King Charles III: A dire matter of tradition

17 Dec

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, mostly, I’ve been writing romance novels with Erin McRae, as well as writing (with Patty Bryant) and producing for Serial Box Publishing‘s Tremontaine, a text-based web serial that is a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. (Yes, this is a professional endeavor Ellen herself is involved in).  But in the land of romance novels, the project about to go out the door is called A Queen from the North.

A Queen from the North is about Amelia Brockett, the youngest daughter of an Northern earl and recent grad-school reject who winds up agreeing to a marriage of convenience with the Prince of Wales in a modern Britain where the Windsors never happened. In the Britain of our book, fault-lines from the War of the Roses remain deep and mistrust between the houses of York and Lancaster remains strong. Along the way to Amelia and her prince actually falling in love, prophecy, tradition, and the prince’s niece — a fox-faced witch girl who looks like Anne Boleyn and has nightmares about the Tower ravens dying — make Amelia’s life as challenging as her ridiculous family, her sex-obsessed best friend, the prying hordes of the Internet, and the entire nation of Canada. Canada, by the way, saves the day in the end via a Tim Horton’s shop girl.

It was with that book in final edits for submission, that Patty and I went to see the sublime, haunting, and ritualistic King Charles III on Broadway last night. This would be an easy play to miss. No one really likes Charles, and another play about the British relationship with the tabloid press and the royals as tourism industry doesn’t seem particularly fresh. The marketing of the show also does it no favors, suggesting a light satire instead of the classically inspired tragedy that it is.

King Charles III, written largely in blank verse, borrowing heavily from Shakespeare (from Richard II to Hamlet to the Scottish play), and staged with flickering candles and live music and chanting for great moments of state (a death vigil, a coronation) is the type of theater that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It taps into what is primal and dangerous, about tradition both maintained and upset while also conjuring the totalitarian fears of those of us who remember the Thatcher years.

It is a glorious, clever, wicked, and dark thing, that features Princess Diana as a limping trickster ghost that promises too many men they will be Britain’s greatest king. And while the play will seem at points to advocate for any number of uncomfortable political positions on the vagaries of constitutional monarchy, it ultimately condemns them all, suggesting the glory of monarchy rests only in our discomfort with it.

King Charles III is running in New York City only until January 30. The cheap seats (and rush tickets) all have excellent site lines, and if you can get to this show, at any price level, it is an absolute must see.

A View from the Bridge: The Poison of Honor

5 Dec

If you are planning to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge, I would encourage you not to read the following as even those familiar with the play will benefit from the shocks created by the staging.

For a year in college, I had a boyfriend who was tall and thin, more angular than delicate. I brought him home for Thanksgiving that year, and he slept, without argument on the floor of my parents living room, as they required. That they would not allow us to have a conversation in my bedroom with the door even  partially closed was the subject of argument, but only between myself and my father. The boy, a Southener, was achingly well-behaved.

Two days into the trip my parents informed me that they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), because he was thin. And it wasn’t what they wanted for me; that he’d give me AIDS. And they disinvited him from our home in which he was already staying in. Ashamed and awkward, I packed our things, and we drove back to Washington, D.C. A few months later, we’d broken up, because I was having an affair with barrel-chested man much older than me. That man had a wife too, but after the matter of the too skinny college boy, if I’d told my parents, they likely only would have been reassured.

It was with that story buried in a pretty large pile of weird, difficult drama in my Sicilian-Jewish family, that last night Patty and I went to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge. If you’re not familiar with the play, it tells the story of Eddie Carbone as he freaks out when Catherine,  the niece he raised as a daughter (and is now inappropriately attracted to), beings to date Rodolpho, a Sicilian immigrant who “just ain’t right” (he dances, he sings, he makes dresses, and he doesn’t fight back in a manner deemed correct when Eddie kisses him).

Sound familiar? Yeah.  I thought so too.

But despite having actually seen other productions of the play before, it had never registered to me just how much I knew this story personally. Mid 20th-century drama is often staged with stifling domesticity and focuses so much on the ordinariness of men that it becomes difficult to see how these stories actually revolve around non-male presences in the narrative.

