Review of ‘Incredibles 2’

I wrote this for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ mentorship program, and it can also be found on their website.

Image result for incredibles 2

People like Pixar movies for many reasons. But by far, the reason I love this studio so much is that each Pixar movie has a distinct and easily distillable moral center. Each of these has shaped who I am today in some way — ideas like the difficulty of growing up, the importance of preserving childlike wonder into adulthood, and the sham of capitalism, among other things.

But these moral centers are usually quite personal, and the reason Incredibles 2 is the best Pixar movie is that it asks a question concerning not just the viewer, but the way the viewer will affect the world around them.

The intervening years between Incredibles 1 and 2 have of course brought a veritable glut of superhero movies, so this movie had a lot to prove. The difficult line that Incredibles 2 walks — nostalgic yet innovative, human yet fast-paced  — is a mammoth achievement in and of itself. But I’d like to focus on the movie’s themes, because Incredibles 2 is a story about people trying to control the superhero narrative. Every character in this film is selling a story, whether to the public or to themselves. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), media businessman and superhero fanboy, is the most obvious example — he sells the public a controlled narrative about Elastigirl so he can feel better about his father’s death. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets the opportunity in this movie to reclaim her own narrative; the simple glory of saving people and looking cool doing it. And Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is of course dealing with giving up that same narrative so he can care for his kids, all the while selling the narrative that he’s a good dad so hard that it eventually becomes true.

Even super-daughter Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) gets in on this theme, in a comic yet crucial subplot in which her high school crush Tony Ridinger gets his memory of her wiped. There’s a reason that as her mom is reshaping the perception of superheroes in the public eye, Violet is trying to rebuild the memory of herself in Tony. And. . . she doesn’t do a great job.

In fact, no hero in this movie does a great job. The day is saved, but in the same way that the Underminer never gets captured, the underlying problem is never resolved. Heroes are legal again, but the reason they were made illegal in the first place hasn’t been addressed.

And that reason, of course, is public complacency! This movie explores in depth the dire consequences of putting too much faith in public figures, of trusting that we can lay back while the powerful solve our problems, and the ways our media reinforces this in subtle and insidious ways. There’s a reason the villain controls people through television and computer screens. There’s a reason Elastigirl earns the public’s trust through a body camera — by literally letting her audience live their own superhero fantasy through her, as every superhero movie does. At its worst, a superhero movie gives you the adrenaline rush of saving the world without empowering you to actually do it. Real world-ending problems are invisible, dull, and entrenched within systems; you can’t stop global warming by blowing it up. And that one celebrity you love, or that one politician you voted for, isn’t going to fix it, at least not without your help.

I like that Incredibles 2 revels in the giddy theatrics of heroism without being afraid to savagely critique its effects. Superheroes are troubling because they teach us that things get better through individuals, and not because we make things better together, through massive civil movements, which I might point out is the only way in history anything has ever gotten better, ever.

Incredibles 2 asks: How are modern superhero narratives making us complacent? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The fact that this movie manages to make these devastating observations while still being a manic, self-contained, and visually stunning ride is nothing short of astonishing to me.

Our Friend Albus — a ten-minute Harry Potter fan play by Aaron Lockman

Related image

[This week, we’re getting a little weird. Please don’t sue me, J.K.! Let’s do this.]

The Headmistress’s office at Hogwarts, sunset. A large, stately desk, various silver instruments and trinkets. On the wall, portraits of previous Hogwarts headmasters snooze in their frames.

Sitting at the desk is HEADMISTRESS MINERVA MCGONAGALL. She is old but tough. She wears black robes, has her gray hair in a tight bun, and has a small pair of glasses perched on the edge of her nose. She is reading a piece of parchment.

A moment of silence; the soft ticking of a clock.

A knock at the door.

MCGONAGALL: Enter.

The door opens, and SEVERUS SNAPE enters, also in black robes. He is in his late thirties but looks much older. His face is gaunt and stressed, and his long jet-black hair has turned gray at the temples.

