The Reader’s Best of Chicago 2016 – RUNNER UP!

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So the Chicago Reader has an annual issue where Chicagoans all over can vote (free!) on The Best of Chicago in categories like food, entertainment, sports, and more. It’s an awesome way to bring attention to the awesome things about Chicago, as proclaimed by Windy City citizens themselves.

Apparently, my novel On The Isle of Sound and Wonder was voted the runner up for Best New Novel by a Chicagoan.

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First of all – WHAT.

Second of all – EXCUSE ME.

Third of all – I literally would not have known that this happened except my lovely friend Ami posted it on my wall. THANK YOU for the alert, Ami!

 

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I am amazed and really excited about this. Thank you, mysterious benefactors voters. My love for you is ETERNAL.

Thank you!

 

“Countess Bathory” is a Startling, Intimate Tragedy

On the invitation of playwright, performer, and erstwhile genius Jared McDaris, the Fella and I found ourselves attending a Friday night performance of the new Elizabethan tragedy, “Countess Bathory.” Written in iambic pentameter, styled after Shakespeare’s finest twisted looking-glass stage stories of human ambition, revulsion, and misfortune, “Bathory” is staged in the very intimate space of the Right Brain Project (4001 N. Ravenswood, off the Irving Park Brown Line stop). With only a few set cutouts to represent the stone parapets and walls of various castles, and a red-stained bathtub in the corner, this is clearly a production about the characters, not about their location or even their time period.

Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess who lived from 1560 to 1614, most famous for her alleged track record of torture, kidnapping, and homicide. According to a number of contemporary accounts and witnesses, Báthory tortured and killed over six hundred young women between the years of 1590 and 1610. She was arrested, tried, and – perhaps most surprisingly – merely condemned to house arrest for the rest of her life. Her legend has slithered through folk histories and fiction for centuries since then, especially the horrific legend of her bathing in the blood of young virgins to keep herself young and beautiful.

PERFECT for a Shakespearean-styled tragedy!

McDaris and a hearty, intrepid crew of actors and designers have created a dizzying fictionalized glimpse into the real history of Báthory and the horrible atrocities she may have committed behind the mask of her nobility and prestige. Costumes by Delena Bradley are exquisite and textured – from the vampirically gorgeous gowns of Báthory herself to the rags her victims wear, Bradley’s details and theme create a clearer vision of the story for an audience who may not be intimately familiar with 16th-century Hungary. The audience collectively gave an audible gasp and murmur of appreciation when the Countess (Mary-Kate Arnold) made her grand entrance for Act II in a stunning red dress that would be right at home on a New York Fashion Week runway.

McDaris’ script is not only exquisitely paced and structured, but it is incredibly intelligent as well. I had moments where I distinctly noted sly nods to lines from various plays in Shakespeare’s own canon, but all was done in tribute, not in parody. It is pleasantly comfortable to follow and listen to if you have an ear for Shakespeare, and McDaris provides impressive speech for his actors – although there is a scene centered on an archaic term for genitalia that may be lost on modern audiences, it is ripe with the Elizabethan style and spirit.

Arnold is an exquisite ball of elemental energy as the bizarre and deeply disturbed Báthory. She is fire, then ice, then something in between, all without even the slightest hint of struggle for her as a performer – Arnold clearly has skill at playing this spectrum of madness. She is equally lovely as she is insane, however, and wears the deranged Báthory’s wildness like a little girl wears her finest fairy-tale princess dress.

Elliott Sowards plays Báthory’s husband Nadasdy with a carefully controlled fire which sometimes rages out of control – Sarah Jean Tilford is scene-stealing as the ratlike, always-in-motion Petr Zadovsky – Aiyanna Wade is pleasant enough in her first scene as demure servant Kate, but provides an astonishing amount of gravitas and stillness throughout the rest of the play, a shudder-worthy character arc that brought to mind the Reek storyline in Game of Thrones. Even throughout Báthory’s wildest outbursts, Wade’s sad, hollowed-out gaze is impressively haunting.

