Review: In the Next Room at Playmakers

In a time when, uh, “personal massagers” are available in the $4 bins at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, it’s amusing and unsettling to look back at an era when many women had no idea that “marital relations” could be anything but unpleasant. Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, now showing at Playmakers, does just that. Set in New York state in the late 1880s, the play explores the then-cutting-edge treatment for hysteria—the vibrator—and its effects on the lives of seven very repressed Victorians.

It’s a situation ripe with comedic potential, and, while the play is very funny, it is refreshingly free of condescension towards its characters. Rather, it strives to puncture any sense of superiority viewers may harbor about the Victorians. While we titter at the characters’ naivete, we’re also made uncomfortably aware of our resemblance to them. These characters, after all, see themselves as modern. They’re beginning to question their culture’s ideas, and are enthralled—and frightened—by the latest disruptive technological development: electricity.

In fact, technology, more so than sex, may be the play’s major theme. Some characters, like Dr. Givings, the pompous man of science who administers the vibrator treatments, see it as mankind’s salvation, and anticipate the day when cities will blaze with electric light. Others, like Dr. Givings’ wife Katherine and the artist Leo (Matt Garner), are pre-emptively nostalgic for candles, and contemplate the possibility of “electric fireflies” and electric limbs” with horror. None of is able to anticipate the ways the vibrator will change their lives, or their relationships; they, like us, are stumbling about blind.

Katherine, capably played by Kelsey Didion, emerges as the play’s most intriguing character. She illustrates the plight of the middle-class Victorian wife, but Ruhl never flattens her into a feminist heroine or a put-upon victim. Rather, she’s a believable (if slightly broad, in the interests of comedy) and flawed character: ditsy, tactless, clingy, overbearing, but also energetic, curious, engaging, and surprisingly strong-willed. Katherine’s existence is so idle that she sees an umbrella-less walk in the rain as a “madcap adventure”; now and then, hints of her intellect and thwarted, questing nature rise to the surface, leaving the viewer with a powerful sense of loss and waste.

The rest of the cast is winning as well, especially Matthew Greer, who evokes Tim Curry and Sherlock Holmes as Dr. Givings, and Katie Paxton as Mrs. Daldry, a young wife who gains roses in her cheeks—and some alarming revelations about herself—from her sessions with the vibrator. The set design is exquisite: lush with antiques and heavy, carved woods, it sets up a contrast between the comfort of the Victorian home and the disquieting emotions the characters come to experience.

The play does have its flaws, though most lie with the script and not with this particular production. At times it seems to have been written expressly to be unpacked by modern academics. It gestures toward au courant themes—race and homosexuality are two—that it does not have time or space to fully develop, and much time is spent on a subplot about breastfeeding that is not integrated well with its primary material. (That said, this former academic enjoyed a nerdy in-joke about the poster child for Victorian repression.) Some lines and speeches seem strained, as the actors struggle with clunky lines meant to underline a theme rather than develop their characters.

On the whole, though, In the Next Room is one of Playmakers’ most successful productions. It will make you laugh, gasp, and shake your head in disbelief, and leave you wondering just what our great- great- great- great-grandchildren will think of us.

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Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior: Reclaiming Indiana Jones for Asia?

“Hi Spielberg, let’s do it together,” reads a graffitied message on a wall in one scene from Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. It’s a invitation for Spielberg to cast him in a film.

That’s one offer Spielberg should be glad to accept. Jaa, a martial arts star of almost superhuman abilities, knows how to an execute a thrilling action sequence. And he and the directors appear share the same fundamental belief about action/adventure films, namely, that it’s fine to suspend logic and plausibility as long as you make things look really, really cool.

Spielberg’s influence is apparent throughout Ong-Bak. The film borrows much of its slender plot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Bad guys steal a sacred relic from an impoverished village, causing drought and misfortune. To win it back, the hero must face a series of calamities, fighting off squadrons of goons before defeating the kingpin bad guy in a final climactic sequence.

