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Review: “Clash of Eagles” by Alan Smale

clash of eaglesIn a fictional universe wherein Rome never fell, an army of steel-clad legionaries sails across the Atlantic ocean in 1218, landing on the North American continent to seek out fabled golden riches. What they find instead is a “Clash of Eagles” – an inspiringly beautiful tale spun by master storyteller, Alan Smale.

While Smale is keen to deliver all the lovely details you’d expect from such an extraordinary setting, he does it in a surprising way. At first I was afraid it was going to devolve into a more primitive version of “Dances with Wolves,” but Smale is quick to defy expectations, and the story he weaves in this book is wholly unique and utterly compelling.

As you begin reading, you will marvel at his attention to detail – especially historical detail. You can hear the lorica segmentata jingling as the Romans march, and you can taste the sour-bitter tang of Cahokian corn beer as it’s drank during the midwinter feast. Sheepishly I admit, also, that this story, amongst its other aims, takes the premise of SPIKE TV’s “Deadliest Warrior” and runs away with it so far into the depths of historical accuracy it’ll make your head spin.

And as for what history cannot tell us, Smale’s imagination takes flight in tremendous fashion….

Smale’s writing is unremittingly character-driven, which is most often seen as an admirable quality in fiction. However, I tend to enjoy a little more visceral tactility than probably does the average reader, so I found the physicality of “Clash of Eagles” a bit underwritten. Every action he describes exists only in relation to a character and their experience, and while that is impressive to read, Smale has convinced me that sometimes a quick note describing which club has swung where might be the more effective storytelling choice. I suppose it depends.

Along those lines, one very cool map is included with the front matter, which depicts “Nova Hesperia” – what the fictional Romans call North America. Yet before the story was done I was wishing more maps had been included. The lay of the land plays a large part in the story (how could it not in a story about Native Americans?), and that sort of thing is hard to visualize with just words.

Remarkably, Smale’s exposition is the most thrilling I’ve ever read. Yes, that’s right: thrilling exposition. Smale’s expert use of language, paired with the sheer novelty of his material, and ultimately whetted by a genius order-of-discovery all combined to make me devour long sections of background information and thirst for more when I was done. These famously boring parts of most novels shine with gleaming awesomeness in this one. To Mr. Smale I say: well done, sir!

Ultimately, if you’re looking for an enchanting story set in a world that’s at once familiar and totally alien, and that’s equal parts ancient legend and heroic adventure, I can’t recommend “Clash of Eagles” enough.

It is the first book of the Hesperian Trilogy and I shall be waiting with baited breath for the next installments, coming out in 2016 and 2017.

 

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Review: “A Sword Into Darkness” by Thomas A. Mays

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The novel “A Sword Into Darkness” is, in a word, shamelessly badass.

If you’re looking for a wonderful hard-military-sci-fi adventure tale, then look no further. Author Thomas A. Mays deploys a literary strategy of scientific realism, highly focused characterization, relentless plot pacing, and gorgeous language to spin a tale of fascinating space mystery.

The story concerns a scarred naval veteran who is called upon by an eccentric millionaire to help him build Earth’s first space navy, based upon the shaky evidence of an object on approach from lightyears away. In grueling detail, no astrophysical conundrum is left unaddressed as Mays, who has a pair of physics degrees and is himself a Navy veteran, clearly knows what he’s talking about. I particularly enjoyed the expert-level techno-babble.

Mays’ characters are constructed subtly, so that by the book’s end you’ve come to know (and fall in love with) a slew of deeply human-feeling fictional people.

“A Sword Into Darkness” is fiction at its most sciencey-est…

treating everything realistically, from photon drives to PTSD. And while any reader appreciates understanding how things in the story are supposed to work, at times it comes across a bit didactically.

As someone who is over-critical of endings, I can tell you that this ending is extremely satisfying. It has true surprises, clever twists, and is brilliantly unpredictable right up until the end.

In only a few places did Mays take a writerly shortcut get a point across too abruptly, or did I encounter a redundancy or the like. Ultimately my greatest technical dispute lies with a few bits of awkward dialogue.

