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Left Done Right

A Left Hand Adventure

Review by Sean McQuaid

"A Left Hand Adventure" (a trio of one-act plays staged by Left Hand Theatre at the Arts Guild on October 18-21) is a small wonder: Outside of Me, Sleep Tight and Cowboy Mouth all employ small casts, minimal sets and modest production values to craft compelling short stories of people at odds with fundamental truths, with each other, and with themselves.

Outside of Me, written by Left Hand founder Jonathan C. Stewart and directed by Joseph A. Boyd, chronicles a soul torn between reincarnation and eternal peace. The play's irreverent take on the afterlife covers the same thematic ground Stewart worked in Nothing Like the Sun, but does so a bit more deftly and a bit less didactically, with a welcome sense of fun (though as in NLTS, there are some all-too-earnest moments). Miranda Tremere, however, seems ill-cast as the play's protagonist. In addition to a girlish performance style that sometimes undermines her character's credibility, Tremere's quick-and-quiet enunciation blurs her lines significantly-a dangerous tendency in a play that leans heavily on speechmaking. This combines with slow scene changes and repetitive music to make Outside of Me feel longer than it actually is.

The new one-man show Sleep Tight, written by Boyd and co-directed by Tremere and Todd MacLean, boasts a tighter script and a stronger performance: Boyd himself plays Adam, an embittered orphan coming to grips with the violent death of his parents. It's a raw, visceral show full of punch-in-the-gut emotional impact. This no-holds-barred approach is best exploited in Boyd's acting (an impressively persuasive portrait of conviction and intensity), but it goes astray at times in the script itself. Oft-crude rhetorical excess (such as a repeated survey of Adam's bodily orifices) comes off sounding as implausible and self-indulgent as it does harsh, and a less-is-more approach would serve certain lines well (Adam's references to stomach acid could work both literally and metaphorically, for instance, without being mired in a litany of bodily by products).

Boyd's script also tries a bit too hard to fill in the blanks for the audience at times, as in the passage where Adam interprets a dream that any thoughtful observer has already figured out, or the closing sequence where Adam tries to attach a moral and a mission of sorts to his story. These are isolated incidents in an otherwise strong script.

Rounding out the evening is a Boyd-directed version of Cowboy Mouth, the surreally autobiographical Sam Shepard show about a fanatic named Cavale (Tremere) who kidnaps a family man called Slim (MacLean) at gunpoint and tries to remake him into a musical saviour, "a rock-and roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." Despite the criminal context and their mutually abusive behaviour, Cavale and Slim fall in love with each other while holed up in their squalid hotel room (a thinly veiled re-imagining of Shepard's infamous affair with Patti Smith, with whom he co-wrote the play). The "happy" couple's masochistic fantasy life is interrupted and ultimately subverted by the Lobster Man (Boyd), a seafood delivery man who first appears as a literal lobster-man but later morphs into the superstar of Cavale's dreams, taking Slim's place (shades of Harold Pinter).

It's weird material, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to quietly disturbing, and Boyd's production does it justice. MacLean manages to combine predatory intensity and childish vulnerability in a very engaging performance, while Tremere is surprisingly, effectively creepy as Slim's mad seducer (Shepard's more compact and natural lines of dialogue play to Tremere's vocal strengths). Boyd never completely comes out of his shell in a somewhat understated turn as the Lobster Man, but his direction is sturdy; in particular, he and the rest of the cast deserve kudos for the ease with which they navigate the claustrophobic clutter of their set-one of many nice little touches in an evening of small wonders.

What the Fred?


ACRONYM

Review by Sean McQuaid

Are you tired of life making sense? Were you one of those kids who loved to torture insects or small animals? Do you like your theatre weird, spooky and nigh-unto-incomprehensible? If you answered "yes" to one or more of these questions, ACRONYM might well be your hallucinogenic cup of tea.

Written and directed by Mickey Acorn with technical direction and stage management by Evan Brown, ACRONYM was produced at the UPEI Barn (November 9-10 & 16-17) by Acorn and Christian Gavard under the banner of Oakseed Productions, which bills itself as a group dedicated to combining the enthusiasm and innovation of independent theatre with the discipline and organization of professional theatre. If ACRONYM is any indication, their reach does not exceed their grasp.

The story (if you can call it that) features four men who may or may not be doctors or test subjects or secret agents or all of the above, all participating in some sort of experiment in a sealed room. The roles, identities and memories of the four men seem to shift from scene to scene as they take turns playing pairings of doctors and patients, tormentors and victims. Sometimes the characters are aware of these identity shifts, sometimes not, and neither they nor the audience can ever be entirely certain of what is real.

The results are occasionally entertaining (Acorn's script is often thought provoking and sometimes quite funny), though not exactly groundbreaking-a lot of what ACRONYM does will be familiar to fans of existing absurdist drama. Echoes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead abound, for instance, and characters variously endorse or denounce a mysterious organization known as the P.L.O.T. in a metadramatic, metaphorical nod to this play's simultaneous acknowledgment and rejection of conventional narrative.

