Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fringe Festival '11: Post-Mortem

I was EXHAUSTED after last four days I saw six plays and attended two concerts. While the concerts weren't really part of the schedule (one was Tim Minchin, the other was William Elliott Whitmore, and both were wonderful in different ways), they were still fun, but it was also brutally hot, with record-setting temperatures, and it left me flat. And work has kept me hoppin'.

But I promised myself a breakdown of what else I'd seen at the Fringe Festival, so here goes.

This show, sponsored by the DC Film Alliance, was a lot of fun. It was the old game show resurrected with local celebs, including some chefs, a drag queen, and a former football player. The humor was ribald, and one of the chefs kept wanting to take off his pants. He never did, much to my disappointment.

"Gallantry" was a load of fun and one of the better shows I saw in the festival. Presented by Opera Alterna (a group I need to check out), it's a soap opera parody that's an actual freakin' opera. The singing was top-notch, and the plot included commercial breaks (for soap and floor wax), a sexy nurse, and an aria sung by a fellow in a hospital gown with his ass hanging out. In other words, perfection.
"Foggerty's Fairy" was presented by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company, but it wasn't an opera or operetta. Rather, it was a straight play by W. S. Gilbert (of "& Sullivan" fame), an amusing farce about a man whose impending marriage is threatened by a relationship from his past. Wishing to his guardian fairy that it had never come about, he suddenly wakes to find his past has been altered...but so has his present, and not for the better. It's stuff that we're used to these days, but it seems it was a challenging concept for the 1880s, as the play did not do well back then. It has aged very well.
Ben Egerman's "The Beasts" was my least favorite. It's got a very intriguing premise that's muddled at first but becomes clearer as the show goes on...mankind has retreated underground, presumably after a nuclear war, and has existed in underground bunkers for generations. Now they're wondering whether it's safe to go out now, and worried about the animals that present threats to them. Meanwhile the animals are wondering what to do if and when the humans emerge. It's a one-man show (something I normally avoid) presented with puppets for the animals, and goes on and on but never really gets anywhere. But the folks around me loved it, so maybe it was just me and there was something I didn't get.

"Divas Just Wanna Have Fun!" by the group 7 Sopranos was a delight. A program of songs from opera, operetta, musical theater, and traditional tunes, the singing was flawless and these ladies have an undeniable presence and chemistry. They work well together and have fun clowning and shouldering each other out of the way, and then switching gears and flirting with the audience (me, quite often). I want to see those gals again!
On one of the hottest nights of the year so far I saw MixRun Production's "King Lear." The staff handed out bottles of water before the show, and I survived by barely moving (the space was not air-conditioned). That said, it was an interesting evening. Their take on the classic involved setting it in a biker gang and their sleazy bar HQ, with many characters played as gay or bi, and Lear's madness played as alcoholism. At first the concept seemed almost a bit too cute for its own good, but the power of the material shone through and by the end I was wiping away tears. I did feel bad for the actors, though; during the evening their costumes became more and more sweat-soaked, and by the end all were drenched and probably dying to get out and take a shower. But they all did an impressive job and I'm glad I went.
"An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein" was presented by the exhaustively-named "Actors Repertory Theatre of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts" but was a fun show. A collection of short sketches by the famed poet and children's author, it was patently adult and often very funny. As with any anthology, it was of varying quality, with my favorite being a play where a man confronts his wife about her slowly becoming a bag lady, talking to her about how there's a bowl of cold oatmeal in her purse. A couple were more peculiar than funny, but still with that Silverstein stamp.
Naturally, there was a Poe-themed show, and naturally, I had to go. "Embodying Poe" was an interesting take on Edgar. Presented by Sanctuary Theatre, I found it a bit of a mixed bag. It was a narrative of Poe's life, with readings, all done by actor Robert Michael Oliver. While it didn't have much new to say, it swing the focus from the usual Poe stuff to his more cosmic and mystical work, and at the very least avoided the usual one-man reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart," which I never want to experience again. The readings were very well-done, but for some reason it didn't grab me as much, and I can't help but wonder if it was because I was tired or there was too much noise from outside the venue. Still, it was at least different and a halfway refreshing take on Poe, so it deserves credit.
"The Malachite Palace" by Wit's End Puppets was a charming little show, told mainly with shadow puppets, and half in English and half in Spanish. It was a kid-friendly fairy tale about a princess imprisoned by convention in a gorgeous palace and kept from having friends and leading a satisfying life. Nothing dark and macabre here, but it was nice to know there's good stuff for kids (nothing overly insipid or vulgar, but with some actual quality) , and it was fascinating from an artistic standpoint.
I wasn't sure about Brian Wilbur Grundstrom's "A Day at the Museum" but saw it had some good reviews, and decided it would be my final show. I'm glad I chose it. It's a wordless play, all the action communicated by movement and expression. Three frames are set up before the audience and we see the actors as they look at a trio of paintings. In the back, behind an illuminated cloth screen, we see a nude model striking the poses in the paintings, and we get the reactions of the museum-goers. And there actually is something of a story here, as a middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter comes by, and you realize that she's the model in the paintings, grown older, and wants to tell her daughter about it. It ends affectingly, with the mother finally communicating to the daughter that she's the model, but also the baby she's holding in one painting is the daughter herself as an infant. It was actually quite touching; Pamela Nash, who played the mom, was wonderful in communicating wistful nostalgia and pride. And I was also VERY happy to find that it was choreographed by John Milosich, who did the choreography for Old Lore Theatre's "The Fiddler Ghost" and "Annabel Lee," two simply amazing shows, and I've mourned Old Lore not reappearing in subsequent festivals. Milosich is an amazing choreographer and I was overjoyed to see his work again.