Outside petty technical issues, though, I found the whole novel in general tended toward a distinctly “US Navy” perspective. And while overall that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I found it odd that seemingly no one in the book espoused much of a contrarian point of view. There are tons of disputes which occur within that naval mindset, but not any outside it. For example, there are radio talk-show hosts, civilian politicians, and non-military science personnel who are all unaccountably well-acquainted with naval terminology and strategic military thinking. Overall I feel the book suffered from the lack of counter-perspective. An opposing viewpoint could’ve helped to strengthen the moral argument of the story, while its exclusion left it feeling a little lop-sided, logically.

But compared with what Mays has done well, this is a small point indeed. I highly recommend “A Sword Into Darkness,” and will look eagerly toward what Thomas Mays puts out next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

(SPOILER ALERT!)

For the non-initiated, Mad Max: Fury Road is one big dusty ball of exploding fun, a successfully satisfying summer action flick.

For the die-hard fans of the series: Fury Road is the second-movie sequel that Mad Max 2: Road Warrior really wanted to be.

The absence of Mel Gibson hurt my soul a little bit, but to have him reprise the role at his present age would have relegated most of the ass-kicking to another, younger character (á la Mutt from the 4th Indiana Jones film), and what Fury Road reminds us is that Max is a top-notch bad-ass in his own right. Ultimately I support the casting decision. Tom Hardy brings his own skill set to the role, which does not disappoint – namely that haunting, rumbling, low basso voice of his….

This past week I’ve seen all four Mad Max films in order (I have not seen 2011’s Renegade), and for the first time.

The original is surprisingly well done, despite having the least amount of the gasoline-fueled, desert-wind-whipped action which has come to define the series. What is has instead is an actual heart, an important point to make, and a character-centered plot line. It’s the kind of backstory-explaining film that nowadays they make after a franchise is successful, such as with X-Men Origins – Wolverine. Max doesn’t even become truly “mad” until the very end of the film. What’s more, Max himself does very little of the fighting. A great deal of it is left for the villains terrorizing innocents, the “police” terrorizing the villains, and various women standing up to defend themselves. From the very start, Mad Max was a feminist apology.

The sequel to that, Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, pushed the throttle hard into “post-apocalyptic dystopian biker-gang-ruled hellscape,” taking the story to a place that was, though arguably foreshadowed, nonetheless a bit of a surprise. The original still had plant life and societal infrastructure – now all of it is gone. But we liked where the story had taken us. It was a gritty, ruthless 80s Sci-Fi action film, and we were all about it. It painted a portrait of Max as a mysterious loner aimlessly wandering the desert, doing anything to survive, yet offering himself sacrificially to basically anyone he encountered who needed help. But for all it had going for it, it was a bit too obviously “the middle film in a series of films.”

The third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, starts off trying to be a bigger budget version of Road Warrior (it was the first film of the series funded by American money). Here’s Max again, aimlessly wandering around, and – oh look! He’s found trouble again. Only now it’s even more ridiculous. And for exactly the first half of the movie, I was with it. Sure, it was ripe with 1985 everything – including a far-fetched plot and hokey characters – but it was still good ol’ Max doing what he does best. Only the director (George Miller, who started the franchise) bowed out for the second half after a close friend of his died, and someone else took over. And the film takes a subsequent nose-dive.

First there’s a foray into a Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-the-Lost-Boys tribe of children who Max inexplicably vows to lead and protect (okay, whatever, I guess that’s kinda what he always does), but then they all end up back in Villain-town for some reason, and of course there’s a silly battle, out of which choo-choos a train from nowhere! All right! A train! This is gonna get good!

…But instead it gets worse. The final showdown is a lack-luster chase, and magically Max finds his old aeronautic buddy at the end of the train tracks, who flies all the children to freedom, leaving Max behind for a really stupid reason. But it’s okay, because Tina Turner – ruthless murderess though she is – decides for no reason just to leave Max alone.

Really, considering how awful the third film is, it’s a surprise anyone ever thought to reboot the whole thing. I’m very glad they did, though. They’ve built a fine film in and of itself, but one which is also loaded with the same cool tropes that started it all: grandma with a shotgun, Max’s trademarks (gimpy leg, leather jacket, double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, and cool car [the last of the Interceptors!]), sawing through a chain of some sort, high-speed explosions, sheer desperation, inward and outward deformity, the scary politics of sexual dominance, the profound metaphor of human power represented by automotive power, and the struggle within all of us to find our humanity in this indifferent “wasteland” of a world which we are all forced to share.

