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Keyforge: a new card game by Richard Garfield

Keep your eyes on game store shelves at the end of 2018, because Keyforge – Richard Garfield’s latest work – is due for release, and it looks awesome.

I’ve long maintained that Magic: the Gathering, Richard Garfield’s first mega-hit, is the greatest game ever invented, and I have yet to encounter a product of his design that wasn’t at least great, if not quite as perfect as Magic. And a big part of why Keyforge looks so fun is because it looks a lot like Magic, but with a little Vampire (another Garfield game) thrown in.

The main gimmick is that there is no deckbuilding – a striking departure from an entire genre of gaming (i.e. the Collectible Trading Card Game) which Garfield himself could rightfully be called the father of.

Instead, decks come as purchased, ready to play and not to be altered, and somehow Dr. Garfield (PhD-in-Recombinatorial-Mathematics-Smarty-Pants-Show-Off-Brainy-McBrainerson) has found a way to ensure a variety of over 104 quadrillion different decks, so each is unique.

Yes, you read that right: 104,000,000,000,000,000. Decks.

Apparently a “secret… sophisticated set of rules and processes” is behind it. Curious…. Very curious, indeed.

In the world of Keyforge, you’ve got 7 houses (ahem – Game of Thrones) instead of the 5 colors of Magic. And in place of Magic’s mana-based economy, each deck in Keyforge is always made of 3 houses: at the start of each turn you must pick 1 of them, then you can play all the cards you want to of that house that turn (at the low-low price of not being able to play cards from other houses). Pretty elegant, Garfield, but what else ya got?

Creatures, enchantments (upgrades), artifacts, and spells (actions) exist in both Magic and Keyforge (Keyforge terms in parenthesis), and appear to operate in pretty much the exact same way. Creatures enter summoning sick (exhausted), and auras (upgrades) are destroyed when the creature they’re enchanting goes away.

A neat twist here, though, is that your creatures form a line of battle, shoulder-to-shoulder, and their position in that line is relevant. When you play a new creature, it must enter on either flank, left or right.

During combat, and unlike Magic but a bit like Vampire, creatures fight other specific enemy creatures, and the genius power/toughness scheme of Magic is combined into a single power number, with the option of an additional “armor” number, which prevents incoming damage.

This subtle change is important because of the following improvement to one of Magic’s fundamental (and rather unintuitive) rules: damage does not magically (pun intended) vanish at the end of a turn, but rather it builds up, marked on the creatures with counters, and remains there until further notice. If a creature’s damage comes to equal its power, the creature dies.

Also interestingly, Keyforge’s turn order places “untap” and “draw” as the last two things you do:

1 – Cash in victory points (not at all what they’re called, but really what they are. In the story, you’re “forging keys to unlock the Architect’s secret Vault on the mysterious planet, Crucible,” but we all know what they really mean. It’s victory points.)

2 – Choose which house to use that turn

3 – Do stuff

4 – Untap

5 – (much like Vampire) Discard any number of cards in your hand of your chosen house, then draw back up to maximum hand size.

A lot of the fun of Magic is in the deckbuilding, and some of the best, beautiful bits of Vampire are hidden beneath a few unfortunate layers of needless complexity, so I am quite eager to see what Garfield has done with Keyforge. I see similarities to both in it, and I take that as a good omen.

With any luck he has forged together (pun intended) an amalgamation of good ideas from over the years into something new and – dare I wish it?! – even better.

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Review: “Alex & Eugene” by Bryan Williams

Suggested by Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” Isle of Shoals‘ world premiere of Bryan William’s latest work, “Alex & Eugene,” is showing now through September 2nd at the Robert Moss Theatre in Astor Place.

Set in a contemporary New York City, this musical tells the tale of a love-filled band of vibrant young performers struggling to navigate careers, both personally and professionally. Set to a sweepingly diverse score by Williams – that is alternately jaunty and heartbreaking – our plucky crew encounters a sufficiently-dramatic degree of success… as well as tragic failure.

And “tragic” is no understatement, as the warning in the program hints:

“Please Note: Alex & Eugene is for mature audiences and contains partial nudity, gunshot sound effects, strong language and suicidal content.”

Without the warning, you would never see where the story was going from how it begins. The frivolity, joie de vivre, and outright fun had in the first part of the show sets a brutally effective counterpoint for the unfortunate turns of fate awaiting our characters later on.

In this way, Williams paints a Bob Ross still-life of a story, balancing broad strokes with minute details, so that the ultimate product is as viscerally gripping as it is intriguing, thought provoking, and inward-looking.

