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Capclave 2014

Following a conference at Capclave, I invariably find myself torn between what to do first: write more or read more.

It has been made newly clear to me that I need to compose a number of short stories and submit them to everyone who has a submission process, plus I have come away with a fat stack of new words to ingest.

(Spoiler: I chose to write!)

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Some truly masterful writers got together for a photo… and look! I’m in there too! (Genevieve Valentine, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kevin Kelleher, Holly Black)

Bill Lawhorn and the folks at the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) have again put together a stunningly rich weekend of immersion into the vasty world of everything related to SF/F (science fiction and/or fantasy) literature. It was truly amazing to get to meet the Guests of Honor: Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, and Genevieve Valentine. Each was a delightful person, which might be a rarity in the field, as we discussed in a panel labeled “Abusing the Author.”

Paolo and Holly brandished their astounding expertise within the craft by dissecting the problems of volunteered stories and coming up with workable solutions in one segment, and Genevieve revealed the secrets to her literary success in another. (Hint: she can magically operate on as little as four hours of sleep a night!)

 

My attendance at the “No Means No” panel opened my straight, white, male eyes to an understated plight I knew very little about: harassment within fandom. For one tidbit, I didn’t even realize that Capclave had a printed Harassment Policy, or that the very having of one was entirely crucial to the success of every Con ever. I, having the good fortune to not yet be harassed, had just never thought about it. But the shared thoughts and experiences of panelists like Emmie Mears, Jean Marie Ward, Natalie Luhrs and Inge Heyer helped to educated me.

Lord Ramirez

Lord Ramirez

But my favorite of this year’s installments was the slew of classes taught by the fascinating Lord Ramirez, who is a master of seemingly everything. We learned about the societal implications involved in the constabulary restraint of feudal samurai,* the “hanky” codes of post-World War II-inspired homosexual biker culture, and proper technique when martially wielding a chain.

Amongst other things. (Lots and lots of other crazy things!)

Indeed, I found Lord Ramirez (and his extremely brave assistant, Fleur) to perfectly symbolize that which Capclave has come to be renown for: the exploration of some wildly interesting subject (that you might never have even known existed before), deconstructed in expert-level detail for your learning pleasure.

From this year’s Capclave, I have 30 pages of notes. And that’s just from the panels and workshops I was able to attend – for each one, there were one to four others occurring simultaneously. (If anyone’s interested in reading them, email me.)

If you are a writer, or a reader, or have any interest at all in the world of SF/F, I cannot make a better (or higher) recommendation for how to spend your time.

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My fat stack of new books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dodo parade, featuring Bluedo, the Azure Wonderbird

Dodo parade, featuring Bluedo, the Azure Wonderbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Turns out humiliation plays a very important role in Japanese culture. If a person were being taken into custody, it would make a big difference to everyone involved if the ropes binding said person were plainly visible to onlookers, or if they were subtle instead, and whether or not the ropes were knotted instead of wrapped up.

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Lasagna Quest: Cucina di Pesce

It occurred to me some time ago (while dining at an Italian restaurant and ordering the same things that I always order at every Italian restaurant: bread, Caesar salad, and lasagna) that if I was going to taste the same items from every place I visited that offered them, I might as well record my thoughts and, just maybe, the end result will offer something of a helpful comparison of a variety of different takes on a classic meal.

In that spirit I present to you Part One of my Quest for Lasagna! I will rank my experience using the following 5-point scale for simplicity’s sake:

  1. Garbage
  2. Edible, but otherwise unremarkable
  3. Decent
  4. Delicious
  5. Biblical manna from heaven

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Cucina di Pesce – East Village

87 E 4th St., New York, NY 10003

 

 

 

Bread: 5

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The first course is always bread, and Cucina de Pesce’s bread was awesome, featuring a nice, dark crust – rigid and thickly crunchy. Its doughy innards were aerated by huge bubbles, and altogether it had the consistency of a genuine ocean sponge. It comes with a white bean dip that’s pretty tasty, but oil was particularly complimentary (and theirs tasted almost sweet).

Caesar: 3

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The lettuce was thin and delicate, almost frail, but not sickly. The dressing was a little watery in viscosity, but flavorful. Its croutons were extremely crunchy – made in the style of prepackaged croutons – yet these were clearly homemade.

Lasagna: 4

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I think a lot of food is best when served too hot to eat, which this one was. Each bite remained tethered to the dish via long, thin strings of cheese. Full and meaty, this lasagna was very satisfying. It sat in a 3/4th-of-an-inch deep moat of melted mozzarella, and the internal ricotta was, though economically applied, rich and hearty. It might have scored even higher, but the 5-7 layers of pasta within it had just ever-so-slightly passed al dente.