SNAPE: Good evening, Headmistress.

MCGONAGALL: Severus. Close the door.

SNAPE closes the door and sits across from MCGONAGALL.

SNAPE: I trust you have been well over the summer?

MCGONAGALL: I am going to pretend you did not just ask me that.

SNAPE: I beg your pardon, Headmistress; I only wish to be courteous.

MCGONAGALL: I care little for pleasantries these days, Severus, and even less for courtesy from traitors. If I had my way, you would be dead on this floor.

SNAPE: Straight to business, then?

MCGONAGALL: Straight to business.

SNAPE: Very well. You must know by now, well-informed as you are, that the Ministry has fallen. A quiet coup, but an effective one.

MCGONAGALL: I don’t know if I would call rounding up Muggle-Borns and putting a price on Harry Potter’s head “quiet.” The wizarding public is not as stupid as you think.

SNAPE: Be that as it may, you must have known this day was coming. The Dark Lord requires Hogwarts.

MCGONAGALL: Yes, I deduced as much from this rather illegible letter from our new Minister. I must say, Pius’s handwriting is even more atrocious than I remember — has he been Imperiused and Confunded?

SNAPE: Minerva —

MCGONAGALL: It was a matter of several minutes before I could work out that it was you who had been appointed Headmaster of Hogwarts, and not a Sincerest Snail, or possibly a Satirical Snake.

SNAPE: The Minister is well within his rights to appoint a new headmaster.

MCGONAGALL: Severus, I grow weary of Death Eaters couching their barbarism in legality and pretending that any of this is normal. You know perfectly well I refuse the authority of this new Ministry, and I will turn my position over to you the day that hell freezes over and the sun falls from the sky.

Pause. SNAPE stands, and looks out the window.

SNAPE: I did miss this place.

MCGONAGALL: I weep for you.

SNAPE: Minerva, how long have we been colleagues?

MCGONAGALL: Clearly, we never were.

SNAPE: Sixteen years is the correct answer. I know that we had our differences; long-standing House rivalries that long preceded us. But throughout our time here, you consistently earned my respect and my admiration. Your dedication to teaching, your fierce loyalty to your students —

MCGONAGALL: If you are ramping up to something —

SNAPE: My point is, I should like to think that I earned your respect as well. Before, of course, the unfortunate incident this spring.

MCGONAGALL: Is this really where you would like to steer this conversation, Severus?

SNAPE: Oh, I could make all the threats you expect me to make. The might of the Ministry versus Hogwarts’ meager magical defenses, the fact that quietly stepping aside will bring far less suffering to the students of Hogwarts than an open act of defiance against the Dark Lord — but I think you would find that argument as tiresome as I do. So, I have decided to be honest. And to rely on a sense of mutual respect —

MCGONAGALL: Mutual respect?!? I. . . I am at a loss for words, Severus. I did not think I would ever hear that phrase come out of your mouth.

SNAPE: Before this spring —

MCGONAGALL: Before this spring, any less forgiving headmaster than Albus would have sacked you ten times over! The blatant bigotry against Muggle-borns, the shameless abuse of any child not in your own House! Your entire tenure was plagued with very nasty stories from down in that dungeon, let me tell you — and every time I or any teacher complained to Dumbledore?

He would say he’d speak to you about it. That’s it. Nothing changed. Not even when you bullied poor Neville Longbottom so severely that his Boggart turned into you.

One of the first policies I implemented as headmistress is that if any Boggart presents us with evidence that a student’s worst fear is a teacher, that teacher should be immediately terminated. That’s you, Severus. That is your legacy. I should have seen you for what you were ages ago. But Albus trusted you, so I did too. And would you like to know what the most damning —

SNAPE: Dumbledore was already dying.

A long, potent pause.

MCGONAGALL: . . . what?