But there’s a key difference. Temple of Doom harbored disturbing colonialist overtones: It featured a tribe of helpless Indian villagers menaced by a barbaric pagan cult (characterized by human sacrifice and the eating of monkey brains), who were saved by the intervention of two white people and one Chinese stereotype.

Ong-Bak, however, reclaims Temple of Doom for Asia. Its hero, Ting, is a native-born villager and a devout Buddhist. Ong-Bak's motley crewThe bad guys, in this film, are the ones with no respect for religion, whereas Ting would risk his life to restore the head of Ong-Bak, a sacred statue of Buddha, to his hometown. He is seen praying and at a critical juncture in the film he draws strength from gazing upon another Buddhist statue.

Ting’s sidekicks, a con artist named Humlae and his partner, a tomboy called Muay, also owe something to the Indiana Jones trilogy; they’re reminiscent of Sallah and Short Round, respectively. Like the Indy characters, they follow the hero around, getting into trouble and having to be rescued and taking part, to comic effect, in his battles.

Quartet of awesomenessOng-Bak also features one incredible fight scene almost certainly inspired by Indy’s escape from Nazi agents in the Cairo bazaar in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like the Cairo scene, the Ong-Bak set piece takes place in a series of alleyways lined with vendors’ stalls. But here the alleys will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an Asian city: the vendors are cooking dumplings and kabobs and selling knives, clothes, cheap sunglasses, and all manner of motley items. It’s a little love note to Asian urban life, combined with one killer, over-the-top action sequence. Jaa fights off his enemy’s goons with Muay Thai boxing moves while hurtling around and over cooking stalls, cars, kids blowing bubbles, a knife seller’s cart, and sundry other obstacles. At one point, in an absurdist touch worthy of the Simpsons, he squeezes between two panes of glass being carried by workmen. Goofy? Sure. But also breathtaking. Time and again and I found myself gasping and marveling, “How on earth does he do that?”

What’s even more remarkable is that Jaa does all his stunts without the aid of wires or CGI trickery. This gives the film a visceral feeling welcome in an age of overly slick, artificial-looking imagery. Spielberg—he of the corny monkeys-on-vines scene in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull—ought to be taking notes.

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‘Life’s’ Mammals Episode: When ‘Planet Earth’ Goes Oprah

Review of the ‘Mammals’ episode of Life.

All nature shows anthropomorphize their subjects, often to the degree that they tell us as much about our values and morals as they do about animals. And so it is that Life, the successor to Planet Earth now appearing on the Discovery Channel, tells us an awful lot about Oprah Winfrey’s values and morals.

Winfrey narrates the show and appears to have influenced its content as well, if its ‘girl power’ overtones and fixation on motherhood are any indication. While the show’s visuals are spectacular, its writing is weak, especially when compared to more cerebral nature programs like David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals. Life’s script is light on science and heavy on generalisms. Whereas Attenborough would tell you why an elephant shrew evolved nipples on its front as opposed to its underside (the answer: so that it can feed its young and still remain in a position to sprint off should danger appear),  Winfrey merely  gushes about how the shrew’s “maternal instincts” make it devoted to its babies.

‘Mammals,’ definitely the weakest of the four Life episodes so far, is sometimes so lightweight that its scenes come off not as illuminating segments about animals but as parables. Most of these parables are about motherhood and gender: a scene of a reindeer herd escaping a swarm of mosquitoes, for instance, turns into a cautionary tale about child abduction, as one female loses her baby in the scuffle. “The mother may search for her kid for days,” Winfrey intones over footage of the female bleating in panic, “but she won’t see it again—not alive. Predators have already gotten to the baby.” Hear that, Vixen? You’re a negligent mother. You left your child alone for two seconds, and see what happened?

