Monday, August 26, 2019

The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan (Pacific Opera Project 2019)

My wife has been a Gilbert and Sullivan fan probably since birth, and, as with Broadway shows, she has vast swaths of the lyrics memorized. Alas, even in the cultural Mecca of California, live G&S shows have been hard to come by. We did go see a local version of HMS Pinafore years ago - probably before kids - that had a live piano accompaniment. (By the delightful Warren Dobson, now with the Gaslight Melodrama.) However, that has been it. So we watched movie versions, listened to soundtracks, and kept an eye open for more. 

A musician colleague of mine forwarded the schedule for the Pacific Opera Project (she played for one of their larger orchestras), and we snapped up tickets to see The Mikado

This particular production was at a fairly intimate venue in Highland Park (off of Los Angeles’ oldest freeway), and was done in a brightly colored Harajuku Style. Which was a lot of fun. Also appreciated was the use of a live orchestra - a very small orchestra (12 instruments), due to space constraints - but an orchestra nonetheless. The musicians were under part of the set, but on the back of the stage, which meant we could see a bit when they were not blocked by actors. 

 My wife got this picture - POP allows pictures as long as you don't annoy your fellow patrons.

For those unfamiliar with The Mikado, it combines a love story with satire of bureaucracy and British institutions. The lovely Yum-Yum is engaged to marry her guardian, Ko-Ko, who has escaped a death sentence for “flirting” by agreeing to become the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Since Ko-Ko himself is under a death sentence, the theory is that he cannot execute anyone until he first executes himself, thus making the other flirts safe. Yum-Yum does not love him - he’s at least twice her age - but prefers the dashing Nanki-Poo, a handsome young musician. Okay, he is just disguised as a musician, but is really the son of the Mikado, on the lam his father and an arranged marriage to the ancient and overbearing Katisha. The town of Titipu is ruled (if that is what you can call it) by Pooh-Bah, who holds literally every position except that of executioner. The Mikado finds out that no executions have been done, and threatens to eliminate Ko-Ko’s job and demote Titipu to the status of village. (As Pooh-Bah quips in one of the many “updates” to the script, “We will be known as the Village People.”) Nanki-Poo is in despair over Yum-Yum’s engagement, and prepares to kill himself. Ko-Ko sees an opportunity to find someone else to execute other than himself. But then the Mikado shows up looking for his son, and, well things get awkward for everyone. This being a comedy (and Gilbert and Sullivan), it has to end well. And humorously. 

We brought the kids along to this one, in part because the tickets (if you sit in the cheap seats rather than at a dinner table) are shockingly affordable. And because the kids love live theater and know many of the songs already. We all very much enjoyed ourselves. I will add that even though ours were the only kids there, the staff was courteous and welcoming. 

The production was outstanding - I can’t really think of anything to complain about. The balance of voices and orchestra was good, the enunciation solid (which is not easy in G&S), and both acting and singing were enjoyable. 

E. Scott Levin played the part of Ko-Ko, and, now that I am back home, I realize that he has performed with us at the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. (A quick search and it appears he was Don Bartolo in our concert version of The Barber of Seville. And I think Don Giovanni before that.) Anyway, he was great when he was with us, and was delightful in The Mikado as well. As in, really hilarious. Great comic timing and acting. Mr. Levin, if you somehow run across this post, here’s a hello from Bakersfield. All the best. 

 Selfie time for Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, and Yum-Yum. POP publicity photo.

Phil Meyer as Pooh-Bah deserves a mention, if for no other reason than the opening line in his bio: “Phil Meyer’s opera repertory consists of Bad Guys, Old Guys, and Funny Guys.” Which is exactly what a tall baritone tends to get cast as. It’s the nature of opera. 


 Pish, Tush, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-Bah. POP publicity photo.

Good work from Charlie Kim (Nanki-Poo) Janet Todd (Yum-Yum) as the romantic leads. I should also mention Matthew Ian Welch as The Mikado, who was clearly the best dancer on stage. (Not to denigrate the others.) His performance was electric, and overcame my eight-year-old’s drowsiness at the end of the late night. 

 All hail the Mikado ("Ah so!")

The Pacific Opera Project tries to put interesting spins on the operas they do, including a few lyrical changes with modern references. In this case, that meant that characters took selfies, and complained about people who take selfies. There were two songs just perfect for these modern touches. The first was “I’ve Got A Little List.” 

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list — I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

Instead of the annoyances in the original, these were filled up with modern blighters, recognizable to anyone who has lived in Los Angeles. They included such persons as those who pick political fights on social media, instagramers, and - a marvelous touch - those who add apostrophes where they do not belong. And people who think we’d be safer with a wall. (Well played.) 

This theme is continued in “Let the Punishment Fit The Crime.” The familiar driver (presumably in a BMW) weaving in and out of traffic (anyone who grew up in LA knows what I am talking about) gets condemned to walk...or suffer through LA’s abysmally incomplete public transportation system. 

There were more that were funny, but I can’t recall them all now, alas. In any case, well done guys and gals. 

I mentioned the set and costumes briefly, but wanted to say a bit about that. The colors were so bright and saturated that the world on stage seemed unworldly. Not Japan or England or Los Angeles, but perhaps Wonderland. Pretty much every character had a fan as a prop, and these were used to great effect. Snapping open and closed on the beat and as punctuation, they reinforced the acting and emotions. As a metaphor, they added an extra layer. Pooh-Bah, who has his titles, but is hapless in doing any of his jobs, can’t master his fan. Eventually, he shows up with a comically tiny fan, perhaps to represent his diminished ego in the presence of the Mikado. 