Eugene is played by Reggie Herold, who’s bone structure would indicate he is the son of Michelangelo’s left and right hands. Not only does he cut a mean profile, but he’s a powerful force on stage, often telling an entire story with a single glance – beginning, middle, and end. And sometimes an epilogue. (Once, also a trailer for the sequel.)

He’s an exciting actor to watch, especially opposite his co-star, Alex, played by Jae Shin. Shin’s performance as a stunted, socially-awkward struggling writer-type is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Plus he plays guitar!

Anna Stefanic plays Tanya, Alex’s “twin” sister, and she is just as alight and engaging when off-focus as she is when taking center stage. I found myself watching her during other people’s performances just to see what she was doing – and was always entertained. Stefanic also has an incredible voice, uniquely deep and warm, mellifluous, like a tidal wave made of sunlight.

Independent love interest Esmé is played by the lovely Brittany Zeinstra, who radiates a sense of genuine authenticity and fully-formed personhood from head-to-toe, start-to-finish. Zeinstra demonstrates with aplomb the dynamic fluctuations her voice is capable of, somehow weaving together an endearingly sweet Rogers & Hammerstein style with the modern twang of Country Western, forming something new and beautiful, with a tone and character all her own.

Katherine Leidlien (Janie/Lana) and Noah Pyzik (Brandon/Chuck) get a nice featuring of their talents and delightful personalities in the song, “Not My Gay Best Friend,” which is not only cute, but feels wholly authentic. They became for me during that song two people I knew, friends of mine, and were no longer actors portraying characters.

Aja Downing, who plays another performer in the group, Cassandra, is naturally hilarious and it shines clearly through her performance. Her sweet, rich, and velvety voice in “Tell Him” offers glimpses at a hidden power beneath the surface….

The choreography by Alex Johnson is fresh, intelligent, and fun, and manages to tell the story as easily as it does elegantly.

The show makes a thing out of breaking the Fourth Wall, and no where is it used better than while the cast and crew moves set pieces around in the dark between scenes. When they do, we can hear the characters ad libbing with one another, and it serves to help keep us in the story at the precise time we’re likely to come out of it. When something happened to go audibly wrong during one set change, the slight malfunction became a hilarious moment of honesty, rather than merely a mistake.

The set utilized a clever series of benches that converted into ramps, and though I found them quite ingenious and well-used, they didn’t always appear to be super stable.

And don’t THINK I didn’t notice the Star Wars novel on the book shelf, Scenic Designer Jennilee Aromando! Props (pun intended).

Williams’ music uses sturdy melodies to support some truly masterfully-crafted vocal harmonies, reason enough to see the show right there. The whole soundtrack is an enchanting assortment that flows, changes, evolves, and ultimately spreads its wings and soars away into the sky. Some of the dialogue, meanwhile, doesn’t land as gracefully. To abuse a quote from the show: “‘Obdurate,’ Alex? Who says that?!”

Also to great theatrical effect, Williams takes full advantage of his own profound sonic talents by harnessing the negative space his music creates – well-placed silence.

Though it suffers from being a bit too long, “Alex & Eugene” does an expert job of setting up your emotional dominoes so it can topple them back down again in way that will resound in your soul. It tells an important story with a responsible touch, aiming to spread awareness, understanding, and love.

The Trevor Project

Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

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The Ballad of Bucket Brown

By Kevin Kelleher. Inspired by Evan Diehl. Based on the true story of Tyler “Bucket” Brown.


Listen up children
and don’t make a sound,
as I tell ye the tale
of old Bucket Brown….


In an age long ago,
when backpacks were clear,
there was just one man
who would conquer fear.


None knew who it was
calling bomb threats in jest.
“I know!” said Admin.
“We’ll punish the rest.”


So came the decree
from on high, far and wide:
“See-through must they be,
so we know what’s inside!”


And like that were the stores
full of mesh bags, and plastic.
Selling packs by the scores
for this measure so drastic.


Cheaply made, worthless,
bad junk was it all.
For as soon as ‘twas packed,
out your things would soon fall.


Yet despite all the trouble,
and dumb backpacks bought,
the elusive threat caller
was still not yet caught.


So it was in this panic,
this sad state forlorn,
one man would stand tall –
and a hero was born.


A nondescript fellow
named after a color.
Until now he’d been mellow,
no different than any other.


Brown had just one desire,
though some think it weird.
In his heart burned a fire
to be vintagely geared.


To make music, to play
electro-house-dance.
So oft dreams delay
for the whimsy of chance!


