Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Voter on the Borderlands

So Washington State has announced its new congressional borders, with the introduction of a 10th district and a shoving around of most of the others. And I'm not quite sure where I belong yet, but regardless, I resolve to not be happy about it.

So here's the story of how this happens. We have a Census which determines the population. Then we have a team made up of Democrats and Republicans who are supposed to come up with new borders for the congressional districts - dividing Washington into ten equal population parts, since we just picked up a seat. Their deadline is the first of the year.

By the way, one of the things learned watching the Ken Burns picture on Prohibition is that the "Dry" forces successfully staved off reapportionment for six years after the 1920 census, effectively suppressing and under-representing the wetter, urban areas. So yeah, the whole redistricting thing is major. But I digress.

Drawing up the boundaries is a balancing act of multiple needs. Adequate representation is an ultimate goal. But each party wants to keep its incumbents safe. Individual politicians want to make sure that their house is in their new district (or that the house of a rival is in a different district, or best of all in the district of another rival entirely). Certain budgetary plums should be kept. And there is a desire for a majority/minority area, where there are not as many white folks (and to be honest, we have a lot of said folks in Congress already, and it really hasn't worked out that well). The end result has horsetrading, backroom dealing, inter and intra-party realpolitik, and once presented, no one is really happy with the result.

And that's the case for me, even though I'm not EXACTLY sure where I am yet.

According to the map from the paper and on the various sites, Grubbstreet is on the border between the 8th and 9th District. But map is of such a large scale that I don't know which side I would be on. Going to the main site requires Google Earth, which I am not putting on (if only because I put it one once, several machines ago, and had the devil of the time with it. It may have improved by now but I am resistant).

If I am on the 8th side, that would be sad, since I would condemned to have Dave "dances with the one that brung him" Reichert as my rep for as long as he wants the job. Mr. R has survived some close shaves (for an incumbent) for the past few elections, but as a result of this redistricting, he has lost the northern, more liberal chunk of his territory, and has seen his district jump the Cascades and include more friendly and conservative climes. Now freed of keeping his enviro creds up (he once told a bunch of supporters that it was all for show), it will be interesting to see how his views change. In an ironic world, he would get primaried by a Tea Party candidate that finds him too tree-huggery.

If I am on 9th side, that would irritate me as well, since the 9th is the "majority-minority" district, where the Caucasian population is only 49%. It feels partially like a self-esteem award and partially like a bit of political ghettoization. The Washington State nonwhite population is hardly monolithic in its voting habits and political views, and it feels like a lot of different goals have been shoved into one territory just for the purpose of political theater. Adam Smith is the Rep for this district, and he's also going to be around for a while.

So I am in one or the other, and each new district smells of sulfurous intrigue. My plan on how to handle the redistricting (and you know I would have one) would be to create a computer program that would start in one of the four (roughly) corners of the state and state counting people. Each time you reach a tenth of the population, you create a new district. Then you'd iterate the map so they would be roughly uniform in shape. You'd end up with four maps (one from each corner), and then vote on those maps. The areas might be funny-looking, but no worse than the gerrymander we currently see when we let politicians set their own boundaries.

More later,

Update: AHAH! I found a PDF on the state site which allowed me to definitely put myself in District 9. It looks like the eastern border of the district is nearby Soos Creek, which puts all of Renton and northern Kent in the 9th, and pushes unincorporated Fairwood over into the 8th. Have fun with that, guys.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Evening

Photo by Sally Hutchinson (reflected in window)

More later,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy (D&D) Holidays!

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the DM gave to me:
Twelve Greedy Players,
A Saturday Night Special,
Tenth level Dungeons,
Nine Ochre Jellies,
Eight Ogre Magi,
Seven Robbers Robbing,
Six Enchanters Chanting,
Four Hobbit Thieves,
Three Zombies,
Two Skeletons,
And a Kobold on a Golf Tee!
      (Traditional, lyrics approx. c.1976, Purdue Friday Night Dungeon Group)

Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season from Grubb Street

More later,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Svengoolie and the New Digital Revolution

On to other matters. I am channel surfing last weekend and encountered Svengoolie playing a horror movie with a side order of bad jokes, and I am surprised, not the least because I am in Seattle and he is part of my Chicago area past.

Clear all Airlanes for the Big Broadcast! (WCUI/Jim Roche)
OK, backing up. Svengoolie, (better called Sven, and played by Rich Koz) is a horror host out of Chicago. I used to watch him on Saturday afternoon on WFLD, which we got up in Lake Geneva, back he was called the Son of Sven (because there was an earlier horror host named Svengoolie and ... yaknow, never mind). This time Sven turned up on ME-TV, which in Seattle is a small reruns station in the upper registers of the cable that showed up about a year ago.

And I got to thinking - where did this station come from, and why am I watching Sven in Seattle?

Part of the answer goes back to when the area (and a lot of other areas) went fully digital and dropped the analog (old rabbit ears) mode of transmission. Now our stations come through cable, with an added fee where it was once free (well, you had to get the antenna, but other than that, it was free, and what you got depended on the strength of the broadcast signal). But the other result of this change was the creation of digital subchannels.

Now this is the cool part. Programming that used to be coming through the airwaves now comes through digitally over the cable line. You don't notice the difference unless something fouls up, and you get this big grainy pixels. But as a result, you can ship a lot more info through the lines. The local broadcasters don't need to use all their bandwidth, and can now create new channels in their allotted spots.

Here's a partial local list - KOMO4, which is ABC, is also THiS Television (showing old movies). KIRO7 is CBS, but is also giving bandwidth to Retro TV (Old TV shows). Channel 12, KVOS is also MeTV (where I found Sven, but also has old TV shows) as well as KVOS2 (which is playing old rock videos), 22 KZJO ("Joe TV" - recent old TV shows) is also Antenna TV (Older TV shows), and while KCFQ (Q13 is Fox), which has Accuweather, but both 22 and Q13 are Tribune stations. the full list is here and contains some interesting connections. Oh, and all the parent channels have HD components as well.

So what do we take away from this? Well, despite the fact that we have more channels, we still see a lot of the same local guys involved in running the stations. But countering that, we see a sudden need for content. Cheap content. So we are seeing small, new, national groups that may turn into the next Nick (remember when they used to run old Dick Van Dyke shows?). So old repeats of "Too Close for Comfort"  and "Peter Gunn" have returned.

And with it, Son of Sven (and Elvira as well, I have discovered in my digging - what's next, Rhonda from "USA Up All Night?")

Now this is the third time that I can point at where this sort of thing has happened (and by "sort of thing" I mean late night, hosted horror movies). Back when stations actually stopped signing off right after the late news every night, there was a demand for content. Late night programming thrived, and with it the Horror Hosts. Then, when we saw the expansion of cable options, we saw another rise, this time of the national movie hosts, the most prominent being Elvira and MST3000. Now, we're in the same place again - we have an increase in ecological broadfcast niches, and old movies (and old television, and music videos) have moved into those niches, like groundcover after a wildfire.

How it all turns out will be interesting, Late night "former broadcast" TV has mostly given way to (even cheaper) infomercials. The plethora of cable channels have gone through repeated material to generating original material. Will these new digital sub-networks create their own evolutionary path, forcing out the early pioneers into yet another incarnation? I dunno, but to be frank, for the moment is is good see Sven again.

More later,

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back Among the Deck Chairs

(Yes, the title is a reference to ANOTHER Titanic/TSR joke among the employees. We had a lot of them, for some reason).

I hadn't planned on coming back to this particular subject so soon, but the Fates planned differently. My last post went a little viral between friends picking it up on the Facebook/Google regions and posting on industry discussion boards. Still, I felt I had advanced the idea of looking for root causes as opposed to merely bemoaning our lots in life.

And then THIS shows up on the 'net. For those not linking, it is an announcement that the CEO of Hasbro is getting paid $23 Million this year. And yeah, it is like pouring oil on troubled water, then tossing in a match.

Now, doing the digging in the article, the CEO gets a raise in salary from $1 Mill to $1.2 Mill (hardly chump change), and the rest being common stock. And to the best of my knowledge (the Internet will correct, of course), this means that it comes out of the company till - they are reassigning stock held by the company to the individual. And this assignment may have other strings attached - the stock cannot be sold except back to the company, it may only be sold at a particular price, it must be sold on leaving the company. So it is a fuzzy number, but a very large fuzzy number.

The article also makes clear that this is a retention payment, negotiated last year, to keep the CEO around. It also notes that Hasbro had a weak 2010 in sales (stock prices went up, though). 2011 is nothing to write home about (stock prices have since deflated) and 2012 is not shaping up to be any better (Upcoming big movie: Battleship). So this is not about performance, but rather about stability. This is payment for showing up.

What is important gets back to the idea of shareholders as being the ultimate measure of company success. By rewarding the management of the company with shares, they reinforce that mindset - increasing the net worth of the company (judged by stock price) also increases their personal wealth. Therefore decisions are made with more than a weather eye to how they will affect those stock prices in the near term as opposed to planning for a longer term.

