Monday, May 28, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Ten)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Ten: Stoker's Notes

A few years back, the notes Bram Stoker wrote up for his most famous novel were discovered.  Exactly when he wrote them is anyone's guess, but they seem rather early on in the process.  Interestingly, they include some intriguing details that never made their way into the book itself.

Bit of lore include the notion that Dracula could not be photographed, and that any attempt to paint his likeness onto a canvas would  The notes also indicated the Count having something to do sooner or later with a seance.

Personally I find most intriguing some of the lost characters.  Like the Count's mute woman.  Or a police inspector named Cotford, a possibly Jewish solicitor Abraham Aaronson, artist Francis Aytown, the maid engaged to an undertaker, Alfred Singleton the psychical researcher, lawyer William Young and of course Mina's friend Kate Reed.

Kate Reed ended up as a recurring character in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series, a "fictional" London complete with Inspector Lestrade and Bill Sikes, where Dracula won.  Dacre Stoker also plumbed the notes for his "official" sequel to the novel, Dracula: The Undead.

I myself see a fairly obvious opening. Since my Renfield is a woman, she would have a female attendant.  This allows me to bring in Kate Reed, who perhaps will mention a sister engaged to an undertaker.

More, I suspect sooner or later some police officer really should investigate some of these goings on.  Otherwise it all feels very strange.  A little bit of investigation reveals (in our history at least) by 1856 local police departments became required and funded outside of London, with the actual organization of such left up to local authorities.  Most often the title of such locals were variations of "Constable" so for example "Chief Constable" might be a more popular rank than "Inspector."

To be continued

Monday, May 21, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Nine)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Nine: The Beyond

A term coined for our own time is "Cultural War," used by those desperate to defend against the arrival of the future with its tolerance of women's rights, different sexual orientations, the presence of anything other than Protestantism, people of color in general, environmental issues, etc.

The Victorian Age had its own version of this, which I imagine in a vaguely Steampunk alternate timeline would be even more intense.  Of course even the original novel mentioned the so-called "New Woman" (of which Mina proved a shining example of, while decrying the whole idea--Stoker was a complex man) and we did see Harker react to a crucifix with an automatic rejection of it as superstition.

Maybe one of the most vivid ways this cultural war enacted itself was the subject of spiritualism--a movement in which Victorians (not just the British--Mary Todd Lincoln was an avid Spiritualist following the death of her sons) dealt with death by pretending it was merely a change of state.  Our loved ones are not gone, they claimed, but still with us, albeit invisible and intangible to our mortal senses.

Hence many a seance, many a meeting of those eager to contact the other side, many a charlatan taking advantage of such grief, many a skeptic exposing more than a few of such charlatans.  Others, of course, were certainly as sincere as they come--but generally had less spectacular demonstrations.  This subject caused a major falling out between friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

What fascinates me is how so many of these skeptics (who were proven quite right on many if not most specific occasions) retained their belief in religion.  Quite simply, they engaged in "doublethink," the power to believe simultaneously in opposite things.  In this case, they believed in the miracles described in the Bible while decrying the mere hint of anything supernatural.  Of course those who actually looked into the matter came up with specific reasons--usually having to do with how the world changed once Christ actually walked the Earth.  Very few gave it such conscious thought.  Others, of course, became de facto or literal atheists.  De facto atheists prove more interesting because they still go through all the motions of church going and quoting the Bible, defending religious institutions while not really believing one dot of the theology.  I'm reminded of a friend who simultaneously insisted she did not believe in God but had a religion--she was Jewish.  Or George Orwell, who not coincidentally coined the word doublethink.

Given Dracula (especially mine) plays out as a tale of the supernatural invading the (for then) super-technological present, one would think this would play out as a major element.  Not so in the novel.  Simply, Stoker gave the characters a guide through the conundrum--Van Helsing.  My own version will focus upon rather than avoid this.  Characters like Arthur and Seward in particular will find any hint of the non-rational, the mystical or even the seriously religious disorienting at best.  More conflict in general means more drama.

Which is the single biggest reason I'm cutting the character of Van Helsing altogether.