Then, as if to provide a foil for deadbeat Vixen, we get a series of vignettes about good animal moms: a seal who teaches her calf to swim; an elephant struggling to free her baby from a mud hole (Grandma Elephant—I kid you not—comes by to save the day); a polar bear who (in a scene that tells us nothing new whatsoever about polar bears, but does manage to introduce the specter of global warming) considers fighting off competitors to get her cubs a piece of beached whale meat.

On Wednesdays, we wear tan.

There’s also a scene about rival cliques – I mean, lionesses and hyenas. A starving hyena tries to move in on a carcass some lions are chomping on, with the predictable result that they chase her off. The hyena alerts its pack, who outnumber the lions, run them up a tree, and take the carcass for themselves. A pretty typical scene out on the savannah, you’d think, but Life’s script turns it into something out of Mean Girls. The female gender of the combatants is mentioned prominently; the hyena is described as greedy (“She shouldn’t have tried to eat that,” Winfrey even says, as if chiding the animal for not being sufficiently diet-conscious) and her summoning the pack is construed as revenge.

This silly reduction of animal behavior to mini-morality plays isn’t fair to Life’s videographers, who brought both incredible talent (my husband, no slouch in the photography department himself, was consistently agape at the shots they managed to capture) and grueling hard work to this series. (Thankfully, the other three episodes to air so far aren’t nearly as egregious as ‘Mammals,’ perhaps because it’s harder to see yourself as a fish or a lizard than as a cute meerkat.) And it’s not fair to the viewers who tuned in hoping to learn something about the natural world and only got an Oprah-style lecture about parenting instead.

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Powerful Cinematography and Cool Critters Make “Life” Worth Watching

My husband and I are big fans of Planet Earth, so we were happy to hear about its creators had made a sequel, the 11-part Life (airing Sundays on the Discovery Channel). For the most part, Life is a worthy successor. Like Planet Earth, it combines brilliant cinematography with a focus on the beauty, diversity, and strangeness of nature.

The creatures featured in Life are a series of marvels. Male stalk-eyed flies ingest air until their heads inflate and their eyes protrude from long stalks, all in order to attract a mate. Pebble toads turn themselves rigid and fall dozens of feet in order to escape predators. A komodo dragon attack a water buffalo and then waits, with unnerving patience, weeks for the creature to die from its poisoned bite.

And the photography is astonishing. The filmmakers pan in close to catch every brilliant bump on a chameleon’s skin, or zoom out to catch wide-angle beauty shots of icebergs floating in an Arctic ocean. They shoot from seemingly impossible angles, at one point filming a pygmy gecko the size of a quarter from below as it skitters over the surface of a pond. In slow motion, and with startling clarity, they show us the dramas that take place over the course of a millisecond: a lizard’s tongue darting out to snare an insect, a “Jesus Christ lizard” sprinting across water, three cheetahs taking down an ostrich.

An elephant shrew, just one of the many cute critters featured in "Life."

Life’s narration, though, doesn’t live up to its visuals. Oprah Winfrey lacks the gravitas of a David Attenborough or a James Earl Jones, and she overemphasizes words and phrases  in a forced and sometimes distracting manner. The content of the narration is also slender—it mainly relies on platitudes about predator and prey and the great circle of life without ever asking the viewer to think deeply or ponder his relationship to the natural world. Instead the script just underscores what’s happening on screen: “Here’s another new animal. Check out the bizarre way it attracts a mate! Hey, it’s kind of like this next animal, which also needs to mate!”

And sometimes, Life can feel like a rehash of Planet Earth’s greatest hits. Instead of great white sharks snapping up seals, there are orcas circling around a crabeater seal; instead of African wild dogs hunting antelopes, shot from a helicopter, there are cheetahs hunting ostriches, also shot from a helicopter.

Life can feel shallow and disjointed at times, but its gorgeous cinematography more than makes up for its weak script. And if it feels like Planet Earth II, well, Planet Earth was awesome, so bring it on. Put Oprah on mute if you must, and sit back and let your mind get boggled.

