Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Compartmentalization: Syfy's "The Magicians"

[Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians. Photo property of Syfy.]

I'm proud of my ability to compartmentalize. To prove my credentials in that regard, let's just say that 10-year-old me did not think there could ever be anything as good as Battlestar Galactica. I had a crush on Starbuck, I hero-worshipped Athena, and I hoped someday to have a robotic pet daggit of my own. But these nostalgic warm fuzzies didn't mean I couldn't enjoy, and in fact come to love, the new Battlestar Galactica mini-series television show. If I'd insisted on trying to make it into what I remembered from the original material, I would have missed one of the best science fiction television shows ever produced.

And now I find myself in a similar situation with the television show based on Lev Grossman's fantasy trilogy, which includes The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician's Land. I've read the first book four times, the second book three times, and the third book twice, which is quite a lot considering that the first book was published only seven years ago. So I may be a little ... over-invested in the source material.

In a way, these books could be described as "Harry Potter goes to college, finds sex and booze, discovers that Narnia is real, and learns that magic kind of sucks." But that's a little too facetious, because it doesn't represent how devastating it is for Quentin to have longed for something like this his entire life, only to discover that magic doesn't magically make him happy. It's also dangerous and ugly at times. Another reason this story resonates for me is that I feel that Quentin's discontent parallels that of many writers: they think they're going to be happy if only they can get this one story, this one book, this one trilogy published, but it often isn't quite the magic they were hoping for. It may be wonderful, but it doesn't fix their lives.

And along comes the Syfy Channel television show The Magicians. I was initially disappointed to find that Brakebills had been turned from a college into a graduate school, presumably so the show could sex it up a bit more. I was also worried about the fact that the cast looked much too pretty, and would seemingly be dressed like the characters in that 1996 teen witch movie The Craft much of the time. But I was determined to give it a try, so I watched the pilot. Hmmm. Lots of stuff to like. Lots of stuff raced through too quickly. And holy cow, they were already introducing elements from the second book!

But I decided to keep watching, and boy, am I glad I did. As of last night, we're eight episodes in, and I'm finally viewing this show as this show, instead of over-analyzing every deviation from the books. To be fair, I do still harp a little on a few of the differences, but I don't think I'm obsessed with them. And that's compartmentalization: remembering that reading the books and watching the show are two different experiences. Which is perfectly okay.

First off, the casting. For me, the biggest standout among these actors is Hale Appleman as Eliot. Appleman has truly captured Eliot's effete cynicism, but in the latest episode we got to see his vulnerability as well. This character has some of the best lines, many of which are rather R-rated, and his delivery of said lines is priceless.

And lest it seem that I'm not satisfied with Jason Ralph as Quentin, let me say that it's quite the opposite, in fact. Actually, I've liked him more and more each episode. He's doing a great job showing how terrified Quentin is that the magic he's waited for his whole life could just as easily be taken away from him. He's also incredibly appealing. Something about him -- maybe the body language -- just makes you want to protect him. It's strange to see photos of him not in character, because then he looks happy and confident, which would be a completely unnatural state for Quentin.

Last but definitely not least among the male students: Arjun Gupta as Penny. Physically, Gupta doesn't quite match the character the way I'd envisioned him from the books, but let's just say I'm okay with that. In fact, I will happily volunteer to keep looking at him, you know, pretty much all day ... for the sake of scholarly comparison and literary analysis, of course! Seriously, though, after Eliot, Penny gets the best lines, except his are delivered with a hostility that almost covers up his real feelings. Penny's magic is among the strongest in both the books and the show, but here, Gupta gives us the sense of danger I didn't see in the text.

That covers the male students, but while I'm talking about the men: I also love Rick Worthy (that voice!) as Dean Fogg. I remembered him from the above mentioned new Battlestar Galactica (which I call nuBSG, by the way), but hadn't realized his sci-fi credits are far more extensive than that: Heroes, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, The Man in the High Castle, Star Trek: Enterprise, and even the upcoming new Star Trek: Progeny! We sci-fi fans are nothing if not loyal to our favorites.

As for the female students at Brakebills, my biggest problem -- and I stress this is not a problem with the actor (Olivia Taylor Dudley), but rather with the direction -- is Alice. The first few episodes, I was really annoyed that the powers-that-be seemed to think putting glasses on a young woman and having her walk quickly, head down and arms full of books, is enough to make her seem shy and bookish, when you've also dressed her in tight sweater on top of micro-minis and heels designed specifically to show off her legs. While a quite shy girl can certainly be hot, I wouldn't think she would deliberately dress to call attention to herself, as opposed to choosing clothes that will help her fade into the woodwork. Fortunately, as the show has continued, this has become a little less jarring, I think because Alice's personality has expanded a bit beyond the initial stay-away-from-me vibe she kept up early on. I find her more believable and more likable now.