To be continued

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Violet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm not a huge fan of most musicals, although to be fair plenty of really excellent ones are out there.  The form at its best works not unlike Shakespeare--a heightened form and language making the story more vivid on many levels.

Violet does precisely that, which made attending the show not a slog through cloying sweetness but rather a very touching human story told in sharp relief.

Based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, this show (directed by Richard Israel) takes place in September 1964 in the Deep South.  Violet (Claire Adams) is a twenty something girl from a tiny town taking the bus across several states to see a preacher, a man whom she has seen heal people on t.v.  She herself lives every day with a terrible scar across her face, one that makes anyone who doesn't know her do a very obvious take.   We don't see this scar, but are left to imagine it because at no time does the musical let us forget it is there.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
From the beginning, we see Violet's memories, sometimes even interacting with her younger self (Lily Zager) or her late father (John Allsop).  In fact much of the show focuses on her past and coming to terms with it, including the way she's tried to deal with not so much the scar but how folks react to it--and her fierce, no-nonsense courage.  That this goes hand-in-hand with a belief and hope in faith healing makes for just one facet of how real she and the rest of the characters feel.  Most important will be two soldiers she meets on the bus--Flick (Jahmaul Bakare), an African American sargent, and his friend Monty (Morgan West).  They begin as traveling companions on the long road--how is that for a life metaphor?--but grow closer as they share events and experiences.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
A word about the ensemble here.  I do not exaggerate when calling them excellent, not least because the vast majority play numerous characters, in as wide a range as a little old church lady as well as a pretty hard-boiled prostitute (Lori Berg), a gospel singer and hard-as-nails boarding house owner (Benai Boyd), a bus driver and born again preacher (Kevin Shewey) as well as a slew of others (Emuna Rajkumar, Matthew Podeyn ,Lauren Thompson).  Honestly, all these characters breathed, spoke, even (or especially) watched and listened as a series of distinct individuals.  That deserves a lot of applause right there.

Returning to the main story, Violet with Monty and Flick form something of a love triangle, which sounds cliche as all get out.  Cliches, however, depend upon laziness, upon assuming the audience will fill in the many, many gaps.  Not so here.  We end up deeply understanding all three characters more and more.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
We even understand when one or more takes advantage of the other, often with zero malice but just loneliness.  Violet remains the focus, the one whose journey we follow every step of the way, whose heart becomes our own so that we find ourselves slipping into her own desperate hopes.  We feel them fall away, one by one.  More, we see new hopes replace them--this time, though, based on truth instead of mere wishes.

Not the stuff of nations or huge grandeur is Violet.  Yet still, epic--in the sense of the soul who, like us, tries to find purpose and happiness and acceptance.  Flick, who by the musical's end has fallen hard for this girl with a horribly scarred face, knows precisely why he has.  He even says it--she looks at him and sees him.  Not his skin color nor uniform nor rank.  Him.  Just as he looks at her and sees nothing but Violet herself.  Such a frightening thing to happen, and the stuff of our deepest desires.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
This I submit is the beating heart of the greatest love stories.  Another sees us as we truly are, and in the reflection of their eyes we see ourselves for the first time. In this case to very nice songs, performed by a cast and crew who knew precisely how to tell this tale.

Violet plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm through June 17, 2018 (with an extra Saturday matinee at 2:30pm May 26)  at the Actor's Co-op in the Crossley Theater on the east side of the campus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood CA 90028.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Eight)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Eight: The Right Honorable Arthur

A frustrating thing for anyone seeking to adapt this novel is how so few characters seem to have a job--or if they have one, they spend hardly any time doing it.  Case in point--Arthur Holmwood, son and heir the Viscount Godalming.

Since I am positing a different timeline, one in which a kind of small scale First World War fought for three years roughly in the place of Franco-Prussian War, with Arthur, Quincey and Seward as veterans of that conflict, another notion popped up.  What if Arthur Holmwood worked for British Intelligence?  Does not this offer some wonderful possibilities of intrigue and paranoia, as well as giving the character a sharp focus he frankly needs?

