Theatrical review: My Fair Lady

DIRECTOR: MOLLY SMITH

Venue: Arena Stage (Washington DC)
Reviewed by Josh Aterovis

A Steampunk My Fair Lady? How loverly!

Illustrated image of a woman in steampunk clothing holding a parasol, in which is an image of another woman on a Victorian street.When I first heard Arena Stage in Washington D.C. was staging a Steampunk production of My Fair Lady, the classic Lerner and Loewe musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and perhaps best-known for its 1964 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, I was a bit skeptical. Would they rewrite it to have some more Sci-Fi or Fantasy bent? Would Eliza Doolittle be a time traveler from a dystopian future? Would Professor Higgins be a mad scientist instead of a phoneticist? Turns out, I needn’t have worried: for better or worse, the production remains true to the original book. The steampunk elements come entirely via costuming.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I have never been a fan of the film version. When I received an invitation to the final dress rehearsal before previews, I only went to see how the steampunk elements might manifest themselves. I have to say, I’m glad I did. I found the show to be utterly charming from start to finish.

At heart, My Fair Lady is a makeover story. Eliza Doolittle is a low-class Victorian lass selling flowers on the streets on London when she bumps into Colonel Pickering. Eliza’s crass Cockney accent is mocked by Pickering’s associate Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistics expert, who bets Pickering that he can teach her how to speak properly and pass her off as a proper lady within six months. Pickering doesn’t take the bet right away, but Eliza, hoping to better herself and get off the street, begs Prof. Higgins to make good on the bet anyway. Higgins agrees and the story plays out as you’d expect if you’ve watched any of the numerous variations over the years, from Pretty Woman to She’s All That.

The show itself, directed by Molly Smith, is staged in Arena’s Finchandler Stage, which is theater-in-the-round. The set, designed by Donald Eastman, is fairly minimal, with an oversized painted Victorian floral carpet design on the floor and Georgian doorway facades at each of the four corner entrances. All other staging is on wheels and trundled in and out, or in the case of a birdcage, lantern and two grand, crystal-laden chandeliers, dropped down from the ceiling, as scenes necessitate. For instance, a street scene might involve flower carts, a glowing, ‘coal-burning’ potbellied stove, and a few kegs on a wheel barrow with a lantern overhead, whereas Prof. Higgins’ study boasts a couple of desks and chairs, a love seat, the aforementioned birdcage and a chaise lounge.

The staging and choreography are excellent, each using every inch of the stage to its advantage and full of constant movement —all the better to keep the actor’s backs from being to any one side of the audience for too long. The choreography by Daniel Pelzig is at times absolutely stunning, especially the large ensemble street scenes. “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were real standouts, especially the musical breakdown in “Luck” and the rousing athleticism in “Church.”

Now to the best bits: the costuming and the acting.

The costuming by Judith Bowden is, without any exaggeration, breathtaking. Her concept is that the lower class denizens of this production’s London sport steampunk-inspired outfits —complete with goggles —while the upper class dons an Alexander McQueen inspired wardrobe. It works remarkably well. The outfits of both classes are filled with eye-popping color and fantastical details.The hats from the Ascot Races scenes alone are worth the price of admission, but I have to admit, I was coveting the steampunk costumes —especially that one brown coat that laced in the back. Okay, and some of the gentlemen’s jackets from the Ascot scene. And their spats. Fine, I want it all!

Finally, there are the actors. Without question, the show belongs to Eliza and Prof. Higgins, and the stars of this production—Manna Nichols and Benedict Campbell, respectively—more than live up the challenge. The lovely Nichols, especially, is a constant delight. She pulls off both the Cockney accent and the refined Queen’s English equally well, and her singing voice is divine. I had her voice singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” stuck in my head for days…and I didn’t mind at all. Campbell, meanwhile, manages to strike just the right note of intolerable smugness and vulnerability as Prof. Higgins, the latter coming fully to the fore in his final number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

For the most part, the supporting cast is equally strong: Thomas Adrian Simpson as Colonel Pickering, Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy and Catherine Flye (channeling Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess to great effect) are all excellent. Sherri L. Edelen is comic gold as Mrs. Pearce, constantly threatening to steal every scene she’s on stage.

