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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Gregory G. H. Rihn's LiveJournal:

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    Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
    7:55 pm
    Florentine Opera, “The Elixir of Love”
    On Sunday, May 10th, we enjoyed a charming and beautifully sung production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore).

    The libretto, by Felice Romani, is sweet, funny, and foolish. Poor, honest, and unsophisticated farm boy Nemorino (Rolando Sanz) loves Adina (Diana McVey), who, besides being beautiful, owns her own vineyard, reads a lot of books, and, at the beginning of the opera, is committed to her own freedom and intent on not marrying. Things don’t look good for Nemorino’s suit, so, when patent-medicine dealer Doctor Dulcamera (Musa Ngqungwana) comes to town, Nemorino asks him if he can provide a love potion like the one he has overheard Adina speak of, in the story of Tristan and Isolde.

    Dulcamera, following the tried and true rule of never giving sucker an even break, sells Nemorino an unaltered bottle of wine for the lordly sum of one dollar, but cautions it will take overnight to work (by which time Dulcamera figures he will be gone--).

    Meanwhile, Adina, having reconsidered her priorities, agrees to marry the hunky Sergeant Belcore (Corey McKern). Initially, Nemorino is not dismayed thinking the potion will change her mind before the wedding, but complications ensue when the date is moved up due to Belcore getting new orders. Nemorino attempts to delay the wedding, as does Adina, who is havingthird thoughts.

    Desperate, Nemorino enlists in the army with Belcore in order to get money for a second bottle of “potion” in an attempt to speed results. Dulcamera happily sells him another bottle, and then is astonished to see him swarmed by the local unattached women, who, unbeknownst to the men, have heard a rumor that Nemorino has inherited a fortune.

    Witnessing this from a distance, jealousy flares up in Adina, causing her to admit that she loves Nemorino. She buys out Nemorino’s enlistment, and confesses her love to him. Belcore shrugs off being jilted, saying there are thousands of other women he can get. Amid general happiness, Dulcamera takes the opportunity to tout the efficacy of his potions.

    The Florentine’s new production was updated to the 1930’sand transplanted to California’s Napa Valley, which is quite believable. The simple setting was done in bright watercolor shades. Costumes were pretty and period-appropriate, including Adina’s fashionable pantsuits. All of the performers sang and acted masterfully, including the members of the Florentine Opera Chorus, who were in excellent voice. We were especially pleased with the handing of the opera’s trademark “A Furtive Tear” aria, (“Una furtiva lagrima”),which Mr. Sanz presented simply, sweetly, and in a contemplative fashion appropriate to the story, instead of making it a tenor showoff piece, which is commonly done.

    Maestro Joseph Resigno was at the podium, and evoked Donizetti’s music from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra flawlessly to our ears. This was a thoroughly lovely afternoon at the opera.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/273141.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    5:36 pm
    Avengers: Age of Ultron
    On Saturday, May 9th, we went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. We enjoyed this next installment of the ongoing Marvel Movieverse saga, but not quite as much as the initial Avengers film.

    Part of this may have been due to the character interaction, which, while actually realistic, isn’t quite as much fun. In the time since the end of the last film, the Avengers have shaken down into more or less of a team, with Captain America (Chris Evans) as defacto team leader. Things are on more of a businesslike footing, with both less banter and less arguing between the team members. What character interaction we do get is good, with a poignant relationship developing between Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and our view into the abnormally (for superheroes) normal home life of Hawkeye/Clint Barton(Jeremy Renner).

    The plot picks up shortly after the end of the last film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) intends to take the “Scepter of Loki” back to Asgard, but yields to Tony Stark’s desire to examine it before it leaves Earth. Stark discovers that the device harbors an intricate matrix capable of supporting an artificial intelligence more complex than his “Jarvis” program, and decides to investigate its usefulness for his “Ultron” program—a projected automated defense network capable of defending the Earth from alien invasions.

    Of course, things go wrong. In classic “Frankenstein” fashion, “Ultron” (voice of James Spader) achieves consciousness while Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is away, and freely interprets its mission as being to defend the planet Earth against all dangers—including humans, and especially the particularly dangerous Avengers. Ultron, as interpreted in this script, is a fascinating creation, partaking not only of Frankenstein’s creature, but also other classics of science-fiction, such as the destructively over-protective robots of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands,” and the Terminator movies’ “Skynet.”(Evidently, the Terminator films didn’t exist in the Marvel Universe--.) Ultron’s sometimes existential musings also reminded me of Heath Ledger’s “Joker”—thus proving that Stark has created perhaps the worst monster ever—a nigh-indestructible killer robot with Tony Stark’s sense of humor.
    Quickly making himself multi-bodied, Ultron multi-tasks—trying to access nuclear launch codes, destroying the Avengers, building himself an upgraded “synthezoid” body, and coming up with a grandiose plan to render humanity extinct when he’s denied access to the nukes. Ultron recruits Hydra’s modified humans, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who have good reason to hate Tony Stark and want revenge on him and his.

    While it’s a generally entertaining plot, there are some pointless diversions. The long battle between Hulk and the optimistically named “Hulk-Buster” Iron Man is needless, except insofar as it allows the script to hint that Stark’s judgment is bad and perhaps getting worse, and allowed the special-effects crew an extended exercise. When Hulk goes on a rampage due to Scarlet Witch’s mind-control, instead of leading him out of town, which could have been easily done at the expense of a few tossed cars, Stark activates “Veronica,” his Hulk-emergency system, and proceeds to engage in a battle that destroys approximately half of downtown Cape Town (or whatever African city that was supposed to have been). This misjudgment is scarcely commented upon, and I sorely missed having Rodgers give Stark a little after-action review.

    The overarching plot will continue, with Thor having tumbled that something is going on with the Infinity Gems (as we loyal viewers have known),and Thanos (Josh Brolin) making another cameo appearance at the end.

    Among other positive points, I really liked the characterizations and visualizations of new characters Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision (Paul Bettany, heretofore the voice of “Jarvis”, in the synthetic flesh). We both particularly liked the Witch’s new costume, briefly glimpsed at the end, which is much better looking than any of her comic-book versions.
    I guess the best way to take this series is as we took the comic books it is born from—they can’t all be great, but each one builds upon the next with good writers. In a lot of ways, this installment of Avengers is a “middle book” of trilogy, one in which complications are added, but few things ultimately resolved. I do look forward to further installments.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/272881.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
    7:59 pm
    Renaissance Theatreworks, “Lettice and Lovage”
    Saturday, May 2nd, we went to the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center to see “Lettice and Lovage,” by Peter Shaffer.

    In this comedy, the protagonist, “Lettice” (pronounced“lettuce”), played by Laura Gordon, is a woman of a certain age beginning second career as a docent/tour guide, after having managed her mother’s Shakespearian theatre troupe for many years. Working for Britain’s National Trust, she is assigned to “Fustian Hall,” the country’s dullest stately home. In reaction to audience boredom, she begins to embroider the house’s bald narrative, until it becomes a veritable tapestry of historical improbability.

    A surprise inspection by her supervisor, Lotte Schoen (Carrie Hitchcock) results in Lettice being given the sack, but not before she makes her impassioned case for injecting a bit of theatre into the dullness of life. This eventually leads to an unlikely friendship striking up between the flamboyant Lettice and strait-laced Lotte, which leads both to some harrowing adventures in home theatricals, and the sharing of deeply hidden secrets.

    How it all works out is quite hilarious, and we found it tube a charming little play. The story belongs to the two ladies, and both Gordon, the current grande dame of the Milwaukee theatre scene, and Hitchcock are wonderfully good. They are ably supported by Bryce Lord as Lettice’s baffled solicitor, and a supporting cast of minor bureaucrats and house tourists.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/272433.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Saturday, May 9th, 2015
    11:15 am
    West Allis Players, “Death By Chocolate”
    Given the back-to-back titles of West Allis’ Players’ fall and spring murder mysteries, “The Cupcake Killer,” followed by “Death By Chocolate,” one might begin to suspect there was some kind of conspiracy in place to encourage dieting. Although deadly treats are a common theme, each confection was quite different.

    “Death By Chocolate,” by Craig Sudaro, is a pure comedy, beginning with the down-but-not-out detective, “Nick Noir” (played by Rick Loos), working from an “office” which is a desk parked in an alley behind a friend’s restaurant. Nick is about ready to pack the detective gig in, over the objections of his fiercely loyal secretary, Selma (Ashlee Hosbach), when the call comes in to take over investigating the “Death By Chocolate” murder, a case that has the police baffled.

