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6 Feb 2016

On pizza and lovelorn vampires – In my previous entry, which was some time ago now, I mentioned that I would probably be posting an update; the two of you who read Liminality regularly may be wondering what happened to that. Well, the short answer is that I was very sick for about a week. I was already not feeling too well on Friday, the day after my last post, and on Saturday I came down with a full-blown cold that had me coughing incessantly. I don’t catch many colds, and the colds I do catch generally don’t last long—typical duration for a cold for me is about twenty-four hours. But twenty-four hours came and went, and I only felt worse. I kept telling myself that I was getting better, but by Wednesday night I was forced to admit defeat.

“May you have plenty of bananas in the new year.”

On Thursday morning I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist (or, in plain English, an ear-nose-and-throat doc). He sprayed some stuff down my throat and up my nose, and then he prescribed some medicines for me to take for the next three days (thanks to Korea’s national health care system, the doctor’s visit and medicine combined came out to around four dollars). By Sunday night I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and on Monday of last week life returned, more or less, to normal.

That still leaves the past two weeks, during which I have been busy trying to catch up on work; in the evenings I’ve been occupied with, among other things, planning a trip we are going to be taking this summer. It’s still six months away, but we’re traveling during the busy season, and I want to make sure that everything is taken care of in advance, since we’re going to be on a fairly tight schedule and won’t have much wiggle room. More on that later as the time approaches.

Anyway, here we are. As far as the update to my last entry goes, I can tell you that I have in fact been back to Gino’s three times since then. The first time, I treated some of our department TAs (and former TAs) to dinner, and everyone loved the pizza. I was actually a bit worried that perhaps I had oversold it—telling them that they were going to have some “real” pizza—but apparently I had not. Also, I can add something to my original review: The fries at Gino’s are awesome. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say about a pizza place, but the fries took me completely by surprise. Three of us arrived early, and we ordered beers as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. We ordered the “sloppy fries” just to have something to gnosh on, but they turned out to exceed expectations. They achieved the proper balance of crispy outside and soft, fluffy inside, but what really impressed me was the taste of the actual potatoes themselves. Your typical Korean potato, to be perfectly honest, is somewhat bland tasting, but these had a lot of flavor. I mentioned this to Eugene, and he said that they were the result of a long search for the perfect potato. I guess it should come as no surprise that a man so dedicated to his craft should be meticulous about his potatoes as well.

I also went back last Saturday, with a friend and former HUFS colleague. HJ was at a “girl’s night” dinner with some New Zealand diplomats, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen my buddy Michael, so I called him up and it turned out that he was actually able to get some time away that evening (he has two young children, so that’s not easy). So we went to Gino’s and ordered the Brooklyn’s Best pizza: tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, red onions, sausage, and basil. I had tried this pie during my second visit, but they had run out of basil, so it wasn’t quite the complete package, and I was curious what it would taste like with the basil. Ultimately, though, I decided to leave the choice up to Michael, and that’s what he went with. He later remarked that the pizza was too thin, but he’s also from Iowa, so make of that what you will. For my part, I have to admit that I thought the pizza was too soggy. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but it definitely wasn’t as good as either the Butcher or the Woodstock.

My last trip was this past Wednesday, when I finally took HJ. We got an order of sloppy fries and a small Woodstock, and it was all as good as expected. We arrived early (around half past six) and the place was empty, so we spent a while talking to Eugene. Given that he is the kind of guy who is always looking to perfect his craft, I decided to tell him about my experience with the Brooklyn’s Best. It was a tricky thing because I really like his pizza, but I also wanted to be honest. He took the feedback in stride, noting that the ingredients did produce a lot of water and saying that he would definitely have to work on baking that pie better.

