More Collusion

Just now finished this week’s Listener puzzle, “More Collusion” by The Magpie. I’m grumbling a bit because I think there’s some ambiguity about the extra letters to be deleted from some of the clues, and I had to backtrack from the finished grid to figure out the exact path I was probably supposed to have taken to get here. However uncertain I am about a couple things along the way, though, I don’t see any ambiguity about the finished grid, so I’ve got my entry ready, and a Friday night finish.

INSANE CONGRESS DESTROYING NATION!

Good blog post by Tom Toles today.

The fun game of trying to determine which WAY Obama is a a bad president continues without respite. The fact of his badness goes without saying. If he compromises, he’s a sellout. If he doesn’t, he’s no better than Republicans! If there is gridlock, he’s to blame. If there is an imperfect compromise, he’s to blame. Feckless! Insincere! Passive! Ideological! Non-ideological! Partisan! Too non-partisan!

The possibility that he is roadblocked by an absolutely impossible Congress needing two houses and a filibuster-proof majority to tie its shoes in the morning, and they are two right shoes, is not one of the multiple-choice answers. If I were writing the headlines, that’s what I would write every day! INSANE CONGRESS DESTROYING NATION!

Great, great cartoon by him today, too. But I’m unclear on how to link to a specific cartoon, only to whatever that day’s cartoon is. Oh, well, if you see this on a different day it’ll probably still be a great cartoon.

If the Tea Partiers Want to Prove It’s Not True, After All, They Can Just Produce Their Birth Certificates

I’m seeing the exact same word used over and over in the media (including of course multiple pundits from Fox) to describe something John McCain said yesterday, so I assume this is another of those organized Republican stay-on-message talking-point things.

But come on, seriously, since when is calling somebody a hobbit a “smear”?

Weekend Update: Listener Puzzle and Harry Potter 7

I finished this week’s Listener puzzle, “OZ and WR” by Theod, on Friday evening. There’s a Playfair cipher involved in this one: Four answers must be encrypted before being entered, and you don’t know what the keyword for the cipher is, so you have to crack the cipher by comparing the answers for these four clues with what you can get of their encrypted versions from the crossing letters in the grid.

Until you’ve cracked the cipher, then, these four words must be solved without any help from crossing letters. I left these four to work on later after I’d solved the rest.

It didn’t take me all that long to fill the rest of the grid, but I could only figure out two of the four Playfair entries. I figured that that wasn’t going to be nearly enough information to crack the cipher, and that I’d be stuck until I could solve at least one of the other two. But when I finally took a crack at the cipher with the information I had, I was surprised to find that it was enough to give me what were almost certainly the first, fifth, and sixth letters of the keyword and an additional three-letter sequence that was likely to be somewhere in it. That was plenty, and the keyword and the rest of the puzzle fell quickly after that.

Dave and I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 at home Saturday night and then saw Part 2 in a theater Sunday night. It’s a beautiful pair of movies — one gorgeously shot scene after another, terrific acting all around — but as with all the other movies in the series, I was rarely swept up in it. The story is full of exciting sequences, but it also rambles a lot and contains a lot of derivative and predictable elements. I especially kept being reminded of this or that plot element or scene from The Lord of the Rings, both the book and the movie. Characters are thin and mostly defined by their quirks — one apiece for the minor characters, two or three for the major ones — and though many of these quirks are surprising and whimsical, once you know what they are, there’s no more surprise left and you can see well in advance how they will respond to each new situation that arises.

I’m sure the series is magical if you come to it at the right age and without having read or seen a lot of similar stories already, but I am so not in that group.

Tastes So Good — and Less Lethal for You, Too!

It’s a sad thing to realize that I have come to the point where I am actually delighted when I learn that some food or drink I’m thinking about buying is made with real sugar and not Splenda or high fructose corn syrup or some such crap. I mean, we all know that sugar is bad for us, it’s poison that we all know we should eat less of, and yet my reaction nowadays to seeing genuine honest-to-God sugar in the ingredient list of something is to brighten up. “Oh, goody, this contains the real poison and not that nasty, artificial poison! Maybe I should get two!” Then I catch myself and wonder what the fuck am I thinking.

The Verona Project at CalShakes

On Saturday, Dave and I saw the opening night of The Verona Project at California Shakespeare Theater. I liked it a lot more than I was expecting to, neither rock musicals nor Two Gentlemen of Verona generally being high on my list of ways I’m eager to spend an evening. But I thought the show was endearing, the music was both enjoyable and interesting, and the performers were terrific.

