Tag Archives: Theater

Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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Language and Story

Language is weird. Conveying language is even harder. How do you make a story where the main characters are all speaking a different language, but gear it to an English-speaking audience? Do you give them vague accents or pull a Sean Connery and let Russian-in-English sound suspiciously like a Scottish brogue? Then what if the they interact with English speakers?  How do you flip that sense of the other, where the person speaking the language you understand isn’t understood by the characters you’re following?

The play Vietgone, a story about Vietnamese immigrants to the US after the Fall of Saigon, merrily blazes its own path. In a delightfully post-modern fashion, Vietnamese is rendered in contemporary English. Main characters Quang and Tong interject ‘dude’ while speaking regular, American English — despite it supposed to be in Vietnamese. Because of this, we, as an audience, are firmly with them. We speak the same language, we understand them, we identify. There’s nothing stilted about it, it’s just people talking like people talk.

See, there’s this stereotype about Asians in and around the US is that they (we?) are so completely foreign, so other, that assimilation into normalcy isn’t really a thing — that the adjective in front of the noun is the more important word. It’s something that’s colored by the media in many ways, from Full Metal Jacket’s refrain of “me love you long time” to a certain recent piece by a major news show involving some idiot in Chinatown. When Vietgone positions its protagonists as speaking normal English, it empowers them to get to be normal. Quang and Tong aren’t presented as being other or foreign, instead they’re portrayed as normal as they would be had this story been about a bunch of white people moving somewhere else.

As for the Americans? Vietgone, a comedy, renders English as a series of loud, disparate, American-y words, yielding ‘sentences’ along the lines of “Cheeseburger shotgun Nixon!” It’s legitimately hilarious, but it underscores how confused and away Quang and Tong are. They don’t understand the people around them — and neither do we. As for the American who does try to learn Vietnamese and speaks it poorly, he is depicted speaking a horribly mangled version of English, flipping the funny foreigner trope well on its head. By building a language barrier that puts the audience on the in with the non-English speaking cast, Vietgone creates a space where the white Americans are seen as the other, not the immigrant Vietnamese.

So? What’s the big deal about this?

Diversity matters.

I will yammer on and on and on about this, to the point where I think 2016 is Essays, Not Rants! Year of Diversity (2015 was the Year of Feminism), and that’s because it’s important. Vietgone tells a familiar story (two people fall in love!) with a familiar backdrop (the aftermath of the Vietnam War!) but from a completely different perspective (did you know about the refugees from Vietnam in the aftermath?). Not only does it work as the story of immigrants and refugees, but, by positioning these people as the main characters the play allows them to tell their stories. This is the aftermath of the Vietnam War as told by those who saw their country and homes fall. It’s a different story, but not one that feels the need to dwell overlong on how different and special it is. It’s, like all good stories, a story about people first. One where they get to tell it and we get to listen in.

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Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a brewery or where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there’s gonna be something the audience doesn’t know and will have to learn (seriously, if you’re doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you’re still gonna have to tell us why she’s going to her grandmother’s). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let’s keep Othello on trial.

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