This is a chosen and deliberate corporate mindset. The last time I was in Pawtucket at the Hasbro headquarters, several years ago, they had in the lobby a stock ticker showing the Hasbro share value running continually. This is a feature, not a bug, and informs on the rest of the decision-making involved.

More later, but hopefully not on this.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Titanic Had A Band

So Wizards of the Coast had holiday layoffs again. It is not a regular occurrence, though regular enough to merit mention here. (And by regular occurrence I mean they don't have layoffs every year at Christmas time, but they do manage to squeeze in a layoff or two every year or so, and do it between Thanksgiving and Christmas more often than not).

Go visit
Some friends were let go. You may have heard of them, if you pay attention to that sort of thing.

But the question that was put to me was - how does this always happen at Christmas? (Or rather, how does it happen frequently enough at Christmas that a company now has Christmas layoffs as part of its brand image)? And for that, we should look to see how corporations work. This is not to vilify or apologize - we've seen enough of both on the 'net when this subject comes up, but to try to explain.

It starts with the budgets. Each department or suborganization in a corporation lays out its budget - how much it plans to be bringing in, and how much it pays for it. This goes into a major discussion, where people (usually not the same people as provide the initial numbers) finish out their final budget, which percolates back out to the other areas. The just who said they need X dollars don't always get X dollars. In fact, they get X minus Y dollars and a note that they have to produce more with less in order to keep the company healthy.

And part of it is that the corporation demands continued growth and profit. It can defer some of its growth for long-term development, or keep on an unsuccessful project that someone really likes, but really it boils down to guaranteed growth. And if you attain that growth, then they need to increase that rate of growth. And lord help you if you have a very good year - that very good year becomes the baseline for further calculations. In short, it is a vicious cycle.

So they pass out the budgets for next year and now the departments have to plan. Yeah, some of that planning involves going back and telling the guys with the budgets that this makes no sense and sometimes that works. More often it involves figuring out what goes overboard in order to jack up profitability.

Sometimes it is a new process that saves times or lowers cost of materials. Sometimes it is a new market that has been opened. Sometimes it is that "big hit" that suddenly arrives and surprises everyone (businesses actually don't like the "big hit" - it really screws up their planning. If they say you are going to lose 3 million this year and you instead MAKE 3 million, you make them look like idiots, and you will be punished accordingly).

But much of the time, it comes down to manpower reduction. Layoffs. And if you're talking about a creative industry with a in-house creative staff (a rarity, by the way), that will involve removing some of the same talent that has gotten you there in the first place.

In particular the old guys. Now, you will see early layoffs when companies get into this downward spiral where they lay the new guys off, the equivalent of eating the seed corn, But when you can lay one guy off instead of two, its a better idea. And ditching a veteran frees up more investment.

And for the long-term employed, here's the warning sign. After a slew of good reviews and standard raises, you get a warning flag. Nothing major, but a mild disapproval in your performance. Congratulations, you've gotten as much salary as they want to give you, and you have pitched over into a new box - candidates for dismissal. It is not even a case of what have you done for us recently; It is just looking at your cost as a healthy target to make the division more profitable.

And here's the thing about corporate life - the guys who set the budgets don't hate you (heck, they probably don't even know you) - they are just laying out the numbers. And the guy you're working for doesn't hate you (well, maybe he does - if you left him stranded by not refilling the coffee machine). No, he's just bound by making the best of a horrible set of choices. Someone has to go, and you're suddenly not an asset, you're an expense.

And this is one of the things about corporations you may have noticed. The blame is spread about. Nobody has to take the fall. Heck, your immediate boss may like you and think you're contributing, and STILL have to lay you off. Its just the numbers.

As a digression, one of the things I really love about losing your job in today's America is that "Your position has been eliminated". This is the corporate version of "Its not you, it's me." It's not like you haven't been doing your job or your didn't refill the coffee maker, it's just we showed up one morning, and your position? It's gone! Vanished! Gone in the night! And we don't hate you. We hate your job. You probably hate your job too. See? We're on the same side!

OK, fine, but why Christmas? Because corporations also drag their feet. Inertia is a powerful thing, particularly when you have do something rotten like deciding who gets shown the door. So things go through a lot more processes than they intend. So if your budgetary process starts in June with the end of Fiscal in December, and you try to find some way to make the numbers work without canning someone, you wait for it. Maybe things will work out. And when they don't you have to make the tough decisions late in the year. Multiply that desire and hope against all the layers involved in the task of removing people and you can see why it happens so late in the year. Merry Christmas.

What it all boils down to is a mistake at the very start of the process. The budgets have to work and the bottom line has to be determined. And all this has to make the shareholders happy. For the most part, these shareholders are faceless (and in the case of investment portfolios, inhuman) entities that supposedly only care about maximizing their investments. Actually, when you talk to THEM they never told anyone to fire anyone, either. They just want to get their money's worth.

So what needs to change (and I have seen it happen in places) is to not think about shareholders but about STAKEholders. These are the people with a stake in the company, which includes the monetary stake of investors the effort of employees, and the interests of consumers.In the hobby game market, you may not have a SHARE of WotC, but a fan of the games, you have a STAKE in WotC. You want to see it succeed. Oddly, so do the shareholders, management, and employees (See! We're on the same side!")

Now the whole argument of stakeholders versus shareholders is not a panacea. Instead it is a guarantee of ongoing discussion as all the contributors vie for the returns that they seek (investors want value, the employees want security, and the consumers want product, but this are very broad statements). It is going to be more of a rugby scrum than a stately procession, which bothers the hell out anyone who likes an organizational tree. But I think it produces a better result.

I have sympathy for those who were let go. For older creatives, this leave-taking comes with compensation, and enough time to figure out the next move (You have a new job - that job is finding a new job). In our field, you also get the joy of reading your own eulogies - people who have beating on you in the forums for years will suddenly pronounce you a genius. You get to walk around for a few weeks saying things like "Apres moi, le deluge", and "The living will envy the dead". And you get to engage in a bit of gallows humor (the title of this article is the answer to an old joke: What is the difference between TSR and the Titanic?).

But it really doesn't make up for the sudden lack of security, the absence of a long-term paycheck and health care. And as long as the dedication of any company is ultimately to its shareholders and its bottom line, its employees and other stakeholders who are left out of that calculation should treat it with the suspicion and wariness that its deserves.

More later,

Monday, December 12, 2011

Company Picture

Here's the ArenaNet company photo. The stylish guy in the center rocking the black A.R.E.N.A soccer shirt is our boss, Mike O'Brien. I'm off to the right side, about three rows back, in the Hawaiian shirt. My eyes are closed from the flash.

More later.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Meanwhile, in the early 1600s

Still buried, but that's no reason you guys should suffer. Here, have a rendition of "Who's on First" done in the Shakespearean fashion. It is written by Jay Leibowitz and David Foubert and directed by Jason King Jones. The video breaks up a bit at the end, but the sound is still good.

More later,

Monday, December 05, 2011

Meanwhile, on Cap Hill ...

I'm very busy with a number of things, but offer this while I am wrestling with other commitments.

Original creator unknown, but the statue itself is by Daryl Smith. Thanks to Learsfool for sending this.

More later. No, really.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Play: Shaggy Dog Story

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, Directed by R. Hamilton Wright, November 11 December 11, 2011, Seattle REP.

I was listening to conversations at the theater before and after this play. Before the show, the guy behind me talking about Microsoft getting aced by Apple as an investment. On my left, my wife and her friend Patricia talking taxes, on the right a couple talking about a recent trip. That was before the show.

At intermission, and after the show, they were all telling dog stories. All of them. About their dogs, about friends with dogs, about memories of past dogs and about dogs last week. Because this is that type of play, a play that fires your own memories and ideas and everyone is a part of it. Even those of us who do not have dogs.

Sylvia is a four-actor play. Alban Dennis is Greg, who brings home a stay dog to his New York apartment. Mari Nelson is his wife, Kate, who has finally gotten the kids out of the house and has a plan for the rest of her life, one which doesn't include a dog. Darragh Kennan is everyone else (I'll explain the a bit later) who isn't a dog. And Linda K. Morris is the dog, Sylvia.

The play itself is a slender thing, little more than what I just presented, but it bounces along merrily, aided both by its stagecraft (furnishings sliding along a Magritte-shaded stage), and the effusive nature of the cast itself. Morris as Sylvia carries the bulk of the task, being incredibly dog-like, right down to a canine's mercurial temperament and lack of long-term memory. Actually, she's not playing the dog as much as the other characters' projection on the dog. We all anthropomorphize our pets, and part of Syvlvia's rattletrap nature is what her masters expect of her. But as dog or imposed representation of a dog, Morris bounces through the role.