Next up is Summer Bishil as Margo, who in the books was named Janet. (This was changed due to too many "J" names: Jane, Julia, Janet ... I can see their point.) The caustic-tongued other half of the Margo-and-Eliot duo, she so far hasn't been given a lot of in-depth character development, aside from her jealousy when Eliot finds a boyfriend. I think the show's writers will (in part due to storyline necessity) eventually mitigate some of her more over-the-top Mean Girls tendencies, and I look forward to that. (It occurs to me that I might have a double standard here, because Eliot has "mean girl" tendencies too. I wonder if it bothers me more with Margo simply because we haven't gotten to see the rest of her personality to the extent we have with Eliot.)

Julia, played by Stella Maeve, is really the second lead of the show, opposite Quentin. Although he had a long-standing crush on her pre-Brakebills, she's not his love interest, but a character with her own arc, much of which is not pretty -- which I mean as a compliment, not a complaint. In the books, we know only that Julia didn't get into Brakebills and that she remembered the entrance exam when it should have been erased from her memories. She and Quentin have a brief interaction when she begs him to intervene on her behalf, and that's about it.

What we've been seeing in the television show is mostly from the second book, and is a storyline I love so much that I've been known to re-read only the "Julia" chapters in that book from time to time. This is where it's hardest for me to separate the books from the show, because in the show, this has all happened way too fast for my taste. Unlike in the books, Julia doesn't have to gradually find her way into the world of hedge witch safe houses; instead, she's recruited by a guy in a bar. I liked it much better when she spiraled out of control because she wasn't finding any proof that she could pursue magic; she decided to give it up not because of a nasty rival but because she saw that her fruitless pursuit was ruining her life; and then she discovered an online chat room that after many months (and tests) led her to a group that could actually teach her a thing or two. That said, I'm guessing that's where we're headed with the new chaplain/hedge wizard we met in Episode 8 last night. I do recognize that with television pacing, they really couldn't have Julia tramping around for months solving esoteric puzzles. So while I understand these changes, they were the hardest for me to accept.

As for the actor, I think that other than her Craft wardrobe, which always looks stylish even when she's supposed to be hitting rock-bottom, Stella Maeve pretty much looks and acts exactly as I would envision Julia. I did think the trick that she and head hedge witch Marina played on Quentin was a little too cruel to be believable for her character, but again, that's the writing, not the acting, and it certainly advanced the story line.

Speaking of Marina.... I have to admit that I'm not crazy about the Marina - Kady - Hannah storyline. Unless I'm remembering incorrectly, none of these characters appear in the books, and if they do, I think only the character names have been used. Long story short, Marina (Kacey Rohl) is the top hedge witch in "the city" (presumably New York) who enjoys sadistically tormenting those under her. Kady (Jade Tailor) is a first year Brakebills student, and, incidentally, Penny's love interest. We learn that Kady is stealing things from Brakebills and delivering them to Marina. Then we learn that Kady is doing so as payment for mistakes her mother Hannah (Amy Pietz) made in the past that are somehow related to Marina. Julia meets Hannah after Marina kicks Julia out, due to her actions during their Quentin mind-rape and Brakebills heist. Hannah begs Julia for help getting some magic back, with disastrous consequences.

Yeah, it's a little convoluted. But maybe it was necessary to set up some traditional antagonists now, before jumping into Fillory, especially as The Magicians is intended to be a continuing series, and was just renewed for a second season. For that reason, it seems likely that the show will diverge more from the books as time goes on. I just found it a little over-the-top: Marina is a little too sadistic, Hannah is too much of a magic-junkie, and Kady is a little too angry-emo for my taste.

I also have a few nitpicks in the show's universe-building. For instance, the students seem permitted to just find and experiment with spells without supervision. Oops, we were trying to make magic gin, and got a djinn instead! Funny, but also difficult to swallow. Similarly, this magic seems more generic and all-powerful that it should be. I love the way they're doing the intricate hand motions, but Julia, for instance, turns her regular keychain into a Narcotics Anonymous one while pretending to her boyfriend that her behavior is due to prescription drug addiction. We've been led to believe that casting a spell depends on recognizing precise "circumstances" (phases of the moon, position of the stars, barometric pressure, whatever), using elaborate hand motions, and, usually, reciting an incantation, at least in the early stages of magic learning. But Julia essentially wills her keychain to change, or look like it's changed, just by thinking about it.

I also dislike the way the Brakebills students are constantly being told they're likely to flunk out and have their minds wiped, and I really disliked that Eliot and Margo were allowed to torment the first-year students with a high-stakes exam, as though they run the school themselves. I also think Brakebills math is a little fuzzy, because the number of students at the school, and indeed, just in the Physical Kids' house, seems a little high, after taking into account how many times we've been told that so many students have flunked out, and most of an entire class disappeared not that long ago.

