Top Ten (or so) Reasons to see Much Ado about Zombies

The Covey Center production of Much Ado About Zombies, written by Becky Baker and William Shakespeare, and directed by yours truly, opens Friday, Oct. 24. Tickets available here. There’s also a super awesome promotional video, featuring Barrett Ogden, Ashley Lammi and Archie Crisanto, doing lines from the play that their characters never actually speak, but why quibble?  If you live in Provo, you should see this show. If you live in Orem, or anywhere in Utah north of St. George or south of Idaho, you should see it.  Here’s a top Ten (or so) list of reasons why:

Top Ten (or maybe thirteen) List of Reasons to See the Covey Center Much Ado About Zombies.

10) It’s Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Only with zombies. One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, only with 50% more zombies than ever before!

9) There’s a strange rumor, as yet unconfirmed, of a unexplained crack in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire England. Another rumor, also unconfirmed, describes a shambling bald bearded figure, dressed in decayed Jacobean clothing, stowing away aboard a fishing trawler operating out of Cornwall. Also, hobos have reported a similar figure climbing onto a train in Halifax, heading westward. One hobo said he overheard this same personage muttering about those ‘who doth disturb these unquiet denizens of underfiend realms’ under his breath. Another hobo, on the same train, had his brains eaten. Who knows what all this portends?

8) We’re talkin’ pure steampunk eye candy. Sets, costumes, lighting, makeup: all of it wicked awesome.

7) You can see Sierra Docken, a snarling, biting, zombie violinist. Also a string zombie trio performing Pachelbel as never before.

6) Also Archie Crisanto, as Friar Frank, a grave robbing, cigarette smoking, gun wielding pastor straight from Hell’s Kitchen.

5) You know the part of Hero? Sweet, innocent, bland Hero, Claudio’s fiancee, Beatrice’s cousin, Leonato’s daughter, and one of the dullest female characters in Shakespeare? Yeah, not in our version. Emily Siwachok creates an edgy, punk rock, feminist Hero. She’s an anti-Hero! (rimshot).

4) Janiel Miller rocks out as Balthazar, Leonato’s court musician and disease vector. With all original music by Keaton Anderson. (Who is himself not, as far as I know, an undead disease vector).

3) So many little touches. The blood in Zombie Kevin’s beard. The visor eye makeup for Conrade (Kristen Perkins). Plus Conrade herself, murderous, but at least conflicted about it. The bayonet at the end of Andrea Mullins’ rifle. Mark Buchanan’s monkish garb. The spinning gears. The fact that the zombie virus glows. Blacklight zombie makeup. The huge honkin’ syringe.

2) Megan Graves, a lovely young woman, relishing a letter from her lover, happily strolls along. And is pursued and eaten by zombies. You know, like happens sometimes.

1) Shakespeare’s fun! Zombies are fun! Dub step dancing: fun!

0) Barrett Ogden and Ashley Lammi make a terrific Benedick and Beatrice. Carter Peterson, an amazing physical actor, is a superb Claudio. Jason Hagey and Chris Curlett make a wonderful Leonato/Don Pedro. Can’t say enough about Sophie Determan and Nick Black as that charming sociopathic couple, Margaret and Borachio. And Jennifer Mustoe, Caden Mustoe and Andrea Mullen, as the bumbling law enforcement team of Dogberry, Verges and Ani. Hannah Witkin’s zombie walk, and dancing.  Really, the cast is phenomonal. And I’m entirely, completely objective.

-1) And Kat Webb’s Don John is as nasty a villain as any in Shakespeare. And she wears a black cape to prove it.

-2) Plus Leah Hodson. Who plays the lovesick Messenger, mad about Claudio, but also pursued by Zombie Kevin. And is also a fine zombie cellist. Who told me at our audition that she was kinda afraid of zombies, but now is one.

So there you go! Top Ten (or so) reasons to see it!  Tickets selling fast! And can sell faster if you call now!  And if you are able to come, I know you’ll have a good time.  Promise.

 

Two kinds of crazy

Anita Sarkeesian is a well known and well respected feminist scholar and critic.  Here’s her Wikipedia page. She specializes in studying how women are portrayed in various kinds of popular media, and especially in video games. She’s perhaps best known for a video series on Youtube, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Check it out. It’s great stuff, matter-of-fact, sensible, well researched.

She was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday this past week. On Monday, though, a death threat was sent via email to university officials. The threat was specific and terrifying. I’m not going to quote it here, but it called Sarkeesian “everything wrong with the feminist woman,” and threatened not only her, but anyone who attended her lecture. Its author claimed to have pipe bombs, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. The email also referred to Marc Lepine, a gunman who murdered fourteen women in Canada in 1989.

I can’t begin to describe how incredibly troubling all this is. Sarkeesian’s videos are sensible, intelligent, informed, sort of fun, not terribly ideological. They do make the entirely reasonable point that women are objectified in video games. This is so obviously true, I can’t imagine it being a point of contention. Apparently there are men who feel terribly threatened–emasculated even–by feminism. Apparently lots of those men are also gamers. Who knew?