So, that's pretty much it. There were several shows I wanted to catch, but didn't, and others that were maybes. I had an informal rules of no one-man shows (broken) and no "feminist takes" on classics (kept); not that I'm anti-feminist but I've seen a few too many "feminist takes" on classic plays and stories that left even my strongly feminist friends rolling their eyes and checking their watches. I didn't do too much overtly gay-themed stuff this year, either; the gayest stuff was either one-man shows (avoided) or one play that had a ridiculous title ("Caught in Dante's Fifth: The Naked Truth of Kindred Spirits") and which was universally dismissed (at least, as far as I could see) as a pretentious mess, of interest only for the male nudity.

I did do something different; I picked up a ten-show pass, which saved me a bit a of money, and I'm wondering if I want to pick up a universal pass for next year. We'll see.

But I had fun this year, not only seeing shows but meeting new people and connecting with some of my theater-world friends. Yes, it seems I have a certain amount of popularity in the local theater's always a pleasant surprise to find myself being popular, probably a holdover from my younger days of extreme unpopularity, and even as an adult having spells of pariahdom. But at least now I know where to go when I'm down...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday Night at the Cinema: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

It's been brutally hot, and eating out at our favorite restaurant is a welcome change from cooking at home and heating up the place. As shadows begin to gather, we make our way down the street, walking slowly, not exerting ourselves too much, and thankfully enter the air-conditioned interior of the theater...

Tonight, we have a great find: the 1928 version of "The Fall of the House of Usher," with the original music. This is a surrealist and expressionist take on the story, owing quite a few debts to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." And it's in the National Film Registry, so you know it's significant.

There's a number of online versions of this particular film, but I was happy to find this one, with its excellent picture quality and what sounds like the original soundtrack. So many others dub in electronica, which is OK, but I'd rather have the original music to give a more authentic experience.

And sorry to have been late with this; I was busy with the Fringe Festival and other stuff, and the brutal heat has left me enervated.

So the movie's over...let's go grab a cold drink at the cafe and have conversation....

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fringe Festival '11: Molotov's "Fat Men in Skirts"

Just got home from seeing this...and man, it's a blast.

"Fat Men in Skirts" is the story of rich bitch Phyllis, who is stranded on a remote island with her son Bishop after a plane crash. Phyllis is overbearing and shallow, at one point openly admitting she coasts on her looks, and Bishop is a timid, stuttering creature obsessed with Katharine Hepburn. Assorted flashbacks and flash-sideways give us glimpses into their troubled home life; Phyllis is married to a film director who neglects his family (in one scene, he's too busy reading a magazine article to participate in naming their child). And as time goes by, Phyllis begins to crack, Bishop begins to become more dominant, and their roles reverse. Meanwhile, they're eating the bodies of the plane crash victims, and eventually Bishop forces himself on Phyllis.

Five years later, they're rescued and brought home to Dad...but in the meantime, he's become involved with a young porn actress....

This has got to be one of the best plays they've done (it's by noted playwright Nicky Silver), full of wicked wit. There's a terrific sight gag when the porn actress indicates pregnancy by strapping a patently fake baby bump around her waist, with the word "BABY" in glitter on the front. But there's serious undercurrents as we get a look at the cost of avoiding facing reality and confronting each other with the truth, and the disaster that happens when we try to force things to go back to normal too quickly after a traumatic experience.

