Star Trek Discovery, Ep 4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

Discovery Episode Four – “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”

We’re starting to see how the show runs, now that the set-up is done and I’m pleased to see that even though the series has taken on a serialized approach, the episode’s plot still stands on its own, simultaneously feeling both like a Star Trek episode (problem on a planet, need to come up with a solution to reach them in time, science our way through, arrive in time to save the people, consider the consequences and lessons learned) while also building on the overarching plot (Discovery’s role as a black ops ship, the continued story of the creature from the Glenn, the ongoing Klingon power struggle).  I’m pleased to see that the show can balance these elements as well as it does here as it gives us the final proof of concept for the new style of show, and for my money, it’s a good one.

This episode also succeeds in examining who Michael Burnham is when she isn’t dealing with her big ‘mutineer’ plot and thankfully she’s the same character we got a glimpse of in the pilot when she was exploring the Torch: a curious, inquisitive, mind that is in awe of space.  There are a lot of complaints and concerns about the tone of this new show as being overly militaristic, pessimistic, and ‘grimdark’ (a delightful portmanteau with its origins in the Warhammer 40,000 universe; learn more about it in this handy article at KnowYourMeme.com), however I’d argue that the Michael we’re getting now is actually the embodiment of the sense of discovery and exploration that was always at the core of Trek.  Her main support characters, Lt. Stamets and Cadet Tilly, both provide classic Trek outlets, with particular credit to Rapp, whose Stamets mixes the best smarm of Stephen Colbert and Phil Hartman to create a science officer foil that is both capable and annoying (in a good way).  While Burnham remains in strife with Saru, the show did a good enough job of getting us on-side with him that we’re content to wait and let him become more central as Burnham increases in rank (something we’ll likely see happen pretty quickly, given Lorca’s obsessions).  And speaking of Lorca, my continued hat is off to Trek for allowing what would previously be a mentor or admiral one-off villain be the actual captain of the goddamn ship.  We’ve seen the dark reflection of our captains many times before, but to get an actual Ahab is a joy – particularly given Burnham’s care and understanding of the creature in her care.

Which brings me to the big debate point right now: is this Trek too grimdark?  I’ve been wondering this myself, ever since the first major conflict with the Klingons involved Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Phillipa Georgiou hiding a bomb on a Klingon casualty of war in order to attack their ship.  Tactically, this is something we’ve seen in major conflicts throughout time, but is generally regarded (rightly so) as a despicable, inhumane act.  Obviously, in the dire circumstances of war despicable, inhumane acts are sometimes the only options available (as indeed it is presented here), however there is no pause or comment on it from theoretically moral and upstanding characters.  Georgiou is regarded as a Picard-level ‘always does the right thing’ character and yet defiles a corpse without thought or hesitation; all we would have needed, I think, was a moment of “We must do a despicable thing to win this” or a “Captain, are you sure that’s a line you want to cross” and see Georgiou decide to do it, cost be damned, to save her crew and we would have been good.  Unfortunately, it was presented as an imminently reasonable solution to the problem (as Trek technical solutions often are) and we moved on.  Trek, traditionally, is a show of optimism about the future, with Roddenberry’s stated goal being to present us not as we are but how we should strive to be: simple things like having a Russian working happily alongside Americans on the bridge of the Enterprise during the Cold War was a simple statement about what we could do if we stopped fighting each other and started working together.  Roddenberry refused to allow war into Trek (aside from the Klingon Cold War, in full swing during The Original Series) and it wasn’t until after his death that we got our first taste of out-and-out war in Deep Space Nine, which took Trek to war against The Dominion.  War was further re-visited in Enterprise (which shares a lot of DNA and ideas with Discovery, though Discovery has gone about applying it much better) and then again most recently in the very post-9/11 take on the Federation in J.J. Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness (which thankfully was course-corrected in Beyond).

But here we have Trek at war, aboard a ‘victory at all costs’ black ops shop, determined to end the war as quickly as possible.  The Discovery and its secret projects are a kind of Manhattan Project, with Lorca eagerly eying the war-ending potential of the atom bomb with not a thought to the destruction and death it will cause: this sits ill with many Trek fans, which is understandable, given Roddenberry’s intent and the hopeful nature of the other shows.  What I’d like to argue here is this: the goal of this series is to bring moral ambiguous characters forward to the point of being the hopeful adventurers we met in The Original Series, not to languish in that utopian-lite period of optimism.  The way the cast and crew spoke about the show at the press conference at the San Diego Comic Con back in July leaned heavily toward hope, tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and understanding how to live with and strive with each other.  So far, we’ve only seen glimpses of that, but I’d like to hope that’s the point: we are living in a post-Star Trek society.  We’ve seen it, we’ve loved it, we’ve learned from it.  Roddenberry built a beautiful lens through which to view our future and we’ve been looking through it for fifty years; but the world around us does not reflect that future (and granted, in his time his world didn’t reflect it either).  What I’d posit Discovery is presenting is an experience where we move from not understanding how to achieve this future, to actively working to achieve it, as our characters do.  And the show is presenting a much more accepting and diverse picture of humanity in the future: even just having a greater diversity of sexualities aboard a starship is a big step forward for Trek.  But where we are failing hard right now as a society is in understanding other points of views and seeking similarities: we’re re-tribalizing and becoming isolationist again as the world continues to shrink due to the internet and ease of communication and travel.  And so, I think, Discovery is out to show us that part of the process: how we come to use our empathy, curiosity, and understanding to work together.  In a sense, it’s showing its work, rather than just presenting the result.  The first real proof of this, comes in this week’s episode with ‘Ripper’ the creature that killed everything on the Glenn during last week’s excellent horror sequence.