But as I researched this stuff, the misogyny embedded in so many video game texts, the ferocity of the rhetoric in so much of the so-called ‘men’s movement,’ I became completely disheartened. I wanted to post this yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I don’t want to research gamergate. I don’t even know what MRM stands for, aside from Men’s Right’s Movement. I read the MRM Wikipedia page, and found the MRM arguments incomprehensible.  I don’t want to follow the Red Pill subreddit. (I’m not even going to link to it. It’s on reddit, it’s not hard to find. I refuse to drive traffic there). I spent twenty minutes on Red Pill yesterday, and felt like I needed a shower.  I am a man, proud of being a man, proud to be male, fulfilled in my marriage and edified by the friendships and professional relationships with women I have always enjoyed. I’m a feminist, and proud of it. I don’t get this anti-women nonsense.

And death threats? Seriously, death threats?

And then came a (to be fair) entirely inadvertent interaction with a second group of crazy people.

And this gets tricky, because I have family members who are gun owners and gun defenders and I don’t want to call people I love ‘crazy.’

But here’s what went down. Sarkeesian was still willing to give her lecture on Wednesday. She just wanted to be safe while doing it. Perfectly reasonable. She wanted back packs checked at the door; Utah State made plans to do that. She also wanted personal firearms banned, except, of course, for cops providing security.  And Utah State couldn’t do it. State law allows concealed weapon permit owners to carry their firearms anywhere, to school, on a college campus. To search backpacks and confiscate (or ban) firearms is a violation of Utah law. And apparently a number of Utah State students do have concealed weapon permits, and could therefore have attended Sarkeesian’s lecture armed. Read about it here.

Argument A: This is a prominent speaker, speaking at the university’s invitation. The threat made against her was very specific and detailed. Surely the university had an obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect her safety. And the presence of concealed weapons by students licensed to carry certainly made her feel less safe, and probably actually made her less safe. If, heaven forbid, the guy who issued the threat had in fact shown up and started shooting, a bunch of untrained people waving their guns around and firing wildly would escalate the situation exponentially. The training received by concealed weapons’ holders is risibly ineffectual. Utah is the only state in the country with guns laws that idiotic. As Sarkeesian put it: “It’s sort of mindboggling to me that they couldn’t take efforts to make sure there were no guns in an auditorium that was threatened with guns and a mass shooting.  I don’t understand how they could be so cut and dried about it.”  She’s right. I don’t get it either. And I would certainly have cancelled my appearance, just as she did.

Argument B: Nobody at the university took the threat lightly. Everybody agreed that her safety needed to be protected, as well as the safety of other lecture attendees. But the University had no choice but to follow state law.  And concealed weapon permit holders are not the problem. Indeed, they’re potentially part of the solution to the overall problem of on-campus violence. It’s completely unfair to stigmatize law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. Nobody wants to be called a ‘nut’, and adding the word ‘gun’ to the front of it makes things worse. Concealed weapon permit holders have a track record of responsible gun ownership and use. “Right to bear arms”, y’all.  It’s entirely possible that women, attending the lecture, may well consider themselves feminists, and may find gun ownership completely compatible with their feminism.It’s possible that if the guy had shown up, and started firing, an armed woman may have been the one to put him down. Another kick-ass, armed feminist. They do exist, and if we’re feminists, we should embrace them too. Feminism needn’t be wimpy. Guns protect women too.

I’m an Argument A guy. I do understand Argument B. They both exist, and they both have many followers. Let’s acknowledge that, at least.

Sarkeesian cancelled her lecture because she was afraid of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would be too. I think that’s an entirely reasonable fear. She was, it seems, more afraid of the cross-fire than of the guy who threatened her. I totally get that. I don’t get the gun thing. I have never understood it. I don’t want to own one, and I never have. We didn’t let our kids play in their friends’ homes if they owned guns. I think that was a reasonable stance for us to take. And I feel completely safe unarmed.

But I’m also directing a play right now, and we have lots of guns on-stage. We have a props table with maybe twenty guns on it. The cast spends most of the show waving their guns around, and at one point, they use the guns to shoot a whole bunch of zombies. Now, the guns we’re using don’t actually work. Our ‘shooting’ is a sound effect. The guns are mostly plastic. They’re completely harmless. But oh my gosh are they cool. And our actors enjoy using them.

I haven’t talked to the cast about their personal gun politics. None of my business. But I do get this about guns: they’re cool. On TV, in movies, guns are awesome.

Now, this makes me think that concealed weapon permit holders are living out movie-driven fantasies. I’m still resolutely anti-gun. But I went to rehearsal last night, and saw that our props people had created this massive machine gun, and it was the coolest prop ever, and my reaction, when I saw the thing, was a heartfelt ‘awesome!’  And then I asked the actress who uses it to stop pointing it at my head. (Not that it actually worked. It’s a toy, basically). And our show is about zombies, a popular video-game trope.  So where does fantasy end, where does reality begin, where does sexism or violence in video games lead to sexist or violent behavior in the real world, where do internet, chat room fantasies play themselves out in real life?