Midst translucent tote bags
our hero said, “Fuck it.
I’ll carry my shit
in a five gallon bucket.”


So fast did he fly
in the face of Admin,
was he banished, then vanished!
Never heard from again.


But swift as they were,
their verdict came too late.
The people’d seen, they had heard,
and thought the bucket was great.


There ‘rose a great fury
in protest – a tizzy!
A backlash so fierce
Admin reeled; left them dizzy.


With naught a leg left
to stand upon
they were forced to repeal
dread policy anon.


And up from the crowd
roared a cheer and a cry,
a “hurray!” so damn loud
it shook earth and the sky.


Merrily, then,
brought the students to school
backpacks of opacity.
It was the new rule.


The fiend gave up at last
calling threats on the joint.
Admin stopped canc’ling class,
which, of course, was the point.


“But whatever happened,”
they asked with a frown,
“to our noble, brave savior,
our friend, Bucket Brown?”


To this day no one knows,
and not one can say,
what became of that hero
who once saved the day.


Though next time you slink
through the Music Department,
give a listen and think
of a five gal compartment.


For then one might hear,
if a true sympathizer,
Old Bucket Brown
playing his synthesizer.

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Review: “Glassheart” by Reina Hardy

Everyday Inferno Theatre Company’s presentation of “Glassheart,” by Reina Hardy, directed by Anaïs Koivisto, is a thought-provoking reinvention of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast.”

Meghann Garmany (left) and Christopher Alexey Diaz in Glassheart

Our Beast, played by Christopher Alexey Diaz, is menacing both physically and emotionally. We meet him dressed in a fine suit, laying on the floor clutching a potted plant, while emitting an inhuman growl. We come to learn that he is the embodiment of a cruel juxtaposition: as freakishly well-read as he is antisocial, too cerebral for his own good. He can speak a dozen languages, yet cannot bare to exchange even simple pleasantries with a stranger. 

Diaz transforms himself into a character that’s at once frighteningly monstrous, and also tenderly human, leaving the audience to decide which side of the fence to put him on (…or not).

Carey Cox (left) and Meghann Garmany in Glassheart

Meghann Garmany artfully portrays the role of a humble lamp: the sole remaining member of the Beasts’ famous league of anthropomorphic magical household items. (The rest of them, she says, left for high-end hotels in Europe.)

Garmany’s character does not have a name, a fact which she uses to support the notion that she is a non-entity. The play goes on to explore that issue, which we quickly find to be fraught with contradiction, in great depth. 

And yet despite her jerky, android-like movements, and the cold, hard logic of her character…

Garmany manages to use those tools as a prism to distill for us a rare example of humanity that’s richer and more heartfelt than we, as real people in the audience, typically feel capable of, making Garmany’s performance truly inspiring to behold. 

In fact, though Garmany is not the Beauty nor the Beast, she manages to steal the show from both of them in the pursuit of her own heroic arc: one guided by love, rebirth, and self-sacrifice.

Carey Cox in Glassheart

But it takes the plucky playfulness of Aoife, played by the enchanting Carey Cox, to set the play’s events unfolding. Cox is instantly lovable, and gives us an incredibly real, honest, and true-to-life performance – contrasting nicely against the other much stranger characters. And yet, paradoxically, Cox convinces us she is genuine by shamelessly flaunting how quirky she is. The laundry list of things that make her different are more pedestrian, that is to say not supernatural (she’s really into her cat, for example), and thereby we come to identify with her.

Hardy’s witty dialogue will keep your ears busy, but I recommend you watch the faces of the characters on stage – particularly the ones who are not speaking – to witness some truly great acting. The phrase “darting expression” cannot do justice to what these actors accomplish on stage. Some incredibly heavy sentiment, and some truly hilarious comedy, is conveyed in a split-second flit of an eye, or the twinge of the corner of a mouth. Some really impressive attention to physical detail has been taken in these scenes, and it’s part of the charm of an intimately small theater like The Access Theater that everyone gets a close-up look.

Virigina Roncetti in Glassheart

 

Audiences are also treated to a wonderfully creepy performance of Virginia Roncetti’s Witch, who created my favorite moment in the entire show when she sings a song near the end – and I’m afraid you’ll have to see it yourself to know why. In line with this production’s orientation toward detail, the Witch is the only person who knows where to place the potted plant in order to make it grow….

I get tingles just thinking back on it.

