Wednesday, December 13, 2017

There's Something About Mary ... Bennet, That Is!

Every year in late November I get the urge to experience a Christmas story that's new to me, so I was excited when I heard that Main Street Theater was staging Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and directed by Claire Hart-Palumbo. Assuming this to be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice (as opposed to a prequel), I knew it would have to be about Mary or Kitty, the only two Miss Bennets remaining after Jane Austen was finished with her story about five sisters in need of at least a couple of husbands.

Given that Kitty Bennet is only slightly less a flibbertigibbet than her sister Lydia, I hoped this play would focus on the middle sister, Mary Bennet, and so it did. The official synopsis of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley reads as follows:
A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bennet is set two years after the novel ends and continues the story, this time with nerdy middle-sister Mary as the unlikely heroine. Mary is growing tired of her role as the dutiful middle sister in the midst of everyone else’s romantic escapades. When the family gathers for Christmas at Pemberley, an unexpected guest sparks Mary’s hopes for independence, an intellectual match, and possibly even love.
Well, there was certainly no way I could resist that, in part because it just so happens I've encountered a rounded-out fictional Mary Bennet once before, in Patrice Sarath's lovely novel The Unexpected Miss Bennet (Berkley, 2011). For those who are unaware, there's an entire literary sub-genre devoted to new stories about the Darcys, the Bingleys, the Dashwoods, and the Knightleys. These "professional fan fiction" stories, if you will, are definitely a mixed bag. Some seem little more than an excuse to use the word "reticule," while others are quite thoughtful examinations of not only Austen's best-loved characters, but also some of her underappreciated ones.

For me, a big part of the fun in seeing this play was comparing these two new versions of Mary. Both are, of course, socially awkward and somewhat prone to lecturing, but in different ways. Sarath's novelized Mary initially clings to moral philosophizing as a way to feel superior, or at least equal, to her prettier, more socially graceful sisters. But Mary has been left behind while her sisters make their way in the world, and she gradually discovers an internal dissatisfaction she didn't know was there. She shocks everyone, including herself, when she agrees to act as a live-in companion to the heiress Anne de Bourgh, a situation that requires living in the lion's den with the Bennet-hating Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that this Mary learns to stand up for herself, and as a result finds love.

The Mary depicted by Gunderson and Melcon, on the other hand, finds love and as a result learns to stand up for herself, with a little help from said love interest. This Mary is pedantic, spouting intellectual esoterica at the drop of a hat, or even offering, quite seriously, to explain how human procreation works when someone makes a small joke about the visibly pregnant Jane. In fact, it could be argued that this Mary might today be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, given her tendency to take every remark literally and her lack of ability to interpret social clues. She is also more sharp-tongued than the original Mary, who may have gently chided the younger Lydia and Kitty from time to time, but not with biting sarcasm. This approach works nicely in the play, however, due to the comedic opportunities it offers.

The de Bourgh family also plays a significant role in both stories. As mentioned, in The Unexpected Miss Bennet, Anne and Lady Catherine, in part at least, provide the means for Mary to find her own path in life. In Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a newly invented (I believe) de Bourgh, Arthur, arrives to take his place as the head of Rosings due to the recent death of Lady Catherine. The formidable lady had wanted her daughter Anne to inherit, but we all know that's not how it worked in those days. Thus Anne, frightened of losing her home and her social standing, interrupts not only the Pemberly Christmas gathering but also Mary and Arthur's budding romance, imperiously announcing that she is to marry Arthur. And while Mary does not become Anne's companion in this story, that position, lying somewhere between friend and servant, does go to someone else in need of breaking away.

In the meantime, the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, has arrived without her ne'er-do-well husband, Wickham; she pretends to be deliriously happy in marriage, but flirts shamelessly with the naive Arthur just the same. Lizzie and Jane, who actually are truly happy, spend the remainder of the play contemplating ways to help both of their sisters, while the entire cast of characters navigates misunderstandings and comically awkward encounters.