I don’t know. I like Anita Sarkeesian, enjoy her video series, and wish I could have heard her lecture. She seems like my kind of people. And I’m unapologetically feminist, and don’t get MRM at all.  And I desperately hope they catch the guy, Sarkeesian’s threatener, before he acts out his fantasies. And . . . I think that machine gun is wicked awesome.  So it’s all maybe at least a little bit complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Jokes

So I was watching last night’s Daily Show this morning, and Jon’s guest was Zach Galifianakis. They got to talking about President Obama’s appearance on Galifianakis’ parody web series Between Two Ferns. (That appearance was great, incredibly funny, BTW, in that peculiarly funny Obama way.)  Galifianakis talked about what the experience was like, coming to the White House and meeting with the President and eating in the White House lunch room. He said the food there was terrific, (and free), and they even had a dessert menu.  And on the menu was an item called Chocolate Freedom. And Galifianakis said to the waiter, ‘that has to be what you guys call the President, right?’ And Jon Stewart lost it.

It was a funny Obama joke. And it coincided with this idiotic debate I found myself in on the internets, you know, the way you do, arguing with total strangers over really stupid issues, and feeling like a total doofus for getting caught up in something that dumb. The issue, as it happens, was over a not-funny Obama joke. To wit:

President Obama, Phil Mickelson and Andre Agassi are in line at a bank, each of them trying to cash a check. And Agassi gets to the front, and he doesn’t have any ID. The bank teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Andre Agassi.’ And Agassi says, ‘how about this?’ And he takes a tennis racket, and hits a perfect forehand winner out the door of the bank. And the teller is impressed, and cashes the check. Mickelson gets up there and again the teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Phil Mickelson?’ And Mickelson says, ‘how about this?’ and he hits a perfect nine-iron out the door of the bank. And again the teller cashes his check. Obama gets to the teller, and is asked ‘how can I be sure you’re Barack Obama?’ And Obama responds, ‘I don’t have a clue.’  And the teller says, ‘will you have that in tens or twenties, Mr. President.’

This is a joke that Mitt Romney has been telling a lot lately, on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections. I think that’s significant. Anyway, a conservative blogger I know had put this joke on his blog, said he thought it was both funny and true, funny, in fact, precisely because it’s true. I said that I thought it was neither funny or true. It’s a joke about how hopelessly incompetent Obama is. That’s a favorite Fox News/talk radio/conservative blogger meme. Obama’s in over his head, not up to the job, clueless.  So it’s a joke that plays on that notion. I reject the meme, and therefore don’t think the joke is funny. And so we went back and forth, arguing over whether or not a joke was funny. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is!  NO, IT ISN’T!!!!  Not my finest hour.

The reality is, though, there are lots of Obama jokes out there, and mostly they’re not funny at all. Some are dumb, some are mean-spirited, some just don’t make sense. Very few are genuinely clever, and most aren’t remotely true. And truth is what’s funny. Sort of.

The difficulty with Mitt Romney’s Obama joke (quoted at length above) is that it’s Mitt Romney giving it. It’s white male privilege yucking it up at the expense of an unprivileged person.  It’s a joke that relies on a shared presumption of Obama incompetence. And it can look like a rich white guy chortling at the presumption of a black guy thinking he can do a job better done by rich white guys. Obama came to office with the only qualification he needed to become President; he won an election. But you can look at his resume and see deficiencies; little executive experience, had never run a big organization, had only served in the Senate a few years. He would never get hired as a CEO. His credentials were unimpressive. And for a successful former executive like Romney, watching Obama win reelection had to be infuriating.

I would suggest that Barack Obama had impressive credentials of a different sort. A community organizer/law professor, combining street smarts with academics. He’s a different kind of cat. He’s cooler. In fact, he’s cooler in a McLuhanesque sense. Marshall McLuhan contrasted ‘hot media’ (like movies) with ‘cool’ media (like television). Cool media are about reflection and contemplation, require more of viewers, involve us in both intellectual ways. Hot media are simpler, and affect us more directly and emotionally.  I would suggest that Obama almost instinctively engages in cool ways with cool media. I would suggest that Fox News, and other conservative media, are by instinct hotter, more immediately emotionally engaging, but also, in a sense, at odds with their own medium. The incongruity of that interaction of the medium and message distort both. Fox takes everything way more seriously than cooler voices and heads do, and every crisis is the greatest ever, and with every decision, civilization as we know it is at stake. Obama tries not to get caught up in those sorts of games. The difference between Obama and his conservative detractors is in part stylistic. And he’s great at deflecting criticism, at flicking it off his shoulders.

That’s Obama. Hip-hop, but also Foucault. Reflective and deflective. Dispassionate and rational and funny in a self-parodying way. Ironic. In short, he’s cool. And so Romney’s joke falls flat, seems not so much unfunny as irrelevant. Uncool. (Reminds me of a tee shirt I saw recently.  “Keep Provo awkward.”)

John McCain is old. George W. Bush is stupid. Clinton was terminally horny, and Mitch McConnell sounds like a cartoon turtle when he speaks. And Barack Obama is full of himself, and bad at his job. Lazy comedians can always rely on those few tried-and-tested formulas for easy laughs.But those aren’t jokes that advance political discourse, of course. They’re not that different from jokes based on ethnic stereotypes–Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish jokes (if you’re Norwegian), or Norwegian jokes (if you’re a Swede.)