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The 80′s Were Cheesy In China, Too

Lately my husband, who’s Chinese-American, has been looking up songs he remembers from his childhood on YouTube. He showed me the following video, of Taiwainese pop star Fei Xiang performing on the 1987 CCTV Chinese New Year Gala, and we couldn’t stop cracking up. Fei Xiang is like the Taiwanese version of A.C. Slater, and his dance moves have to be seen to be believed. He points with his index finger in all directions. He does horizontal jazz hands in front of his face. He bends his knees and flaps his arms, bird-wing style, as he crosses the stage. All this while sporting a poofy black pompadour and a shiny red tuxedo jacket paired with a leopard-print cummerbund.

He throws himself into his dancing with great enthusiasm and no trace of irony whatsoever. It’s pretty awesome. The good stuff starts around 5:20:

So the questionable fashions and “funky” dancing of the 80′s weren’t just limited to the U.S. and Europe — not by a long shot. No, the 80′s left their pastel-and-punk mark even on Red China. :)

This performance, my husband tells me, launched Fei Xiang’s career, as pop stars were something of a rarity in China back in the 80′s, especially those who danced. Fei Xiang was quite the heartthrob back in the day, and is still active in the music industry. His Wikipedia page, obviously written by a fan, contains such adorable details as his reunion with his grandmother (“When she met her grandson the first time, she was surely surprised by his looks and his height, however there was instant love between them and they accepted everything of each other.”), the change in his appearance over time (“Fei Xiang has greyish blue eyes which won thousands of his fans’ hearts. Although he was pretty fat as a young boy, he is well-built and muscly now as an adult.”), and his return performance in 1997 (“[W]hen Hong Kong came back and was classified as a part of China again, at the congratulations concert he returned to sing in China in public for the first time since he left and entered Broadway. This caused many mature women to remember their youths and their frantic love for him.”). Though the page doesn’t exactly meet Wikipedia’s standards for objectivity, it’s so cute that I kind of hope they leave it up.

In the 90′s, Fei Xiang hit Broadway, appearing in Miss Saigon and (erp!) The Songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are plenty of clips of his performances up on YouTube, including many in English, and I have to say he’s quite the charismatic performer. I especially like his rendition of “Unexpected Song,” which shines despite the poor sound quality of the video:

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Trekkin’ Through The Stargate: Trek Actors On Stargate SG-1

Over the past few months, my husband and I have been watching Stargate SG-1 (thanks, Hulu!). And, being big Trek fans, we couldn’t help but notice the many ways the show borrows from and plays off of (and, in a couple of cases, outright plagiarizes from) Star Trek. Stargate acknowledges its debt with in-show nods to Trek, like having a character mention that he “might as well be wearing a red shirt” when he’s under fire, or working Trek parodies into some of its more lighthearted episodes.

And, once Stargate really took off, Trek actors jumped on the bandwagon, gladdening the hearts of sci-fi geeks everywhere. Even when they weren’t well-suited to their roles, it was still fun to see those familiar faces once again.

Armin Shimerman (Quark)

Shimerman was the first Trek alum to crossover, appearing as a member of a quirky, tree-dwelling alien society known as the Nox. No Ferengi, these cuddly, be-fro’ed pacifists were one of the most appealing alien races to feature on Stargate: They seemed like simple villagers at first glance, only to turn out to be so evolved they no longer needed technology or weaponry to thrive. Shimerman brought charm to his role as Nox dad Anteaus.

Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi)

I have a hard time differentiating Sirtis from ditzy Troi, so it was pretty amusing to see her featured as a “brilliant Russian scientist.” Her Russian accent was . . . interesting, and at times indistinguishable from her Troi accent. Sirtis wasn’t the only “crossover” here: the plot of “Watergate,” the episode in which she appeared, is a blatant ripoff of “Home Soil” from Season 1 of TNG. I half expected the Enkarans to refer to SG-1 as “ugly bags of mostly water” . . . and then for Sirtis to use her telepathy on them.

