burien Actors Theatre, which is located in a community center in Burien, just north of the downtown district. We don't get the auditorium (young people were rehearsing a Christmas pageant), but rather one of the large utility rooms. A mixture of cushioned chairs and sofas for the audience. Readers in a semi-circle facing them, seated in folding chairs and with their scripts perched on their music stands.

And it went very well. My readers were excellent, and I thank Carol, Stan! Janna, Jorge, and Micheal for their help. The crowd failed to bolt at the intermission, and afterwards had a LOT of comments, so many that a lot of them got back to my afterwards by email. They disagreed with each other, revealed some things I was worried about, and made connections that I did not even see. I picked up a lot, and know I have a lot to do to bring this up. And when I got home the Lovely Bride and I went through the bulk of them.

The next step? A revision. Some of the comments can be addressed by a line or two, but the bulk of them involve fundamental changes, knocking out narrative walls and rewiring the plot. It should be interesting, and I learned a lot.

And I have a plan for the next stage of this adventure. More later,

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Invitation to a Reading

So a while back I solicited in this space about readers for a play I've completed. Well, I've got them, and we're going to be reading next Monday, 4 December,  for the Seattle Playwrights Studio at the Burien Actors Theatre. Here are the details:

Human Resources
A Corporate Comedy by Jeff Grubb
Monday, 4 December, 2017
7 PM

Burien Actors Theatre
14501  4th Ave SW, Burien, WA 98166

I have cast the five roles (four actors and someone to read the stage directions):

                Grace will be read by Carol Stanley
                Bob will be read by Stan! Brown
                Angela will be read by Janna Silverstein
                Peter will be read by Jorge Rodriquez
               Stage Directions will be read by Michael Yichao
I'll be the one hiding from everyone in the back.

If you are interested, you are more than welcome to come.  As I mentioned, this is a reader's theater, where my readers are sitting around reading the play through, and I get a chance to hear my words when they're NOT going on in my head.

More later,

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Book: Welcome Back My Friends

The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock;  by David Wiegel, W.W.Norton & Company. (c) 2017

Provenance: I discovered this book through a review. In particular, THIS review, which was not so much about the book as about its subject matter and why that subject matter wasn't worth much in the first place. As a review of a review, I'd say it's not much of a review, but it was on a subject that was a part of my college years: Progressive Rock.

Review: I got into Prog Rock in the late 70s (don't judge) after my John Denver phase (I SAID don't judge). ELP and Yes and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Progressive Rock was loonnnng songs with involved, often opaque lyrics that disdained the prepackaged, 4/4, lovesong nature of radio pop. Emphasis on musical techniques, centered on the keyboards as opposed to the guitars, strong influence of classical music, leading edge on tech, displays of arcane knowledge, long percussion solos, bizarre time signatures, and a lot of noodly bits. A lot of these properties, interestingly enough, Prog Rock shared with Dungeons & Dragons, and there was great amounts of overlap in both the performers and the audience.

Weigel intros his book with a nostalgia cruise for Prog Boomers, identifying them as a quirky bunch of anoraks, like model train enthusiasts, but quickly comes to grips with where progressive came from, both from a tech end (the rise of the Moogs and other electronic devices) and the rebellion against the extant commercial pop world, supporting performance over packaging. He follows King Crimson and other early pioneers through the great domain and dominance of the progressive groups as they formed, splintered, and reformed again. He gets into odd trivia (Lemmy of Motorhead was a member of the Moorcock-inspired Hawkwind? I did not know that) and tries to show the forces working to create Progressive Rock - touring, the rise of arena shows, record labels willing to take risks and develop talent, new tech, and the music media. He tries to describe various pieces in detail, which works if you know the songs in question, but otherwise sends me to YouTube for reminders. (writing about music is akin to dancing about politics - a completely different mindset between the words).

Weigel covers the halcyon days of prog with an eye towards personalities and personal development and new ways of putting together music. Then, with the suddenness that it appeared, prog was declared a dinosaur - too expensive, too baroque, too engaged. Punk and Disco (yes, Disco) arose in response to the over-technical banks of keyboards. What was rebellion was itself rebelled against. The rock media turned, the labels looked elsewhere for cheaper acts and quicker turnarounds, and the prog groups faded or transformed, mammal like, into something that could survive the new era.

I liked to book. Weigel's style moves quickly, bouncing from a high-level overview to personal anecdotes and back again. He reminds me of early groups that I had not thought of (like Van der Graaf Generator) and later incarnations I should check out ( Porcupine Tree, Majesty). And a lot of a music of the era that I really liked (though truth to be told  I always found ELP's "Lucky Man" to be a bit twee). So yes, part of this is nostalgia and part is pure rediscovery. If you lived through the era, you should check it out.

More later,

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Meanwhile, 99 years ago

In Flanders Fields

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

More later,

Friday, November 10, 2017

Cthulhu Lies Dreaming

Let's do some gaming stuff.

At the recent GameHole Con (Quick review - great convention in Madison, you should go), I ran a part of a Call of Cthulhu campaign I had done years ago. Then characters were all underclassmen at Miskatonic University in March of 1925, when, according to Lovecraft's original short story, The Call of Cthulhu, the Great Old One stirred in his sleep, disturbing the dreams of people throughout the world.