Ivo van Hove’s production eschews naturalism for acute simplicity and an almost ritualistic performance of Greek tragedy. Opening with Eddie and another dockworker showering and dressing after a shift, the play immediately forces the audience to look at and appreciate male flesh in a way that was for me — again, raised in that Sicilian household — wildly uncomfortable.

To stare at a man way a man would stare at a woman is to feminize him, and this production of A View from the Bridge brings that home as all the characters assess the show’s men constantly — who is strong, who is desirable, who looks like a man should. The audience, made complicit in this gaze, squirms (truly, a highlight of seeing the show from the seats on stage — and this is where you should see it from) is hearing the bulk of the audience gasp, and even cry out in shock at several key moments. This was as extraordinary and terrifying as anything presented by the players.

While the emotional arcs of the play can seem peculiar, — Eddie, in particular, tends to go from 0 to 60 in rage — I can only say that the volatility felt truthful to the home I was raised in. The way Catherine shrinks into herself after these outbursts, I suspect also seems disproportionate to some audience members, but the reaction read to me as less to anger and more to volatility, and I should know, as a girl who can’t bear to be startled.

Perhaps most astounding though — other than how any actor can be asked to give the performance Mark Strong gives in this show 8 times a week — is the culmination of the show’s design, in which the shower that opens the show closes it, this time, with blood raining down into the final tableau of a melee in which Eddie is stabbed by one of the cousins. It’s a holy moment, at least if you’ve spent any time around the bloodily painted saint statues of Sicily. It’s also what should be an obvious moment — the water that rains down in the opening a gun that goes off with the blood raining down in the closing — but so wrapped up are we in the demand that we look at these characters, and their bodies, we miss it.

I should note, the blood, while surely some random theatrical compound, has a stench. Much like, one supposes, the poison of honor.

 

Let the Right One In: The Nothing That Lives Next Door

3 Feb

On Saturday night, I went to see Let the Right One In at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s novel and film, both by the same name, the play tells the story of a peculiar friendship between Oskar, a young boy, and Eli, who seems like a young girl who lives next door.

Odds are, you know what happens next.  The film was something of a minor sensation when it came out, and you probably recall that the girl is actually a vampire.

Except, not really.

For one thing, she’s not exactly a girl.  “I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy. I’m not anything, I’m nothing!” she says at one point.  And she might not be a vampire either.  That word is never uttered in the course of the play, and at the moment it’s about to be she insists ferociously that she’s “Not that! Never that!”

The piece is filled with unanswered questions — about Eli’s gender both now and in the past, about what she is and how she got that way, about the reasons for her flat and abrasive affect, and about her motives.  One of the most weirdly shocking moments of the piece is when she insists to Oskar she has money, and then proves it by pulling a Faberge egg out of the trunk in which she sleeps.  The egg is never addressed further and barely explained (“What’s it for?” Oskar asks.  “For having,” Eli says, both disinterested and certain). But despite its mystery, that egg feels indicative of the great wrongness that has led to the current circumstances of murder in a small town, isolation, and the desperation of friendship.

Presented in a dreamy movement-heavy manner with a filmic score, Let the Right One In is consistently seductive, but in a manner completely inconsistent with vampire mythos.  There is no desire for glamor or eternal life here.  Instead the desire engendered by the play focuses on the methodical nature life in a small town, the strength to do what it is necessary, and the silencing power of snow.

Oskar’s encounters with bullies that help drive an otherwise languid narrative towards a jarring conclusion may be difficult for some audience members to endure. A significant number of effects involve copious stage blood, and one — thanks to the addition of excellent light and sound work — is genuinely terrifying thanks to the startle factor.

The performances are uniformly brave, but Rebecca Benson‘s demanding work as Eli possesses a disturbing intricacy that gyrates between flat and fey.

Ultimately, the show is driven by silence and physical language. And while the audience engages it as an often amused collective (Both Oskar and Eli are, at times, hilarious; and we are addressed in turn as concerned citizens and frightened children by police authorities as the murders in the town are investigated), after it was over it was difficult to speak, as if over its two-and-a-half hours we had all moved from identifying with Oskar to becoming something just a little bit like Eli.

Strange, hard to describe theater, but wildly recommended.  The show was supposed to have closed this past weekend, but is now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 8.

