New York's Hook & Eye Theater company is nearing the end of its run of its new play "The Summoners." A surreal, mindbending blend of Groundhog Day and Synecdoche, New York, "The Summoners" tells the thought-provoking story of what happens when the blanket of clouds that has shrouded America for three years parts for five blissful minutes over one Indiana town—and the chilling media circus that ensues.

Our friend Cynthia Babak is part of the terrific cast that together devised the story of this play, which was then turned into a script by Gavin Broady. But it's only running two more nights! See it tonight or Saturday at The C.O.W. Theater, 21 Clinton Street in Manhattan. Tickets are a mere $18! Don't miss it!

The Summoners

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
To follow up on yesterday's belated review of The Book of Mormon, I wanted to tell you about a funny thing that happened after the show. book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg As at most Broadway productions, we were invited to contribute to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS by depositing cash in the buckets that cast members would be holding various exits. When we reached the main floor from our nosebleed seats, I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and made a beeline for Lewis Cleale, who was still in his Joseph Smith costume.

Now, you have to understand that I came to the show in costume. Laura had dug up my old missionary name tag, which I proudly wore together with a white shirt and tie (much to the amusement and/or chagrin of our theatergoing companions). Imagine the confusion and concern of the poor actor, dressed as the founder of Mormonism, as, after a production lampooning the faith, a stout Mormon missionary marches straight up to him. According to my friend Chris Connolly, the man flinched as if I might attack him.

Imagine his relief when all I did was tell him what a great job he'd done as I dropped money into his bucket. Yeah, that was fun.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.

The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.

The Book of Mormon—from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez—was the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. book_of_mormon_poster.jpg It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask for—dirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbers—all consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.

Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yes—but to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of Kevin Price (Andrew Rannells), a Mormon youth who dreams of serving as a missionary in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he gets assigned to Uganda with Arnold Cunningham (an irrepressible Josh Gad) as his companion. Elder Cunningham is just about the biggest screw-up ever to pass through the Missionary Training Center, and Elder Price tries to put the best face on both disappointing assignments.

But Uganda turns out to be even more hellish than he could have imagined. The more experienced, longer-serving missionaries have not managed to convert a single soul in that war-ravaged land. Poverty and famine reign supreme. AIDS is rampant, its spread only exacerbated by the belief that it can be cured by having sex with a virgin (which spawns a surfeit of baby-rape jokes). A local warlord rules with a bloody iron fist. And the villagers get through their days by cursing God in no uncertain terms from behind philosophical grins.

Elder Price, depressed, does his best to preach the gospel according to Joseph Smith, but throws in the towel after the warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (Brian Tyree Henry), murders a man in front of him. It falls to Elder Cunningham to take over the proselytizing effort. But the well-meaning Cunningham, who didn't pay very close attention in class at the MTC, has never actually read the Book of Mormon, which forces him to invent gospel stories more tailored to the realities of life in Uganda.

The Book of Mormon is, above all else, funny—side-splittingly funny through a couple of long stretches. Okay, I'll say it. I think my first viewing of the South Park movie in a crowded theater was the last time I laughed as hard as I did right up through the show-stopping musical number "Hasa Diga Eebowai," an incredibly profane and blasphemous riff on sunny, reductive ditties like The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata." (On the off-chance you've been living in a cloister for the past twelve months and don't know the translation of "hasa diga eebowai," I won't spoil it for you.)

The songs are mostly terrific too, certainly up to the standards of the past twenty years of Broadway musicals. The production numbers are tuneful and funny, and there are even good laughs to had in the quieter numbers. book_of_mormon_scene.jpg (A particular favorite of mine is "Baptize Me," a song that very cleverly casts a request for cleansing from sin into the mode of one of those syrupy R&B loss-of-virginity ballads.) And the performances are certainly spirited, especially Josh Gad's in the role of the hapless but well-meaning Elder Cunningham.

But the show suffers in other ways. From a dramatic standpoint, the story's through-line is fractured by the disappearance of Elder Price, the nominal protagonist, through large portions of the second act. (I know that Price's character is meant to skewer the trope of the Broadway hero whose naive confidence enables him to conquer the world, but that doesn't mean it works.) Characters behave in inconsistent ways that undermine the plot—the murderous General Butt-Fucking Naked, for example, who early on is unafraid to shoot an innocent villager in the head or to sodomize a missionary with a holy book, but in the end is cowed by inspirational stories. The violence itself plays more like a blatant attempt to shock than an organic element of the plot, as if a page from a Quentin Tarantino script had been pasted by accident into the book, and introduces an unwelcome tone of reality that sits at odds with the relative sweetness of the rest of the production.