(And in case you're wondering where Kitty is during all this, she's off in London with an aunt and uncle; one of my favorite jokes of the play occurs near the end, when Jane and Lizzie observe that they'll have to bring Kitty up to date on Mary's news, since Kitty has simply been "left out of the whole story.")

Even if you don't consider yourself an Austenite, or don't know the first thing about the Bennet sisters, this play is a charming way to ease into the holiday season. For this production, the cozy venue that is Main Street Theater's Rice Village location sports a single set, the Pemberly drawing room, surrounded by the audience on three sides in riser seats. At the beginning of Act 1, a bare evergreen tree stands in front of the window, prompting every character who enters the room to say some variation on "Lizzie, did you know there's a tree in your drawing room?!" Naturally, the tree doesn't remain bare, making this very much a Christmas celebration for both players and audience.

The performances are as charming and polished as the set. Chaney Moore is simultaneously humorous and sympathetic as Mary, and it's an extra bonus that her version of the character plays the pianoforte brilliantly, since the original Mary was specifically known for her mediocrity in that regard. Having this Mary as a now-accomplished musician shows that she'd been doing a little growing of her own even before meeting her new love interest: the earnest and bumbling Arthur as played by Brock Hatton. The Darcys and the Bingleys are played, respectively, by Laura Kaldis, Spencer Plachy, Heidi Hinkel, and Blake Weir; these characters remain primarily cheerful throughout the show, mixing enjoyable wit into their concern for their loved ones. However, it's the actors playing Anne de Bourgh (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and Lydia Wickham (Skyler Sinclair) who really have a chance to shine. Their roles have the most humor, as Anne pursues Arthur with domineering haughtiness instead of tenderness, while Lydia tries to slink around like a cat and maneuver herself as physically close to Arthur as possible.

So do I prefer one of these two Mary Bennets over the other? No, and that's what makes juxtapositions like this fun -- you don't have to choose if you don't want to, but you still can debate whether the author and playwrights improved upon the original characters, whether the interpretations ring true, and even how you would have done it yourself if you were the one telling Mary Bennet's story. At any rate, I highly recommend both tales of Mary, and the Christmas elements of Gunderson and Melcon's play are a lovely added bonus at this time of year.

[Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is currently running at the Main Street Theater in Rice Village (2540 Times Blvd.). It was originally set to run from November 11 through December 17, 2017, but due to high demand, additional performances have been added as follows: Wednesday, December 20 at 7:30 pm; Thursday, December 21 at 7:30 pm; Friday, December 22 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, December 23 at 7:30 pm. For ticket information, click here.]



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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

FENCON XIV - September 22-24, 2017

Here is my programming schedule for FenCon XIV, which takes place in Irving, Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth area) this weekend on September 22-24, 2017. I highly recommend this convention, which I've been attending for years. Click here for more information.


PANELS

Friday 8:00 PM - Chinaberry - "Is Writing Media Tie-Ins Right For You?"

Writing tie-ins means working with someone else's characters and settings, and the rules of their worlds. How can you do projects like this justice, and what unexpected joys and limitations might you run into? Kevin J. Anderson, Brad Sinor, Amy Sisson, Kathryn Sullivan (*)

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Saturday 12:00 - Pecan - Reading

This will be a reading from my short fiction. For those who came last year, be warned: Captain Drake rides again!

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Sunday 10:00 AM - Red Oak - "20 Years of Harry Potter"

Harry Potter is 20 -- well the books are. How timeless are the books? Are you reading them to your children/grandchildren? Where is the Harry Potter Franchise headed? Are you looking forward to prequel movies, and more books around the cauldron? Leslie Hudson, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Amy Sisson, Libby A. Smith, Rosemary Clement (*)

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Sunday 12:00 PM - Chinaberry - "You Collect What!?"