Mari Nelson has a tougher road as the heavy, the Shakespeare-quoting wife who wants nothing to do with the dog. She doesn't have nearly so much to play with, and hers is the treacherous job of providing resistance (so as not to seem weak) without being mean. There a moments she seems to verge on full-fledged MacBethian cackle, but she redeems herself nicely. Interestingly, both Nelson and Morris were in Dancing at Lughnasa last season, along with two of actresses over in Circle Mirror Transformation. It appears that Dancing at Lughnasa is the Kevin Bacon play of actresses at the Rep.

I mentioned Darragh Kennan as everyone else. He shows up as a fellow "Dog-Guy" at the dog park, then transforms into a Lady Who Lunches, a malapropping friend of Kate's, upon whom Sylvia heaps embarrassment (and a cold, wet nose), and lastly as the ambiguously gendered psychiatrist brought in to deal with Greg's obsessiveness with his canine soulmate. He has the chance in the latter to go even broader than he does in the last, and should take it. Indeed, when dealing with a triangle, it is the supporting characters that can do the most work to convince the audience of the central figures sanity. These characters show there are crazier things than Greg and his dog.

Alban Dennis as Greg has a odd problem, in that I've seen and enjoyed the acting work of R. Hamilton Wright, who was the both the original Greg when the play first showed up as well as the director here. And as a result, I kept projecting Wright into the role. The end result makes Dennis' Alban seem too continually perky and mild in the part. Wright has the ability to work himself into a grounded, manic enthusiasm that the Greg portrayed here seems to lack.

The end result? Well, this is a holiday play, not that it's about a holiday, but it is a nice, comfortable piece of theater that doesn't put any great demands on the audience. It's the kind of play you can bring a theater-phobic relative to (particularly if that relative is a dog-person and can stand a cursing canine). I like the production and direction of Sylvia, but recognize the actors efforts better in CMT as being superior. But the writing is fairly innocuous in both plays, living in a very comfortable and innocuous space. An acting class versus a romantic triangle with a dog. Forced to choose, I'd go with Sylvia's writing, but only by a nose.

A cold, wet nose.

More later,

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles Part V (C)

The Long Reach of Evil, Abominations of the Amazon by Mike Ferguson, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

So, here's the last of the trilogy that makes up Goodman Games Long Reach of Evil project, and it proved to be the shootiest Cthulhu adventure I have ever run.

The good news with this one is that it bends one of the Goodman Games precepts. Yes, you are invited to a distant land. Yes, the person that invites you is dead/missing (but you have a chance of effecting a rescue). But the big difference is that the Cthuloid threat is not summoning an Elder Thing into the world as the big resolution. (Oh, yeah, grab that spoiler flag, will you?)

The individual that invites you to Peru is Professor Edwards, whom for my team I introduced at the funeral of Sam Avery way back in the Tibet adventure. Naturally, he's not there when you get there - he's gone on to the dig site where he is anticipating discovering the Treasure of Llanganatis. Of course, he and his team are overdue on their return (cue ominous music).

So you start in Iquitos, on non-Pacific side of the Andes, in the part of Peru that is Amazonian in nature. Our native Peruvian in the group (oh, you don't have one?) says that Iquitos has a reputation for alcohol and loose morals, but you won't get any of that from the adventure - it is just a launching point - you are supposed to get on the boat and go downriver after the missing expedition.

And the story of what the expedition was doing is a bit light as well. You have to take a boat to the expedition site, but the expedition is overdue, so why is the boat you are taking back in Iquitos when it should be at the site? Further, how does our guide, Ramon, know where we are going? If he was with the expedition, he would have fallen prey to the Cthulhlian minions. If not, then how does he know where he is going (the map, with a lot of arrows saying "Here's the treasure!" is sort of large-scale, as it shows all of Peru (sort of like finding your street address on a map of your state)). These are the sort of logic problems the GM needs to navigate around - I ended up describing a temporary camp on the river, and a destroyed base camp on the verge of the ruins itself.

And the thing of it is, it is not as if there is not room for this level of detail in the adventure. In these adventures, we go into a lot of history that the players may never see in play, yet skimp on the little stuff that helps build the reality of the world. Plus, inevitably, there is at least a half page of white space at the end of each adventure, indicating that the word count did not wrap up cleanly.

For once, there is no real problem with the maps and the handouts. They are relatively limited (a letter and a rough map on the handouts, a surface and underground map beneath), and are cleanly presented. For the surface map of the ruins, I would put in a place for where the players enter, but it is pretty intuitive it is from the west.

The biggest problem is the read-aloud text. This would be called "boxed text" in the old D&D modules, but is not boxed, but is rather in italics, and is supposed to be read or paraphrased to the players. Here's an example paragraph: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. You know that without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness. As dangerous as the waters of the Amazon River proved to be, you feel as though you may have been safer there. At least on the river, you could see where danger was coming from.
Now here's the thing - I (the GM) am telling you how you (the player) feel in this. Big sin. I can evoke mood or a response in my text, but I should never take over your PC to tell them what they feel, or make them draw conclusions. Players, being what they were, will react immediately in the opposite direction (and mine, coming from so much of the gaming industry, greeted the with hoots of laughter). Here's a better version: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. Without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness.
Also, the read-aloud text would tell you things your PC could not see at that moment. - If you read the text when you're close enough to see the human sacrifice, you should see the well in front of the sacrificial altar, but not the bones at the bottom of that well.

Also, also, if you're going to evoke the spirit of a foreign land and language, a pronunciation guide always helps, particularly if you're going to expect the Keeper to read the text without the Spanish-speaking Peruvian player breaking into the giggles.

There is also the, shall we say, ammunition-heavy nature of the game. There was no problem in this game that was not solved most easily and directly by a direct and intensive application of firepower. As soon as the PCs grokked the idea that their attackers were "not-quite-human" there was an explosion of gunfire at every opportunity.

And it serves to underscore that the combat system for CoC (and for Basic Roleplaying) is wonderful old school kludge. And I think this is why Call is so successful as an RPG while others using the same system seem to struggle -in Cthulhu, if you have to pull your weapon, something has already gone horribly, horribly wrong. Maximum rifle damage is equal to average PC hit points, and when you add bits like multiple attacks, increased chances to hit for point blank, and the dreaded autofire of a Thompson Submachine Gun, and you have a potential massacre limited only by the PCs own moral values and the amount of available bullets.

Mine you, a mobster with a Tommy Gun versions a saurian abomination did result in a dead abomination and a completely empty Tommy Gun. And our mobster, stripped of his projectile protection, started to get the shakes.

Our particular game was truncated by our archeologist, playing the consoles in the first room, through random pressing of buttons rolled randomly into the self-destruct button. That put a very short timer on any exploration of the underground, as they had to clear out as quickly as possible (they had also brought the sweaty dynamite down from the top of the pyramid and stored it by the main entrance, for additional explosive fun).

All in all, it was a averfage adventure. No one really discovered anything about what was going on, other than there were serpent men in those there pyramids. The rebel serpent man who could have "explained everything" was not found in the pell-mell search to find the missing professor and escape. As a Cthulhu adventure, it lacked the creepiness (that it tried to force in the text) but as an adventure tale, in the Indiana Jones school of archeology, it was OK.

Overall, the total Long Reach of Evil project was good, not great. The cold opening of Sumatra has stayed with the players, and that is their favorite adventure of the three. I felt the Tibet adventure was good, though Tatters of the King walked those lands more effectively. And Abomination was very much a D&D-style adventure that revealed some of the challenges in CoC/BRP combat.

More later,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Play: Group Therapy

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, directed by Andrea Allen, Seattle Rep until November 20th

Let me get to the point here: I didn't care much for the play, but the acting was amazing. And there will be a dissenting opinion.

CMT is an actor's play. That is both to say that it is about acting and actors, and that it is also a great opportunity for actors to act. As the former, it shows all the indulgent nature that makes me dislike plays about actors. As the latter it shines.

The setting for the play is the community center in Shelby, Vermont, which is to playwright Baker what Lake Woebegone is to Garrison Keillor. Five people are gathered together for a six-week acting class - Queen bee and instructor Marty, her understanding husband James, effusive new-to-town Theresa, wallflower teen Lauren and relationship wreck Shultz. And the acting class consists of acting exercises as opposed to reading and portraying particular parts. Now, acting exercises are all about making the actor comfortable with his body, with what can be done with it, and translating the natural of everyday life translate onto the unnatural of a stage with people watching. Acting exercises are also pretty silly-looking to the uninformed (a group including most of the rest of us). And the exercises here are live social grenades that, in the hands of an Albee, would kick off screaming fits. Over the course of the play you are sort of waiting for the screaming fits to set in, as many of these exercises kick off the internal response of "Oh, yeah. THIS is going to end well".

And things go about how you'd expect. Relationship wreck and effusive new-to-town get together, old marrieds fall apart, wallflower blossoms. And there is nothing wrong with all this, but it just takes forever. Portrayed in a series of blackout sketches over a period of weeks, you feel time crawl like you are, well, watching an acting class and waiting for the drama to really start.