However, there are lots of things that I've loved. See above re: much of the casting. The effects are gorgeous. The Beast was oddly terrifying, just like in the books. And they gave us Brakebills South! It's like they knew the books' readers couldn't live without that.

It's been a while since I've enjoyed a show quite this much. I also loved the recently finished second season of Marvel's Agent Carter, but The Magicians appeals to a different part of the brain. I can't wait to see where it goes.

[From left to right: Stella Maeve (Julia), Summer Bishil (Margo), Hale Appleman (Eliot), Jason Ralph (Quentin), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice), and Arjun Gupta as Penny. All photos property of Syfy.]

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Top Chef Season 13 - ""Where It All Started"

QuickFire Challenge

Ooh, ouch. I'm not sure how I feel about a sudden death QuickFire at this late stage of the game, but at least this was handled fairly. And the show does have a history (in the past few seasons, at least) of having a sudden death QuickFire right when the last few contestants arrive for the finale, so this isn't much different. (Although a slight nitpick: when they do an "each judge votes," I feel like they should have to write their answers down before hearing what the other judges have to say. Otherwise it's too easy for cynical me to believe they're rigging it to get to the tie-breaking situation.)

Anyway, this particular QuickFire was all about artisanal toast. Apparently fine-dining toast is all the rage, although this is the first I've heard about it. But I'll take the show's word for it, since I'm not out there eating at new restaurants every night and reading all the top foodie magazines. (I only subscribe to Clean Eating, which I highly recommend, by the way, but it's about healthy recipes for home, not about the latest culinary industry trends.)

I can see where this was a tough challenge. You don't want the toast to be dry and tasteless, but you don't want it soggy either. Marjorie and Isaac did fine, but it was Jeremy who won the challenge, not to mention a $16,000 oven of some kind. He made a ciabatta toast topped with chicken liver mousse, pickled cherries, arugula, and jalapeƱos.

This left Carl and Amar on the bottom: Carl due to his unappealing combination of fish and cheese, and Amar's too complicated, too soggy rendition of fois gras, duck, and balsamic truffle glaze. Their challenge for the head-to-head elimination was to cook any dish, and Carl made a .... crudo. The technical definition of crudo is "a dish of raw fish or seafood, typically dressed with oil, citrus juice, and seasonings." Remember at that finale in Hawaii when Tom pitched a fit because one of the contestants didn't use any heat so therefore didn't "cook" in his opinion? I disagreed with him then, because of the local Hawaiian ingredients the chefs were trying to incorporate into their dishes. In this case, though.... if you're told to make the best dish you can make to keep yourself in the show, would you really just do raw fish again?

Not surprisingly, Tom preferred Amar's cooked fish dish (pan roasted fish with watermelon radish, plum yuzu brown butter, and pickled mushrooms) but Padma preferred Carl's crudo, and the guest judge, Traci Des Jardins, was the tie-breaker, choosing Carl. I was sorry to see Amar go. At this point I like all the contestants, so I can't be happy when any of them have to leave after getting so far.

Elimination Challenge

The Elimination Challenge brought back a familiar face from Top Chef Masters: French chef Hubert Keller. I didn't know it until they showed the clip, but apparently he was also a guest judge on the first episode of Top Chef's very first season! In any case, Chef Keller explained that he had just closed his signature restaurant, Fleur de Lys, but was going to re-open it for a group of 40 VIP guests for whom the remaining four contestants would cook. The chefs were given some time to study the restaurant's previous menus.

Poor Carl. He so desperately wanted to make foie gras that he just rationalized and rationalized until he could convince himself that he could make in three hours what he said normally takes three days to make. (Tom later mentioned that it took at least 24 hours.) Jeremy got ambitious too, settling on making "branzino," which apparently is sea bass. Personally, I was more intrigued by his fluffy little potato "pillows." Marjorie made lamb "saddle," which is both sides of the lamb loin with the attached backbone joining them together. But it sounded to me like she took it off the bone to cook it, which you know if you've watched enough Top Chef is another no-no as far as Tom is concerned. Isaac made duck ballontine, which means (I think) that he de-skinned and de-boned the ducks, then stuffed the meat back into the skin.

It was immediately apparent that Jeremy was the clear winner, and I have to say I was happy for him. Marjorie completely psyched herself out, which was unfortunate, because she has it in her to make it to the end. Isaac's ballontine was actually kind of unappealing to look at, just a mass of brown stuff on a plate, and the judges found the duck to be dry. And unsurprisingly, Carl's fois gras was seriously underdone, a mistake for which he was sent home. I wasn't surprised.

So now we're down to three, heading into a two-part season finale in Law Vegas. I can't say I'm overly excited about David Copperfield as a guest, but maybe that's just me. If I had to predict it now, I would guess we'll see Marjorie and Jeremy go up against each other in the end. I think Isaac is talented and actually a lot of fun, but I think the other two may have a bit more range than he does.

