Friday, October 20, 2017

The Three Musketeers Reimagined

What did I say about The Three Musketeers the book? That is was simply fun and entertaining? Well, that's exactly what Southwest Shakespeare's production of The Three Musketeers was. A solid piece of fun entertainment.

I will begin with a couple of comments on the adaptation. This play was written in in 2006 by Ken Ludwig, who wanted to capture the spirit of the book rather than each plot element. He absolutely did so, going off of seeing this particular production. It's a long book that can ramble a bit at times and you have to kind of just go along with the rambling and enjoy each scene on its own because it takes a while for the plot to really even form. The play, while still following the main scene of the book, has more of a plot to keep the audience's attention and to keep the pacing quicker. I mentioned before that there are politics and history to the book, but they're not really the main core of it; the play addressed this wonderfully by having the Musketeers always needing to remind one another of what the political situation is.

What I had more trouble accepting than any subtractions, though, was the addition of Sabine, d'Artagnan's sister. Presumably she's there because the main characters are mostly men--but when there are such good characters in Constance and Milady, I don't know that we really needed another female character. It's true, though, that I think she serves another purpose than just adding in a female element: she's there to help set the tone. When she shows up, one of the Musketeers asks a question to the effect of, "What's going on?" It's the same thing the audience wonders: why does d'Artagnan have a sister? Why? Because it's random and silly and unexpected and doesn't really make sense. Throwing Sabine in there and setting d'Artagnan up as a little goofier than I read him in the book, the audience knows right away that they're here to have fun and be entertained. Sabine almost even feels like an element of parody--except that adding humor into this story isn't making it into parody because The Three Musketeers is already so entertaining and often humorous. So while I'm still not completely on board with the addition of Sabine (or with that goofy angle for d'Artagnan), I do see how she helped set that tone for the play. And honestly, she didn't really detract from anything, either.

Now on to how the cast and the production team brought to life this play, directed by Jesse James Kamps. There were some familiar faces. In particular, I remember Andy Cahoon (d'Artagnan) most as Laertes in Hamlet, Melody Knudson (Constance) as Ophelia in the same production, and Alexis Baigue (Cardinal Richelieu) from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) last month. From the personal perspective, it's exciting to start to recognize actors and see how they approach different roles; you start to get a sense of their individual talents and what they in particular can bring to a character.

Probably all of the Musketeers (Aaron Blanco as Aramis, Spencer Dooley as Athos, and Keath Hall as Porthos) and Cardinal Richelieu were my favorites in the play. They really brought that sense of vanity, coolness, carelessness, and love of dueling that forms the Musketeers and their enemies (well, the Cardinal isn't always cool--usually he's just "the bad guy," but he was a delight to watch here). In fact, everyone in the play was well cast, and this was a fairly big cast at sixteen people.

They also worked well together, particularly in the big group scenes, whether at the ball or in the many fighting scenes. That fight choreography (also by Aaron Blanco)--it completely captured that sense of fun that's in the book. You would be watching them on stage, switching to this focus to that focus, this angle to that angle, and you'd be thinking, how are they being so silly? Such a particular lighthearted humor that went through the scenes.

Given that this is simply a hugely entertaining play to watch, it's a great introduction piece to live performance and also a good play to see if you don't make it out to very many. It's easy to watch and understand and the pace is quick and all of the scenes will set you smiling. I didn't really know what to expect from this one, but I ended up having a wonderful time. The play is running until the 28th, so there is still time to make it over.

Stone Grindz: Almond + Salt

Note: I've been having some trouble getting the pictures up for this post. I'll add them in later, but I'm still going to let the post go live without them for now since the basic look is the same as for the other Stone Grindz bars I've reviewed before. 

While I've looked at the plain chocolate and even some of the new truffles from Stone Grindz, until now I hadn't yet tried any of their flavored chocolate bars. It was time to remedy that, so I'm starting off with the Almond + Salt bar. Salted almonds is a more standard flavor combination; I thought that would make this flavor a good place to begin.

By this point, I've already showed the Stone Grindz packaging and the shape of their chocolate bars. The only difference here is that you can see some of the almonds peeking out of the surface of the bar; on the back, there are even more almonds, including a couple of big pieces.

For any bar with this amount of crunchy elements, even when it's dark chocolate like this, it's more of the type of chocolate that you bite into and chew--no slow melting in this context. As such, you get the almonds and salt together at once, along with the chocolate that holds them together. The three work as a team in which the chocolate is the sweet element (despite being dark chocolate that doesn't taste particularly "sweet" when you taste it on its own), a warm and red little cushion for the other two elements. The almonds are the earthy element, coming in with their familiar flavor and that singular type of crunch. The salt is the tangy, lively element; it makes everything sparkle. There is just the right amount of it, as well: enough that you can noticeably taste it but not, you know, to the level of tortilla chip saltiness.