At any rate, having been to Gino’s four times now in four weeks, I can safely make a few recommendations. Firstly, don’t go on the weekend if you can help it, and if you must go on the weekend, go early. If you can go during the week, definitely do so. Not having a crowd around you is nice, but it also means that you get your pizza a lot more quickly, and there’s less chance that something will go wrong. (One thing I should note about the Brooklyn’s Best on Saturday was that the place was packed and there was something wrong with the oven that delayed the pizzas, so I imagine that we didn’t get anywhere near the best possible version of that pie.) Secondly, both the Woodstock and the Butcher are solid choices. It’s true that I haven’t had anything else yet, but those two are so good that it’s hard to make the leap to something else. Next time I go, though, I will be trying something different.

I could probably leave this entry at that, since I have finally written the promised update, but there was something else I wanted to talk about: the musical Dracula, which HJ and I went to see last Thursday. We’re both fans of musicals, but in truth this one was for HJ. The part of Dracula is being played by Kim Junsu, a well-known singer formerly of the legendary K-Pop group Dong Bang Shin Ki (commonly known outside of Korea as TVXQ) and currently of JYJ, and HJ is a big fan of both TVXQ and JYJ. She managed to snag tickets in the nosebleed seats, and I agreed to go with her.

I have very mixed feelings about this production. It’s not because a K-Pop star is in the leading role—I will readily admit that I am not a big K-Pop fan, but I am not blindly dismissive of the abilities of some K-Pop singers. For as manufactured as K-Pop tends to be, some of the individual singers are truly talented performers. And, truth be told, Junsu did a very good job as Dracula; both his singing and acting were quite good. In fact, the singing and acting were excellent all around. The music wasn’t quite as iconic as some of the really great musicals I’ve seen, but a few days later I did find myself humming the tune to one of the songs, so it can’t have been that bad. The staging and sets were inspired, with various pieces set up on rotating concentric circles, allowing for some really interesting staging. And the special effects were spot on as well.

So why the mixed feelings? Well, it boils down to the story. Everything else about the production was fine, but the story... well, it sucked. You may have picked up on the fact that I referred to Dracula as the protagonist above. If you know anything about the original story, you’ll know that Dracula is very much not the protagonist (that link, by the way, leads to a free e-book of the original work). But the story has been reworked so that, though it more or less retains the structure of the original, Dracula takes center stage.

I don’t want to go into too much excruciating detail, mainly because it will probably just make me angry again, but I think the root of all the problems was an attemp to “twilightify” the story. I’ve never actual read the Twilight series, but I’ve been exposed to it enough through the media to know that it is a twisted love story. Well, that’s what the musical Dracula is. Rather than being a monster driven by bloodlust, Dracula is instead a man who was devastated by the loss of the love of his life, who was killed during a war. He curses God for taking his love and is in turn cursed to roam the night as a vampire. (Don’t ask me how that is supposed to make any sense.)

When Jonathan Harker visits Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, Mina comes to visit him. Upon seeing her, Dracula mistakes her for his dead love returned to life. I’m a bit fuzzy on this—it’s not clear if Mina simply reminds Dracula of Elizabeth (his lost love) or if he thinks that she is a reincarnation of Elizabeth. Attempting to apply logic to the story would be futile, though, so I’ll just leave that point. At any rate, this set up changes the entire story; it is no longer a quest by a determined group of individuals to slay a monster, but a “love story of the ages” set against a Gothic horror backdrop.

At this point I should say that I thought the idea of delving into Dracula’s psyche was not necessarily a bad one. The original work is an epistolary novel, which means it is presented through letters and journal entries written by the various protagonists (primarily Jonathan Harker). Dracula is not one of the protagonists, so we never really get his perspective—we only see him through the eyes of those who seek to destroy him. So I’m not saying that a modern musical needs to stick slavishly to the original (even though I think that would still make a great story). Examining the psyche of the monster is an interesting conceit, but what we got felt shallow and maudlin.

I could pick at the little inconsistencies in the story—like when Dracula calls Lucy his “first creation,” even though it is later revealed that the sisters (commonly referred to as the “brides of Dracula,” even though he does not seem to have that sort of relationship with them) are vampires that he created—but that would just end up being a litany of grievances. A brief discussion of the ending will suffice to show how badly the story goes off the rails.