The only sour note in this production is James Saito as Eliza’s deadbeat dad, Alfred Doolittle. Saito can’t seem to nail down an accent —veering wildly between American, vaguely Asian and Australian, but never coming close to British —and he’s often almost unintelligible. He’s also strangely flat in what should be a very charismatic role and his singing voice was easily the weakest of the main roles. Charitably, it was the final dress rehearsal so maybe those kinks will be ironed out in previews. Before the show, Smith cautioned that it was still very much a work-in-progress.

All in all, while not terribly Steampunk —there are no electro-ray guns or clockwork anything —this is still a whimsically wonderful production. The steampunk additions to the costuming does perhaps make it a little more current without distracting, but it’s actually a fairly faithful adaptation of a well-loved show, and that may be to its credit. It is, after all, quite loverly as it is.

My Fair Lady will be playing at Arena Stage now through January 6, 2013. For more information or tickets, visit http://www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/productions/my-fair-lady/.

Fiction review: Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

AUTHOR: MARK HODDER

Publisher: Pyr/Prometheus Books
Reviewed by mi: :ha

Cover of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, featuring a man in a spider-like robot fighting a monster.Coming as the third volume of a trilogy that includes The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon sets an alternate 1863 England as home to a central character that refused to marry and thus settle for less. Instead, he became the King’s Agent in charge with the defense of his country and king.  Focused on Sir Richard Francis Burton’s final quest for the third Eye of Naga, the missing element in a puzzle that revolves around manipulating events in order to avoid a worldwide war, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is a steampunk safari with almost feverish characters, all determined to untangle the biggest of evil mysteries no matter what. Competing with an expedition led by the devious John Hanning Speke, who tries to get his hands on the same Eye of Naga, Burton begins his journey and initializes his second attempt at locating the original source and dark secrets of the Nile together with many of his companions and best friends from the previous volumes of the trilogy. Trying to maintain his own mental sanity while continuously sliding between his own memories and two different time sequences, Sir Burton manages to stay alive against all odds, attempts at sabotage, and not so good inner motivations. His walking expedition through Africa feeds on small victories only to be later defeated by impressive and visceral forces aligned to prevent them from getting what they want.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is almost everything you could expect from a steampunk narrative, a brilliant and insanely creative cocktail of time traveling, cultural clashes and historical characters caught in unfamiliar roles and decades. For instance, just try to imagine Oscar Wilde as a cunning yet innocent cabin boy; or Friedrich Nietzsche as a psychic-powered leader of Germany who has tremendous powers backed by an impressive variety of biological weapons including huge arachnid carcasses powered by steam engines and designed to be used as killing machines. Somehow, Hodder succeeds to make all these characters work together in a fine exercise of narrative control; he manages to keep everything from falling apart while keeping you wholly entrenched and cross-fingered for Sir Richard Francis Burton and his irresponsible-in-thought, masochistic-in-action partner Algernon Charles Swinburne. But he manages to do all this without being the annoying intruder who seems to know everything and can’t prevent himself from being ironic. Definitely a book that leaves you wanting for more, with an open ending that leaves space for a future sequel. So let’s hope Hodder isn’t too determined to put an end to this amazing trilogy. But till then, planning a re-reading of the first two volumes may strike you as a really good idea.

 

Fiction Review: 100 Years of Vicissitude

AUTHOR: ANDREZ BERGEN

Publisher: Perfect Edge Books
Reviewed by Lori Holuta

Cover of the novel 100 Years of Vicissitude, with two Japanese women in Geisha makeup and shadows of cranes in the background.Mr. Wolram E. Deaps mentions early in 100 Years of Vicissitude that “there is no neat beginning with which to start things.”Since Wolram is the central character and narrator of the story, I wondered what was to come. As this mysterious, thoughtful, and occasionally horrific story unfolded, I realized that while a neat beginning was never promised, the sum of a life can be tidily bundled into packets of time, which provide a workable method to scrutinize one’s existence.

