Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For Your Ears Only: Starstruck

Cover and link to Starstruck on Amazon MP3
I have some connection with the people behind Audio Comics, which makes its debut as an audio theatre company with STARSTRUCK, but I’m not terribly familiar with the source material. Elaine Lee wrote this based on a stage play dating back to the eighties (written by herself, Susan Norfleet, and Dale Place) which later became a comic series, and I do want to say, if there’s a stage play out there featuring the wild and ribald adventures of four female space rangers, why is this not performed as often as THE SOUND OF MUSIC? This is just what you need to get people going to the theatre again.

In any case, STARSTRUCK’s translation to the aural medium is superbly done. It’s a lush and charming sci-fi comedy which has a lot on its plate but somehow manages to avoid a spill into incoherence, which is probably a sign that it’s tighter than it seems. I don’t want to seem too effusive in my praise simply because I do know some of the people involved and have a little bias, but I genuinely enjoyed this and think it’ll be worth a listen for most people.

STARSTRUCK follows the crew of the Harpy, four female freedom fighters who are on a mission for the galactic federation when they get come across a curious object on radar. They’ve found another ship, a living ship apparently made from the remains of Galactic Girl Guides. Captain Galatia 9 (Tavia Gilbert) is outraged and decides to investigate, ultimately finding that the ship is owned by none other than her arch-nemesis, space pirate Verloona Ti (Denise Poirier) and her motley crew of pirates and ne’er-do-wells. They’ve got big plans for the multiverse, and it’s up to Galatia, liberated love droid Erotica Ann (Kristina Balbo), Brucilla the Muscle (Jennywren Sanders), and psychic Bronwyn of the Veil (Genevieve Casagrande) to stop whatever it is they’re trying to do, and complete their original mission to keep order on a planet with a kidnapped ruler.

With space opera we almost automatically expect a certain grandeur, opulence, and most importantly clutter. An audio play can’t have visual clutter and can’t risk too much audio clutter, so instead it has to throw wild and weird concepts and story twists at us to fully convey a vibrant sci-fi universe. As the summary hopefully indicates, STARSTRUCK has plenty to offer in this department. There are several story threads thrown up by the Harpy’s chance encounter with evil, and while I thought I was a bit lost at times, in the end everything is actually accounted for.

It really helps that this this is a traditional trashy space adventure in outre trappings; if you know enough of the conventions and clich├ęs you’ll be able to get the general gist of what’s happening, as we move through discoveries, betrayals, revelations of diabolical plans, and so on and so forth up until the big showdown between space ranger and space pirate. What’s different are the trappings, drawing on various reaches of high and low culture, mixing retro sci-fi and fantasy with wry comedy, bohemian craziness, and a subtle dash of third-wave feminism.

Strong production values add to the atmosphere, with various sound effects and atmospheres setting the mood but getting out of the way when they need to. There’s some narration by Simon Vance which helps bridge transitions and give character backstory, but as sparse as it is it doesn’t feel out of place. The cast all do a good job, staying at a high level of energy from start to finish; they keep the momentum up by speaking fast and loud, and allowing themselves to go over the top without becoming shrill.

STARSTRUCK is being rolled out in a variety of audio formats and platforms; the link above is to the album on Amazon MP3, but the company site also offers it on CD and it’s being made available through other MP3 sellers as well (iTunes may be in the offing but no concrete word yet). At a little over two hours, it lasts long enough to scratch the space opera lover’s itch, and it should appeal to lovers of the offbeat in all genres. It’s a really strong debut for the company; a slick and professional production of an original and appealing work, that may well find the audience it deserves.

Stage play written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet, and Dale Pace
Adapted for audio by Elaine Lee
Directed by William Dufris

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Frasierquest 3.3: Martin Does It His Way

Frasier Crane, choir director
Niles: I don't mean to quibble, but it seems like your heart is always going either hidy-heydy, ringy-dingy, or scooby-dooby.

Martin: Look, I don't need another critic.

Niles: Right. Perhaps a cardiologist.

I try to avoid spoilers, but sometimes they’re unavoidable. Sometimes what makes an episode stand out is what happens at the very end, and that’s the case with “Martin Does It His Way”. It’s a nice change of pace, focusing on the elder Crane for once, and has a good parallel plot structure, but it’s the finale that makes it all come together. In the meantime, the set-up has it tackling two entirely separate themes; one of pursuing our dreams and not letting them fester, and one of finding nice things to say about people who are better off dead.