Now in our history, much of international brinkmanship as well as espionage focused on what they then called The Great Game, i.e. the long term rivalry between the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire.  Ironically enough, when war did break out in 1916 Russia and England were allies against Germany.

Presumably, much like in our history, the Ministry of War created a formal organization to coordinate and plan matters of intelligence, security and covert operations.  Whatever form this takes, if one presumes Arthur Holmwood an operative of same, then he has every reason in the world to investigate evidence of a mysterious Austrian nobleman (Transylvania was part of the Austrian Empire at this point) sneaking into England.  Extrapolate from there and this helps explain his insistence on keeping Quincey the gunslinger by his side (and since in this timeline, the UK probably helped the South win the Civil War, Quincey might be his opposite number in the Confederacy).  More, it might create a natural rift between them and Seward, who now spends his time trying to heal the sick, most of all those suffering from what we call PTSD.  He is a more frightening figure, a more worthy adversary for our Dracula--at the same time, I wonder if he would ever consider for one moment the theory their enemy had nothing whatsoever to do with politics?

To be continued

Monday, May 7, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Seven)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage.

Seven: The Madhouse

One of my many areas of research for Dracula was the actual conditions in Victorian mental asylums.  In the novel, the treatment of Renfield bordered on abuse, not least surgically opening a hole in his skull!

But then Van Helsing gave Lucy a blood transfusion, even though doctors had known there was always a good chance the patient would die from such for decades.

Anyway, I learned these places could be far worse and far better than I feared. Virtually everything depended on the class or wealth of the patient, coupled with the specific ethics of individual staff members.  Especially the former!

Victorian female mental patient
Women in the 1880s and 1890s committed to a sanitorium might find it rather pleasant, with peaceful exercises and simple activities intended to calm the nerves. If in fact (as was often the case) the women were simply recovering from trauma or exhaustion or the like, this could do them good. Those who disturbed the peace might find themselves isolated from the others, but again this did not necessarily involve any kind of abuse.  It was no guarantee against any, either.

Far too many women patients were locked up for "hysteria" a kind of catch-all phrase for everything from post-partum psychosis to not obeying one's husband or father.  Any physical resistance often resulted in brutal restraints, while if the asylum in question was not rather posh, the living conditions resembled a medieval dungeon.

In a Steampunk world, I would expect this both worse and better.  In the wake of the massive Franco-German War, with its horrific casualities, women would have earned a larger place in the workforce.  Quite possibly women's suffrage might be in sight.

At the same time, it is difficult to believe alienists would not have been all the more willing to conduct experiments on their charges--up to and including electric shock, for example. Keep in mind such treatment--electro-convulsive therapy--has its supporters to this day, including some patients who reported truly radical improvements in mood and energy.   However, modern doctors make sure patients are sedated and give very minor shocks, i.e. low voltage.

For the record, I see Miss Renfield as a young woman cursed (as she and society sees it) with hallucinations--which are in fact psychic visions.

To be continued

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Solo Must Die! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The idea sounds cool enough.  A parody based on Star Wars and especially the character who is the focus of the upcoming movie.  Of course part of me thought "But how can they make a parody of a movie that isn't out yet?"

Which shows a total lack of imagination on my part!

Solo Must Die: A Musical Parody literally has the framework of a fan (John Ryan) insisting his friend (Jordan R. Coleman) read his fanfiction about Han Solo.  Very reluctantly, the friend agrees and soon we find ourselves in Cloud City in between events of Episode IV A New Hope and Episode V The Empire Strikes Back.  Han Solo (Jordan Stidham) himself is on the run and crash lands, just in time to hopefully do a favor for his old pal Lando Calrissian (Keenan Montgomery).  However, Grand Moff Levine (Ari Stidham), the local law enforcement official--or something, we're not that clear--wants nothing more than to kill Han Solo so as to impress Darth Vader.  Turns out his beautiful young wife Galaxia (Selorm Kploanyi) doesn't mind helping since Han jilted her years back.  Meanwhile, Lando wants Han's help in wooing Annie (Kaitlyn Tanimoto), Grand Moff Levine's young
Credit:  Aaron Tocchi
daughter/clone or something.