Ripper has shown itself to be a creature of great destructive capabilities as well being nearly invulnerable.  Naturally, Lorca wants to weaponize it or repurpose its claws and hide for weapons and armour.  Tasked with doing so, Burnham is teamed up with security chief Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma, best known as Tory from Battlestar Galactica): where Burnham seeks to understand the creature and why it attacks, Landry just sees it as a weapon and gets killed right-quick for it.  But Burnham’s process of understanding is a clever and ultimately useful one: rather than just treat the unknown as a threat, Burnham works to understand.  This is a classic Trek set-up and has been used time-and-time again (like that time Spock mind-melded with the angry carpet monster in The Devil in the Dark) but here I think it’s actually being used to illustrate Discovery’s thesis: the creature was introduced as a ‘freak-of-the-week’ monster in the first episode, the key to fungal teleportation and sentient in the second and is left wounded and afraid by the teleportation by episode’s end, with Burnham struggling with the fact that it isn’t a beast, it’s a new alien lifeform that is being abused and disregarded for Starfleet’s immediate gain.  It’s a different way to think about first contact and the idea of ‘seeking out new life and new civilizations’ but it’s a good one for a time of fear and war: just because we’re in conflict doesn’t mean we can abandon our beliefs and morals (as the first episode oddly did with the corpse bombs).  Burnham seems to be learning this and my great hope is that the rest of the series will follow her spreading that to the rest of the crew, while contending with Lorca’s hellbent mission.

Of course, I could be wrong; TV has shifted hard in favour of the anti-hero over the years, with show runners struggling to make audiences hate their villainous main characters (Vince Gilligan was astounded people were still rooting for Walter White to win and get a happy ending going into the final season of Breaking Bad).  We’ve seen what is morally acceptable for our main character to do in the name of the cause shift dramatically (thanks, Jack Bauer) and with the state of the United States right now, it’s damn hard to view the future with optimism and if I’m wrong and this truly is a grimdark Trek, it may not be the one we want, but the one we deserve right now.

At Comic Con, during SyFy’s excellent “The Great Debate” panel, moderator John Hodgman posed the question: if you had to erase either Star Wars or Star Trek from history, which would it be?  The entire panel voted Wars, not out of hatred of the franchise, but because of the hopeful nature of Trek.  Mythbusters’ Adam Savage disagreed: with palpable sadness in his voice, he replied that though he loves Trek with all his heart, the future it promised is too easy and a lie.  He said for our current world, we needed the grit and tragedy of Wars, where common people struggle against tyrants.  The mood in the room shifted for a brief moment as we all sat with the ramifications of what he’d said.  Then someone made a joke and we were back to it.  But Discovery reflects Savage’s point: it is giving us a dirtier, more morally ambiguous Trek to fit the times, but if it can bring us from despair to hope, it will have created one of the most interesting arcs ever in the history of Trek.

It’s still too early to tell and likely will be until the series ends, but either way, I’m with them now to the end: and regardless of whether or not Discovery can pull off the gargantuan task I’ve hypothesized for it, the show is engaging, interesting science fiction.

In that regard, it doesn’t really matter whether Discovery is good or bad Trek: it’s good TV. Ultimately, that’s probably what matters most.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

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Star Trek Discovery, ep 3: Context is for Kings

Star Trek: Discovery Review – “Ep .3: Context is for Kings”

Now that’s more like it.

After a slow start and a remarkably incomplete two-part premiere, we now have an actual sense of the kind of show Star Trek: Discovery wants to be.  And while it’s a departure from Treks of yore (as advertised), what Discovery has finally set up is extremely promising.

Picking up six months after the previous episode, Michael Burnham is now working on a prison mining crew and has become infamous as Starfleet’s first mutineer (an interesting distinction that somewhat justifies how much time was spent setting her up in the previous episodes).  Before long, she finds herself aboard the shiny new USS Discovery, a scientific research vessel that is full of armed guards, off-limit labs, and mysterious ‘black badge’ Starfleet Officers.  It’s clear something is amiss and is one of the greatest gifts Discovery has given us: a ship that we haven’t been following with a less than trustworthy crew.  Voyager opened with this premise, having the rebel group the Maquis join with Voyager to get home, but the crew dynamic quickly reverted to the usual Trek fare (I know the threat of a mutiny by Chakotay dropped away pretty quickly for me).

The difference here is seeing Voyager through a character like Chakotay’s eyes – who are these people and what are they up to?  The situation is further complicated in Burnham’s case since, as a prisoner stranded on Discovery, she is subject to the Captain’s orders and soon finds herself actively working alongside some of her former crewmates and innumerable people who view her as a traitor to the Federation and the cause of the Klingon War.

Burnham’s ability and curiosity quickly position her as an asset and she begins to suspect that Discovery is not what it appears, all leading – of course – to the Captain offering her a position aboard the ship.  While Burnham’s appointment to the ship was inevitable, the circumstances of it (compounded by her suspicion that her shuttle’s ‘accident’ was orchestrated to bring her aboard, which seems to be accurate) are inventive and engaging.

We also get a tremendously atmospheric away mission very reminiscent of Alien, Event Horizon, or EA’s excellent Dead Space video game series as the crew explores the Discovery’s sister ship the USS Glenn and the horrors within.  Trek has done horror a few times, but few as successfully as this, where Discovery’s excellent design sense and top notch directing really shines.  The series really does look and feel like a movie, which is pretty incredible.