Book Day: Chicks Dig Gaming

11 Nov

Chicks-Dig-Gaming-cover-webIt’s book day!  I’ll be saying that a lot over the next year, with releases scheduled so far in December, January, March, April, May, and June, but today is the day for Chicks Dig Gaming: A Celebration of All Things Gaming by the Women Who Love It.

My essay closes out the collection, and instead of being about any of the games I’m actually good at, it’s about the one I’m terrible at: Chess.  It’s about how I learned to play, taught by my neighbors as a child.  But it is also about my difficult family and the backdrop of pop- and political culture at the time.  While I have always written personal essay that seems, I think revealing to others, and am often nostalgic about my childhood, the fact is my stories about me, my family, and my childhood are well-honed.  This piece, written quite some time ago now (well over a year) was a first attempt at letting myself really talk about the corners of my childhood.  As I’m increasingly working on doing both some fictional and memoir work about my weird teen life in queer NYC in the ’80s, having this essay be out in the world is scary and important and exciting to me.

Of course, also, what a time to be in an anthology called Chicks Dig Gaming. Regardless of the games we’ve written about (this book contains everything from video games to RPGs to LARPs to board games and more), I think it’s hard not to be nervous and excited. I’ve already seen one very positive review of the book that also noted some of its feminism hurt the reviewer’s feelings.

Which sort of really makes me wish I’d written about a game I don’t suck at as much as I suck at chess.  But skill isn’t what makes someone a gamer. Love of the puzzle, of the art, of the technology, and of the social contexts that come with games are what make someone a gamer.  Hell, just playing the game. Because that’s what is important about games: showing up, participating, giving it a go, and being open to the experience.

I hope you’ll be open to the experiences in Chicks Dig Gaming.  My own copies just arrived, so I’ll be reading along with you.

V for Vendetta: Please believe

5 Nov

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

I post this every year. Every year, I think perhaps I should not.  I think of the need to explain to Americans that Guy Fawkes Day is not about supporting revolution. I think about how the V masks get used in American politics. I think about the binary nature of this incredibly effective and affecting piece of writing makes it irredeemable and cruel for some.

And then I post it anyway.

Because I don’t ask it to speak for or to anyone but me.  But it’s become more and more personal to me over the years, wound in with my history, with my anxieties not just about politics, but with the medicalization and institutionalization of the marginalized.  My celiac symptoms developed the day I saw the V for Vendetta film.  I spent at least a week thinking the movie had merely traumatized me into illness because I trusted a story more than I trusted my own sense of my own body. This is what we are taught, that we are not our own.

So the cadence of this piece is, always, my posture and my grief.

That it is a backstage story is always less-remarked on than I think it should be.  All lives are backstage stories, after all.

It is strange how all its dates live in the past now. They didn’t once. And it was terrifying.

Talking about American Horror Story

29 Oct

For those of you who couldn’t make it out to Bonnie & Maude’s “All of Them Witches” at The Bell House, my talk on AHS: Coven is now available as a podcast. The rest of the presentations from that evening are also in the process of being rolled out and you can and should grab them all (there are two up right now and more are coming).

Meanwhile, I spent a little bit of time waxing poetic about my surprisingly emotional response to AHS: Freak Show. One o the things I didn’t have a chance to talk about there was the genius of the anachronistic song choices the show has been using. Freaks — as used in this show to represent a range of marginalizations through camp, queerness, and disability — are, as the show frames them, the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to art both art and violence as consumers, victims, and perpetrators. This is one of those shows audiences are going to have radically different responses too, but it hits me — despite the horror elements which are the least interest to me — in a place of sorrow and wonder and loneliness like I’m still struggling to describe.

Ebola and the “good victim” narrative

17 Oct

When I write here,  I am almost always writing about entertainment content and rarely about news content. But analyzing the news is what I do in my desk job, and we’re all lying when we say the news isn’t entertainment anyway.  Information is entertainment.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am rather engaged with this Ebola story. Because news content in general behaves in a viral way (stories spread from nodes of information), it’s particularly interesting in an abstract, science-driven way when the news content is actually about a virus.