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Houston Grand Opera's "Prince of Players"

Last night, we were privileged to see Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players, a chamber opera in two acts about Edward Kynaston, one of the last British actors to routinely portray women on the British stage. Kynaston's life was turned upside down when King Charles II decreed not only that women could legally begin acting, but that men would be forbidden (or at least very strongly discouraged) from playing female roles from that point on.

If this story sounds familiar, it may be because you've heard of the 2004 movie Stage Beauty starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. Jeffrey Hatcher wrote the screenplay for the movie, based on his own stage play titled Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The opera follows the movie closely, but in my opinion provides a far better medium for the story.

The opera begins with Kynaston (baritone Ben Edquist) dazzling courtly audiences with his melodramatic portrayal of Desdemona in Othello. He is so beloved, in fact, that the audience's applause derails the production, to the annoyance of Kynaston's fellow players. Kynaston's dresser, Margaret Hughes (soprano Mane Galoyan), secretly yearns both for Kynaston and for the chance to perform on the stage herself should women ever be permitted to do so. In preparation, she watches him from the wings, carefully practicing the gestures he has perfected, which were the style of acting favored at the time.

Once Charles II makes his proclamation, both Margaret and Nell Gwynn, who is also Charles's mistress, join the company of players where Kynaston would be welcome to remain if only he could learn to act in men's roles. But Kynaston is uncomfortable doing so, and rather humiliates himself trying.

As Kynaston falls on hard times, Margaret Hughes proves her devotion. Not only does she rescue him from the tavern where he has been reduced to playing a cross-dresser for laughs, she nurses him when he's beaten by a nobleman's goons and refuses to play her new role as Desdemona at court unless Kynaston is brought back to re-stage the famous death scene. From the artful, melodramatic playmaking that has been so fashionable, both Kynaston and Hughes have learned that infusing raw emotion into their roles will remake the theater and shape the future of play-acting.

This year at HGO, we've seen Ben Edquist in a number of roles, most notably as Sir Walter Raleigh/Astronaut in the world premiere of HGOco's O Columbia. He's a first-year member of the HGO Studio (co-founded by Carlisle Floyd many years ago, as a matter of fact), and has been in almost every HGO production this season. He usually appears in supporting roles, or occasionally singing a featured role during alternate cast performances. Not this time.

While we've enjoyed all of Ben Edquist's performances, this is easily the perfect role for him. Or maybe it's the other way around: perhaps he is the perfect singer for the role. Not only was his voice particularly assured in this opera, his acting was beautiful, and in a part where he had to play a man playing a woman while still remaining very much a man. At any given moment, whether or not he was singing, his face was full of the emotions experienced by a celebrated man who has just been forbidden, by royal edict, from pursuing his profession as he knows it. His world has ended.

I equally loved the casting of another first-year Studio artist, soprano Mane Galoyan as Margaret Hughes. Her acting was lovely as well, but it was her exquisite vocal control during the moments of quieter music that struck me the most.

I also enjoyed seeing Megan Samarin and Pureum Jo as, respectively, Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne. (Megan also sang the role of Mistress Revels, in the bawdy tavern from which Hughes rescues Kynaston.) In one scene during Act I, the ladies beseech Kynaston to walk with them in the park while still dressed as Desdemona, teasing him into proving that he really is a man. They were the only three performers on stage for a short time, and I noted the moment because they're all Studio artists and all had lead roles in O Columbia. I felt incredibly proud that my opera company in my adopted city is finding and training these up-and-coming young stars who will eventually be known around the world.

The other thought that went through my mind as I watched the rest of this production is that this was somehow the sexiest, most romantic opera I can remember seeing. Star-crossed lovers often sing (and sing and sing) about their lust and love and devotion, but I feel like here we got to see it rather than just listen to it. There's a scene in Act 1 in which Kynaston interacts with his lover, George Villiers the Duke of Buckingham. While the pair must practice discretion, their love and passion is obvious and moving. Later, after the Duke reluctantly gives up his lover (in an incredibly touching moment), Kynaston is brutally attacked. As Margaret Hughes nurses him back to health, she confesses her love for him, and Kynaston discovers and expresses his passion for her as well.

For me, the love and passion between both couples was equally believable, moving, and above all sexy.

I know I keep saying that if you've been holding back on opera, "this" is the one to see (the recent brilliant production of The Marriage of Figaro, for example). But seriously, this is it. It's in English. (Yes, there are sur-titles, but you won't need them because the diction is knife-edged.) It's short. It's beautifully set-dressed and costumed. It's sexy. It's a world premiere by a major American composer who recently turned ninety years old. It has only two performances remaining in Houston.

And it really should not be missed.

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