But best of all, we get another awesome first for the series: a villainous, untrustworthy Captain.  Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca comes off as another stock “Looking to do the right thing in the wonders of space” captain at first (honestly, his first scene could have just been Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer from Enterprise), but we quickly realize there’s a lot more to Lorca than meets the eye…and it positions Burnham for an incredible arc: if you’re notorious for munity against your good captain, how can you properly hope to stop your bad captain?  Lorca embodies the best of the guest starring ‘Crazed Starfleet Officer who will achieve his goals, cost be damned’, but rather than an admiral or former mentor as was so often the case in past Treks, in this one he’s the main captain and that is exciting as hell.  Suddenly casting Lucius Malfoy makes infinite sense.  It’s a great set-up and I’m psyched to see where it goes.

We also meet the rest of the crew, none of whom are particularly happy to meet Burnham, most notably: her twitchy roommate and eventual first ally Sylvia Tilly (a Cadet, rank we’ve rarely seen aside from Chekov in The Original Series, given our bridge focus); Anthony Rapp (Mark from RENT!) as the arrogant biologist Paul Stamets (who is responsible for the mysterious fungi-based teleportation system that is Discovery’s best-kept secret…and a technology unheard of in further Treks, making it all the more intriguing). By episode’s end, Burnham has been ‘requisitioned’ by Lorca for the war effort, but one gets the sense that officially, she’s dead (there’s a beat with Saru, now serving under Lorca, where it seems his ‘death sense’ tingles as the mining shuttle leaves with the other convicts…I suspect we’ll hear it never arrived within a few episodes).  She’s started unravelling Discovery’s mysteries, but based on the ending there’s clearly a lot more Lorca is hiding.

Honestly, setting up mysteries about the ship and its crew’s intentions is one of the best arguments for serialization in a Trek show I’ve seen.  Discovery has delivered on its promise: we are already seeing a much different perspective than we’re used to.  As I suspected last week, this episode was what was needed to make the argument for the show and it has succeeded.  Next week should also be an interesting test, to see how the show settles into the rhythm of just running, but from the looks of things, Discovery is a mystery worth solving.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Star Trek Discovery Ep 1&2: The Vulcan Hello and The Battle at the Binary Stars

Star Trek Discovery: A Slow Beginning to a Promising Series

Damn it’s exciting to have Star Trek back on TV.  With last night’s premiere, Star Trek Discovery has finally stepped into the public eye, after years of secrecy, delays, staff changes, and troubling production reports; we finally have something we can actually watch and analyse rather than speculate about…

Well, almost.

There is a lot of potential in what Discovery is setting up, but unfortunately the pilot fails to actually set-up the series: bafflingly enough, it reads as a prequel or cold open to the series, but fails to tell us where it’s going or what we should be excited for.  While many reviewers received the first three episodes, only the first two were aired last night and the result is confounding.  The premiere feels like the cold open of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek film…but stretched out over two hours.  What we do get is an introduction to at least one new classic Trek character in Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru and a potentially interesting lead in Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham, though the jury is still out on that one as so far the series has dwelled far too much on her past and not nearly enough on her present (and the alarming similarities to Spock, including be raised by his father Sarek already make her feel like a bit too familiar).  We encounter an unfamiliar looking Klingon Empire in disarray (not loving the new design so far…they look a bit like melted orcs) and get a sense of what the antagonists’ goals will be, a couple of twists that would have been incredible had they not been telegraphed by every possible means leading up to the show’s release, and a cliff-hanger that isn’t really all that interesting since we know the lead character ends up on Discovery…a ship and crew that don’t even show up in the first two episodes.

While a fully serialized format is new for Trek, this is an astounding oversight for a pilot as we end the two hours not really knowing where we’re going.  We’ve had a neat TV movie that introduces our lead and sets up a war, but not a whole lot else; this might be fine in the first hour, but so much time is burned on flashbacks that ultimately provide a bit of back-story but nothing essential to our understanding of the action, that if the series ended you actually would have a complete, stand-alone film.   The style of the show will invariably draw comparisons to Deep Space Nine writer/producer Ron Moore’s excellent Battlestar Galactica and I can’t help but compare this ‘TV movie launch event’ to their’s: where Galactica introduced us to the universe, all the major players, all the initial plots, and managed to get the entire series into motion in two hours, Discovery has yet to introduce most of the cast or the title vessel.  In Galactica terms, this is ending the movie before the Cylons attack and blow up the colonies not mentioning a Battlestar.  Imagine a pilot to LOST where they don’t board the plane, let alone crash by the end of the episode, or a pilot to FRIENDS that just deals with Rachel leaving her wedding but ends before she enters the coffee shop; you’re asking for a lot of faith from your audience that they’ll tune back in.  If it were any other series, I’d probably stop watching around this point: it feels built to binge, but is being released one week at a time (on a streaming service, strangely enough).  All I needed is what, from the sounds of things, the third episode brings (an introduction to the main cast and ship), but by denying me that piece of story and set-up I’m instead left feeling dissatisfied and mystified.  Not a great way to leave your audience (and a dedicated fan, no less) at the end of your pilot episodes.

Visually, the show is gorgeous, definitely taking everything from its design aesthetic to its camera angles (and, regrettably, lens flares) from the J.J. Abrams-verse (the Kelvin Timeline, for my fellow nerds).  While the designs definitely clash with what we traditionally think of as TV Trek, they necessarily take into account modern technology while also acknowledging Enterprise, the black sheep of the Trek family, in its costuming, and will make film fans feel right at home (while us old timey Trekkers and Trekkies grumble about the new Klingons…I’m still not over how distracting the change is).  We’ve already seen a tonne of interesting new ship designs and have seen how the show will handle space combat (in a much more fluid way than the technologically-necessary static battles of the past).  The alien designs have been fascinating and suggest we’ll be seeing a bunch of interesting new ideas coming out of the show (another thing the Abrams movies did well).