But quite outside of that very academic, numbers-driven interest, I’ve noticed something else: The emergence of the “good victim” in the Ebola narrative.

Since Ebola arrived in the U.S. (which was always going to happen the second it reached a major city anywhere in the world in significant numbers), the media has become very interested in telling us how well-liked, church-going, or family oriented individuals who have been infected who get media coverage are. They assure us the first nurse in Dallas to get infected “did all the right things.”  They show us cute pictures of her with her dog.

Meanwhile, the second nurse, and the original man diagnosed with the disease here get a lot less coverage. They are blamed for travel, although they either did not have symptoms at the time and/or were given the go ahead by CDC employees. No cute family stories or dog pictures for them, nope.  Little coverage on how the man helped a dying pregnant woman who may have been the source of his infection (and whom he may have not known was infected).

There’s a clear racial component in this.  The African and African-American victims in the U.S. have received less overall coverage and more critical coverage when visible, much like the thousands of people dealing with the disease in western Africa itself.

The “good victim” narrative also interests me, because it — much like every overheard discussion on the New York City subway system for the last week — recalls the early days of the AIDS plague years. Then there were “innocent” victims who were such heroes because this never should have happened to them. They were largely straight, white, female, and young.

AIDS should never happen to anyone.  Neither should Ebola.  And yet they do.  And the good and bad victim narratives — which I thought might be avoided this time around because of no overwhelming focus on a sexual component of the disease — is incredibly dangerous because you can’t stop an epidemic when you only care about protecting some people from it.

Case in point? AIDS rates amongst blacks in the U.S. and AIDS rates in Africa. For lots of people the epidemic hasn’t gone anywhere but on and on and on. And how we talk about people with AIDS is part of how that has happened. We’ve never had the same urgency for everyone. And it’s resulted in a lot of deaths.

It is reasonable and wise for the news media to use personalization to cover Ebola. People often connect to stories better when they can engage with them as they affect singular individuals. But coverage that suggests only some people deserve that personalization increases danger, both from the epidemic itself, and from the hideous fear-based non-solutions that people start shouting about when there are “good” and “bad” victims of a disease.

Travel bans, camps, euthanasia. We’ve heard all that and more out of politicians’ mouths in the last week. For those of you who weren’t there, we heard the same things in the 80s about AIDS.  We even made miniseries about some of those ideas. And that they were talked about so seriously, that they were so terrifying to me in my childhood, is why I name none of the people diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. here.  I’m not a news source and I don’t wish to contribute to risks they face from stigmatization of those with Ebola (although I also acknowledge that not naming names may actually increase stigma; it’s a hard choice).

But clearly, that cautionary entertainment in the 1980s (and fictional media about epidemics is entertainment no matter how cautionary, just as news is entertainment no matter how fictional) has taught us nothing. A recent spate of period pieces about the plague years haven’t reminded us of past mistakes either.

Instead, we’ve got a media banking on fear and an overly frightened American populace being taught that only some people don’t deserve to get sick (being female, light-skinned, and godly seem to help individuals get placed in this category), and that it’s perfectly fine to ignore everyone else. Even if it’s a lie, and even if that act of ignoring is what helps epidemics spread.

While it’s likely there will be no further transmissions in the U.S. from this set of cases, and despite all sorts of actions being taken out of an “abundance of caution” — some of which have made no sense at all; can we really sustain national panic attacks over every case of morning sickness or food poisoning? — it’s fairly likely that another case will show up in the U.S. because of the current nature of global travel and the incubation period.

So right now, the news media needs to make the choice to be one of the tools that helps to contain Ebola in America and globally.  Dispensing with “good victim” rhetoric is a key part of that.

Pop-culture, witches, and fame @ The Bell House, October 13, 2014

9 Oct

witches

This coming Monday, I’ll be one of the presenters at  BONNIE & MAUDE PRESENTS: ALL OF THEM WITCHES, a live podcast recording and variety show at The Bell House in Brooklyn.  I’ll be talking about American Horror Story: Coven and what is has to say about notorious women, witchcraft and fame.  (Hint: Fame is the worst).