Service: 5

When I asked for oil and parmesan, our runner, Julio, returned with it promptly – PLUS the black pepper I had forgotten to mention. That level of impeccable service instinct was maintained throughout the experience. He, along with our server Justin, were incredibly polite and attentive.

+1 Bonus: Calamari

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They had non-fried calamari! Hurray! AND it’s delicious. Not chewy, but tender, with a lovely consistency and a nice, flavorful degree of char. Served with a very tasty, zesty arugula/tomato salad, this dish was quite pleasing.

+1 Bonus: Ravioli

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The seafood ravioli were succulent: nice, thick al dente pasta shells – blackened with squid ink – and filled with a sensible amount of cheese and seafood, topped with a fresh basil leaf and smothered in a dark red marinara. The ink adds an interesting (mostly after) taste of earthy, almost alkaline flavor.

Cucina de Pesce: 19 / 20

 

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Review: “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” from Piper Theatre

Brooklyn’s Piper Theatre company is awesome enough to put on free summer shows at Park Slope – and most recently they’ve mounted a ferocious production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the rock musical by Michael Freidman and Alex Timbers.

Lay yourself out on the astroturf, pour yourself a plastic cup of wine, and steel your sensibilities against the whirlwind of rock music, outrageous comedy, dripping-wet sex, and gut-wrenching historical atrocity that is about to melt your face.

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Bloody Bloody is, at its heart, a ballsy juxtaposition of interpretive historical commentary tempered by really, really dark comedy – one of the few kinds of humor that can make something like genocide laughable. With dark comedy, the less funny the situation would be in reality, the more funny it is within the joke – and with central themes like slavery, ethnic cleansing, and bigamy, well, this show had me rolling with laughter!

Sean Coughlin leads as the titular President, and it’s a joy to listen to him rock out. You’ll notice he uses a handheld mic throughout the show (which he sometimes keeps in a holster on his hip) – an appropriately rockstar choice, made even all the more rockstar by the fact that he’s using it because he destroyed two other face-mics by rocking too damn hard!

Coughlin expertly rides the fine line of his character, which oscillates between “most righteous hero ever” and “most despicable villain ever,” for the duration of the show.

Will Schnurr is credited as John C. Calhoun, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, but his most powerful part is really the role of Black Fox – the Native American who betrays his own people to help Jackson subjugate them, works as his crony for years, but later pulls a Darth Vader and turns against his former Master – causing calamity to strike.

Indeed, the theatrical heart of the show is a beautiful exchange between Coughlin and Schnurr onstage that will haunt me forever….

Schnurr is a master performer, as Piper clearly knew, casting him in a variety of supporting roles throughout the show. He shines blindingly in each of them: from a throwaway ad lib (“Don’t worry about it!”) that absolutely killed, to his perfect portrayal of “The Transmittal of Syphilis” in approximately one-and-a-half dance moves, to his selling – and I mean SELLING – bigamy with a mere shimmer of his eyes… Schnurr is the type of actor who works onstage.

Actress Lynn Craig plays Rachel, the romantic foil to Andrew Jackson, and is just the right mixture of sex appeal, raw talent, and deadpan comedienne to sell it flawlessly.

The story’s narrator, played by Su Hendrickson, is delightfully ridiculous, occasionally inserting herself into the history she’s supposedly telling, only to earn Jackson’s dreadful ire. I don’t want to give away what ensues, but she’s got some seriously hilarious moments all to herself.

Jay Paranada is the embodiment of comedic relief, drawing show-stoping laughter from a singular roll of his massive eyes, and, later, dissolving the entire show into a blubbering, banana-eating mess via what felt like an unrehearsed ten-minute psychological meltdown on stage – to incredible effect.

Piper’s ensemble for this show is a throbbing sixpack of youthful energy, hemorrhaging sheer vocal power from start to finish (including an actual child, played by the delightfully sprite Hal Hobson). My only critique for the actors as a whole occurred in one or two mishandled straight-man roles; wherein a joke was delivered, but not responded to with proper timing, causing a lessening of its comedic result. The straight-man role is essential to quirky jokes being funny at all, since what the audience is actually laughing at is not the absurdity of joke by itself, but at that absurdity crashing into the brick wall of a contrary reality, which is the duty of another character onstage to represent. Often the straight-man side of a joke is harder to pull off than the goofy side.

Writing-wise, there are a couple popular music inserts into the show that, as a writer of musicals myself, makes me a little sad to listen to, while I watch the extremely talented members of the orchestra sit quietly by, waiting to play again. The numbers do have an appreciable effect within the show, but I wish the music team could’ve come up with original (or otherwise performable) music to use in those cases.