The rest of the cast is wonderful to watch as well, and the space is suitably close quarters for a magnifying glass to be held up to this strange history. Although McDaris takes some liberties with the actual history, it hardly matters – the story is riveting and the words are well-crafted.

On top of these impressive performances and accomplishments, “Countess Bathory” is free to the public (ages 18+ of course). McDaris and his cast and crew are more than deserving of pay for their art – so they have a tip jar which you can contribute to after the show. “Countess Bathory” runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM until June 25 at the Right Brain Project (4001 N Ravenswood, 4th floor).

Do yourself a favor and see this before it closes – it’s quite honestly a phenomenal evening of theatre.

 

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“Fight Quest” is an Otherworld-ly, Excellent Adventure

Maybe it’s just me, but a good bit of stage combat does wonders for my appreciation of a show. I also happen to love a slight element of unpredictability – the need to ad lib within a story thanks to an unexpected twist or element. I furthermore enjoy fantasy, adventure, and the passionate work of Otherworld Theatre here in Chicago. Add in a witty Game Master and the occasional roll of a 4-sided die, and I’m sold.

Although I must say it is my LEAST favorite die.


Otherworld’s “Fight Quest” is an adventurous, funny, delightfully self-aware show where the audience helps choose the outcome of the story. The Game Master (Bennett Bottero, who is also the “Fight Quest” playwright) introduces the concept in pretty straightforward terms: he has created four ‘avatars’ and will choose an audience member to be the player for this game. The player then chooses an avatar (the Rogue, the Monk, the Ranger and her Wolf, or the Barbarian), and the GM narrates the story – tailoring each chose and twist in the road specifically for that chosen avatar. Along the way, there are mini-games, puzzles to solve, and gambles to make, all unfolded by the player’s choices on how to guide the avatar.

It is innovative, exciting, fun theatre, full of game/fantasy/pop culture references. The cast does a magnificent job of treading the fine line between ad-libbing to riff on whatever reference was made and keeping the intense integrity of a hero on a fantasy quest facing down their cruelest foes. Grace Gimpel‘s Rogue is smirky and saucy, quick with her daggers and unafraid to spin and leap from the Public House’s stage to the ground floor without even looking. The Ranger (Moira Begale, also the director of the piece) is stern and aloof as any elf should be – and wields a broadsword in harmony with her Wolf companion’s vicious flying kicks. The two of them have a few really cool assist moves that had the audience stomping and roaring for more. Kai Young as the Wolf is seriously one of the best parts of the show – committed, impressively athletic, and also the fight choreographer. The two avatars chosen the night I attended were the Monk (played to stoic yet charismatic perfection by Brendan Stallings) and the Barbarian (the impressive and astonishing Justin Verstraete).

Of the avatars, the Monk was the only one to this point who had not ‘debuted’ before an audience, so the player chosen from the audience eagerly selected the Monk to start the evening off. Even when the player’s choices caused hilarious script modifications, Stallings kept his composure as the Monk, and performed admirable feats of quarterstaff and acrobatics. His fight against the Barbarian is particularly well-choreographed and performed.

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The debut of the Monk!


The Monk’s turn in the story (a game module Bottero’s GM calls “The Bandits of Hollow Hill”) was so speedy that at the end, the performers decided to do another round. A brief intermission later, a new player from the audience was chosen, and a new champion – the Barbarian.

Part of the introduction to the game is having the audience player decide on their avatar, then choose the avatar’s name and where they’re from, or what title they hold. When the new audience player selected the Barbarian, it was decided (perhaps a little too quickly for the player himself to realize the joke he was making) that this Barbarian would be known as Randall the Savage. Instantly and seamlessly, Verstraete launched into a full Macho Man impersonation which threw the audience into uproarious laughter that did not die down perhaps for the entirety of his run of the story. “Mmmm-mmm!”s and “Yeeeeah”s punctuated every narration the GM provided, and the physicality and gestures were as natural to Verstraete as what I imagined his ‘regular’ performance track to be like. It wasn’t only impressive – it was hilarious, and not a single person in the room (wrestling fans and non-fans alike) was immune to the comedic brilliance.