SNAPE: I killed him, but it was not murder. You remember his blackened, withered hand throughout last year?

It was a curse. In his travels, he encountered a cursed ring that would have killed him immediately had I not quickly contained the dark magic in his hand. But it would have spread soon enough.

You are aware of the Dark Lord’s plan to have Draco kill Dumbledore?

MCGONAGALL: Yes.

SNAPE: Dumbledore asked me to kill him instead when the moment came, so as to preserve my standing with the Dark Lord.

Pause.

MCGONAGALL: Why should I believe you.

SNAPE: Because you know it is true. Because it makes sense. Because you need to trust me.

MCGONAGALL: All that story proves is that Albus trusted you, and look where that got him.

SNAPE: Minerva, please. There are. . . tasks I must complete this year, on Dumbledore’s orders. Things I require the station of the headmaster to accomplish.

MCGONAGALL: Things he couldn’t leave to me.

SNAPE: Things he only told me about.

MCGONAGALL: . . . right. Of course. The sad part is, that is entirely plausible.

MCGONAGALL stands up. She walks over to the painting of Dumbledore, who is sleeping.

She stares at it a moment.

MCGONAGALL: (quiet, to herself) Dammit, Albus. Why’d you have to go believing the best of people?

(turning back to SNAPE) I cannot discount the possibility that Dumbledore left you crucial information. But I also cannot trust that you will use that information well.

SNAPE: Minerva, you must believe me when I say I am thoroughly devoted to bringing down the Dark Lord.

MCGONAGALL: And why the hell should I believe that?

SNAPE: Dumbledore did.

MCGONAGALL: But why? If you’re telling me you’ve secretly been on my side, Severus, you’ve got to give me proof!

SNAPE: I. . . would rather not say exactly why.

MCGONAGALL: No! The line must be drawn here, Snape! Proof!

SNAPE: I can’t!

MCGONAGALL: Proof or I shall not budge!

SNAPE: I — I was in love with Lily Evans.

Pause.

MCGONAGALL: Is that it?

SNAPE: . . . yes.

MCGONAGALL: Well, that’s not exactly a secret, now is it? I doubt there was a teacher or student at Hogwarts in the seventies who couldn’t tell that.

SNAPE: . . . really?

MCGONAGALL: You were not a subtle teenager. Are you telling me this is the great secret that made Albus trust you?

SNAPE: The Dark Lord lost my loyalty when he killed her. Everything since has been in the hope of keeping her son safe.

MCGONAGALL: Merlin’s beard, Severus, we’ve all got baggage! Did Albus never tell you to get the fuck over yourself?

SNAPE: No. In fact, he seemed to think it was my only redeeming quality.

MCGONAGALL: Yes, well. He would.

SNAPE: Have I earned your trust?

MCGONAGALL: No. There is still every possibility you’re lying out your teeth. And as it stands, I would still very much like to kill you.

But killing you would of course provoke retaliation, as would kicking you out, and you are not wrong about Hogwarts’ defenses. There will be a hostile Death Eater takeover of this school sooner or later, and I should like for it to be on my terms when it happens.

And on the off chance Dumbledore did leave you a mission. . . I don’t suppose I have much choice.

SNAPE: I assume you have conditions.

MCGONAGALL: A modicum of responsibility for the safety and well-being of my students is all I ask, Severus. That, and an acceptance of the very close eye I shall be keeping on you from this point forward.

SNAPE: You have my word.

MCGONAGALL: For all that’s worth.

SNAPE: I cannot promise there will be no Death Eaters on staff.

MCGONAGALL: We’ve had scum on staff before. I presume I will teach Transfiguration again.

SNAPE: Indeed. I have the paperwork here.

They sit at the desk. SNAPE takes parchment from his cloak: MCGONAGALL takes out her quill and examines the parchment.

She holds the quill just above where she’s meant to sign.

MCGONAGALL: Headmistress for one summer. The irony is potent.

