Upheaval

The blog has been quiet, but real life has been non-stop.

Back in…June? Early July? I was offered a job back in New York City. Since then, every day (aside from a few spent with extended family) has been a frenetic mix of packing, phone calls, errands, more packing, paperwork, finding basic necessities (a new apartment, for a start), working out transportation options, resisting the temptation to buy (pretty well) and eat (slightly less well) all the things, and problem-solving. So much problem-solving.

Oh – and starting aforementioned new job. Given that common knowledge rates marriage, moving, and starting a new job as the three most stressful events in a person’s life (I’m not sure why “having a kid” isn’t in there, but who knows), I seem to have the “do two of those three things at once” down pat.

With that initial mad rush of activity safely past, and the transition into my shiny new real life moving into the “time to decorate the apartment and get back to doing things like writing once in a while” phase, I wanted to stop and take a minute to say thank you to everybody who helped me make this huge change in my life. From the friend who tipped me off about a job opening to the friends who let me crash in their guest rooms and on their sofas, to the friend who dropped everything to come help me unload things, to the one who killed the first cockroach spotted in the new place (you know you’ve missed city life when your response is, “It’s not New York till you’ve got a cockroach in the apartment” instead of screaming and running into the next room…or in addition to screaming and running into the next room…), I cannot even begin to count the ways in which I feel lucky to have people in my life who support and help me when I need it. Being on your own can be overwhelming at times, and from small actions that alleviate minor stresses to feats of friendship that kept me from falling apart in the most stressful moments, my friends really stepped up and helped make this transition as easy as they could have been.

One of my resolutions when I moved back to NYC was that this time, I was going to be more deliberate about how I live here. I was careful not to jump on the first apartment I saw, I’ve deliberately picked different lunch places every day, and I’m not hesitating to suggest exploring places I’ve heard about. I’m trying to say “yes” when people invite me to do things I might not normally take part in (though I’m also balancing this with a significant commute, which can make things tricky). I’m hoping to find outlets in both politics and theater (you’ll note my most recent review), and really looking forward to when the weather cools off later this fall.

Mostly, I’m glad to feel, two and a half years after everything went sideways, that life is getting back on track.

REVIEW: Alice in Black and White at 59E59

L-R: Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis in ALICE IN BLACK AND WHITE, written by Robin Rice and directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Holly Stone

L-R: Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis in ALICE IN BLACK AND WHITE, written by Robin Rice and directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Holly Stone

Alice in Black and White
Looking for Lilith Theatre Company
Written by Robin Rice
Kathi E.B. Ellis
59E59, New York City

Casual fans of street photography may not recognize the name Alice Austen, instead favoring Bill Cunningham or Humans of New York. In Robin Rice’s account of Alice’s life, we see the life of a trailblazer in both the personal and public realms.

 

The play takes place in two times: the first, Alice’s path through life; the second, how two people in 1951 go about trying to locate this woman from the past and resurrect her memory. At points, the characters of Alice (Jennifer Thalman Keppler) and 1951’s Oliver (Joseph Hatfield) communicate; the latter is working on a book called The Revolt of American Women and longs to include Austen in his work.

As the protagonist, Keppler moves through a lifetime of relationships, personal values and socio-political changes deftly. Her initial (slightly distracting) exuberance tempers as Alice grows into her teens, though the character’s stubborn single-mindedness never falters.

As Alice’s mother (Shannon Woolley Allison) and indulgent grandfather (Ted Lesley) implore her to find a husband, Alice rejects their advice and forms a relationship with a visitor from Queens – Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis). A flawed heroine, Alice fails to grasp the importance of supporting herself – and while she doesn’t realize the implications at the time, she also overlooks the impact the stock market crash of 1929 will have on her in the years to come.

Meanwhile, in 1951, Oliver arrives at the Staten Island Historical Society on the lookout for some photographic negatives that his assistant had pinpointed as being in a trunk in the basement. The problem? Sally Lally (Trina Fischer), volunteer receptionist and aspiring Curator of the collection, who refuses to go against policy and let him inspect the contents of the trunk. It’s difficult to trace the emotional line of their story, and if there were more chemistry between the two leads – or clearly not more chemistry – it might be easier to do so.