Molotov newcomers K. Clare Johnson and Matthew Marcus are simply fabulous as Phyllis and Bishop. Silver fox Dave Gamble (from "Morgue Story) is great as both father Howard and psychiatrist Dr. Nestor, and Katie Culligan, now a Molotov veteran, is her impressive self as porn actress Pam and demented cheerleader Popo in the last act.

This is Molotov at its best; gory, offensive, vulgar, smart, thought-provoking, and sensitive. If you're in DC and doing anything with the Fringe Festival, go see it. That's an order.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Double Dose of Mignola

I love the HELLBOY movies but my acquaintance with the comics was pretty much nil. Back in the 80s I was hugely into comic books, but that faded pretty much after I graduated college and ever since I've been capable of enjoying them to a degree, but also just not all that interested, with a few exceptions, like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels.

But I was browsing in a local library and was surprised to find that they had some of the Hellboy collections, and I figured, why not? I grabbed what I guessed was the first chronologically (I was right) and dipped in.

In many ways it served as the springboard for the movie, although with some fairly significant differences (like the romance between Hellboy and Liz, and the locations, etc.). The basic thrust is about Rasputin trying to awaken a group of celestial gods from their cocoons, although in a much more compact narrative.

I was also kind of surprised at how his "father," Prof. Bruttenholm ("Broom") is barely in the story at all. We're given some of the background story of how Hellboy was summoned, but then after that Broom dies almost immediately. This takes place after an arctic expedition to find a lost temple, and the resulting story involves a lot of frogs and an Innsmouthian sea captain's descendents.

Still, once you get over the shock of the differences from the movie, it's still a good read. I was interested by a brief appearance of some aliens monitoring the cocoons of the celestial gods, and wondering if they'll ever appear again.

Another library yielded something else worth checking out...

Mignola only did the illustrations; the text is by horror writer Christopher Golden. It's set in a sort of dark Europe, just after WWI but also beset with a dreadful plague that's above and beyond the Spanish Flu and instead has more to do with vampires and demons.

A group of men converge on a tavern in a ruined city. Each is a friend of a Lord Baltimore (nothing to do with the city), and each has had experiences with the supernatural. One has a tale of a demonic bear possessing a soldier; another a tale of a town haunted by a gigantic puppet made from a tree that drew evil to it. And one tale set in South America deals with a lake haunted by a murderous demon.

But through it all is Lord Baltimore, who inadvertently wakened the spirits who are causing the plague, and those same spirits have claimed his family. Now he's on a quest to defeat them once and for all...

It's a little slow and clunky at spots, I have to admit. I once put it aside for a couple of weeks and then started up again. But when it goes full-throttle, it's got some eerie and memorable scenes. The ending is a bit of a let-down, though; it just seems to stop with an image that doesn't make much sense.

But still, it's an enjoyable bit of fun, and worth checking out.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's Fringe Festival Time!

The Capitol Fringe Festival began a few days ago, and so far I've attended two shows. I would have done more, but I'm scraping the bottom of my bank account after last month's adventures and need to wait for my next paycheck....

Still, it was fun Friday night for the first show of "Illuminopolis."

This is a great variety evening that mixes music and dance, with everything involving light in some way, from ultraviolet day-glo to electric to fire. It's ably hosted by my pal Shortstaxx, stars my other pals Miss Joule and Malibu, and also features belly-dancer Na'la and the singing Sweater Set. Their second show last night was SRO and they've been getting great buzz from reviewers, so if you're in town, check 'em out.

It was also a great evening for me as when I went I ran into a bunch of other friends, so we all enjoyed the show together. Later, having drinks at the Fort Fringe bar, I ran into other friends from different circles, and then some of us went out to dinner and laughed at how grown-up we were all being. Seeing as how I'm staring down the barrel of 46, I darn well better start being grown-up.

Today I hit something that would appeal to Dust & Corruption readers: Happenstance Theater's "Manifesto!"

"Manifesto!" is a glorious cabaret set in the 20s that contrasts the views of Dadaism, Futurism, and Communism, in a wonderfully quirky way. The script is taken almost entirely from writings of the period and is wonderfully produced, with every move seeming to be carefully choreographed. I caught Happenstance's "Cabaret Macabre" last Halloween (one of the few really Halloween-y things I did last season, which was a very busy one for me) and am now completely sold on their style and aesthetic.

And it was a fun day personally because I ran into other friends there, including Miss Joule and Malibu, and my lovely pal Ginna. I think I was the envy of every guy there, and if not, I should have been.

I have other shows in mind to catch, here's hoping I get to them!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Judge Dee: Monkeys and Monks

A gibbon, not one who wrote "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
Here are two cases from Dee's years in Han-Yuan...

