Saturday, February 17, 2018

Theatre: Yah Hey Dere

Ibsen in Chicago by David Grimm, Directed by Braden Abraham, 2 Feb -4 March, 2018, Seattle Rep.

Plays about plays. There are a lot of them. Actors like portraying actors, playwrights like writing about what they know, and audiences seem unbelievably tolerant of them. Noises Off, Inspecting Carol,  The Beard of Avon, The African Company Presents King Richard III. Heck, add the players in Hamlet and the amateurs in Midsummer's Night Dream. The players love to talk about the art. Everyone loves a actor.

And so here. Ibsen in Chicago deals with a tiny amateur group putting together a performance of Ghosts, a banned play by Norwegian playwright. Henrik Ibsen. I have never read a lot of, nor expressed a great interest in reading a lot of, Ibsen, and was surprised to learn that the Lovely Bride had a heavy Ibsen phase (before her Bertolt Brecht phase - who knew?). Ghosts itself was a rather dour creation of a syphilitic son returning to the family manse to uncover all sorts of family secrets. It helps if you know more about Ghosts at the outset, but the play fills in all the blanks for the Ibsen novice.

Banned in its native lands, the play was first performed in Chicago in 1882. That's where this  play comes in. An Ibsen-inspired bricklayer (Christopher McLinden, last seen in Charles III) puts together a rag-tag bunch of amateurs led by an aging grand dame of the Danish theatre (Kirsten Potter, Photograph 51). The team consists of an eager cobbler, a sphinx-like ingenue, a nefarious a-hole bitten by the acting bug, and a mousy prompter with a tendency to pull her own teeth out when under stress.

And the components are there - the romantic backstage triangle, the surprisingly good auditioner, the technical problems, the moral challenge of the script, and the problems with money. Add to that the change in theater itself, as the declamatory style gives way to Ibsen's more realistic approach. And the challenges of coming to a New World, while bringing along the challenges of the Old.

And they do it with gusto. This is not a farce (which some plays about plays tend towards). but rather has some depth to it. Kirsten Potter unleashes as an ACK-tor of the Carol Burnett vintage, but pivots nearly into vulnerability and personal insecurity. Allen Fitzpatrick as the nefarious Pekka is totally villainous, but wants to be part of the company. Hannah Rue as the self-contained, naturalistic Elsa feels the most real and grounded of the group, but she too carries her secrets (because what would an Ibsen play be without secrets?). In short, all are faking it until they make it, which may be the American Dream in a nutshell.

One gripe is the stage, which is a bit too large for the smaller Leo K theater. A two-level affair (which seems to be a thing this season), the upper gallery almost looms over the audience, and makes it difficult to track on actions happening on both levels at once. That aside, Ibsen purrs along neatly, the actors playing actors who are on an knife-edge between both New World and Old, and trapped mid-leap between traditional and modern theater.

More later,


Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Political Desk Pop-Up Edition

Hey, wait a minute! It's not November! It's not even close! What's the deal?

Well, for some parts of the Seattle area, we're looking into the teeth of a small election next Tuesday (Feb 13). You may have gotten ballots. You may have already forgotten about them. The great bulk of them, such as the ones in Panther Lake neighborhood of Kent, are about paying for the schools.

Here's how things break down, currently. The bulk of school funding (about 68%) comes from the State Government, and yes, you're going to see property taxes go up this year as they come to terms with the fact that it is in our constitution that we educate our kids (who knew?). This is isn't about that. And 12% or so comes from the Feds, and the way things are going there, we'll get a nice note saying that the money was used instead to build ten feet of wall in Texas. The remaining 20% is funded locally, which is ALSO a property tax, to keep stuff going. And these taxes are to replace existing levies from 2014 which are expiring.

Why have the vote now? I suppose it is because the budgets were not in place last November (too soon) and by this coming November it would be too late. So we have a February ballot drop, when everyone would rather just kick back and watch Olympic Curling. Such are the nature of civic duties.