We meet Wolram after his death. He’s understandably confused and having trouble putting everything into context. What he doesn’t yet know is that he’s about to start a journey through time and memory, pausing long enough at each scene to ponder what transpired and the effects that point in time had on the future.

Wolram is joined by a companion in what he assumes is his afterlife, named Kohana. She’s an intelligent, willful, beautiful, sassy, stubborn enigma of a woman who, we will learn, has lived an incredible life as she survived pivotal points in the history of Japan.

It is her life that Wolram explores, soundtracked by a breathtakingly detailed narrative provided by Kohana. Throughout the journey, changes of memory-locale arrive crisply and frequently, drawing protest, fear, anger, and a growing sense of curiosity from Wolram towards his companion. It’s not quite Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley, but one can’t help but recall that classic tale. Although, with old Scrooge and Marley, it was always clear who was calling the shots–not so with our deceased duo. While one definitely knows what is going on, we are left with just enough vagueness to question the ultimate goal of the Grand Tour. Was this a mutual benefit for two souls leaving this world? Was this an endurance test or an exercise in acceptance?

While the book delivers a satisfying ending, it leaves the reader wide open to questioning much about their own existence and place in history. I defy you to read this book and not think about your own past–as well as your present actions, which stack up like cordwood, defining your future. Will this book alter your future?  I believe it may have already altered my own –why should I wait till the end of my lifespan to ponder the worth of my actions and choices? Why not truly live in my moments? And perhaps, one day, when I revisit my life on my final journey, I can take satisfaction from and comfort in the choices I’ve made.

Music Review: Electro Swing for the Masses

ARTIST: GOOD Co.

Label: self-published
Reviewed by John Smith

The electro swing band Good Co. more than lives up to their name. “Good” is an understatement in describing this album, which ranges from sample-heavy dancehouse electric jazz swing to Cake-esque eclectic ballads to classicly crooned house band dance numbers that sound like they’re being spun on the needle of a stately wood & brass phonograph.  “Company” is a more fitting description, with a band member roster so long that you have to take a bathroom break halfway through. The result of this amassing of talent? Pure entertainment. They have managed to come together to do what so many before them have failed to do: create something really amazing.

Their debut album, “Electro Swing for the Masses,” came out on August 3rd. What stands out above everything else is that this album is really fun. You can just picture the band sitting around the studio having a great time. It’s upbeat and toe-tapping; it’s hard to listen to without bobbing your head a bit. It’s also a bit addictive. It’s one of those rare albums that you leave on, repeating it over and over without skipping any songs. When it’s not on you find yourself humming it, and sometimes spontaneously breaking out into song to the bewilderment of strangers.

If you like your music tame and tidy, then this isn’t for you. If, however, your mouth waters at the thought of instrument-heavy speak-easy jazz blended with harmony-bending scratch-record electric boogaloo, then waste no more time not owning this album, available at Good Co.’s website: http://www.goodcomusic.com/

My Favorites from Tor.com’s Steampunk Week 2012

Last week was Tor.com’s Steampunk Week, and as usual there was some great stuff. Here’s a few highlights:

Boldly Into Our Patina’d Future: Our own Magpie Killjoy, on how Steampunk aesthetics can help remedy some boring and destructive elements of modern culture.

But I’m happy to use steampunk as a goggle lens with which to see the world and a wrench with which to change it, because aesthetics matter. Doing things beautifully makes the experience more worthwhile. Anyone who’s been to a boring activist meeting might understand this, and anyone who’s decided that life is too short to spend at boring activist meetings might understand it even better. What I love about steampunk is that it’s both an aesthetic movement—of fashion and fiction alike—and a technological movement. We’re a movement of makers, of Do-It-Yourself and Do-It-Ourselves, of information sharing, and of supporting artisan crafters.

Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution: An excerpt from the newest Steampunk anthology by Ann VanderMeer, on the political potential of Steampunk.

We were even approached for an interview by the Weather Channel. I, being a weather geek, was thrilled for the opportunity but asked the interviewer, why us? Why would the Weather Channel be interested in Steampunk? He answered global warming, alternate energy sources, recycling, DIY thinking.

Four Victorian Kinks Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Want You To Know About: Margaret Killjoy, Professor Calamity, and kinky sex. Need I say more?

Our cultural understanding of sex in the western world is more steeped in the late 19th century than even us steampunks would care to admit. Sure, they were notoriously prude, but the Victorians were obsessed with sex. They just lied about it, constantly.

Queer Cogs: Steampunk, Gender and Sexuality: Lisa Hager on how steampunk welcomes diversity, particularly around gender and sexuality, and where there’s room for improvement.

And, it is in this arena, dear readers, where steampunk does such delightfully interesting things. Since steampunk takes as its “raw materials” nineteenth century literature and culture, it has the ability to offer alternative ideas about a number cultural concepts that we may take for granted, including sexuality and gender. In the nineteenth century, we find the beginnings of so many parts of our Western culture’s ways of talking about these issues.

Any favorites that I missed? Share the links in the comments!

eReader SPM #7 Link Broken

Hullo folks!

It’s come to my attention that the eReader-optimised version of SPM #7 that we’ve been putting out hasn’t been downloading properly for a while now (I’m not sure how long exactly).  For now,  I’ve removed the link from the website. It may possibly get fixed/re-added at a later date, but this will depend on whether it’s wanted/needed/possible in the amount of time I have.

In the meantime, if you’ve had this problem then please drop us a line at vagrants[at]amongruins[dot]org. I’ll refund you, and if I can dig out a copy of the optimised PDF, I’ll send that over to you as well.

Apologies for all the trouble.

Allegra.

The Steampunk’s Guide to Sex

You have two more weeks to support the Steampunk’s Guide to Sex!

The Book

As we start this kickstarter campaign, we’re more than halfway done writing A Steampunk’s Guide to Sex. The book covers both Victorian and contemporary sexuality, such as:

  • erotica
  • sex work
  • burlesque
  • BDSM
  • alternative sexualities
  • consent
  • sexual health
  • sex devices through the ages
  • historical attitudes on sex

and includes a great number of how-to guides covering such things as:

  • DIY floggers made with bike tubes
  • steam-powered vibrators
  • Victorian aphrodisiacs

One of the most common reactions we get, when describing the book to someone new, is: “Oh, so you’re taking this seriously?” Absolutely. We intend for this book to be fun, lighthearted, fascinating, and useful. There will be a mix of neat history and of information applicable to contemporary subcultures.

The Art

The book will be illustrated with steamy modern photos shot with the historical tintype process. The camera we’re using is almost exactly 100 years old, the lens is from 1891 and the process itself is older still. Unlike the more modern negative film process, we’re shooting positive, one-of-a-kind images directly onto aluminum plates.

The Series

This book is the second in our Steampunk’s Guide series: first we did A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse. After this one, we’ll start work on our next title, Crime.

Your Money

We’re a small publisher, to put it lightly, and we keep our list prices as low as possible. So we don’t really have much capital. Sure, we could put out A Steampunk’s Guide to Sex via print-on-demand, but we’d have to bump up the cover price for a lower-quality product. We want this book to be your beautiful reference to the kinky side of anachronistic life. So we need money to afford a print run of the books.

The Contributors

Professor Calamity is a member of the Catastrophone Orchestra arts collective, a group of authors and performers that researches and illuminates the 19th century working and criminal classes. He is the primary author and editor of the book.

Alan Moore is the best-selling author of Watchman, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and any number of other books. He is contributing his thoughts on pornography and Victorian prostitution.