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Review: “Self-Publishing for Profit” by Chris Kennedy

One thing I’ve noticed these military-types do very little of is mucking around. Independent author Chris Kennedy demonstrates his unflinching desire to seek out the facts and implement effective strategies toward his goals in his incredibly useful self-help book, “Self-Publishing for Profit.”

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The first thing I noticed (and appreciated) about this book was its length. At a mere 150 pages, it does not waste a second of your time. Kennedy plows through the varied travails of self-publishing one item at a time, giving only the pertinent details, his tips and experience, and the facts.

For an author (such as myself) only looking for the meat and potatoes of a highly complex industry, Kennedy delivers the stuff you want to know right away, then moves on at a steady clip.

My favorite part of the book is the information itself. Kennedy is a self-taught independent bookseller, and you could learn everything his book has to offer if you just invested a few years struggling to do it, but why bother? In a single sitting (I stretched it into two), Kennedy will give you an easy-to-digest, step-by-step examination of everything you need to do in order to set your book up for financial success.

I highly recommend Chris Kennedy’s book, “Self-Publishing for Profit.”

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RavenCon 2015

Just yesterday, the 10th annual RavenCon (a science-fiction and fantasy convention hosted in Richmond, Virginia) came to a close.

A bittersweet farewell was exchanged between old compatriots and new friends alike, as nothing brings nerds closer together than a fully-scheduled weekend of sharing ideas, commiserating the challenges of creativity, laughing, drinking Klingon blood-wine, and seeking the next great art.

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This was my first RavenCon, and I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts on Cinematic Book Trailers in a special presentation of my own devising. In addition, I had the honor of speaking on six panels, and the privilege of moderating two of them.

I picked up a healthy number of new reads (including the Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure by Lawrence Ellsworth [see picture below]), as well as a few unique gifts. I have a wealth of business cards and contact information that will take me at least a full day to properly digest, but will provide a lifetime of enjoyment thereafter – predominantly by severely upgrading the coolness of my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Lawrence Ellsworth and myself

Lawrence Ellsworth and myself

 

One thing I didn’t learn is that you should go to bed at a decent time if you plan to be up and active for 16 hours the next day.

Getting a personal sketch from 4-time Hugo-winning cartoonist, ...!

Getting a personal sketch from 4-time Hugo award-winning cartoonist, Alexis Gilliland!

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The finished sketch.

 

But, just like at the end of every writer’s conference I have attended, somewhere beneath my beaten, ragged, and sleep-deprived exterior, there flickers the flame of an artistic ambition reignited – an enlivened, enriched, and thirsting desire to read and write more (and better!) than ever before.

I would also like to mention my endorsement of the DC17 bid for the 2017 WorldCon in Washington, DC. The team putting it together has proven themselves competent and dedicated, and I would love to see what they could do with the opportunity to host it. (You can vote here.)

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The Reading: Testing Out a Script

When Carol Mertz-Eischeid of Bishop Garrigan Schools, in Iowa, first asked me about writing a play for them, I knew right away that that would entail a certain number of steps. The two most important (and the two most difficult) were: 1) write a script, and 2) produce a reading.

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That’s right. Calligraphed, hand-bound scripts. Like a boss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing a script is the obvious part. And, for the purposes of this post, we’ll leave it alone for now.

Producing a reading is the trick, though.

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The cast at Ripley Grier Studios in New York City for our first proper read-through (one actor per part). Nathan Fremuth substituted for Anna Michaels as “Grandma.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Purpose of a Reading

The advice to any writer is as old as writing itself: “Read it out loud.” This editorial strategy is surprisingly effective for the simple reason that language is first and foremost a spoken enterprise.

The speech center of the human brain is one of the few anatomical differences between our species and every other – including chimps, dolphins, cats, whales and bonobos. We have so much in common with all the various types of life on this planet, yet NONE of them can speak. They are physically missing the part of the brain that handles that.