All that is forgivable, but the worst sin The Book of Mormon commits is to grow boring through much of its middle. Somewhere on the way to the muddle that takes Elder Price out of the spotlight, the show just stops being clever. It never exactly stops being funny in a low-level way, but neither the plot nor the jokes rises above a certain bland level of predictability. Oh, so one of the older missionaries is a repressed homosexual? Yawn. So the naive young Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) imagines Salt Lake City as a magical wonderland where the warlords are kind and there's a Red Cross on every corner? Ho hum.

The show catches fire again toward the end, after the miraculous conversion of nearly the entire village catches the attention of the Mormon mission president, who comes to congratulate the local missionaries and is treated to a hilarious production number in which the villagers rehash all the mixed-up misconceptions Elder Cunningham has taught them about the Book of Mormon. Some of this material verges on the racist, but The Book of Mormon is ultimately saved, if not redeemed, by the villagers' innate understanding that they are not being taught literal truth but rather a series of parables intended to help them process and deal with the harsh realities of their daily existence.

This final message about religion's palliative effects in a grim world did enable me to leave the theater with a smile on my face, but I still can't shake my conviction that The Book of Mormon is hardly the flawless gem so many people seem to think it is. Still, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun watching it, and the funny parts are so funny that most theatergoers will probably forgive the parts that drag.

All right, so that's my review of the production itself. But how accurately does it reflect the realities of Mormonism, and of the lives of Mormon missionaries? Well ... not all that well.

Don't get me wrong. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done their research, at least into Mormon history and doctrine, as two rather funny numbers ("All American Prophet" and "I Believe") amply demonstrate. They've come a long way from the days of Orgazmo, their 1998 film about a Mormon missionary who becomes an accidental porn star, which was wall-to-wall stupid-funny but didn't have the glimmerings of a first clue about Mormon teachings or missionary life.

They had a much better handle on things Mormon by the time they made the infamous "All About Mormons" episode of South Park in 2003, which I gave high marks for the accuracy of its portrayal of the way the church presents its own history. book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg But in the interim Parker and Stone have only somewhat improved their knowledge of the way missions work.

One of the things they get right, which matched my experience to a scary degree, is the crushing sense being exiled to a strange land for a period of time that seems so long it may as well be forever. They also nail the feeling of despair that comes from being saddled with a companion not of your choosing who doesn't share your same work ethic.

But the mechanics of missionary life they get mostly wrong. "Two by Two," for instance, the song in which the young elders at the Missionary Training Center get their assignments, makes for a fun production number, but is based on fantasy. In reality, missionaries learn where in the world they'll be sent months before they report to the MTC. They also are not normally assigned to be companions with other greenies, and certainly aren't assigned to just one companion for the full duration of their missions. New missionaries get more experienced elders as their first companions in the field, and their companions rotate every two or three months. (I had over a dozen different companions myself over the course of my mission.) And no missionary would ever be allowed to leave the MTC with as non-existent a grasp of the basics of Mormon theology as Elder Cunningham demonstrates.

Most wrong of all, though, is Elder Price's desire to serve his mission in Orlando. I have no doubt that plenty of lazy young men, hoping for two cushy years, have no greater ambition than to serve an English-speaking mission in a subtropical tourist destination, but that in no way reflects the thinking of young Mormons with ambitions to set the world on fire with their preaching. No, the glory-seekers among us (myself included) hoped for the most difficult assignments in the most exotic locales imaginable. Central America. Southeast Asia. Communist Russia (which was rumored to soon be opening to missionaries at the time I was putting my application papers in). These were the places we wanted to go. An elder as ambitious as Price would have been beside himself to get a calling to Uganda.

But if it sounds like I'm calling out the creators of The Book of Mormon for sloppiness, I'm really not. The reality of Mormonism is almost incidental to the show, which is not actually about Mormonism. Instead Mormonism is a proxy for religion itself, a safe choice for giving adherents of other faiths room to distance themselves from any critiques leveled in the production, which really aren't very deep. I can't even call The Book of Mormon a black comedy because in the end it doesn't have the conviction of its meanness. It has no interest in skewering the religious impulse, or in pushing its ideas to any absurd dark extreme. It lands sunny-side up, and is satisfied with the status quo. This, despite the lip service to naughtiness and edginess, makes The Book of Mormon a supremely conservative production, and thus perfect for Broadway success.

If I had to sum my opinion up in one sentence, I'd say that The Book of Mormon, while quite funny and entertaining, did not offend me nearly enough.