Stone Grindz is interesting to me because they have a particular combination of earthiness and sleekness to their style. As I try and place the style of this bar in my head, I come up caught between two places. On the one hand, almonds and salt can make for a casual chocolate bar, something that you might think of as more of a snacking chocolate, something you might even take with you on a hike. But then the chocolate has a taste of elegance. Sometimes with flavored bars, the chocolate has little flavor of its own; but here it's rich and warm even though you're eating through it so quickly.

I suppose then that the fact of it is this: here is a good chocolate bar with the right balance of three flavor elements. Wherever or whenever you want to eat salted almond chocolate, it's ready for you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Titles for the Fall

With fall, I would think that there would be plenty of stories to mention the fall harvest and that sort of angle. Plenty of them do mention the harvest briefly, but it usually doesn't seem to form the center of a story for the simple reason that the fall harvest is a good time and stories need conflict in order to have any sort of plot. So it's more common for stories to have an overall sense of the decay and overall windiness of fall than of the bounty of the harvest. At random, I've chosen three titles to touch on today.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. I mentioned decay, so naturally I was thinking of this story. It's all about decay: the decay of the house and the decay of the people in it and the decay of the family in general. For a dark look at fall, this is the story. Since it's Poe, it naturally also ties in well with Halloween. More, though, than the "spooky" elements of the story, it's the elements of nature that he describes that make this story fit in so well with the atmosphere of a season of the weather.

Silas Marner by George Eliot. I don't remember if this short book focuses in particular on any one season. But the overall feel of it has always made me think of fall. Silas Marner is, in many ways, at the autumn of his life. He is no longer young and he has nothing to make him look forward to the next day--and when he loses his gold, he loses all his happiness. Yet he finds a new kind of gold in the form of a gold-haired child who falls into his lap and becomes a daughter to him. The color gold, simply, is reminiscent of autumn because it's the color that many green leaves turn. And the sense of the old that will soon be replaced by the young is very much like the changing seasons: the blooms and green grasses and leaves fall and fade away in autumn to make way for fresh ones to come in spring.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Probably this book has more of winter in it than spring, but it feels more like fall. There is so much talk about the wind and the isolation and the moors and the wind, all of these harsher elements of weather. And then there is Heathcliff. He is Nature, this inexplicable and unstoppable force, this harsh element of weather that rushes in and takes over for a season before fading away again. He's too alive to be winter; instead, I think of him as fall (winter is his death). Here is a combination of the previous two titles in the sense of darkness and seasons that will change.

From a daily perspective, no, I don't think of fall itself as dark. It's an exciting time, when the weather cools off enough to start going outside again more often (or at more times of the day). While the wildflowers of spring are beautiful, so can be the dry grasses of autumn. And with the holidays coming up, you start getting a nesting feeling that takes you into the short days of December. So, no, I don't think of fall as dark; it's just that there are some wonderful dark elements to books that focus on the changing of seasons.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Force Doth Awaken

You know, if the William Shakespeare's Star Wars series wasn't so well done, then it would seem ridiculous to continue doing a new book for each movie; Ian Doescher, however, handles it all so that I do in fact remain eager for more.

The Force Doth Awaken is the latest. What makes this one a little more, shall we say, precarious, is that we're still in the middle of hearing this story. The other episodes could have references to what was coming next or to what a character might be thinking at a certain moment (but that audiences at the time the movie came out might not have known yet), but The Force Awakens is the only piece of the puzzle we have for the new trilogy. So in many ways that did limit what this book could do. It's almost more in that regards like the first Shakespeare's book. That book was more about translating the movie's dialogue into Shakespearean language. As the books continued, they grew, filling out with soliloquies and other lengthy bits and numerous references to particular passages in Shakespeare. Because the content of this episode is still ambiguous, there couldn't be as much of that type of content, so this book does go somewhat back to the older style of just changing the language (though I think in a much more complete way than that first book did). Example: we don't I think really know everything Kylo Ren was thinking (or the precise reasons behind what he says or does) in moments like the interrogation scene or the final lightsaber duel, so when this book did add to the dialogue it could only add obvious things that we do know for certain (like his surprise at finding out Rey's strength in the Force).

All of this isn't to say that Ian Doescher didn't take advantage of some opportunities to wax poetic. In particular, when Han approaches his son and later when Leia senses Han's loss. Oh, and I do love that the "balcony scene" in the film becomes an actual balcony scene in this book. The balcony scene being Rey standing up above Han and Kylo on Starkiller Base (for anyone interested in that particular Rey/Kylo theory).