(It’s the author’s personal theory that this alone is primarily responsible for our domination of the Earth.)

Even in humans, if that part is not accessed in time, it will shut down, and a person will become forever unable to learn a human language. At all.

Writing, on the other hand, is an entirely artificial construction which human beings painstakingly manufactured, collectively, over the course of millennia to suit their spoken language. That’s why it’s no trouble at all for a baby to learn Mandarin, but fully-grown adults are in a life-or-death struggle between theretheir, and they’re.

Speech your brain handles; we could say it’s “natural.” Writing is unnatural – it’s purely man-made, and therefore really, really convoluted (just like your iTunes service agreement!).

After a writer has spent hours pouring over a project, unless they’re unrealistically lucky, some of that “writerly” convolution will have crept into what they’ve done. When they read over it, it appears perfectly fine. But only when it’s read aloud does the subtle truth come out.

If you think about it, you’ll notice a very big difference between what we write and what we say.

“What is up?”

vs.

“Sup?”

That’s what makes writing good dialogue such a challenge. Because you’re really dealing with two separate languages with distinct rules and conventions. (German, in fact, has confronted this reality so well that written German has totally different rules from spoken German.)

Speaking the words out loud forces you to deal with those differences. And the edits you make afterward reconcile them so that what you get in the end will sound more like something real people would actually say. That means audiences hearing it for the first time will be able to understand it without effort, which is of course crucial.

Producing a Reading

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Sean Coughlin et al

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now comes the hard part. For a play, you need actors to read as characters. Ideally, you have an individual actor on each part. You’ll also need an extra voice just to read stage directions to make it clear what physical business is going on. You, the author, should just sit quietly and listen.

In the case of “A Fifth Magic,” I first assembled a small team to read through the script in a circle. We didn’t have enough bodies for all the parts, so we read cyclically – actors read one line at a time going clockwise, so that each time a person read, they were a new character. This was great fun, and looked like this:

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First ever read-through

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though this was not given to a proper audience, this was still a reading. And it served to knock a lot of the kinks out of awkward phrasing and uncovered several typos. It also gave me my first glimpse into how the show might be received by people outside myself. But it didn’t help us discover impossible costume changes, prop redundancies, ineffective blocking, or sight-gag problems. For that type of analysis, you have to go a step further.

To get a really close look at all the details involved in an entire play, you have to recreate as many of those details as possible. In my case, a full-scale production was unfeasible, however it would have offered the best trial, as inevitably every issue that could come up would come up, and we’d have found ways to address them.

The next best thing is a staged reading.

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Ryan Shaefer and Deven Kolluri

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some plays don’t use any props. Some don’t care how the actors are dressed. Some plays need super-specific set pieces, or special effects. Plays are endlessly different in their technical requirements. This particular show is rather prop-heavy and highly visually oriented. As a result, to get any sense of how all those props would actually function together, I had to put objects into the hands of the actors to see how they worked. And to know if my sight-gags and visual jokes were going to be funny at all, we had to actually see them. (Spoiler alert: they’re hilarious!)

I wrote into this show a few magical illusions that need specialized props. There’s a “Magic Blanket” and a “Magic Tophat” that we had to actually construct. There was originally a magically levitating book prop that was eventually cut from the show.

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Lee Eisenberger building a prop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the book in action!

Pretty cool, huh?

I cut it for one ultimate reason, but there were several others. The real reason was that there was a sweeter/better way to handle what the levitating book was trying to do within the story. The best secondary reason was that it was really, really technically demanding to perform. You needed perfect lighting, specific stage dressing, multiple people well-coordinated to work together, and a decent amount of construction to even have a prayer of having it come out right, and even then it wasn’t particularly robust. We didn’t have nearly enough rehearsal time available to make that work, and we didn’t have enough control over the theatre’s lights.

But the show is better off without it, and all those reasons above are partly why.

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Kevin Kelleher (me) directing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This coming Monday night will be the final test. I get to sit back in a darkened theatre and watch all my collected thoughts be transferred into the bodies and minds of 16 incredibly talented people. At that point I will be entirely removed from the process, and what I witness will therefore offer me the most information possible. I’ll get a picture of what happens when real people go running wild with nothing more than words I wrote down in a certain order.