Coming to London's West End in 2013:  Book of Mormon London

Find tickets here:  Book of Mormon Tickets

And for more great shows:  London Theatre Tickets

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
On Sunday night Laura and I, together with our friends Maribeth and Larry, saw an immense theatrical spectacle of narrative, music, puppeteering, and images projected on a huge subdivided vertical surface. And no, it wasn't Roger Waters performing The Wall (though I did see that last night with my brother-in-law at the United Center).

The Astronaut's Birthday What we did see was experimental theater group Redmoon's latest production, The Astronaut's Birthday, which is being presented in conjunction with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.

In fact, the production is being presented on the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Astronaut's Birthday is a motion comic performed live, with all the art projected onto the windows of the museum's facade from inside. In fact, each of the eighteen windows has two puppeteers behind it, slapping hand-drawn, hand-colored gels onto an overhead projector and manipulating overlays to make some of the visual elements move. In fact, sometimes the images extend across multiple windows, and when you add in the music, sound effects, live narration and voice acting, not to mention the occasional human silhouettes that dance through the images, and you've got an immensely complicated operation going on behind the scenes.

With all the beautiful visuals and impressive technical craft going on, the story falls a bit on the thin and sappy side. But with a show like this, you're not really there for the story. The Astronaut's Birthday You're there for the spectacle. I took over a hundred grainy pictures of that spectacle during the show, which Redmoon in fact encouraged. In a pre-show announcement, they told us to take all the non-flash pictures we liked, and to disseminate them far and wide. (Which only goes to show that Redmoon gets this internet thing.)

So I'm doing my part with a Flickr slideshow comprising all the pictures I took from the crowded audience risers. The quality is maybe not the best, but if you set the play speed on FAST it will maybe give you an idea of what the visual component of the show was like.

Unfortunately, there are only three performances left (September 23, 24, and 26), so if you want to see The Astronaut's Birthday you'd better grab your tickets quick. And bring a jacket.

As a fan of the band The Negro Problem, I was delighted to pick up the following throwaway tidbit from a New Yorker blog post by John Colapinto:

{Spike] Lee's next excursion into the question of race in America is his filmed version of "Passing Strange," the remarkable musical by [Negro Problem leader] Stew. I watched Lee shooting this production last June, in the Belasco Theatre in New York. The movie will be released, Lee tells me, in late August, at the IFC Center, in Manhattan.  [full post]
I learn from Stew's website that it's also been picked up by PBS for a Great Performances airing in 2010, and possibly will have a theatrical run this fall.

Having missed the run of Passing Strange in New York, I'm glad there are going to be multiple opportunites to see it.
Cory Doctorow published a smart, exciting political novel for teens last year called Little Brother, as I'm sure you know. Well, the Griffin Theatre Company right here in Chicago has mounted a stage adaptation that's on now. The production runs Thursdays through Sundays until July 19, and I highly recommend you get tickets before they're gone.

I saw a preview of the play last week to review it for Sci Fi Wire, and I think you'll enjoy it. I'm told that the production has even more bells and whistles now than when I saw it.

The production runs at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. You can get tickets either in person at the Athenaeum box office, or from Ticketmaster by phone at 800-982-2787 or online at

Come any day you can, but if you show up on Thursday, July 9, Cory will be in the audience. I'm just sayin'.

For more details on the production, see the Griffin Theatre web site.

One of the surprises of our new neighborhood is that we're a rather short walk from the legendary Neo-Futurarium. We rolled the die and came up winners.
Obsessing about politics is not all I've been up to lately. First and foremost, if you hadn't divined it from cryptic postings or from status messages on Facebook and Twitter, Laura and I are moving again this month. Not a huge move, just up to the northern end of Chicago, but we're hoping it will make all the difference for our Chicago-living experience. Humboldt Park turns out to be not the neighborhood we had hoped for, or thrive much in. (Even the fact that Wilco's John Stirratt lives a block down from us can't save it for us.) We're betting that the Andersonville/Ravenswood sorta area will be much better for us. We'll make the move just as the season changes.

We've also seen an uncommonly good deal of John and Shai Klima over the past week. On Saturday we drove to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and met up with them at the home of John's awesome parents. From there the four of us continued to Spring Green, where we saw a delightful outdoor afternoon American Players Theatre production of "The Belle's Strategem" by Hannah Cowley. We had dinner at a tapas joint called The Icon in Madison. Good times.