And while most of the themes in this show are very timely, one aspect that doesn’t quite translate is the plot device of abducting a damsel for the purpose of inducing a Stockholm Syndrome in order to get her to fall in love with her captor. There was only a single line of dialogue which even came close to dealing with how not cool that is, and then it was never again mentioned. 

 

Glassheart is a play about weird people with problems, but in the exploration, we come to find that such weirdness lies at the heart of who we all are, and the further out we go from our perceived center, the closer we end up finding ourselves to the familiar, like a spectrum of color returning again upon itself – a cycle.

There are only four performances left in this short run: the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October, 2017, at 8pm.

 

 

 

 

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Review: “LoveCourt” by Bryan Williams and Joe Ferrante

Isle of Shoals’ world premiere of “LoveCourt,” a very sexy new musical, runs for only two weekends: this one and the next (September 7th–17th), at the Robert Moss Theatre.

And you won’t want to miss it – because when I say sexy, I’m not just speaking metaphorically.

It’s got steamy romance, it’s got singing, it’s got dancing, it’s got humor, it’s got heart – it’s got legally mandated corporate policies on sexual harassment in the workplace…!

Can I get a “hell yeah”?!

The story of LoveCourt is inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” yet all but the deepest similarities are forsaken in the updating. Here, our protagonist, played by Kasey Yeargain, works in the Human Resources department of a faceless corporate monstrosity, and excels in the handling of sexual misconduct cases. At least, until he “misconducts” himself a little bit…. 

Yeargain has a real Clark Kent/Superman thing going on, and not just physically. Though, incidentally, I should probably mention that he does look exactly like Clark Kent and/or Superman, physically speaking, and this does not hurt the show’s sex appeal.

But Yeargain’s character spends the first half of the show stuck in Clark Kent mode, and only through the painful completion of his arc does he discover the true Superman within himself. However, instead of leaping over tall buildings or outrunning speeding trains, this guy’s super power is… well, I guess you have to see the show to find out. (I’ll tell ya what: take another look at the title and I’ll give you two guesses. …No, not that one. Try again. …Okay, here’s a clue: it’s not the “court” part. THERE ya go. Sheesh!)

The role of his wife is played by Jennifer Teska, a collegiate professor who is, perhaps, partly driven by some questionable motives. Meanwhile, she and Yeargain suffer from a loveless marriage, which they express so truthfully together in “Scene from a Marriage” that I felt every inch of that aching frustration along with them.

Teska and Yeargain pull down every veneer, and force us to witness something difficult and true – which is something truly difficult to do.

Meanwhile, in that scene, a triplet of extremely versatile actors, Hannah Grace Forsley, Kevin F. Rogers, and Chloe Willa, credited collectively as “The Trio,” standby omnipresently, merely watching at first. They’re motionless for so long I forgot they were there – until they started singing along with our miserable couple.

(It’s in the subtle touches like this that you can really feel the guiding hand of director Stephen Ryan as he confidently guides us down the path of this narrative.)

Throughout the show, Forsley, Rogers, and Willa play a dauntingly diverse variety of roles (everything from ghostly specters to rock band vocalists to medieval courtiers to office monitors), and blend together in tight vocal harmonies that are as stunningly beautiful as they are harrowingly haunting. The three of them are equal parts temptation, titillation, and the austere condemnation of both.

In case things get a little too hot for you on stage, don’t worry, for Cecilia Vaicels is prepared to throw the coldest, wettest towel on you that I’ve ever seen. She’s one tine of a three-pronged assault of comic relief, and she drives her part of it home with her number at the top of Act II – a song so charming and so funny, and performed with such irreverent gusto as only Vaicels can bring, that it absolutely slayed.

The second tine is the lovely Ruby Locknar, who is all character, bringing an adorable quirkiness that is as strange as it is familiar. She plays a foreigner who either has her own unique sense of humor, or really, really doesn’t understand humor at all. She rides the line perfectly. And that LAUGH of hers… it will haunt my nightmares.

And the final prong of comedy is a villainous combo of academic cutthroats, played by Natalie Martzial and Cheney Morgan. The pair of them only have a few moments in which to steal the show, and they waste no time in doing just that!

“A Man of Flesh and Blood – and Heart” is delivered by a woman of power and poise – and some serious pipes – the illustrious Cait Kelly.

Samantha Lee Stoltzfus adds a heaping helping of sex appeal and some lighthearted comedy to the show, only to bring the roof down in “Don’t Tread on Me,” a bold and spicy duet with Cait Kelly, which they belt out in glorious female fashion.