Yes, it is deliriously and delightfully complicated--one of the hallmarks of good farce.  Make no mistake, this qualifies.  Yeah, it has a few weak spots but overall the cast does a splendid job of mastering that not-quite (or at all) real attitude for a farce, coupled with excellent timing and a firm feeling for the audience.

As things proceed, events get more complex and weird, but it turns out to be more than a string of gags.  Good parodies, from Young Frankenstein to What We Do In Shadows or Harry Potter The Musical, come from a love of the material.  And good comedy requires a plot that has some kind of emotional resonance.  Turns out this one is all about Han realizing, despite his many objections to himself more than anyone else, he loves Leia and also enjoys the respect he earns
Credit: Aaron Tocchi
being a good guy.

For the record, the whole cast seemed to having a ball, often just enjoying the unbelievably silliness at every turn.  At one point Kylo Ren (Alex Lewis) and BB8 (Michelle Wicklas) show up from the future, the former determined to kill his father before he himself was ever born, because that is just "so hard core."  Chewbacca (Cooper Karn) shows up as does Luke (Sean Draper) and a young Obiwan (Hughie Stone Fish).  This represents the tip of the iceberg, amidst plenty of catchy songs and some quite nice musical numbers.  Quick note--everybody else dancing could take a few lessons from the Big Guy (i.e. Ari Stidham aka Grand Moff Levine) because he sells every single move and glance.

Solo Must Die: A Musical Parody plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until May 27, 2018 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90038.

Death Before Cocktails (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The title of Laureen Vonnegut's new play, now at Theatre68, feels rather tantalizing:  Death Before Cocktails.  One might expect a murder mystery, possibly in the style of the 1930s, or a comedic struggle for some alcoholic.  In fact these turned out meager and unworthy guesses.

Sophie, a famous actress, has committed suicide and left instructions for her twin sister Lana (Ariel Hart) to take the ashes to a bar owned by Lana's old ex Will (Tom Kearney).  Also invited is Clive (Paul Keaney), Lana's former fiancee whose engagement ended when one drunken night he slept with Sophie.  What follows is a truly fascinating and entertaining conversation between folks who are trying desperately to keep it together while navigating their complex feelings for one another, and the dearly departed.

Oh, and adding to the brew is Ruth (Rose Hunter), a very young waitress who turns out to be Will's long lost daughter from a one night stand.  Trying to do right by her, Will gave her a job.  Also crashing the party is Mario (Damien Diaz), a flamboyant dentist who is now dating the bisexual Clive--who in turn has decided he might as well just go all the way and identify as gay (because, well, gay men in Los Angeles won't date a man who identifies as bi).  Mario thinks this is LOVE, which makes Clive deeply uncomfortable.

The cocktail that this play turns out to be tastes by turns hilarious, disturbing, moving, sad, happy, frustrating--but always human, always essentially kind, always honest.  And funny.  Don't forget that one.  Funny!

I really need to applaud the cast and co-directors Vonnegut and Alex Rotaru for accomplishing the essence of a fine performance.  Not only did every single performer commit to their choices 110%, no matter how bizarre (Mario at one point is definitely tripping on cocaine), but they spoke these lines with truth.  These are not the easiest lines to do that with, simply because the characters tend to be very clever and pretty insightful at the same time as demonstrating they are also what all of our species remain forever--fools.

Just like you and me.  For the record, especially me.

So we get treated to an emotional roller coaster, with falls into hopelessness and sometimes rage.  Then we find ourselves jolted by more than a few sharp plot turns (let us say Sophie's full instructions for the get together prove a tad exotic) and shaken to various degrees by various sorts of revelations.

As cocktails go, this one has layers of flavor galore.  If has the bitter along with the sweet, the sharp as well as the smooth, it also tastes filling and leaves a pleasing but not saccharine aftertaste.

Death Before Cocktails plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until May 13, 2018 at Theatre68 (south of Magnolia) 5112 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood CA 91601.