    The remainder of the play takes place at the “Precious Perks Coffee Shop,” the scene of the crime. Run by two sisters who had been separated at birth and recently reunited, “Coco” and “Bonbon Purvis” (Vicky Heckman and Christi Kavanaugh), “Death By Chocolate” is the café’s most popular drink, now notorious for having been the means for delivering an exotic poison to a customer.

    When another one of the café’s habitués drops dead of the same cause, and all the police are tied up at a major event, Nick sees his chance and doggedly pursues the investigation, aided by Selma in a variety of disguises.

    Players Lily Sullivan, Scott Dyer, Scott Fudali, Cory Klein, Eileen Dyer, and Beth Kern fill out the cast of more-or-less suspicious characters.

    Characterizations were generally solid for broad comedy, with Mr. Loos doing a lot of the work as the embattled detective, and Ms. Hosbach has some of the funniest bits as the woman who works in miserable conditions for no money, because she loves romance-impaired Nick.

    Although there was a lot to like in this show, I came away ultimately unsatisfied, due, I think to the timing. In a “noir detective” script the dialog has to “crackle.” There weren’t any dead spots or missed lines that I noticed, but the energy was just not quite there.

    All in all, an enjoyable afternoon at the theatre, but I wanted a bit more.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/272134.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
    7:27 pm
    Off the Wall Theatre, "Odyssey: A Warrior's Journey Home"
    On Saturday evening, April 4th, we went to see Off the Wall Theatre's new production, "Odyssey: A Warrior's Journey Home." The play is freely adapted from Homer's "Odyssey," but is generally true to the incidents of the story, while gaining strength by deepening the human dimension.

    Claudio Parrone, Jr. plays Odysseus, and it is a heroic role in all respects, not just in the length of the role, being on stage for most of the two hours' performance, but in the number and subtlety of the emotions required. The play begins with a framing device, with the troupe of actors discussing why they should stage this now ancient story, Parrone's character, not convinced, nevertheless throws himself into the role of Odysseus.

    The action proper begins with Odysseus washed up on a beach and succored by the Princess Nausicaa (Alejandra Gonzalez), who is fascinated by the brooding and manly castaway. He tells his story in flashback to her and her father, King Alcinous (Tairre Christopherson), relating his misadventures with a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, with the Lotus-eaters, and with the Cyclops. He describes the wrecking of his fleet when Aeolus' bag of wind is opened, and the encounter with Circe, and his other adventures and catastrophes until being released from the island of Calypso, whence he has most recently come. Alcinous decides to assist Odysseus get home, and provides him with a ship, a crew, and many gifts.

    The latter part of the play deals with Odysseus' homecoming, his revealing himself to his son and loyal followers, and the plan to rid Ithaca of the vicious band of suitors for Penelope's hand.

    It would seem difficult to present such an epic story in Off the Wall's small space (not for nothing do we refer to it as the "Hole in the Wall Theatre," but the creativity of the actors and producers rose to the challenge. Clever low-tech effects enhanced the action, such as enshrouding the battle with the Cicones in swathes of red netting, which implied a red mist of blood over the field. There were a couple of curious choices, such as making Polyphemus the Cyclops a Japanese ogre (played with great glee by Derek Lobacz). Most of the cast members played numerous roles, a necessity used to advantage in having Jacqueline Roush play Penelope, Circe, and Calypso, which underscores Odysseus' lament, when breaking free of Calypso's power, that "I see all women as Penelope."

    The human element of the stories is continually turned uppermost. Odysseus struggles under the weight of many burdens. The deaths of his men, many due to his own arrogance or bad judgement; the long separation from home and family; and not least, the burden of his own reputation. Odysseus the Hero, the twisted man, the liar, haunts Odysseus the man, threatening to overshadow him, and causing even Odysseus to doubt which parts of his story are true.

    Once Odysseus has vanquished the suitors, he must confront Penelope, who is upset and shattered by the realization that the man who has come home is not the young husband whose memory she has cherished and clung to for twenty long and lonely years. The play ends uneasily as they realize they must learn to know and love one another again--or not.

    Dale Gutzman and John Angelos, in their adaptation, have put together a script that abridges the epic story into a manageable play, but does it with powerful dialog and evocative action. The cast traded roles with alacrity and made excellent use of costume and prop pieces that were mainly referential rather than substantial. There was very fine acting by all concerned, in particular Mr. Parrone, Ms. Roush, and Marann Curtis in the pivotal role of Athene, Odysseus' patron goddess.

    Off the Wall continues to take chances and challenge the audience, which, in this case, resulted in a very enjoyable evening at the theater.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/272032.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Tuesday, April 7th, 2015
    7:54 pm
    Jupiter Ascending
    On Tuesday, March 31st , we caught up with “Jupiter Ascending” at the budget cinema. It hadn’t been a specific decision to wait, even given the poor reviews, it just happened we couldn’t get out to it while it was in first-run.

    The major reason we were interested in seeing the film (besides the general idea of supporting big-budget SF films--) was for the visuals, and in that regard, it wasn’t disappointing. The CGI spaceships and settings were indeed beautiful and fantastic, which made the film (mostly) a feast for the eyes. In particular, I was very taken with the multi-part reconfigurable starships. The planetary designs and the interiors reflect the decadent society of the Galactics (particularly the antiquated tech in use by the bureaucracy of home world) which would have been very good for the “Dune” universe. The exception comes with some of the battle scenes, which tend to become blurs of color and motion that are hard to interpret.

    Once you get past the ludicrous premise of Jupiter being the exact genetic twin of a woman born on another planet, the plot has potential, but a lot of it is squandered. It’s mainly a kind of reverse-Cinderella, where Jupiter (Mila Kinis) gets recognized as heir to the Planet Earth, and then discovers the awful relatives, notably sort-of stepsons Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth) and Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne). After initial attempts to kill her are thwarted by wolf-human hybrid warrior Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), Jupiter is yanked off Earth and into an unfortunately cliché-ridden and repetitive cycle of abduction, threat, and last-second rescue.

    There are good bits. I rather liked Kunis as the unsophisticated young woman who gets thrown into this maelstrom, alternating between keeping her head and ranting at what fate has done to her. Tatum is suitably feral as the wolf-man, although he doesn’t get to do much except action scenes. Booth is OK as the smooth villain, and Redmayne perhaps unintentionally amusing as the growly over-the-top villain. My favorite characters were in smaller roles, such as Nikki Amuka-Bird as the competent and compassionate Aegis commander; Samuel Barnett as “Advocate Bob,” an android lawyer; and the cameo by Terry Gilliam as the “Seal and Signet Minister.”

    So, pretty to see, but ultimately unsatisfying, a pity. The movie would have been better if it were either about a third shorter, or much longer, since it could have been a mini-series rife with intrigue, ala “Dune,” or “Game of Thrones.” (Interesting how I keep coming back to “Dune”—what I think I would like to see would be this production team tackle “Dune”, but with someone else doing the script.)

    Oh, and coolest SF gadget of the year—Caine’s gravity gliding boots!)

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/271761.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Monday, March 30th, 2015
    5:57 pm
    Milwaukee Ballet, “Giselle”
    On Sunday, March 29th, we went to see the Milwaukee Ballet’s performance of Michael Pink’s “Giselle.” Liberally adapted from the original 1841 libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, Pink reimagines the story starting in the ghetto of an unnamed Polish town. Although the civilians aren’t specifically designated as “Jews” or the Fascistic soldiers “Nazis”, it’s pretty clear from the black uniforms and German/Polish signage what’s implied.

    As the music starts, we see one of the townspeople, Hilarion (Timothy O’Donnell), clamber over the fence into the ghetto, eluding the searchlights and guards. As day breaks, he leaves vegetables he has scrounged and a bunch of flowers on the doorstep of the house where Giselle (Annia Hildalgo) lives, knocks, and then hides. Giselle is delighted by the flowers, but her mother (Rachel Malehorn) is more happy with the leeks and parsnips.

    Enter Albrecht, a young officer of the occupiers. He is engaged to Bathilde (Janel Meindersee), the sister of his commander (Patrick Howell), but is intrigued by Giselle. Furtively, he doffs and hides his cap, belt and coat, revealing civilian clothes underneath. He then commences a flirtation with Giselle, and presses the gift of a necklace on her. Hilarion objects to this, and the two fight, but are separated by the townspeople, who strike up music and dancing to divert any attention by the guards. Giselle dances, but her mother, afraid due to Giselle’s weak heart, pulls her aside.

