Jenny and I went to see the Piccolo theatre’s comedic romp The Mystery of Irma Vep last weekend, and boy was it a blast. The play loosely follows the tale of a troubled Lord, his new bride, the crusty housekeeper, and the jaunty groundskeeper. The central plot is Rebecca, with healthy doses of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre mixed in. Then they add a dash of Universal horror monsters and away we go. A few thoughts:
The play is a triumph of allusion — nearly every plot element springs from either a classic monster tale or from classic romance/gothic novels. The novel uses allusions the right way, though, adding more for the audience if you understand the reference but not depending on the idea that you would recognize them. They make liberal use of Mel Brooks’ joke from Young Frankenstein regarding the horse-whinny cue on the phrase Frau Brucher (sic).
The actors in the production show amazing endurance and craft, as the four parts are played by just two actors (Lord Edgar and the housekeeper Jane are played by Ben Muller while Lady Enid and groundskeeper Nicodemus are played by Brandon Johnson) doing lightning fast costume changes and managing accents and shifts in voice. They do this very well.
The name of the play springs from a French film serial (Les Vampires), and toward the end of the play one of the characters cackles “Don’t you get it?! Irma Vep is vampire anagrammatized!” Then they manage to say anagrammatized two or three more times. Genius.
My favorite moment came toward the end of the play, when Lady Enid was looking for help from Nicodemus, so actor Brandon Johnson popped in and out of a French door, changing voices and costume and popping his wig on and off to create a conversation between the two characters.
The Piccolo theater is situated in a train depot in Evanston, making the venue a cute little gem making the most of urban space. It was a nice theater–just the right size for a show like this. Some of the humor gets a *little* blue and most of it is aimed at grown ups (though not sexual), so this probably isn’t a play for children.
The Mystery of Irma Vep is thoroughly entertaining and goofy, so if you aren’t able to catch it in Evanston (it runs through Oct 12), be sure to keep an eye out for its next revival.
When sophisticated lady detective Susan Swayne finds a distraught woman lamenting her ill use at the hands of Susan’s rival, it seems like a fait accompli to use these new developments to unmask Kate for what she is. But things quickly get very complicated, leading to exposed jealousies, vicious betrayals, and even murder. A few thoughts:
The play rests on Lisa Herceg, the eponymous hero and narrator who channels both propriety and enthusiasm. Like many proper lady detectives before her — from Miss Marple to Jessica Fletcher — Susan Swayne maintains an aloof, proper attitude and clean clothes. But she also brings adventure to the stage, reminding me most favorably of Amelia Peabody Emerson, from Elizabeth Peters’ Egypt mysteries. Herceg plays the part straightfaced with strong received pronounciation, which makes the punchlines work well.
The rest of the cast is admirable as well. Kimberly Logan skillfully walks the fine line just shy of scenery chewing as the distraught–perhaps crazy?– jilted wife, and the pair of Kathryn Acosta and Megan Schemmel bring humor and energy to their roles as flighty teenage apprentice detectives, reminding me very much of the younger Bennett sisters.*
The theatre company certainly lives up to its name, with lots of great swordplay and fighting, made all the more effective by the intimacy of the stage. The battle between Isabella and Adelaide in the beginning of the second act was especially vigorous and thrilling. I also thought the sets were cleverly designed and the AV was great — the opening sequences were, in particular, stunning.
My only complaint is that the play is unnecessarily set against the Jack the Ripper killings, which play a part in the staging and the narrative, but only tangentially. While I would not have liked the play to become Susan Swayne and Jack the Ripper, I felt like there wasn’t quite enough attention given to that case given its role in the play.
<grammar rant> Okay, one more complaint. At one point Susan says she can tell when someone is lying because they “smell differently when they lie.” This is a grammar error, of course, because she means to say they “smell different.” By saying they smell differently, she’s saying when they lie their noses function in an alternate way, not that they have a different odor about them.</grammar rant>
Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride is a funny, enjoyable romp with a great cast and an interesting story. Well worth the modest ticket price.