This problem is the writer's domain, but is made even more excruciating by the director's pacing. Leisurely is a kind way of describing it. The long pauses, the interrupted conversations, the frequent black-outs, it feels like the writer and director are actually getting in the way of the play itself, preventing forward motion because otherwise, things would wrap up too swiftly. Keillor keeps his radio bits to about twenty minutes. At two hours, the play feels thick and ponderous (and the play lacks an intermission because there is no Act 1 cliffhanger, and polite escapees among the audience are thereby foiled).

The actors, though. Ah, the actors. Michael Patten as Shultz is freaking brilliant in his slack-jawed thoughtfulness, a deep and real portrayal - yeah, I know this guy. Heck, there are days I've BEEN this guy. Anastasia Higham as Lauren is amazing as well, and for all its sins, the play has to be commended for taking the time to let her move out of her shell and become the center of the play itself. Of course, you're still an hour in while she's bunched up in a fetal squat as the others carry on, but her blossoming is one of the things that makes this a comedy (in the classic sense - with a upbeat ending).

This is not to slight Gretchen Krich as queen bee Marty, a woman looking for activity in her life, and Elizabeth Raetz as the larger-than life former actress, who holds the fort as the center of attention before acceding it to Lauren. And Peter A. Jacobs as the husband James, obviously the guy who was dragged into this and is being supportive, hits a lot of the right notes. All three sell us on very real, very human character- they are actors portraying people who are learning to act, and you can feel their diverse reasons and emotions.

Now, as mentioned at the start, the theater department at Grubbstreet is in dispute about this play - the Lovely Bride thought it was brilliant throughout, and gave it a (one-person) standing ovation at the end (yep that was her). She felt that this was an accurate portrayal of life - how is lingers, waits, and moves forward in stops and starts. I agree that it does all that, but disagrees that such a portrayal is good theater. We are agreed, however, that the actors are just bloody brilliant, and we both want to see them all again.

More later,

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles Part V (B)

The Long Reach of Evil, The Fires of Sumatra by Richard Pett, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

This is part of the continuing reviews of the Goodman Games The Long Reach of Evil product. The product is broken down into three adventures, each by a different author, so it really merits three separate entries. Now, I tend to review stuff that I've played/moderated, so such reviews take a while to move through the entire pipeline. And as always, here be spoilers.

The basic pattern of the Age of Cthulhu adventures goes as follows - you are summoned to a distant location by someone who will probably not be alive when you arrive. There you find something squamous and rugose, usually in the department of people summoning an Elder Thing. Rinse, lather, and repeat.

And that's pretty much what happens here. But what makes it cool is the cold opening (unfurl that spoiler flag, willya?). You can start the adventure in media res, with the protagonists waking up in a cave, having been infested with a nasty little spell by the bad guys. Said nasty little spell puts a sense of urgency as the play unfolds, as does the big empty space it creates in everyone's memory. The adventure does provide the option of running the initial capture, but that really consists of throwing ever-more-difficult challenges at the player until they at last succumb to the inevitable and start the adventure proper. In my opinion, go with the cold opening.

Since my group consists of long-standing players - the mobster, the writer, her subject, the photographer, the archeologist, and Thurston Howell the Third, the cold open was a bit of a shock, and gave them a lot of drive to figure out who is behind this and, more importantly, how to get rid of those pulsing cysts all over their bodies. Oh, and filling in the hole in everyone's memories. Oh, and getting their stuff back. Those are good drives as well. The cold opening in cave gave them a LOT of motivation.

A note about the cave - the opening throws in some NPCs who were kept there by the cultists. There were five people also in the cave besides the PCs, driven mad by their own mystic infection. That's good for showing the results of what the players are confronting, but once introduced, these NPCs are never mentioned again. Are the players responsible for them? What should they do with them? What happens when they do an autopsy on one of them? I reduced the number to three, used one to show why you don't attack the initial monster, and had the second one kill the third one and threaten the party in the back of the cave.

Oh, yes, one more thing. The cave has camping equipment that includes paraffin. That's a British term for kerosene. Sweet, flammable kerosene. I had forgotten that, but my Brit-based players caught it immediately.

Once they flee the cave and reach Panang, the adventure needs some filling out. What is there on the city is a bit light, and the characters did some of the things the adventure anticipated (checked out the port of entry, went to the local hotel, where they pretended they had already checked in to see if they HAD checked in). But the adventure did not do a lot for some other options, like hitting the local bank to try to draw funds, or the telegraph office, or finding a doctor, or, most importantly, what it was like on the street for little matters like clothing and food (thank you, Wikipedia for filling in a lot of the bits, particularly on rendang and street vendor culture). They attracted enough attention to flag both the bad guys responsible and the local rebels, the latter of which is a good thing for their continued progress through the adventure.

The most frustrating thing is that they never get a handle on who and what they are fighting. Half of the named bad guy NPCs are never properly introduced, so the heroes are referring to "Guy with thick glasses" or "nervous German guy". Worse yet, in the overarching aplot (Spoilers flag waving around frantically), the cultists are trying to summon one entity, but end up summoning another. Short of a strong knowledge of the Mythos ("Say, that doesn't LOOK like Cthugha"), that little plot point is lost on the players. Which is a pity, since the ultimate big bad has a pretty cool concept and look.

The maps are maddening even by Call of Cthulhu standards. The hotel map cannot be navigated, and the plantation map's room descriptions do not line up with map key. Oh, and if you say in the text that they ultimate monster appears at location "X" on the map, it behooves you to bloody well put a bloody "X" on the map.

The handouts for this adventure were minimal and could be done away with entire, which is a good thing, since for this adventure supposedly set in the 1920s, the summoning telegraph is dated August 27th, 1883 (and yeah, Krakatoa fits into the adventure, but not here). That seems to give the tip-off that the adventure was originally created for another time period and then ported over to here.

In the end, The Fires of Sumatra requires a lot of GM/Keeper flexibility to handle things not covered in the text (and deal with those awful, awful maps), but has a great hook in its cold opening, which proceeds to drive the PCs forward (as well as slowly driving them mad). It feels like a good convention module that is trying to expand its wings, and only partially succeeds.

More later,

Thursday, November 10, 2011

After Action Report

Back from Paris, currently wrestling with a nasty cold. However, let's take a look at the remains of the election.

In the Puget Sound area, it was a good time to be an incumbent. People in office tended to stay in office. An exception was the head of the Seattle School Board, who was replaced with retired teacher Marty McLaren. The Seattle Times feels that this is not due to the lack of leadership or attention of the school board for all its recent scandals, or a solid and rational ground game by the challenger, but rather those darn unions (I swear, the Seattle Times is so darn CUTE sometimes).

Onto the initiatives. I-1125 (the Eyeman one) went down in flames, not getting enough support from the rest of the state to overwhelm the deep hatred of it in vote-dominant King County. If I-1125 was a movie, it would be one of those Uwe Boll clunkers. the ones that come out that everyone wonders how a movie this bad got made. And in fact, like Uwe Boll movies, the movie is not the reason for the project, but rather the deal to MAKE the movie. And once the deal for this initiative was made to draw off huge sums of money to launch it, really winning the initiative was besides the point.

If I-1125 is a Uwe Boll movie destined for perpetual repeat on the Syfy channel, then I-1183 (the Costco one) is the too-big-to-fail blockbuster that had star power and huge press going in. And like the blockbuster, it had its great opening weekend, carrying handily to allow the poor, impoverished big box stores to market megaliters of Jack Daniels. The deal won't go down for another six months, so we're about a year out before we start seeing the articles about what went wrong with this plan. For the moment, the Times feels we need to make the change immediately! The people have spoken!

(Actually, the Costco initiative not only shows that our initiative system can be bought, it sets a price tag on it - $33 Million (22 from Costco, 11 from the Beer and Wine lobby opposing it). Now we just need an initiative saying that you can pass your own law for $33 Mill, and leave us middle-men voters out of the process entirely).

And then there is I-1163 (the care workers one), the quiet indie picture that pops up, grabs the awards, and then disappears again. Lacking the hoopla of the Costco and Eyeman amendments, it coasted to an easy victory. Of course, the Seattle Times scolds that we don't have the money (having just sold off all our liquor stores) and we should ignore this. The people are fools! (Like I said, the Seattle Times is SO CUTE in its lack of self-awareness).

The Resolutions passed without any problems, and while it is nice to be asked, this is the sort of thing that is the second feature, the lower billed, less talked-about film. Nothing big on those ones, and no surprises.

So that leaves us with election 2011, the offist of the off-year elections. And now begins the slouching towards 2012. Oh joy.

More later,

Friday, October 28, 2011

DOW Breaks 12,000!

Yes, I am still on the far side of the world (or rather, all y'all are the ones on the far side of the world), but I am still paying attention, and note with my clockwork precision of another milestone in the Fantasy League known as the Dow Jones.