What are you collecting these days? Anything you wanna show off? Do you collect pens/envelopes/action figures/pulp books/Pez dispensers? Share your collecting habits and magic ways with your fellow fans. Alan J. Porter, Amy Sisson, Vixy, Lys Childs-Wiley (*)

(*) = moderator

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Two New Short Stories - July 2017

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I have two new stories out this month, both free to read at the links below.



"Jackpot Time"

Every day, Cass puts a quarter into "Bessie," the slot machine at the Lovelock Grand View Cafe. Is it possible Bessie might give her something special in return? This story appears in Issue 19 (July 2017) of the Devilfish Review.
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"Ménagerie in Motion"

With animals ranging from a lynx kitten to a floating yellow angelfish, Armand's Amazing Traveling Ménagerie is on the move yet again. But how long can Armand keep the Ménagerie in motion all by himself? This story appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Syntax and Salt.

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To see a complete list of my published short stories, click here.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Worldfest-Houston 2017: Animation/Family Shorts

The 50th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival

Animation/Family Shorts
Sunday, April 23, 2017, 1:00 p.m.

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The animation short film category always tends to be strong at Worldfest-Houston, and this year was no exception. The category also encompassed several family shorts without animation this year, some of them just as strong. Overall, this has been my favorite category so far this year.

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Waterbaby

Director: Pia Shah
Screenwriter: Pia Shah
Length: 14:49 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: India
Link: Complete film on Vimeo

In "Waterbaby", a boy named Melvin lives in the coastal town of Goa, but is afraid of water after being thrown into it as a young child; this fear makes him the target of bullies during swimming lessons at school. After being invited to a pool party by the new girl in his class, Melvin finds courage by remembering the adventures of his favorite cartoon superhero, who happens to have a goldfish sidekick.

This film was sweet and just the right length, and I enjoyed how the small amount of animation was integrated. Some of the film's music was so pretty that I'd love to find a recording of it. "Waterbaby" is a simple story, but the writer/director added some depth by indicating that Melvin's father was neglectful of both wife and son, with behavior verging on mental cruelty.

The only thing about the film that bothered me was the way Melvin spoke to his mother, snapping at her not to touch his things, and complaining about the food she fixed for him without thanks of any kind. It's possible this was meant simply to show his agitation, but I found it unfortunate that he didn't treat his mother much better than his father did. Overall, however, this film left me with a good feeling.

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Fox and the Whale

Director: Robin Joseph
Length: 12:03 minutes
Category: Animation/Family-Children
Country: Canada
Link: Film trailer on YouTube

The only way to describe "Fox and the Whale" is to call it a gorgeous piece of animation. The viewer follows a simply rendered fox as it explores nature, and in particular searches for an elusive and mysterious whale. I liked the juxtaposition of the fox's minimal, shape-based body (triangles for the head and legs) with the more complex shapes, shadows, and reflections of the various environments through which it passes.

Overall, this piece was both beautiful and soothing, like one of those CDs with a babbling brook intertwined with the music. In addition, there was a lovely attention to detail; the fox's tail never stopped moving, and its reflection in the wet sand on the beach was always visible. "Fox and the Whale" was just a pleasure to watch.

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Quitting Time

Director: Robert Dollase
Screenwriter: Robert Dollase
Length: 9:20 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: United States
Link: Various download links for film

If I had gone to the theater to see a big studio blockbuster movie, and seen this particular animated short preceding it, I wouldn't have blinked an eye. It was so polished and clever that it looked like it came from a major animation studio itself.

The program's synopsis says that "in the age of dinosaurs, a stubborn and obstinate time traveler refuses to learn the lessons of this future." What it doesn't say is how hilarious this film is, as the mad scientist time traveler ignores his future self's warnings about meddling in the past, and the two versions of him actually come to blows.

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Papa Under Water

Director: Welf Reinhart
Length: 8:30 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: Germany
Link: Film's IMDB page

** MINOR SPOILERS BELOW **

In this family-oriented short film, a boy who feels neglected by his stressed-out father occupies himself by cleaning his goldfish's aquarium, but he accidentally endangers the fish, and ends up flooding his father's work area, including his computer and paperwork. The father is angry at first but then sees an opportunity to reconnect with his son.