I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see an actor, Justy Kosek, playing a guitar on stage… and actually playing guitar. Aside from that probably minuscule detail, he brought the same degree of honesty and conviction to his entire role, adding a dimension of emotional turmoil that raised the stakes for everyone, which could have easily been overlooked.

Kosek doesn’t have to force you to watch him, because while he’s performing you can’t look away.

And when he sings “I Could Be a Troubadour,” no mortal can resist him. I know I couldn’t.

The emotional heart of LoveCourt is wisely entrusted to John Mervini, whose character is caught in the unforgiving gears of our corporate code of conduct when a complaint is filed against him. He’s not a particularly likable guy (the character, that is), yet he will break your heart when you learn the true depths of his character’s capacity for love.

Mervini’s performance of “Helpless” sent shivers up and down my spine, as his character’s honestly difficult situation was brought to life by Mervini’s soul-felt acting and masterful musicality. He manages to blend the cold, rough edges of a tortured personality with the tenderest touches of human compassion – all springing from a gushing font of pure, raw yearning.

The mixture is eviscerating – and once you’ve stitched your innards back inside yourself, you don’t quite seem to fit together the same way again. Mervini has changed you.

LoveCourt did not need to ask a lot of the costume department, yet it shined nonetheless, and nowhere as brightly as at the office Christmas party, where a smorgasbord of ugly sweaters and hilarious, festive details strived to steal the scene (I’m still smiling over the Jesus flask).

Similarly, the set did not set its sights too high, so attention could be given to nuance, such as the otherwise blank, black boxes which can be found in every theatre, here given a thoughtful coat of paint to transform them into filing cabinets. Perfect.

Director Stephen Ryan gives us some lovely expression in his blocking, notably at the conclusion of “Night Into Morning.” There you’ve got two characters in parallel situations, yet one is upstage, one downstage, one left, one right. They are visually equal, yet in opposite corners. What Ryan accomplishes with this seemingly simple arrangement is the conundrum of articulating something that’s “the same, but different” – a wholly impressive message to get across effectively, which Ryan does with aplomb. It’s like he’s whispering into your conscious ear, while dominating your subconscious everything. It’s really quite an experience.  

LoveCourt asks a variety of timely, essential questions. “You can’t behave at work like you’re on a street corner,” says one character. And yet, how can we take the street corner out of the ape? Furthermore, even if we could, should we…?

Bryan Williams, book writer and lyricist, has an authorial voice that peeks out now and again through his characters to speak directly to your soul. “I think that kindness is the highest art,” he says at one point. Well, if that’s so, then Isle of Shoals has brought together one of the kindest theatrical teams you could hope to see.

The plot is extremely well tied together. I don’t want to give anything away, but the way all of the various characters’ actions come back around to inflict consequence, and to interconnect, harkens to a Game of Thrones level attention-to-detail.

A thoughtful and considerate audience can rest at ease with the very capable Bryan Williams behind the book.

Williams also plays keyboard for this production, and while I saw a chair behind him, I never caught him sitting it in, because he was on his feet rocking the entire show through. And I can understand why: the score by Joe Ferrante is a toe-tapping Wonka confectionery of creative musical fusions.

Ferrante gives us Motown, old school Vaudeville, classic rock, funk, ancient ballad, original country, bluegrass, Spanish, Latin, and all sorts of Americana in seamless combination. 

“LoveCourt” impressively melds the lifeless sterility of legally-structured corporate culture with the sweaty, sexy, and downright disgusting nature of real-life humanity, sealing the two disparate worlds together with the glue of great music.

To quote the show itself, this production is “beyond awesome!”

Come on down to the Robert Moss Theatre, September 7th through the 17th, to experience the unbridled, passionate, and overtly sexy thrill ride that is LoveCourt!

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: “Occupation: Dragonslayer” by Bryan Williams

second_flyer_2aTo put it simply, Isle of Shoals’ latest original production, “Occupation: Dragonslayer” by Bryan Williams, is an astoundingly beautiful and utterly transcendent experience.

I thought it was going to be about 9/11, but I was wrong. That’s the starting point, but it’s actually about me. It’s about you, too. It’s about us – the whole human family – and our shared human condition. It’s about how we can have infinite problems in our lives which can make us seem unique, separate, different, but our pain is always the same. Perversely, it’s that pain which unites us. And after many revelations on this theme and others, Williams inserts a little wisdom about how to lead a better life.  

Paul Chamberlain is Stepanek, an NYPD officer, and he. Is. A. ROCK. Jesus – we’re talking tears – his tears – in the opening number. The opening number! He, with the lovely Erin Clancy-Balsamo as Kiki, fulfill a sort of emotional-straight-man counterpart to the rest of the entire show. They are eminently graceful together.