Now the official economic news is filled with how this is tied in better economic forecasts for the states, or the settling of the problems facing the Euro over here, but we all know that it is because there is a large group of people down the street from the markets who are protesting hard and heavy against economic injustice. And as a result, the guys who normally make their daily bread pushing around stacks of money have to look busy and productive for once.Because, you know, they just can't go out to lunch in the park anymore.

If Occupy Wall Street keeps up, we may hit 13k by Christmas.

More later,

Saturday, October 15, 2011


So here's the deal, folks. I'm going to be on the road for the next few weeks, and my posting during this time will be erratic at best. Which is a problem since this space often goes into mind-numbing detail on the various elections. So I'm telling you right at the outset, that you're not going to see a lot of that this time around.

Which is a pity, because this year's off-off-year election has a lot of the meat and potatoes of government. City council members. Schools boards. Medical commissioners. County Offices. Local things. The guys who are going to do stuff that you're going to gripe about two years from now.

So I am going to cover here the stuff that has the maximum bandwidth - the Initiatives and Resolutions that everyone is going to have to vote on in Washington State. For the rest, I point to the usual suspects - The Muni League, the Stranger, the various smaller blogs that cover this stuff, and the Washington State and King County Voters Guides. And the Seattle Times as well, with a larger than normal chunk of salt applied - They spent the past three months pointing out how fouled up the Seattle School Districts are, pointed out how incurious the school board is in the matter, then proceeded to endorse all the incumbents (because, yahknow, stability is more important than curiosity).

OK, without going on too long (too late), here are the big things this year.

I-1125. This is this year's Tim Eyeman initiative. There always is at least one, and is usually notable for a) promising the voters a pony, b) screwing up government, and c) having consequences they don't tell you about. The "pony" is restricting tolls, like on the 520 bridge ( I know, how dare we put a toll on a bridge that we built in the first place with tolls). The screwing up is keeping government from moving construction funds around to needed areas, making them less responsive. The consequences are to kill the idea of light rail mass transit across the lake, since you can't toll concrete roads to pay for mass transit. That last one is why most of the money pushing this idea comes from Kemper Freeman, a big real estate wheel in the trans-Lake Washington region, who is desperately afraid that the people of Bellevue, confronted with cheap mass transit, will go somewhere else than his expensive malls to shop. The stench wafting off this is palpable. Lets go with a big NO on this one.

I-1163 - This one is a good idea in a bad year. Let's have training for the care workers for the elderly and disabled. When they are not talking about how the school board has screwed up, the Times also carries a lot of stories on badly trained or criminal caregivers. Then of course, they DON'T support this initiative, because the state is tight with money right now. So sorry, old folks - we don't love you enough to actually PROTECT you or anything. Maybe when things pick up, so keep in touch. I, my goo-goo heart aflutter, strongly support YES on this.

I-1183 - Last year, we had TWO initiatives that involved privatizing the State Liquor Stores. Both claimed to be the absolutely BEST deal possible for the state. They were voted down. Now, a new version of one of them has popped up, with an EVEN BETTER Best Deal Possible for the state. This is the Costco-backed version, which will allow hard liquor sales in stores of a particular minimum square footage (square footage that Costco has in abundance - Quelle Surprise!). The side opposing the spread of alcohol has a lot of funding from the beer and wine distributors. Wait, what? See, if this goes through, then beer and wine will be fighting for that same square footage in the store as the hard stuff (unless they take out the bakery, and you DON'T was to mess with the baked good lobby).

On this initiative, though, my conservative roots start to show through. I kind of LIKE to have an inefficient specialty store with tight regulations and a bureaucratic burden on top of it that throws a lot of money to the state that I don't pay unless I want to get sloshed. I think liquor restrictions are a pretty good thing -  I don't think of Jack Daniels as an impulse buy, and if I get to the point where the local distributor knows me by sight, I may need to cut back a little. Plus, I'm from Pennsylvania, and they wrote the BOOK on badly managed, corrupt, lousy State Stores. And Washington State hasn't seen anything of that stripe, so its not like they're doing a particularly bad job as my barkeep.

Further, has there ever been a case where privatization has helped the stakeholders of that good or service? I don't mean shareholders (the guys who make the money, and Costco just jacked up its membership - you gotta pay for all this democracy somehow), but rather the stakeholders, a group that includes employees, customers, and communities. I've drawn a blank, so despite my budding alcoholism, I have to vote NO on this one (and wait to see when next year Costco brings us and BESTEST OF BEST Deal possible).

Resolutions in Washington State are legislation that changes the state constitution, which then needs to be approved by the general populace. Sometimes they are just cleaning up language, sometimes they are more important.

SJR-8205 concerns the the length of time voters must reside in Washington to vote for President and Vice President. AHAH! It is one of these laws manipulating the rules to reduce voting that you hear about in all the GOP-dominated state, keeping people from voting! Uh, not quite. Actually, in Wash State you have to live here 30 days in order to be able to vote. But you have to live here 60 days to vote in national elections. This resolution makes it all the same - 30 days.  That's it. Yep, it makes it easier to vote and brings everything in line. Nothing to see here. Vote YES.

SJR-8206 involves the "rainy day fund", which is money put aside from the budget for times when the economy craters (like, um, now). This measure makes it possible to jack up the amount deposited in boom years ("extraordinary revenue growth"), and provides rules about taking it out ("Budgetary emergency", State employment growth below 1 percent, or we get too much money in the account). It's all not bad, but it really is a bandaid. Washington State relies on its sales tax, so in good times we boom and in bad times we have to make those hard budgetary decisions that result in bad roads and crappy schools. What we SHOULD be voting on is a more stable form of revenue, some sort of TAX on the INCOME,  perhaps,and ditching the state sales tax entirely. Still, I'm going with YES on this one.

Those are the biggies. Best of luck with the rest, stay informed, and make your voice heard. More later,

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Play: Send in the Clown

Humor Abuse, created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, directed by Erica Schmidt, Seattle Repertory Theatre until 23 October.

The Lovely Bride and I have season tickets to the Seattle Rep, and for many years support they sent us a discount card, in the hopes we would pass it on to someone else, who would then enjoy a play and thne get wrapped up in the whole theater thing. And I gave the discount card to a friend, with the warning - the first show is a one-man play, and those are always iffy propositions.

I speak from experience. It could be the fact that the pressure is on one set of shoulders that provides a heavy load. And while a one-actor wonder can be truly wonderful (K of D, last year), or thoughtful (anything by Mike Daisey), it can also be pretentious ((Texts for Nothing, which occurred before I started blogging in this space) or just godawful (Thom Paine). So knew of which I spoke.

However, waiter, I  am ready to order - The crow special looks very good, but I think I will start with my hat. Oh, and could I have a slice of homemade humble pie on the side?

Humor Abuse is a funny, warm, enjoyable, one-man show about a boy who ran away from the circus. It is Lorenzo Pisoni's autobiography of his life growing up in the Pickles Family circus, and his relationship with his father Larry. Now it is the clowning that gets you in the door - for a man who at the outset claims to not be very funny, Pisoni is hilarious as he moves through his father's routines and his own. But you stay for Pisoni's own story, of joining the act, staying with his father, continuing with the circus after his father was asked to leave, trying to escape form that past, and finally coming to terms with it.

The Pickles Family Circus was a small west coast operation of the 70s - more kin to the later Soliel than child of Barnum and Bailey. The Pisoni humor is physical, and more in the domain of painful pratfall than smiling laughter. The younger Pisoni's training was along the lines of learning how to fall down the stairs than delivering a pie. The clowns of this era (Bill Irwin was part of the gang) are more existential than funny. So the Pisonis were dealing with the humor of frustration, punctuated with the very real chance of personal injury.

I always take after the Rep-style theaters when they do one-person shows in that they don't by definition use local actors, one of the purposes of a Repertory. Well, we've seen Lorenzo Pisoni before, both as the Gatsby in the Great Gatsby, and as Jeff Ablom's schuck persona in Tuesday's at Morries. So we know he is an excellent actor to begin with. What we didn't know is the strength of his physical acting. And, the fact that he is that as a humorless clown, he is hilarious.

The performance moves through quickly, and if anything, I want to know more about Pisoni than I want to see his acts by the end (and his clowning is very good). Not only did the audience give him a standing ovation at the end, but they also stayed for slide show that was playing as they left. The slide show was supposed to play as they left, sort of end credits. And they stayed, unsure if things were really over.

Well done. Well worth seeing. More later,

Friday, October 07, 2011

Under Kandorian Skies

Yeah, it is irony when it takes me longer to tell you about the vacation than it did to experience it. But that's what happens when you have a lot of plays involved.

So this is closure, wrapping things up. We left Ashland, stopped in Portland overnight, and then headed up the Columbia Gorge to Marysville, jumped over the border into Washington State, stopped for dinner in Yakima, then home in the evening. The end.