I've got a note here that says that if both measures are approved, we will see a reduction in local school tax rates, though not from the state school tax rates. I don't know - I don't have enough of a handle on the data, but I am a fan of educated kids, so here's my recommendation.  If you live in Kent, vote YES on Proposition 1, Replacement of Expiring Educations Programs and Operation Levy. Then TURN THE BALLOT OVER and also vote YES on Proposition No. 2, Levy for Capital Improvements for Safety, Security, Instruction, Classroom and Support Services and Technology.

If you're not in our little pocket of heaven, you're on your own, but I think that smart kids and adequately funded schools is a good goal.

More later,

Friday, February 09, 2018

DOW Breaks 24,000!

My, THAT was fast.

But not unexpected. The recent wild flight of the stocks, propelled by a tax cut aimed at the wealthy that would drive the deficit up for everyone else, sailed to new heights, the moved almost directly into a "correction" where it has been shedding all those gains almost as fast as it got them.

When it started, folks pointed at a report that unemployment was lower than expected as an instigator. In other words, more people had jobs, which one would think was a good thing. In financial circles, people with jobs mean that people can get more for their work, and that costs companies more. So good job news is bad news for the stock market. Similarly, paying your people more creates concern from the stockholders that too much money is being used on the stakeholders. Now, if people have more employment, there are already dire mutterings of "inflation", held in check these many decades through keeping wages contained, will suddenly spring forth, resulting in hire prices for consumers (because, the basic tenant of economic news is always "It is bad for you."

All this is true, but a bigger contributor is that sudden pulses in corporate financials are a large-scale version of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie". A break for companies creates expectations, and those expectations pick up speed over time, and last shorter amounts of time. A financial windfall showed up last month, the market went crazy, and the current administration claimed credit. Now comes the accounting, the market is going crazy, and the current administration is talking about a military parade.

What happens next? I can honestly say I have no clue. If this is truly about the market getting back to normal it will settle after a few more big swings, then return to a slow growth, pretending nothing happened like an addict intent on "maintaining". OR, the serious weaknesses of the current boom, further undercut by recent decisions at a national level, start a slowdown and slump as other investments outstrip the traditional markets.

I have no clue. But then, I don't think anyone else has a clue, either.

More later,

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Return of No Quarter! Part IX from Outer Space!

I gotta tell you, folks, we're in the dregs, now. The idea that national parks/monuments/seashores/ street corners would make good coins was all very well and good  at the start, but when every state has to come up with one? Yeah, we're taking blind swings here. This year, it is pretty obvious that they're reaching, as every National Thingummy is far from the rest of its state.

To make matters worse, these are probably the collectively blandest versions of coins I have ever seen. It the worst collection of rocks, water, trees, and the occasional bird available, and will be forgotten in the time that it takes to put them into a soda machine pay slot. I will try to be brief this year, but man, it feels like the guys at the mint are just phoning it in.

As always, we go with a letter grade on these babies. None really rate the worst, but man, there is temptation.

Way Cool =A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (also known as Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
So Fake, Sen, Nunes of California put out a memo supporting these = E

What's up first?

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore -  Michigan

Many, many years ago, the Lovely Bride and I went to Australia, and visited a site called the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island. And the name of both the rocks and the island where so on the nose that we have since decided that by the time we reached Australia, the Europeans had run out of interesting names. ("Those rocks are remarkable!" "Crikey! That's good name for them!").

Little did we realize that we had run out of useful names long before them, as the coin, which is a Pictured Rock from the Pictured Rock National Lakeshore, with a tree growing out of it. Actually I think this particular rock, located so far away from the rest of Michigan that it should be on the Wisconsin quarter, is called Chapel Rock because ... I dunno, they pulled the name out of a bag (or maybe the whole in the arch looks a stained glass window after the Blitz. 

Ratings: D (Lame)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Wisconsin

I mentioned that the Pictured Rocks could be practically been part of the Wisconsin? With just a little bit of effort, the Apostle Islands could have been on a Canadian Loonie. No even on the continental part of the US, the Apostle Islands are, of course, islands off the northern coast of Wisconsin (no, you never though of Wisconsin having a northern coast. I know). This is at the very tip of the cowlick that is the top of Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior and I would say, is not a great tourist draw.

