She Kills Monsters

Qui Nguyen’s comedy of coming-out, She Kills Monsters, blurbs as a run-of-the-mill satire about geeky teenagers and their barely out of adolescence high school teachers, but it is uplifted by some exceptional stagecraft. Agnes, a milquetoast English instructor (the resourceful Maggie Irwin1), comes across a Dungeons and Dragons scenario written by her younger sister Tilly (the commanding Rebecca Hausman), who has died too young in a car crash. To discover the withdrawn sister she never really knew, Agnes tumbles into the role-playing world of D&D, and much of the early comedy flows from this fish-out-of-water situation: when asked her affiliation alignment,2 Agnes offers, “Well, I’m a Democrat.” On her quest for the lost soul of Athens (well, Ohio), Tilly’s characters appear in live action, dragging Agnes along with them.

It’s the outstanding fight choreography, designed by Casey Kaleba, that transforms this play. Working on a multi-level set by Ethan Sinnott inspired by Avalon Hill’s hexes, and in a in-the-round seating configuration in the Atlas’s Sprenger black box (with its sometimes unforgiving acoustics), Kaleba and stage director Randy Baker deliver lots of multiple simultaneous fights, good sight lines, a variety of weapons, and safety for all.

The play’s a hilarious smashup of pop culture references from the 1990s and places you can see from there. (Did Louis E. Davis’s evil, rams-horned Orcus just riff on Quantum Leap?) Naturally, in this estrogen-powered adventure (Orcus is the token guy on the quest), delicate fairies like Farrah (gymnastically executed by Emma Lou Hébert) turn out to be wicked badasses. And the final set piece, a dance-off between Agnes’s crew and a band of evil cheerleaders that escalates from Wham! (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”) through the Spice Girls into En Vogue territory (“My Lovin’ [You're Never Gonna Get It]“), is quite wonderful and fizzy fun.

  • She Kills Monsters, by Qui Nguyen, directed by Randy Baker, fight choreography by Casey Kaleba, Rorschach Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center Paul Sprenger Theatre, Washington

And “Volcano Girls” for the curtain call!

1 Thanks, Leta!
2 Thanks, Brett!

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Marginal utility

Richard Conniff is tired of apologizing for protecting wildlife because it’s economically valuable:

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

Posted in Biodiversity and Species Preservation
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Invasive Asian freshwater snails

We made the acquaintance of mystery snails Cipangopaludina chinensis and C. japonica a couple of years ago. At the time, Dave Lawlor expressed the doubt that the two species were distinct.

Michelle Ryan, a doctoral student at George Mason, is trying to settle that question, as reported on page 8 of the current Marsh Wren from Friends of Dyke Marsh. She calls the genus Bellamya, but it’s the same critter. She’s recruiting volunteers to take measurements of snails found in the field.

Posted in In the Field, Local News and Views
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Signing off

Bruce Morton, my favorite reporter on CBS in the Vietnam-to-Watergate days, back when I had time for TV news, has passed away. Morton had an edge to his on-air work that hinted that he had a firm grasp of how absurd the whole situation was. You can hear him in a couple of tiny clips in Wolf Blitzer’s remembrance.

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At the park: 70

new vernal poolHow do you keep a wildflower meadow as a meadow? Well, it’s a matter of controlling successional plants. There’s a nice patch of meadow at Huntley Meadows Park, accessible by the new access road that extends from the hike-bike trail. (There’s even a vernal pool that has formed in a new low spot next to the built-up road.) Park management chose not to use fire or a bush hog to keep down the shrubby trees that want to grow into this meadow (which would ultimately reclaim it for forest). We love Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and it’s a native, but the trees will eventually shade out the grasses and flowers; we’re not so wild about the invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) that is also growing here. Both of them were our targets.

cutting remarksInstead, the Park sent in the volunteers, equipped with limb loppers and pruning saws. I’ve seen dense stands of Sweetgum before, but I didn’t realize that many of those trees were sprouts from a common stem. In the photo, by the pruning saw, you can see three small stems that we clipped off, all growing from a common root, as well as the three-inch trunk that I cut through.

I also helped Karla and Gwen pull collect Autumn Olive fruits, lest they lead to germination. The berries are not bad, kinda tart like cranberries. Just resist the temptation to spit out the seeds.

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Sunday in the Park with George

Strong ensemble work in this somewhat vexing musical of art and perception by Stephen Sondheim: individual voices, well blended, especially in “Putting It Together.” The comic breaks are effective, particular Paul Scanlan’s salty Boatman in the first act and George’s (Claybourne Elder) “duet” of the two dogs in the park.