Margaret Killjoy founded SteamPunk Magazine in 2006 and wrote A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse in 2007. He is an editor and designer for the book in addition to his role as the tintypist.

Luna is both a steampunk and a sex worker who writes and educates about sex work. She is a contributing writer.

Miriam Roček, better known as Steampunk Emma Goldman, is a NYC-based activist steampunk author whose work has appeared all over the internet and in print. She is a contributing writer.

All Aboard to Lantern City!

Steampunk is without a doubt all a-buzz about Tron star Bruce Boxleitner’s latest media project, Lantern City, which he promises to be the “first true Steampunk TV show” and “not shy away from the issues of the time”. Considering how the community has been let down before in popular media depictions of Steampunk, people are cautious yet intrigued about the upcoming television show. However, it can be safely said that most fears were put to rest after the impressive panel and sneak peak given at this year’s Dragon*Con. Steampunk Magazine not only had the great pleasure of being there, but also had the chance to speak with both Bruce Boxleitner and Producer Trevor Crafts about the project.

The Dragon*Con panel and sneak peak was packed and we were able to get some glances at some exclusive concept work and heard those involved with the project detail how the Steampunk community was to be “integral to the show”, a theme mentioned various times in interviews and at the convention. Calling inspiration from the Wild Wild West television show (“but not the movie, to be clear”, Boxleitner stated), the show seems to be on the right track towards become something new and exciting, an open-source television show of sorts in an era where Hollywood barely listens to the concerns of the hardcore fans. Steampunk are already getting involved through the forums and at conventions, approaching Boxleitner and Crafts with many different ideas, suggestions, and even character proposals, as witnessed personally at the Lantern City poster signing.

Taking place in a new and original location that both Boxleitner and Crafts promised to be “exciting, dark, imaginative and never before seen”, Lantern City seeks not only to explore issues of class, technology, corruption, despotism and so forth, but seeks to answer the question of “how far would you go for to be with the one you love?”, promising to keep viewers entertained with elements of romance, danger, excitement and other fantastical storytelling and visual elements.  When representing Steampunk visually, a task Boxleitner stressed that they did not “want to mess up at all”,  it seems not only have they done their research, but have also already begun incorporating notable Steampunk makers and ideas into the show in an open-source sort of model, most notably seen through Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios, most commonly known to the general populace for making the arm Nathan Fillion was wearing in the Steampunk episode of Castle. Willeford made it very clear that the show was in no way “going to be anything but Steampunk” and that the neat gadgets and the like he was designing would reflect issues of social stratification, noting that “the rich guys will definitely have way different tech than those on the street, who will turn to craftier methods”.

Wherever it is that Lantern City takes us, it will no doubt be an exciting ride, especially for Steampunks, who are beginning to get major exposure in popular media and now possibly in an accurate and unique way. Those involved with the project are passionate about what they are working on and it is in the opinion of the author that this could, to be frank, be pretty damn good, as a show and for the community. However, it’s up to us as a movement to make sure it doesn’t stray too off-path, but as Boxleitner pointed out: “If we didn’t include the Steampunk community, it wouldn’t really be Steampunk and we’re happy to see all of the great ideas out there”.

Keep in touch with the latest Lantern City developments through the website and be sure to share your ideas and make your voice heard on the forums!

Non-Fiction review: The Art of Steampunk

AUTHOR: ART DONOVAN

Publisher: Fox Chapel Publishing
Reviewed by Leanne Tough

The Art of Steampunk, by Art Donovan, is the companion to the October 2009-February 2010 Steampunk convention held at the Oxford University Museum of the History of Science. It was the world’s first museum exhibition based on the art of Steampunk. The companion includes work from all eighteen international artists that exhibited at the event, as well as a foreword by Dr. Jim Bennett, the director of the museum, an introduction by Art Donovan, and an essay entitled “Steampunk 101” by G.D. Falksen.