Canonically, the biggest hurdle the show has to get over is the Klingon re-design (yet-to-be-explained, but theoretically that there are different Houses in the Klingon Empire and each is visually distinct.  Which I guess also ties into the Enterprise disease that took great lengths to explain the variance in Klingon head ridges over the years).  Otherwise, we’re exploring an era of Trek history that is mostly untouched, so the show actually has a lot of freedom; taking place between Enterprise and The Original Series, we can safely meet all sorts of characters without breaking the universe too badly and the show makes sure to use the technology we’ve seen – classic phasers, communicators, etc  – alongside new stuff to make sure it fits (again, similar to the new films).

Ultimately, the pilot is failed by leaning too heavily into serialization and embracing a binge model in design but not in practice (if it was all on Netflix right now, I doubt we’d be having this conversation as I would’ve watched at least three in a sitting).  Visually, it’s incredibly beautiful and shows what a powerhouse a modern Trek show can be.  The performances are a bit uneven, from the already iconic (Jones), to the mixed (Martin-Green balancing a sense of awe and earnest excitement about the galaxy, which is engaging and awesome, with the tired ‘Vulcan baggage’ routine that we’ve seen one too many times now), to the flat out bad (the Klingon leader is not only one-note but also has incredible difficulty speaking Klingon – I think his vocal chords were damaged or somesuch? – and the result is that it’s incredibly painful to listen to him talk and feels like it adds an hour to the show’s runtime.  This was happily remedied by the end of the second episode, but it was pretty rough until then).  The support cast is all very solid and it’s a joy to see so many local faces on the bridge – still hard to conceive of Star Trek, once squarely stowed away on the Paramount lot in Los Angles being shot locally here in Toronto.  It’s super, super cool.  The show respects what has come before but is also taking liberties where necessary (jury is still out on the Klingon choice) and already feels more at home than Enterprise did when it launched (originally as long-time Trek producers’ trying to make an accessible show that angered fans and bored new audiences in equal measure before a massive late-series course correction saved the series from being an all-out disaster).

And so, I’m left being uncertain of where we’re boldly going, but, to quote the most disastrous Trek theme of all time, I’ve got faith of the heart*: if the interplay between Saru and Burnham is an indication of how the main cast will play, we’re going to have a fun, interesting bridge crew…I just wish I’d met them by now.  Serialization is no excuse for glacial pacing (looking at you, later seasons of House of Cards) but particularly when you’re spreading that serialization out week-to-week, you need make sure we’re all-aboard.

We’ll have a better idea this coming Sunday.  Until then, I’m left in the same state as Burnham: uncertain, stationary, and slightly defeated.  Here’s hoping the show delivers on the promise it has hinted at and delivers the Trek we hope it can be.

Nevertheless, I can’t overstate how cool it is to be waiting for next week’s episode of Star Trek again: for all its problems and all its successes, there was a very real risk, for a very long time, that Trek would never return to TV, where it can fully explore the kinds of stories, ideas, and characters that made it so iconic.  At the very least, Star Trek has completed its voyage home and a welcome return it is.

Here’s hoping Star Trek will continue to live long and prosper.

 

 

*My apologies if that stupid song is stuck in your head now. But it is canon, after all…Good news is, Discovery’s theme is much, much better – like a Trekified version of the Westworld theme.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Ep 8: Rush Hour 2

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EPISODE EIGHT: Rush Hour 2

Tom and Miles are joined by special guest comedian, sketch performer, and writer Kat Letwin to discuss the further adventures of Jackie Chan and human air horn Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2. Tom and Kat were surprised to discover their mutual childhood love of the series but were equally surprised at how much sexism there is and consequently how poorly the film has aged. Miles had never seen it and kinda wishes it had stayed that way. Join us for a crash course in the career and style of Jackie Chan and an impromptu Disney song on this super-sized episode!

Ep 7: The Purge Election Year

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EPISODE SEVEN: The Purge Election Year

In a horrible dystopia where America has succumbed to its worst impulses, a group of heroes resists and tries to restore sanity to a nation.  But enough about current events…

Miles and Tom return for Please Sir, I Want Some More Season 2 with their first threequel: The Purge – Election Year! Join Tom and Miles as they navigate the potential and failure of a great premise as Frank Grillo tries to keep Juliet-from-LOST alive long enough for her to become president and end The Purge once and for all.

An Interesting Case Study On The ‘Why’ Of Puppets in Production

Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus

Puppets?  In a Shakespeare play?  Madness.

Titus is actually the most requested Shakey-Shake play (usually by people at bars, but often by 30-somethings after seeing a show at Fringe), so naturally I was curious when Seven Siblings announced their Titus featuring puppets.  My Entertainment World pretty accurately reflects my feelings about the show on the whole, but here I want to focus on the main reason to see this production, if you’re at all thinking about using puppets in a production: there is a lot at work with the application and execution (literal and figurative) and it makes an interesting case study for how puppets are applied in theatre.

So, why see this play?  The individual elements can be quite good: the Saturninus puppet, in particular, is very engaging – three puppeteers operate it in a vaguely bunraku way, using their individual voices and speaking chorally to create a great, otherworldly effect.  There are even some physical surprises built in that only come about in the final fight and shows that even on an indie budget incredible puppets are possible.  All the puppets look fantastic and the puppeteers generally do very well with them (particularly the criminally underused Sarah Thorpe and Jeff Dingle).  Puppets are capable of great and exciting things, particularly on this scale: it’s hard not to feel intimidated when you see a seven-foot-tall puppet backed by three puppeteers looming over an actor or fold out General Grievous-style with two swords to take up most of the stage.  The epic scale, despite the depth of the stage at The Citadel – creates instant status and interest and on a scale I rarely see on indie stages.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for examples of new ways to integrate puppets on stage.

However, despite the engaging nature of the puppets, their application to this particular script and production doesn’t entirely work.