* Full disclosure — Kathryn Acosta graduated from Columbia College Chicago, where she took a class from me in the Spring of 2009.
Jenny and I saw Murder for Two, a musical murder mystery comedy at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (at Navy Pier) this evening. It’s an excellent show, very funny and entertaining. Well worth the modest ticket price.
The premise is simple: a police officer who aspires to be a detective has his chance when he’s assigned to watch a group of suspects after a murder at a country mansion house. The play is performed by two actors, one playing the detective and the other playing around a dozen characters, distinguishing among them through voices, mannerisms, and placement in the room. There’s plenty of meta humor and witty numbers. The show’s just been extended into September, so if you’re in Chicagoland you should go see it!
I heard about Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, God said, Ha!, when I listened to highlights of Fresh Air, with Terry Gross. Sweeney, whom you’ll remember as the androgynous “Pat” on Saturday Night Live circa 1994, tells an amusing and poignant story of her brother’s battle with cancer, and her own concurrent one. The set is simple, a few pieces of furniture for her to move among. She tells a few nice anecdotes and a number of sad ones. It’s a good show.
That said, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more about religion in it. The conversation Sweeney has with Terry Gross talks about this being an important time on her path to being an atheist, but the play itself really doesn’t have much about religion at all — just a few bits and pieces here and there, and nothing at all about atheism. I know Sweeney has another work later, a book maybe, so I could check that out. She’s a pretty articulate woman and it would be interesting to read her story.
In the meantime, here’s an interesting anecdote she tells about having the sex talk with her eight year old. It’s NSFW, but very funny.
I’m sad to see that Slings and Arrows has ended, but the writers would certainly have been hard-pressed to keep the tumultuous stories of Geoffrey, Ellen, Richard, Anna, and the ghost going without spinning them into oblivion. This season follows the New Burbage Theatre company as they struggle to produce King Lear with a Lear too cantankerous for his own good. Meanwhile, after his rousing success in season two, financial director Richard seems poised to go on to greatness, if his own hubris and inhumanity don’t get in his way first.
A few thoughts:
I’m pleased with the way the three-season story arc ended. It has both up endings and down ones, with enough “up” ones to make me happy, but some solid grim outcomes as well.
Of the three seasons, this one had the least predictable storyline, for me. If anything, the previous two seasons primed me to consider that perhaps the story would resolve in the usual way, namely: things start out shaky, they get worse, personal and public drama ensues, the whole deal appears like it will come off the rails, they save it at the last minute and produce an amazing play. I’m not saying that this description doesn’t apply to this season as well, but it plays out differently enough that it’s a nice surprise.
I’m pleased to see the writers give Paul Gross a bit less mayhem to play this time around, especially given the nature of his madness in the last two seasons. It’s a great wrap up for the character.
As usual, the supporting cast and side bring the show to life. The extra drama between Lear’s Cordelia (Sarah Polley), her male roommate, and a trampy ingenue from the musical production seems a bit predictable, but provides some easy tension without the complex storylines of the continuing characters.
As usual, Slings and Arrows makes me want to see more theatre, and wish that sometime in my past I’d gotten the theatre bug. (And be very happy that I never did.)
I added this movie to my “Saved” queue a long time ago, when it first made its way onto the indie movie scene. A friend emailed me thinking it was a zombie thing, but the title intrigued me nonetheless. Suddenly, in the last couple weeks, it showed up in the instant watch queue on our TiVO, so we checked it out on Saturday.
The plot follows a theater director, his estranged girlfriend actor, his best friend (also an actor), and Ralph Maccio as a wealthy gangster businessman as they tangle with a troupe of Vampires producing an adaptation of Hamlet that involves, well, Vampires.
A few quick thoughts on this chilly January Monday:
Better than I thought it would be. I’ve been bitten by movies with excellent titles before (I’m looking at you, The Dead Hate the Living), so I was predisposed to doubt. But the comedy was funny, the writing wasn’t bad, and the acting was pretty good. The production values were excellent.