The production benefits from a sparing set, which consists of a table, some chairs and some props (mostly cameras, but some tea implements as well), and lighting is used mostly to emphasize moments when Oliver and Alice seem to communicate across space and time. The metaphysical aspects of the play don’t receive a lot of explanation, and the audience is left to wonder how Oliver and Austen shared this bond across the decades, but in the end those moments seem incidental to the plot anyways. My one major critique of the play is that the relationship between Oliver and Lally doesn’t feel as if it grows organically, instead feeling superimposed on the characters.

For those who were already fans of Austen, Rice’s lens will no doubt prove a delightful delving into a woman of historical import. For those unaware of Alice’s work, the play offers just enough of a taste of the photographer’s personality and approach to life to whet the appetite.

Alice in Black and White is playing until August 14th at 59E59 theatre in New York City.

Go High, Clinton Supporters

Originally posted on my Facebook, regarding the Democratic National Convention and the speeches given by both Michelle and Barack Obama.

I don’t think I got to say this last night but I want to make sure to say it.

One of the reasons the Obama speeches were so successful – and here I mean both Michelle and Barack – is that they understand that this is probably the last chance they have to bring Berners on board en masse to support the Democratic party’s chances of getting out the vote. To that end, neither of them shamed Bernie supporters nor did they call them ridiculous or selfish or anything else.

A lot of people have gone low in their attempts to sway Berners to the cause. Michelle and Barack went high.

They called on upset and disillusioned progressives to bring in more folks like them and change the complexion (no pun intended) of the party. The President said that if Berners stick around and join in the fight, then we’ll continue making slow progress, and if progressive Democrats can bring enough people in to support their cause(s), then eventually the tenor of the debate will change.

This won’t be enough for some. There is a hell of a lot of mistrust of the party by Bernie supporters, and there are a lot of Dem policies that simply don’t match their view of how the world should be. And just like he did in his state of the union, Obama acknowledged that there are real policy differences between Americans at different parts of the political spectrum.

But he also praised Bernie’s supporters as “the best organizers in the world,” and was – as far as I can tell – the only speaker so far to offer unmitigated praise to the people who worked so hard to take Bernie from an unknown to a serious contender for the presidency.

The Clintons, their supporters and the DNC need to go high. It will be hard. It might not be enough. But if they want people to rally behind Hillary in the general, it’s what they need to do.

A Moment of Sunshine

Went to the beach on Saturday. It was great. Here’s a photo. 🙂

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Theatre Review: Speak No Evil at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, NY

Speak No Evil-100dpiTry not to make someone else’s world crappy, goes the main theme of Sonya Sobieski’s Speak No Evil.

Explored through the lens of Tricia (Emily Yancey) and Steve’s (J oey Bucheker) relationship – which has just ended – the piece is a through-the-looking-glass/absurdist farce about an institute which aims to eliminate the possibility of hurting the feelings of others. From microchip implants to its very own martyr (David C. Mitchell as Silent Guy, who so wants to stop causing offense that he’s stopped talking entirely), the Institute of Right Things to Say feels like it exists like a surreal setting from mid-century science fiction, complete with call-outs to Ray Bradbury.

While Tricia and Steve provide a pat through-line, the evening’s most engaging moments often take place between other members of the ensemble, most of whom play at least three characters. From Bethany Sparacio’s dead-on, hilarious caricature of a secretary or her portrayal of a hooker-slash-reiki-healer, to Joyce Stilson’s visitor to the institute and her aggressive nastiness towards both another visitor to the Institute and Silent Guy himself, to James Cichocki’s turn as the kind of co-worker everybody has and everybody wants to slap, the supporting cast bring necessary depth and color to the stage. The pacing, which director Neal Radice mentioned was altered somewhat by omitting the lowering and raising of lights between each scene, is snappy and quick – all the more impressive considering that one member of the original cast had to drop out just days before the show opened. On the whole, the ensemble helps elevate the piece beyond the text.

