Thursday, May 26, 2011

Goin' On the Town!

I'm just a partying kinda gal, y'know? Out and about all the time. As long as "out" is the backyard and "about" is dragging myself around it with a shovel.

But I'm taking a couple days off, tying into the Memorial Day holiday, and just by chance that ticket I bought last December was for an event that began the long weekend.

"Spamalot." It was about a third the price of what the DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) wanted for "Wicked" or "The Lion King." Besides, I'd wanted to see this as well, partially because decades ago I'd seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I hadn't understood much of it back then. Those crazy Brits. Those crazy Brits on heavy drugs. But I knew I'd be prepared for madness this time, plus it had been on Broadway so it must have been Americanized a trifle.

So after angsting over when exactly I should leave, I took off about 15 minutes before I'd planned. Yes, there was construction on the Durham Freeway, but I hit the comic store first, and thus came in from a more northerly route. Though I'd tried to get a hotel reservation close to the DPAC (it was full), I got in at the Millennium Hotel, a place I felt sure I could find in the dark of night and woozy from being out beyond my bedtime. Yes, I go to bed abnormally early. I also get to work abnormally early, so there.

With a stomach full of Subway sandwich (ritzy!), I hit the comic shop and asked for helpful directions to the DPAC. Unfortunately, no one there could tell me much, but we puzzled over the map I'd downloaded. I decided that it wouldn't be that difficult to find. There'd be no more than two loops needed to catch the right one-way street.

Durham downtown is all one-way streets. They have a special loop that you drive on, and after a few times around you can spot where you want to go and try to recall where you were when you saw it, so that on the next loop you can turn at the correct corner.

But this only took about 1/8th loop. There was Mangum Street, and they'd already sectioned it off for DPAC traffic. (As opposed to DBAP [Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is the new version of the old DAP, or Durham Athletic Park, which was what you saw in the Bull Durham movie] [The movie crew built the bull, which was moved to the new DBAP later.] traffic the next block over, which involved some kind of baseball tournament of the collegiate or high school variety.)

The website had said that both cash and credit card were good for parking. Wrong! Cash only. Good thing I had some on me (a rarity). I parked on the 239th level and took the steps down to the street. My co-worker had told me he thought there was direct walk-through to the DPAC on the various levels. He was wrong.

The DPAC was quite impressive! A huge lobby, dramatically decorated. I arrived about 45 minutes early, and already the concessions were mostly out of food. I rented a mountaineering kit (recommended) and proceeded up about 4 storeys worth of stairs to Level 2.

It was damned hot! I broke into a tee shirt-destroying sweat before I could grab a $3 bottle of ice water. Eventually they dinged the little tones and the doors opened. I checked my crampons and made it up another 5 storeys, to the lower balcony level.

Front and center! You betcha. A great view for the most part. It was curious that a few times during the performance the sets had been done so that major focal points (the Grail) or hiding cast members were either mistakenly hidden from or visible to the balcony folks, of which there had to be at least two thousand. That balcony was HUGE. I could barely see the nose-bleed seats waaaaay up there.

The play itself was fabulous! I couldn't make out some of the words because either the orchestra (such as it was) was a wee bit loud, or the audio system seemed to slur things. Then again, my hearing in regards to understanding conversation has never been that great. But it helped that I'd seen the movie so long ago, and eventually (perhaps they straightened things out electronically?) the sound came clearer.

Snappy songs, goofy situations! Lots of the Monty Python animation bits used, both as projections and scenery. The performers had more energy that I have in an entire year, and jumped, pirouetted, and farted their way across the stage with verve. The Black Knight and Killer Rabbit bits were hilarious to watch, with the clean dismembering and all.

The men had fabulous voices, but the Lady of the Lake continually batted it out of the park! What a voice! Let's check the program. She was played by Caroline Bowman, in her US touring debut. We WILL be hearing lots more from her!

Intermission came and wouldn't you know it? I was the only one on our row to get up. Front and center, you recall. Now I had to go up to the next level in order to get out, so I took the time to put on ye crampons and sallied forth. Then it was down 10 storeys to the nearest ladies' room. Ah, hardly any line. Then I looked again.

The line took a sudden turn and went thataway. Waaaaaaay thataway. I began to walk. And walk. And walk. Finally through the haze of distance, I saw a sign: "End of the line for Ladies' Room." I shoved some old ladies out of my way and ran.

The sign-carrier assured us that though holding such a sign seemed menial, it was actually a nice bit for ye resume. He also told us that the line would move—

Whoops! Didn't hear what else he said. That line moved FAST. We were shuffling at a smooth clip. The ladies' room had about 30 stalls in it as well as a traffic cop, pointing at the next stall available. Staffers shoved paper towels toward you before you could even shake your hands out over the sink.

The second act was even better than the first, though I had a couple probs. There was the Jewish number, which was troubling to me, but it really didn't say anything bad about Jews. It just singled them out as an ethnic group. Still, it's true enough that there is a lot of Jewish influence in the New York entertainment industry (if not that of the entire US). By the time it was winding up I was greatly enjoying all the wonderful dancing. Then came the gay number.

Any gays out there? I'm usually bothered when gays are used in fiction because they're almost always flaming queens, as was used here. I don't think that's respectful. Funny in occasional small doses, yes, but... Well, I was troubled. Am I too prudish?