And as much as I laughed at this show (which was a lot), I didn’t find every joke appealing. Primarily I felt an overabundance of gay jokes was a bit tiresome, especially considering that the issue of gayness was beyond the purview of Bloody Bloody’s already extensive catalogue of issues-with-which-to-deal.

The story of former American President Andrew Jackson is a deeply interesting (and totally twisted) tale, one which we would all do better to listen to closely.

NOW’S your chance to see it done really, really well!

Particularly since it’s completely FREE (donations are suggested) – you have no excuse not to go, this Thursday July 17th, Friday the 18th, or Saturday the 19th – at 8pm.

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Iowa in the Spring: the Lesson of the Robin

Nothing puts the glory-driven, drug-fueled, multi-cultured, 8-million-strong blood orgy of New York City into perspective like a trip back home to ye olde Iowa.

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Kennedy Park, overlooking Badger Lake

Fort Dodge, Iowa – June 2014

 

 

 

Back home, the jolly residents who inhabit the windmill-strewn Fields of Opportunity have simple cares. When a typical Iowegian awakes (an hour before sunrise), they make a determination such as, “I shall walk the dog first, then read the physically-printed newspaper which someone carries across my massive lawn to deposit upon my doorstep, then I’ll make myself a rounded breakfast before attending to my job which exists in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, after which I’ll have a whole afternoon and then an entire evening to fill with watching TV, attending rehearsals, and/or leisurely socializing. I must remember not to have more than one light beer before I drive myself home!”

Their counterpart in New York, however, is thinking this: “Jesus Christ! It’s that goddamn alarm. Is it already 3:30?! I’ve only got a few minutes to shower, dress, and smoke a bowl and then it’s off to fight for a spot on the subway. I’ll grab some streetmeat on my way to work, where I shall slave in the claustrophobic crucible between a numberless drove of entitled customers and the deluded fancies of my boss, Mr. Hyde. As soon as I’m done I plan to achieve a state of blacked-outedness, after which I can only hope I don’t fall asleep on the train ride home again, for tomorrow is an early day.”

My dear cousin, Amy, was married to a charming man, Luke Moffitt, and I was given the honor of presiding over the ceremony – my third opportunity to officiate. That was the reason for my 6-day vacation from the City. But the result of it was surprising. Outside of wedding things, I divided my time between my immense family (led by two 88-year old grandmothers, Margaret Walsh and Betty Kelleher) and various medical appointments from doctors who can tell me the future because of their first-hand knowledge of my ancestry.

The whole effect of it resounded with a single message:

“You are transient. One day – sooner than you’d like to think – you will die. Better make the most of it while you can.”

The message was not so conveniently written down like this, but was rather spoken to me by a series of pictures I took while in Iowa.

Years ago, one particularly bold robin mother was daring enough to built her nest right between the garage door of my mother’s house – and the front door. This was a noisy spot, through dry, by which at least a handful of humans would walk by several times daily – within arm’s reach of the robin’s precious light-blue eggs. Every time you pulled a car up, the mother flew away fearing for her life. But her robins were born and raised there, and afterward the nest was taken down.

Turns out, though, that baby robins remember where their nest was as a chick, and often return to that very spot to build their own nest. That is exactly what has been happening ever since – despite each nest being destroyed for them – and this is what I found upon my arrival home:

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I took frequent pictures, and the transformation I witnessed in 6 day’s time was startling.

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While I took the pictures, mommy would squawk feebly at me from the driveway, a bit of worm hanging out of her beak. “Get the fuck out of the way,” she said. “I’ve got to feed those damned creatures.”

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The Lesson of the Robin culminated with a story from a dear friend of mine, Parker Quail, who was relating to me a bit of writing advice he’d received long ago. “I want to be a writer,” he had told a visiting author in Iowa City. “Do it, man,” the author returned. “You’ll be dead soon.”

And so I flew back to NYC with a heavier heart that I had left with. It can be quite thoroughly distracting to work at a job, and to busy ourselves with the currently pressing matters of life. But when I’m 88 and my grandson has taken the rocket ship all the way from Enceladus just to chat with me, I will want to have something to tell him that’s a bit more interesting than, “One time I worked a job for years.”

So I’m gonna write that book as fast as I can, and then I’m gonna write the next one, and then something else. And so forth, as hard as I can, for as long as I can. Because to do anything else would be a waste of something extremely precious.

And, thankfully, I now have a slightly more accurate understanding of what “precious” means.

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George R.R. Martin’s “A Throng Enticed with Fliers,” or Capclave 2013

On Frigga’s Day, just before the tenth moon, in the year two thousand and thirteen, a secretive meeting known as Capclave convened for its annual conference of Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers in the dreary far reaches of Mary’s Landing, along the coast of the mighty Adlantric Sea.