    Albrecht ducks out as the guards do enter. Bathilde has arrived, and her brother is giving her a tour. Among other things, the people attempt to entertain her. When it is mentioned that Giselle loves to dance, Bathilde demands that she do so, and Giselle dances until she is exhausted.

    When Bathilde leaves, Albrecht slinks back, only to be exposed when children find his bag and uniform. Giselle flies into a passion and dies. Bathilde, drawn back by the commotion, flings her engagement ring to the ground beside the prostrate Albrecht. As the curtain falls, her brother gives the order to round up the witnesses to his sister’s disgrace.

    During the second act overture, we see the townspeople being “processed”, and then machine-gunned (tastefully done with light and sound effect--). As the ballet music proper starts, the dead rise and start adjusting to their new life as spirits. (Georgie had seen this ballet performed with the classical choreography, and said that Pink had adapted it wonderfully for this scene, preserving the steps but making it more ghostly). Giselle, now transfigured into an angelic being of light, comes among them and gladdens them.

    Albrecht, wracked with shame and guilt, enters, seeking Giselle’s grave. She appears to him, expressing forgiveness. He pursues his vision of her, but encounters the ghostly townspeople, now bent on vengeance. They hound him to exhaustion and near death, with only Giselle’s intervention saving his life. As dawn breaks, the spirits depart, leaving Albrecht alone to face the day.

    All the dancing for this piece was beautiful and powerful, with few noticable flaws. One objection that Georgie had was that the original first-act choreography was too broken up by the story insertions: she would have liked to see more sustained dancing. However, this was significantly mitigated by the power of the storyline and the wonderful character that Pink always puts into these scenes, and by the fact that the second act is pure dance, with much of the classical choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, directed by Andrews Sill, did a fine job with Adolphe Adam’s score for our performance.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/271595.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    5:51 pm
    Cinderella (2015)
    On Friday, March 27, we went to see Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella.” I had wondered what they would do with the story that they had not done in their famous animated version. The answer is: lots!

    For one thing, I do believe that it is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. Every shot is meticulously composed. The settings (largely, but not all, CGI) are amazing, the costumes gorgeous, and the actors all good to look at in their own ways.

    The story has been expanded in satisfying ways beyond Perrault. We get to see young Ella’s happy life before the death of her mother, her father’s hope in his new marriage, and the devastation wrought not only upon Ella, but also upon her stepmother, when the news comes that her father has died in a distant land.

    Director Kenneth Branagh has brought out some remarkable performances. In the scene where she is on her deathbed, Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother does much more than the clichéd “sick” performance, instead portraying profound sorrow at having to leave her daughter and husband. Lily James, as Cinderella (known as the light-hearted Lady Rose MacClare in “Downton Abbey”), arriving at the ball, radiates innocent joy at being there. When the wise King (Derek Jacobi) lies dying (it is a hard movie on parents) his son (Richard Madden) cries unashamedly, and the King in turn weeps for the Prince’s grief. Cate Blanchett proves that she can channel the late Joan Crawford, with her glittering eye, cruel laughter, and ruthless determination, aided by the character’s blood-red lipstick and corsetry that somehow manages to suggest a 1950’s era ‘bullet’ bra. Her Dior-inspired costumes also hark back to the great days of Crawford and Bette Davis, which really does work in the context. We also get a bit of back story on Stepmother, so we see that she isn’t entirely spiteful just for the sake of spite.

    There are many other marvelous moments. The sequence in which the madly careering pumpkin coach and crew, overtaken by the strokes of midnight, reverts to its component parts, is worth the price of admission alone. The CGI mice, although they don’t talk, sing, or wear clothes, are utterly charming.

    The story also grafts in some useful fairy tale tropes. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) tests Ella before agreeing to aid her, by appearing as a strange old woman and begging for some milk, in order to see if Ella has kept her mother’s precept to “have courage, and be kind.”

    Georgie and I have both long maintained that Cinderella is not, unlike Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, a character that needs to be ‘rescued.’ Instead, the beauty of the Cinderella story is in being recognized, in being seen for who you truly are, and being valued therefore. In this version, Cinderella, does have to be rescued, having been locked in the attic by Stepmother, in order to add a little dramatic tension, but the recognition scene that follows does much to restore the original emphasis.
    Beautiful, touching, uplifting—it is my opinion that “Cinderella” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/271354.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Tuesday, March 24th, 2015
    5:44 pm
    What We Do In The Shadows
    We have a new favorite “mockumentary”: “What We Do In The Shadows,” purportedly by the “Documentary Film Board of New Zealand.” It is a “reality TV” styled story, dealing with the interactions and misadventures of four male vampires, Viago (Taika Watiti), Vadislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who “flatshare” a crumbling house in Wellington, New Zealand. They have the usual kind of issues one might expect from four unemployed men, dealing with things such as fair division of dishwashing and cleaning. Excessive TV or video games actually aren’t issues, since, living relatively isolated lives, the most advanced entertainment machine they have is a wind-up phonograph.

    Petyr, the eldest (“8,000 years old,” according to Deacon) is a Nosferatu-style monster who doesn’t talk, and exists mostly in a ‘tomb’ in the basement. Vadislav, the next oldest at a mere 800+ years, once had a fearsome reputation and power as “Vadislav the Poker,” but has lost much of his drive since having been defeated in a supposedly epic battle with his arch-foe, “The Beast.” Fastidious Viago was an 18th Century German dandy, and still dresses like it. Deacon was a peasant peddler in the 19th Century when he was turned by Petyr, whom he now considers his “best friend.”

    The documentary supposedly covers six or so months of the group’s life, in which we hear the bittersweet story of Viago’s lost love, see Deacon’s exploitative relationship with his “familiar,” Jackie (Jackie van Beek) and learn how they deal with the ramifications of a certain “dinner party.”

    Deacon coerces Jackie into bringing her ex-boyfriend, Nick (Cori Gonzales-Macuer) and his current girlfriend to dinner at the vampire’s house, intending that the vampires will ‘eat’ them. After excruciatingly awkward attempts at what might be called “playing with their food,” Viago, Vadislav, and Deacon attack. Nick nearly escapes, but runs into the clutches of Petyr.
    A couple of days later, the vampires are nonplussed to discover that Nick is now a vampire, having been turned by Petyr instead of killed. Out of self-preservation, the vampires take Nick under their wing, trying, with poor success, to inculcate as much secrecy as they themselves manage (part of the irony, of course, is that this is all being taped by the “Documentary Board” crew, whom we never see--.) The best thing about having Nick around is his human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who’s willing to accept his friend as a vampire, and by extension becomes friends with the others, and initiates them into the mysteries of mobile phones and computers.

    However, Nick is a blabbermouth, and has soon let way too many people know that he is a vampire, with some dire results. How this all works out at the climax, the annual “Unholy Masquerade” party, is the most compelling part of the film.

    Laugh-out-loud funny, the film is a delirious combination of over-the-top vampire shocker and “This Is Spinal Tap,” with a healthy dollop of “Monty Python” for leavening. The vampire’s ramshackle house is a great set, and other are full of irony such as the dismal bus-station ambiance of the “vampire bar,” and the “Cathedral of Despair” where the Masquerade is held has a sign on the building saying “Victoria Bowling Club.” The costuming is a hoot, as each character tends to dress in his own idea of what a “sexy vampire” would wear. The acting is quite good for standards of broad comedy, and, for native born New Zealanders with Maori ancestry, Watiti and Clement hang on to their respective German and Transylvanian accents pretty well. Besides the pratfalls, there are some serious moments, and it is nice to see the vampires portray some emotions other than the standard “lust/hunger” we are used to. Effects, especially “flying” are surprisingly good. Of course, being a modern vampire movie, there’s a lot of blood, some of it sprayed for humorous effect—you have been warned.

    Good for fans of the vampire who have a sense of humor with it, and for fans of the mockumentary genre who can stomach relatively mild horror. Although a comedy, not for the young due to the violence, gore, and coarse language.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/270993.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    5:42 pm
    The Met in HD: “La Donna del Lago.”
    We went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD reprise of “La Donna del Lago” on Wednesday, March 18th, and enjoyed it very much.

