Tuesday, July 23, 2013

She Kills Monster! (Reviewing an unseen play that I read. New Challenge.)

“She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen

Reviewing a play that you read rather than one you actually see is a new challenge for me. I’ve never really tried to do this before, but this title just sort of screamed out to me and the synopsis pretty much guaranteed my interest from the get-go. Monsters, demons, Dungenons & Dragons, and a woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her teenage sister kind of appealed to a number of my senses, so I put in an order with the gift-certificate and sat down to the material. I laughed very hard, felt a few kicks to the gut, and generally found this play to be everything I would look for in my entertainment.

Tilly is a socially awkward teenage girl who, along with her parents, recently died in a car accident. This leave her schoolteacher sister, Agnes, alone to griever over her losses. While cleaning out her sisters room, the woman comes across a “Dungeons and Dragons” module written by her sister, an adventure written specifically for a very small group of beginners in a world created by Tilly. Agnes recruits help from a local teen gamer (Chuck) to explore her sisters’ story in an attempt to connect with the geeky teen she barely knew.  She gets more than she bargained for as she fights with wise-cracking slacker demons, evil cheerleader succubi, doppelgangers, and a five headed dragon in her quest to free her sisters soul.

The play is easily accessible for those who don’t understand Dungeons & Dragons, utilizing the game itself as a mechanic to tell the story on the stage. There is plenty of stage combat, visual gags, and references to the geek culture that Agnes struggles to understand. Not all of her obstacles come in the game, either… her snobbish best friend (Vera) doesn’t entirely approve of her new hobby, her long-term boyfriend (Myles) is confused by the situation (with some very hilarious results), and she starts to come face to face with the real life inspirations to Tilly’s private world. There are definitely a few shocks in store for Agnes, some emotional upheaval, and the whole story comes to an end in an exciting and tearful climax.

“She Kills Monsters” is designed for a young cast of mid-teens to early twenties and has strong profanity, multiple dance numbers, and graphically violent stage combat. It tackles themes of loss, teen angst, sexuality, roles of gender, and the nature of relationships between people. This is definitely something I would go to see, wish I could be involved with, and enjoy.

4 out of 5.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

HI HO, HI HO... Silver AWAYYYY!!!! (The Lone Ranger) AKA: Not Part of Shakespeare Month

Jerry Bruckheimer brings on Gore Verbinsky, Johnny Depp, and Disney Pictures to try and reignite the magic of “The Lone Ranger” in a long list of summer blockbuster “remakes”… or reimagining, or just flat out update on familiar material? I don’t know, but I did get a chance to check it out and have a lot to get off my mind regarding this particular film. Firstly, the reviews came in and they were largely negative… to be honest, they were downright horrendous. The high and mighty took every opportunity they could to blast Depp for his Tonto, to mock Verbinsky for attempting to catch lightning in a bottle once more with his Pirates of the Caribbean star, and to smack every aspect of the production that they could. Few probably saw the movie as a fan of the Lone Ranger itself, and fewer still could find the good that was scattered abundantly throughout the film.

I, however, am a fan of the Lone Ranger. Let me be honest… as harsh as my taste in film may be, as violent as my interests may lie, as sick and as disturbed as my mind may occasionally get there is still a part of me that is the same idealistic 6 year old who waved the red, white, and blue and swore allegiance to that same flag with absolute fervor every morning at assembly. As cynical as I’ve become, most of that same cynicism is actually born from the shattered hopes of that little boy who wanted to believe that good would always triumph over evil and that good people far outnumbered the bad. So the tenets of men like the Lone Ranger or Captain America or Spiderman tend to ring true with me to this day… and while many current hero stories are born in the darkness of shattered lives, there are still those who should refuse to become the monsters they profess to fight. The Lone Ranger has always been one of “those guys” for me… I’m one of the few people I know who understands why he uses the silver bullet, who understands the values he represented, and I wanted more than anything to see those values represented on the screen especially in light of the recent rush of “hero” films featuring dark people doing dark deeds and being unapologetic when it came time to do those terrible deeds. And based on the desires of a fan, I’m going to judge this film based on the merits I was looking for…

So the movie decides to start with the Lone Ranger robbing a bank. And yes, I had a fanboy moment of such horrible embarrassment I might as well never hold out hope of ever getting a “cool guy” teeshirt and matching hat when I exclaimed in the middle of a theater “NO!!! THE LONE RANGER WOULD NEVER ROB A BANK!!! WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!” and got the dagger eyes from my own kid. Yeah, I shit you not. I did that. And I sat with my mouth shut and watched the rest of the movie… and I’m glad that I did.