The opening line is great: “There have been many adaptations of Hamlet staged over the years. This is one of them.”
One part of the premise is that the seemingly random bit about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was actually a secret message from one Vampire to another, written into a famous play. I’d love it if this were true of lots of little bits of fiction that seem unconnected. Particularly “Klatu Verata Nictu,” from The Day the Earth Stood Still and “42” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
I love the stagecraft of the play-within-a-movie. The water sequence, with Ophelia, is particularly amusing.
The play within a movie is already pretty meta, with famous lines from Hamlet being repurposed for comedy. But my favorite moment is when the characters need to get a second message out, so they decide to write a whole play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and ponder whether they can get Tom Stoppard to write it. Then, in the “Thanks” at the end of the movie, they thank Tom Stoppard. What were they thanking him for, I wonder? Was it for not suing them over the title? Was it for the general awesomeness of being Tom Stoppard?
Overall, pretty entertaining. And well worth watching.
For my birthday the year before last, Andrew gave me a copy of the cast album for A Shoggoth on the Roof, a Lovecraftian parody of A Fiddler on the Roof which apparently has never (or VERY rarely) been performed because of the threats of legal action. Ironically, since parody is a protected form of adaptation, the producers would be on the right side of any judgement to come down. But as we all know about American Copyright law, you have to defend your legal right to do something in court, via a lawyer (who probably gets paid by the hour). Anyhow, I’ve now listened to the musical a couple times (the first time all the way through in mid-May), and I have some thoughts:
This is really for the gibbering mad cultist in all of us. There are songs about various Deep and Ancient Ones, about a fishy guy from Innsmouth and about the mad reanimator Herbert West. All are delicious.
I had planned to review A Fiddler on the Roof before I listened to this again, but who wants to do that. Thus, I tend to think of George singing “If I were a Rich Man” on Seinfeld. Also, the sequence from Notting Hill in which the weirdo clerk from the bookstore claims to have seen Topol on the street one time. But it may not have been Topol.
There’s a romance sub-plot in the story in which a young woman wants to marry either Herbert West or the son of a cultist who plans to kill and eat her. Apparently, it’s a difficult decision.
My favorite number is If I Were a Deep One, which has lots of funny bits about hanging out with Cthulhu and driving people mad. Also great? The translation of tra-di-tion! to ten-ta-cles!
by Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern; City Lit Theatre, 10 July
We went to the delightful production of Oh Boy! at the City Lit theatre in North Chicago last Saturday. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Some quick thoughts:
I like the one-set-per-act format. Oh Boy! is one of the Princess Theatre musicals, which competed with large-scale Broadway productions but had only a small theater and not much stage to work with. As the program said, they had to make sense instead.
The cast was generally excellent, though the male chorus didn’t get much space to shine. My favorite actor of the evening was a member of the female chorus who wore yellow. She made great use of her eyes, often stealing attention from the person singing in that number. Really funny.
Usually, in Wodehouse’s work, there’s a jaunty character who wields hilarious turns of phrase — think of Bertie Wooster — and whom we like. Jim is that character in this play, but I’m up in the air about whether to like him or not. He’s well-intentioned, but in a smarmy, Eddie Haskell way. I didn’t take the program with me and now I’m stuck without the actor names, but the man who played him was great.
I like farces. This play is a great farce, with plenty of shenanigans and silly songs. But Oh Boy! makes use of a convention that I generally dislike in fiction — c.f. Meet the Parents — the cowardly lie. In some farces, much of the humor comes from one character’s ever-escalating lies, usually started to avoid embarrassment. To be fair, high society in the 1910s was very judgmental, and scandal was more damaging than it is today (perhaps), but still. I came out on the positive side, but there are a few times in the play where my internal critic was grumbling.