Frasier’s aunt Louise has died, which is not as sad as it sounds because nobody really liked her (nor she anybody.) It may not be sad but it is annoying, because Louise requested that Frasier deliver the eulogy at her funeral, and asked Niles- with whom she was never satisfied or impressed- to find a suitable site at which to dispose of her ashes. A conversation about all the things Louise said she was going to do but never did leads to the family discovering Martin’s hidden ambition- he wants to write a song for Frank Sinatra. He wrote down quite a few in his spare time, and as Frasier and Niles mull over their own dilemmas, they convince him to pull out the best one, work up a tune, and send it off to Frank’s people. That ends up not quite working out, but Martin figures he at least tried, and Frasier surprises him at Aunt Louise’s funeral by turning Martin’s “Lady of Mine” into a choral tribute to the deceased.

Martin’s songwriting passion is an interesting character detail which, while it doesn’t radically transform our perception of him, does add a layer. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, and to know that he has a creative side rounds out the character while not really going against the grain of what we know about him already. He doesn’t quite think of himself as a writer, but he loves Sinatra and thinks he knows what the Chairman likes. From what we hear, he’s pretty decent; I don’t know from standards, but “Lady of Mine” ends up being a pretty catchy tune.

The reason I have to spoil the ending on this one is because I think it’s what ties a bow on the whole story. While Martin’s song doesn’t get sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes, it does a lot more good in the context it does get performed in, turning a miserable remembrance of the life of a miserable woman into a genuinely positive experience by having everyone pretend, just for a couple of minutes, that she was indeed a groovy lady. It’s a nod to the power of art, and a perfect up-note on top of twenty minutes of entertaining grumpiness.

Niles adds a good B-story to the mix, even if it’s not developed very much. While Frasier’s struggle with the eulogy is basically a matter of not wanting to lie that horribly, Niles is motivated by a desire to finally do something right for her. He didn’t like her any more than anyone else did, but her constant dissatisfaction with everything he did makes him determined to prove her wrong. It’s an interesting spin on his typical perfectionism, which is usually an end in itself.

It’s all charming stuff, an especially life-affirming installment despite being all about death. It has the nice theme that our dreams, even if not realized in full, can still make our lives better, and enhance others’ as well. Rather than state this explicitly, the show makes the point with a song and leaves us all with a smile. It’s not a classic, but it kind of sticks with you anyway.

Guest Caller: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Eileen

Written by David Lloyd
“Lady of Mine” written by Paul A. Kreiling and David Lloyd
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired October 10, 1995

Daphne: Besides, in my family, when there was a funeral everybody went. I remember when Grammy Moon passed on. My brothers had been off on a three-day bender. They couldn't even stand on their own - pissed as newts! But they crawled to that chapel on their hands and knees.

Frasier: Very commendable.

Daphne: Yeah, well, they had an obligation. They were the pallbearers.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the Duality of Glee (Sort of)

Brittany and friend
GLEE is a show that’s fun to watch, sometimes frustrating to follow, and hair-pullingly maddening to try and talk about on occasion. It’s a volatile show, often wildly inconsistent, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the worst thing. I admire that it’s a little out of control, that it’s big and brash and sometimes kind of smart and sometimes kind of dumb. It’s idealistic and joyful, but with enough dark comedy to keep it from sliding into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL territory. (And yes, I know I gave that a good review. I am large, I contain multitudes.) It can be incredibly self-indulgent, as in the various theme episodes where plot takes a backseat to exploring the repertoire of a popular artist, but dammit, the indulgence can be fun. And while the show doesn’t really need defending, what with a massive explosion in popularity midway during the first season, I think it may be worth taking a look at what makes it such a rollercoaster ride.

Now, there’s a popular theory that the show’s apparent lurches from restrained comedy to glitzy craziness stems mainly from a split between the show’s three creators/head writers: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk. There’s some truth to this, at least if the episodes they’re credited with are representative- Murphy’s done all the “theme” episodes, for one, Falchuk has some of the more dramatic ones, Brennan is sort of in the middle, etc. Of course, though this is subject to individual opinion, each has some of the best and worst of the show to their credit: Falchuk has the superb “Dream On” and the less effective “Throwdown”, Brennan wrote the forgettable “Hairography” but the amazing “The Rhodes Not Taken”, and Murphy, of course, is responsible for highly criticized installments like “Wheels” and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” but also the pretty amazing “Mattress” (and I have a certain fondness for “The Power of Madonna.”) I think the Three Writers approach explains some of the show’s shiftiness, but not all, especially since American TV writing is almost inherently collaborative and I’m sure everyone has worked on everyone else’s credited scripts.