 Snap those fans, ladies!

In contrast, Katisha (played with impressive dourness by Adelaide Sinclair), unfolds a ludicrously giant fan upon her appearance. It goes well with her booming deep voice and overwhelming personality. She towers over Nanki-Poo, and even causes Pooh-Bah to shrink. (And, of course, keeps talking over the Mikado to his great annoyance and to the amusement of everyone else.) 

 Never mess with a woman with a giant fan. Ko-ko is giving it his best effort, though...

Another interesting touch was making the character of Pish-Tush into two. Well, almost two. In point of fact, he becomes a pair of Siamese twins (Pish and Tush), who finish each other’s sentences. 

There are so many other things I could say, but this has already gotten long. It was a good time, the operetta was well done, and we want to go back again. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder by Robert L. Friedman & Steven Lutvak (Stars 2019)

My wife, who has an astounding number of Broadway songs memorized, saw that local theater Stars was doing this musical, and determined that she would go. The kids and I weren’t exactly hard to convince, to say the least. Even if I hadn’t already planned to go, the casting would have been enough to convince me. 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a rather recent musical - it debuted in 2012 - but it is based loosely on a rather older novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, written in 1907. The setting of the story itself, apparently Edwardian times, matches that of the book. 

Impoverished commoner, Monty Navarro, has just lost his mother (his father having died when he was a child), when he is visited by a mysterious woman, who reveals to him that he is a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family. (Pronounced DIE-skwith - to alliterate well with all the mortality.) His mother ran off with a man who was [gasp!] a commoner, a [shudder] Spaniard, and worse, a musician, [pearl clutching all around] causing her to be disinherited and disowned. Not only is he a member of this illustrious family, there are only eight individuals ahead of him on the path to dukedom. 

His attempts to reconcile with the D’Ysquiths ending in further rejection, Monty happens on a chance inspiration when the Reverend Lord Ezikial D’Ysquith, an inebriated parson, slips and falls to his death while giving Monty a tour. Monty then decides that, hey, why not kill ALL the D’Ysquiths in his way, and become a duke? 

While the first “murder” is, legally speaking, an accident (although Monty is morally at fault for not actively keeping Ezikial from falling), Monty ignores his conscience and sets out to commit deliberate murder. But not directly, really, more by taking advantage of the natural weaknesses of his victims. 

Asquith D’Ysquith Jr. falls through the ice (with a bit of help) while skating with his mistress behind his wife’s back. Henry, the thoroughly gay preppy sort, dies as a result of being stung by the bees he keeps. Lady Hyacinth (“an unmarried woman of a certain age”) who is in search of charitable opportunities to burnish her social reputation, is convinced to set off on an ever more ludicrous set of trips to distant locations which happen to have great hazards, where she disappears. (Although she finally does come back, and Monty is forced to cut the gangplank ropes - and she finally drowns…) Major Bartholomew, the vegetarian bodybuilder, has a few extra weights put on his bar, and accidentally decapitates himself. Lady Salome, a terrible actress, is slipped a real bullet to use in the gun at the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler - which turns out to be the one time she gets good press for her work on stage. 

The last two, though, are not actually murdered by Monty. One dies of a heart attack, while another is poisoned mysteriously by...someone else. And thus, Monty actually gains his goal. 

And finds himself caught between the two women he loves. 

The central schtick of the play is that all of the D’Ysquiths are played by a single actor. In this case, that actor was Kevin McDonald, one of my favorite local actors. (For my thoughts on previous productions he was in, see Twelfth Night, You Can’t Take It With You, The 39 Steps, A Christmas Carol, and Crazy For You. In all, he had to play nine parts - the eight aristocratic D’Ysquiths, plus Chauncy, an even more remote and disowned scion who, it is implied at the end, will try to poison Monty. 

McDonald was outstanding in creating recognizably different roles with body language and voices, not just costumes. And yet, it was obvious that they were all Kevin too. It was a perfect role to show off his range as well as his talent at being stuffy and snooty. I was also impressed with how he handled the vocal work, which is not easy in this case. Like myself, he isn’t a show-stopping soloist with a huge voice, so the key was to stay within his strengths, and let the acting carry the part. The Rex Harrison plan, more or less. Which is exactly what he did. It fit the parts exactly as it should. 

 Assorted D'Ysquiths in the crosshairs of Monty Navarro

The other central part was Monty Navarro, naturally. This part was played by Ken Burdick, who does indeed have a fantastic voice in addition to his acting talent. Way back in the day (don’t ask exactly how long ago…), I used to play with the Bakersfield College orchestra, and Ken played oboe. Since that time, he has been in a good number of other productions, including a performance of rock tunes with the Bakersfield Symphony a couple years back. I remember a few other highlights, such as The Gypsy Baron and Gianni Schicchi at CSUB (the latter of which I played for as well.) Those are just a few of many over the years. He has real classical chops to go with, well, just about anything. In this production, he was electric. I walked away at the end thoroughly impressed with his vocal work. It was in the same class as touring productions I have seen in LA. His acting was great too. My favorite part was the impish little smile and shrug after most of the murders. That killed me. 