In many ways, Oh Boy feels a lot like the Shakespearean rom-coms. Recipe for Oh Boy!: Take a pinch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s lovers sporting in the woods, add a dollop of A Comedy of Errors‘ identity confusion, and a helping of Twelfth Night‘s teetotaler Malvolio. Stir vigorously. Fold in the jealousy, the earnest lovers, the cynical wits, and the bumbling cop from Much Ado About Nothing. Pour into a pre-1920s upper class environment to set. Sprinkle with the preposterous, abrupt ending from any of the above. Serve to applause.
There’s one number that’s stayed with me for its disturbing content: “A Package of Seeds.” The stagecraft to present the song is hilarious and delightful, with good dancing and singing from Jim. But the song itself is kind of monstrous. In it, the playboy Jim laments that there aren’t enough “beautiful girls” to go around, so he’d love to just have a garden to grow them in. The second verse includes a creepy image straight out of a horror film, for me: “All through the winter, they’d lie there below/ tucked underneath a mantle of snow.” I imagine a Frankenstein-like laboratory with frozen women in rows, blue with frost and frozen, like the Paris Hilton image on the poster for House of Wax. Oddly, the female chorus in the play seem to enjoy this idea.
To be fair, the second act features a female version of the song, “Rolled into One,” in which Jackie expresses a similar lament. But where Jim’s complaint is that he just can’t get enough girls — he wants his own harem, after all — Jackie’s complaint is that each man is limited in his uses. She would be happy with one man if he embodied all these things at once. But it hits on the sexism built into the play itself — the man wants lots of ladies, the woman has to make do with lots of men until she finds the one who has it all. Oddly, she settles for Jim, with whom she has practically nothing in common and who has VERY different beliefs about marriage and children than she does. I’ve included the lyrics below.
“Rolled into One”
From Oh Boy!
Though men think it strange
Girls should need a change
From their manly fascinations;
The fact is, this act is a thing we’re driven to.
You don’t have much fun
If you stick to one;
Men have all such limitations.
Look ’round you, I’m bound you
Will find that this is true.
At the opera I like to be with Freddie,
To a musical show, I go with Joe.
I like to dance with Ted, and golf with Dick or Ned,
And at the races and other lively places,
Sam and Eddie are fun.
But I’m pining ’till there comes in my direction, one combining,
Every masculine perfection,
Who’ll be Eddie,
And Joe, and Dick and Sam, and Freddie,
and Neddie and Teddie rolled in one.
Every where you go,
Men are useful, so
Just collect them when you find them.
Catch twenty, that’s plenty, I don’t think you need more.
If they say you flirt,
Don’t be feeling hurt,
That’s a way they have; don’t mind them.
They tell us they’re jealous,
But that’s what men are for.
“A Package of Seeds”
From Oh Boy!
Beautiful girls are so scarce, I have found;
There never seems half enough to go ’round.
I’ve often wished that in gardens they grew,
Warmed by the sunshine and wet by the dew.
If I’d a garden where girlies would grow,
You’d find me there with my spade and my hoe.
My little garden, I never would leave,
I’d work from daybreak until the eve.
Daytime and night, I would cheerfully toil.
I’d kill the blight and the blight and encourage the soil.
And when at last, I had cleared it of weeds,
I’d go and buy me a package of seeds.
All through the winter, they’d lie there below,
Tucked snugly under a mantle of snow.
April, at last, warmth and showers, would bring,
And all my flowers would bloom in the Spring.
Primrose and Myrtle and Lilys I’d see.
They’d be there growing for no one but me.
Delightful creatures: a garden of girls
With fairest features and lovely curls.
All ’round my garden, in rapture, I’d roam.
I’d stay all day there all day there and never go home.
I can’t imagine what more a man needs
Than lots of ground and a package of seeds.