That IS a Doozey!
Oh, all right, the details. In Portland we stayed as the Modera, a small downtown hotel reimagined for an upscale crowd - the rooms are small but original art is everywhere, and the central court is dominated by a green wall of plant cover. The afternoon was spent at the Portland Art Museum, which had a nice permanent collection within a pair of already-existing buildings, creating a large number of cul de sacs and side rooms. Three Monets, four Rodans, a John Singer Sargent.  A very nice collection, and if you haven't been, you should go. The interesting thing was a temporary show of "the Art of the Automobile", which translated into classic cars parked throughout the main gallery. Things like Steve McQueen's Jag, a Tucker, a Corvette Sting Ray, and my personal favorite car of all time, the 1931 Duesenberg (where you get the phrase"That's a Doozey!")

You hear that Portland is a younger and more vibrant town than Seattle, and its downtown has much to recommend. The hotel was awash in young artistic professionals, and walking back from dinner, we passed a group playing D&D on the porch of a game store while a young lady was parked under a lampost using the wifi. In downtown Portland. OK, I can get with it.You're younger and hipper than us. That's cool.

Kate's favorite modern art piece
The day following Portland was a day of hits and misses. We got to the Portland Rose Garden, which was all in bloom. Kate enjoyed the foliage while I considered the idea of roses as genetic intellectual property, and the huggamugga a few years back about patenting a life form. But we missed the Tea Garden. We drove up the gorge to a beautiful overlook to Vista Point, a thirties-era project that looks from afar to be something that escaped from a GRRMartin book, but could not find anything of Maya Lin's Confluence project, which is being developed along the length of the river. We got to Marysville and toured around the great Stonehenge there , but did not get to the museum there because we took the "historic" road up to Vista point, turning a 2 hour trip into a 6 hour one.

Vista Point, with wildfire.
And all under a strange red sky (hence the title of this entry). Oregon was on fire, or rather a chunk of it to the west of Mt. Hood. From Portland it was a grey line across the sky, like a belching smokestack. First I thought it pollution trapped under an inversion, but as we climbed beneath it, we discovered that the ground beneath our feet turned red from the scattered light, and our shadows were strange and shifting. It was a subtle shift as we moved through the waterfalls along the gorge, and gave the sidetrips and small hikes we made a strange quality of another world.

Oh yeah, waterfalls are all along the south side of the gorge, with walks of various length to get there. Personal fave was the Bridal Falls. The Multnomah Falls is higher, and closer to the main road, with the sad result that it was mobbed by other tourists, and parking was a pain. So if you walk, take the long road and hit the smaller falls for a better experience.

The Marysville Stonehenge
Oh, and the Stonehenge (having seen the original in England). It was created as a war memorial for local WWI vets by Sam Hill, whose tomb is nearby. The intent was to underscore that we have not advanced that far since the savage days when the original was set up. Mind you, this new version was a) built with concrete as opposed to individual stones, b) was set up to be what they thought the original "fixed" original arrangement of the henge was, and c) not oriented to the stars like the first one, because at the time they did not know about that feature. But the thought is good.

The end result of all this was about three weeks of extremely upbeat work, almost to a manic point. I was hopelessly aware that I was MUCH too much in a good mood upon my return, and had to back it off a few notches lest I frighten friends and co-workers. But it was so good to take a real vacation. I really should do it more often.

More later,

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Muppet Link

Busy this weekend. Have some Muppets.

More later,

Friday, September 30, 2011

Play: Julia Caesar

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Amanda Dehnert, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, through November 6.

So, back to the Bard. And that makes it a return to the New Theater at the OSF in Ashland. This time out, the theater has been reconfigured into the truly theater-in-the-round that showed off both venue and the performance better. Adding back one side of audience removed much of the problematic blocking experienced earlier in Ghost Light and replaced it with a bare bones, fully voiced, well acted style.

You know the play, or rather you think you know the play. Caesar applies for the gig of "Emperor" and gets offed after delivering the "et tu, Brute" line, and then the conspirators meet a bad end. But the tragedy of Julius Caesar is really the tragedy of Brutus. Caesar, like Henry IV, does not survive his own play, though this presentation keeps the leader onstage (Caesar appears only as a ghost to Brutus once in the official text) as mob justice is dealt out.

The gimmick that is to be had in this production is that Julius Caesar is a woman. I speak from some authority when I say that changing the gender of a character in the process changes all relationships, even if the lines remain but the same but for a twist of pronoun. An opening sequence in which Caesar talks about the touch of the racers of Lupercalia curing sterility reads as a male Caesar's weakness in the face of Fate in the original, but here has a cougarish twist to it. Later scenes that talk about Caesar's vulnerabilities are for a male Caesar indications of mortality, but for a female Caesar simpler weakness.

Caesar is not the only gender-swapper here. The huge number of players are handled by an entourage, and the players, male and female, move easily between multiple roles, underscoring that in this play of Fortune, they are replaceable parts. So this Caesar's Rome is an equal-opportunity tyranny, with the main supporting roles tacked down for a handful of players. This mutes the effect of a female Caesar, in than we have female senators, soldiers, and citizens as well.

Vilma Silva is wonderful as Julius Caesar, engaged and active when alive and icy as a ghost, but the meatier party is Jonathan Haugen's Brutus. Centuries of equating Brutus with "brute" hides the fact that Brutus is the smartest and most ethical man in Rome. He is the one who the conspirators seek out, for his good name provides them cover for their deed, and even after, he continues to pursue the ideal as opposed to settling for the realpolitik. Gregory Linington essays Cassius with a East Coast wit and acerbity, and Mark Anthony is portrayed by Danforth Comins as a trickster god, and you can see him bobbing weaving as he seeks to turn the assassination back onto the assassins.

And then there is the mob. When coming into the theater, the players are milling with the patrons (I caught this, but the LB did not). Then Silva calls the group to quiet and leads the audience in cheers. In doing casts the audience in the role of the mob, the Roman populace that turns from Pompey to Caesar to Brutus to Anthony. Showing the mob to be fickle and easily moved, this simple conceit makes the audience complicit with the crimes of the play.

It is, all in all, an excellent production, but I will pick at a nit. The play takes place not in Rome, but in a land and era I call "Shakespearea". I have seen Shakespeares set in the 1600s and Shakespeares set in the time period set by the play and modern Shakespeares and 1920s Shakespeares. Productions like this one are set in Shakespearea are a strange melding of eras that produce its own reality. The text may belong to Shakespeare's time, or try to portray the late Roman Republic, but the costuming is quasi-modern with kilts and camouflage and commando pants and black berets. The military uniforms belong to some unspecified army and era that distills down the nature of the military without belonging to any particular force. Caesar's wide-lapeled cloak (used to great effect, literally waving the blood shirt) looks like it had be looted from the wardrobe department of Dr. Who.

But that is a small nit, and one that this production is not singular in committing. It is an excellent production and my second-favorite of the trip (the first being "Pirates"). Well worth seeing.

More later.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Haz Cover!

The cover to Scourge, the  Star Wars novel I occasionally talk about in this space, has been unleashed on an unsuspecting world, along with an official ship date of April 24, 2012.

It is a very dynamic pose, and step away from a traditional look. I'm kinda excited about the whole thing.

More later.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Your Strange Art Link of the Day

Busy with other stuff at the moment, so enjoy this picture of William Shatner dressed up as Russian general from 1812.

And if you like it, go over to here for an entire site of celebrities as Russian Generals. The artist is Steve Payne, based on original artwork from a portraitist named George Dawe, who painted a slew of Russian generals to commemorate Napoleon's invasion.

Hmm.. This would be an interesting author photo.

More later,

Friday, September 23, 2011

Play: All That Hamlet

Ghost Light by Tony Taccone, conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone, Directed by Jonathan Moscone. Oregon Shakespeare Festival through 5 November.

Let me be quite clear: this one landed with on wrong foot with me, and were I the type of theater-goer that would cast away my seat at the intermission in exchange for some serious drinking, I would have done so. And it is fortunate I am not nourishing my nascent alcoholism, for the play redeems itself admirably in its close and forgives all manner of sins in the process.

And yes, I say this knowing this to an autobiographical play, being the story of the son of the assassinated Mayor Moscone, conceived and directed by said son. It takes large brass ones to go up against this, and for that reason I think I will choose to do so from the safety of Seattle as opposed to in the heart of Ashland itself.

But first, let me pull out my longest of daggers for the New Theater for this particular performance. Chill to the point of coldness, the intermission brought many of those with poor circulations to the lobby just to warm up. And let me bash upon the set design: The theatre in the round was closed off on one side for a backdrop, but as a result but as a result any action far in the back of that part of the stage was lost to patrons with blocked line of sight. That means that you can't stage important stuff there, and anything placed there has to be considered optional, even if it helps with the story.

Ah, but the story. Jon Moscone is a director who in the present is still dealing (or not dealing) with the loss of his father. He is directing Hamlet and obsessing over the roll of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Yes, it is all quite clear it is all tied up together. And the Shakespearean play works well contrasting with the modern play (as opposed to Richard III mentioned earlier).