Dwight Schultz (Reginald Barclay)

I didn’t even realize Schultz was in this episode at first — it was not until later I discovered that the guy who played Reg appeared in it. It’s not that Schultz looks very different from his TNG days; it’s that Reg’s nervous mannerisms were so much a part of his character that it was hard to recognize him without them. That’s a credit to Schultz’s acting abilities: the character he plays in Stargate, the Gamekeeper, is also a quirky, jittery fellow, but somehow Schultz makes him utterly distinct from Reg.

Rene Auberjonois (Odo)

Auberjonois is excellent as Alar, the leader of a corrupt and genocidal society in “The Other Side.” The crisp diffidence he brings to the character appropriately recalls the Nazis or General Dyer: it’s evil cloaked by bureaucratic pleasantries, undercut by barely detectable anxiety.

John DeLancie (Q)

DeLancie played one of the suits over various sorts who threatened to shut down the Stargate program (not without reason). But the role never seemed to fit him all that well: It forced him to be a boring bureaucrat, with none of the puckish humor Q was known for. Though it was fun to see an ex-Trek star again, his role could have been filled just as well by a lesser-known actor.

Jolene Blalock (T’Pol)

Blalock wasn’t really well-suited for her role as Ishta, leader of a renegade group of female Jaffa: She just doesn’t have the physical prowess and imposing manner the role requires. Her big fight scene with Teal’c, with its numerous distracting cross-cuts and gymnastic gyrations done by a stunt double, was the most ludicrous display of fisticuffs to appear on Stargate. On the bright side, though, it was nice to see Teal’c get a girlfriend, and to finally find out what happened to all the female Jaffa. And Blalock looked amazing. I never realized how unflattering the T’Pol makeup was until I saw her as Ishta. She is stunning (which, doubtless, is why Christopher Judge wrote this episode with her in mind). :)

John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox)

Billingsley plays Simon Coombs, an SGC scientist and SG-1 fanboy, in “The Other Guys,” one of the most Trek-centric episodes of Stargate. (He’s the one who dropped the line about feeling like a redshirt.) Alongside fellow nerd Fetzer, he goes on an ill-fated mission to “rescue” SG-1, getting to don Jaffa armor and fire a zat along the way. Billingsley hams it up and sometimes overacts, but overall is very funny as the bumbling Coombs.

Ronny Cox (Captain Jellico)

Cox, who appeared in two episodes of TNG (“Chain of Command,” a two-parter) is great as the corrupt Senator Kinsey, one of the SGC’s biggest foes back on Earth. He’s perfectly believable as a politician who talks about God and country with a smug sincerity, then turns his hand to backroom dealings with clandestine organizations once the cameras are off.

Robert Picardo (The EMH)

Another great villainous bureaucrat is Picardo’s Richard Woolsey. Woolsey’s character arc is similar to the EMH’s, actually: He starts out crusty, huffy, and petty, and little by little shows his warmer side, until eventually he’s accepted by the people he once antagonized. Sure enough, Picardo’s now found a regular role for himself as Woolsey on Stargate Atlantis. I haven’t watched Atlantis yet, so I can’t tell you about Connor Trinneer’s performances either, but I look forward to seeing the charmingly uptight Woolsey on it when I do.

Tony Amendola (Chorus #1 on Voyager episode “The Muse”)

And, finally, Amendola doesn’t really count, as he only had a bit part on one forgettable VOY episode, but I had to include him because, well, he plays Master Bra’tac, and Bra’tac rocks.

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The Trouble With “Wicked”

Wicked's official posterThe Trouble With Wicked

Contains spoilers.