Oooohhhhh, I do not like this. I am not a happy woman.

I do very much hope you were telling me the truth today, Severus. It would be a great comfort that all the pointless cruelty in your name at least had a point.

But I don’t suppose I’ll ever really know, will I.

SNAPE: I suppose not.

MCGONAGALL: Very well then.

She signs the paper. Sudden darkness.

End of play.

(Artist for picture of Headmistress’s office: https://forums.unrealengine.com/community/work-in-progress/113089-dumbledore-s-office)

On Avenue Q and Growing Up

33463165_10156118344880169_9020340634896039936_o

This essay was posted earlier this year on Metropolis’s blog.

My high school was a bit of an aberration in terms of social structure, at least compared to the fictional high schools I saw on TV. In your stereotypical American high school, there is a strict triangle of social hierarchy in place, with the athletics and cheerleaders at the narrow top, and then working its way down through the normal kids, the speech team, winding down through the anime club, finally landing on the wide base of sad, lonely nerds.

I don’t want to say that my high school was completely free of this triangle – we were, after all, a generation raised on John Hughes knockoff movies – but largely, the sheer size of Thornton Academy rendered such a strict caste system unworkable. Instead, a bizarre sort of highly tribal anarchy took over. The jocks, the cheerleaders, the anime club, and the nerds still existed, but each separate tribe just sort of floated along in an uneasy lateral equality, and there was little power that one clique could hold over another. If any Yertle the Turtle figure ever tried to climb on top, they were subjected to what is perhaps a more realistic interpretation of the physical capabilities of turtles than Dr. Seuss’s, and the neat stack of reptiles collapsed into a wet, messy pile.

Of course, each individual clique had its own micro-hierarchies. The clique I found myself in around my sophomore year, the theater geeks (as if you had to guess), valued onstage talent and physical attractiveness above all else. But other factors were considered as well. And familiarity with the musical Avenue Q was one of them.

Ever since my brother and I had stumbled across “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” while listening to Sirius XM radio in my dad’s car a few years previously, I had been a fan of the Avenue Q soundtrack. And so you can imagine my joy when knowledge of these obscure, raunchy show tunes turned out to be precious social capital in my new surroundings – such an occurrence in the district where I went to middle school was highly unlikely. My new friends and I listened to Avenue Q, talked about Avenue Q, and imagined how we would cast ourselves if the school ever got the balls to do it as our spring musical. We ragged on the Avenue Q School Edition when it came out (rightly so, I’m afraid). We memorized the harmonies and sang them together as we swerved through the suburban sprawl of southern Maine in each other’s cars.

I’m not exactly sure why this musical resonated with us so much. There was the artistry of it, sure, and the previously unheard-of combination of bacchanalian humor, Broadway-style music, and Muppet-like voices. Teenagerdom is a strange, interstitial time when you have the brainpower of an adult but none of the emotional discipline to handle that power – and so this music, that juxtaposed the earnestly childlike with the hilariously adult, probably struck something quite deep. But still – none of us were dealing with the central emotional question in the show, the question of how to exist in a meaningless, post-college world. You can’t wish you could go back to college if you haven’t been to college yet. We just thought it was funny.

In the past couple of years, I hadn’t thought about Avenue Q much until I heard from a friend that Metropolis was planning on doing it in the spring of 2018. I auditioned, and got cast as Nicky. We started rehearsals roughly a year after I graduated from college myself, and I was fascinated by the ways it had changed in my mental absence from it.

Some of the comedy, for instance, has not aged well. The way we talk about racism in this country, for instance, has changed so completely post-Obama and post-Ferguson that the jokes in the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” mostly seem awkward now. They’re still quite hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but the song seems to perceive racism primarily as individual people being mean to each other – instead of a systemic issue that is ingrained into every aspect of society. Nowadays, accepting that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is just the first step of a much longer and more difficult process, rather than an end unto itself.