And for this I created some pregens, gave them backgrounds, and had them make a POW check. Those that succeeded got strange dreams. Then I asked them what their term project was in the class.  Here are the characters:

Frank Johnson was our athelete, a football hero playing with the Miskatonic Badgers.
Deborah Blaine was our "New Woman" journalist.
Virginia Frink was our science student - her parents disappeared at Devil's Reef, near Innsmouth
Skip Cavanaugh was our dilettante, changing majors six times in six semesters.
Jedediah Wright comes from a long lines of Congregationalist ministers. He is studying theology.
Samuel Whately is pre-med, and comes from a farming community in Vermont. He interns at St. Mary's in Arkham.

Some made their Power Check, some didn't, but it was an interesting writing challenge. Here are their dreams

Frank Johnson’s Dream

You are in the woods, a thick pine woods. It is a summer night, but a full moon provides ghostly illumination, and the stars twinkle overhead. Your path leads west, towards a clearing. As you approach, white flowers glow in the field below you glow like fireflies, and the stars are obscured by a mounting thunderhead. You watch its moon-limned edges grow on the horizon, until it looms over you.

Then the thunderhead turns, and you see two huge yellow eyes emerging from the mass, and you know the towering creature is no cloud. It screams and you scream and you are awake.

Please make a SAN check.

Deborah Blaine’s Dream

You are at a trendy party, mingling with guests in tux and tails, or sequined gowns. There are waiter carrying trays of champagne and appetizers, and no one seems to care about Prohibition. There is jazz music playing in the distant in an odd minor key. You walk towards people and they turn away from you, some in disinterest, some in fear. You are concerned and try to join small groups that break up as soon as you arrive, and soon you are moving quickly from person to person, only to find the other guests flee from you. Something is wrong with your face.  

You reach a mirror and recoil in horror at yourself. Your face has melted, the skin gathered in on itself to form long, looping tendrils around you nose and mouth. You try to scream, but you cannot – the tendrils themselves coil of their own volition. You reach out to the mirror and your reflection touches you as well, but it reaches through the mirror and grasps you by the wrist, seeking to pull you inside. You awaken in a cold sweat.

Please make a SAN Check

Virginia Frink’s Dream

You are in an old house. Belonging to your parents? You are not quite sure. It’s night, and the ocean thunders outside, and you know without looking that the house is up on a cliff (your parents’ house was nowhere near the shore). There are shouts outside, but you know (someone warned you?) not to look out the windows. The sound of the surf grows louder, and with it the groaning of ancient timbers under sail, and the shouts grow louder as well.

You finally look out the window to see a great sailing ship breaking up on the rocks. The crew is abandoning it, and other dark figures are swarming over it like ants, killing the seamen they encounter and shredding the sails. Behind the wrecked ship is a great wave rising out of the ocean, a single pinnacle of water streaming off all sides.

Then the wave parts and reveals the tip of a huge leathery wing, the ocean itself draining off its flesh. The creature it belongs to, some massive dragon, turns towards you and you sudden awaken.

Please Make a SAN check.

Skip Cavanaugh’s Dream

You dream of a strange, burning city. Even on fire, its buildings seem to flicker and fade into and out of phase with the world, and twist inwards on themselves in patterns that seem to make sense but deny all reality. The buildings are huge, built by ancient giants, and you see people like ants trying to scale them, climbing up their burning sides to avoid the waters below.

Waters. Yes. You are now waist-deep in thick, salty waters. The tide is coming in. No. The city itself is sinking, and the ocean is coming in. You try to run to one of the towering, flaming structures, but you are trapped in mud. Not mud. You are ensnared by tentacles, looping round your legs like strong ropes, holding you in place and dragging you beneath the surface. You open your mouth to scream and salt water pours into your throat.

Please make a SAN check.

Jedidiah Wright’s Dream

You are in a church. Anglican, you would guess, from the amount of decoration and stained glass, and the smell of incense and heavily oiled wooden pews. There are parishioners in the benches, but you have a hard time focusing on them. They seem to fade in and out like ghosts. The stained glass seems to shimmer as well, and its scenes are aquatic in nature – coral, tropical fish, and octopi.

The minister is your father, or your grandfather, with a full white beard and wild white hair, gesticulating and shouting loudly. His words are unclear, but it is a hellfire speech. As you walk up the aisle, you see that he is bleeding from the eyes, the blood running down into his beard. And then you realize it is not a beard at all, but rather a nest of snakes, coiling and coiling like tendrils round his saw-toothed, lamprey-like mouth.

You awaken with a start. Please make a SAN check.

Samuel Whately’s Dream

You are in the morgue in the basement of St. Mary’s. It doesn’t look like the morgue you know, but you are sure of it. Instead of a small room with a bank of drawers holding the deceased you are in a great marble-shod palace, the biers of the dead laid out with military precision in all directions, each body covers in a translucent white sheet. Somewhere, far in the distance, a gong sounds.

The gong sounds again, and the cadavers begin to stir. The gossamer sheets slide from them and you see they are monstrosities, partially unmade through partial autopsies and botched studies. Great surgical wounds crisscross their forms, the skin pulling away from the stitches to reveal the oozing muscles beneath, the organs straining to escape. You run, but there is no place to run, the dead are everywhere.

You awaken in your bed, breathing hard. You catch your breath, and hear you roommate snoring across the room. In the distance you hear the university bell tower. Then the arms of the dead things reach up from beneath your bed and seize you dragging you down beneath the floorboards to join them. You awaken again, but are unsure if you are truly awake.

Please make a SAN check.

More later,