Digital ravens had been dispatched with e-fliers to proclaim the news: Lord George R.R. Martin would be the Guest of Honor. Nearly 34 score were in attendance on that rain-soaked weekend; sorcerers of imagination, conjurers of verse, wizards of the page – “writers” as they termed themselves. And a few of their friends.

Lord George could certainly draw a crowd, but not because he was anointed by some ceremony, nor was he heir to any throne. What made George admirable was that he was exactly like those gathered to see him – a humble fantasy writer – with only one minor difference… he had used that selfsame artistry they all practiced to achieve the highest decoration of literary distinction: an HBO mini-series.

To be respected for one’s craft is the shared dream of writers and artists everywhere, after all.

One such artist, Kevin Kelleher of Dodge, Son of Stephen, Son of Leo, trekked to Mary’s Landing with his companion, Laura of the Greater Dee’Cee Metropolitan Area, to see what Capclave was all about. He brought a stack of business cards and the only remaining unsold copy of his book, Chronicles of Gilderam, Book One: Sunset, along with his own personal copy, which he was rereading in preparation for writing the sequel.

A great deal of learning awaited him there. The conference was divided into panels, each like a mini master class on a particular topic, with up to six or seven occurring simultaneously. They were typically an hour long, and ran continuously from morning until late at night for three days.

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The Capclave mascot Dodo 

 “Where reading is not extinct”

 

 

There were topics explored by experts as esoteric as “Aircraft Carriers in Space!” wherein Naval Analyst  Christopher Weuve gave a studious explanation of what aircraft carriers are in reality, how they’ve been portrayed in popular science fiction, and how most of that crossover makes no sense whatsoever. There was a deep conversation and workshop of the fictional portrayal of warriors and war (common tools of Sci-Fi and Fantasy) presented by three actual Marines, Janine K. Spendlove, Ron Garner, and Brian Shaw – all of whom are accomplished writers beyond their various tours of duty. There was an incredibly serious discussion of different magical systems used in storytelling, tips and tricks regarding publishing and profiting abounding, and the insightful opinions of a doctor of particle physics, Catherine Asaro, on the accuracy and technical details of Faster-Than-Light space transportation… among other sundry topics.

In the early evening of Frigga’s Day, Lord George gave his first appearance: a reading from a short story (for George that can be anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 words) due to appear in an upcoming anthology. The great conference room, filled to the brim and hushed like a morgue, listened intently to the sing-songy, whistle-ridden leprechaun-speak of the author’s voice.

At its conclusion, George rose from his table on the stage and started for the hall – hotly pursued by a swelling drove of writer/fans. He didn’t make it far before he was beset by them, who, in their introversion, calmly and quietly swarmed Lord George with camera phones at the ready. For a group of fantasy zealots, this lot was surprising well-mannered. Lord George graciously and most generously shook the hand of every single one of them, and posed for pictures.

It was only a few short minutes before Kevin of Dodge found himself stubble-to-beard with the Exemplar of Literary Success, the man termed the American Tolkien, a self-described scribe of fake histories… Lord George of Jersey.

“How did you like Iowa?” Kevin asked as he approached. He had earlier discovered that George had lived in Dubuque, Iowa, for a spell in the seventies and eighties, teaching writing. “It was nice,” George answered. “I’m from Iowa,” said Kevin. “Can I get a picture?” He agreed:

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“Can I give you my book?” asked Kevin of Dodge, proffering his brightly-colored novel to Lord George. “Sure.” “Here, let me sign it for you,” said Kevin. They opened the book to its first page, and there saw Kevin of Dodge’s writerly signature and seal. “Looks like you already signed it,” observed George. “So I did. Well, there you go. And might I say…” then Kevin proceeded to spew forth a rapid spate of unrehearsed and obsequious – albeit honest – compliments about what George’s writing meant to him. George thanked him, and then turned to next person in line.

Kevin wandered away with a feeling of accomplishment. Now George R.R. Martin had a copy of his book. George R.R. Martin had his book. He owned it. It was his. Whether or not George ever read it was out of his control, but just that he accepted it was enough. Kevin of Dodge, the young writer from the Mid-Westeros, could leave Capclave a happy writer indeed.

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But the saga of Kevin and George does not end there. A few hours later, while passing the hotel bar, Kevin sighted George having a drink with a few colleagues at a table. After using his waiterly training to judge the proper amount of Guinness left in George’s glass to warrant an early refill, Kevin bought two beers. He carried one to George and said, “Might I buy you this beer?” “Oh, thank you,” said George, and they clinked glasses.

Then one of George’s consort spoke up, “Well, what about the rest of us?” she joked. Laura joked back with an offer of shots, which was well received by the cheery bunch. So then this happened:

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The shots were brought to George’s table and distributed amongst everyone there seated. By the grace of Lady Stephanie and her twin sister, Lady Sondra, Laura and Kevin were granted a seat at the table between them and one Lord David Axler of House Bannister, Castellan & Steward of Lamprey Pyes; Maester of Bee Stings, and quite a jocular fellow.