The show’s final number, “For Now,” faces a similar problem. There’s a spot in that song where we shout “TRUMP. . . is only for noooooww!” as we sing about the many things in life, good and bad, that are temporary. The original Broadway cast shouted “Bush!” of course, and various casts in between have shouted various political references. Our audience in the mostly white, mostly affluent Arlington Heights always went crazy for that joke, and I won’t pretend it didn’t depress me a little. The truth is, we are living in the aftermath of George Bush as we speak – and the damage wrought by the Hairy Tangerine’s presidency could take decades to unwind. Politics, sadly, is rarely “For Now.” Things do have lasting consequences. Satire is important, of course, but so is perspective.

Other aspects of the show, however, have only grown in meaning since my high school days. I am now essentially Avenue Q’s target demographic – a broke, twenty-something college grad fumbling for meaning as I try to find my purpose in life. Since my teenage years, I have gained experiences like pining for a same-sex roommate whom I knew could never reciprocate (like Rod), engaging in a swift, ill-advised relationship in order to stave off loneliness that ended up making it worse (like Princeton and Lucy), and having various dreams crushed over and over again as Kate does.

And the realization the characters get in the final number is something that I’ve been trying to internalize since. . . well, honestly, ever since I started going to therapy last year:

Nothing in your life is too terrible to recover from. But also, your life will never be as meaningful or happy as you want it to be. And that’s. . . okay?

Life, I’ve observed, is better when you accept that it’s mostly gonna be a whole lot of medium. And what Avenue Q does so well is making that medium feel miraculous by bringing it into razor-sharp focus. No character really gets what they want. Not everyone is happy or fulfilled by the end. But they have each other, and they have the music, and they have themselves.

There is palpable joy to be found in the tiniest, simplest things. And those are what let you soldier on.

Review of “Rightlynd” at Victory Gardens Theater

This is another piece I wrote for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ program — you can see it on their website here.

Rightlynd takes place in Chicago’s fictional 51st Ward, from which the play gets its name. The L doesn’t run in Rightlynd anymore, crime is on the rise, and crumbling apartment complexes and abandoned storefronts abound. People here feel crushed by the system: they are angry. But in playwright Ike Holter’s world, anger is a positive driving force in our current dystopia. Out of this bubbling sea of anger rises Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), the one woman determined to change things around here. This play is the story of her struggle — not only to get herself elected Alderman, but to wield that power responsibly once she gets it.

Orozco is nothing less than a tour de force as our protagonist. Her Nina Esposito is forceful, ambitious, and badass — but she is also grounded, human, and terrified. Much of this comes from Holter’s dialogue (“I’m inspiring as fuck!” Nina shouts at one point), but Orozco’s accomplishment in keeping Esposito relatable cannot be understated. One monologue, where she spends a minute looking in the mirror after getting elected, deciding how she should address her constituents, is particularly powerful. It made me think of the anxiety I might have in her position, and makes us feel the weight on her shoulders.

Backing up Orozco is an ensemble that alternates between narrating Nina’s story and embodying a wide array of characters. The enthusiasm and passion for this play, from every actor onstage, is palpable. Holter’s language crackles with intent; each character is brazen and motivated and doesn’t have time for your shit. You can see how the writing and the actors fuel each other, and they are woven together with manic yet pinpoint direction from Lisa Portes. It’s exhilarating to watch, and funny enough that the drama never gets depressing.

We all know that power corrupts, but Rightlynd is more interested in the mechanics of that corruption. As Nina claws and scrabbles to the top, she often uses shady methods. But we root for her at the beginning because she’s the underdog, because the change she’s fighting for is sorely needed, because the struggle and suffering of the 51st Ward is so real, so clear, so present, that we want to see her succeed. And while the play is careful never to deny the undoubtedly evil power structures — racism, poverty, wealth, corruption — that Nina is fighting, it also makes clear that not all problems in government stem from evil. Sometimes, it’s just plain old human folly. Nina is flawed. That makes her likable, but it doesn’t make everything she does forgivable.