You know, a thought occurred to me while reading this book. You know how some people are hoping that Rey isn't in fact related to any of the familiar characters? I realized that if their theory is correct and Rey is just a person (as opposed to Luke's daughter or Leia's daughter or Obi-Wan's daughter or Anakin reincarnated or Phasma's daughter, etc.), then that means two things. One, it shows that everyone is important. Two, when Anakin and Luke's lightsaber flies to her instead of to Kylo, it shows that we all have a personal choice about who we decide to be. Kylo is Luke's nephew and Anakin's grandson, but the lightsaber aligns with the light side and he has chosen the dark side, so it shuns him. Rey is currently on the light side, so it accepted her based on that association despite the blood connection with Kylo. Perhaps Rey will turn out to be related to the Skywalker line (or there will be another connection), but I like this concept that it was the choice of alignment that allowed her to take the saber. And it was the way that the dialogue comes out in this book that made me think of that.

So, yes, I am still having a good time with these books. They're quick reads, too, which is probably also what helps. They're not overdone; they're just right. And like with the other more recent ones, there really isn't much comedy to it anymore. It's fun and it's serious. (Well, there was a bit of comedy with the two stormtroopers talking about the repetitive nature of Star Wars stories--that was lovely.) And you also don't really need to read all of them; you could just jump in and read only this one (or this one first and the rest later).

Friday, October 13, 2017

Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company: Waffle Cone Caramel Milk Chocolate

Back to the shelves of World Market. Currently they're selling some offerings from a company named Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company. I'll say it once and then no more: I do think that name is a bit ridiculous. While the Waffle Cone Caramel Milk Chocolate that I chose to try first didn't appeal to me too much in the store, at home it is in fact rather appetizing as a dessert milk chocolate.

The style of the card box has quite a bit going on but tends to look simpler than it is because of all the neutral tones: white, tan, and brown. The food photography is fine. I do like that the Fair Trade logo is there but the packaging otherwise doesn't make a big deal out of it (the company converted to fair trade chocolate in 2014, a decision I'd love to continue see happening with more companies). I don't, however, like the "craft chocolate" label up on top: it should be obvious from a chocolate's traits, not its labels, that it's craft chocolate (and actually I don't know that I would call this bar craft chocolate, so trying to call it something that it isn't hurts my impression of a product rather than improves it).

Inside of the box, the chocolate bar comes in a clear wrapper instead of foil. On one side, you can see a solid surface divided into eight squares. On the other side, there are sprinkles of ice cream cone pieces. The look of the clear wrapper plus the sprinkled cone reminds me of those chocolate bars that you can "design" yourself (you know, the ones where you go online and choose what ingredients you want them to throw on top). Or of chocolate bark. This is neither good nor bad.

The aroma? Vanilla, like the chocolate in a confection shop, all sweet and nostalgic like that scent on Main Street, USA in Disneyland. Ah, I do love Disneyland.

There is a surprise when you bite into this chocolate. No "the caramel flavor comes from the vanilla in the chocolate." No "crunchy caramel" that's more like toffee. No, no. Here there is in fact caramel inside of the bar. The caramel is inside of each square; it doesn't quite reach to the edges of the squares, so think of it as similar to the Caramel Ghirardelli Squares. I don't come across this use of caramel often. It's more of a candy bar approach to a chocolate bar, I guess, and yet it's for that very reason that I like the style.

In fact, I like the entire concept of this bar much more than I thought I would. The caramel gives you some chewy texture and some flavor for those moments when you don't get as much crunch from the pieces of cone (which, as you can see, aren't exactly evenly sprinkled since they sit away from the edges). The solid chocolate edges of the squares give you a little extra vanilla chocolate time for variation to it all. I just wish it all tasted better.

Don't get me wrong; it doesn't taste bad. It just doesn't taste great. The taste is nice as a casual chocolate, something you can eat quickly when it's a confection-type experience you want. But I just wish it were better. The chocolate is very light (there is no listed cocoa percentage), so it tastes more like sugar and vanilla than chocolate; this is, however, typical for confections. The caramel tastes similar to the caramel in Rolos, though certainly better and not nearly as rock hard as those candies tend to be. The ice cream cone pieces are typical ice cream cones: crunchy without much particular flavor. I think I'm fine with how the caramel is, though, and even the cone; it's the chocolate that I need to be better.

With that said, I'll still happily eat the rest of this bar, and if someone gave me another one I'd probably get excited to eat it, as well. Because we all do like to eat sweets sometimes and since I don't buy a lot of other sweets, milk chocolate is one of my sweets. I do think that the concept of this bar works well; if you look at it as a confection, it's good. If the chocolate were a little better, then the concept would be elevated into the gourmet candy bar type of zone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Three Musketeers

What exactly is The Three Musketeers? There are politics and history to it (while Alexandre Dumas wrote the book in 1844, it takes place in the 1620's) and therefore also some of what you could call social commentary--but mainly it's just an entertaining story about a group of vain men who love duels, wine, and women.