So Paul and I went to w00tstock on Sunday night. It was pretty darn fun. Here are some comments and highlights:
Paul & Storm, Wil Wheaton, and Adam Savage, of course
Bill Amend (creator of FoxTrot)
Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy – former cast members of MST3K doing various funny stuff
Molly Lewis, a ukelele player, um, playing ukelele songs
Peter Sagal, host of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”
Jason Finn, the drummer for The Presidents of the United States of America, playing drums with various people
Tim Cavanagh, novelty musician extraordinaire
It was a very fun night, running just short of five hours, the last 45 minutes of which was a marathon riff-fest on the Pirates’ Wife’s Lament (a classic Paul and Storm show-closer). The night was full of in-jokes, something I didn’t get as much from as I would have if I read Wil Wheaton’s blog. But it was great, all around. A few more thoughts:
If you went to this show to get a big dose of Adam Savage, you’d be disappointed. His total stage time was pretty long since he was on for the final number, but his actual “set” was roughly 20 minutes, maybe 30 at the most. All too short, IMO. We decided he was a bit of a loss-leader — something to get people who might otherwise pass by the event in the door.
Tim Cavanagh was really funny. It was during his set that I reinforced my opinion that Paul and I are VERY similar people — we laughed at all the same jokes.
Bill Amend and Trace Beaulieu were both interesting in the different flavor they brought to the festivities.
Peter Sagal was the hands-down winner, for me, with his fantastic monologue espousing the tough life of the Bond villain henchman.
Will Wheaton was very funny too.
All in all, a very nerd-centric, hilarious night. I enjoyed myself immensely and will want to go to w00tstock 3 if it comes back.
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek (translated and recorded for BBC radio)
RUR stands out for that third R, the first place robot was used to describe mechanical golems. In Capek’s play, the robots are more like the modern cylons in BSG, indistinguishable from humans. The play tells the tale of the island factory where the robots are made, the worldwide demand for robot labor fast bottoming out the world work economy. The people who make the robots want to use them to introduce utopia, but the people who run nations use them to fight wars. Only instead of following the advice from The Simpsons and sending the robots into space to fight wars, they fight on the ground. Eventually, the robots decide they don’t need any of us and turn all Agent Smith. Some thoughts:
Asimov called this a pretty terrible play, but I disagree. I didn’t think it was amazing or even all that good, but the idea Capek thinks through had been and continues to be a central concern for SF writers and A.I. researchers alike. And the Alice in Wonderland character of the scientists works well for me. The play is hampered by the external realities of all the actions. There are only so many things that we can be happy to let happen off stage. It would be interesting to see how this might be restaged in modern parlance. Oh wait, The Matrix.
Asimov’s three rules seem really important in the light of the robot revolution here. Capek suggests at one point that the problem stems from having given the robots weapons. In today’s terms, it seems the problem will stem from giving the robots(agents) r/w permission on our databases.
Interestingly, Capek doesn’t consider data storage at all — everything is still done on paper and there’s only two copies of the secret to making the robots live.
Spoiler. There’s some religious stuff at the end that’s interesting. Capek gives two robots (in conversation with the last surviving human) emotions and love for one another. The human suggests that they should go be happy, and multiply. He even calls them a new Adam and Eve, suggesting that he himself represents mankind’s Godliness. They were made in our image–which is why they killed us all in the first place.
Spoiler. The whole problem begins with giving the robots “a soul.” I couldn’t help but think of Marvin, the depressed robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Oh, why did they give us emotions?” The robots were perfectly content until one human–a woman, that snake–felt bad for them and insisted they have emotions.
The BBC radio drama version of the play is pretty interesting, with solid acting and accents. Worth checking out for the history if nothing else.
A romantic comedy that turns on the question of head versus heart, The Analytical Engine romps along lightly, with solid characterizations, several amusing twists of plot and character, and a well-crafted narrative to fit the drawing-room comedy genre. A few additional thoughts:
While everyone in the cast does very well, extra praise goes to Jon Steinhagen (the playwright), whose hilarious bachelor merchant gets the most laughs and has to do the most flustering and buffoonery. Excellent.
The play turns on a brilliant young scientist who has used Charles’ Babbage’s ideas for an analytical engine to build herself a nineteenth-century eHarmony machine, which matches her to the town lawyer instead of her less glamorous admirer. Hilarity ensues.