In order to fight poverty and racism, it’s not enough to reject the system; you have to change it from the inside. But in order for Nina to get inside that system, she has to adapt to it. And by adapting to it, she becomes part of it. This is not a fun transition to watch, because of course the system that enables poverty and racism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Rightlynd makes you experience the grueling consequences of gentrification firsthand — and as a middle-class white kid who is a part of that gentrification, this was a difficult but necessary watch for me. No other show I’ve seen in Chicago has made me so keenly aware of my own whiteness while watching it, and this is part of what makes it genius. Like its protagonist, Rightlynd is not afraid to offend its audience with loud opinions. It is an unabashed tale of the South Side told to a Lincoln Park audience, and it is intensely aware of this, and therein lies its devastating effectiveness.

Review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Steppenwolf

This is a theatre review I wrote for a class I took with Rescripted.org this fall — an abridged version of it appeared on their website. Enjoy!

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

*deep, beleaguered sigh* So. . . theatre is subjective, right?

And that’s a bitch sometimes. Because there’s this misconception that criticism is about telling you, the reader, about a work’s objective merits so you can decide whether to go see it or not. When really, that’s mostly impossible, so the best most of us can do is present our subjective experience of a show, and drop in some objective observations to back it up.

But. . . yeah. Full disclosure: three days before I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Steppenwolf, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, watching my best friend perform the role of Christopher Boone in, wouldn’t you know it, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Actors Theatre. It was his first regional role, I was super proud of him and excited to see it, and I was incredibly awed and moved by the whole thing.

And then I came back and saw this, and the best way I can think of to describe it is that it was like going on a roller coaster, and then taking a long, pleasant drive in a Prius. Both experiences were excellently engineered, and achieved what they respectively set out to achieve. But the sad fact remains that one was simply more exciting than the other, and it was difficult not to compare the two.

Steppenwolf is always an odd theatre to walk into, because they have a lot of money, but seem almost ashamed of it? Their downstairs proscenium theater is decorated more like a blackbox, and Brandon Wardell’s set almost evokes a college theater classroom in its monochrome simplicity, complete with black moveable boxes as furniture. Curious Incident is famous for its tech; how projections, lights, and ensemble movement illuminate for us the inside of Christopher’s head, helping us see the world how he sees it. And while all that is present here, it seems to take a backseat: Jonathan Berry’s direction aims to put the actors front and center, to take a tech-heavy, Broadway-sparkly show and Chicago-ize it by stripping away the artifice.

And that works. . . to some extent. At times, the ensemble creates some really compelling moments, where their movements perfectly mirror Christopher’s emotional state and coalesce into stunning, transcendent stage pictures. However, these moments stand out because the ensemble work is largely weak; they seem to have trouble synchronizing, and the choreography often feels musical theatre-y and too big for the space. This, plus the bizarre usage of boxes as set pieces (evoking the high school drama club sketch from SNL) contributes to an unfortunate air of amateurishness.

Thankfully, Christopher is the backbone that holds the show together, and Terry Bell does beautiful work, taking the character’s ticks and quirks and forming them into a truly likable young man. His Christopher is stoic and reserved, but warm and eager as well, and as a result his triumphs are joyful to watch. Cedric Mays and Rebecca Spence as Christopher’s father and mother respectively also deserve mention: Mays is sad and thoughtful and ponderous as Ed and gives empathy to a character that is easy to hate – and Spence is truly heartbreaking as Judy, as she struggles to love the son she has so much trouble understanding.

Ultimately, Curious Incident is a show about empathy, about putting you inside the perspective of one neurodiverse boy whose experience might be alien to you, and letting you see the world through his eyes, feel emotions through his heart. And this production succeeds tremendously at that, albeit with less punch than I might have liked.

But again, I’m biased.