My husband and I went to see Wicked over Christmas break. It’s a big, baroque spectacle of a musical, with soaring songs, intricate sets, and steampunky costumes in a Venetian palette. What sets it apart from other Broadway juggernauts like Phantom of the Opera are its attempts at political commentary. Wicked sends a valuable message about accepting moral ambiguity and not blindly following those in power; the problem is that it grafts these messages too clunkily onto a crowd-pleasing template, making for an entertaining but less than intellectually satisfying experience.

The most clever thing Wicked does is to overturn all your childhood perceptions. In its opening song, citizens of Oz, grateful that the Wicked Witch of the West has been killed, sing:

No one mourns the wicked,

No one lays a lily on their grave,

The good man scorns the wicked,

Through their lives our children learn

What we miss when we misbehave.

The “children” they’re singing about, we come to learn as the play progresses, are us: Americans who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz. From that movie—which, before the age of VCRs, DVDs, and TiVo, used to appear on television as a once-yearly event—we learned that “only bad witches are ugly,” that villains are absolute, and that it is perfectly safe for teenage girls to enlist the help of random grown men they meet on the road.

Wicked's Tin Man

But Wicked’s message is that such a binary view of good and evil is only suitable for children. When adults adopt it, the musical implies, the consequences can be devastating.

In Wicked’s Oz, the Wizard is a dictator, the talking animals a persecuted minority, and the Tin Man a McCarthyite finger-pointer. The Witch of the West, Elphaba, is a would-be reformer used as a scapegoat by the Wizard when she resists his plans, and Glinda’s no longer a “good witch” but a spin doctor for the powers that be.

It can be disconcerting to see beloved characters acting in cruel ways: the Tin Man, for example, sings, “I’m glad I’m heartless / I’ll be heartless killing her [Elphaba],” but it’s thought-provoking, too. What other “truths” about people and values, the musical forces us to ask, do we accept without examination? And who sold us on these “truths,” and for what purpose?

As the Wizard himself sings in one particularly clever song, “Wonderful,”

A man’s called a traitor,

Or liberator,

A rich man’s a thief,

Or philanthropist.

Is one a crusader,

Or ruthless invader?

It’s all in which label

Is able to persist.

Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba

Sadly, though, Wicked doesn’t always make its points so cunningly. At times it’s downright anvilicious; ironically, its message that “good” and “evil” aren’t always the absolutes they appear to be is drummed into the audience’s heads in an awfully moralistic fashion. Consider the song titles alone, for example: “No One Mourns The Wicked,” “No Good Deed,” “Something Bad,” “Thank Goodness,” “For Good.” (As a former resident of Southeastern Massachusetts, I was holding out for a song called “Wicked Good,” but, alas, it was not to be.)

Elphaba’s unexpected survival also weakens the play’s impact. Had she been offed by the Wizard and his coterie, she could have become a martyr to principle. Instead, the play’s authors opt for a wishy-washy, feel-good ending in which Elphaba, apparently melted by Dorothy and presumed dead, escapes to freedom with her lover, Fiyero. By doing so, they sell out their audience, whom they don’t believe tough enough to accept the harsh consequences that often arise when people stand up to power in the real world.

Regime Change Comes to Oz: Wicked and the Bush Administration

Though Wicked at times gestures towards Nazi Germany (through its scapegoated and persecuted minority, the talking animals) and racial discrimination (Elphaba is shunned because of her skin color), for the most part its targets are generic: corrupt officials, mercenary famemongers, and a frightened and closeminded populace. Still, it’s hard not to see some parallels to the war on terror: the musical, which premiered in 2003, was developed in the early 2000’s, during the early days of the war, and Glinda even drops the phrase “regime change” when the Witch of the East is killed.

To begin with, Oz is a realm governed by fear, in which rumors gain currency with frightening speed. “I hear she has an extra eye that always stays awake,” one citizen sings of Elphaba, and then another joins in, and another:

I hear she can shed her skin

As easily as a snake

I hear her soul is so unclean

Pure water can melt her!