In this Titus, the puppets are gods that helped the Romans to conquer the Gauls and inhabit the bunker that the play is set in.  The gods are sustained through blood-feeding tubes by corpses, creating an ‘in-continuity’ reason for puppeteers to be present on stage.  This is a novel approach and solution to the problem of puppeteers that speaks to the cinematic qualities of the production; while we acknowledge that puppeteers must be present in a stage production, in film would seem out of place and thus every effort is taken to obscure them.  It would seem to me that the choice to incorporate the puppeteers in this way speaks to a more of a film understanding and less of a stage understanding, but it’s interesting food for thought.  However, it does raise more questions than it answers – if the gods require human host bodies, what did they do before the Romans moved in?  How did they speak to the Romans and explain that they need blood feeding tubes?  It’s a problem which cannot be answered or addressed without adding text.  This, ultimately, is the largest problem with the amount of concept being layered onto the play: without adding any lines, the audience is left to infer on their own and go off of directors’ notes.  While I fully believe audiences are generally a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and can be asked to fill in the blanks, this asks a lot of an audience already following an Elizabethan play.  It also begs the question: what does it add to the story?  Visually, it’s a treat and stylistically very interesting.  Saturninus in particular is very engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the puppetness doesn’t increase my understanding of the character.  This is particularly true when other puppets are introduced: I can understand the royalty being puppets, but why the nurse?  Did someone really look at the bumbling messenger mole with his pigeons and say ‘Yes, hook a body up to that guy!’  Obviously I have no issue with puppets and Shakespeare, but the puppet logic here is muddy.

So, my recommendation is this: if you’re interested in puppet technique or application, pay attention to the technical work on display – how the puppets move, how they affect scenes, how they alter status through physicality.  Observe how the blood tubes both add and detract from the piece (great for the death of the wolf/nurse puppet, awkward for the death of Saturninus).  If you’re thinking of using puppets, consider very honestly the why: is it because they’re cool?  Does the script suggest them?  Do they help tell the story?  In this productions’ case, they certainly add visual interest, but they also complicate the play world.  While their method of speaking is engaging, the puppets themselves can’t emote the same way as humans; how does that affect your understanding of Shakespeare’s admittedly archaic text?  Do they make it clearer through movement or harder to understand due to their inability to emote?  Also, observe which characters are puppets and why – how does this choice affect how we view these characters and their place in the world?  Because of the wide variety and application of puppets, Titus is a fascinating case study for how the integration of puppets works and for how it doesn’t.  Definitely worth a view if these are questions you’re wrestling with in your own production.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile: Another Side of Steve Martin and the Michael Chekhov Method

Picasso

What It Is

In 1993, Martin premiered Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a hypothetical and fantastical meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein on the eve of their greatest works being released.  The men share a sense of the future, excitement, and optimism about the twentieth century (though both will know tragedy in it).  The action of the play follows the comic and philosophical interactions Einstein has first with Picasso’s admirers and the proprietors of the bar and then Picasso himself as they spar over the difference between art and science before coming to a mutual understanding that though they work in different fields they work toward the same purpose: the realization of the future.  The play has a great sense of mischief and glee, such as you would expect from Martin’s performances; there’s a sly wink and a smile to the interaction of the characters, most notably a delusional inventor named Schmendiman who insists his incredibly fragile, flammable building material will secure his place in history.

Martin is a smart guy and expertly weaves the philosophical together with the comical (though the script does lean a bit heavily on the philosophy) building to the arrival of the time-travelling ‘Visitor’ (Elvis) and a toast to the arrival of the twentieth century.

Seven Siblings’  production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing now at ROUND Venue in Kensington Market is a collision of two interesting factors: the humour of Steve Martin’s wit and intelligence, and the Michael Chekhov acting technique as practiced and advocated for by Seven Siblings Theatre.  The show is fun, with lively performances, the venue is wonderful, and the subject matter is certainly fertile, but the intersection of these two styles (Martin’s and Chekhov’s) isn’t always successful.  Nevertheless, the show is a great way to spend an evening and a fascinating look into two things we often don’t see on Toronto stages: Chekhov method and Martin’s plays.

Why You Should See It

If you’re a fan of Martin’s stand-up or writing (his Born Standing Up memoir about stand-up comedy and why he took a break from it was so addictive I read it in a single sitting), Picasso offers a neat window into how an actor who has made a career of playing fun characters translates that experience into populating a play.  You can see Martin’s sly sneer in all of these characters, though they evoke the many variations we’ve seen Martin play over the years (with the foppish inventor Schmendiman recalling Martin’s broader comedy in films like The Three Amigos, whereas the cranky bar patron Gaston shares DNA with Martin’s more snarky, self aware characters).  Martin is also a lover of art and his passion for the ideas and feeling behind the creation of art and inspiration are evident here, though occasionally the debate surrounding these ideas carries on too long.  Martin creates a fun world and Seven Siblings, with their clever choice of venue and lively cast, realize it beautifully.  It’s easy to imagine yourself in the technicolor world of optimism and inspiration that the characters live in and certainly a nice way escape the grey doldrums of February.