I wonder if Obama jokes would be funnier if we went a different route; if we went for anti-humor.  Anti-humor consists of jokes that don’t even try to be funny, which is what makes them funny.  My son gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Latvian jokes. Latvian jokes are deliberately, intentionally unfunny, told in a mock-Eastern-European accent, spoken in tones of unwavering despair. “Knock knock. Who there? Me. Am very cold. Also hungry.” Or this one: “Man has two potatoes. Sorry. Premise of joke ridiculous. Who have two potatoes?” These sorts of anti-jokes, these deliberate parodies of ethnic jokes generally, are funny because they are so absolutely, horribly not funny. For example, this: “What do you call a black guy in the cockpit of an airplane?  (Assuming an expression of outraged offense), “the pilot!  What are you, racist?!?!?”  An anti-joke that mocks self-righteous political correctness.  Or try this one: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? Zero.”

That’s right, an Irish potato famine joke.  Too soon?

Or this: Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. They each order a martini. Then they die, because without regulations, contaminated alcohol was served.

It’s a perfect anti-joke. It’s self-righteous and partisan, but it simultaneously mocks self-righteous partisanship. It’s sort of true, and therefore funny, but it’s also ironic, a parody. It’s therefore also cool.

So: Barack Obama won the nomination for President by promising to get us out of Iraq. And he succeeded in doing so, despite dire warnings from mainstream news media. But now he has to send troops back there, because ISIL beheads journalists.

Not funny. An anti-joke. And therefore an Obama joke that might work, a little.

 

 

 

Can a Mormon be a liberal?

Can an active, practicing Mormon also be a political liberal? Yes.

In today’s Deseret News, Professor Ralph Hancock, from BYU, asked and answered this question. Though he’s a conservative, Professor Hancock likewise answered the question in the affirmative. Mormons can be liberals, liberals can be Mormons. We Mormons tend not to be liberals, but as I’ve written before, that’s probably more a matter of geography than ideology. Utah’s very Mormon, very Western, and very conservative. But Wyoming and Montana are not Mormon states, and are also very conservative. They’re all western states, and westerners tend to vote Republican, often for reasons having to do with land-use issues unrelated to religion.  I’m a Utahn, a practicing and believing Latter-day Saint, and a committed liberal. I don’t see those positions as being remotely incompatible. On the contrary; I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon.

Say what? Yep. As a Mormon, I believe that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. And in the Book of Mormon, evil is consistently identified with a lack of charity, with a failure to care for the poor and needy. Greedy selfishness was the sin of the Gadianton robbers, for example, the über villains of the last half of the Book of Mormon. It was the primary reason the Nephites fell.  A haughty unwillingness to succor the poor is even the primary sin of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50), and not sexual sin, as is commonly supposed.  Above all, I believe in the great sermon by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 2-4. Benjamin says clearly that even suggesting that poor people are poor because of bad choices they’ve made in their lives is sinful (Mosiah 4: 17-21). We’re all of us beggars before God.

Professor Hancock, of course, disagrees that programs in which a central government attempts to alleviate poverty are what the Book of Mormon is talking about:

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul.

I would respond as follows. First of all, a Christian charity that ‘seeks the good of the whole person,’ is a Christian charity that extends from the premise that faults in ‘the whole person’ are what have left him/her poor. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of attitude that King Benjamin proscribes. Poor people tend not to be much interested in ‘moral and spiritual edification.’  They want to become less poor. If they have to listen to well-meaning platitudes along the way, fine, but mostly they want help. Paternalistic head patting has no place in policies alleviating poverty.

Let me be specific. I believe that what the vast majority of poor people really want is a job and a paycheck. So first and foremost, I support raising the minimum wage, making it possible for a hard working person to support his/her family. If a single parent wants a job, I support providing child care assistance. I support, short term, subsidizing housing, and for families struggling to make ends meet, food stamps as a temporary aid program. If a person struggles with a drug addiction, I think we’d be better off seeing his/her problems as a matter of public health, not criminality. And, of course, I think all citizens, of whatever country, have an absolute right to access to quality health care, preferably in a government-administered single-payer system. And I think that the richest country in the history of the world can and should do more to fight poverty internationally.  Too many children go to bed hungry throughout the world. We can help, and should.

None of this is remotely incompatible with the values of the Restored Gospel. The notion that the scriptures preach private charity only, that the scriptures are anti-government is preposterous, ideological and naive.

Professor Hancock also decries what he calls “extreme lifestyle liberalism,” which he calls ‘amoral.’  We liberals, he says, embrace such extremes as gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, which in his view come from viewing people not as moral agents, but as products of their environments.

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, in the sense that courts continue to find bans on gay marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. My guess is that by this time next year, all fifty states will be performing same sex marriages. To favor expanding the blessings of marriage to all our brothers and sisters does not logically follow the proposition that human beings are products of our environments. On the contrary, it comes from viewing all people as moral agents, as citizens and therefore equals. But it’s an issue that’s soon to become moot anyway.

So once again, it comes down to abortion. And the disagreement between liberals, such as myself, and conservatives, like Professor Hancock, on abortion, arises from a natural and inevitable disagreement over natural law, over the rights pertaining to all citizens. A fetus grows inside a human body, in a womb especially (and miraculously) intended for that task. A woman has the right to make the most basic decisions regarding her own body. A fetus, however, might become a human being, with all the rights of personhood.  So how do we balance those rights? Where does the right of the fetus to possibly become a person outweigh the rights of the woman to decide what will happen within her own body?  Especially given the uncontestable reality that not all fetuses survive to term. Women’s bodies spontaneously and naturally abort far more fetuses than are artifically aborted medically.  A baby is an infinitely precious and wonderful gift.  A gift from God, I believe. But it’s naive and foolish to not admit that carrying a baby to term can have a serious physical impact on the body of the woman giving birth.