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George’s old friend was there as well, Syr Gardner Dozois, a legend in the world of Sci-Fi/Fantasy writing, accompanied by his wife, Lady Susan of Casper, yet another writer. Gardner is a seriously funny guy, though all record of his wit from that night has been washed away by drink and laughter.

Kevin and Laura caroused with the congenial bunch until, one by one, they all retired – exhausted by a full day of festivities and in need of sleep for another two yet to come. Kevin would retire too, and dream resplendent dreams of a world full of hope and possibility. The next day he would wake and dutifully return to Capclave excited to take more notes from the experts in his field, and it seemed nothing could get in the way of his inevitable literary successes….

Until Kevin reached into his backpack to retrieve his book, and found instead the fresh copy he had brought to give away. After a panicky search of the only other possible locations, Kevin had to face an uncomfortable reality: he had given Lord George his copy of Gilderam. The author’s personal copy. The first one he had ever received from the publisher. The worn, beaten, ragged copy he had carried for half a year. And the one which, to Kevin’s horror, he remembered he had scribbled out lengthy passages of for a reading he’d given months ago.

Should George ever try to read it, and – gods forbid – should he actually enjoy the damn thing enough to get as far as page 70, he would encounter massive “edits” where some ass had X’ed out huge swaths of paragraphs for no apparent reason. Some of them were probably crossed out so well as to be effectively redacted.

The reader’s confusion alone would be sufficient cause to throw the book into a fireplace and foreswear the author’s name forevermore…. George could not be allowed the chance to read that book. But how to swap it with the new one? George was slated for further events, but Kevin had no guarantee that he’d be available to speak to him, and the discussion of “Sorry I gave you the wrong book, but would you mind running back up to your hotel room and switching it for me?” didn’t strike him as a very graceful strategy.

Saturn’s Day came and went. All went well at the conference, and Kevin and Laura managed to acquire an invite to this exclusive whiskey-tasting party hosted by the the most generous teetotaler in the Seven Kingdoms, Lord Master Howard Beach:

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More writers and their interesting friends were met. The Day of the Sun arrived, and Kevin groggily and now rather hung-overly returned to Capclave for its final day. After much deliberation, Kevin decided to write George a short letter explaining the mishap, and in it he urged George to retain his original, but to beware of and forgive the defacement of its pages.

After the conclusion of the last panel, Kevin of Dodge fled to George’s final engagement, a signing, expecting to find the man at the end of a miles-long line of fans. Instead, George was seated with two other people at his signing table, and the vast conference hall was largely deserted – the event had already ended. They were merrily chatting when Kevin approached.

“What am I signing?” asked George, fishing for the proper pen. “Nothing,” said Kevin. “I just wanted to give you this,” and he handed him the calligraphied note. Seeing he had more opportunity than he’d expected, Kevin went on to explain what had happened, and thereby rendered the note redundant.

“Oh, that’s no problem,” quoth George. “Write down your address and I’ll send it back to you.” Kevin gave him the proper copy, and added his address to the note. “You’ll have to excuse us now,” said George, “we were in the middle of talking about the female anatomy. I’m sure you understand.” And Lord George returned his attention to his friends at the table.

Verily, Kevin of Dodge understood.

As he and Laura returned to their island home in the State of the Empire that night, Kevin recounted all of the blessings he’d encountered at Capclave. The friends, the stories, the teachings…. But far above them all, one thought dominated the rest: “George R.R. Martin has two copies of my book….”

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George R.R. Martin gets the opportunity to meet Kevin Kelleher

At this year’s Capclave – an annual clandestine meeting of nerdy writers – the widely popular author George R.R. Martin will have the rare chance to rub elbows with the writer behind the wildly acclaimed new fantasy series, Chronicles of Gilderam, yours truly….

I’m Kevin Kelleher, by the way.

Martin and Kelleher share many traits in common. Both are the authors of esteemed high-fantasy stories. Both have taught in Iowa, though Martin left the state a few years before the other would be born in it. Both have never actually read the other’s books, and finally, neither one has yet encountered the other.

Their meeting is sure to be filled with raucous banter (the kind writers only use with other writers. Mine usually includes a few Gresadian epithets. I’m looking forward to his Valantian accent), devilish insights, alliterative insults, a jovial embrace or two, and certainly some witty …witticisms.

That’s assuming Martin can first get past the throng of screaming fans, of course.

 

 

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Gilderam Sequel Underway!

Brace yourselves… the hotly anticipated second book in the Gilderam Trilogy is officially under construction. The name?