According to Sobieski, inspiration for the play came during a silent writer’s retreat/residency and its message is primarily aimed at personal interactions, with any political readings being unintentional (though she acknowledged the idea of the personal as political). Given this, it’s astounding how clearly the text seems to want to comment on society’s current obsession with political correctness, and to some degree this made it seem confused at times; every time one tried to determine whether the message was that society is or isn’t overdoing it on the whole “political correctness thing” the water got muddy and it felt as though something was missing. It’s not that a playwright necessarily needs to lay out clear, black-and-white points of view (I’d argue that it’s generally more effective if they don’t), but there are junctures in the story where you want it to go down this road: for example, during Tricia’s discussion with her boss (Melissa Leventhal), she comments on what she perceives as the ideals of the program. Leventhal seems to (nonverbally) communicate that the boss may know something Tricia doesn’t. Given how straightforward and direct much of the rest of the play is (even as it talks about avoiding saying hurtful things), the lack of a more elucidating response is somewhat frustrating.

Speak No Evil deals with both very concrete and very conceptual opposites, and at times I felt as if we were only wandering in the lighter end of the play’s potential emotional range. If you’re going to have an underground speakeasy in protest of the Institute of Right Things to Say, and it’s selling itself on the basis of being a place where anything – no matter how raunchy, no matter how cruel – can be said, then limiting the extreme language to a few “fucks” and other run-of-the-mill insults falls short of expectations. I expected darkness on the order of a Michael Richards outburst from the raunchy ventriloquist’s dummy, but the insults never reached a point where I believed they’d have the effect they’re shown to have here. In a politicized reading of the piece, you could argue that an anti-P.C. viewpoint might be well-served by a club where the most offensive thing anyone says is “fuck”, but the play didn’t seem to be attempting to make that argument. Truly shocking the audience in the lead-up to a tragic on-stage event might have made for both a higher surge of energy in the lead-up and a bigger reaction for the event itself. That said, some of the dialogue simply sparkled – a line about a worm on a sidewalk after rainfall (“It didn’t want to drown, but the only place it had to go was just as bad” or a discussion of prehistoric humans who lacked language (“Don’t eavesdrop with your eyes”).

With its introspective vantage point and prioritization of words from one person causing ill feeling in another, however, the scope of the narrative feels artificially limited. By opening it up a bit more, and either making it more specific to the portrayed relationship or universal enough to take a wider political agenda into account, Speak No Evil could pack a hell of a punch as both comedy and a commentary on today’s society.

As Radice said during the post-show talkback, it’s getting harder and harder to find scripts that are truly theatrical, and not just episodes of television that unfold on a stage.  Sobieski’s alternate reality is dreamily disconnected from our own, and this blended with the play’s apparent metaphysics and the set lends a dream-like quality to much of the piece. Radice’s sparse set (full disclosure: my first play, 1999’s POST, featured a set by Radice) is made up of a handful of chairs and desks, with few props. Most of the play’s visual personality comes from the costumes, designed by Stilson (more disclosure: she was the director for my first Edinburgh fringe festival play, PLAYING IT COOL, and also involved in POST’s production). They’re bright, colorful and vary dramatically from one character to the next.

In the end, Speak No Evil seems to succeed in what it set out to do, but one wishes it had set out to do a bit more. For a play with a poster that recalls both the Rolling Stones and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is – overall – surprisingly straightlaced.

Speak No Evil runs from now through February 13, 2016 at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo.

The Revenant Recap/Review: Someone Give Leo His Oscar Already

revenant

“GIVE ME MY OSCAR ALREADY!” — the dialogue that goes along with this image, in my head

Just got back from seeing The Revenant, and the last thing I’ve seen that was that brutal might have been…well, I don’t even know. Mild spoilers below. You’ve been warned.

I spent most of the movie thinking it took place in Alaska, either because I didn’t read anything about it beforehand or because I associate Alaska with the man-versus-nature conflict. (Thanks, Jack London.) But it doesn’t – it takes place in South Dakota and Montana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in films before but holy crap talk about natural beauty. No doubt assisted by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (though I did see some lens flare there for a second, let’s not go all JJ, now), the setting is most definitely a character in this one. A brutal, unforgiving character. 