Nobody cheers an elective abortion. That decision is, I believe, never made lightly and rarely made irresponsibly. I remain convinced by President Clinton’s formulation, that elective abortion should be safe, rare, and legal.

But if we want to limit the number of elective abortions performed annually, let’s do it with compassion and kindness. Let’s help with job training, education, health care, child care, to give single moms a better chance to succeed.  Let’s help.  Let’s make adoption easier, cheaper, more frequent. And let’s see if we can join together in toning down the rhetoric of abortion. It’s not murder–certainly not in LDS theology, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Can we mourn abortion more than we condemn it?

So, yes, I’m a liberal and I’m a Mormon. I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon and I’m a Mormon because I’m a liberal.  And those positions aren’t remotely incompatible.

 

Much Ado about problems, and solutions

I am currently directing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo. Make that Much Ado About Zombies, since that’s what we’re calling it. On account of us having zombies in it, see? It’s going to be very fun.  We open Oct. 24, and you can buy tickets here.

I’m really enjoying the experience. Love the cast, love the design team I’m working with, and of course, it’s a pure joy to work with Shakespeare’s text, even in this high concept, truncated version. What’s been interesting, though, is to see the way in which adding zombies not only clarifies the text, but solves textual problems in the text.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s basically a romantic comedy about two couples. Beatrice and Benedick are two smart, witty, clever people who can’t stop sniping at each other. Their friends are amused, in fact, by the funny but nasty things they say to each other every time they meet. And they’re both absolutely determined never to marry. No one they meet will ever be good enough for them. The script does hint that they have a past as well, that they were in a relationship once, and it was horrible. So Don Pedro, Benedick’s boss, decides to play matchmaker. He has a loud conversation with her uncle, which he intends Benedick to overhear, about how much Beatrice is into him. Meanwhile, Hero, Beatrice’s cousin and friend, has a similar overheard conversation about Benedick, about how much he wishes he could tell Beatrice that he loves her.  So Beatrice and Benedick, separately, overhear their friends talking about them, and about how each of them is secretly in love with the other, and this brings about their eventual reconciliation and subsequent marriage.  It’s fun stuff, and I have the actors to pull it off; both my Beatrice, Ashley Lammi, and my Benedick, Barrett Ogden, are terrific.

But the other love story involves Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, and Claudio, Benedick’s best friend. Theirs is, initially, a more conventional love story. They meet, and Claudio gets Don Pedro to negotiate with her uncle, Leonato, on his behalf, for her hand. Everything works out, until Don John, Don Pedro’s brother sister (in our production) a real trouble-maker, conspires to destroy their happiness. She falsely accuses Hero of sexual misconduct, on Hero’s wedding day, in a terrible, ugly scene of betrayal and poisonous destruction. Hero faints, and, advised by Friar Francis (one of those all-knowing Shakespeare friars), “dies.” That is, Francis urges B and B to tell folks that Hero has died from the shock of the whole ghastly experience, so at least everyone’ll all feel bad for her. Then, when the dumb-as-a-post constable Dogberry more or less accidentally uncovers the whole plot, Don John is exposed, Claudio forgives Hero, and they’re married, to live happily ever after.

There are two problems with the Hero/Claudio scenario. The first is that Hero and Claudio are underwritten and not-very-interesting characters. Hero is just a sweet young girl, innocent and nice. Claudio is noble, but not very bright. It’s hard to care about their story, except of course to feel bad for Hero, getting caught up in the middle of the nastiest sibling rivalry in Shakespeare, that of Don Pedro and Don John.

But the other problem is more intractable. It makes sense that Claudio would forgive Hero once he realizes she’s innocent of the charges that Don John has made.  But why would Hero forgive him? He’s just publicly, in church, in front of all their friends, on her wedding day, accused her of being a whore.  I can’t imagine any situation being more personal or more painful. Fine; he learns she’s innocent; he forgives her. But her father, Leonato, is so angry about this false accusation that he challenges Claudio to a duel. Why would Hero be okay subsequently marrying the jerk? Why (to put it in historical context) would her father agree to it?  Shakespeare doesn’t explain.  He basically glosses over the problem. It’s a comedy; everyone gets married at the end.

Not to brag or anything, but I honestly think we solve both problems.  The first problem, the Hero=boring problem, we solve by having her not be boring. Our Hero, a terrific actress named Emily Siwachok, plays Hero with sass and independence and attitude, playing nearly every line sarcastically.  She’s a mechanic, a tool-belt wearing blue collar gal, a fixer of machine guns and sharpener of knives.  She’s exciting and fun. And our Claudio, Carter Peterson, is one of the first characters to become a zombie. So he’s in conflict in every scene, fighting between his zombie tendencies and his love for Emily. (He’s also a brilliant physical actor).