Cecilia Vaicels plays Harriet, a tough, no-nonsense New York City boss with a motherly tenderness. Vaicels absolutely nails it, and that is not the kind of character that you can fake.

The comic artisan Arthur Lundquist plays the part of Antonio, a bit of an oddball, definitely a goof, with a heart of gold.

Lisa Gwasda plays the hard-nosed Major Beauvine, who leads her three children along on a quest to evangelize Lower Manhattan. The children are played by Benjamin Errig, Theodore Errig, and Ruby Spryte Balsamo, and together they team up to charm the pants off of the audience. The kids are cute, naturally (though the earmuffs help), but it turns out they’re fantastic little actors as well, and extremely effective on stage. They can make you laugh just as easily as cry at the drop of a hat. You are putty in their tiny little hands.

The fiery Kimberly Bello plays Mara, a contrary young lady who might be forsaken, but is resolutely not lost. The show has an ensemble cast, but Mara was my protagonist. She perfectly embodies what we, as Americans, were like in the heyday of American glory – in those days before the Twin Towers fell. She’s cynical, prickly, and beautiful. Slightly damaged, but not from any outward incident. And, true to this mythical characterization, Mara becomes seduced by power, greed, and spiritual hunger, only to put herself in the same unfortunate situation America had put herself in when a band of jihadis hijacked some planes a decade and a half ago….

Steve Walsh reaches down deep into the unspoken depths of his soul to give us the part of Gil, a 9/11 First Responder. He does so with such clarity and honesty that it’s like traveling through time, it feels so real….

Then there’s the Duchess, played by the formidable Judi Polson, a personification of Old New York prestige. She’s whimsical, romantic, perhaps completely insane, but nevertheless in possession of a resounding spirit and indomitable courage.

John Mervini, who plays our primary antagonist, is the proudly-sleazy real estate mogul Damon Slade. Mervini commands the stage effortlessly, as though it were his god-given right. He is sheer force of will in a slick suit, and when his eyes sparkle you want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time.

Lindsey Morgan rips your heart to shreds with her incredibly understated role as “the Forgotten One.” It’s not a huge role, but she does huge things with it.

Kevin F. Rogers, as the under-appreciated Felipe, wraps up his lovable personality in endearing awkwardness, spontaneous rap, and comic relief.

And then there’s this guy with amnesia, Chris, played by Steffen Alexander Whorton, whose only clues to his identity are his odd appearance: a Santa Claus costume with an FDNY shirt underneath.

The dazzling Cait Kelly, who plays the hope-filled Jenny, strips away all of the bullshit of the world and shows us a violently-gleaming slice of her own soul when she belts at us in “Absence,” one the most wondrous songs in the show, and also one of the most strikingly powerful numbers I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t shed a tear until she yelled “Damn you!” …and then it was all over for me.

I say began, because I would cry several more times in show, and, in fact, afterward I cried myself literally all the way home that night.

But that’s not because this is a sad show. Anything but! I cried because it was supremely beautiful. Triumphant. Soaringly inspirational. A victory for the human spirit, and for the world of art.

Most of Williams’ best songs in the show were followed by utter silence in place of applause. But that stark silence was the sound of reverence.

Stephen Ryan directs this production, and his great theatrical experience is evidenced in myriad judicious choices. On the diner set, you can just barely make out a wall covered in papers… missing person posters. Subtley harrowing.

Ryan uses a scrim like I’ve never seen before, making me feel feelings I didn’t even know I could have.

Ryan coaxes some extreme performances from his actors in this show. There are tears flying, voices trembling, beat and ragged, and the sheer range of emotion goes off the chart at both ends…. This is really a beast of a show, and Ryan has made it look like cakewalk.

In my favorite example, Ryan brilliantly manages to recreate the unparalleled terror and chilling horror of what those poor souls, caught in the wreckage, went through on that fateful day…. And with nothing more than a well-timed blackout, and a flashlight.

The show’s creator, Bryan Williams, does not pull any punches as he dissects the most pressing of America’s current problems: consumer culture, the political plutocracy, the worth of people (particularly broken people), the heartbreak of loss, and more. But when we investigate the root causes of all these problems, Williams has the cruel magnanimity to point out that many of the issues we face are, in fact, our own fault.

That is one supremely bitter pill to swallow, but Williams administers it with heaping spoonfuls of sugar, in the form of humor, humanity, his stunning music, and even magic.