And that, folks, is what it’s all about.

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The beautiful cast!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Photography by Laura McBride –

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Reading a New Play!

Come attend the free, public reading of my latest theatrical concoction:

“A Fifth Magic”

on Monday, March 30th

7:30pm at Theatre 80

in the East Village of New York City.

“A Fifth Magic” is sort of like Harry Potter meets Book of Mormon…. It’s highly comedic and family friendly. I’ve also managed to pin down some seriously talented actors for this one-night only gig, so you do not want to miss it!

In faraway Iowa, way back in 2011, a little school called Bishop Garrigan made itself the first entity ever to independently produce a work written by yours truly. That show was called The Madrigal Dinner, and I had the pleasure of being able to attend. Those students rocked it!

Not long afterward, Carol Mertz-Eischeid, Bishop Garrigan’s theatrical liaison, asked about my writing another show for them. Well, folks, I have since written that show and later this month I will be giving a staged reading of it.

Readings are hugely helpful to the playwrighting process, as they are the next best thing to a full-on production. I get to hear audience reactions, see what a whole cast of performers does with their roles, and test out every aspect of the script I wrote to see if it translates to the stage in the ways I had hoped.

I ask you to join us on Monday night, the 30th, at 7:30pm to share in the fun. I’ll be looking to hear what people think, and following the reading there will be live Irish folk music at the adjoining bar, the William Barnacle Tavern.

 

 

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Review: filler

It’s not easy to make an audience feel genuinely uncomfortable – in a good sort of way – but that’s exactly what William Goulet achieves with the world-premiere* of his play, filler.

Socio-philosophical conundrums abound in this very crafty piece of theatre, where power dynamics between people are stretched and swapped and layered and twisted in an endless variety of interesting ways.

At the center we have Adler, played by Ross Pivec, a grown man so meek he can’t even bare to open his front door when someone knocks. Pivec gives a superbly natural performance, rich with humanity and grace, despite his character’s achingly painful social shortcomings.

His domineering wife Marian, played by the lovely Gabriele Schafer, is a powerhouse of raw feeling who made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. She rides Marian’s arc from a desperate woman on the verge of boiling over all the way down to the depths of her own personal hell without skipping a single detail along the way. Watching her play the role of Marian is like watching Michelangelo build a cathedral – one brick at a time. (The only difference is that Marian’s cathedral comes crashing down at the end!)

The two of them have a dazzling interaction on stage. Goulet likes to play with our sentiments and confuse us about which character we like and which we don’t and why. At one moment, Pivec appears to be simply flawed and Schafer caring and almost motherly, but in the next, Pivec seems to be the voice of reason, while Schafer’s priorities have led her morally astray.

This sort of oscillation is an area that live theatre can handle better than almost any other artistic medium, and Goulet, the playwright, shows us how it’s done.

For our other dynamic, we have the mysterious brotherly duo of Kyle, played by Kyle Minshew, and Benny, played by Adam Hyland.

Minshew brings a truth to his portrayal of the neighborly carpenter that is transportive. He is straightforward, yet deeply nuanced, eminently trustworthy, and also a little frightening. Hyland shows us a tenderness and sensitivity that will warm your heart before he breaks it. His expressions alone are so on point that I imagine he could carry his role just as well if all his lines were cut.

The two together, like Pivec and Schafer, offer us a roundabout journey into the complexities of power dynamism, themselves constantly trading places between sweetly compassionate and utterly cruel.

Additionally, the set was amazing. Kudos are due to Christopher and Justin Swader, who created a beautifully immersive environment in which the tale could unfold.

The only aspect that consistently brought me back out of the story was the blocking. And, oddly, it’s not because it was baffling or inappropriate – but rather because I kept noticing it.

When a character crosses here or there, it should be so natural and obvious that one doesn’t consider it consciously, like when you get up from your desk to get a cup of coffee. You want coffee, and it’s over there. But if your body language reads “I would like some coffee now, and I see it’s on the counter over there. Let me just push by chair back, stand on my legs here, and swivel myself over, and…” then the illusion is lost. It only takes a fraction of slight deliberation to make an action appear “acted.”