Also with major parts were Abby Bowles-Votaw as Monty’s mistress Sibella, and Amanda Locke as Phoebe D’Ysquith, Monty’s eventual wife. In addition to their other scenes, the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” with both of them and Monty, was particularly well done. It requires precise timing of movement and sound (the two women are in adjacent rooms as Monty tries to conceal each from the other) yet it has to sound like conversation, not just a set piece song. Kudos as well to director Joe Lowry for setting it up. 

 Sibella, Monty, and Phoebe in "I've Decided to Marry You"

Two other songs that were particularly enjoyable were “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” by McDonald as Lord Adalbert (with assistance from the chorus of spirits of the ancestors), and “Lady Hyacinth,” by McDonald, Burdick, and the ensemble. Both bring out different mockable traits of the upper class which are ripe for satire: the general lack of common ground for empathy with those not born to wealth, and the use of charitable work for social reputation. The lyrics are wicked funny. 

 Charitable work at its...well, something.

The ensemble bears mentioning too. Edgard Aleman, Bridget Gill, James O’Hearn, Hope Ormonde, Kate Whalen Gill, and Jacquiline Salazar had to carry multiple parts as well as the big musical numbers. No part in this musical was easy, even though the ensemble parts can be overlooked. The performance started off with a few hiccoughs in ensemble and pitch, but settled in. The ensemble pulled together, and was on the dot for the rest. Likewise, I appreciated that Stars continues to hire live musicians for their productions. In this case, that mean three string parts, which are so rare these days. 

Oh, and I should mention that the kids greatly enjoyed it. McDonald got particular laughs for the muscle suit he wore as Bartholomew. As he is “fun size” like me, I mentioned to the kids that now they know what I would look like on steroids. The response was that my legs would be bigger. (Sorry, Kevin. But at least know that they have no respect for my dignity either…) 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs for two more weekends, so if you are a Kern County local, come on out and see it. (Tickets here.) This fall promises to be full of great local theater as well. I know there is no way I can see it all, but will catch the ones I can. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I recall that this book was recommended to me by a few different sources, which is how it ended up on my ever-lengthening reading list. It rose to the top, however, when my brother read it and praised it. Since he has good taste (except for that Dirk Pitt thing), I figured I had to read it. 

The Boys In The Boat is mostly about the nine American rowers, from the University of Washington, who won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But it is also about one of the rowers in particular, Joe Rantz, who had a backstory that really did need to be made into a book. His rise from poverty and abandonment to become one of the most famous athletes of his time is a great story. The author interviewed Joe extensively before his death, as well as one of his daughters, who had absorbed the old stories and could recount her father’s words. 

While the story focuses on Joe, there are other memorable characters. The other “boys in the boat,” most of whom came from similarly impoverished backgrounds, are given a bit of time in the book. Other rowers from other schools and nations get mentions to the extent that they are interesting, and the history of competitive rowing itself is told briefly as needed. In addition, the rivalry of the great rowing coaches, Al Ulbrickson of Washington, and Ky Ebright of Cal, is a crucial part of the story, as is the genius of George Pocock, arguably the best maker of rowing shells of all time. 

Of necessity, the book also addresses the rise of Hitler, and the massive propaganda machine that was created to whitewash the Nazi experience for the benefit of the rest of the world. The book specifically looks at the role of actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and her propaganda film of the Games. And also a good bit at Goebbels, of course. In 1936, the elimination of Jews was already starting, but this fact was carefully hidden behind the glossy facade. Within a few years, of course, the world would be on fire again, and Hitler’s atrocities would be laid bare before the world. 

Before reading this book, I will admit I was pretty ignorant of rowing. Other than, I guess, the fact that I own a kayak, and can paddle well enough to get around. But rowing as a sport is a good bit different. Particularly eight man crew, which involves perfect timing and technique, a coxswain to steer and keep time, and a 62 foot long boat. The speeds are pretty insane too, and watching a race is pretty exciting. Fortunately, the author assumes the reader needs a bit of a primer, and subtly works information into the book as needed. This is completely unobtrusive, and well explained. 

The story of Joe Rantz would make a book in itself. Joe was the younger of two sons, with a significant age gap between him and his brother. When he was four, his mother died. After living with an aunt for a while, then with his older brother, he returned to live with his father...and wicked stepmother. Actually, that is a whole can of worms right there. Soon after Joe’s older brother married one of a pair of twins, Joe’s dad married the other. Awkward. Stepmom Thula hated Joe, and kicked him out of the house at age 10. Literally. He had to beg his food and fend for himself. From age 14 on, Joe lived in an old house his dad abandoned, and supported himself through school. All while his dad, stepmom, and their kids were living across Puget Sound and ignoring him. 

Joe eventually had the chance to pay his way through University of Washington. He tried out for Crew in order to earn some scholarship money, and went on to become one of the best rowers Ulbrickson had seen. By his side through much of this was his eventual wife Joyce, who herself came from poverty and a dysfunctional family. They would be a source of stability and love for each other for over 60 years. 

Of necessity, the book recounts a number of important races over the course of three years. Fortunately, the author does an outstanding job of pacing the book and filling in other details so that it never gets monotonous. A race will be followed by a section on Nazi Germany, followed by a bit on one of the rowers, or the boat, or other interesting related topics. 