Most of the characters in The Revenant are brutal (not the last time you’ll see this word in here, sorrynotsorry) and unforgiving, though, and those who aren’t don’t come out of things too well…or sometimes at all.

As the film opens, we get some smoky memories/images of Leo — sorry, Glass — and his Native American wife, and their young son, and the camp/community they’re living in. Then we see a lot of burning structures and hear a whispering voice recite the theme of the film – while you still have breath, keep fighting to survive. (Not a direct quote.) Next, we flash ahead to Glass and a group of fur trappers. He, his son (Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck) and another member of the group (possibly Will Poulter’s Bridger, though honestly I have a hard time remembering faces the first time I see them so it might have been another member of the expedition) are hunting, trudging through ankle-deep watery swampland. They kill an animal and we head back to the fur trapper’s camp. We quickly meet our supporting cast: the captain, a bit naive and idealistic, with a father who apparently bought him his commission; Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is a bastard (we know this because he cares more about money than people, makes a bunch of racist comments about Hawk’s parentage, and eventually leaves Glass in the middle of the woods to die.

They’re attacked by a band of Pawnee, and the entire sequence was chilling and ghastly and bloody. We don’t know it as the attack unfolds, but the leader of the group is seeking his missing daughter, Powaqa (later played by Melaw Nakehk’o), and has decided that she must be with the Americans – only ten of whom (out of forty) manage to escape with their lives. Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fitzgerald are among them, as is Bridger, as well as a half dozen other men of varying importance. Henry and Glass quickly decide that they have to abandon the few furs they’ve salvaged, leaving them behind for later retrieval, and that they need to ditch their boat as well. (They escaped on the boat, but staying on the river will leave them open to the Pawnee group.) Fitzgerald and a few others are upset by the thought of leaving a fortune in furs behind, and when a few of the men are assigned to set the boat adrift, they instead stay on it and float off down the river. Not sure we ever found out what happened to them. Given the rest of the film, I somehow doubt it was anything positive, unless by “positive” you mean “a quick and relatively painless death.”

The men who stay behind – Hawk, Bridger, Glass, Henry and a few others – stash most of their furs and set out back to their fort*. As their scout, Glass goes ahead to make sure their path is clear. Just as we, the audience, are getting past the opening slaughter…Glass gets between a mother bear and her cubs.

In a three-stage attack that left me covering my eyes with one hand and my mouth with the other, Mama Bear rips up Glass’ back, then rips up his front, then nips him in the neck, then for a minute it looked like maybe she was going to use her teeth to sever his spine, she dislocates his ankle…it’s ten or fifteen solid minutes of watching one of nature’s most frightening predators do her thing. Every time she starts to move off, Glass tries to breathe through the pain and finish her off, but this just provokes her to come back and keep tearing chunks off him. Finally, he stabs her repeatedly with a knife, then they both end up sliding down a hill into a valley, where the fight finally ends.

When the other men find Glass, they tend to his wounds and try to make him more comfortable, but ultimately the prospect of carrying him all the way home on a stretcher proves impractical. A few of the men say they ought to put Glass out of his misery, but the captain prevails and offers a reward to anyone willing to stay with him. Presumably, it will only take a day or two for him to die, then they can bury him and be on their way to the fort as well. Finally, Hawk and Bridger both offer to give up their shares of the reward money if Fitzgerald will stay behind. I was a confused as to why the captain would put the guy who just wanted to shoot Glass like a wounded horse in charge of the rescue mission, or why he’d trust the man’s word, but I’m hoping there was some other reason for that and maybe I just didn’t catch it. Clearly the captain shouldn’t have trusted Fitzgerald, because by the time another twenty minutes go by, Hawk is dead, Bridger is cowed, and Glass is resting half-covered and not actually dead in a shallow grave.