It’s not perfect, it’s not entirely without flaws, but the Lone Ranger is far better than many have thus far given it credit for being. The Ranger himself was everything he should have been and maybe a little more, and I was actually very impressed with Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the title character. It’s not hard to see how he managed to win the role, with a deep bass voice and athletic build, Hammer also retains a sense of shy uncertainty of a hero about to begin his quest. He’s an idealist placed in a dark situation, and the actions of others do not yank him from his path… even when all hope is lost, when the “good” guys are absolutely outnumbered by the “bad” and revenge seems to be the only answer, the Ranger continues to fight for Justice above all else and continues to place value on even the lives of his enemies. Maybe someone would roll their eyes on such a thing in this day and age, but it made me happy. The aforementioned bank-robbery seemed like just the sort of moment a film-maker looks forward to utilizing to wake up the fanbase and get their blood boiling, and then offering an explanation that does entirely make sense with the character they’d long ago come to love. It’s a slap on the back with a wink, “did you really think we’d screw it up THAT badly?” comment on the side. Okay, I get it.

The movie is fun. There’s no doubt about it… there are some terrific sequences and the chemistry between Hammer and Depp is pretty good, and doesn’t feel so much shoe-horned like some have expected. I don’t feel like I wasted my money and my fan-boy zeal was satisfied so far as it goes.

So where does the film go wrong? We have a long-running series of moments that my son refers to as the “poo-poo” scenes. It is also the big conceit of the movie itself, that all of this is being told from the point of view of a CGI-transformed Johnny Depp as an older Tonto regales a young boy with the story of a hero. We are taken from the 1930’s San Francisco and plunged back another forty or fifty years ( I admit, I didn’t take a note here) to the time of the Ranger and it doesn’t work. It tags about twenty minutes or so onto a film that is already too long by about 15 minutes without these scenes of Hammy Depp acting like a goof for the sake of screen time. And this is kind of indicative to where the film goes wrong in various points… Johnny Depp is the “Hollywood” name, I know… but people would see the film even if they shaved a few moments of Deppy-goof in order to tighten the story itself a bit more. Also… the “twist” about half way through the film isn’t really much of one as things become fairly obvious very early. In fact, Tonto’s back story almost seems comical in and of itself because the stakes are already high enough without adding his personal vendetta to the mix. We like him better before the story takes away some of the glamour of a character we enjoy getting to know.

The film isn’t an absolute MUST SEE… but it’s fun if you have the time and the inclination.

3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Tragedy of Macbeth

My first experience with Macbeth came during my senior year of High School. Unlike some, I usually enjoyed my required reading assignments and I had only just recently discovered an affection for the Bard at that point. I’d seen “Much Ado About Nothing”, I’d read “Romeo and Juliet”, and I’d also read a number of sonnets in passing at the local library. I had also seen the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of “The Taming of the Shrew” only a few short months prior, in class, as sort of a warm up to the upcoming reading assignment. None of my prior experience really prepared me for what I’d find in The Scottish Play; witchcraft, murder, betrayal, paranoia, prophecies, and terror. Macbeth quickly rose to become one of my favorites, so I was incredibly excited when Paperwing Theatre announced that production would soon be underway and I sincerely hoped to be a part of it. Real life stepped in, I stepped out, but my wife and a good number of friends held on and went for a ride that opened to a standing ovation.

I will roll my eyes a little here, because I’m sure you already noticed I said that my wife and several friends were involved with the production. In the interest of full disclosure… yadda blah, yammer blah, etc. etc. and on and on. If you think it’s going to be a big deal, then whatever… but if you want to keep reading, go right ahead.