The event has gotten some press on Gothamist and other high-traffic sites, so I do recommend getting advance tickets.  While this is not at all a book event for me, I will have a couple of copies of Starling on hand in case anyone wants to grab one after. If there’s something else from my catalog you want, please drop a comment here so I know to bring it with me.

 

BONNIE & MAUDE PRESENTS: ALL OF THEM WITCHES
MON, OCTOBER 13, 2014
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:00 pm
The Bell House – Brooklyn, New York
$8.00 / 21+


Tickets available online and at the door

“All Of Them Witches” is the third in a series of live variety shows by Kseniya Yarosh & Eleanor Kagan, the hosts of the Brooklyn-based film podcast, Bonnie & Maude.

Sure to boil the blood and alight the brain, join us for an exploration of witches as seen in movies, television, and pop culture. From green-skinned, be-broomstick’d villains to benevolent sources of high female power, from goddesses of nature to Satan-worshippers, to actual practitioners of Wicca…celluloid representations of witches are contradictory, to say the least. Scholars, artists, and film enthusiasts from all walks of life will toil up some trouble, and revisit favorite on-screen moments of witchcraft in Bewitched,Buffy, The Craft, Hocus Pocus, Black Sunday, Suspiria, Rosemary’s Baby, and more.

Presenters: Tom Blunt, Lyra Hill, Eleanor Kagan, Racheline Maltese, Rosie Schaap,Tenebrous Kate, Cassie Wagler, Kseniya Yarosh

Music throughout the show will be performed by Brooklyn-based chamber pop singer AK, and the 8-piece, all-female a cappella group Femme Rhythm.

Red Band Society = Glee + The Fault in Our Stars – music

17 Sep

Red Band Society is basically Glee + The Fault in Our Stars – music, except the music is still sort of there thanks to an absurd number of unearned montages and a dude with an acoustic guitar.

Its infuriating as a show, because it’s a brilliant concept. I mean, talk about riding a wave of tested (the hospital drama) and phenomenon (Glee and TFioS), but putting a bunch of stuff in a blender doesn’t make it new or innovative.  There’s a reason you’re told never to pitch a project with mathematical formulas based on other people’s projects.

But the biggest problem, really — and I hope this is just typical pilot problems — is that the show doesn’t trust its audience.  Instead of using Coma Kid to be hilarious, they use the character to explain things that are already obvious.  This combined with various platitudes about the soul and survival — it’s hard to take.

If it’s going to be things beloved past (Glee, because lets admit it’s largely lost the critic’s love) and present (TFioS), then Red Band Society needs to trust the audience to draw those connections on its own.  It also needs to trust the audience to draw its own conclusions about who the characters are.

Finally, and most importantly, it needs to accept that most of us took high school literature.  And whether or not we love analyzing pop-culture, we’ll likely grasp the irony of the vicious cheerleader needing a heart transplant without this being explained to us, repeatedly, in very tiny words.

Trust.  You have to trust the audience to come along with you.  Always.  Even to places that it’s scary to go or aren’t always well-illuminated.  Because if you want the audience to connect to the bravery or cleverness of your characters, you need to let that audience feel brave and clever too.

Books you can buy!

16 Sep

starling-1Starling, my M/M romance about Hollywood co-written with Erin McRae (and the first in a series of six) is now out!  You can get it at Amazon | AllRomance | Smashwords | Torquere Bookstore | Barnes & Noble and more for $4.99 – $5.99

Meanwhile, to celebrate its 11th anniversary, Torquere is offering 25% off everything in its store with code Torquere2014. That means you can get Starling for just $4.49 and “Lake Effect” for just $1.87. The coupon is valid through this Sunday only.

Chicks-Dig-Gaming-cover-webNext up, the full table of contents of Chicks Dig Gaming has been released by Mad Norwegian Press. That will be released on November 11, 2014, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and a host of other sites.  My essay “Castling,” about how I acquired my fairly atrocious chess skills, closes the volume.

 

Thanks for your patience with the lack of commentary here while these, and a number of other projects (some announced, some not), get underway, off the ground, out the door, and into your hands. As a reminder, you can stay up to date on my writing with Erin at Avian30; there’s been a few story sales over there that I haven’t announced here.  Additionally, I have a few pending announcements that are more suitable to this blog that I hope to be able to make soon.

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