I could go through a play by play – the deceitful French trappers/rapists, Glass’ arduous experience in the wilderness, a number of encounters with other Pawnee, how everything pans out – but what’s more interesting to me is the way this film portrays an ordeal of superhuman determination and vengeance. We’ve been seeing a lot of “lighter Leo” the last few years – The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby – and the heaviness of this story stands in strong contrast to those roles. There’s very little (if any) humor to be found here (not that the script calls for it), but between the story and the characters and the acting, the film is still riveting.

From avalanches to mountains to frozen wastelands and eerie forests, every single setting is shot with an exquisite eye. From one moment to the next, you’re either rapt in wonder at its beauty or else you’re overcome by the idea that this man is trying to survive in this wilderness, sustained only by his desire for revenge. More than once, I thought, Damn. I don’t think I could do this. I’d lie down in the snow and be done by now. And yet Glass kept going. And kept going. And kept going.

One of the turning points in the film comes after we and Glass watch a pack of wolves bring down one Buffalo out of thousands. As Glass stares at the scene unfolding before him we can almost see him salivating. At the same time, with no real weapons, he has to hold himself back from surging forward – and the tension is palpable as this takes place. He sleeps, and when he meets a Pawnee whose village has been massacred by Sioux; the man takes pity on Glass and carries him, treating him when his infection rises and building him a shelter and fire where he can heal. Almost as mysteriously as he appears, the man is gone, leaving only a few words of wisdom behind: “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands” (in the hands of the creator? Not sure.). It’s a message Glass takes to heart, as we learn later. Abandoned by his savior, Glass wanders smack into the village of French trappers. He goes to steal a horse, but stops when he sees that the Frenchmen have a Pawnee woman captive and have been repeatedly raping her since her capture. He goes into action, first taking the Frenchman by surprise then allying with the woman – who we assume, then later confirm, is Powaqa. They both escape, though separately.

As he’s riding away from the French, the Pawnee warriors attack again, and this time Glass and his horse try to outrun them and end up running off a cliff. You know how it felt when Buffy killed off Ms. Calendar? Like nobody was safe anymore? Well, when your hero is mauled by a bear in the first act, you can be pretty sure that’s not the worst thing that’s going to happen to him. Time and again, Glass overcomes the odds. He keeps fighting to survive.

After the massacre of the French camp, as Glass lies inside his horse like Luke in a Tauntaun (sidenote: Google Docs appears to recognize Tauntaun as a word, whoa), one of the Frenchmen turns up at the fort – which we now learn is only about 13 miles from Glass…and said Frenchman is carrying a water flask that Bridger had left on Glass’ chest with a weak apology, earlier in the film. Assuming that the flask was dropped by Hawk, the Captain offers ten dollars to any man willing to head out with him on a search. They find Glass. Fitzgerald catches wind of it, and knowing his lies are falling apart, he takes off. The captain and Glass head out to find him, there are confrontations, and then another brutal battle where both Fitzgerald and Glass leave blood-covered chunks of the other in the snow. With Fitzgerald almost dead and taunting him about how he hopes revenge is enough, as it won’t bring Glass’ son back, Glass looks up and sees the Pawnees on the other side of the river. Remembering the words of the man who saved him, he pushes Fitzgerald into the river, where the current carries him to the Pawnee leader. Who kills him. As the band of Pawnee walk by on their horses, we see Powaqa, which is presumably the reason Glass is allowed to live.

Glass, left bleeding and weak by the side of the river, turns to look directly into the camera. Without a word, the screen fades to black.

There are a few things I want to look into: first, the film fails the Bechdel test with spectacular aplomb, so I’m curious as to whether there were women who worked as fur trappers (kind of like I’d never heard of lady pirates until a former roommate revealed her slight obsession with them). I want to know what Native American groups think of the portrayals of both the Pawnee and the Sioux. I want to read a bit more about the time period when the story takes place in general, to have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the entire unfortunate event. I appreciated that the film makes mention of things like “company store” contracts, and that it relies so heavily on imagery over dialogue (a good portion of which is subtitled). I’m curious as to other work by the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who wrote the piece with Mark L. Smith). And I might even want to read the book, if I get through my current “to read” pile any time soon.