    Giacomo Rossini’s bel canto opera “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”) has nothing to do with Arthurian legend: instead, it is based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott, set in his beloved Scotland. The “lady” of the title, Elena, is the beautiful daughter of a Highland chieftain, Duglas d’Angus, who has promised her hand in marriage to his ally, Roderigo di Dhu. However, Elena instead loves the young and doughty Malcolm instead. Her life is further complicated when she encounters King James V of Scotland (in disguise as “Uberto”), out hunting, who also falls in love with the maiden at first sight.

    (If the character names strike you as a hash, I agree. In Scott’s poem, Elena is “Ellen Douglas,” her father is “James Douglas,” the King’s alias is “James Fitz-James”, and Rodrigo is “Rodrick Dhu” (‘the black’). The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, chose names that sounded better sung as part of an Italian libretto.)

    We came specifically to hear Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elena, and we were not disappointed. Di Donato is unquestionably the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, with a voice that is beautiful, powerful, and flexible enough to make the best of the ornamentations called for by Rossini’s score. We agreed that, in her own way, she is every bit the equal of past greats such as Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland.

    Actually, the whole opera was a feast for the ear, a good thing since the thin plot of the love quadrangle amid a rebellion of the Highlands against the Lowlander King, exists mainly to hang arias on. All of the singers were just splendid: Juan Diego Flores as King James, John Osborne as Roderigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. We were particularly pleased with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the “breeches” role of Malcolm, who sang a very beautiful aria, Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! fia sollievo a’ mali miei ("Ah! Let me perish”) in the second act. (One may question, as we did, if you can properly call it a ‘breeches’ role if the character is wearing a kilt. This actually came up in the broadcast interview with the singer, in which she said she had had trouble remembering to move like a man, since the longish great kilt felt to her like wearing a skirt--.)

    The opera was good to look at as well. Most of the action took place in a simple outdoor set, redressed with foliage or battlefield wrack as needed, backed by a very nice projected sky. This portrayed sunrise, sunset, storm, or a slightly stagey ‘shooting star’, without being either too bright or hyper-real. Costumes for the Highlanders had appropriately ‘ancient’ looking Tartans and what I suppose were period-appropriate baggy socks. The climactic scene in the King’s court was a gorgeous panoply of dress in ivory and gold brocade, which also hinted as to why there might be tensions between the Highlanders and their King--.

    This was a very satisfying and beautiful evening at the Opera.
    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/270777.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    5:39 pm
    The Newberry Consort, “Rosa das Rosas”
    On Saturday, March 14th, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus for Early Music Now’s presentation of the Newberry Consort, in “Rosa das Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria.”

    The Newberry Consort, based in Chicago, consists of six performers, augmented for this performance by four additional choristers. The players are: David Douglass (co-director, medieval strings), Ellen Hargis (co-director, soprano), Shira Kammen (medieval strings and harp), Dan Meyers (percussion and medieval winds), Mark Rimple (gittern and psaltery), Matthew Dean (tenor and narrator), and Francy Acosta (soprano), Lucia Mier y Teran Romero (soprano), Tom Crawford (alto), Corey Shotwell (tenor).

    The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by King Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (1221-1284), known as “el Sabio,” “the wise,” due to his many writings on a wide range of topics, especially the law. He supposedly attributed his recovery from an illness or injury to healing by the Virgin Mary, and so declared himself to be her troubadour. Four hundred and twenty-seven songs, each of which mentions Mary in some way, were collected as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These are actual songs, accompanied by musical notation of the period, not just poems that were adapted later, so, as much as possible, the music is authentic to the time of Alfonso’s writing.

    The consort included fourteen pieces, in two sections, which were accompanied by projections of illuminations from two of the known manuscripts, which are richly illustrated with over twelve hundred pictures. All are fascinating. One set includes illustrations that go with the stories of the songs, and another set depicts musicians and instruments. The Consort also used the projections to provide translated “supertitles” for the songs, much appreciated since they are in 13th Century Galician-Portugese, a popular language for music at that time.

    Many of the songs are notable for their portrayal of the Virgin as the intimate and loving friend of the people, a mother figure for whom no job is too big or too small if the prayer be sincere. In one, she “saves” a pregnant abbess (the victim of a seduction) by miraculously removing the child from her womb and causing it to be adopted elsewhere. In another, Mary solves the theft of a mutton chop from some of her pilgrims. In one of the most interesting stories, a young man, recently engaged, places his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin for safekeeping while playing ball on the town common. Doing so, he declared his undying devotion solely to her. Miraculously, the statue closes its hand on the ring so it can’t be removed. The townspeople advise the man that there’s nothing for him to d now but become a monk, which suggestion he refuses, and goes on with his wedding. However, he is then haunted by dreams and visions of Mary until he leaves his wife and becomes a holy hermit. (Moral: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Mary!).

    The one issue I had with the concert was that all the “fun” songs were in the first half, and the second half was made up of all Hymn tunes, which are sober and serious, which made them seem kind of dull in comparison, although all of the music was lovely, and beautifully played and sung. The range of instruments was intriguing also, including vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole. I was particularly interested in the tuning of the vielle, which had a very “fiddle”-like sound.

    Illustrations were entertaining as well, with those of the men playing ball, and the pilgrims hunting for the lost chop, being particular favorites. We also liked the depictions of the Virgin enthroned among Queens and wise women, giving a sidelong glance as though some of them weren’t trusted. The pictures of musicians were also fascinating, with their medieval instruments, including such oddities as a bagpipe with two chanters and four drones.

    Quibble aside, this was a very interesting and enjoyable concert that gave us some music and stories we hadn’t been familiar with, and which was very much worth attending.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/270577.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Monday, March 16th, 2015
    10:00 pm
    OperaCon
    When we became aware last year that Somtow would be in town for the production of “The Snow Dragon,” we said, “We must get together and do something.” Local SF fans Leah Zeldes Smith and Dick Smith took the idea and ran with it, setting up OperaCon, something probably unique in the annals of fandom, a relaxacon centered around an opera performance. The Smiths took the initiative in contacting the Skylight Music Theatre and reserving a block of tickets for what became a sold-out opening night.

    They worked with the Skylight to arrange some particular events, especially the private question and answer session with Somtow at the Skylight Saturday afternoon, which included a look backstage and upclose examination of the Dragon puppet. The Skylight had “Welcome OperaCon” signs in the lobby, and we got little gift bags of chocolate as special guests, as well as an explicit invitation to the Skylight’s after party (which is generally open to “First Nighters”, but it was nice to be specifically asked. We had the opportunity to meet other members of the cast and crew, toast the production in champagne, and those who felt inclined could partake of a generous cold collation. (We were both still full from dinner--).

    OperaCon began Thursday with move-in to a set of comfortable rooms on the sixth floor of the Hilton Milwaukee Center. Somtow had relocated from his Skylight-provided housing to rooms across the hall. A great deal of food and drink, name badges, program books, and tickets were brought in. Somtow provided the special edition librettos for each member, which he autographed. Members drifted in through the afternoon and into the evening, and the party was officially on.

    We got back to the hotel Friday afternoon, bringing along the Snow Dragon cake that the Smiths had commissioned from Georgie, in order to celebrate their immanent thirtieth wedding anniversary. The cake was pronounced good, and safely stowed away until its Saturday evening unveiling. About four o’clock, I changed into my full white tie for the opening, and about four-thirty set off for the group dinner at the Milwaukee Ale House.

    The Ale House is a “brew pub” occupying the ground floor of one of the restored Third Ward commercial buildings about two blocks from the Skylight. It has an extensive menu of food and its own home-brewed beers as well as many other craft beers. It is nice for a post-Industrial space, although the exposed brick tends to make the ambiance loud and hard to hold a conversation in. The Milwaukee Ale House management and staff were very accommodating for our group. A lot of Milwaukee restaurants don’t even take reservations on Friday night, let alone for groups of forty. The servers were cheerful and responsive, and we got our food in plenty of time to make it to the opera. Georgie and I had the fried cod fish fry, which was very good. Georgie had potato pancakes with hers, which she thought were tasty, but made with a bit too much flour. Others at the table, however, pronounced them “just like Grandma used to make,” so recipes can vary.

    For a review of the Opera itself, see my separate article. It was good!

    We left the after-party at the Skylight a bit before eleven PM, and went home to bed. We understand the party continued at the Hilton well into the morning hours.