The included written material is interesting, the essay by Falksen especially entertaining. It sets the scene for the main event, the artists to come. Although the essay suggests it is a form of ‘beginner’s guide’ it is entertaining enough for someone familiar with the genre to enjoy. Besides, if you’re anything like me, the first thing you want to do is flick straight to the art! Dr. Bennett’s work is accompanied by photos from the exhibition and really gives a feel for what they were trying to do and the atmosphere during the convention.

There is something for everyone here as far as the artwork is concerned. Donovan has achieved the task of bringing together an eclectic mix of art, from steampunk’d computers to steampunk dolls, model airships to timepieces and gasmasks. It is a fantastic collection. My only issue with the book might be that Donovan has introduced the book with a few too many pieces of his own work –which as far as I can discern were not included in the exhibition itself. The photos for the exhibition pieces are wonderful, some taken at the exhibition itself and some taken specifically for the book. All are wonderful quality, which is especially fantastic for the more detailed models displayed. My own favourites were that of Richard Nagy (because I can’t help being a computer geek) and Kris Kuski, whose models are beautifully crafted and exquisitely detailed which the photographer had captured well. The art pieces included are all simply wonderful, quirky and fun, accompanied by a little information about the artist(s).

The book overall is a coffee-table book. Something for people to flick through, something aesthetically pleasing, but equally engaging. I enjoy taking down my copy to show to guests, even for a quick glance when I’m in need of some inspiration for writing or sketching. I would, and have, recommended it to fellow Steampunks for the variety and quality inside.

The eighteen artists exhibited in the book are: Amanda Scrivener, Thomas Willeford, Cliff Overton, Daniel Proulx, Eric Freitas, Haruo Suekichi, Ian Crichton, James Richardson-Brown, Jesse Newhouse, Joey Marsocci, Jos de Vink, Kris Kuksi, Molly Friedrich, Richard Nagy, Stephane Halleux, Tom Banwell, and Vianney Halter.

Further information may be found at the book’s website: www.ArtofSteampunk.com

Fiction Review: That Darn Squid God

NICK POLLOTTA AND JAMES CLAY

Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing (2007)
Reviewed by Leanne Tough

That Darn Squid God by Nick Polotta and James Clay (aka Phil Foglio of the Girl Genius webcomic) is a Lovecraftian parody, a rip-roaring romp through an alternative Victorian world filled to the brim with cultists, secret societies, and elegant ladies who can certainly handle their own. Professor Einstein (no, not that Einstein) has predicted that the end of the world is nigh. He is shocked that his associates do not realise the same. In a typically Lovecraftian beginning, he has delved too deep and knows too much–and thus made himself a target. With his chosen sidekick, Carstairs, an up-and-coming in their Gentleman’s Club, Einstein fights against time and forces unknown to save the world. Which makes it all sound terribly serious–but this book after all is a parody and as such thrives on the ability to surprise you and make you laugh. An example of this can be found on the front cover, if not in the title itself. The comical, cartoon-like Squid God towering over Big Ben with the tagline ‘It’s the end of the world. How bloody inconvenient’does not lend itself to your usual Cthulu-based novel. I think it’s the sardonic, stereotypically British language that makes me laugh the hardest.

The novel is well written, eminently readable and a lot of fun. Despite it being a parody of Lovecraft’s style and mythos, it by no means belittles it. I’d go so far as to say it is part of the tradition of writers on the Cthulu mythos since Lovecraft. The writers play with the mythos as much as any novelist writing a serious Lovecraftian novel. There are many recognisable elements, such as the cultists and the unknown fearsome powers, and of course the many-tentacled God himself. In some cases, it’s still just as creepy–even if the creepiness is almost immediately washed away with laughter. Saying this, you don’t have to have read Lovecraft’s work to enjoy this book–but I dare say it helps.

Personally, I think this book is brilliant and have already recommended it to my Lovecraft-loving friends. And due to this, I’m also looking forward to Polotta’s next novel, Solomon, which is out in November–which I’ve been promised leans heavily towards the Steampunk genre.

Further information may be found at the book’s website