Also, as evident in Erika’s responses below, this is a play for actors looking to find new entry points into their craft.  Chekhov has something of a cult following amongst actors seeking to free themselves from the constraints of naturalism and The Method (wherein actors become the characters; think Daniel Day Lewis’ insistence on being referred to as Lincoln etc when playing the part).  Chekhov -from my layman’s understanding- uses movement and archetypes amongst other exercises to offer actors an alternate way of approaching and finding characters.  Erika and Seven Siblings Theatre are keen on bringing their experience with Chekhov to Toronto and Picasso is a neat way to see their methodology on display in a practical format.  From an audience perspective, it would seem that their exploration of archetypes has created some very approachable and recognizable characters; I’m reminded of Commedia del arte characters, who –despite a variety of plots and lines- are immediately recognizable and familiar.  We are very quickly able to place who each of these people are, what is important to them, and what function they are to serve in the proceedings, which is lovely.  Where the show suffers a bit is in the text work, where characters often seem to be reciting lines rather than speaking honestly their thoughts and feelings.  Interestingly, the characterizations are still very clear and the characters feel real (likely due to their exploration of and execution of archetypes) despite the lines not always reading true.  This also causes the pace to suffer, which unfortunately highlights the issues inherent in the script (which occasionally gets bogged down in its own philosophical leanings).  Nevertheless, if you’re looking for something new and exciting to help you find character truth, then check out what Seven Siblings are doing!  It’s certainly refreshing to see a methodology on display practically rather than just in a classroom setting.

For the theatre producers of the world, I’d also recommend going to enjoy and scout out a new space.  The ROUND often hosts music and is usually not configured for theatre, but Seven Siblings saw the potential and thus have unearthed a great space with tonnes of personality and a great beer list.  Although the bar itself is, unfortunately, at a bad angle for the audience (hence the production’s decision to create a secondary bar with tables onstage), the space exudes personality and has a great vibe (which Picasso uses to great effect in creating the show’s atmosphere).

So, without further adieu, my interview with the lovely Erika Downie, who has an aura of positive, infectious energy about her that can’t help but put you in a better mood.  Below, we discuss her background, the company, and take a deep dive into some of the issues that I always consider both as a theatre creator and audience member.  Enjoy!

On You:

For those unfamiliar with you and your work, can you give me a brief summary of your background as an artist, your directing style, and how you approached the work?

I am a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Windsor. I have studied the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique and received a teaching certificate in the technique from Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium under the guidance of master teachers Lionel Walsh, Catherine Albers, Lavinia Hart and Mark Monday. This training has been the foundation of my approach to acting as well as directing. I approach each production with the foundation of the Michael Chekhov technique bringing the Four Brothers (ease, form, beauty and the whole) into each rehearsal process.

What is Seven Siblings all about? Who is the audience you are trying to reach and what experience are you aiming to provide to them?

Will King, Madryn McCabe and I created Seven Siblings Theatre after our first year at Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium.  We formed the company because we discovered as actors the technique held value in our own work and we believe that it can give new opportunity for other actors within their creative process. Our audiences benefit from this technique as well as we aim to create a world where they are characters too. The audiences that we try to reach are our contemporaries, young artists who are looking for new theatre experiences.  Audiences that are excited to be challenged, educated, entertained and live with us within the realm of the fantastic.

I read about the rather serendipitous way the choosing of the play came about over on Theatre Reader, but I’m curious about the why of it: why this play, why now, and why in Toronto? What value does it bring to your audience?

Steve Martin is brilliant artist and his writing is rhythmic and dynamic and lives in the realm of the fantastic which is why we chose to produce it, it fit within our mandate and values as a company.  Making this our first production of our season would allow us to reach out to new audiences and would allow us to step further into the independent theatre scene with a fantastic piece of theatre; it’s also the first production that I was available to do, just finishing my degree, within the company.  We are all currently based in Toronto and we believe that this is the best place to begin introducing the Michael Chekhov technique to actors, as well as produce theatre that hasn’t been widely produced which follows the fantastic.

On The Play

What dimensions has this specific bar brought to the performance?  Was the choice of The ROUND deliberate for this specific show, or was it an available, suitable space (ie. that it was in a bar was the most important feature, not that it was The ROUND specifically)?

For Picasso, we sought out a venue that was sight specific and that would add to the atmosphere and aesthetic of the play.  ROUND Venue allowed us to really focus on the action and movement of the play because we were give the perfect space to play in. We really wanted to make this play sight specific because it adds to the atmosphere, it invites the audience to become something other than an audience.

What was your and the casts’ approach to playing historical figures? What challenges and discoveries did you make in the development and portrayal of these famous people?

Playing historical character takes a great deal of research and study because you want to remain true to who that man or woman was in history, but in their simplest form these characters are archetypes. The challenge became finding the archetype within Picasso and Einstein while continuing to have the historical portrait that many people have with regards to Picasso and Einstein. This is why we use the Chekhov technique; we work through an exercise called Archetypes and find the ones that best fit our interpretation of these men. This approach to character allows for us to build a fully functioning three, maybe even four, dimensional character.

Einstein has been back in the news a lot lately with the confirmation of gravity waves, but both he and Picasso are often known generally by their most famous works and little personally. What does your production have to say about these two historical figures as people and what new insight do you hope an audience gains?

Well this production really focuses on the relationship that these men have with their work, with each other and with other people.  It takes place in their youth, which is something we don’t see, because we generally know these men for their later personality. It’s a journey within the “moment before” their lives change and that’s what makes it so exciting. We get to witness the changing of a century and experience how these men brought their work and who they are forward. I can only hope that it inspires the audience to examine what their “moment before” could be and how they may change the world.

On a similar note, what is a play written in 1993 trying to say about these figures compared to what you are trying to say in your 2016 production?

This play is timeless, and these men are timeless.  We revere them because of their contributions to art and science, but in this production I tried to focus on who they were before these men became how we know them today.  In 1993, just like today, we are still developing art and science, because like decade, in both of these fields respectively, its about how we perceive the world and our function within it. Science and art are ever evolving, just like humanity, and I believe Picasso and Einstein understood this, and worked within this, constantly trying to evolve and therefore solidifying their place in time as being timeless.

On Steve Martin

In your interview with the Theatre Reader, you spoke to the style of Martin’s comedy; known primarily (now, anyway) for his acting rather than his stand-up, can you speak to the style of humor and how it relates to the Steve Martin-style we recognize from film?