There’s a thoughtful conversation about permanence in the scene between George and his mother, Old Lady (Donna Migliaccio): what is merely “pretty” is subject to alteration; the perceiving eye is necessary to transform something, anything into being beautiful, and hence into something that lasts.

Nothing in Act 2 can match the majestic finale of the first (“Sunday”), and so the second half feels like a few comments on the first. But the vocal pianissimos, always harder to execute well than they seem, are well done.

  • Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature Theatre, Arlington

OTC and I both liked the nice touch of giving Jon Kalbfleisch’s orchestra its call via photographs projected with George’s chromolume screens.

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South River Falls loop

For my Labor Day hike, I pushed a little longer and harder than I have done of late. My notebooks say that the last time I did the long circuit loop hike to South River Falls in Shenandoah NP was in 1999, back when my legs were fresher. It was a muggy day, but almost all of the walking was under the canopy, so the heat wasn’t oppressive. It’s post-breeding dispersal time, so almost all of the birds I detected were heard-only (Common Ravens croaking). I did see a few butterflies: some fritillaries, a few swallowtails.

fallsThe destination for this hike is the falls, and the falls (dropping 83 feet, including the upper and lower cascades) are worth the hike down and the long climb back to the car. I was astonished that, on a holiday weekend, I had the falls all to myself for a good ten minutes.

MeadowsI also stopped at the South River cemetery, located off the Pocosin Trail near the Park boundary. Unfortunately for the Taylors and Meadowses resting there, the place is not being maintained.

The PATC rates the 10-mile long circuit as Moderate, and that’s a fair assessment, save for the long 950-foot climb back from the bottom of the falls to the parking areas. There’s also a 600-foot gradual climb of Bareface Mountain in this circuit that sneaks up on you. I made the circuit in 6:45, not much more than PATC’s par of 5:45 when you consider that I missed a turn and came back on the fire road rather than the dedicated trail. Trail or fire road, both are generously sized: lots of room for walkers who need to overtake or take a breather.

At the beginning of this loop, I came across a couple of long-distance hikers on the AT, and one of them gave me a trail name. I’m not sure whether I’m going to own up to it.

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Cinclus mexicanus

This isn’t exactly a lifelook, in the sense that Frank Izaguirre is promoting. But it was my first sighting of this species, it was a good look, and it’s been one of the most personally significant. When people ask me, “what is the best bird you’ve seen?” this is usually the story I tell.

In December 1996 I was visiting family in Sacramento and doing some of my first birding in California. I was fortunate in that the rains that had been pounding wine country let up just before I arrived, so I had some good birds in the Central Valley—my first Sandhill Cranes, for instance. But the lowland rains meant substantial snow cover in the mountains. U.S. 50 was closed, preventing me from getting out to explore at elevation.

Finally, on the morning of Christmas Day, the roads were opened, and I made a dash to the Eldorado National Forest to see some birds before rejoining family for the holiday. I was pretty much limited to finding a parking place on the side of the road, clumping through someone else’s tracks in the snow (three to five feet of it on the ground) for a hundred yards or so, then returning to the car.

Looking at my checklist for the day, I see that I didn’t record much: some juncos, nuthatches, maybe a kinglet. The White-headed Woodpecker was a lifer for me. But it’s when I stopped on a footbridge over a little creek that the Look happened.

I was watching the meltwater rushing downstream, and I noticed a burbling, roiling something under the surface of the water. Just water over the rocks, right?—but then the roiling moved. What, a tiny mammal? I thought. The disturbance continued moving upstream, and then the dark head of a bird broke the surface. The rest of the bird emerged, the size of a thrush or smaller. It was an American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a/k/a Water Ouzel, doing what it does best, foraging in fast-moving mountain streams. The bird worked the stream a bit more, then took flight, settled in a tree, and sang its whistling, trilling song.

And thus, #227 on my life list.

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I’ll have another

At Shorpy, a delicious photograph from 1963 of the Bombay Bicycle Club bar in New York’s Essex House.

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What do you see?

Language Log

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Five white tufts

lunchTIL, thanks to Arthur V. Evans’ recent Beetles of Eastern North America, that a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) has five white tufts along each side of the abdomen. You can just make them out in this image I snapped a couple of summers ago at Black Hill of a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) munching on one of the beetles.

Posted in Fives, Natural Sciences
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Updike decoded

Two notes from Rabbit Is Rich:

I’d never run across the expression “to pass papers” (chapter IV, p. 975 in the Everyman omnibus volume) to describe closing on a real estate transaction. Maybe it’s a Pennsylvania thing. It’s certainly descriptive.