The first is a novella, "The Morning of the Monkey," contained in a two-part volume, The Monkey and the Tiger.
Judge Dee is taking his morning tea on the back porch of his official residence in Han-Yuan, watching the gibbons sporting in the trees. When he spots that one of the gibbons is carrying a gold ring, he tempts it with other objects until it's dropped. He retrieves the ring, obviously valuable, thinking to return it to its owner...until he spots dried blood on it. It could have an innocent explanation, but when Dee and newly-adopted assistant Tao Gan investigate, they discover the corpse of an old man, with his head bashed in and his fingers cut off.

Then follows a tale of vagabonds, pathetic love, and an ultimately sad and tragic ending. We get glimpses of the lives of criminal-fringe vagabonds and also of druggists and apothecaries of ancient China. There's also smuggling and Tao Gan proving his mettle with sly manipulation. It's a good story if a bit downbeat.

Next in the series' chronology is The Haunted Monastery.

 Dee and his wives, accompanied by Tao Gan, are on their way back to Han-Yuan from a visit to the Capitol when a vicious storm in the mountains, and a broken axle on their cart, force them to beg a night's lodging at a the Monastery of the Morning Clouds, a Taoist institution in the mountains overlooking Han-Yuan. It's a big night, the 203rd anniversary of its founding, but also dark deeds are afoot...

Dee overhears ghostly whispers giving his name, and then in a flash, he looks out a window and sees a room across the courtyard where a mutilated woman is defending herself from an attacker dressed in old-style armor. But when he looks out again, there's nothing but a blank wall. Was it a supernatural vision? Or something more mundane? And there's all sorts of interesting folks in the monastery, including a troupe of actors, a snarky poet, a would-be nun, and a former Imperial tutor who lives there in retirement.

Again, there are three cases here. In "The Case of Embalmed Abbot" Dee teams with the poet to investigate the possible murder of the former abbot. In "The Case of the Pious Maid," there's mystery surrounding the identity of the would-be Taoist nun, including a dancer who looks just like her, and soon she vanishes from her room. And "The Case of the Morose Monk" gives us the mystery of an extra monk with a gloomy face who appears here and there in the monastery; who is he and what is his secret?

This was my first exposure to Dee; I picked this up in a used bookstore back in the early 80s, driven by my memories of a TV-movie version of this, Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, which aired in 1974 and starred Khigh Dhiegh as Dee, with Mako, Soon-Tek Oh, and James Hong. (I've always wondered if they were testing the waters for a Judge Dee series in the U.S.; there had been one on the BBC once upon a time, and Dee's been the subject of a number of movies in Asia that never make it stateside.) And it's a lot of fun; there's the depiction of a Taoist monastery, the lives of the actors and acrobats who are visiting, and the depiction of Dee's home life. This is the first time we're shown Dee's three wives all together and interacting.

One part of it I also really liked was a very appealing character, Miss Ting, one of the acrobat/actors. She's a tough, smart, capable woman who's of genuine aid to Dee and one almost wishes she would stick on as a permanent Watson. There's a nice scene, too, where she confesses to Dee that she feels an odd attraction to another woman in the troupe, but isn't sure exactly how she feels about the situation. Although it is given a too-tidy resolution, Dee's advice to her is good; he tells her to not do anything until she's absolutely sure of her feelings and of the other woman's intentions. Although it may seem a bit hetero-centric, I have to admit it's advice I would give someone in a similar situation.

There's also good character stuff about Tao Gan, including how he seldom sleeps but just sits by candlelight at night, thinking "of this and that." Although Tao has a good sense of humor and all that, you get glimpses of a lonely and sad person who's kept well at bay.

There are a few flaws, including a few too many convenient love stories (although van Gulik seemed aware of this; at one point Dee reflects that perhaps he should quit being a magistrate and become a matchmaker instead), and too many people wanting to find out what happened to their sisters. But that said, it's still a lot of fun and required reading.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Phantom Recital: In the Old Cathedral

It's our summer vacation, touring around old towns in Europe. In a town in Germany, or maybe the Netherlands...or was it France? Or Portugal? Anyway, we checked into our hotel, had a nice dinner, and are wandering around town as the sun set when we came upon that cathedral. We stepped in and a friendly, yet decidedly odd clergyman invited us to stay and listen to the organ recital...

It's a pleasant and yet oddly unsettling experience; the musicianship is beyond reproach, but there's something off about the whole experience.

The hotel staff give us odd looks in the morning when we talk about our experience, and when we set off to the cathedral to take some photos by daylight, we find this:

We have many a sleepless night after that...