His own personal style is very absurd, but in a funny-guy-next-door kind of way.  He has a rhythm to his comedy and it is very present within this production.  His writing is more like his music rather than his acting, there are brilliant repetitions and cadences within the play that follow a musical quality, just as comedy should, but you can absolutely see this in some of his own work as an actor, especially as a young actor.

I notice in your advertising you are using the classic image of Martin with the arrow through his head, how important is Steve Martin to the marketing of the play?

Steve Martin is very important in the marketing of this play. Not many people realized he was a writer on top of the many other talents he practices. As an artist, he, in my mind, is a renaissance man, and he has been very kind to our company by giving us a leg up on marketing our show after he tweeted us.

Ep. 6: Sex and the City 2

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EPISODE SIX: Sex and the City 2

Opulence, cultural intolerance, and Liza Minnelli: this week Tom and Miles are joined by special guest stars Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis (Shakespeare BASH’d) on a Boxing Day trip to hell in an expensive handbag, as we watch a beloved television show’s horrific follow-up. This is a neat first for our show, as this is our first episode that deals with a TV-show follow-up film and delves into how Sex and the City 2 serves as both a sequel to the previous film AND to the legacy of the HBO show that spawned it.

Also, you can get tickets for our guests’ awesome upcoming production of Hamlet (featuring James and Julia as Hamlet and Ophelia and Miles as Rosencrantz) hereHamlet runs at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto, ON Canada from February 2-7th.

The Importance of Being Trailer: The Difference a Shift In Tone Can Make

Well, a funny thing happened on my way to the forum, today.  I had intended on writing about Batman v Superman and the dangers of over-stuffing films, but with the new Suicide Squad trailer and Wonder Woman footage that dropped last night, I wanted to take this week instead to discuss trailers and -following up from last post- tone.

One of the biggest problems I’ve had (as indicated last week with regards to Fantastic Four) with the DC Cinematic Universe has been it’s Grimdark Aesthetic (grimdark, for the uninitiated, refers to an overly gritty, grim tone).

kid batman and superman

“Who’s your favorite superhero, Jimmy?”
“I like the one that tells the other one he’s going to make him bleed!”

When Suicide Squad was announced, everyone was a little surprised…introducing DC villains and the Joker in a film without Batman? Unheard of! (Though we later learned that Batman IS in the film both through the trailer and through living in Toronto) We were also shocked when Will ‘Holy Shit, Seriously? Will Smith?!’ Smith was announced as Deadshot.  With A-Listers Smith and Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn) in place, producers pulled another coup by courting Oprah for Amanda Waller (the role eventually went to the eminently talented Viola Davis; a much better choice).  Already there was something different and neat about this film.  Writer/Director David Ayer kept talking about fun, but our confidence was shaken considerably with the reveal of Juggalo Joker (albeit with the caveat that Heath Ledger’s casting was also met with anger and guffaws.  Granted, he didn’t have a fucking grill, but that’s neither here nor there…)

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Fucking magnets…how do they work?!?!

In spite of this, the first trailer looked vaguely promising…just having Will Smith as a DC villain is already interesting enough to warrant attention, as is the first cinematic appearance of fan favorite Harley Quinn (with extremely promising casting of the yet untested Margo Robbie) and Jared Leto -continuing to prove that he’s a goddamn wizard when the camera is on- proved his Joker, despite the questionable design, was still going to be worth the price of admission.  It was necessarily expository (Waller sets up the premise in voice over), gives glimpses of the main cast and essentially builds to a reveal of the Joker.

But it didn’t read as fun.  It read the same way the other DC Cinematic trailers had: gritty, dark, IMPORTANT. ACTION-Y.  Complete with unnecessarily dark cover of a classic song by a tragic-sounding children’s choir.  FOR EMPHASIS AND IMPORTANCE. Here it is for reference:

So, some neat stuff, but worth being excited about? Meh.

But all that changed about two days ago, with the release of some new images, followed promptly by a new trailer.

In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at how the tone and narrative surrounding Suicide Squad had changed and why: in addition to getting me genuinely excited for the film, this shift also signals hope for the DC universe and how -yet again- a grimdark overlay can set films up for failure.

One Look? One Look? I’ll Show You One Look!

Here’s the first image of the cast that was released:

Suicide Squad first look.JPG

But which one is Keyser Soze?!?! Smart money is on Margo Robbie.

The image gave fans lots to mull over: it was our first look at how far they were going to go with Killer Croc’s look (hint: exactly far enough!) We got further confirmation that Will Smith was actually in the film (which still seems pretty unreal), and the direction they would go with Harley Quinn (I’ll cover the many looks of Harley Quinn in a future post, but to whet your appetite, here is the range of costumes and looks the film had to choose from…mercifully they found decent mid-ground):

Harley Looks

…As you can see, things have kinda been going downhill since her original look from the 90’s.

We also got final confirmation about who would comprise the Squad (the roster in the comics has changed a lot over the years.)  The characters from left to right: Slipknot (a master of knots and ropes/50 Shades of Grey Aficionado/Expert Arctic Air pilot), Boomerang (think Green Arrow, but with trick boomerangs instead of trick arrows. Played by Jai ‘Oh, for god’s sake stop being in things’ Courtney of A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys ‘fame’), Enchantress (the one standing, she is a magic user possessed by a witch), Katana (crouching, wields a sword called Soultaker that captures and draws power from the souls of those she kills with it), Rick Flag (an elite soldier; was supposed to be played by Tom Hardy, but he was too busy playing ‘get the Oscar nom!’ in the woods with Leo), Harley Quinn (Formerly obsessed with the Joker), Deadshot (The Fresh Prince; super skilled sniper), Killer Croc (a Batman villain with a genetic condition that gives him reptilian looks…in some versions, like this one, he eats people), and El Diablo (a gangster with pyrotechnic powers).  They looked fine, but also at home with the tone of the Superman and Batman photos we’d seen so far: gritty, dark, grim.