Rowing is one of those sports which has historically been an upper-class thing. Which is weird because it started (in its modern form) with Thames boatmen. However, the Etonian sorts took it over, and by the 1930s, it was mostly an Ivy League thing. But that was already starting to change. The West Coast rowers were either a mix of classes (in the case of Cal) or overwhelmingly blue collar (in the case of Washington), and they were starting a run of dominance over their East Coast rivals. This didn’t sit well with the Ivy Leaguers, and this came to a head right before the 1936 Olympics. Washington won the trials, which meant it had the right to represent the US in Berlin. However, due to the Depression, funds were short to assist with travel expenses. The runner up, the Pennsylvania Athletic Club, had plenty of cash. And a bigwig with them also sat on the US Olympic committee. Which announced after the race that the Washington crew would have to pay their own way. But, if they were too poor, then Penn could take their place…

It is inspiring that the $5000.00 in necessary funds was raised by mostly small donors back in Washington, allowing the boys to go. 

Another inspiring scene occurred when the Americans sang “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here” out of time with the Nazi marching during the opening parade. It was just one example of subtle pushback by the American athletes (including the legendary Jessie Owens) during the games. Within a few years, an army of the same sort of young American men would be marching into Berlin under very different circumstances. 

The race itself was thrilling. The Americans faced several seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their “stroke oar,” Don Hume, was suffering from a severe case of pneumonia, bad enough that he was confined to bed for the week before, and passed out at the end of the first trial run. He was nearly non-responsive at the start of the gold medal race, and failed to respond to Moch’s instructions during - although he rowed by instinct. Finally, something snapped, and Moch was able to drag him along by eye contact. 

The other issue was every bit as serious. The course had six lanes, and they were nowhere near equal in difficulty. The inner two were calm and sheltered. The outer two were subject to wind and currents. Ulbrickson calculated that the advantage was about two boat lengths - a huge amount of difference. Through an opaque process which still has not been adequately explained, the German and Italian boats were assigned to the best lanes, while the Brits and Americans were given the worst. Particularly the Americans. 

So, in order to win the race - by a very fine margin - the Americans had to overcome a 2 length disadvantage AND do it with a gravely ill oarsman. And yet they did. That’s the quintessential American mythology, though, right? Blue collar boys fend of the trust fund babies, overcome huge obstacles, and shove it in Hitler’s face? Oh so very much yes. 

It was also kind of interesting what happened to the boys afterward. The 1930s were essentially the dawn of a new age in America, with the New Deal, affordable education, an explosion of technology, and rapid social mobility for some. (If you were white.) The blue collar boys in the book made good. Joe would study hard and get his degree in engineering, and then work for Boeing the rest of his career. Others would opt for medicine or law or business. With the exception of one who died early of lung cancer, they would live long and prosperous lives. And, in some cases, be instrumental in the cause of the war. Not in combat, though. Ironically, they were too big. Rowers even in the 1930s were over six feet - often by a good margin - and wouldn’t qualify for military service as a result. By the time the war broke out, most had degrees in areas that were needed on the homefront - particularly the engineers. Rantz and others would design and build aircraft and vehicles, for example. 

One exception to the height was Bobby Moch, the coxswain. He had to be short and small to get the job. A picture of the crew is amusing, because there are eight giants...and one tiny shrimp. (Moch was my size, so I get to tease a bit.) 

Moch would make good himself, leveraging a coaching job for MIT into admission to Harvard Law School. Moch did a good bit of appellate work, arguing and winning a case in front of the US Supreme Court. I tried to find the case, but was unable to in a reasonable amount of time. I could probably go borrow the Lexis account at the local law library, I guess. I did, however, find his name as counsel on a few US Court of Appeals cases. Hey, a short badass lawyer. Got to love that. Also, Moch found out from his parents just before leaving for Berlin that he was Jewish, and that his family had hidden that fact due to rampant antisemitism both in Germany and in the United States. Judging from the way the race went down (and Moch’s subsequent career), he had ice running through his veins. 

One final tidbit which I thought was interesting. The book takes a bit of a detour to mention two of the British rowing crew. The coxswain, Noel Duckworth, was another tiny badass. He would win honors in the war, due to his time as a POW, during which he saved quite a few lives. Oh, and he wasn’t a soldier - he was a chaplain who went along with the prisoners so they wouldn’t be shot. The other English rower was Ran Laurie, who was the father of Hugh Laurie. Which was kind of a cool connection. 

The Boys In The Boat is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Brown clearly spent hours interviewing dozens of people, and going through the correspondence between Joe Rantz and Joyce, which contained a lot of good information. Coming on the heels of our own visit to the Seattle area, I was able to envision where much of the story took place, although obviously things look a bit different now. The writing is excellent, particularly in the way it takes an arcane topic and makes it not just understandable, but compelling. Brown also centers the story in history: the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Dust Bowl, and the rapid westward shift of the center of American life. 


In the 1930s, rowing was a male domain. But now, women compete as well. Here is an exciting race from 2012. Not particularly the body language at the end. Six plus minutes of full body exertion takes it all out of them by the end. Insanely difficult work. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Good Omens (Amazon Prime and BBC Series)

As regular readers know, I am more of a book than TV show sort, and only rarely blog about movies or television. 

I am making an exception in this case to talk about Good Omens. Four years ago, we listened to the audiobook of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman original, and enjoyed it. (It also got us interested in Gaiman, who has now become my second daughter’s favorite author.) 