Chronicles of Gilderam, Book Two: Twilight.

The story will pick up exactly where Sunset left off – we’ll follow Gilderam and her crew right into the maw of the beast as they race to halt the final step necessary to fulfill of the End of Days prophecy. We’ll also meet some new characters from exotic places in this installment, and learn a few more answers to some screaming questions like: Just what’s inside Ranaloc’s chamber…?!

And the icing on the cake: fantasy artist John Avon has already signed on to create the next cover art in the series. Woohoo!

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Review: “Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist” at NYMF

Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist shows us that even the simplest of tricks can be truly magical when done right. Omri Schein’s writing is tight, hilarious, and well-tuned, while James Olmstead’s music is top-notch: both lively and memorable. Their collaboration reeks of professionalism.

It’s not obvious, but the show is just a year old, having been born in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival in 2012 as a short. Schein and Olmstead have since taken that short and developed it into a fully-fledged, raucously entertaining musical adventure.

The spotlight really shined on Jared Loftin, who played our Peter Parker-meets-Arnold Cunningham protagonist. Very surprisingly, Loftin is one of only two non-Equity actors in the cast. His portrayal of the awkward, dowdy, young Jewish boy was so genuine, so honest, and so truthfully human that it singularly converted some of the other baser aspects of the show into life-like realism. Additionally, he demonstrated some ridiculous vocal control in his dreamy solos, “Harry Houdini,” and “With A Little Bit Of Magic.”

The other emotional touchstone of the show was a paraplegic with a stutter played by Krista Buccellato. Her performance was sincerely heartfelt, and when she and Gary eventually fell in love, the two actors reduced me to a puddle of tears. Literal tears. The romance between them was utterly adorable.

Rival magician Kenny, played by the indefatigable James David Larson, is a cartoon villain from a Disney-Pixar movie brought to life, but his homicidal insanity is really quite fun to watch.

Composer James Olmstead headed the pit orchestra on the first of two keyboards, supplemented with bass and drums. For as bare-bones as that might appear in print, the full effect was huge, partly in thanks to the wide-range of Olmstead’s orchestrations. The sheer variety heard – from a haunting melody of eerie bells, to the loungy swing of a jazz combo, and then headlong into crunchy, synth-driven dance music – smacks of the musical comprehension and technical versatility of a virtuoso.

That last example, by the way, was complimented by the masterful dancing of actor Dimitri Moise, who was a joy to watch on stage.

A few songs felt a bit tangential to the main storyline, like “Cutting Things,” and “Jewish Mothers,” though Olmstead’s music helped greatly to keep us involved.

Some of his best work tried to sneak by unregistered as it sank behind the scenes occurring onstage – which is precisely what happens when good music matches the flow of the story and bonds to it. Other, more overt selections soared over the audience, such as the brilliant vocal harmonies of Loftin and Buccellato in  “Walk All Over.”

On the side of things-I’ve-never-seen-before-on-stage, however, were the rampant pedophilia jokes about the character Coach Rimsore, who pines over the “hottest girl in school” character, Cheryl, played perfectly by Shoba Narayanan. While I did appreciate the brief foray into new Musical Theatre territory, Schein’s characters stay safely away from actually doing anything illegal, and the Coach’s sexuality is only used as repeating joke, so that the majority of untapped dramatically interesting potential in that direction was left unexplored. I don’t blame them for not making a show about pedophilia, however some ball somewhere has been set inadvertently rolling….

The way in which we learn of the Coach’s pedophilic desires is notable, since it constitutes a fusion of two previously distinct modes of staged storytelling: the Flashback and the Aside. The Coach, played by Todd Thurston, was ostensibly providing us with a flashback to explain the story when he suddenly started a commentary on himself – an unrealistic one, in the sense that his character would probably never say his darkest thoughts aloud. It was a brief moment, but it broke new dramatic ground by splicing together the two different techniques in a new and clever way.

If it wasn’t clear before this point:

Schein and Olmstead know how to do Theatre.

Another great moment of transcendent theatricality involved Gary’s mother’s attendance at her son’s magic show, which tacitly cast the audience present (i.e. yours truly, et al.) as the audience within the story. His act, which was supposed to be silent, was instead punctuated by his mother’s wails, ululations, and general commotion. This was a marvelous effect: the audience was literally folded into the show, and the scene (which would have otherwise been rather dull to listen to) became a riotous comedy act over and beyond the magic show occurring onstage. If it wasn’t clear before this point: Schein and Olmstead know how to do Theatre.

A lot of the humor in Schein’s script was based on stereotypes, and while that certainly earned some big laughs, it started to bother me after a while. Stereotypes are relatively easy things to poke fun at, and the comedic edge of a pithy joke loses some of its bite with each repetition. Unless every joke riffed on a completely different and unrelated stereotype (and I do applaud Schein for integrating so many), the whole thing is bound to wear itself out.