Here's your history lesson, which the play assumes you have but, modern memory being what it is, you might not remember you remember. Mayor George Moscone was shot by former Supervisor Dan White in 1978. After shooting Moscone, Dan White then shot Supervisor Harvey Milk. Ah, him you've heard of - he got a movie with Sean Penn. And that's part of the problem, among many, for the younger Moscone.

The play runs scattershot through history, memory, and internal pyschodrama, expecting you to keep up as they go along. Boom you're in the past with the young Moscone in therapy. Boom you're inside Moscone's head as the various drives and ids are all trying to communicate. Boom you're in the modern real world in Jon's apartment. Boom the lights are up and you are part of a theater class working on, yeah, Hamlet.

It bounces about like a pinball, and about the halfway point, I realize where I have seen this before - Roy Schieder in All That Jazz. At intermission I told the Lovely Bride that if someone starts singing "Bye, Bye Love", I was out of here.

And you know what - they DO bring the final catharsis in with a song, and they PULL IT OFF. I'm impressed, because I don't know at what point the pieces finally fit, but I started caring about Jon and his need to come to terms with his father's death.

Christopher Liam Moore plays Jon as flighty, nervous, selfish, and in many points unlikeable, a meltdown waiting to happen. Tyler James Myers as the younger self was more problematic - pokey and hard to modulate in his actions. It could be direction or just the actor (the dangers of young actors), but when he seems more comfortable with the script, the play took that leap forward. Bill Geisslinger as a threatening part of Jon's psyche gets the advantage of being part of a tormented soul, as does Derrick Leed Weeden, who comes off as Carl Sagan with the God's microphone (Am I looking at the ego and the superego here, or are there other facets they are embodying?). Robynn Rodriquez exists in the real world (well, as real as a character in a play gets) as the voice of relative reason trying to get Jon to deal with the whole Hamlet's Ghost thing and getting to the rest of the damned play.

It resolves. It resolves neatly and cleanly and without cheating. The fragments of the psyche take on enough reality by the end of the play that you are really pulling for them, that you want Jon to make his breakthrough not because Jon is a wonderful person (the character isn't), but because all the stuff beneath the surface deserves to succeed. It is an internal intervention, and it works. But yes, color me surprised that it does.

More later,

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Between Acts: Cornflower

The Ashland theater has a Green Show in addition to the other main stages. The Green Show is out in the central plaza and is used for street acts, commedia dell'arte, and musicians. In short, it is the warmup crew on early summer evenings, a theatrical amuse-bouche before the main event .

Apparently for the performance before Pirates, the act was supposed to be a hip hop and break dancing team. However, Hurricane Irene intervened, screwing up travel plans, so when we did the will call for our tickets for all these plays, we were told that a beat boxer named Cornflower would be performing instead.

OK. I don't know if I would put beat boxing into a Shakespearean venue, but hey, its cool. For that matter, I don't know if I could define beat boxing before this evening.

What we got was a lanky young man named Cornflower with incredibly long light brown dreads, knotted in a huge bun, with most of them hanging down the back. He was there with his microphone, speakers and what I guess I would call a sampling board, operated by foot pedals. And that's it. The performer (beat boxer?) would lay down a beat with a tonal thumping, record it, let the sampler repeat the base beat and then harmonize with himself, looping new wordless lyrics. Then harmonize again, and again, changing and molding the song as he goes along. An electronic one-man-band.

It sounds odd, but it was amazingly effective. Cornflower transformed the Green Show into a mini arts festival, with people dancing and children running around and people joining in (its not as if you don't know the words). Yes, the LB wanted a CD afterwards, and I think Mr. Cornflower was surprised by the turnout. If you want more, head over to his website, where he has some performance videos and more information.

More later,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Play: That Falstaff Show

Henry IV, Part Two, by William Shakespeare, Directed by Lisa Peterson.

I have climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. I say that because the reward for having climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne is that you never have to climb the tower of the cathedral in Cologne again. If someone says, "Hey, we're in Cologne, let's climb the tower of the cathedral!" You can just say, "I've already climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. It is a wonderful view. Go have fun."

So, then. Henry IV, Part 2.

You'd have a hard time justifying the whole "Shakespeare is the finest writer in the English Language" based on this one. In many ways it feels like the middle book of the trilogy - you've already got the set-up in the first book and the resolution in the third, so the second is the middle child that has to struggle along, and doesn't really get to have any traction. And the Lord of London have pity on you if you missed Part 1.

OK,the Ashland performance does give you a "previously in Henry IV" (the LB's description of it) in dumbshow to help the slackers - Henry IV usurps the crown from Richard II, and carefully manipulates things in order to keep it. Meanwhile, his wastrel eldest son Hal spends a lot of time in cheap dives with his best bud, Sir John Falstaff, a knight of dubious reputation and comic reputation. At the end of Part 1, Young Hal (eventually Henry V), straightens up, flies right, and fights to defend his father's kingdom, killing young Hotspur, and saving the day.

Then we start part 2, and Hal has already backslid into hanging out and getting drunk, though not so much with Falstaff at this point. Henry IV has a new gaggle of aggressive enemy armies, which are thwarted not by Henry, nor by Hal, but by one of Henry's OTHER sons (who doesn't get much credit). In fact there seems to be an insufficient amount of King Henry in this part of King Henry - his gig is to bat away another attempt and then perish twice (once mistakenly, then once again for reals) and hand over the heavy burden of the crown to young Hal.

But even Hal is not the center of this play. The center, at least as far as getting groundlings through the gate, is John Falstaff, who drinks, whores, lies, rhapsodizes about all the above, and runs a recruiting scam in the counties far beyond the court when your more traditional history play would be talking about battles. Falstaff is the Fonzie of these plays - the breakout character that everyone loves, the lovable, larger than life cad. Perfect for a situation comedy. Indeed, Falstaff is so popular a character that he steals the play, and when, the fully-crowned Hal ... sorry, Henry V, decides to become a proper British monarch and banishes his old drinking buddy, you think that the new king is a bit of a rotter for turning on his old bud.

Henry IV, Part 2 feels like a line extension, an encore for Falstaff (blustered masterfully by Michael Winters). Hal (John Tufts) has to struggle with an inherent dislikability of his character in the play (which is interesting in that Henry V is considered one of England's great kings). And Richard Howard as Henry IV the Ever-Fading does the best with a title role that doesn't leave him much time on the stage. Oh yes, it was rendered well and Shakespearean and professional and all that, and you feel like you've been given your faithful dollop of history, but it really is Falstaff's world - the Kings just keep things tidy for him.

There's another part that's interesting - the play ends with a promise of a sequel - Henry V, featuring the return of even more Falstaff. When Henry V shows up, however, Falstaff does not. He dies offstage and his death is described by his fellow tavern-mates. Kate thinks it is because the role was connected to a particular actor, who was not available. I will go further and posit that the actor connected with Sir John Falstaff died between the plays (we're talking about a London at the time of the plagues, after all). Rather than recast a role that may have specifically been tailored to Jack's large frame, they just wrote him out. Regardless, that is one more component that leave HVP2 as a strange little bit of the cannon.

And how did it leave me? Well, I have climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. And if anyone ever says "Hey, we're in Cologne, let's climb the tower of the cathedral!" I can just say, "No thanks, I've seen Henry V, Part 2."

More later,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Play: A Glorious Thing

The Pirates of Penzance (or, The Slave of Duty), Music by Arthur Sullivan, Libretto by W,S.Gilbert, directed by Bill Rauch, Music Director Daniel Gary Busby, Choreographer Randy Duncan, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Through October 8.

Of course, by now you know I have a soft spot for the works of Messrs. G and S. Their brand of operetta, a perfect match for the Mother Tongue of England, traps much of what is British in its Victorian amber and preserves it for this day. The bouncy melodies of Sullivan and the twisted logic of Gilbert is a perfect music box of the age.

And twisted the logic is. Frederic, through his nanny's hearing problem, was apprenticed to a pirate as opposed to a pilot, and is on the verge of leaving his apprenticeship, at which point he must hunt down those pirates, because that is the only honorable thing to do. Of course the pirates themselves live by a code that puts them at a bit of disadvantage - they have declared to spare orphans, and have discovered that all of their new captures declare themselve orphans. The newly-freed Frederic meets Mabel, who of all her sisters chooses to help reform him. Mabel and her sisters are the daughters of the noted modern Major General. The pirates attack the gathered family, but the Major General outwits them, the daughters are freed, Mabel and Frederic may marry, and everyone, even the pirates, are happy.