It's almost a shame, then, that this book is a "classic," meaning that it gets grouped in with all sorts of other kinds of books, where the 700 page length of this particular novel likely deters many readers. Have no fear, though, reading 700 of Dumas's pages is nothing like reading 700 of Tolstoy's. I almost want to use the word "swashbuckling" to describe the adventures in this book--not because Musketeers are pirates but because there is that carefree attitude toward, well, as I mentioned, fighting, alcohol, and women. The Musketeers do get excited over a good duel, not at all fearing the possibility of death. They love a good meal and even if they only have enough money for dinner and the best bottle of wine, they will spend all of that money on one meal. And they do love their mistresses, not the less because it's usually these women who give them money to spend on their wine and horses and uniforms. It's all very entertaining to read, and Dumas writes at a quick pace; he isn't long-winded but rather just gets to the point.

That is, sometimes the political situation and all of the names can be a little much to take in, but this is where endnotes do help and are worth reading. They don't just provide extra info in this case: they help you along as you read.

This is one of those books that is either the easiest or the most difficult to summarize. It's so simple that for the first 500 pages it almost doesn't even seem to have a plot at all (in a good way, though). But then if you were to actually try and say everything that happens, it almost seems more complicated than it is to read in the book. I mention this because the reason that I finally got around to reading this book (I've been meaning to for a while) is that Southwest Shakespeare is going to be putting on a play based on it this month. So I am curious to see how they will convert this story into the roughly two hour space of a play. Wishbone, I might add, did a wonderful job of condensing the story into, what, a few minutes? Fifteen, maybe? But how do you do more than condense? What scenes do you allow to play out longer, and which characters do you keep and which do you remove? Like I said, it's a simple story to describe very simply but more difficult to describe somewhat simply.

It also doesn't have very much of a theme or message. The story just runs its course and then ends. You enjoy the fun while it lasts and that's it. I wonder if the play will give it more of a core. (Obviously I know that there are film versions of The Three Musketeers, as well, but I haven't watched any of them.) Hmm. You know, Dumas is an excellent example of the many, many reasons why a book will be remembered and still enjoyed years after it is written. Sometimes we like to talk bad about popular books, books that we ourselves enjoy; I guess it makes us feel smart to say that certain books aren't "very good." But a book isn't a pleasure to read just by accident, and sometimes books are remembered for the simple reason that they're entertaining reads--and that's perfectly fine.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Arizona Opera, First Friday, & Aria Jukebox

We had Ballet Arizona's Ballet Under the Stars a couple of weeks ago, and this past weekend was Arizona Opera's Aria Jukebox--it's a wonderful time to be living in the city.

This was their first time putting on this event, which they did as part of the First Friday collection of things that go on every month in Phoenix. The concept was this: as you walked in, you received tokens that you could then use to vote for a selection of songs for the evening. There were five singers there, along with a pianist to accompany them. The setting, then, was completely different from usual. Instead of a large audience at the grand Symphony Hall, we were a small audience gathered in a fairly regular-sized room at the Arizona Opera Center. This meant that it was more casual and that we were all much, much closer to the singers.

They mixed in some short Q&A with the songs, so this event was also a chance to get a glimpse about what it's like to work in this field. This was, then, one of those times when you were able to see the performer as opposed to the character (when they're singing in an opera up on stage). That is, they still became characters when they sang. I might have expected that since we were just going to hear an assortment of songs (from operas and musicals and even a couple from Elvis and Elton John), all we were going to hear were songs sung. But in fact these people aren't just singers--they are performers, and they brought that entrance into character even into free-standing songs. This style of acting as well as singing was also something that someone asked about during the Q&A, and hearing their discussion on the topic (mentioning that American audiences now expect this style) particularly interested me given that the amount of acting in operas is one of the things that has really drawn me in and amazed me in these my early days as an opera attendee.

What was such a pleasure was to see so much talent and devotion encapsulated in one song at a time and directly in front of you. Arizona Opera puts on a wonderful production at Symphony Hall with all of the sets and costumes, but it was an entirely different experience just getting to see these performers singing up close. They are truly devoted to their craft, and with that kind of delivery they have complete control over their audience's emotions. I love it when performers bring me into that magical bubble of art.

And as a First Friday event, Aria Jukebox was free. What a gift to the community. So it does pay to stay in the know about what events are coming up where you live; when there are so many wonderful things going on and you start to get a taste for attending them, you hate to miss out on things. In fact, I thought I would skip Arizona Opera's first production of the season (coming up this month), but after Friday night I'm craving more from them, so I might just make it to that show, after all.