    Saturday morning, we came back to the Hilton, bringing along a cardamom coffee cake from Beans and Barley, and a couple of pies to celebrate the special Pi Day. (3/14/15--). (If you had a a sweet tooth, OperaCon was a great con for you. Besides Milwaukee coffee cake and Racine kringle, Leah had ordered "kaddush" cakes from Chicago, which were delicious dense confections full of cinnamon and sugar.)

    The talk for the membership was scheduled for one thirty PM, back at the Skylight auditorium. For unknown reasons, Maestro Subbaraman never made it (the one disappointment of the weekend). One of the Skylight staffers gamely took the stage along with Somtow, who held forth about music and literature with his customary erudition and humor. My humorously intended opening question, “How do you justify your existence?” surprised us by eliciting the anecdote that Somtow had actually been a guest of the famous Trap Door Spiders dining club (Isaac Asimov, George Scithers, Lester Del Rey and others) who customarily began grilling their guests with that question. Somtow talked candidly about his career in music, his rejection by the Thai cultural establishment, his reinvention as a writer, and his calling back to music, this time greeted with more success.

    At the end of the talk, we were permitted to go onstage, examine the back stage and look closely at (but not touch!) the Snow Dragon puppet, which was fascinating.

    At this time, Georgie and I ditched OperaCon temporarily since we had tickets for the 5PM Early Music Now concert. (To be reviewed later.) We got back to the hotel approximately eight o'clock, just as gears were being shifted for the Smith's anniversary observation.

    I helped cut and serve the cake and pies, and a good time was had by all. Again, we folded up before midnight, but I understand the party again ran long.

    Sunday morning I checked back in at the Hilton, finding that the Smiths and other helpers had clean-up well in hand in an atmosphere of jolly contentment, and would not be moving out until Monday, so I hung out for a while and then went home to take care of business there.

    OperaCon was a very nice time and a lovely event. Thanks to the Smiths for all their work in making it happen!

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/270274.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    8:46 pm
    Skylight Music Theatre: "The Snow Dragon"

    World premieres of new operas are fairly uncommon, although we’ve seen a few, such as Rio de Sangre at the Florentine Opera in 2010, and The Rivals at the Skylight in 2011, but it must be fairly rare for the average opera fan to be able to attend a premiere of an opera by a composer with which he is acquainted.

    That was the singular experience we enjoyed on March 13th, as the Skylight Music Theatre opened The Snow Dragon, with music and libretto by Somtow Sucharitkul. During his career as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, Somtow had been author guest of honor at Milwaukee’s X-Con, and was remembered as an excellent guest, erudite, witty, and excellent company. Therefore, we had to attend. We got main floor seats as part of a block with “OperaCon” (of which more later) and had a very good time at this remarkable opera.

    The opera is based upon a story by Somtow, called “The Fallen Country.” Inspired by the experiences of a friend, the story deals with violent child abuse and the generational cycle by which it is perpetuated. The story did not find a publisher for some years (It was vehemently, but ultimately fortuitously, rejected for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions--) until picked up for an anthology by Terri Windling.  Since then, the story has been recollected, and was also substantially reworked as a Young Adult novel for Bantam. However, the opera libretto is closer to the original story.

    The opera opens with a magical overture, during which we see the protagonist, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), a young boy, rescued from a high place by firemen. We learn that it is a church steeple, and a mystery as to how he got up there, as well as how he got frostbitten in the oppressive Florida heat.

    Billy is referred to the school counselor, Dora Marx (Collen Brooks), who recognizes the signs of physical abuse in Billy. In order to get him to open up to her, she encourages him to tell her what she thinks is his escapist fantasy, of finding his way into the “Fallen Country,” a cold gray land where there is no pain because there is no feeling. The Fallen Country is home to the marvelous Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black), who befriends the boy, but also to the sinister Ringmaster, who rules the world with “his whip of burning cold.” Billy, who has not yet given up all feeling, finds that there he can channel his anger into power and perform feats like breaking shackles and freeing princesses. He longs to meet the Ringmaster, who is the alter-ego of his mother’s brutal lover, Stark (Dan Kempson) so that he can kill him, but his anger doesn’t sustain him in the Fallen Country long enough to reach the Ringmaster.  Dora thanks Billy for sharing his story, to which he replies, “It isn’t a story.”

    In the second act, Billy is hospitalized by Stark’s brutality. Dora confronts Billy’s mother, Joan (Erica Schuller), who at first maintains that Billy had a bicycle accident. Then, she breaks down, saying that Stark isn’t a man, but “a force, a wind.”  Stark, alone with Billy, whispers threats to the boy, which tell us that he, too, is aware of the Fallen Country.

    Dora decides she has to call the police to intervene. When she comes with them to Billy’s house, Stark is sleeping, but talks in his sleep, saying, “I never asked to be hated. I never asked for the cold to sink into my heart,” and other things that let Dora know that the Fallen Country is indeed real.  Stark becomes the Ringmaster, and opens the way to the Fallen County, dragging Joan with him, where she becomes the captive Princess. Billy pursues, but calls to Dora, telling her he needs her help and belief to reach and defeat the Ringmaster.

    With Dora’s help, Billy gets to the Ringmaster’s tent lair, and the final conflict is initiated, with a twist due to the revelation of the Ringmaster’s dire secret.

    Somtow’s libretto brings us the affecting story very effectively, and is totally integrated with the score. The music is both modern, and tuneful and sonorous, with just enough eerie effect for a magical plot without resembling a “Harry Potter” soundtrack in the least.  Somtow achieves that rare thing in modern music, harmony, especially with the second act trio for the three female voices.

    Artistic Director Vishwa Subbaraman, who also conducts, assembled an extremely talented and skillful cast and crew. Luke Brotherhood as Billy has a long and challenging role for a child singer, and did superbly well in both vocal and physical acting the part of the abused but defiant boy.  Ms. Brooks was totally believable as the tired social worker who has seen too much, heard too much, and known too little success in her work. Strong and handsome, Mr. Kempson embodied the kind of attractive man that needy women are drawn to, only to discover his core of violence after it is too late.  Ms. Schuller, as Billy’s mother also did an excellent job in the role of the conflicted mother/princess figure.  The role of the Snow Dragon should be considered a plum role, and Cassandra Black inhabited it, sounding and looking magnificent in her glittering costume and spiky headdress. The orchestra presented Somtow’s score without noticeable flaw, and in excellent balance with the singers.

    The setting, by William Boles, was largely symbolic, there being a small set of mundane rooms for Dora’s office and Billy’s house. The stark Fallen Country was represented by the bare concrete of the stage back wall, with bits that flew in and out, representing giant ice crystals, stars, and the circus ring emblematic of the entry to the Country. One puzzling bit was a number of pairs of white shoes dangling from ropes. (Even Somtow wasn’t sure what they were supposed to represent--).  However, the best piece was the great Dragon, which, in flight, was represented by a twenty-two foot long puppet, borne aloft by the choristers, fins gently waving as it ‘flew’ about the stage, softly glowing under ultraviolet light.  The elaborate lighting plot by David Gipson added greatly.

    Costumes by Jason Orlenko were generally simple but effective.  The “real world” costumes were subtly suggestive: Billy’s torn t-shirt, the color of dried blood.  Stark’s sleeveless shirt, showing off his brawny, tattooed arms, emphasized his power and dangerousness.  Dora’s lightweight and pastel colored ensemble perfectly portrayed an office drudge who hasn’t quite yet given up all hope. She clutches her leather messenger bag—her “baggage”—to her as though it were a teddy bear. Joan’s outfit of tunic top, Capri leggings, and flat Mary Jane shoes made her look like the most childlike of all the cast. The effect in which she changed her bathrobe into the elaborate Princess’ gown was just nifty—there’s no other word for it. The Ringmaster’s uniform was wonderfully elaborate with its own dark beauty—many young boys would have, at least figuratively, killed for it--.

     The Snow Dragon captures and sets to music the problem of domestic violence against children, and plays it out as an Oedipal contest of wills, which, ultimately, can only come to an end when one party finds a strategy other than the obvious. It is quite powerful.

     The Skylight has partnered with local anti-abuse groups and resources, including arranging to have a child psychologist on hand during school showings, and listed contact information in their Audience Guide for the production.

     The Snow Dragon continues through March 29th.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/269938.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
    8:15 pm
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
    Tuesday evening, March 10th, we went to see “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the cleverly named sequel to the popular film about a cadre of aged British expatriates taking residence in a ramshackle but charming old hotel in Jaipur, India.