From there it’s but a short step to: Please! Somebody melt her! And it’s the Wizard and his spin doctor, Madam Morrible, who step in to reassure everyone that the Wicked Witch will be dealt with. Meanwhile, they’re taking away the rights of the Talking Animals, banning them from teaching, and, finally, speaking. Elphaba morphs from a single woman to an embodiment of Evil itself, one who must be eradicated for the realm to regain a state of Edenic purity.

Sound familiar? The creators of Wicked, I believe, are not criticizing the war on terror so much as the morality-play rhetoric and symbolism underlying it. The terrorists may indeed by “wicked” (and what’s a better example of black-and-white moral thinking than Jihadism?), and should be stopped, but by painting them as “evil” and ourselves as “good,” we can fail to take a close, critical view of them and the leaders we count on to protect us.

It’s All About Popular: Sarah Palin as Glinda

GlindaSarah Palin, with a "Pa"

And, though the authors couldn’t have foreseen the rise of Sarah Palin back in 2000 or so, they must have shared a wry chuckle or two over Palin’s resemblance to Glinda. A celebrated beauty, Glinda is beloved wherever she goes, owing solely to her looks and charm. She is almost utterly lacking in talent or intellect, but that matters to her far less than popularity. As she tells Elphaba,

Think of celebrated heads of state

Or ‘specially great communicators:

Did they have brains or knowledge?

Don’t make me laugh!

They were popular!

It’s all about popular.

Glinda becomes so addicted to popularity that she can’t bear to let it out of her grip, even when that means joining forces with people she knows to be corrupt. In one particularly underhanded and catty move, she sells out Elphaba—her erstwhile “best friend”—to the Wizard because Fiyero has chosen Elphaba over her.

Glinda presides over her minionsWith a better script, Wicked would have been Glinda’s tragedy as much as it almost was Elphaba’s. For Glinda does become self-aware by the play’s close. She’s less happy to spread the Wizard’s lies than she is afraid not to, lest she lose her adoring public. As she mollifies the Munchkins with assurances that the Wizard has everything under control, one can almost hear her thinking, “This isn’t right, but if I speak out, then they won’t like me anymore.” That basic desire to be liked is what humanizes Glinda, transforming her from the ditzy comic relief into a sympathetic character.

But the play goes too far in trying to vindicate Glinda. After Elphaba’s “death,” Glinda tries to redeem her friend’s reputation — but doesn’t try so hard that she’d get herself in trouble with the Wizard. Despite being so weenie and weasely, she gets to end the play on a soaring duet in which she and Elphaba proclaim, “Because I knew you / I have been changed for the better / I have been changed for good.” Schmaltz, once again, wins out over substance.

Glinda can see Kansas from her house!I don’t know what goes on in Sarah Palin’s head, and so I can’t say whether she believes some of the more inflammatory things she says, but I see her as a Glinda: someone who’s in love with popularity and will hold onto it at any cost. Palin’s been blessed with good looks, charisma, and a gift for coining phrases that resonate with her base. When I hear her spouting rhetoric about “death panels” or Obama’s “palling around with terrorists,” I look at her winks and smirks and think, “There’s no way she can really buy that tripe,” partly because I don’t believe that Bump-It-covered head has ever held an idea in its life, and partly out of an inborn suspicion that all politicians*, of whatever party, are glib hucksters. Palin’s speeches are conglomerations of catch phrases, unfettered by logic or even grammar; they say nothing, except for the fact that she all too often has no idea what she’s talking about. But as long as she manages to push the right buttons — maverick! homespun hockey mom! Obama=the end of America! — she remains popular.

Does doubt ever creep into her mind, as it did for Glinda, making her think that maybe her irresponsible statements are causing harm, or, failing that, that maybe she shouldn’t be blathering on about subjects she knows nothing about? There’s been no sign of it so far, but one can always hope.