Amanda Dehnert has made a lot of ingenious and fanciful changes to Two Gentlemen and shaped it into an engaging story about a bunch of likeable but flawed people looking for love and discovering that they need to learn and fix some things about their own characters before love has any chance to get through to them. Intriguing elements of fantasy and magic realism are scattered through the story, though the alternative society in which the characters live and travel isn’t really developed much and its peculiarities rarely influence the way the story develops. A highlight is a lovely, rambling song that Julia sings at the start of the second act, “Julia Says”, telling how she came to grow a fantastical garden inside her house, where few could see it, and then only through the windows.

One rather cool twist is that Ms. Dehnert has flip-flopped the sexes of one of the couples in Shakespeare, turning male Thurio and female Sylvia into female Thuria and male Silvio, without changing their roles in the story. Proteus becomes bisexual, then, and what’s more, nobody in the story finds it particularly startling or shocking that his desire wavers back and forth between a woman (Julia) and a man (Sylvio). Sexual orientation is fluid in this world, and it adds a few new layers to the complications. Ms. Dehnert and actor Dan Clegg make Proteus’s impulsive and shifting passions believable and even somehow naive and guileless rather than hurtful and creepy (which is how they tend to come across in the Shakespeare).

In spite of all the fun, and all the good changes made that really should have given the story some emotional weight, I came away feeling that the show felt lightweight; it was completely charming and enjoyable, but it was emotionally engaging only intermittently. This in spite of the fact that I found the story interesting and the characters, despite their various flaws, understandable and likable.

I think there are two main reasons. One is that Ms. Dehnert makes a lot of use of the device of having a character turn to the audience and describe what’s happening to himself or herself in the story. This is a charming device at first, and at times even saves some stage time, as when a character turns to the audience and simply explains some unusual trait of the strange society in which the story takes place. But when it takes the form of, say, the actor playing Julia turning to the audience and saying “Julia felt such and such about what Proteus just said”, instead of finding a way for Julia to convey to us what she’s feeling while staying in character, I think it tends to keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally.

In spite of the best efforts of my theater history and playwriting professors in college, who tried so hard to pass along to me their boundless admiration of Brecht’s theories of epic theater and the “alienation effect”, I’ve just never thought that constantly calling the audience’s attention to the artificiality of theatrical conventions was a good idea. Here and there, sure. Breaking the spell now and then can be playful, it can be ironic, it can be dramatic, it can even be chilling, as when Sweeney Todd suddenly addresses the audience directly in his “Epiphany”.

But when this is done very frequently, I think it ends up sacrificing one of the biggest advantages theater has over other forms of art, its power to convey emotion with a directness and immediacy that no other form has. And, despite Brecht’s fondness for keeping the audience at an emotional distance from the play, I don’t think that that approach gains you enough for what you give up.

This business of actors talking directly to the audience about their characters in the third person is used a lot in The Verona Project, and I think it gets in the way of giving the play the feeling of emotional weight and depth that the play really ought to have — and deserves to have, really, given all the good stuff in it.

(If I’m remembering correctly, there was an adaptation of Emma at the Aurora Theater a few years ago made extensive use of the same device, and I had a similar cool reaction. And Emma is one of my all-time favorite novels.)

The same sense of emotional distance is true of the songs, which seem to me to be terrific songs, musically interesting and inventive and intriguing. Yet, with only a couple of exceptions, they are generally not sung by a character who is actually singing them in character, within the story. Most of the time, the song is written from a point of view outside the story and is used to comment on that character or explain something about him or her. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as any particular song goes, and they’re all enjoyable songs, but when so many of them are like that, it gets in the way of the audience making a strong emotional connection with the story and characters. Or at least it does for me.

Which seemed like a shame to me, because, as I said, I enjoyed the show a lot. It was totally endearing and it held my interest every step of the way; it just never touched me as deeply as I wanted it to, and as I felt it had the potential to. I hope Ms. Dehnert isn’t finished with it quite yet.

The cast is terrific and charming and energetic, and I was completely in love with all of them — psychological flaws and all — by the end of the evening, especially Dan Clegg as Proteus, Nate Trinrud as his childhood friend Valentine, and Arwen Anderson as Proteus’s girlfriend Julia.