An interesting thing about this show was just how filled with hate the many antagonists were. At first the childlike malice was funny, but it steadily became harder and harder to identify with the characters (and yes, villains are characters too) as they sank deeper into their own hate, as best illustrated by the song, “Losers.”

The role of Ms. Salmonelli, played by MaryAnne Piccolo, was hilarious, and served as the embodiment of Gary’s temptation for food. Food played a pivotal role in the story, and that brought up an interesting challenge for staged theatre: how do you dramatize food?

The inherent problem is that food, though intrinsic to human nature, doesn’t read very well to audiences. In realistic form it can’t be seen, from a distance it can’t be smelled, and in eating it can’t be tasted – at least not by any sizeable audience. Gary Goldfarb used little illustrated boards to symbolize food items, and that worked just fine for the fairly intimate venue of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, but what do you do inside a massive theatre? Surely this raises some intriguing questions for designers.

The show is rife with magic tricks, which I loved immensely. One gag in particular outshined the rest: when Gary’s mom accidently transported a disappearing scarf into her brassiere. The real beauty of this effect lies in its combination of stage magic, story, and theatricality – as the actress, Piccolo, has to perform the trick herself in order to surprise her character. It was pure genius on behalf of the creative team.

Perhaps my biggest qualm with the story was Penelope’s plan win Gary’s heart. She made a vow to get Gary past his final obstacle in becoming a true magician. It’s the only time Penelope exercises true agency, and it was an opportunity for her to use her ingenuity, charm, and individual talent to secure Gary a spot in the competition and thereby earn his love. Without wanting to give anything away, let’s just say that her eventual solution felt more like an afterthought than a genius scheme. And given how crucial that moment was regarding the entire story arc, I was expecting something with a bit more style.

Overall Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist is a ton of magical fun, sure to enchant you with its one-of-a-kind charm. At times, Schein and Olmstead could be confused with Parker and Stone given the tight web they spin using heart, comedy, and good music. And I especially appreciated the unusual ending – but I don’t want to give it away!

See Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist at the New York Musical Theatre Festival!

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Review: “That Lady From Maxim’s” at NYMF

Author and composer Bryan Williams’ third incarnation of “That Lady From Maxim’s” kicked off the New York Musical Theatre Festival with a boisterous bang this past Monday night, July 8th.

Having seen the last version produced by Isle of Shoals Productions in September 2012, I can tell you this was a glitteringly well-polished younger sibling of the former. The stage was manned by an impressively talented and quite varied cast of twelve actors, and Mr. Williams himself lead the pit orchestra on piano, backed by a keyboard and reed player.

Our narrator, Etienne – the “Gentleman of Service” – played by Michael R. Buscemi, was the underappreciated butler and all-around rogue of show – the only person with direct access to the audience, whose asides kept us abreast of the convoluted goings-on of the story. His impish portrayal had its roots in vaudeville, and he appeared to relish the action on stage as much or even more than we did. Impressively, he oscillated seamlessly between the personalities of a stodgy European butler, a yuck-yuck stooge, a New York taxi driver, and a meddling leprechaun throughout the entire show. His comedic styling became essential to propel us through many an unfortunate paragraph of stark exposition.

One of two Equity actors employed for this show, Stephen Ryan, could be guessed as such by the sheer gravitas, casual technique, and military grace he brought to his part of the General. His professionalism read clearly to the audience, and the rest of the show seemed to march along to the cadence he set for it.

One of the funniest moments of the evening came to us from actress Anna Price. Her character, the exceedingly naïve Clémentine – fresh from the convent – learns from the “modern women” how to flaunt her womanly wares, and the first timid dance steps she takes in doing so had the audience rolling with laughter.

Another joy to watch was the part of the emasculate Duke, left in John Mervini’s comically capable, sweaty little hands. Never before have I witnessed such baffoonish jackassery performed with such ease of skill. Masterfully cast, Mr. Mervini makes a fiery, funny little hobbit out of the Duke. Indeed so funny was he, that when his character spoke ironically of making ladies giggle for him, a group of ladies in the back of the house actually did.

While most of the show’s characters were given gracious loads of fun things to do, a few were left behind. First was Madame Petypon, wife of our leading straight man, who was essentially in a state of mild hysteria for the entire show. This left her rather little room to grow, but actress Cecilia Vaicels showed us why actors deserve to be paid in her solo number near the very end, where she blew us away with a sudden burst of verve in “The Stranger At My Breakfast Table.”