Bryan Williams crafts his music with an artistic precision and élan that goes well beyond being impressive. When the wheels are turning in our character’s heads, they might be singing long, unchanging notes, but you’ll hear the orchestra going crazy behind them. Williams makes you know without understanding why. He makes you feel what’s going on with everything you’ve got. It’s an intense sensation, and an unforgettable experience.

For this show, Isle of Shoals decided to sell concessions at intermission: coffee, cookies, snacks. They should’ve been selling kleenex and whiskey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: “The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure” by Lawrence Ellsworth

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure” by Lawrence Ellsworth lives up to its name, and delivers a heaping assortment of derring-do, courageous swordplay, unbridled love, and razor wit, compiled conveniently into one enormous anthology.

swashbuckFlavor is the true treasure to be dug up from these pages. Each story is positively swimming in it. You’ll smell the salty sea air. You’ll feel the hot Caribbean sun tan your face. You’ll work up a sweat fending off saber strikes, and feel your pulse racing while you ride to deliver intelligence that could prevent, or provoke, a bloody war….

By my tastes, most of the stories Ellsworth offers are darling, a few are outstanding, and one or two are merely decent. For the amount of sheer words within this work, however, it’s a steal.

The pirate stories stand out the most, but perhaps that’s due in part to the fact that the two longest selections both happen to be piratical tales.

Awkwardly, the book’s physical size became an issue for me. I do most of my reading in the New York City subway system, and that regularly involves being smashed into a crowded train car. For a two-handed book, as this one is, that meant several trips where extracting my swashbuckling tome was sadly not feasible. If you prefer to ingest your literature digitally, though, or if you tend to read under more forgiving circumstances, then you will avoid such inconvenience.

A great bonus to reading an anthology such as this is that it’s a marvelous way to get introduced to new (at least new to you) and wonderful authors. My two favorites are Rafael Sabatini and Stanley J. Weyman.

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Review: “The Talhoffer Society” by Michael Edelson

The Talhoffer Society” by Michael Edelson is a well-crafted thriller that promises to grab you by the throat and hurl you across its pages.

talhoffer

Using the fledging martial art known as HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts – or, more simplistically, medieval broadsword fighting) as inspiration and backdrop, Edelson has spun a brilliant story of suspense, mystery, love, and redemption.

The central premise is this: all around the world, people are studying the ancient and, for all intents and purposes, completely impractical martial art of dueling with a two-handed longsword. Except: some secret society is hosting a clandestine, live-steel tournament where the best practitioners are invited to use their skills as they were truly intended – and being deadly weapons, well… you get the idea.

Refreshingly, Edelson’s use of violence is superbly tasteful, and consistently tempered by a healthy, human concern for life and subsequent guilt when harm is dealt. For a story about sword-fighting, this is remarkable, and very rare. And it is the sort of writing which expensive workshops the world over struggle to impart to their writers, many of whom have never seriously hurt anyone, let alone killed someone.

Meanwhile, he’s got the obligatory love story woven in, yet instead of being desultory and extraneous, it’s crucial, unique, and beautiful. In fact Edelson dusts off more than one classical trope to tell his story, and normally I would look to them to find fault, except that he executes each one with the élan of a longtime pro. Honestly, it’s a very well put together novel.

Edelson’s greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is his steadfast determination to tell a realistic story, while successfully maintaining interest.

Writing is a record of a series of choices, and at every turn there are infinite possibilities to explore – some more likely than others. Oftentimes writers are confronted with difficult decisions, such as when a crossroads presents itself where one direction is plausible but boring, and the other is far-fetched but much more exciting.

It is easier (and lazier) to try to amp up the tension by making outlandish decisions, but after a point your reader’s suspension of disbelief will fail to sustain them in the world you’ve created. It is far more challenging (and impressive) to stick to realistic choices, and to have your story stay engaging and surprising.

This is because, as a general rule, real life is boring. (That’s probably why we like stories in the first place.)

Turning up the scrutinization dial real high to find something to complain about, I found the use of money within the story to be a bit too convenient to explain certain things, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers I won’t go into detail. I will simply say that while Edelson has done fantastic work accomplishing some very difficult sells, a few of them he appeared to work less hard for. Also I think he could’ve come up with a much better title.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer is that The Talhoffer Society reads like a Dan Brown book. I’m a slow reader (I read like I speak), and I nearly finished the book in just two sittings.

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: “Violet Peaks” by David Parr

violet

In the novel Violet Peaks, author David James Parr tells the story of a person with an overactive imagination struggling to find meaning in their life.