Instead, I’ve constructed a little thesis of my own. GLEE is basically a game of duality- highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, sophisticated satire and big dumb spectacle. I think this is mostly by design. There’s a basic contrast from the start of the series, between the ideals of togetherness and joy through art that Will Shuster envisions his Glee club as representing, and the messier dark parts of reality, like the fact that he hooked its lead male singer by threatening to frame him for pot possession. I think it’s this tension which serves as the show’s key dramatic engine; while the external conflict may be Sue trying to destroy the club or a new competitor or random personal drama for the students, it usually comes down to whether the ideal or the cynical reality carries the day, and sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, and just as often a mix of both.

Let’s take one of my favorite episodes, “The Rhodes Not Taken”, as an example. This was the first episode I saw and the one that got me hooked; a lot of that had to do with the utterly astounding duet between guest star Kristin Chenoweth as April and Lea Michele as Rachel, both singing “Maybe This Time” from CABARET. The latter did good, the former pretty much blew the roof off. Anyway, the plot revolves around Rachel ditching the club to play the lead in the school’s production of the aforementioned musical, leaving New Directions without someone to handle the big diva numbers. Will Shuster (Matthew Morrison) gets in touch with April Rhodes, who was a major glee club diva back when he was in high school- and upon finding out that she leads the life of an alcholic squatter, offers her a position at the school and on the club. It’s a heartfelt gesture and a second chance, but April soon starts getting her fellow clubbers drunk (and teaching them how to shoplift), and it’s obvious that this just isn’t going to work out. She’s broken and Will can’t fix her, as much as he wants to. Rachel, in turn, finds that her dream of leaping straight to stage stardom isn’t going to work, mainly because the director is a creepy, ego-destroying douchebag. There’s reconciliation at the end- Rachel rejoins the gang, and April accepts that she can’t go on like this and decides to strike towards Branson. A couple of dreams get dashed, but hope springs eternal.

This constant give and take extends to the characters as well, which gets us to the heart of much of the criticism the show has had, namely that ostensibly identifiable and sympathetic characters like Will, Rachel, and Kurt (Chris Colfer) often do very unsympathetic things, often enough that we start to wonder whether we should root for them at all. I don’t doubt that the shades of gray we’re given with each character are deliberate; it works both ways, as the ultra-villainous Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has shown her soft side on occasion, and even Will’s much hated ex-wife, who faked a pregnancy to try and keep him with her, has been allowed a moment of grace or two. In general, the characters each have a light and dark side. Rachel and Kurt are very vulnerable in the overall school hierarchy, one being a dowdy do-gooder, the other the only openly gay student thusfar, but they can both be manipulative and cruel when grasping for their respective desires.

Will is a more complex little pirate; in trying to court the lovely and neurotic Emma (Jayma Mays) or teach his kids, he just doesn’t seem to know where the line is, and while this has had him move into some very ugly territory as of late, I can’t drop my sympathies completely because I realize how messed up he is. He went right from school to marriage; this is the first time he’s been on his own in years, and I think his short sighted and self-serving behavior stems from not being experienced in really dealing with other people. He wants to be kind and generous and often is, but he doesn’t understand when his actions can cause harm.

As far as I’m concerned this is interesting characterization, if not always perfectly modulated; the show seems mostly story-driven, and to serve the needs of a given week’s plot the characters sometimes have to swing from one extreme to another quickly. This is something that the show does have to work on, to make the shifts less jarring and maybe make their bad moments easier to understand, and therefore forgive.

Now, if there’s a part of the show I will class as an outright guilty pleasure, it’s the gimmick episodes. When the show first started, music rights were hard to secure, but as it became popular, artists and publishers have been very forthcoming with their catalogues, which has resulted in the show itself growing more music heavy. The gimmick episodes- “The Power of Madonna”, the Gaga-themed “Theatricality”, “Britney/Brittany”, and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”- have almost all had fairly thin and often self-contained storylines, and while I’m not sure most of them are objectively good television, I more or less enjoyed them all. It comes down to the music- the cast are, by and large, quite good performers, and while neither the songs nor arrangements are original, there’s an enthusiasm and reckless goofiness that I just can’t reject. There’s an extent to which a musical is carried by its songs, and while the show shouldn’t indulge itself too often, it’s an indulgence I like to share in.