However, they did put a kayaker on the coin, which is nice, though in this case the paddler is actually from Green Bay, and trying to get to his seats at the Packer home opener before the freeze sets in.

Ratings: D (Lame)

Voyageurs National Park - Minnesota


Voyageurs! What a cool name! I'm not talking about the cheesy 80's time-travelling TV show, but rather about French-Canadian fur trappers who sailed the Great Lakes and actually had mostly good relationships with the people already living here. You'd think you might get a shot of the plunky traders, their canoes heavily laden with furs for the long trip back to Montreal.

Nope. Rocks, water, trees. Oh, a big shot of loon right in the front, set up like a duck decoy. Like they just WANT the Canadians to walk in. Look! We have the coinage already set up for you!

Like the other two quarters so far, we are looking at a park that is at the furthest northern fringes of its state, but oddly, has no snow. Voyageurs is located near International Falls, the self-described "icebox of the nation". But no, we insist on showing liquid water.

Ratings: D (Meh).

Cumberland Island National Seashore - Georgia.

Well, thank the Lord that we have escaped all the rocks and trees of the far north for this one. I mean, seriously putting the Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota quarters together? What did you expect? And despite the name confusion with the Cumberland Gap (Kentucky, two years back), we have a seashore that people in Georgia may have actually been to (though that's because it is practically in Florida).

We don't have rocks and trees, but we do have a lot of water, a lot of reeds, and a bird. Birds, I think, are easy for these coins, since there is a chance they may still be seen in those locals, and they work cheaper than mammals (who unionized back in '06). This particular bird is a snowy egret. 

A snowy egret. The coins previous were all in the furthest north, and this one gets the first off-hand mention of snow. Still, it is a nice portrayal of a snowy egret, and doesn't look as much like a duck decoy.

Ratings: B (And I'm rounding up here).

Block Island National Wildlife Refuge - Rhode Island

Following the pattern so far, Block Island is about as far away as you can be from Rhode Island while still BEING part of Rhode Island. It is about 12 miles off-shore in the Atlantic Ocean. The island islands itself has a pretty interesting and storied past, but for the coin we get a majestic night heron flying over the water and coast, with a tiny lighthouse in the background. 

Its not a bad design, though the side-view of the heron doesn't compare with the display of the egret down in Georgia, and there is an attempt to say that people once inhabited this area, but still, it just doesn't do a lot for me.

Ratings: C (Meh)

Next year? We leave the continent entirely for Guam and the Mariana Islands. Oh, and Texas, Massachusetts, and Idaho. With all that diversity, let's mix it up a bit, people!

More later,

Friday, February 02, 2018

Play: Trains of Thought

Two Trains Running by August Wilson, Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Rep through 11 Feb.

I think I have seen more plays by August Wilson than by any other playwright with the exception of Shakespeare. With Two Trains Running, I have now seen nine of his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. And my relationship with his work has always been complicated. There are works that I've found engaging, and others that lead me to question what he's really up to.

A good reason for my engagement with Wilson is simple happenstance - I was born in Pittsburgh (as was Mr. Wilson), I spent a lot of time in the Midwest (which was a stopover region for him) and ended up in Seattle (where he passed on a dozen years back). The bulk of his plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a strong African-American community done in by change and urban renewal (much of the land was grabbed for the Civic Arena (now also gone)), and when I lived in Pgh there were a lot of decaying buildings surrounding empty lots of rubble, where the Urban rolled through but the Renewal had not arrived. I recognized the streets and the people in his work, and the vibe of the eras we covered.

And that all said, I found Two Trains Running to be one of Wilson's better works, with roles that get under the skin of the African American experience, not preaching but rather exposing a variety of black viewpoints to a greater world. While set in a Hill District soon to be overtaken by said Urban Renewal in 1969, and mentioning Malcolm X, it a non-political story about people and their wants and sense of worth.