I tend to approach screen adaptations of books with trepidation, as very few have made the transition well. Usually, the stories get changed (for the worse) by the need to cater to Hollywood conventions, characters are reduced to stereotypes, and the limits on length mean that important stuff gets omitted altogether. There are exceptions. The BBC/A&E version of Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the pinnacle of the genre. I reviewed The Barchester Chronicles here. While not completely faithful, the classic Canadian version of Anne of Green Gables was a favorite of mine growing up. I haven’t seen the Harry Potter movies - I have only read the first two books, so I am sticking with my “books first” principles. 

[Note: there is a theme here. The good adaptations tend to be British or Canadian, NOT American. Seriously, USA, up your game!] 

Despite my worries, I was determined to watch Good Omens. Not least because the casting of David Tennant and Michael Sheen looked so incredibly perfect in the previews. I mean, just look. Here is the original illustration from the book:

And here are Tennant and Sheen:

And the mannerisms seem perfect too. Unsurprisingly, now that I have seen the whole series, it turns out that it was indeed perfect casting, and that the relationship of Crowley and Aziraphale is the best part of the whole thing. 

The best way to approach the series - as with any screen adaptation - is to view the movie and the book as two separate works of art. They are related, but they cannot be exactly the same, simply because written words and motion pictures are different media. A sculpture and a painting are different, even if they portray the exact same scene. 

In the case of Good Omens, I think the adaptation was excellent, and the artistic decisions quite defensible. The ending is slightly different. The scenes where Crowley and Aziraphale are put on trial for treason by their respective bosses is not in the book - although it is kind of funny. 

My biggest disappointment with the series was entirely predictable. While I am pretty sure all the important parts of the plot made it into the show, there were a number of hilarious scenes which either were cut altogether, or ended up as super fast allusions. For example, the scene with the Four Horsemen meeting the biker gang ("You're Hells Angels, then? What chapter are you from?" “REVELATIONS, CHAPTER SIX.”) is missing. Ditto for the spoof of televangelists. 

Likewise, the scene after Adam inadvertently converts a nuclear reactor into a lemon drop, when the terminally stupid reporter asks the nuclear energy chief if terrorists were involved is reduced to a little clip playing on the radio in the background. And while R. P. Tyler is still in a few scenes, the line about him is missing. (“R. P. Tyler was not, however, satisfied simply with being vouchsafed the difference between right and wrong. He felt it his bounden duty to tell the world.”)

But, this is what happens when you try to fit a book that takes ten hours on audiobook into a six episode series. A few things get cut. This is a minor quibble, given how good the rest was. 

Other things I liked: the opening credits, done in the Monty Python style, and the sly use of cultural references throughout. (The book did this too, although the series updates some of them for 2019.) The sets and details were delightful too. I really want to live in Aziraphale’s bookshop, honestly. 

The rest of the cast was excellent as well, even if Tennant and Sheen were clearly the stars of the show. Jon Hamm as the archangel Gabriel is delightfully smug. Honestly, I just wanted to punch him, which is also true to the book. Anna Maxwell Martin as Beelzebub and Ned Dennehy as Hastur were memorable as the two most featured demons. Sam Taylor Buck was unexpectedly convincing as Adam (the antichrist). With his combination of childlike innocence and charisma, he nailed it. He bears watching in the future. Screen veterans Miranda Richardson, Jack Whitehall, and Michael McKean were predictably excellent in bit roles as Madam Tracy, Newton Pulsifer, and Witchfinder Shadwell respectively. I know I am a sucker for brainy brunettes, but I think I have a crush on Anathema Device, played by Puerto Rican actress Adria Arjona. Again, excellent job on casting and acting - I can’t think of a character that didn’t work. 

The moment near the end where Satan himself appears, with the intent of destroying Adam if he refuses to cooperate in destroying the world, was excellent. Adam, with his vulnerability in plain view, faces down Satan and informs him that he is not and will never be Satan’s son. “You can’t just show up 11 years later and expect to be a father!” Adam realizes that his true father is the man who did the work. His human father, who is a good-hearted, occasionally bumbling, and loveable mensch. And that is what matters. 

I must say, I do recommend reading the book. But the series was quite enjoyable, and I can recommend it without reservation. (And yes, the kids really loved it too.)


This review would not be complete without a look at the obvious connection between Good Omens and the worst of religious fundamentalism which gave rise to the book in the first place. 

Predictably, certain Fundies got their panties in an absolute wad over the series, and tried to get it cancelled. Except, in what has to be one of the funniest fails of recent time, they sent their protest to Netflix. (The series was created by the BBC and AMAZON, not Netflix…) 

Some of the criticism is entirely predictable, of course. A few others, though, are silly even from a Fundie point of view. I figured it might be worth mentioning some of them. And poking fun.

First, this is further proof that, unlike the truly admirable religious sorts of past and present, Fundies have no sense of humor whatsoever. People who are secure in their own faith, charitable toward others, and focused on loving their neighbor do not get all hot and bothered over a little satire. I mean, what kind of faith do you have if you can’t poke fun at it yourself from time to time? 

The wisest pastor I ever had, the late Jack Stiles, summed up true Christianity in a way that I still think is the best I have heard: “Love God. Love your neighbor. Don’t take yourself too seriously.” 

And that is what is going on with Good Omens. It is satire of a phenomenon that is so very ripe for mockery. 