I may be wandering off point, but I think on the whole, what makes the show so maddeningly inconsistent is also what makes it so damn compelling. If it’s not entirely in control of itself, it may be because it’s doing something no other show right now is really trying. It’s trying to mix cheery music and dark comedy, flawed characters with big ideals, and really obvious thematic statements with the occasional moment of nuance. It may yet mature into something a bit more stable, but I have to say I’m enjoying the volatility. Its worst episodes still usually have some moments of cuteness, humor, or just plain awesome music to recommend them, and at its best, it reaches heights of joy and depths of despair that I’m just not seeing anywhere else.

I’d recommend it, but the show doesn’t really need my thumbs-up now, does it? Still, I think fans and non-fans can all agree on one thing: Heather Morris is some kind of a ninja.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Frasierquest 3.2: Shrink Rap

Frasier and Niles get help
Martin: The restaurant you bought together, that was a bad idea! The book you tried to write together, that was a bad idea! But this.... [thinks] No, that restaurant was still the stupidest one.

It seems like not too long ago I was detailing Frasier and Niles’ last failed attempt to work together. It was the penultimate episode of Season 2, and so there’s an unintended symmetry here. But while “The Innkeepers” was a sprawling disaster epic, “Shrink Rap” is much more focused on the fundamentals of Frasier and Niles’ sibling rivalry. It works primarily as an excuse to have the two at each other’s throats for almost the entire show, and also lets Frasier act as a more traditional psychiatrist for a change. All that plus a flashback-driven story makes this a worthy bout in a series-long grudge match.

The episode starts with the two brothers in therapy, as couples specialist Dr. Schacter (Milo O’ Shea) helps the two recount their latest conflict. Frasier was getting bored at the station, and decided to do some private practice work on the side; Niles wanted an excuse to kick out a primal scream therapy group disrupting his building, and so we see the two happily embark on a joint group therapy venture. We’re just a little into Day One when Niles starts condescending to Frasier, Frasier starts interrupting his brother’s diagnoses with his own thoughts, and neither can agree where the potted plant should go. The two brothers start engaging in their own primal scream therapy, and that’s when Dr. Schacter offers to help.

Despite the flashback structure of the story, there isn’t a lot of Rashomon-esque manipulation of events; there are a few times when the brothers try to puff up their own egos or score points off each other, and Niles’ flashback provides us with a particularly entertaining monologue from Daphne, but the conflict between their versions of events isn’t central to the episode. I expect this framing device was more a way to start the story off in an unusual place, beginning with everything having failed and then showing us how.

The how of it is no big surprise; Frasier and Niles are innately competitive, and in this case Niles sees Frasier as intruding on his territory, even though he invited him in. Daphne gets to the heart of it when she observes that Niles gave Frasier a smaller name on the door; he probably expected to somehow be in charge, not just because Frasier would be working part-time, but because he doesn’t see Frasier as a genuine psychiatrist. He’s a celebrity and needs to be reminded of how real therapy works, preferably with a lot of books (though Frasier’s memory may be exaggerating just how much reading material Niles gave him.)

It’s not like Frasier makes much of an effort to get along either. He tries to dominate the group discussion and give every individual advice, since that’s what he’s used to and it’s his personality. He makes no concessions when his brother calls him out, and gives no ground in the argument that results. When the Crane boys fight, they go big; they don’t concede points and are loath to compromise. Dr. Schacter inevitably pronounces them a helpless case, since it’s almost a rule that sitcom character dysfunction be irreparable. It’s the same reason Jack Benny’s violin teacher never held out any hope of him improving.* But Frasier and Niles quickly find an excuse to ignore his advice, and though the cooperative practice never resurfaces, it is an experience from which they refuse to learn.

*(I am well aware that Jack Benny could actually play the violin quite well.)

If I have one complaint about this episode it’s that it really only has the central story, and nobody else has much to do, but I’m not even sure that’s an actual flaw. “Shrink Rap” sets out to do one thing and does it very, very well, with some of the best quipping in Frasier and Niles’ storied history, and O’ Shea makes a great counterpoint. It’s quick and to the point, that point being polished to a razor sheen.

Guest Caller: Blair Brown as Jill

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by David Lee
Aired September 26, 1995

Frasier: I am so tired of your exaggeration, you always make things fifteen thousand times worse than they are!

Transcript by Nicholas Hartley at TWIZTV.com