The play is broad, with a bunch of things going on in once at the fading restaurant on Wylie Avenue.  Owner Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) is looking to sell to the city, but only if he gets what he thinks is a fair price. Sterling (Carlton Byrd) is just out of prison and trying to find a job. The mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Riley III) just wants his payment (a ham) for a job done nine years ago for a firm across the street. Memphis Lee's friendly rival, West (a wondrously reptilian William Hall Jr.) is a funeral director handling a major celebrity death. Add to this number-runner Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson) and corner-table wiseman Holloway (David Emerson Toney) and you have a rich collection of inhabitants, all with their own clear needs.

And yet there is a void at the center, in the presence of the recalcitrant Risa (Nicole Lewis), who is the waitress. Ordered about by a clueless Memphis Lee, patronized by  Wolf, romanced by an idealizing Sterling, she holds her secrets with the scars along her legs (no, you don't notice them until they are pointed out). All the characters get monologues and stories (indeed, there is an August Wilson monologue contest), but she does not. She never takes her place fully, though the others speak of equality and relationships.

Wilson tosses a half-dozen balls in the air, and wraps them in a wreath of nature voices. Lines are repeated, expanded, harked back to dozens of times, so by the end of the first act you get a feeling of who these people are. Wilson does a fantastic job slowly drawing everyone out, and the actors, all excellent in their roles, slowly delineate the dances as they advance.

There are a couple things that move through Wilson's cycle. One is the threat of violence - there are numerous guns and crimes that are presented, and at one point an army tin of gasoline as people talk about arson. It is a component of the Pittsburgh Cycle, sometimes seized upon, sometime left in the background, but always present.

Also, there is a mystic element to the plays, of belief and sometimes superstition. In Two Trains, this is in part shown by the funeral of Prophet, whose mobs of believers tax West's soul, and in the unseen presence of Aunt Ester, incredibly old at this point, who offers advice to those who seek her out and follow her orders. The reaction of the characters to both Ester and the Prophet- belief, disbelief, unbelief, and changing belief, creates their own line through the end.

In the end, it is a question of man's worth - measured by money, a woman's love, or even a ham, that the play ultimately centers on. And it is a bout opportunities - making them and taking them. This solid core that Wilson builds upon to create an involved, intriguing, engaging play. One of his best, and I can safely say that as someone who has seen almost them all.

More later,

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Things I am Proud Of

So I bared my soul last time with a project that I never completed. On the flip side, what am I particularly proud of?

I'm proud of most of the stuff I've working on over the years. However, what makes me smile are not particularly big things. It is the small tweaks, tight mechanics, and cool explanations that I've discovered over the years. Here are a few of them:

The Universal Table (Marvel Super Heroes) - I've talked about this before, and recognized its origins in the CRTs (Combat Results Tables) of earlier wargames. But the way it fits together, the way it works, the sheer .. universality of it all, still makes me happy. It is a table that carries a lot of load, and I was very happy with it.

The Nine Hells and, more importantly, why they descend (Manual of the Planes) - Here was my problem in MotP - the layers of the Outer Planes are supposedly limitless, infinite in all directions. So how do we create a typical Dante-esque hell where you keep climbing down to get to the nastiest layers?. My answer was that all the gates INTO a layer of the Hells were on the tops of mountains, and those OUT of a layer were in the valleys. That way, you are always descending. I was pretty darn smug about this one at the time.

A d8+d12 random monster table. (Monster Manual II) - I was reading the new edition of the DMG the other day (as one does) and noticed that some of the random monster tables were with 1d8 and d12. I did this in MMII, back in the day when monsters had rarity levels. The d8+d12 produces a bell curve with a large flat space on the top. The Common monsters would be found on the top of that plateau. The Uncommons were found on the sloping sides, the Rares further away from that, and the Very Rares were at the 2 and 20 levels, with about a 1% chance of each. So you could have a random monster table where demons were not as common as orcs

Those are the ones that make me smile. There are a lot of others - Phlogiston and the Crystal Spheres from Spelljammer.  Karma as a spendable experience point system in Marvel. Making Ashnod (Brother's War) and Varesh Ossa (Nightfall) female characters. Cheeeese. The Great Stone Men from Neither Man nor Beast. A good chunk of the Modrons. Tinker gnomes of Dragonlance. The names of the Asura  in Eye of the North (which sound like sound effects from Mad magazine). But those top three make me particularly happy.

More later,