That leads me to this:

The whole End Times™ thing is a modern invention.

I was raised in this craziness. In the circles I was in, the Rapture, the Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, the whole thing - was all the rage. Eventually, we ended up with the Left Behind series. A laughably bad, horribly written, mean spirited, and eminently mockable pile of shit that so many of my former faith tradition treat as gospel truth. (I highly recommend the takedown that Fred Clark of Slacktivist did of the series.

But the thing is, the whole edifice dates merely to the 1900s and one John Nelson Darby. I’m not kidding. In line with the trend of treating scripture like a scientific text that was all the rage back then (and still poisons the Evangelical understanding of the Bible), he tried to take three disparate texts - Matthew 24, I Thessalonians 4-5, and the Revelation (formerly the Apocalypse of St. John) - and make them into a literal and detailed prophesy of what would occur in the future. In essence, Darby took passages about different things, and tried to tease out a literal script for the future. 

That no serious and responsible biblical scholar would have justified such an approach, or that Evangelicals themselves would never have accepted such hermeneutics about literally ANY OTHER TOPIC is indisputable. But the appeal of a script whereby most of humanity (except for those with perfectly correct theology) would be slaughtered while the faithful look on with glee had too much appeal to Evangelicals, alas. The revenge fantasy won out over the historical teachings of the church, responsible interpretation of the apocalyptic genre, or even hermeneutical consistency. 

So, Gaiman and Pratchett had a lot of material to work with. They put it to good use, and came up with what I consider the best book on the topic of eschatology I have ever read. 

I am going to quote Pastor Stiles again here. When asked what he believed about the end times, he said, “I’m a pan-tribulationalist and pan-millennialist. I believe that with God in charge, it will all pan out in the end.” Which is a so much more productive approach to the topic than wasting thousands of hours building up a detailed fantasy. 

So, with that in mind, let me poke fun at some specific objections. 

#1: Good Omens is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light and acceptable.”

These are the same people who thought that AC/DC actually worshipped Satan. See my point above about no sense of humor. They can’t see satire when they trip over it.

Also, anyone who thinks there are more than a handful of people who actually believe Satan exists and worship him is delusional. The Church of Satan is quite explicit about that. For the most part, “satanists” are just countercultural sorts who are atheistic or agnostic in belief, and humanist (in a rather good way, actually) in philosophy. They have far more in common with, say, Erasmus, Thomas More, and Soren Kierkegaard than with anything truly occult.  

And I would add that anyone who thinks that watching Good Omens leads to satanism hasn’t actually watched it. Satan is an asshole in the movie. And so are most of the demons. So...that’s a stretch.

#2: “This type of video makes light of Truth, Error, Good and Evil.”

No, actually it doesn’t. It makes light of YOUR SPECIFIC DOCTRINES about truth, error, good, and evil. Big, big difference. 

Anyone who thinks that Good Omens is immoral or agnostic about truth needs to pay closer attention. I have read quite a bit of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman since discovering them a few years back. Both are highly moral and ethical writers and thinkers. Which is exactly why they reject many aspects of Fundamentalism. For the same reason I did: Fundamentalism is morally bankrupt and incapable of ethical thought or behavior. (That’s one reason that Christ’s ire was reserved for the fundamentalists of his day.) 

What Good Omens does do is question just which side is the good side. And which is the evil. And who is actually telling the truth. 

The central event in the book is, after all, the End of the World. Which is, in the Fundie revenge fantasy, exactly what Good Omens portrays it as: a cosmically epic dick measuring contest between the forces of “good” and the forces of “evil.” They get to finally show who is greater - and so what if most of humanity becomes the collateral damage. 

This is, to put it mildly, thoroughly unethical. And Crowley and Aziraphale come to that realization - because they actually like and love human beings, unlike the Fundie versions of God and Satan, each of whom burn with hate and rage against humanity. 

So yeah, if that is “making light” of morality, bring it on. It is high time the nastiness of Fundie doctrine is exposed for the evil it is. They make God out to be as nasty, vicious, cruel, and hateful as themselves. 

Now for the more amusing complaints:

#3: “The Antichrist is portrayed as an ordinary kid.”

Um, yeah. What else would he be? Okay, it is more likely that he would be a spoiled trust fund baby raised to be a narcissist. But Donald Trump is so beloved by Fundies and Evangelicals…

(Actually, it is amusing in a very dark way that Trump fits most of the Evangelical beliefs about The Antichrist™ and everybody can see that...except Evangelicals.)

But think of this: Jesus Christ himself was mostly an unremarkable human child. He shows up at age 12 with an unusual interest in and knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures - so he was a nerd, I guess. But then disappears for another 18 years. Thoroughly ordinary - to the point where people from his hometown laugh at the idea he is a prophet. That’s actually kind of the point: Christ was joe-average-human - the God who became fully human to suffer and die alongside us. 

So why would the antichrist be any different? It’s not like he would just drop from the skies. 

Also to the point is the scripture itself doesn’t tell of an antichrist. Saint John actually mentions multiple antichrists - and more importantly, the SPIRIT of antichrist. The key theological point here is that antichrist is a spirit of opposition to the spirit of God. It is opposition to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. That there have been (and will be) MANY “antichrists” is predicted by the Bible. The grand idea of a single Antichrist™ is part of the whole misinterpretation of the other writings of Saint John - the apocalyptic literature, which was a known fantastical genre in the ancient world, intended to give comfort to the suffering, and NOT to be considered a literal prediction of the future. 