Another forlorn character was Lieutenant Corignon, played by heartthrob Alex Mace, whose onstage chemistry with Anna Price, and then with Amara Haaksman, created a deliciously palpable tension that served as the underlying impetus for the second half of the show’s plot. But with a scant three entrances, Mr. Mace had to bring all of his theatrical experience to bear to make the most of such little stage time. It was clear in his presence and in his voice that he has the focused talent to helm a show singlehandedly, but for better or for worse, he was in and out in no time flat. Mr. Mace’s Corignon provided the only genuinely romantic side of the show, and any real exploration into that sentiment was lacking, outside the beautiful trio, “Too Many Ways To Say Goodbye.”

But the real belle of the ball was Amara Haaksman, who played the titular lady from Maxim’s. Perfectly cast, Ms. Haaksman was radiant and ravishing from start to finish. Our introduction was a wash of raw sensuality – she appeared suddenly and surprisingly in skimpy lingerie – but we soon learned that her character was tempered by a deep-seated, steely, and womanly confidence that charged the audience with magnetic attraction to her.

Her sultry voice dripped with precision and control, and her comedic timing was so on point that she made obvious jokes (which I had even heard before) sizzle and crack like the freshest of zingers. Her sly, over-the-shoulder smirks were met by creaking chairs in the audience, as its members – forgetting themselves – moved reflexively to follow her into the wings.

Ms. Haaksman commanded the show, and it was therefore fitting when the entire cast sang her praises at its close, à la “Hello Dolly!”

Regarding the creative side of the show, the use of actual French phrases sparkled incongruently and intentionally throughout the dialogue, which had the two-fold effect of reminding us of the setting in a novel way, while occasionally confusing the communication with the audience, as I don’t speak French, and context alone was not always sufficient to render the meaning.

And although I have a penchant (French: leaning or inclining) for word-based humor, a few of the word jokes were stiff and fell flatly upon the stage. The physical and situational comedy, however, were both very consistent throughout, thanks in large part to actors Michael R. Buscemi, Arthur Lundquist and Seth Blum – the three of whom tended to bear the brunt of the goofyier aspects of the show.

The play is a remake of an ancient script from 1899 penned by Frenchman Georges Feydeau, and sadly some of its senescence has been successfully recreated in “That Lady From Maxim’s.” Mr. Williams’ decision to resurrect the show with the power music brings up an interesting question for Musical Theatre: is the addition of music alone enough to justify the reincarnation of an entire show? Could there be more? Should there be?

The truth is that this comedy-of-errors farce feels just like it must’ve at the turn of the century – two century turnings ago. Instead of a re-interpretation of Feydeau’s work complete with updates, re-thinking, new approaches, and identifiable analogs to connect it with modernity, we get something more akin to a translated re-staging – plus music. To find an answer to our aesthetic question, we must ask ourselves why this story was told rather than the original. I’m not sure myself, and I suspect the reason is that Mr. Williams’ music is just too damn good for this story.

While the book leaves something to be desired, Mr. Williams’ music surpasses all expectations. He really is a fantastic composer, and in no place is this made more obvious than the new song he wrote for this version of the show, “Too Many Ways to Say Goodbye.” This song brought us to the emotional high point of the entire show, and some genuine, heart-wrenching tenderness was affected by trio singers Alex Mace, Amara Haaksman, and Anna Price. So gorgeous was this song that I’ll forgive one of the lines following it which tells us what we already know, namely that the moment “was beautiful, it was sad, it was romantic.” And how!

Williams’ special talent is for sung harmonies, which soar and dance beautifully from the deep diaphragms of his actors. His technical skill is evidenced nicely by his use of leitmotifs, which help to tell the story in songs like “Last Night,” where book and music are paired perfectly together.

Lance Hewett directed the show, and perhaps his best use of theatricality was during the song “Paris,” which took place during a staged play’s most precarious moment: a scene change. As the vocalists sung along to the haunting, hypnotic three-four Parisian themed melody, a single gobo depicted the Eiffel Tower above them. Though simple and bare, the whole effect was stunning and extremely poignant. Here Mr. Hewett made the most of his show through use of the absolute least – an effort always worthy of applause.

Ultimately “That Lady From Maxim’s” was a delightful romp, made all the more entertaining by a slew of extremely talented performers. If this was just the beginning of NYMF 2013, I can’t wait to see what’s next in store.

It’s not too late to get tickets to see “That Lady From Maxim’s” and other NYMF shows!

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Meet Kevin Kelleher at Book Expo America 2013 in NYC!

I, the author of Gilderam, will be appearing at Book Expo America 2013 at the Javits Center in NYC on:

Friday, May 31st from 11am-12 noon. 

I’ll be there with my publisher, Reagan Rothe of Black Rose Writing, under the Independent Book Publishers Association booth.

Stop by to say hello and maybe pick up some sweet promotional material!

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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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