Like "Waterbaby", this was a heartfelt film with a good message, and I quite enjoyed it. I did think the father's transition from anger to affection was slightly rushed and unexplained, but I'm still glad it went in that direction.

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Falling in the Flowers

Director: Yating Liang
Screenwriters: Yating Liang, Christopher L. Adam
Length: 12:14 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: United States
Link: Demo reel on IMDB

** MINOR SPOILERS BELOW **

A young girl with low self-esteem finds herself ignored or ridiculed by her peers, until a gardener named Mr. Ted gives her a flower that he says makes the wearer beautiful. The girl is amazed how much difference her newfound confidence makes, then realizes she wasn't wearing the flower after all, but had rather dropped it before setting out to go home.

This was a sweet film, but I felt as though Mr. Ted's role and lines were a little too on the nose. His interaction with the girl seemed forced to me, as though he was a generic "wise old man." I did like the message for the most part, but it was conveyed and resolved so simplistically that it wasn't quite as effective as I might have liked.

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Not Real

Director: Michael Nicholls
Screenwriter: Michael Nicholls
Length: 6:02 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: Australia
Link: Film's trailer on Vimeo

I adored this film. A young boy is horrified when his father tells him that Santa Claus isn't real. When his baby sister sleepwalks and happens upon the parents trying to put together "Santa's" gifts on Christmas Eve, the boy has to decide whether to take his disappointment out on his parents, or keep the magic alive for his sister.

At just over six minutes, this film manages to tell a whole story, and it includes some funny bits in which the boy imagines his parents' malicious delight at having deceived him. And even though appearances shouldn't matter this much, I have to say that the baby sister may have been the most beautiful little girl I've ever seen. Seriously, the face of an angel.

But my picture above shows the boy instead, because it was his story, and the young actor did a terrific job. I would list his name, but the acting credits in the program book don't specify which actor played which role.


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First Snow

Director: Lenka Ivancikova
Screenwriters: Lenka Ivancikova
Length: 13:34 minutes
Category: Family/Children (listed); Animation (my categorization)
Country: Czech Republish
Link: Film's trailer

In this film, a young hedgehog wakes up and goes exploring while its parents lay sleeping. While on its adventure, the hedgehog experiences its first snow and is entranced until it realizes that it can't see the familiar landmarks to find its way back to its den.

*** MINOR SPOILERS BELOW ***

Story-wise, "First Snow" is simple but effective. The hedgehog encounters danger when it is stalked by a fox, but fortunately for the hedgehog, the fox is stalked by something else in return. I cringed a little at the violence of the encounter, but it's not as though it was gratuitous or even gory -- it's just a personal trigger for me to see animals of any kind in danger. But there was nothing wrong with including this bit of realism in the film, and since our viewpoint character has a happy ending, I can't complain.

Technically speaking, the animation was extremely accomplished, and the depiction of the full moon was enchanting.

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Green Light

Director: Seongmin Kim
Screenwriters: Seongmin Kim; Woojin Chang
Length: 15:33 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: Korea
Link: Film's trailer on YouTube

"Green Light" was a good film on which to end the session; it had the most polished animation of any of the entries, and told a sweet if predictable story. In an post-environmental-disaster world, a young girl encounters a broken battle robot and fixes him, after which it joins her in her efforts to re-seed the barren landscape with plants. Unfortunately another battle robot happens upon the scene and, presumably following its original program, engages the first robot in battle, with tragic consequences but an ultimately hopeful message.

While the message of this film isn't subtle, it happens to be a message I agree with, so it's hard for me to find fault with it. I was reminded of Wall-E, both in story and style. I also liked the film's lack of dialogue -- and I loved the swiveling "bunny ears" on the young girl's environmental suit. Finally, the landscape vistas were breathtaking.

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My next post will be on Monday's "Texas Shorts" session.

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Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

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