Throughout the course of the book, we watch the titular protagonist grow from a child into an adult – and beyond. Violet finds herself the unwitting captain of her own life, and is constantly amazed to find life’s regular challenges both mundane and incredibly daunting at the same time. Her singular mission is merely to understand who she is – to be able to define herself – and, as Parr shows us, that can be a lot harder than it sounds….

Violet Peaks is a quick and thought-provoking read, and it’s very well-written.

Parr’s style is measured and elegant, yet deeply personal, and an acute brilliance lies in his minuscule details.

 

The pages of this book are dripping with similes, but it’s in his metaphors where Parr really shines.

One technically impressive feat is what Parr does with time. In a fleetingly smooth paragraph, Parr might walk us through years. A throwaway line might traverse a generation. All the while, the lens of Parr’s narration lends color and weight to it, and transitions both before and after are so smoothly executed that it took me half the book to even realize what he was doing.

Parr gets away with this because instead of tracking events chronologically, he uses emotion as his measure. It ends up effecting the same conclusion, but the journey is different.

Violet suffers from a malaise of Weltschmerz, presumable brought on (or at least worsened) by being an artist without a genuine outlet. This is an intriguing central conflict for a novel, and one which Parr exploits to great effect. While the physical stakes are generally quite low, the spiritual and emotional stakes are life and death.

Most of Violet’s foibles are the result of her searching for meaning in her life almost exclusively through romantic love and sexual conquests. While the feminist within you may cringe at some of her choices, I urge you to hold on until the end.

In many chapters, Parr makes use of repeating choruses, and in some cases it works better than others. As they teach in acting and singing: if you’re going to say the same thing twice, it better not be the same thing twice.

All told, Violet Peaks is a joy to read, and the glimpse into Parr’s worldview is a mind-expanding breath of fresh air.

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Sexual Harassment

As a straight, white male, I never really expected to find myself victimized by sexual harassment.

So when it happened, you could imagine my surprise. Disbelief, really. Sheer denial even for a while. And those feelings served to compound the problem: making it even harder for me to address an issue that was already difficult to tackle in the first place.

Recognizing unwanted physical contact is an easy thing to do. Confronting the perpetrator is a lot harder. Yet, sadly, verbal warnings are very often not enough to talk sense into someone who’s committing harm. In fact, in many cases (indeed in my own case) it can make things worse. Because calling someone out for being a dick, an asshole, or just generally inappropriate is an affront, and few of us possess the required tact to get around that gracefully. So, the abuser feels cornered, and lashes out.

This unfortunate reality leaves the victim with only one recourse: going through official channels to seek the help of some kind of an authority. In my case this was an employer, since the incident was at work. This could have been a police officer in the subway. Regardless of situation, however, this step is even harder than the previous ones. And that’s because to accomplish it, you have to finally admit to yourself – in your admission to someone else – that you are a victim. And nobody likes to face that, however true it might be.

My heart was racing when I finally found the courage to do it, and that was after 24 hours of talking myself out of it. It was only thanks to a trusted friend, an ally, a confidant, who helped to persuade me to “make it official,” shall we say. Encouraging me to take action, this friend reminded me of what I was too ashamed to admit I already knew was true:

that this was real, it was a problem, it had to stop, and there was only one way to fix it (correctly).

Once my eyes were opened to this realization, I knew I had little choice. And – boy howdy! – was it such an incredible relief to have done it! I felt better instantly – better than I even imagined I would or could have felt.

Emotions are deep and powerful things, yet they remain cryptic to us, and are largely unfathomable. It is not often that we, as humans, have an accurate perception of our own emotions in real time. It takes the passage of time (sometimes a lot of time), and the experience which follows, to reveal the true nature of our own emotions to ourselves. But they are so very important to our personhood – emotions underpin everything we do and are.

And so it is with this writing that I hope to encourage and empower anyone anywhere who is made to feel uncomfortable or powerless by anyone else. Or, just as importantly, to encourage and empower the friend of someone who is made to feel that way, to speak to them from their heart and offer a helping hand when they need it.

You do have the power to stop it. There are ways to help.

And the first step is to talk to someone you trust.

I can’t urge you enough.

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  • wise words

     
    JESTER: His Majesty's son, Prince Artemis and Lady Fallowmore!

    PRINCE: Please, just call me Artemis. I don't need that title.

    JESTER: All right...the "Artemis" formerly known as "Prince," and Lady Fallowmore!

    -Kevin Kelleher, "The Madrigal Dinner"

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