And look who shows up in the closing pages of chapter V, p. 1040:

… the way his brain is going on reminds him of some article he read last year in the paper of Time about some professor at Princeton’s theory that in ancient times the gods spoke to people directly through the left or was it the right half of their brains, they were like robots with radios in their heads telling them everything to do, and then somehow around the time of the ancient Greeks or Assyrians the system broke up, the batteries too weak to hear the orders, though there are glimmers of still and that is why we go to church…

And then Harry uses a couple of epithets to remind us of when and where he grew up. But there, in mangled form, is a précis of the work of Julian Jaynes and his opus, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

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Pol Pot & Associates, LLP

Kathleen Akerley serves up another tasty, savory omelette of ideas, one so packed with themes that it would seem to spill off the plate.

What we seem to to have here is the story of six men, partners and paraprofessionals in a law firm, who escape the city to form an agrarian residence in the deep woods, a commune ruled by group votes and a collective job jar. I write “seem to have here” because one of the play’s emphases is the stretch between appearance and reality: one of the characters spends considerable effort to repaint their new home’s tables with a marbleized finish; at times, sounds are naturalistic and at others overamplified. And a seventh actor, sinister Jonathon Church, appears as multiple characters to disrupt the equilibrium of the group, threatening unusual rent increases and police inquiries. Is this a story of six guys who ran off to live in a treehouse, or a six rabbits in an experimental hutch? (The lawyers have taken on new nature-themed names, as in a monastic community, and one of them, Fiver/Fiber? [would that the web site had given us character names] brings to mind Watership Down.) The idea of the malevolent external manipulator is reinforced by various plot points involving the house’s dumb waiter (Mr. Pinter, your check is waiting for you).

Or is this a murder mystery, involving the death of a distinctly weird young lady (the flexible Kira Burri), with interrogations from Church as a police detective that read like questions in the monthly puzzle book’s logic problem? Burri is an oracular young lady who remains warm while dead and capable of moving about at will. Or, perhaps, is it an investigation of what it means to form and maintain a community? Does it naturally settle into layers in which some members are more equal than others (the play’s animal imagery is quite strong— Ravens, Mallards—and we hear echoes of Animal Farm throughout)? How does a flock of birds maintain its shape? How many make a group, and how many of them become a swarm?

Closely linked to this line of thought is the concept of the dictator who rises from the collective to become Brother No. 1, the Southeast Asian despot Pol Pot of the work’s title. Like Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now (lurking in an image of a Willard-like submerged hippopotamus that powers an anecdote about an office copy machine), what drives a visionary community leader like charismatic Michael Glenn’s Frog to madness, knocking out the skylights and building a self-powered flying machine?

Or is it, as the closing dialog suggests, a story about the friendship between two men? We have Michael John Casey’s in-control/not-in-control Hector, ex-office manager. Who is Achilles, and who Patroclus?

With a scrambled timeline and multiple scene resets, the play calls for the ensemble cast to swap out bits of Elizabeth McFadden’s set repeatedly—and they even manage to turn some of these tasks of stagecraft into entertaining bits.

And then there is the thread of Tarot, with the ambiguity of reading the significance of each card in the deck, each image comprising its own reversal. As Hector hints, is our Fool, the man-child Séamus Miller, perhaps the one who is really in charge?

  • Pol Pot & Associates, LLP, written and directed by Kathleen Akerley, Longacre Lea, Callan Theatre, Washington
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I am relieved

The states of North and South Carolina are completing the resurvey of their common boundary, using high- and low-tech means, as Stephen R. Kelly notes in a recent op-ed and Kim Severson reported some time back. The colonial-era border was intended to consist of two straight lines, the 35th parallel and a diagonal crossing up from the coast. But 18th- and 19th-century surveyors made a hash of it, resulting in today’s rumpled compromise.

The rework was not intended to smooth out any of the coarse wrinkles, like the wobble around the city of Charlotte, but rather to replace the notched trees, now dead, and wandering survey monuments (including one moved by a golf course in order to impress golfers [?!]) that had originally marked the boundary.

But rest assured! South of the Border is still where it “Otto B.”

Posted in History, Tools and Technology
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Crooked Koger watch: 2

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Robert A. Koger (estranged [?] father of Jeffrey S. Kroger, who went to jail for embezzling homeowners association funds) has been sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for various fraudulent schemes involving flipping hotel properties. At least Dad hasn’t followed his son’s example, capping the bogus financial dealings with a shoot-em-up.

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