We added another scene too. Shakespeare wrote song lyrics for the play, including “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,” set many times by many composers.  We’ve hired a composer of our own, Keaton Anderson, who gave the song a zombie-punk vibe. Our Balthazar, Janiel Miller, sings it, but it really rocks; pretty soon, Claudio has to dance. Hero sees him, and dances too.  I mean, what brings two people together better than a love of the same music? Right? (Plus, Carter Peterson’s dancing is a show-stopper).

But the zombie thing really solves the problem of the play’s ending, of Hero’s willingness to forgive Claudio and marry him. Because him being a jerk turns out to not  be his fault.  He believes Don John and rejects Hero because he’s a zombie.  He’s impaired.  It wasn’t him doing it. And when she wakes up at her own funeral, she’s a zombie too. But true love conquers all, and when the two of them see each other, they are able to fight off the zombie virus, and embrace.

It’s a lovely moment, if I have to say so myself. But if it works, it’ll be because our concept (Much Ado, with zombies), really works.  A good concept will do that for you. Shakespeare wrote magnificent characters, wonderful plays, and the greatest theatrical dialogue of all time.  But sometimes plot points don’t, actually, make sense.  That presents a challenge for a director and a cast.  I’m proud of our solutions here.

2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its fifteen nominees for 2015 induction, and invited the public to vote on our favorites. Here’s the link, in case you want to.

If you love rock music–and I do–and you care about it, past, present and future, then, like me, you’ve wasted an inordinate amount of time on Facebook and Reddit and at parties arguing about stuff like this; what bands are great, which ones suck and why, and why people with different tastes than yours are so grievously wrong-headed. Eared. Whatever.  Halls of fame are generally built on such (let’s face it) artificial controversies. Heck, I spent most of high school litigating the case of Zep v. Who, and which Beatles album was the greatest ever, and how could anyone ever, ever listen to Bread.

Did the same thing with baseball. To this day, I think Alan Trammell deserves HOF induction, and I think I can make a case for Lou Whitaker. Jack Morris, though? Borderline, but no.

At the same time, let’s admit this too: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s continuing, bizarre, and incomprehensible hostility to progressive rock fundamentally taints all their selections. A ‘Rock and Roll’ Hall of Fame that can’t find space for Jethro Tull is an institution unworthy anyone’s support, and grudgingly letting Yes and Rush in the last couple of years doesn’t make up for it.

Having said that, I do follow the R&R HOF, and will watch HBO’s coverage of the induction ceremonies.  And there are some interesting nominees this year, and for me, some tough calls. Here’s how I voted:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  The resume’s just too thin. “Born in Chicago’s a great song, and they put out two great albums in the mid-sixties. And they were at Woodstock.  Not enough. NO.

Chic. Not uninteresting disco pioneers. The R&R HOF keeps putting ‘em on the ballot, and they did record “Le Freak.” But they’re from an era that’s hardly under-represented. NO.

Green Day. Just because a band sells 75 million records, or was beloved in every dorm room in America fifteen years ago doesn’t necessarily suggest greatness, much as I love the album Dookie. But American Idiot, the album and rock opera, seal the deal for me.  YES.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Very tough call for me. I pretty much love everything about Joan Jett, from her riot grrl snarl, punk attitude, badass feminism, and underrated song writing. I just think her earlier band, the Runaways, was more significant historically. And Cherie Currie was that band’s lead singer. (Lita Ford was also a Runaway. Feminist punk pioneers: What a band!) So with great reluctance: NO.

Kraftwerk: I know, I know, they’re historically really important, not just to the worlds of electronic dance music, but even to early rap. I just don’t like their music. My vote, my rules. NO.

The Marvelettes: The world of Motown girl groups is perhaps the single most overrepresented in the entire R&R HOF. “Please Mr. Postman” is not enough to get anyone my vote.  NO.

Nine Inch Nails: Tremendously important and influential band. Trent Reznor is an amazing musician, not just as the principal song-writer for a band as important as NIN, but now as David Fincher’s favorite movie composer.  YES.

N.W.A.: The Beatles of hip-hop. Historically essential. Savage, powerful, socially essential grandfathers of gangsta rap.  I still can’t believe they didn’t make it in last year.  Easiest YES on the list.

Lou Reed: He’s already in, as the co-founder of The Velvet Underground. This nomination is for his post-TVU solo work, and while I admire his uncompromising I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me aggressiveness, I’m pretty much on the fence. The HOF’s bio page mentions his ‘daring, experimental’ projects. Too often, that’s code for ‘albums that sucked.’ A reluctant and admiring NO.

The Smiths: Thin resume, with just four albums. Influenced everyone from Radiohead to Oasis. While I can admire their music, I never much liked it, and finally voted NO.

The Spinners: ’70s R&B vocal groups are seriously over-represented in the HOF. NO.

Sting: He’s also already in, along with the rest of the Police. This is for his later solo career, which can be criticized as being almost more about social activism than music. But the same restless energy that has led to his crusades with Amnesty International has also led him to the worlds of reggae, African music and jazz. I finally voted YES.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: His was a short career, due to his untimely demise in 1990. I saw him in concert in 1981, and it was tremendous. My son found his blues guitar playing overly technical and redundant. I don’t agree. I think it’s time to put SRV in.  YES.

War: Good West Coast R&B band, but never special, never great.  NO.