I might also add in here that I see nothing odd about the idea that a human might have the choice to be or not be an antichrist. The most obvious antichrist figure of the last century, Hitler, could have made different choices, and the world would have been different. (Also, some good parallels: ordinary kid, appeal to hatred against outsiders, wildly popular with the Christians of Germany, policies to dehumanize and persecute minorities...sound familiar? The spirit of antichrist lives - and it has possessed white Evangelicals in our time.) 

#4: “God is voiced by a woman”

This one makes me laugh every time. In orthodox and historical Christian doctrine, God is not male or female. God is spirit. Both men and women are equally created in the image of God. Thus, to the extent that God has any gender characteristics, God has the characteristics of both male and female. This is not theologically controversial. 

Or wasn’t, until the rise of Christian Patriarchy. Now, in order to justify the subordination of women, all kinds of genuine heresies have been embraced. And Fundies are so very, very pissed when it is suggested that God isn’t 100% completely male, and NOT in any way female. 

But if God isn’t either, why would their voice sound only like a man? Couldn’t their voice also sound like a woman? I mean, nothing against Morgan Freeman, but why not Frances McDormand too? 

#5: “The Four Riders of the Apocalypse shouldn’t be riding motorcycles.”

Whaaat? This one is so laughable. Because Saint John wrote before the invention of the internal combustion engine, we have to stick with literal horses? That is beyond silly. 

Leaving aside the fact that Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War are METAPHORS, if they were real in our day and time, they would totally ride motorcycles. PuhLEEZE. 


"You're Hells Angels, then? What chapter are you from?" 

 The Four Horsemen of the Tiki Apocalypse, by my artist friend Craig Fraser
Other things I’m surprised they didn’t complain about:

And I’m sure the reason they didn’t is that they only watched the previews, not the actual show. And haven’t read the book either, because these are all in the book.

[Spoiler] Anathema and Newton HAVE SEX. And it is really good sex too. And, like the couple in The House of Seven Gables, in doing so, they bring unity and closure to a centuries-long feud. 

Sexual jokes! “They'd come here to spoon and, on one memorable occasion, fork.”

There is music by gay people! Namely, by Freddy Mercury of Queen. Readers of the book will understand why:

“Crowley was currently doing 110 mph somewhere east of Slough. Nothing about him looked particularly demonic, at least by classical standards. No horns, no wings. Admittedly he was listening to a Best of Queen tape, but no conclusions should be drawn from this because all tapes left in a car for more than a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.”

And, throughout the book, every time Crowley or Aziraphale try to play something else, it comes out as Queen. If you want to read more about all that, here you go

Feminism! Pepper, speaking to War: “My mum says war is just masculine imperialism executed on a global stage.” 

Also: Pepper is...not white. Horrors. (Amma Ris is great in the role, though. I wouldn’t mess with her.) 

Language: Fuck, shit, bitch, and more. Get used to it. (And for god’s sake, don’t ever read Chaucer…) 

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Essential Rumi (Part 1)

Source of book: I own this. My wife got this for me for Christmas last year. 

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known to us in English as Rumi, was a 13th Century Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Born (probably) somewhere around the border between what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan, his family moved southwest to Persia, then Baghdad, finally ending up in what is now Turkey. Because of this peripatetic childhood, Rumi became fluent in multiple languages. While most of his works are in Persian, he also used Turkish, Arabic, and Greek. 

Immensely influential for centuries in the Islamic countries, he was also translated into many languages, and his works became known around the globe. Today, he is one of the most read poets in the United States, a fact which surprised me. For most of us westerners, Rumi has been our introduction to Sufism, the mystic tradition of Islam. 

I had read a bit of Rumi here and there, but had never really read more than a poem at a time. I mentioned my interest to Amanda, and she managed to find a (sort of) used hardback copy of Coleman Barks’ version, The Essential Rumi. This is one of four volumes. Technically, Barks does not translate the poems. He instead paraphrases them from other translations - and at least he is clear about this. There is some controversy about his work, as it isn’t the most faithful to the original. The worst offense is omitting some lines and phrases, but there is also the recurring problem of translating a text which has strong rhythm and rhyme in the original language into what is essentially free verse in English. This is the challenge of any translation, but particularly of poetry. Translation itself is interpretation, and retelling a translation is one step further away. Poetry is even harder, as many languages do not convert well. Everything ends up with some sort of a compromise. Whether the compromises are acceptable or artistic is a matter of taste, but also a matter of the skill of the translator. 

(For other posts addressing this issue in a poetic context, see The Book of Hours by Rilke (Barrows & Macy translation), Inferno by Dante (Robert Pinsky and other translations), and Beowulf (Seamus Heaney). Also, the interesting case of Gitanjali by Tagore - who wrote his own English translation, which is definitely a bit...different than his Bengali version.)

I am a bit torn on what to think of Coleman Barks’ version. Since I can’t read Persian, I have no easy way of comparing. Most other translations seem to choose either rhyme or meter, but not both, and most of what was easily available online seemed similar to the Barks approach, namely free verse. 

On the one hand, Barks is a poet, so the words flow pretty well. On the other, it seems as if Barks is more concerned with the content - particularly the theology - rather than the poetic essence. Some of the shorter bits cohered as true poems. But the longer passages seemed kind of like a “prose-poem” in the vein of Khalil Gibran. There is nothing wrong with this, but I do wonder how much is missing of the original music when it is prosified. 