The play opens in explosive fashion, with the last skirmish of a great war where Thane Macbeth has established a reputation through acts of valour and a ferocious skill with the sword. Director Jourdain Barton utilizes a ferocious gothic-punk soundtrack to establish the dark fantasy elements of the show and blends modern styles with history. Patrick Golden tackles the title role with a fever, establishing a steady decline of moral and mental faculties throughout the performance. Macbeth betrays and murders the King in order to fulfill a prophecy delivered by three “weird” sisters met upon the road. The witches promise the lord titles beyond his own, a kingship, and a great future. Golden is a strong presence on the stage, demanding attention with near every gesture and reacting to the story around him with an intensifying madness. He draws the audience in with sardonic humor, intensifying the tragic events by letting us see him as both the assailant and the victim in a series of terrible events. He is a hero, he is a monster, he is a villain, he is a tyrant, he is a madman, and he is a victim of the events that play out. To put it far too simply and without proper justice, Patrick Golden IS Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is played by Penelope Morgan. I’m struggling right now to describe this performance and offer justice in my own words. She was amazing, but that doesn’t touch the elements of her performance… brilliant, horrifying, sympathetic… all of them are small adjectives that manage to capture small pieces of the performance, but none of them do her justice. She eagerly pushes her husband toward his vile deed, but the guilt begins to gnaw at her… revulsion, disgust, fear, and horror begin to drag her mind toward a dark and terrible place, but none of that description really truly captures it. It has to be seen. It has to be felt. It has to be experienced. Penelope Morgan has always been one of my favorite actresses to watch on the Central Coast, but she manages to broil in this production and serves a justice to Shakespeare that simply has to be admired.

And then there’s Jesse Juarez in the role of Macduff, the reluctant hero and prophesied enemy to the show’s title character. Macduff is the reverse image of our villain, a man driven by loyalty and inspired by his own duty to take a stand against the tyrant. The cost is high, and Juarez delivers an emotionally brutal performance when he is informed to those costs. The audience feels his pain, and old Shakespeares’ language is taken, devoured, absorbed, and released with passion and clear understanding by Macduff. The difficult language comes easy from his lips, the audience understands every word and intent and we are engaged the moment he draws his sword.

Other performances continue to highlight this production, including a number of turns from stalwart performer Jodi Gilmore . He shines as the Porter, he slithers as the first Murderer, and each role continues to solidify the reliability and versatility of this performer who may be one of the hardest working men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in the theater. Shane Dallmann’s Ross is a selfish snake, but to reveal any more about the character would betray several surprises the story has for a potential audience. Taylor Young takes a number of turns as well, playing a midwife, Lady Macduff, and a small number of other women seen throughout the show. Her scene with Dustin Moore is cleverly played, a too brief moment of innocent teasing between mother and son. Timothy Samaniego captures the audience with his portrayal of Banquo, but a discussion of his character is another spoiler for those who may not know the story.

Macbeth is playing at the Paper Wing Theatre in Monterey, off Lighthouse Avenue. The company has done a terrific job of making the language accessible to young audiences with their performance, though none of it has been “dumbed” down or modified. The actions simply speak volumes to the words of the Great Bard. There are some bloody moments, some acts of cruelty, and I would say the show is accessible to a PG-13 rating… so if parents would like to introduce their teens to classic literature, this is an excellent opportunity to do so. If teens feel the heavy weight of an impending study on Shakespeare, this is the kind of performance to soak the dryness in blood. If you’re a fan of the material, like me, this is definitely the show to see on the Central Coast.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

SHAKESPEARE MONTH!!!! Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing"

So… I’ve decided to sort of do something a little different this month. My wife is going to be appearing in the local production of Macbeth, Joss Whedon released his anticipated adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”, and I’m a little bit bored out of my mind. So I’m going to focus this months reviews in the realm of the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

Much Ado About Nothing

Kenneth Branaghs’ “Much Ado About Nothing” was my first positive experience with Shakespeare, the first time I remember truly enjoying a movie based on the Bard’s work and it provided me with a very deep love for classic literature to this day. What makes it so special, for me, is that it’s completely unlike anything people would normally associate with my taste… there’s really no violent conflict, there’s no blood, there’s no guts, there’s no horror… it’s just a frivolous love story between two very different couples; the young, hopeful, and largely innocent Claudio with his Hero and the cynical, barbed tongue battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. The latter couple carry much of the shows drama and comedy as they are both manipulated by their friends and family into exposing their true feelings for one another. It’s my favorite of the Shakespeare comedies, followed by The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew (Macbeth being my favorite tragedy, followed by Romeo and Juliet).  With that said…