* For the record, I don’t think Obama cares nearly as much about hope, change, or health care reform as he does the awesomeness of one Barack H. Obama.

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The Best of Jean-Luc Picard

In honor of Patrick Stewart’s being knighted, I’ve collected ten of the moments, scenes, episodes, and incidents that make Captain Jean-Luc Picard one of the great characters in television history. He was one of the main reasons The Next Generation rose above its nerdy sci-fi métier to become a classic series. I can only imagine what he does with roles like Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear. Congratulations, Sir Patrick, and, readers, enjoy my picks for the top ten best Picard moments:

10. Metafictional Modesty

“A Fistful of Datas,” Season Six

Who, me, acting?

When Crusher asks Picard to appear in the play she’s directing, he replies, with a diffident smile, “I’m not much of an actor.” But the glint in Patrick Stewart’s eyes gives him away — he’s an awesome actor; he knows it; we know it; and he proves it here by uniting his real and fictional personas in a single classic line.

9. I Love You, Lwaxana

“Menage a Troi,” Season Three

My love is like a red red rose . . .Beauty too rich for use . . . . . . for Earth too dear . . .

Picard’s declaration of “love” for Lwaxana Troi is one of the funniest scenes in all TNG. He starts off awkward and halting, and then warms up to the role, hamming away while the rest of the crew cracks up. Even when the camera’s on Tog and Lwaxana, he’s audible in the background, quoting lines of British poetry. Once again, in a treat for admirers of Stewart’s acting, all three “layers” are detectable here: Steward playing Picard, who’s playing Lwaxana’s love interest.

8. The Universal Language

“Darmok,” Season Five

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!

This episode makes use of a classic — and often hackneyed — sci-fi trope: the character who must communicate with an alien who doesn’t speak his language. Usually, this plot point is terribly annoying to the viewers (which is why most aliens conveniently speak English): we’re force to watch characters grope, gesture, and point to themselves, repeating their names until the alien finally gets them. Then the characters talk in monosyllables until the end of the episode, by which point the alien’s learned an astonishing amount of English, though not enough to make things remotely enjoyable.

But “Darmok” is able to turn this cliché into something special, due in part to Stewart’s acting and in part to the fact that Dathor does have an intelligible language, albeit one that needs a little deciphering, and so he doesn’t just speak nonsense words the writers have concocted for him. By the end of the episode, the characters have genuinely begun to care for one another, making us care for them as well.

7. Live Long And Prosper

“Sarek,” Season Three; “Unification,” Season Five

Farewell, Sarek.

Picard mind-melds with one of the show’s most memorable guest stars (Mark Lenard, putting in a formidable performance himself), and Stewart delivers a devastating glimpse into the Vulcan’s helplessness and frustration. In the completion of the arc, Picard convinces Spock — Spock!  — to forgive his estranged father. You know you’re good when you’re helping Vulcans with their family problems.

Bonus: “Sarek” is the episode where Crusher slaps Wesley “really hard!” But it wasn’t her fault, as she was being telepathically influenced by Sarek’s anger at the time. Sure she was.

Bonus 2: When K’vada implies that humans aren’t as tough as Klingons, Picard doesn’t let it get to him. “You’ll sleep Klingon style,” K’vada says. “We do not soften our bodies by putting down pads.” And Picard thumps the board that serves for a bunk, exclaiming, just a little too heartily, “Great! That’s the way I like it!”

6. The Bald Badass

“Starship Mine,” Season Six

Good thing I took all those archery lessons back at the Academy!

Picard shows that he’s not just a cerebral captain by single-handedly taking back the Enterprise from a group of mercenaries. He engages in hand-to-hand combat, scours Worf’s quarters for weapons, shoots a crossbow, administers a Vulcan nerve pinch, concocts a homemade flare, and blows up the thieves’ getaway ship, all while his hapless crewmates struggle to escape from two klutsy Arkarian guards.

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