    Set eight or so months after the end of the first film, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is thriving under the joint management of Muriel (Maggie Smith) and Sonny (Dev Patel). In fact the hotel is mostly full, the ruinous parts are almost completely renovated, and the two have come to the United States seeking venture capital to acquire another property. Entrepreneur Ty Burley (David Strathairn) is interested and tells them he will send an anonymous inspector to examine the present operation.

    While hyperactive Sonny, with his unerring ability to choose wrongly the first time in any situation, seems to be doing everything possible to screw up both the deal and his upcoming marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai), much of the rest of the interwoven plot deals with the evolving relationships of Evelyn (Judi Dench), Douglas (Bill Nighy), Madge (Celia Imrie), and Ronald (Norman Cousins), who all seem to have come to their feet and begun to deal with life again. How they work out their challenges and choices makes for a very sweet story with a mostly optimistic ending—and if not optimistic, at least contented—even for perennial wet sock Jean Ainsley (Penelope Wilton). There are some interesting twists in the plot, not least being an expanded role for Sonny’s formidable mother (Lillete Dubey), who hits the love interest jackpot when she attracts the attention of new character American Guy Chambers (Richard Gere).

    Mostly, it’s an opportunity to see a lot of wonderful actors exhibit their decades of skill and experience, which is a joy to watch. (Once again, it’s also an opportunity to observe the difference between an American “star” and a British character actor. Good as he is, the smooth-faced and handsome Gere has essentially one expression of mild amusement. On the other hand, Nighy can run through more expression in five seconds than Gere does in the whole movie. Therefore, even though Nighy resembles a twitchy scarecrow next to Gere, his character is both more interesting and more charming--.)

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/269789.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    8:10 pm
    Geneva Steam Convention Mid Winter Carnival report
    The Geneva Steam Convention Mid Winter Carnival went on March 6-8 at the Grand Geneva Resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

    This was a first convention, so attendance was very good,official attendance figure 266 including vendors, drawing mostly from the Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago triangle, and a bit lightly programmed, but very pleasant and showing promise for the future.

    The drive from Milwaukee was a pleasant one given good driving weather, and took just under an hour. We were able to get registered with the hotel and the convention with no problems, and settled in. The Grand Geneva Resort is quite a posh complex in many ways, including a golf course, ski hill, and riding stable. It’s also rather odd in some ways. The architecture is based on Frank Lloyd Wright principles, so the major structure is built to follow the terrain, in this case a ridgeline overlooking a valley that contains the golf course and a decorative lake. This means that the lodge is very strung out, and getting from a room at the far end of “Building Two,” as ours was, could be quite a hike. Getting from one point to another is less linear than expected, also, since each building unit is on a different level, and there’s no standard interface at connecting points, making it possible to choose the wrong ramp or stair and get shunted off into a dead end.

    Rooms were nice enough. We had a “Lakeside Double Double” on the ground floor with a walk-out terrace (not that we used it due to the temperature--). There were some—interesting amenities, such as the television built into the bathroom mirror. I was interested to see that the room desk included USB, VGA, and composite Video ports, apparently allowing one to use the main flatscreen TV as a monitor. All of the staff we encountered were cheerful, friendly, and helpful, although I gather that all was not sweetness and light between the con committee and the resort sales team during the convention, a likely indication that if there is a second Steam Convention it may well find another venue.

    The first event we attended was the 2PM Friday panel on “What is Steampunk?” A good discussion was had, focusing on Steampunk as an aesthetic movement, involving literature, music, and style.
    Next, we attended the “Golden Miracle Medicine Show,” by Dr. Brady Jebediah Peters and Miss Annabel Lee, which was an amusing satire on the classical medicine show spiel and associated entertainments.

    At 4:00PM, “Haberdashery,” presented by Robyn Tisch Hollister was an interesting presentation on hat styles and types. (This one was mostly women’s hats, so “Millinery” would have been a more correct title--.)

    5-8PM was a “Mixer” in the lobby bar, which was a pleasant low-keyed event. I had been asked to act as a host, so made a point of meeting and greeting the attendees on behalf of the convention committee.

    The other major event of the evening was the “Victorian Pajama Party.” This was a very pleasant and convivial event with many of the attendees indeed showing up in period nightwear, ranging from red long johns to lace-bedecked but modest nightgowns.

    Saturday morning there was a reprise of “What is Steampunk?” with some different panel members, followed by my presentation of “Melodrama and the Music Hall,” which was well received. Also a popular draw at that hour was the presentation on “Fast Upgrades to Your Costume,” by Tracy Benton.

    “19th Century Weapons Beyond the Gatling Gun” at noon was a well attended and enthusiastic presentation that could have used a bit more organization and proofreading (example: both presenters referred to a famous World War I era artillery piece as a “French 76” when it was actually a 75mm gun: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_de_75_mod%C3%A8le_1897).

    1:00PM, “Corset Lacing for Others,” was a brief but useful lesson on how to assist someone else in getting into her (or his) corset, by Henry Osier.
    At 2:00 was “Fact or Fraud: Victorian Mysticism,” by Robyn Tisch Hollister, which focused on the Spiritualist phenomenon, and mainly on the famous frauds. Well done and informative, but sometime I would like to see one of these presentations give equal time to the sincere believers.

    After a tour through the well-stocked dealers’ area, we attended the 4PM panel, “Meet Your Steampunk Groups,” hosted by Bridget Sharon of the Milwaukee Steampunk Society and Sam Perkins-Harbin of the Chicago Steampunk Society, which was a very good networking opportunity. (I took the occasion to plug Steampunk Chronicle--.)

    At 5PM, there was “Bellydance History and Movements”, presented by Julieann Hunter and members of the Stellamani dance troupe. Yes, belly dance falls into the Steampunk milieu, since it was largely introduced to the West during the Steam era, at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, and the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Stellamani has added Steampunk costume elements to their “fusion” style of dance, which were very interesting and effective.

    We had dinner at the Resort’s Ristorante Brissago, which features modern northern Italian cuisine. We both started with the Insalata Casalinga alla Brissago, which was quite good. Georgie had the Salmone con Finnocio, with wild rice and a limoncello sauce for entrée, and I had the Vitello alla Grigia, veal tenderloin with root vegetables and orzo. For dessert, we split a chocolate-caramel confection. All the food was delicious, and the service pleasant and prompt. Considering the quality of the food, I didn’t have a problem with the prices, which compare with an urban fine dining restaurant. (Our bill, with two glasses of wine, topped $100.00.)

    This may be one of the Resort’s biggest drawbacks for a hobbyist convention. The resort is a long way from anywhere else, and the food is mostly pretty pricey for the fan on a tight budget. Breakfast buffet at the Grand Café was $18.00 each. Granted, this includes made-to-order omelets and fresh waffles, tea or coffee, juice, fruit, pastry, etc., all of which was excellent, but it’s a good thing there was also the “Café Gelato,” which had a variety of “grab and go” sandwiches, muffins, croissants and other pastries. This is where we got part of our Friday dinner and Sunday breakfast, and I gather they did a good business this weekend.

    At 7:00PM, the doors opened for the Grand Ball, which was the major event on the “Mid Winter Carnival” theme. Entertainment was provided by the music of Milwaukee group “Dead Man’s Carnival,” interspersed with sideshow and circus acts, including a juggler, magician, acrobat, and aerialist, as well as Sir Pinkerton’s notorious “blockhead” sideshow turn. The Stellamani dancers also performed some very entertaining numbers from their repertoire. There were also carnival games presented by various local charities as which one could win raffle tickets. Con attendees turned out in their finest and had a good time, with many dancing to the band’s eclectic music.

    Sunday morning, we attended the presentation on “How to Thrift for Costumes” by Mary Prince. This involved finding and re-purposing both clothing and non-clothing textiles and other bits into Steampunk garb.

    At noon, we rolled home, having enjoyed a very pleasant weekend. Congratulations to the Geneva Steam Convention committee for having staged a very nice convention with few detectable glitches.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/269388.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    8:07 pm
    Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa: “All in the Timing”
    On Sunday, March 1st, I went to the Inspiration Studios performance space on S. 73rd Street, which has become the home base for Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, to see a set of six one-act plays by David Ives, under the collective title of “All in the Timing.”