Bill Withers: “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the great recordings, one of the great vocals ever. The rest of the resume’s too thin.  NO.

I’d love to hear how you voted!  And repeat after me: Jethro Tull! King Crimson! Emerson Lake & Palmer!  2016 is the year for prog!

 

16 Stones: Movie Review

Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.

That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.

I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’  I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming.  That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart.  And so I did.

The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.

What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’).  The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses.  That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.

They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.

And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.

But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness.  That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.

This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any.  Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.

Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.

Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed.  That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.

But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing.  The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–”movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.”  I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.

 

Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–’s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.

 

 

Granting cert . . .or not

I took a week’s vacation from blogging, only to return to stunning news. The US Supreme Court denied to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari in Kitchen v. Herbert. In other words, the Court’s not going to hear the case. They didn’t ‘grant cert.’ Which means that Judge Robert Shelby’s decision, as affirmed by the 10th District Court of Appeals, stands.

Gay marriage is now legal in Utah.

See, that’s the kind of in-depth legal analysis you can only get from a disabled playwright who is sort of a casual reader of SCOTUS.blog.

Wasn’t just Utah. Appeals from the Fourth and Seventh Circuit courts were also refused cert. Which means that cases that found anti-gay marriage laws unconstitutional in eleven states total were also affirmed. Gay marriage is now legal in 30 states. One of the states affected was Indiana, my old home state. Also Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin. Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Wyoming.

Wyoming. Where Matthew Shepherd was beaten and tortured to death. Gay marriage is now legal in Wyoming.

So what happened? SCOTUSblog found the denial of cert unsurprising, pointing out that the Supremes “regularly deny review where there is no conflict among the circuits below.” Since June, 2013, there have been over forty decisions by federal and state courts in marriage cases, all of them (with, I think, one exception) affirming marriage equality. It might just be that the justices didn’t see an issue there for them to decide.

But if you want some probably irresponsible speculation, I’m up for it. It takes four justices to grant cert. Well, let’s assume that the liberal wing of the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) would have liked to take the case, hoping for a sweeping decision that would negate all anti-gay-marriage laws in the whole US. The conservatives (Thomas, Alito, Scalia), may have wanted to take it, hoping to reverse the national trend towards SSM. Justice Kennedy, the usual swing vote, was the deciding vote on Lawrence v. Texas, the decision overthrowing all anti-sodomy laws nationally. He’s a libertarian, and voted to overthrow the Defense of Marriage Act in the Windsor decision.  It seems unlikely that he would have joined the Thomas/Scalia/Alito wing in overturning all those forty decisions, but equally unlikely that he would want a more sweeping decision.

Chief Justice Roberts, meanwhile, though very conservative, is known to be seriously concerned about what he sees as an erosion of national respect for the Court as an institution. Either choice, the sweeping gay-marriage-everywhere decision or the overturn-forty-previous-decisions decision would be perceived as overly political and likely damaging to the prestige and reputation of the court. By refusing cert, the liberals get most of what they want, as does Roberts.  And Scalia, Alito and Thomas are only three votes. Sometimes, the best choice really is to punt.

The Deseret News has, for months now, kind of hilariously published at least three op-ed pieces a week arguing against gay marriage, urging the Court to take Kitchen v. Herbert, and predicting that the Court would, once and for all, reverse this dangerous national trend towards marriage equality. (Number of editorials published on the other side of the issue? Zero, of course). Some of the editorials were way over the top; others were reasonably written. But the possibility of a Supreme Court reversal never struck me as terribly likely. What I thought was most likely was a 6-3 decision affirming Judge Shelby’s decision, with Roberts joining the majority, and probably writing the decision. I thought it likely that Roberts would want to control the writing of the decision (the Chief Justice decides who writes decisions, if he’s on the majority–otherwise, it’s the senior justice in the majority). I figured he’d want to craft a narrow and limited decision affirming. But not granting cert accomplishes that same objective.

I’m a Mormon, a practicing and believing member of the LDS faith.  Our General Conference ended yesterday. (It’s a big semi-annual meeting for the Mormon Church). I was particularly interested in the comments of Dallin H. Oaks (one of our apostles). He asked this question: “Why is it difficult to have Christ-like love for all our neighbors? It’s difficult because we must live among those who do not share our beliefs and values.” We’re supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of the world,’ in other words, and that can be a tricky balancing act.  We’re to avoid contention, we’re to avoid anger and resentment, we’re to be disciples of the Prince of Peace, but we’re also to cling to our most deeply held beliefs. We’re combatants in an eternal battle between good and error.  The ‘strong tide’ in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, said Elder Oaks, is an example of the kind of error that Latter-day Saints are supposed to oppose. (It should be pointed out that holding differing views on legal and political issues is not prohibited for Mormons).

He then went on to say this: “In public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbors and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should disagree, without being disagreeable.”

Did Elder Oaks know in advance of the ruling how it would turn out? I don’t discount the possibility. He’s a former judge, a legal scholar of the first rank, and a man with many many friends in the highest legal circles.  Was he saying ‘we lost this one. Let’s be generous in defeat?’  Possibly.  Certainly his talk was primarily arguing for generosity and kindness towards people we disagree with. And amen to that.