Then last night John and Shai braved oil-tanker accidents on I-88 to make the drive to Chicago. The four of us had an abundant Indian feast, after which we repaired to the House of Blues to see The Fratellis. Other than the slight hiccup of being barred from entering the House of Blues with a shoulder bag (what? no bag check inside?), we had a marvelous evening. I'm assuming that the Klimas made it back to Iowa in one piece after the show. (Didja?)

Meanwhile, I've been so wrapped up in packing the apartment that it didn't even register that two fellow Chicagoans are moving (in one case back) to New York! Congratulations (and no small amount of envy) to Deborah and [ profile] scottjanssens! We hate you. (But only a little.)
Via [ profile] nayad...

William Shakespeare

Out, damned Shunn! Out, I say!

Which work of Shakespeare was the original quote from?

Get your own quotes:
It's been such a hell of a long time since I've received any hate mail, I almost forgot what it was like. Thank God that hole in my life is plugged again, though I was more than a little surprised that the precipitating incident was, apparently, my mild slagging-off of the film The Last Starfighter in the course of my nearly-three-year-old review of the stage-musical version of same. I said:

Even to its ardent defenders, the movie version of The Last Starfighter has always played like a low-rent version of Star Wars, with a thinner, more maudlin story, inferior special effects and a production design no more convincing than the original Star Trek's. The genius of this new adaptation lies in its recognition that these apparent weaknesses are really strengths when translated to the musical stage.
My estimable correspondent said:

Re: Your review of The Last Starfighter, musical and film versions.

I loved the movie.
I have it on DVD.
I consider it one of my favorite inspirational films.
The effects are ground breaking in this, the first film to rely completely on CGI.
If you told me the sky was blue, I'd check first.
Screw you, Mary.
Goodness. That's the last time I speak out of turn about the film's ardent defenders. And I won't breathe a word about Tron.
For all you sci-fi musical theater fans—and you know you're out there!—I thought I'd share this official press release about The Last Starfighter: The Musical I received from Skip Kennon...

Last Starfighter Press Release )

Update:  Here's a slightly more recent article, with news of cast changes.
King Kong Radio Theatre If you're a New York science fiction fan, you have no excuse. You know where the theater is already. It's the Red Room, and it's upstairs from KGB, home of the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series. In fact, if you've been to a reading at KGB, you've probably heard stamping feet or caber tossing or whatever it is they do up there that makes so much noise.

But now I'm urging you to grab some tickets and hie thyself to the Red Room Thursday through Sunday until June 10th for 75 minutes of radio drama you won't soon forget. The show on tap is RadioTheatre's KING KONG, but rather than describe it for you here, I'll simply point you toward my review at Sci Fi Weekly:

King Kong
An off-off-Broadway production brings the Eighth Wonder of the World to the most intimate stage of them all—the stage of the mind.  [review]
If you love King Kong, radio drama, or both, you need to treat yourself to this show. As an accidental booster of genre theater in New York City, I want to see it again myself, though with moving preparations it's not clear that I'll have time.

Oh, and mark your calendars for this fall, when RadioTheatre presents its H.G. Wells Science Fiction Festival! I'm going to have to try to come back to town for that one.
New York Times: An Audience-Friendly Theatrical Town, Chicago Is
My review of Evil Dead: The Musical is now available at Sci Fi Weekly.

I sense a group outing in the air....
Evil Dead: The Musical
Laura and I attended the Godlight Theatre Company's production of Fahrenheit 451 this past Friday evening at 59E59. What did we think? Laura loved it and urges all you New Yorkers to go see it. As for me, my review is now up at Science Fiction Weekly.
Prepare yourself for envy, [ profile] markbourne.

Next month, Laura and I are going to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving in Hedda Gabler at BAM. Blanchett won Australia's 2005 Helpmann Award for Best Female Actor for this role, you know.

Brooklyn, baby.
The ninth episode of ShunnCast is now available to subscribers. Or, to readers of this blog, directly from this URL:

The download is 12.9 Mb.
A RealAudio stream of this morning's "World Update" is available from the BBC World Service Radio website. The segment on "Heddatron" starts at 18:27 and lasts about 4:15. You can fast-forward to it if you have the right version of Real Player.
It seems I will be interviewed this weekend by BBC World Service Radio for a feature story on the play "Heddatron," to air Monday or Tuesday. Loyal readers will recall that I wrote a not entirely complimentary review of said play a few days back for Science Fiction Weekly at It seems this is what attracted the Beeb's attention.

Along those lines, does anyone out there know offhand of 20th century plays besides R.U.R. that feature robots? Time to do a little cramming.

I will, of course, keep you abreast of all the details. Stiff upper lip and all that. What, ho!

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