As in the novel, the characters track Dracula back to his castle in Transylvania. But this is where things go sideways. Instead of killing Dracula, they fight him and are overcome. There is a showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing, and during this encounter the sisters appear and attack Van Helsing. Van Helsing overpowers one of them and stabs her in the heart with a stake... before realizing that it is his own wife. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that not only is Dracula a lost soul driven by love, but Van Helsing’s motivation is also love lost—Dracula killed (or so Van Helsing thought) his wife, and ever since then he has vowed revenge.

When Van Helsing recognizes his wife, he breaks down and begins to sob over her body. Dracula is standing behind him, well within striking distance, and I’m thinking, “Dracula is going to attack him. Van Helsing is going to get killed.” Dracula takes a tentative step, leans forward... and says, “I never meant for any of this to happen.” My jaw dropped when I heard that line. The story had been consistently ridiculous, of course, but this was too much. Instead of a showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula, we get a lecture from Van Helsing about how Dracula will destroy everything he touches, and how he can never know love. Then he picks up the body of his wife and exits stage left.

But it doesn’t end there. With the young men recovering from their defeat and Van Helsing mourning over his wife, only Mina is left. She finds Dracula, and it is clear that she is conflicted about what she should do. But then she sings, “I finally know what I must do!” HJ later told me that she thought Mina had worked up the courage to kill Dracula. Ha, as if! When I heard that line, I knew exactly what was going to happen next, and I cringed in spite of myself. Mina then throw herself on Dracula and begs him to make her a vampire so that they could be together forever. Dracula, however, distraught from his encounter with Van Helsing—and perhaps wanting to prove Van Helsing wrong—refuses, and he retreats into his coffin (which I must admit was a clever contraption that swung up and down ninety degrees and rested above a trap door when in the prone position so that Dracula could disappear). In tears, Mina turns her face to the heavens and begs God to forgive Dracula, because “his only sin was to love!” Wait... what? His only sin was to love? And I guess all those people he killed—not to mention all the people killed by vampires he created—are just collateral damage? (I actually scoffed aloud at this line, but I don’t think anyone heard me.) Needless to say, God listens, and a white light comes down from above, casting a cross on the coffin as a symbol of Dracula’s redemption. Someone got their Faust in my Dracula!

There are so many ways that this story was wrong that I almost don’t even know where to begin—so I will just talk about one thing: the character of Mina. I read the original work over twenty years ago, but I still have a very vivid memory of the tale (I did brush up on it before writing this, but in the process I discovered that my memory of the story was fairly accurate). I remember being annoyed by Lucy, who was a weak and fickle character, but also being impressed by Mina, who was a very strong character. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Mina might have been the strongest character in the original work. She is constantly threatened by Dracula, and she is nearly made a vampire herself, but this is possible because of Dracula’s ability to mesmerize his victims. She fights back against his power, uses her psychic connection to track Dracula down, and is a crucial member of the team that kills him.

What the musical does, though, is to replace the trance that Dracula induces in his victims with “love.” So Mina goes from being a strong character who fights—and wins—against supernatural powers to being a flighty woman who ultimately abandons her faithful husband for an abusive bad boy. In fact, given how she wavers back and forth while under no external force of persuasion, one might even make a good argument that she is insane. Other characters suffer at the hands of this story to some extent (Van Helsing in particular), but the crime against Mina is unforgivable. How is that a strong female character in a late 19th century novel is turned into just another fickle and weak woman, a slave to her passions, in the 21st century remake? Did no one notice this? I find it hard to see how this is not a huge step backward.

Ah, well, anyway. So much for not getting angry again. HJ says she didn’t care too much about the story as long as the music was good (which she deemed it was), but as a lit guy I cannot look past this. If it had been an original work... well, I still probably would have hated it, but I don’t think I would have been this incensed. But this remake feels like a deliberate and diabolical desecration of a classic. Curse you, Frank Wildhorn.

And on that happy note, I guess I’ll wrap things up for today. The Lunar New Year is next Monday, so let me wish you a happy year of the monkey in advance. May you have plenty of bananas in the new year.

Send me your thoughts.

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