I guess you could say Verstraete rolled a natural 20 that night.

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Randall “The Macho Man” Savage

 

Anyone who has ever played D&D or read a Choose Your Own Adventure book will understand the formula, and will enjoy this production to its fullest, but the entertainment is real for anyone who sees “Fight Quest.” Because it is different every time, I strongly encourage you to see it – and see it twice if you can. Each avatar is worth watching as the champion, and audience decisions are always a recipe for hilariousness. I praise Bottero’s genius scripting and theatrical model for a unique experience that will not easily be forgotten – and nor would I want to forget it. The lights and sound design do a good job transporting us to various locations in the story with no set pieces (the Public House Theatre is small enough that the fighters need all the space they can get for movement and safety). Perhaps most notably, Stefanie Sajib Johnsen’s costuming is exquisite. Each piece is beautifully made and each avatar is perfectly suited up for battle – the Ranger in elven greens, the Rogue in poisonous purple, the Monk in exotic orange, and the Barbarian in brutal brown with blue face paint. These are not home-cobbled cosplays, they are well-made and well-executed and do the rest of the work transforming the space into a real-life fight in a tabletop roleplaying game.

Otherworld productions are consistently smart, ambitious, and fun to attend. Do yourself a favor, and seek out “Fight Quest.”

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Fight Quest will run Sundays April 24th – May 22nd @ 7:00pm at the Public House Theater (3914 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60613). Tickets are available online and at the door for $10.

Otherworld Theatre website

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Cosplay Eye Spy: C2E2 2016 Edition

Round 1:

  • DC > Harley Quinn
    • Suicide Squad redesign
    • Batman: The Animated Series
    • Steampunk
    • Pin-up/rockabilly
    • Other
  • DC > Poison Ivy 
  • DC > Joker 
  • Marvel > Deadpool
    • As himself
    • As someone/something else
  • Nintendo > Ash/Pokemon Trainer
  • Disney > Frozen > Elsa/Anna
  • Star Wars > Han Solo
  • Star Wars > Princess Leia
  • Game of Thrones > Daenerys Targaryen

Round 2:

  • Ubisoft > Assassin’s Creed > Altair/Ezio/Evie/Jacob/etc.
  • Anime > Attack on Titan > anyone
  • Anime > Sailor Moon > any of the sailor scouts
  • Star Wars > full Mandalorian armor
  • Star Wars > full Stormtrooper armor
  • Marvel > Guardians of the Galaxy > Groot
  • Mad Max: Fury Road > Furiosa

Round 3:

  • Crossover > Star Wars x Disney
  • Tumblr > Marvel > Hawkeye Initiative
  • Tumblr > Tolkien > Party Dad Thranduil
  • Marvel > Jessica Jones
  • Marvel > Daredevil/Matt Murdoch
  • Mad Max: Fury Road > War Boys (with props and/or vehicles)
  • Game of Thrones > Jon Snow

Print it out and play along!

    “Oh, Kiddo!” – Remembering Nan

    “Now tell us your name.”

    “My name is Alyson Grauer.”

    “Hmmmmmm.”

    I stand still, watching Nan peer thoughtfully at me behind her owlish glasses. My classmates are silent, listening, watching. I know I’m not supposed to feel nervous, but being on the spot in front of Nan is inherently an intense place to be. This is freshman year of being a theatre major at Loyola University of Chicago, in Voice & Diction class with Nan Withers-Wilson, and I am very nervous. I have never liked my speaking voice – I’ve only just become fond of my singing voice, and I feel very worried that I won’t be able to get through this.

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