Barks also breaks up the original collections of poems, grouping them by his view of their topic. This further removes the poetic form from consideration, as one cannot compare poems within a genre. I think Barks was going for treating the collection more as an organized philosophy or theological text rather than a traditional poetry anthology. 

Because of the organization, I didn’t have the chance to pick just one collection and read it. Rather, I decided to arbitrarily stop at a chapter break, which fell at 100 pages in. This seemed like enough to read of one poet in a row. I would feel worse about that random cutoff if the book wasn’t organized the way it was - since Rumi’s original organization was already mixed up, I figured I wouldn’t miss his intended flow of poems anyway. 

Here are a few that I particularly liked. 

Who Says Words With My Mouth?

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
And I intend to end up there. 

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place, 
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
But who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

This poetry. I never know what I am going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all. 

That is indeed a bit of an existential music. Who (of the poetic bent, at least) hasn’t felt like he wasn’t from the same planet as everyone else, that the soul longs for its homeland, or that someday it will return?

I Have Five Things to Say

The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,
“You are the sky my spirit circles in,
And love inside love, the resurrection-place.

Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
With longing for your listening silence,
And your life-quickening smile.

You give attention to the smallest matters,
My suspicious doubts, and to the greatest.

You know my coins are counterfeit,
But you accept them anyway,
My impudence and my pretending. 

I have five things to say, 
Five fingers to give 
Into your grace.

First, when I was apart from you,
This world did not exist,
Nor any other.

Second, whatever I was looking for
Was always you.

Third, why did I ever learn to count to three?

Fourth, my cornfield is burning!

Fifth, this finger stands for Rabia,
And this is for someone else.
Is there a difference?

Are these words or tears?
Is weeping speech?
What shall I do, my Love?”

So he speaks, and everyone around
Begins to cry with him, laughing crazily,
Moaning in the spreading union
Of lover and beloved.

This is the true religion. All others
Are thrown-away bandages beside it.

This is the sema of slavery and mastery
Dancing together. This is not-being.

Neither words, nor any natural fact 
Can express this.

I know these dancers.
Day and night I sing their songs
In this phenomenal cage.

My soul, don’t try to answer now!
Find a friend, and hide.

But what can stay hidden?
Love’s secret is always lifting its head
Out from under the covers,
“Here I am!”

I find a lot to love about the language of love in all its contradictions and messiness in this poem. 


Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
And be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
That you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running 
From silence.

The speechless full moon
Comes out now.

I am really curious how this sounds in the original. Clearly, there is a poetic rhythm of some sort going on, but it is somewhat lost in the translation. The metaphor of rebirth is a universal human (and religious) idea, although the meaning all too often is abandoned in favor of a call to give intellectual consent to dogma. This eliminates both the mysticism and the mystery of transfiguration, and reduces an experience of the whole self to a set of precepts. Here is another poem with a related theme. 

Only Breath

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up

From the ground, not natural or etherial, not
Composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

Am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body or soul. 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,

First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being. 

Some of the poems aren’t given titles, but are grouped together under a title, with separations marked. This next one comes under the heading of “A Great Wagon,” which doesn’t seem to match more than the first two sections. I wonder if they are drawn from different places, or if they were intended to go together. Anyway, here is a short passage that I liked. 

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
And frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
And begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. 

As one whose experience of the Divine, beauty, and love are wrapped up in music, this one really resonates. 

How about this one, which revels in the myths (true and otherwise) and the necessity to live our own stories. 

Unfold Your Own Myth

Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
And sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
Smells the shirt of his lost son
And can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up 
A flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
And finds what burns inside the sunrise?

Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
And opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
And leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.

But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
Have gone with others. Unfold
Your own myth, without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.

Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy
And tired. Then comes a moment
Of feeling the wings you’ve grown,

I’ll end with this one, perhaps the most beautiful of the ones I read this time. 

The Grasses

The same wind that uproots trees
Makes the grasses shine.

The lordly wind loves the weakness
And the lowness of grasses.
Never brag of being strong.

The axe doesn’t worry how thick the branches are.
It cuts them to pieces. But not the leaves.
It leaves the leaves alone. 

A flame doesn’t consider the size of the woodpile.
A butcher doesn’t run from a flock of sheep.

What is form in the presence of reality?
Very feeble. Reality keeps the sky turned over
Like a cup above us, revolving. Who turns 
The sky wheel? The universal intelligence.

And the motion of the body comes 
From the spirit like a waterwheel
That’s held in a stream.

The inhaling-exhaling is from spirity,
Now angry, now peaceful.
Wind destroys, and wind protects.

There is no reality but God,
Says the completely surrendered sheikh,
Who is an ocean for all beings.

The levels of creation are straws in that ocean.
The movement of the straws comes from an agitation
In the water. When the ocean wants the straws calm,
It sends them close to shore. When it wants them
Back in the deep surge, it does with them
As the wind does with the grasses.
This never ends. 

There are many more I found interesting, including the longer stories, myths, and parables. Those are a bit like Aesop meets Robert Frost, with extended dialogs pushing the story forward. My biggest regret is not being able to read in the original groupings, but the topical organization is interesting in its own right. 

I look forward to reading more in the future - and perhaps I can get a competing translation/interpretation and compare them.