We get a visit from Lady Ada Lovelace, who serves as a wise figure not unlike Leonardo Da Vinci in the Drew Barrymore vehicle Ever After. She gives advice for our lovelorn inventor and helps provide quite a bit of amusing dialog for the other characters. Interestingly enough, I have Ada Lovelace on my mind since 24 March is Ada Lovelace day. Who’re YOU going to blog about?
The mother of the family is an amusing character as well. We come to see that she’s deeper than the first act would have you believe. She gets the best line, though: “If you have daughters, I hope that you are lucky and they don’t have brains.”
Second best line comes when the two men are about to duke it out. Ada delights, “Oh! It’s turning into something out of an amateur theatrical!”
Well worth a look if you enjoy light comedy and a pleasant evening at the theatre. And if you don’t, what kind of monster are you?
The Physicists is a two act play about three madmen in an upscale madhouse, two of whom have murdered their attending nurses recently. Over the course of the play, we learn plenty about the three men who believe themselves to be Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Mobius. It’s a strange little play with good humor and a nice ending, but I can’t write much more about it without giving the story away, so below the picture will be plenty of spoilers.
Over the course of the play we come to learn that none of the three men are mad. Two are physicists turned spies from opposing governments who have smuggled themselves in to try and woo the third, a physicist with breakthrough ideas who has sequestered himself in the madhouse for fear that his ideas would destroy the world. And in the finale, it turns out that the woman running the madhouse is also a spy who has successfully stolen the secrets the third man was trying to hide.
The play’s Brechtian quality (with notes in the stage directions that are charmingly audience oriented) pushes us to think about the dilemma men of science face. At one point they acknowledge that learning how to do things actually becomes a challenge when engineers take these grand ideas and make them into weapons. They actually characterize “using” knowledge as evil. All people in the modern world, where industry funds science, face this dilemma — progress in technology usually stems from progress driven by money or war.
There’s also quite a bit of humor in the play, with some amusing silliness about who is allowed to smoke and drink in the madhouse and who is not.
Bryson has long been one of my favorite writers. He has a sure hand in storytelling and a sure hold on the English language. His turns of phrase twinkle. Bryson’s Shakespeare proposes to explore WS and the world around him using, as much as possible, documentary evidence. The book sifts through a variety of Shakespeare biographies and other works to explain what we do and do not know. His last chapter obliterates the “Shakespeare didn’t write his plays” discussions, explaining quite forthrightly that people who believe in another author (anti-Stratfordians) have to equivocate and explain and, ultimately, have not one jot of actual proof against the conventional wisdom. A few more thoughts:
Favorite fun fact: the only visual representation we have of Elizabethan theatre structures was a sketch drawn by a Danish (?) tourist on vacation in London. All the rest of the descriptions are verbal. One sketch.
Almost no two versions of any Shakespeare works are the same because printers would find and correct errors in the print run as it went along. So to buy a copy from late in the print run meant fewer errors. Of course, typesetters also changed language if they saw fit, so you’re taking your chances on the printer’s devils.
We also don’t really know the order in which the plays were written. There are numerous and long-ranging scholarly debates about this.
One of the first examples of forensic science–according to Bryson–was done by a scholar who exposed some 19th century Shakespearean papers as forgeries that had been pencilled and traced, and whose ink was far too modern. Badoom!
We don’t know what Shakespeare looked like. The three likenesses from which all other images are drawn have poor provenance. One is an engraving that was done after he died by someone who didn’t meet him, one is a painting that wasn’t found publicly until the 18th century, and whose provenance is completely absent, and one is a mostly flat painted carving that was whitewashed of all its detail and then repainted sometime later. So, as Bryson puts it, we have a universally recognized image of Shakespeare that may look nothing at all like him.
As usual, Bryson does a great job reading the book, though his voice has a certain moist huskiness about it that it takes me a few minutes to adjust too. I had the same problem with The Thunderbolt Kid. That aside, I repeatedly marveled at Bryson’s phrasing– he’s really an exceptional writer. Worth a look, for sure.