Hang on, that's only the first act. When the second act commences, the Major General is concerned about failing to live up to the expectations of his recently purchased ancestors (they came with the manse) by lying to the pirates. And Frederic is called back into service of the pirates by a calendrical mischance, and so must lead the pirates against the Major General and Mabel. And he does so, because he is a slave to his duty. And all of this is resolved with thinnest gossamer of logic, with further outrageous revelations, because this is a operetta where the destination is not nearly as important as the journey, and indeed the journey is quite nice.

The romantic leads (Eddie Lopez as Frederic, Khori Dastoor as Mabel) have to carry the bulk of the burden of unrational rationality, as Frederic is the slave of duty of the subtitle, and Mabel as loving him for his sense of duty that will force him to fight her ultimately. David Kelly dispatches the Major General with aplomb, including the one Gilbert and Sullivan piece that everyone knows, even if they never saw any Gilbert and Sullivan. Michael Elich has a bit of Johnny Depp to his Pirate King, but also channels the Rat Pack (indeed, the production takes some thematic asides and detours that I find amusing but may trouble purists (to which I say - it is Gilbert and Sullivan)). But it is Robin Goodrin Nordli, as Ruth, the Pirate Nanny, who steals almost all of her scenes and escapes with most of the comedic cutlery in the process.

What struck me most of the production was the strength of voices and acting off the essemble, top to bottom. I am a fan of our local amateur G&S Society, but I have to admit, I was more than a little blown away by how good everyone was, and how they maintained a level of madcap energy through the entire proceedings. Gilbert and Sullivan has to be taken on head on, with no flinching, (but sly winks are permitted).

Production values were fantastic as well. You saw the picture of the trust stage of the Elizabethan in an earlier entry, so every bit of scenery has to be ported directly on, and quickly. Moving from pirate ship to beach to family crypt with equal ease (seabirds flying in the first act, bats in the second) was an epic job pulled together smoothly and cleanly and effectively as well. The action runs across the entire stage, up the walls, and into the seats themselves, and pulls the audience into this strange fantasy world.

All in all, Pirates was the best of the shows down in Ashland I saw, and worth the trip.

More later,

Monday, September 19, 2011

Play: Richard, Revisited

The African Company Presents Richard III, by Carlyle Brown, Directed by Seret Scott, Oregon Shakespeare Festival through November 5

It is a rare thing for me to be able to watch new production of a modern play. Yes, I have seen a number of Shakespeares and even the odd Moliere multiple times, but very little of the moderns, primarily due to the raw tonnage of works available (Pinter. Pinter is the exception, but despite repeated viewings of Betrayal I'm not a fan). So it is through an odd little looking glass that I can warp back 17 years to 1994 and with it a production of The African Company Presents Richard III at the Milwaukee Rep, and compare it against the current version at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The play itself goes as follows: in the 1820s in New York City, there was a black theater company presenting Shakespeare, in particular the tragedy of Richard III (pronounced in the play as "King Richard Three"). The local mainstream (read, white) theater finds them a threat and a mockery (The African Company seats its white patrons in the BACK of the theater) and closes them down. So the African Company sets up shop right NEXT to the mainstream (read, white) theater at a local hotel, debuting during the opening night when the white theater is doing its OWN Richard, with a noted British actor, Junius Brutus Booth (yeah, the father of THAT Booth). All of this, by the way, is true.

The play brings together a variety of African-Americans - house servants and runaway slaves and free men, who are all involved with the production of Richard III for various reason. And here's the problem with the play itself - those reasons never come together. Billy Brown oversees the production and has no problem with being provocative. James Hewlett is a nervous actor aware of the roles he plays both on the stage and among the white people. Papa Shakespeare has kept his Caribbean accent and remembers old Africa and the old stories. Sarah is the older wise woman who has learned to sail the racial shoals of the new world. Ann is part of the production because she has a thing for James, and while tempted by Billy's sense of justice, nothing comes of it in the play.

And that's the trouble - they are all well-created characters that never really unite. The use of Richard is historically accurate, but the original has no function within the play beyond a point of conflict between the white and black theater companies, and actorly contention between Ann and James (Ann cannot believe any woman would be wooed by Richard over the corpse of her husband, something of lot of other people had have trouble with over the years). There are good bits of writing throughout, but the final message sort of drops out of the sky like a bust of Louis in a Moliere play (yeah, I've seen that happen) to wrap things up. It frustrated me years ago and frustrates me today.

And there are good bits, as I say. Very good bits. Charles Robinson (yes, he was in Night Court) as Papa Shakespeare captivates with tales of the old world and bit of comedy as a conversational go-between for Ann and James. Peter Macon as Billy Brown is a stormcloud, sure of his moves even as they lead the cast into peril. Kevin Kenerly as James Hewlett deals with a character that is vain, nervous, and clueless, yet delivers one of the most powerful moments of the play, where he talks about trying to do Shakespeare before a white audience that expects a minstrel show. It was uncomfortable when I saw it the first time, and even more so in Kenerly's hands, since he's performing a play about African Americans in front of a predominately white audience.

 But it is a frustrating play, one that seems to lack a center, and that feeling continues from then to now. The current production was better for me, both because of the gifted actors and the fact that I GET the tragedy of the original Richard better now than I did almost two decades ago. It still feels, after all these years, like it needs a center, or even a choice of the available centers, to pull it all together. As it is, the characters remain apart, and though the final lesson bludgeons forward, I don't believe that this group will remain together, or that the lessons learned have a lasting effect.

And that is a pity, because as I said, the story IS true, and there needs to be that effect.

More later,

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writers Sans Borders

Photo by Jessers25.
Borders is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its liquidation has been signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.

Old Borders is as dead as a door-nail.

A lot of pixels have been spilled over the demise of Borders (and Waldenbooks, its mall-friendly smaller sibling). Flat statements about how the time of the big box is now gone, and tumbleweeds will now drift through the parking lots of old Borders, Circuit Cities, and similar relics. Pointed irony about how the big boxes crushed the small independents and in turn are being kicked to the curb by the on-line purveyors. Nostalgia about how Borders was a smaller, friendly store before K-Mart bought them. Fist-shaking fury at the fickle market, including those heartless consumers who went to a store to window-shop the book and then order it online. And indignation that this would not have happened if Amazon had to pay sales tax (while ignoring that Amazon also doesn't have to pay for rent, lighting, or dedicated staff in 400 locations) (Oh, and its still a good idea for Amazon to pay sales tax - its not like they can't freaking keep track of where their books are going - they're using computers, after all).  

Hmm. This seems to be wandering a bit, which is not surprising. This is a crowd-sourced coroner's inquest, and everybody seems to be involved.

I seem to be coming to all this from two viewpoints, as a consumer and as a writer. As a consumer, litttle changes. My own habits are those of the independent and used bookstore patron. Bookshopping is a destination for me, as it is for comics and games. I will haunt the halls of the monstrous Half-Prices and the tiny local shops filled with paperback swap romances. I was a fan of Elliot Bay before it moved to a land-with-less-available-parking, and even so I still feel the siren call of its wooden shelves and employee recommendations. I make the trek up to Third Place and once upon a time made the long journey to Powell's in Portland (though my stopping may more be the result of age than anything else). Borders (and B&N, don't think I don't see trying to sneak out of this discussion) were for large holiday purchases and going out for books with nieces and nephews. The online world was more for when the usual suspects were exhausted, or delivery to a third party across the country.

Of course I visited the terminal patient, and found my own easy answers for their demise. Once the popular stuff was picked over, the shelves groaned heavy with left-behind Palin biographies and Beck political screeds. That kind of shows that you were missing your market just a tad, but covering it up in raw volume - there may have been unsold Noam Chomski essays on the shelves of the Borders in Birmingham.  I picked up a few  books that I would probably not pay full price for - books on Salt and Cod and another collection of Anthony Bourdain's essays. And an actual find - a book on the War of 1812 that I had window-shopped on Amazon, but purchased in a physical store.

Long term, it can't be a good thing for authors to ever see a venue shut down, large or small. And the big box of Borders is a major component for the easily-sold genre books that I have made up much of my career. The D&D ghetto (a subunit of the Fantasy ghetto) had a guaranteed shelf space in a store that was looking to fill its shelves with popular consumables. And as I have said before, Border's and its ilk also serviced areas that were not being covered by independents. There was a site set up pointing out where the closest independent bookstore was to a closing Borders. In the case of my local Borders in the South Hills, it was 12 miles to the nearest independent. Or you could go up the road another mile to the Barnes & Nobles. As a writer, I will be seeing more of my work showing up as vaporous threads in the ether, but in the longest of terms, I will still be able to find a twenty year old physical book than a twenty year old file in an a now-abandoned format.

There has been also a lot of moaning about how this is going to be tough for small book dealers. I am unconvinced. One of the big dinosaurs has dropped dead right at their feet, and there will be a bump of books looking for shelf space, publishers looking for accounts, and teenagers looking for placing to read manga. Yes, the power of Amazon still threatens like a asteroid from space, but there is still a strong component of the market that lives and shops in meatspace, so it is an opportunity.

Farewell Borders. You will be missed. Now we move on.