For many of my closest friends, today’s action by the Supreme Court is a wonderful thing, a cause for tremendous celebration and joy. For others of my friends, especially my LDS friends, the news is less positive. But let me add my support of Elder Oaks’ call for civility.  Gay marriage is now legal in Utah. Marriage licenses are being issued.  Let’s all agree to work to make the transition as smooth and easy as possible.

 

 

Mr. Mercedes: Book Review

Stephen King has published 55 novels, pretty much all of them best-sellers. Heaven knows how many short stories, novelettes, screenplays, teleplays and even a couple of non-fiction works have poured from his prolific pen. He’s sixty seven years old, and pretty much defines ‘rich and successful.’ His most recent novel, Mr. Mercedes, came out in June, and he has two more novels finished and awaiting publication, one of them a sequel to this one.  I haven’t read all his novels, but I have certainly read most of them. I think he’s a very fine writer, imaginative and consistently interesting.

And Mr. Mercedes certainly must be reckoned among the best works of his career. It’s also stylistically quite different from his earlier works.  And that seems to me rather remarkable. For a writer of his age and with his track record to set himself the challenge of refining his craft strikes me as unusual and laudable.

Because up to now, Stephen King has been known almost entirely as a writer of horror novels. Specifically, he’s known for placing classic horror novel tropes in recognizable contemporary settings. ‘salem’s Lot is a vampire novel, set in a modern city; The Shining, a haunted house story set in a ski lodge/hotel, The Stand, apocalyptic fantasy, set in a recognizable American west. Even The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about an adolescent girl lost in a forest, had a Satanically possessed bear. He loves ghosts and ghouls, loves to tell stories of ordinary people facing some kind of ultimate, supernatural Evil.

But Mr. Mercedes isn’t a horror novel in any of those ways; there’s nothing supernatural in it. It’s still about Evil, but in this case, it’s about a common psychopath, a murderous madman, recognizable as every day’s headlines.

His dedicatory note reads “thinking of James M. Cain,” followed by this quotation: “they threw me off the haytruck about noon.” That is, of course, the opening line to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the classic novels of American hard-boiled detective fiction. Mr. Mercedes is basically King’s attempt to write a detective novel in the style of guys like Cain and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and as later refined by the greatest of them all, Elmore Leonard. It features a cynical, past-his-prime private detective, a blonde with a mysterious past, a couple of sidekicks, and an intriguing mystery. At one point, the novel even makes passing mention of Humphrey Bogart. It’s clearly an homage.

But it’s updated, of course, and set in our world, today. Hammett and Chandler’s detectives were cynical about police corruption and Prohibition and the mob; King’s hero, retired police detective Bill Hodges, contends with the aftermath of the world-wide financial crisis, and the villain of the piece imagines himself another 9/11 terrorist, and hopes to beat the death toll of the World Trade Center attacks. And of course, Hodges’ sidekicks are better than he is with computers.

Even the writing style is an homage. Cain was famous for the spare economy of his prose, which is not something you would say about Stephen King, who is rather more addicted to the baroque. “They threw me off the haytruck about noon,” is a terrific opening, straightforward and evocative.  King begins Mr. Mercedes thus: “Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand.”  Simple, strong.

I’m cheating, though; that’s the first line of the first chapter, but the book begins with a preface. That’s King’s forte: he doesn’t start with the protagonist, he starts with the villain. He starts with Evil.  It’s the Great Recession. The mayor of a midwest city (unspecified) has announced a job fair; the night before, the unemployed begin to gather. It’s a damp night, not rainy but misty, foggy. Hundreds of people queueing up, many with sleeping bags, clumped together by the City Center entrance. Out of the mist, a Mercedes sedan emerges, smashed into the crowd, killing eight, badly injuring many more. Just as suddenly, the Mercedes guns it away. It’s found a few blocks away, abandoned. A stolen vehicle, no prints, no DNA or hair samples left behind. A senseless killing, a tragedy, an act of terror. And no clues as to who-dun-it.

A few months later, the lead detective on the case, Bill Hodges, has retired, and is contemplating suicide. Hodges is sixty one, overweight, at a loss, now that the one thing on earth he was good at has been taken from him. And then, suddenly, he’s galvanized when he gets a taunting letter from the Mercedes killer. The rest of the novel is about a kind of psychological warware between Hodges and Mr. Mercedes.

We get to know the villain too, a nerd-herd type computer tech named Brady Hartfield. He’s a completely convincing bad guy, a profiler’s dream, but also weirdly sympathetic, like Arnie in Christine, or Jack Torrance in The Shining (the novel, not the movie, where Jack Nicholson is devilish from the get-go). There’s another villain in Brady’s background, too; his alcoholic and murderous mother, with whom he has a believable but incredibly troubling incestuous relationship.

But that’s it. Brady’s not possessed by some evil spirit and his Mom is not troubled by ghosts. No ghouls, no phantoms, no alien forces; nothing supernatural at all. Just a creepy weirdo killer and a good cop, past his prime, trying to catch him before he kills again.

It makes for a terrific read, can’t-put-it-down past-midnight page turner. Of course, I won’t give away the ending. I’ll just say that my heart was thumping the whole last hundred pages. I can’t tell you how much I admire this. I love it when good writers set themselves challenges.