There were also a couple moments when I felt the dialogue stretched the action of the story out a bit too far, but that could be my playwright’s nitpicking.

Ultimately, filler is a lovely example of how the power of theatre can inflict introspection upon its audience, and cause us to examine our own lives through the lives of its characters. And the exceedingly talented crew behind this show make it a pleasure to watch.

There are only a few shows left, so don’t forget to get your tickets here!

 

*An earlier version of the play was performed over a decade ago in Georgia, but the show has since undergone substantial changes.

 

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Telsacon 5: Journey to the Center of the Earth

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Over the weekend, myself and 1,500 other steampunk fanatics were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime journey. After taking all manner of airships to the rather unlikely meeting place of Madison, Wisconsin, we found ourselves happily arrived in London, England, towards the end of the 19th Century.

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Our host, Lord Bobbins, greeted us all at opening ceremonies with a jovial salutation – but things would take a sudden, dire turn as he revealed the purpose of our gathering. The world was in peril: we stood on the verge of utter resource depletion. But Bobbins had a plan: there might be a solution to our dilemma… but it was buried beneath the earth’s crust, in the center of the world.

In short order he had rallied us together: we would sail with him on his airship, the Freya (previously known as the Marriott Hotel), straight into the heart of the earth, and we would either return again laden with incredible new power – or we would die trying.

To spoil it for you, we didn’t die. (Well, most of us didn’t, anyway.) Furthermore, we were all quite surprised to find out that the center of the earth is, in fact, teeming with unlikely inhabitants, like this velociraptor:

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Lord Bobbin’s personnel, on the left with the huge gun, guides us on our first exploration of the Center of the Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along the way, we merrily indulged ourselves with diversion (for what else can dignified gentlemen and gentlewomen [and gentle-non-binary-peoples] do in such a situation?). For my part, the long-anticipated cinematic trailer to my fantasy series, The Chronicles of Gilderam, was given its world-premiere showing to a select audience of steampunk aficionados.

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My presentation: The Cinematic Book Trailer. I’m dressed as Owein Maeriod, the central protagonist from my book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very sorry to report that it won’t be seen again until Ravencon this coming April, in Richmond, Virginia. It will one day soon be made public, but not quite yet….

We also, of course, made time for tea.

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Tea Dueling. I suggest you try it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aside from the quirky storyline of the event, and the incredible immersion effect which Bobbin’s crew created, AND the slew of amazing vendors to be found there, the most amazing part of Teslacon was the people in attendance.

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A farewell dinner with just a few of my new friends. Very thankful for the internet to keep us connected until next we meet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Myself with the minds behind Harren Press, Chris Powell and Jesse Duckworth.

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Prof. Adam Smasher, myself, and Bart Deboisblanc/Peter Capaldi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steampunk is an unusually inclusive arm of Fandom. The real impetus for steampunkers centers around imaginative creation, which can include anything at all.

In fact the weirder – the better!

Here’s a perfect example:

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Just an antique camera…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…with a steampunk twist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Or this ingenious animatronic parrot. It moves and speaks so realistically, that this man should be termed a wizard for building it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This means that everyone and anyone has a home in the world of steampunk. And, as I discovered with great joy, when you put a bunch of those kinds of people in one place for a weekend, what you get is a magic and a human warmth unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

See all the photos here.

 

 

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Review: The Runner Stumbles

Lance Hewett directs Isle of Shoals’ entirely haunting rendition of The Runner Stumbles, a play by Milan Stitt. It appears in repertory alongside the original musical adaptation by Hewett and Bryan Williams, Edward the Second, and shares all but two actors.

The play runs through November 1st, and you won’t want to miss it. Above and beyond being an extremely satisfying theatrical experience, this show is also the perfect autumnal diversion – guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of you neck and send shudders down your spine.

See this show if you’d like to get properly creeped out in time for Halloween, and if you’re looking for something to carry in your heart with you forever.

(Also, once you’ve seen it, don’t forget to vote on it for a New York Innovative Theatre Award!)