Joss Whedon is responsible for some of my favorite recent “genre” films, which include the sci-fi masterpiece of Firefly and the motion picture conclusion, Serenity. I largely enjoyed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, though I’m not a huge fan like some other friends of mine. I thought his take on The Avengers was spot on and represented the idea of people who do not get along eventually coming together for a common purpose. It carried a much more dramatic flair than he was given credit for. “Cabin in the Woods” was brilliantly written and has his fingerprints all over the production, though another director takes the credit for execution. I’m not a fan of Dollhouse. Sue me.

Now, color me a little excited to see a new adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” with Joss Whedon at the helm. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen an adaptation of this particular play… let’s be honest, here, it’s not one of the plays I see getting advertised at any local or anywhere nearby theaters.  I can go back and watch the 1992 version whenever I want, but I would like to see some new spins on a few of the performances.  I usually find it hard to sympathize with Claudio regarding some modern sensibilities, so a new take on various characters would be nice to see. I also enjoyed the story of how the film came about, too… about a week of filming during a break in shooting The Avengers, mostly with friends and a skeleton crew and little preparation? Whedon would have parties where he and a group of friends would just sit around and do a read through on Shakespeare… cool, huh? That kind of appeals to my “low budget, independent” sensibilities. Managing to find a babysitter was a little rough, but I eventually made my way to the local “art house” theater in Monterey and caught a little screening with a soda in one hand and chocolate covered raisins in the other.

Whedon takes a somewhat “modern” approach to the material, setting the story in a sort of contemporary time while maintaining the feudal lord aspect of the story itself. We’re asked to sort of suspend disbelief here and Whedon takes another bold approach by filming entirely without color. Despite these small changes, the story largely remains the same as the visiting Prince Don Pedro attends the home of his good friend, Leonato. He’s accompanied by his right and left hand men, the youthful Claudio and the cynical Benedick. All three are accompanied by the far less willing Don Jon, rebellious brother to the Pedro, and his two companions, Conrade and Boracio, all of whom are just brimming with terrible intentions.

Alex Denisof and Amy Acker manage to gather brilliant chemistry and deliver stellar performances as Benedick and Beatrice. Their barbed tongue fly with cynical wit, cutting one another brilliantly. Whedon stalwart regular, Nathan Fillion, turns in a brilliantly comedic performance as the bumbling master of the watch, Dogberry. But, and I would rarely say this regarding this particular story, it’s Fran Kranz’s “Claudio” who absolutely steals the movie with his affection for Hero. Why would I rarely say this? Because Claudio is largely a huge dripping wang whose regard for Hero seems far less than genuine in most adaptations of the work. Whedon takes a chance here and offers some physical direction not seen in the text, his manner much more the heartbroken cuckold than the petulant child seen in Branagh’s version. In fact, I usually found myself cheering for Benedick during their confrontation and hoping to see these two duel whenever I saw the ’92 version… in this, I see two men driven by their affections for loved ones and Claudio is so shattered and torn apart that he’s looking to take it out on anyone. He’s not the hesitant coward as he’s so often been described, but a heartbroken fool in mourning. It’s a different take on the character than I’m used to and one that both Kranz and Whedon made work without changing the actual text.

If Whedon’s version has any drawback, it’s where some characters are combined or completely dismissed in favor of the narrative as it stands. This is only a drawback to Shakespeare “die hards” who maybe wanted to see a much more complete version, but Whedons’ is a little more streamlined within the limits set by budget and shooting schedule. This didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the film, but I want to at least offer a complete view and anticipate where some may feel the movie falls short.

Shakespeare is not exactly my usual forte’ in writing reviews, it’s not the usual kind of show I seem to attend, so my faceless readers may feel this particular review jumps the shark. To them I offer only this; get over it. I write about what I experience, what I like to write about, and that’s all there is to it.