Mostly, though, I want Leo to finally get his Oscar. He does a riveting job of bringing Glass to life, of showing the man’s depth of feeling and the range of emotions that shut down, one after another, as his desire for revenge overtakes everything else – and how letting that happen to him allows Glass to survive long enough to avenge his son’s death.

I’m not usually one for Westerns, so I’m not well-versed in the contrivances of the genre, but one thing that stands out to me as particularly smart was how Inarritu and Smith turned the convention of the kidnapped woman on its head. In something like The Searchers, and throughout Western (genre) literature, the idea of “the Indians” capturing the innocent white girl is pervasive; here, and perhaps in a more historically appropriate setup/synechdoce, it’s the white man who have kidnapped and brutalized a Native American woman. I don’t adore that the one named female character was basically there as motivation for the opening brutality, nor that she’s being repeatedly raped – that one hits a little close to truth, given national statistics about sexual violence against Native American women – but in terms of genre convention it was certainly a twist. 

Much like how I’m not a fan of car chases yet thought Mad Max: Fury Road was freakin’ amazing (another Tom Hardy flick, funnily enough), I highly recommend seeing The Revenant on the big screen in order to appreciate just how stunning the scenery really is – and to give you the best view of Leo’s raw emotive power during this two-and-a-half hour experience.

The Revenant is currently in theaters.

Hot Mess: Journey’s End

Putting together Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change was a challenge. I wrote two stories I’m extraordinarily proud of. I worked with four other writers, an illustrator and a graphic designer to publish the piece as both an e-book and a physical one.  The experience of releasing the anthology was emotionally and artistically rewarding.

That said, after a lot of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hot Mess has reached the end of its journey.

It’s not that I think the threats posed by climate change are over – far from it, even if there was a historic climate agreement reached in Paris over the weekend. There’s still just as far to go, and it’s just as important now as it was four years ago when the anthology was published. Senator Bernie Sanders, my favorite prospective presidential nominee, has said repeatedly: climate change, more than even terrorism, is the single greatest threat to national security that the US faces.

This weekend’s agreement, which relies on governments around the world cutting their dependence on and use of fossil fuels significantly, is the first baby step towards that. With targets that are to be discussed and met every five years throughout this century, it’s a long-term plan for a long-term problem. Climate change didn’t just happen overnight, after all. Closer to home: Buffalo just smashed through a 116-year-old record because there hasn’t been snow yet. That’s right – earlier today, in Buffalo, New York, in the middle of December, I was walking around in a light jacket.

(And by the way, I’m sorry if I’m rambling a little – there were a lot of different and tangentily-related lines of thought that went into this decision, and putting together a coherent blog about it is harder than I thought it would be.)

When I first thought about taking Hot Mess down, something surprised me. I would have expected to feel a sense of sadness or dread, but instead I just felt…lighter.

Tangent: approximately one million years ago, when I was trying to decide where in England I was going to study for my junior year abroad, I had two choices: Kent, which was the program my university sponsored, and Middlesex University, in London – a program I’d applied to through another SUNY school. Each option has its appeal, and I couldn’t decide which to do. My mom gave me some advice that served me well then and has ever since: When you’re trying to make a decision and you have two choices, imagine you’ve chosen one or the other. Live with that for a few days. See how you feel. If it feels right, then do that. If not…move on to the next possibility. I wound up studying in London, and it was one of the best years of my life.

When I thought about taking down Hot Mess…it just felt right.

So…yeah. I’m not sure that it’s even that important that my thought process on this be clear to anyone else – I’m pretty sure that it’s not, so far, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on the vast cloud of ideas that have led me here. But I do know that I at least wanted to give people a heads up, that Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change will be taken offline at the end of this year. I’ll migrate the reviews its received from Amazon and other sales venues to a page here on my site (just to make sure they’re not lost), and that will be that.

In other words, you’ve got about two weeks to decide how many copies you want to buy before this one goes away. Avoid disappointment. Order now. Information below. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

**

Hot Mess: speculative fiction about climate change will go out of print in the new year; order your digital and print copies before December 31st, 2015.