In The Runner Stumbles, Hewett offers us a brilliant examination of themes in juxtaposition, the main ones being: Guilt versus Innocence, Virtue versus Sin, Truth versus Contradiction, and Love versus Murder. This examination causes us to reconsider our own notions of these topics like a teacher leads a student: not by simply prescribing answers, but by providing the right questions so that we may suss out meaning on our own, and learn it all the more by having lived the journey.

And what a journey to live!

At its heart, The Runner Stumbles is a whodunit mystery. We spend most of the show trying to decide who and what we can trust, which is a lot of fun. To illustrate the story, we’re pulled back and forth across time and space a lot, and the protagonist/time-traveller who we follow is named Father Rivard, played by Jonathan French. That means French has to change energies, rhythms, moods, and tones at the drop of a hat – something which he makes look easy, even though it’s anything but.

At the start of one scene, French paces twice across the stage, and somehow he manages to convince me he’s been pacing for hours. It was so natural, so quick, I almost didn’t even realize he did anything at all. French’s character is a boiling stew-pot of internal conflict, and it’s a sheer thrill to watch him steadily bring the temperature up and up and up. In my mind he held back almost too much for the first part of Act I, but by its end – and definitely for all of Act II – French is flawless.

Amara Haaksman plays the radiant Sister Rita, the embodiment of Life itself – complete with all of its marvel as well as all of its faults. She and French achieve a supremely connective onstage chemistry. As they argue, you can feel the subtext strangling your heart even as the text-text meanders off in a completely unrelated direction. In and around their every interaction, you can sense them punishing each other like unhappy lovers. It’s a joy to watch.

The most natural performer onstage had to be Judi Polson. Her character, the simplistic, stock, token-Mid-Westerner, Mrs. Shandig, ends up defying your every thought and expectation. Somehow, despite that, she’s fantastically realistic and utterly convincing. A truly marvelous performance.

Stephen Ryan nails his role of Toby Felker, Father Rivard’s unorthodox legal counsel. With nothing more than a well-timed flash of his eyes, Ryan had us rolling with laughter. This extremely versatile actor shines brightly throughout his arc, inviting us, tricking us, changing us – a magician of theatricality.

The part of Monsignor Nicholson is wisely given to Arthur Lundquist. His smarminess is so deliciously smarmy! When he says the line, “Are you all hiding something from me?” the smile on his face will make your skin crawl.

Jacqueline Rosa plays Erna Prindle, who has the honor of turning herself onstage into the emotional ammunition which Father and Sister use to batter one another. She’s not just caught in the crossfire, she becomes the crossfire. And her later breakdown, at the hands of the relentless prosecutor played by Paul Chamberlain, is carefully measured and adroitly delivered.

Though the entire show is very well done overall, I did notice a gentle accrual of tiny lapsed details which hampered certain effects. There was a dinner freshly set that went completely untouched (almost certainly intentionally, but still I found it distracting). There was the line, “I don’t have time for tea,” said as the teacup is picked up and a cookie is dunked into it. Another spoken line referenced a letter, but the actor’s physicality displayed reading glasses instead. At one point a hand reached out to receive an offered object instantly, as opposed to in response, which would be more natural. Some of the sound effects came in and out a bit abruptly, and I don’t know anyone who uses a flask who can almost take a drink from it, but then put it away. (I’m reminded of the ancient rule of the theatre: “If you show a gun in Act I, it has to go off by Act II.”)

And finally, when Father Rivard first accidentally blurts out the revelation of his true, secret feelings, what probably should have been an incredibly profound moment slips past with noticeably little impact. I can’t decide on exactly why that happened, but my instincts tell me it had to do with a team effort to build up the proper momentum, and to react to it accordingly.

The piece does feel a little dated when it comes to its agenda in dealing with the definition of “Catholicism,” since the issues at hand are mostly from a by-gone era – the early 1900s. That’s fine in regard to general philosophical exploration, however it might make the show a little less accessible to some audiences.

The Runner Stumbles is a wonderful example of what happens when a powerful script falls into the hands of a highly capable cast and crew. When the lights came up for the bows, I was so caught up in the complex spiderweb of feelings that Hewett and his team had spun that I was certainly not emotionally ready to clap and smile and rejoice, and I might not be ready for some time.

But that’s what you get when you witness great theatre – it touches your soul.

 

 

 

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    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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