Here’s what we got two days ago:

suicidesquadjpg-c73bff_765w

Each of these images has its own breakout poster focusing on the individual characters: they’re funky, interesting, colorful: these suggest a much different film than both the first image and the first trailer.  Usually, these are the kinds of posters that fans make (like the spectacular Mondo posters) but here we are with an official series of posters that are a far cry from anything else we’ve seen from the DC Cinematic Universe so far.

This was followed by another poster:

Suicide Squad poster new

io9 has a great analysis of how these posters contrast with the Batman V Superman ones here, but -in a nutshell- writer Whitbrook describes the Batman V Superman posters thusly:

“The difference is stark. Everything’s so muted. The characters look either mildly concerned, or outright bored. All the personality and vibrancy these characters should have—Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman! The World’s Finest!—is just drained, replaced by an endless malaise.”

Suddenly, Suicide Squad was looking much different from the rest of the DC Universe, but that could just be savvy marketing…after all, the discount bins of the world are full of garbage made to look desirable by great ad campaigns…

terminator salvation poster Sigh

But the fact remained that regardless of the posters, the trailer still felt tonally incorrect.

Until this dropped yesterday:

And with that, shit got real (interesting)

Tonally New Trailer and Friends

Tone wise, this trailer is much more alive: we get to know the characters, see them in action, the film seems fun and snarky, rather than gritty and grim. Even the use of Bohemian Rhapsody (as sung by Queen, not the Glee Club of the Damned) gives the film a more fun and distinctive vibe.  Suddenly, I know what this film wants to be and happily it’s not another grimdark DC flick.

But it is a little familiar…remind you of anything?

If you’re like me, you greeted the announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a resounding ‘What the fuck?’ but this trailer completely turned me around. It was so unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had a sense of fun and play that none of the other films had (being familiar with James Gunn also helped in this case).  But really, above all else, two things stand out in this trailer: the humour and the music.

When I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) at Boomerang sneaking a beer in a combat zone, I realized Suicide Squad had hooked me in a similar way.  So, why the sudden turn-around?  Guardians, already being a long-standing success, can’t be the reason for the recent shift in marketing focus (though you can be damn sure it’s success as a fringe property helped this -and the ill-fated Sinister Six film that I’ll be talking about in my next post- green-lit).  While it’s entirely possible that we’re just getting too close to the film to continue to pretend it is tonally similar to Batman V Superman (hell, even Ben Affleck describes Suicide Squad as having ‘a cool cousin’), I think the final push that caused this shift lies in the spandex-clad hands of another hero altogether: Deadpool.

The story of how the Deadpool movie came to be is a fascinating one that I’ll be delving into close to the film’s release date, but in the meantime: Deadpool is a smart-cracking, meta-character (that is aware he’s in a comic) and often engages in hyper-violence and the eating of chimichangas.  After a long campaign led by Reynolds himself (and some conveniently leaked test footage), Deadpool was green-lit and has engaged in one of the most brilliant campaigns of fan service I’ve ever seen.  From the first trailer (which featured a joke about not putting him in a costume that was neither ‘animated or green’ -burning the much maligned Green Lantern film), to a delightfully violent fake-out announcement that the film would be getting a PG-13 rating (fans were furious) followed by Deadpool murdering the announcer and declaring the R-rating, to the recent campaign of parody posters, and finally, the above trailer.  This is a film that by all conventional super hero film logic should not be possible (hard R, sex jokes, swearing, hyper violence…all the fun things studios can’t stand being anywhere near their super hero films; particularly as the rating limits their audience intake.  This was a huge issue on Watchmen and even Live Free or Die Hard, which famously censored John McClane’s ‘Yippie Kai Yay, Motherfucker’ and continues to be an issue with Deadpool, even spawning a campaign led by an eight-year-old to get a PG-13 version released) but despite this, Deadpool has become more hyped that even the new X-Men film.  In large part, this is because of how fully the film has embraced its tone: it knows it’s a different beast and it’s reveling in it.  Consequently, we know what we’re in for, we know whether we’ll be excited or not, and this weird movie can just let its freak-flag fly.

While there may not be a link between the three marketing campaigns, the parallel sends a clear message: regardless of the cinematic universe your film exists in, the tone of the film -not the universe- needs to be front and centre.  By allowing us to see the film as director David Ayer has been describing it for the first time, Suicide Squad has gone from being a curio to a project of genuine interest.  If, however, the marketing had continued to depict the grim, en sepia world of Batman v Superman, we might have no idea why this film was interesting until it was too late.  Now, good or bad, Suicide Squad can stand on it’s own.

I’m now quite unexpectedly eager to be there on opening night to find out. 

Please Sir, I Want Some More Returns!

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Hollywood keeps making sequels, so we figured it was time to get back to analyzing them! Please Sir, I Want Some More returns bi-weekly with new episodes and exciting guest stars!

First up the sequel that proves the name: The Neverending Story Part II: The Next Chapter!

Mourn your dead horses and mount your luck dragons as Miles and Tom crack open the sequel to the childhood classic The Neverending Story.  Join us as Tom romps through Miles’ beloved childhood film as our hosts debate the bizarre main character shift from Arteyu to Bastien, the cost of wishes, authorial intent, and invariably end up yelling Atreyu and Falcor.  Apologies in advance for putting the theme song in your head again.

EPISODE FIVE: The Neverending Story Part II: The Next Chapter