    These plays are all quite short, running as little as five minutes, but are wonderfully funny and clever, with much witty language and playful use of time. A case in point was the first piece, “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” The composer (Todd Herdt) enters a baker’s shop. One of the customers (Patricia Wikenhauser) present says words to the effect of “Isn’t that Philip Glass?” Another (Christina Schauer) replies, “I think it is.” The baker (Adeola Giwa) says, “May I help you, sir?” Glass replies, “Yes, I need a loaf of bread, please.” Baker: “Just one moment.” First woman: “It’s time now.” Second woman: “Yes, let’s go.” Baker: “Do you know that woman, sir?” Then, the cast begins to riff on the elements of the short exchange in the style of Glass’ music, with repetitions and reordering of the words: “ Isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that,” “Think it is, think it is, think it is,” reformulating the phrases to get declarations such as “Philip Glass is a loaf of bread.” The changes continue, accompanied by rhythmic movement, until a second set of themes is introduced, and the variations begin again.

    “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” was equally surreal in a different way. The scene begins with Leon Trotsky (Paul Pfannenstiel) sitting at his desk writing. It isn’t immediately obvious that he apparently has a mountain climber’s ice axe embedded in the top of his head. Trotsky’s wife (Ms. Wikenhauser) enters reading an encyclopedia (or, in this production, Wikipedia on a tablet) dated the year of the performance (i.e., Trotsky’s future), and reads out the entry describing the attack on Trotsky on August 20, 1940, and his death the following day. Trotsky asks what day is it, and she tells him, August 21st. Trotsky replies that it must be a hoax, since he is not dead. She points out that he does, in fact, appear to have an axe in his head. Trotsky examines himself in the mirror, agrees, and falls over dead. At a bell, the scene resets, and plays through variations in which Trotsky discusses his murder, and even calls in the assassin and grills him as to his motives. This sounds more macabre than it is, and is also very funny.

    “The Universal Language” was a very cute play, in which a shy young woman afflicted with a stutter (Ms. Schauer) tries learning the “Unamunda,” which she hopes will help her overcome her stuttering. The language is a parody, full of cultural references: The affirmative word is Ding! (with exclamation point). The word for “English” is “jonklees” (John Cleese), and so forth. A lot of this segment’s humor comes from these jokes and the fact that you can indeed (mostly) understand the instructor (Mr. Giwa).

    “Words, Words, Words,” was a very clever play on the myth that an infinite number of monkeys, given infinite time and typewriters would eventually by chance produce the works of Shakespeare. In this case, we see the experiment from the viewpoint of three chimpanzees, Swift (Herdt), Milton (Rolando Kahn), and Kafka (Schauer), who engage in an existential debate about their lives, what is Shakespeare anyway, how will they know it if they see it, and does it matter to the experiment.

    In “Sure Thing,” a man (John McGreal) and woman (Robyn Beckley) meet in a coffee shop, and, using the same “reset” device as in “Trotsky”, work through seemingly all the iterations of ways the encounter can go wrong before finally agreeing on a date at the movies.
    The last play, “The Philadelphia,” reminds one of a “Twilight Zone” episode. Mark (Kahn) meets his friend Al (Pfannensteil) in a café, in a bad mood because he’s been thwarted at every turn this morning, not only did his newsstand not have the New York Times, the vendor denied it existed, and so forth. Al tells Mark he is stuck in a “Philadelphia,” a state in which it is impossible to get anything you ask for directly. Al, on the other hand, is blissful, because he is experiencing a “Los Angeles” in which life is beautiful no matter what happens. He coaches Mark on how to get along, but, when the waitress brings him the wrong order, Al realizes with horror he has caught “Philadelphia” from Mark and rushes out. Using Al’s guidelines, Mark manages to order a meal and to chat up the waitress (Ms. Beckley), who confides that she has been “stuck in a Cleveland” all her life.

    The plays were done against a minimalist background cleverly decorated with a theme of clocks. All the actors did excellent work with the very difficult scripts, which require precise timing, and must have been hard to memorize, especially given that much of it isn’t in standard English, and that there are lots of variations on a similar theme that would be easy to get lost in. Director Mark Wyss did a really excellent job of putting this show together.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/269285.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    8:04 pm
    Milwaukee Art Museum; “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”
    February 26th, We went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the current exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” which is a fascinating selection of designer fashions shown at the Ebony Fashion Fair during its run from 1958 through 2009. Consisting of over one hundred pieces curated by the Chicago Museum of History, the exhibit is a showcase of fashions designed for—and, increasingly, by—African Americans. http://mam.org/inspiring-beauty/

    Occupying the exhibit space in the Calatrava wing, the show begins, fittingly, with a handsome blue suit worn by Eunice W. Johnson, editor of Ebony magazine, and founder of the Fashion Fair. It then segues into the fashion collections, opening with a 1972 Emanuel Ungaro ensemble of a red, blue, green and purple suede coat over a crocheted bodysuit, and thigh-high stockings. This was followed by a 1988 Christian LaCroix cocktail outfit in black and white, accented with a bold red scarf. Then, there was a black and red Pierre Cardin “pop art” patterned dress from 1970, and a 1978 Yves Sant-Laurent “Picasso” dress with a skirt of multi-colored satin swirls.

    Time and space prohibit me from describing in detail all of the amazing outfits we saw. Just about every major designer you can think of was represented: Givenchy, Bob Mackie, Courreges, Paco Rabanne, Valentino, Bill Blass, de la Renta, Thierry Mugler, Patou, and many others. Common elements in many of the pieces were bold use of color, extensive application of beading and sequins, daring cuts, and accents such as fur and feathers, although there were some more subtle designs as well. Borrowing from non-Western cultures such as Moroccan, Chinese, and Japanese, was also evident.

    Of course, fashion, as Georgie says, is an “extreme sport,” and some of the designs fell into that category: Bob Mackie, Sarli, and Naeem Khan produced “evening gowns” that were variations on the theme of strategically placed lace or beading on sheer net. There were mostly backless gowns, and others with interesting cut-outs. Others were extreme in different ways: the entirely sequin-covered man’s evening suit in salmon and lavender plaid (Guy Laroche, 1972) is certainly striking, but where would you wear it?

    Among all the wonderful designs, of course there had to be a few clunkers, and Vivienne Westwood came up with two of the worst: one being an assymetrical lumpy brown “evening gown” that appeared to have been made out of a furniture cover with parts of the furniture still inside. Another outfit, in black, blue, and gray from the Mount Mary collection, consisted of a coat with an angular pattern, plaid pants, and a checked top. The coordinated colors and fabrics make it an ensemble, but otherwise the effect is “I dressed in the dark.”

    The exhibit is tastefully arrayed on attractive mannequins of varied complexions, which works well. The exhibition catalog is one of the better I have seen, with full page pictures of all the outfits you most want pictures of, posed on live models.

    The exhibit runs through May 3rd before moving on to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. (For compete tour schedule visit http://www.artsandartists.org/. If you can’t find a venue near you, the catalog can be ordered through the Milwaukee Art Museum store on line.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268943.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Monday, March 2nd, 2015
    9:22 pm
    Scott Walker vs. ISIS
    It’s not just that Mr. Walker’s comment regarding ISIS, “"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world” is both insulting to the people of Wisconsin, and pure braggadocio, it is laughable (for bitter, ironic values of laughter) to those of us who were paying close attention to the Act 10 protests. As I recall it, the Governor’s response to the protestors was craven and despicable. Indeed, the Governor and the Legislature responded to the rigidly non-violent protestors as though they WERE a pitchfork-and-torch-waving mob, by trying to lock the people out of their Capitol, directing the Capitol police to be as harsh and repressive as possible, conducting business after hours with no notice, and planning to call up the National Guard versus the same aforementioned non-violent protestors, which, if that qualifies one to combat ISIS, means that George Wallace and Orval Faubus would have been even better.

    As for moral courage, not once did Mr. Walker directly address or confront the protestors. In fact, once having done his skullduggery by inserting the anti-union language into the Budget Bill (it had to be separated out as “Act 10” in order to get around the Democratic Senate quorum boycott), he pretty much laid low until it was time to sign the passed bill. The “other Scott”, Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald, did all the heavy lifting during the legislative crisis.

    As for Walker’s “punting” (or rather, fumbling,) on evolution, the President’s love of country, and the President’s Christianity, his non-answers just go to verify my opinion, that he is a total sock puppet for ALEC and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and that, unless David Koch’s hand is up the back of his coat, he has nothing to say. In point of fact, going back to Mr. Walker’s career as Milwaukee County Executive, he’s never put forward an original thought or idea that I recall.