Other than that, it was all great fun. Many in the audience were familiar with the musical, because they whistled along to the first time through of "Always Look at the Bright Side of Life." Later, of course, came shameless pandering to the local audience and an unlucky audience member (this a not-THAT-old lady who had trouble walking) singled out to be brought on stage and given an award and applause while King Arthur talked about Durham being the (close enough) home of Scotty McCreery (who wouldn't be crowned Idol winner for another 40 minutes) and Clay Aiken (who played in this on Broadway, come to think of it).

The flashy finale came, then the audience singalong, which was a load of fun, and then lots and lots and lots of applause for everyone.

Then we of the balcony all got out our ropes and rappelled to the street level. Parking deck stairs up were unlit (scary, if not for the crowd), and exit was surprisingly speedy.

Got to hotel and the cookie I'd saved from Subway. Whew! What a party animal I am!

I must do this again. Maybe in about two years, once my energy recharges.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Strickly a Book Review

The Iron Duke
by Meljean Brook
Berkley Sensation
5 spangles out of five
Steampunk romance

At long last I bought this book, having heard so very much about it: "It's the epitome of steampunk!" "If you get just one steampunk book, you must get this!"

Since I wasn't that interested in steampunk other than trying it out to taste the flavor, I figured the ol' Duke would do.

And what a world he lives in!

The worldbuilding is by far the star of the novel. We are in late Victorian-era England, but in another dimension where many of the British people are "buggers," infected with nanoagents. These bugs help them survive the harsh environmental conditions that pervade many parts of Britain, but in the past they also made the people susceptible to mind-controlling radio waves broadcast by the dreaded Horde.

Our heroine is Mina, a keen-brained police inspector whose birth resulted from a Frenzy—that is, a mind-controlled rape of her mother by a member of the Horde. It has left Mina with Asian features and has made her the object of derision and outright violent hatred from the populace. Now that they have been freed from the Horde, they want nothing to do with any hint of it.

And the man who freed them is the Iron Duke of the title. He is a giant of a man with an iron skeleton. He is a sea captain, an appointed lord of the realm, and immune to the bite of zombies (nanotechnology gone completely, mindlessly bonkers). He is hero to all of Britain but greatly feared by some.

You'd think the two together would be dynamite, but the worldbuilding far outshadows everything else in the book. I discovered it was rather easy to set the book down for a day or two. The characters didn't really speak that much to me, though I was greatly intrigued by Mina's social situation. Once we got into the sex of the book the character clash and plot kinda went downhill.

What will keep you reading is learning more about the world our h/h inhabit. All along I was thinking: The author can't keep inventing such outlandish ideas and not have them seriously count for anything in the story. Sure enough, this book is part of an "Iron Seas" series.

Secondary characters will certainly come forward to carry their own books. They bring with them backstories that beg for further development. We have lady air pirates, drunken non-bugger heroes, an Indiana Jones type, religious cults with cities in the sky, white slave trade, zombies overrunning Europe, and of course, the mysterious Horde.

So what if the Iron Duke is your typical if slightly overblown romantic alpha male? What you'll want to read about in this book is its world: how it got that way, how it is now, and the possibilities for its future. That's enough to land it five spangles from me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Strickly a Recipe

My cooking repertoire is tiny. I make a few recipes far too often. The following one used to appear in magazine ads, but darned if even googling will find it anymore. Glad I chopped it out and stuck it in my recipe book way back when.

This is really easy, filling, and oozing with enough veggies to make it a no-guilt dinner. (Especially if you skip the sour cream.) The first few times I made it I thought it was far too hot, but these days I toss in a few more jalapenos. Yum!

Veg-All Chili with Cornbread Crust

1 lb. ground beef
½ medium onion, chopped
2 cans (15 oz. each) Veg-All Original Mixed Vegetables, drained
1 can (15 oz.) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (4 oz.) diced jalapeno peppers, drained
¾ c. water
1 package taco seasoning mix
sour cream

¾ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. yellow corn meal
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ c. milk
1 egg
2 Tbsp. oil
1 can (4 oz.) chopped green chilies

In 10-inch skillet, brown and cook ground beef; drain thoroughly. Return meat to pan. Add onion; return to heat and cook until tender. Add Veg-All, beans, jalapeno peppers, water, and taco seasoning. Cook over medium-high heat until most of the liquid is gone (while making crust should be long enough).

To make crust: In medium bowl, combine flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add milk, egg, oil and chiles; stir until flour is moistened. Spread evenly over top of meat mixture in skillet. Cook, covered, over low heat for 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in crust comes out clean. Serve hot with salsa and sour cream.

4-6 servings.

NOTES: I've tried both ground turkey and faux ground beef (soy) with this, and both have worked great. However, I'm leery of just how much processing those faux soy products have, so I'll be experimenting with garbanzo beans or some such in the future in an effort to make this healthily vegetarian.

Though this is a Veg-All recipe, most stores have their own brands of canned mixed veggies, and they're fine. However, I have only been able to find low-sodium varieties in the Veg-All brand.

Being lazy, I usually use a full onion for this. I also use liquid egg product. There has never been a time when the cornbread came out as toasty-golden as the picture shows, and I think the photographer/stylist cheated. It will be kinda pasty yellow-white, but still very good!

If you're freezing portions, try to peel off the cornbread from the rest of the mixture or separate it in some way when you pack it in a container, as you might want to microwave the two sections separately so neither gets over-nuked.