Thursday, April 19, 2018

Worldfest-Houston 2018 starts tomorrow!

It's time again for Worldfest-Houston, now in its 51st year! Over the next ten days, there will be dozens of feature-length and short films premiering at the festival's new location, the Memorial City Cinemark Theatres. Click here for more info, and don't miss out!

As usual, I'll be reviewing many of the short film selections that will be screened this year, so watch this space. (For reviews of short films I saw during the festival over the last few years, click here.)

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Short Review of a Very Short Story: "Fantasy Nights" by Mary Soon Lee

[Image from Pixabay; used under Creative Commons license CC0 1.0 Universal]

Lately I've made two mistakes: waiting until I have something "big" to talk about before writing a review, and not reading or discussing enough short fiction. Today I'm going to fix that, by posting a 378-word review of a 469-word story.

If you aren't already familiar with Daily Science Fiction, it's a little gem of a short fiction magazine, which every weekday publishes a short story that you can read on the website or have delivered to your inbox. Stories are officially limited to 1,500 words, but most clock in under 1,000, which means that most of these stories take only a scant few moments to read.

Writers already know this, of course, but not all readers may realize just how much story can be packed into so few words. And not just gimmicky stories either (such as a story told in a single tweet), but stories with plot, characters, setting, metaphor, meaning, heart, and soul.

But enough build-up: today's DSF story is "Fantasy Nights" by Mary Soon Lee, which I found it to be perfectly lovely and just what I was in the mood for today. Some will likely argue that it's not "story" per se; it's really a series of tiny vignettes linked together like beads on a string. But here's where the reader can be the one to bring "story" to a piece of fiction, for I choose to read "Fantasy Nights" as a search for lust and adventure and finally an enduring love. What's funny, though (no pun intended), is that the author's story comments indicate that much of her efforts were an attempt to write humor. And while there are some very witty plays on words and twists of trope, I found much more than humor here. In fact, what I liked best about the piece was its language and imagery, such as when the hero describes his carnal encounters with a unicorn as having "a taste like iced white wine."

Naturally, I don't want to say too much about a story so short, so I invite you to read "Fantasy Nights" for yourself. In the meantime, I'm going to myself more frequently to just write reviews as I find things I like, instead of waiting for something big and important to say.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Men on Boats

Recently I had the opportunity to see Main Street Theater's production of Men on Boats, a one-set, two-act play by Jaclyn Backhaus that portrays the ten-man Powell expedition that in 1869 traversed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Only in this case it's a ten-woman expedition -- the characters remain male, but the actors are all female -- and quite frankly, now I don't think I can imagine it any other way. The actual journey was historically significant, of course, but I have trouble believing that its straightforward particulars could capture my attention or imagination to the same degree. For me, Backhaus's method of telling the story becomes part of the story, which seems appropriate at a time when we're finally recognizing that we can't view history without taking into account the cultural problems inherent in doing so. Furthermore, although the play doesn't speak directly to the #metoo movement, in which women have begun demanding more opportunities to be heard, it certainly seems like a timely commentary.

Although several author interviews and theater reviews of this play are available, I've deliberately avoided both so they wouldn't influence my own experience of the work. I have, however, allowed myself to Google images from various productions after seeing MST's version, because I wanted to see how different groups handled the mechanics of boats navigating rapids and waterfalls on a one-set stage. Some productions use boats without bottoms that otherwise look fairly sturdy and complete, others use simple boat-shaped wooden frames, and still others go even more bare-bones -- Main Street Theater, for example, uses what looks like a semi-flexible hula-hoop tubing in an oval-shape that the actors climb (and fall) into and out of, and that "moves" with the river currents with a little help from the actors. Budding actors take note: those pantomime and movement classes are not a waste of time; how else can you make it look so believable that you're going over a waterfall while standing on a wooden floor?

[Celeste Roberts as John Wesley Powell and Candice D'Meza as O.G. Howland]

But back to the main question: why write this play for women actors? For me, the playwright's choice is not just a gimmick or novelty, but a truly original approach that bumps up the play's satiric elements. Yes, those men exhibited courage, loyalty, and dignity under difficult circumstances, but they also had that oh-so-male desire to pee on everything they saw, which in this case meant naming mountains and other landmarks after themselves, even though this fictional version of the expedition leader concedes that the area's native inhabitants were probably perfectly satisfied with their own names for things. To see women acting that way, when it's generally not quite as much in their inherent natures to do so, highlights just how ridiculous those uber-territorial instincts can be.

Another choice I truly enjoyed was the author's use of modern language. While Powell speaks with dramatic formality much of the time, as when "writing" one of the real-life explorer's journal entries, several of the younger characters employ every day slang and mannerisms, such as when Hall (Marissa Castillo) and Hawkins (Lydia Meadows) declare their vessel the entourage's "party boat." Another standout moment is when the expedition's lone Englishman, Frank Goodman (Shannon Emerick), shows no sign of understanding the irony of begging help from two very sarcastic Native Americans, played by Candice D'Meza and Mai Le in a couple of double-duty roles.

In the end, it comes down to choices, and I can't say I disagreed with any of them: the actors' gender, the fact that their costumes neither highlight nor disguise said gender, the modern-day language, the simple yet changeable set that changes from water to land based primarily on lighting.... I also enjoyed MST's individual casting, particularly Celeste Roberts as Major John Wesley Powell. Everything about her bearing said "leader" to me, even while he (she) remained quite human.

Men on Boats has several remaining performances through March 11, 2018. It took me fifteen years in Houston to find my way to Main Street Theater. If you haven't found your way there yet, this would be a great starting point.

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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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