    I noted with considerable ironic humor this Sunday’s column by Walker cheerleader Christian Schneider in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, entitled “A Journey Through Gov. Scott Walker’s Brain.” It’s actually a cute piece, and, unusually for Schneider, admits the Gov. may have made a misstep comparing Wisconsin citizens and ISIS: however, if it had been a factual piece, would have described an echoing void.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268663.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    Saturday, February 21st, 2015
    4:23 pm
    The Met in HD: “Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle”
    Last night we went to the cinema for the encore showing of the Metropolitan Opera double bill of “Iolanta” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and “Bluebeard’s Castle,” (“Herzog Blauberd’s Berg”) both of which were beautiful and fascinating in their own ways, and intriguingly linked by some common themes.

    Iolanta was a Met Opera premier, although the opera was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg. This was Tchaikovsky’s last opera, with a libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky, and is based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René's Daughter) by Henrik Hertz. Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), the only daughter of King Rene of Provence, was born blind, however, she does no know this due to the King’s decree. He has had her raised in isolation, in a beautiful home in the mountains, with a loving and caring staff who have been forbidden on pain of death to speak to her of anything pertaining to vision or light. As the opera opens, Iolanta, grown to womanhood, is overcome with sadness, feeling that she is missing something for which she has no name. She asks her servants why they love her, when she can give them nothing in return. Her nurses reply that her love is sufficient, but she is not satisfied by the answer.

    The King (Ilya Bannik) arrives, accompanied by “Moorish” physician, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), whom he hopes can cure Iolanta of her blindness before her pending marriage to Robert, Duke of Burgundy. However, he disagrees with the doctor’s proposed course of treatment. Ibn-Hakia believes that the spirit must take part in the healing, and that, if Iolanta does not know she is blind, she cannot aid in her healing, as she must want to be cured for the treatment to be effective. The King refuses. The doctor says he will give the King time to reconsider.

    Enter Robert (Aleksei Markov), and his friend, Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala), a wealthy Count, enter. They have become lost while hiking, and, with noblemen’s insouciance, have seen but ignored the “keep out, on pain of death” warnings posted by Rene. Robert confesses that he is not looking forward to his contracted marriage to Iolanta, whom he has never met, because he loves the vivacious and lusty Matilda. Vaudemont allows that he prefers the pure and virginal type. Curious about the lonely house, they peer in, and Vaudemont is instantly smitten by Iolanta’s youthful beauty. Robert thinks his friend has been bewitched, and goes for help.

    Vaudemont enters the house, and speaks to Iolanta. She is charmed and pleased to meet a stranger. In the affecting scene that follows, Vaudemont discovers that she cannot see. When she is puzzled by his words, he explains that light is the first of nature’s gifts to Creation, without which its glory cannot be comprehended. Iolanta refutes him, saying that she can hear the glory of Creation in the song of the birds, the sound of the stream—and in his voice.

    The King and servants return and are appalled at what has happened. Ibn-Hakia argues that this is a good thing, since now her cure is possible. The King replies that the doctor may attempt the cure, but if Iolanta does not gain her sight, Vaudemont will be put to death. Iolanta vows that she will do everything she can to see.

    While the doctor is working, Rene confesses to Vaudemont that he won’t be killed, the King only wanted to give his daughter incentive. Vaudemont announces his rank, and offers for Iolanta’s hand, whether she is cured or not. Rene replies that he is King of Provence, and that his daughter is already promised.

    Enter Robert with his rescue party. He recognizes Rene. At Vaudemont’s urging, Robert asks to be released from his betrothal to Iolanta, which Rene grants, awarding her hand instead to Vaudemont.

    Iolante’s old servant enters, weeping. The men are alarmed, fearing the experiment has failed, but he answers that he was so moved by Iolanta’s faith and dedication, that he could not remain. Then, Iolanta’s women appear, joyously announcing that she can see!

    At first, Iolanta is disoriented and frightened by her new vision, but speedily adjusts upon recognizing her father and Vaudemont by their voices. The opera ends with a joyous chorus.
    The music by Tchaikovsky is gorgeous, and all the parts very well sung, under the direction of Maestro Valery Gergiev. Costuming was kind of a vague early Twentieth-Century, but worked well for the mostly timeless libretto. The simple set was augmented by effective projections. Acting was generally good, although I was unsatisfied by Ms. Netrebko’s physical portrayal of a woman blind from birth. I blame this on the stage director, Mariusz Trelinski, though, since everything else in the performance was spot on.

    Light is also a vital theme in Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” and very much so in this fully staged version. Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) brings home his new bride, Judith (Nadja Michael), and they almost at once fall into a battle of wills as Judith, appalled by the darkness, badgers Bluebeard for the keys to the castle doors, in order to admit light and air. Bluebeard grudgingly complies, hoping to discourage her by first showing her his bloody torture chamber, and equally bloody armory. What is portrayed is the battle of two obsessions: Judith believes that she can banish the darkness that haunts Bluebeard, while Bluebeard hopes that if Judith will only kiss him, ask no questions, and leave the doors closed, everything will be all right.

    When Judith is undaunted by the first two rooms, Bluebeard more willingly surrenders the keys to his treasury, garden, and domain, seeming to be pleased by the lightness that has pervaded his castle. But Judith presses on, opening the sixth door, the “sea of tears”, and the seventh. In this version, we see the grounds of Bluebeard’s castle, haunted by the spectres of his prior wives. “They are still alive!” Judith cries, but in denial. The foreground we see an opened, shallow grave. A body, with Judith’s blonde hair, face turned away, and wearing the green dress she arrived in, lies partly in and partly out of the grave. As Judith takes her place among the ghosts, Bluebeard lies down in the grave and tenderly kisses the body, the first kiss we have seen him actually give. As the lights die, he sings that now, it shall always be midnight.

    Bartok’s music is powerful, dire, and satisfying. Both Mr. Petrenko and Ms. Michael sang with passion, holding nothing back, as was required in such a deeply psychosexual production. (Given the constant struggle for dominance between Bluebeard and Judith, both Georgie and I came up with the subtitle “Fifty Shades of Blue.” Fitting, since Bluebeard is the creature of which “Christian Gray” is merely a pale shadow--.) Again, projections added to the eerie atmosphere, while paralleling those used in “Iolanta.” Scene shifts that were covered by falling petals in “Iolanta,” were in “Bluebeard” masked by drifting ashes or what might have been scraps of burned paper.

    With the journey from darkness into light, In “Iolanta,” and from light back to darkness in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” it was a thrilling, if sometimes harrowing, night at the opera.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268511.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
    3:03 pm
    Mr. Turner
    Tuesday, January 28th, we went to see “Mr. Turner,” the biopic about one of England’s most famous painters, J.M.W. Turner.

    The movie is mainly a character study of the great artist. Timothy Spall spent three years preparing for this role, including teaching himself to paint in Turner’s style, and it was effort well spent. Spall inhabits the role thoroughly, making Turner’s many contradictions of character believable and natural. He is normally monosyllabic and antisocial, but could be cheerful and sociable among colleagues. He had great erudition but could be horridly crude. He had a long and evidently tender relationship with his mistress, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), but is totally cold towards his prior mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and disavows his two daughters by her. Meanwhile, he callously exploits his abject housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).

    This gives Spall the opportunity to enact a great range of emotion. A classically trained actor, he can literally express more emotion with his back to the camera than many actors can face front. In one scene, Sarah Danby is berating him for missing the funeral of their eldest daughter. While she sees only Turner’s impassive visage, the audience sees his hands behind him, fingers twisting into painful knots. We both thought it a masterful scene, and great kudos to Spall and to director Mike Leigh.

    Although there’s no great plot, the film is beautiful to watch, at times reproducing scenes from Turner’s oeuvre, such as “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway,” and “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.” It does show us some of Turner’s evolution as an artist, evolving from England’s premier painter of seascapes to an experimental pre-Impressionist whose work ceased to be understood by the average viewer. Leigh shows us Turner as a tireless worker, constantly either painting, or hiking along the coasts seeking new visions to capture. We see why he was called the original “painter of light,” and behold his mastery of atmosphere—sky, spray, steam, smoke, and storm—which galvanized the static landscape/seascape form.

    For those who know some history of art, it’s also fun to see Turner’s contemporaries brought to life, even as cameos: John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Beechey, John Edward Carew, and others figures of the art world, such as the Ruskin family, and Turner’s friend and frequent patron, the 3rd Earl of Egremont.

    Recommended for fans of the art of painting, and of the art of the cinema.

    This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268275.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
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