While its thematic content is somewhat shopworn, ACRONYM distinguishes itself through its stylish and inventive execution: the characters share a quirky vocabulary unique to themselves, notably constant references to a drug called Halaparadol (which may or may not be causing some or all of the characters to hallucinate), and the amusing substitution of "Fred" for a more infamous four-letter word in all the dialogue; omnipresent, hypnotically repetitive background music manipulates mood and adds weight to the visually and sometimes verbally sparse scenes; an in-the-round stage layout allows the actors to address the audience as if it were a set of walls or observers hidden beyond the walls; a disembodied computer voice provides a Big Brother presence reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; and clever synchronizations of dialogue, blocking and set pieces create tableaux in which something happening on one half of the stage is replicated or reflected on the other half of the stage. The cumulative effect of all this is a very surreal, dream-like and vaguely threatening atmosphere...think of it as "Acorn in Wonderland."

Speaking of Acorn, the four men are played by him, Gavard, James Philip Hogan and Josh Weale. All four actors have to ride an emotional roller coaster as their characters' personalities and situations transform over the course of the play, and all four do a very fine job. If nits must be picked, Hogan takes a while to hit his stride in terms of both projection and enunciation, while Gavard & Acorn sometimes seem to be rehashing the "buddy" dynamic they've done together before in Players (though it works well enough here, too, and their comic chemistry provides some of ACRONYM's most entertaining moments). Josh Weale, on the other hand, is a revelation; he seldom has an opportunity to show this much range, but he does his comrades proud here with a confident, credible and well-rounded performance. No fifth wheel, Robin Hewitt rounds out the cast as an eerily dispassionate, nurse-like woman who periodically appears to facilitate the mysterious experiment.

With a strong cast, creative presentation and a self-deprecating sense of humour that deflates much of the show's pretentiousness, ACRONYM is a worthwhile theatrical experiment-not to mention a showcase for the freakiest brainwashing techniques this side of The National Post's political coverage.

Have Wand, Will Conjour

The Conjuror's Suite

Review by Sean McQuaid

Theatre is alive. While seldom as visually spectacular as its cousins film and television, live theatre offers an unmatched immediacy and, at its best, a sense of wonder. Nothing taps that sense of wonder more effectively than a magician; an artist who not only performs before in the presence of an audience, but whose performance consists of amazing and mysterious feats. Even knowing these feats are illusions or "tricks", one cannot help but be impressed by their practitioner's skill, the ability to make the unreal seem real with relative ease. Stage magician David Ben is one such practitioner, and The Conjuror's Suite is a spellbinding showcase of his mystifying talents. 

One of the world's finest sleight-of-hand artists, Ben found a partner in Patrick Watson, the respected journalist and broadcaster who is also an enthusiastic amateur magician. Their first collaboration was The Conjuror, which Ben and Watson co-wrote; that show cast Ben as an early Twentieth Century master magician debuting at the celebrated St. George's Hall, during the so-called golden age of magic (1895-1914).

The Conjuror's Suite, like The Conjuror, is a Ben-Watson script, directed by Watson and performed by Ben; but this time, Ben is not playing a specific character and the show is not set in a specific time or place. This one-man show's setting is "an abstract representation of a Salon," wonderfully realized by designer Ed Kotanen's cosily cartoony, dreamlike set. Late Victorian and early Edwardian high society would invite master magicians to create Salons of magic in their homes, thrilling small audiences with an up close-and-personal experience of the magical arts. The Conjuror's Suite, performed in small venues like the Confederation Centre's Studio Theatre, strives to recapture the intimacy and interactivity of Salon magic.

While the Salon classics (such as card tricks) and the golden age of magic are the pervasive underpinnings of Ben's act, his repertoire includes pieces culled from throughout the history of magic. These can range from the beautiful (his artful impression of a Japanese snowfall) to the bloodcurdling (Houdini's East Indian Needle Trick, which has Ben swallow twenty-five sewing needles and six feet of thread before he regurgitates the needles…threaded); and even the well-worn standards, such as the Chinese linking rings and the cups-and-balls routine, are performed with sufficiently endearing charm and impressive virtuosity to entertain the most jaded audience.

Ben's tricks often entail audience participation, too, giving the patrons an even closer view of magic in action and making it harder for unbelievers to remain sceptical. This interactive approach fosters a good deal of improvisation, and Ben`s wit is usually equal to that challenge. The result is a spontaneous, intimate show that treats magic reverently while never taking it too seriously. For all his melodramatic posturing, Ben's tongue is seldom far from his cheek, and the spectators are all the more appreciative for being in on the gag.

A former lawyer, Ben has been studying and practicing his magical craft for over twenty years, and has developed a scholarly command of magical lore; he shares this knowledge with his audiences in a light-hearted anecdotal style that both informs and entertains, placing his tricks in historical context.

Nitpickers may note that the show relies rather heavily on card tricks (albeit very well done card tricks), and that only the patrons in the front rows get the full benefit of closely observing Ben in action (though he offsets this to some extent by recruiting assistants from all corners of the audience); however, Ben's elegantly good-humoured showmanship and perplexing powers of illusion are more than enough to make most misgivings disappear.

Stake and Cheese

Dracula The Undead

Review 
by Sean McQuaid

Since its genesis as Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula has been endlessly resurrected through a host of imitations and adaptations in various media, firmly establishing Count Dracula as the definitive vampire character . In fact, the story has been revived and revamped (sorry) so many times over the decades that any new version faces some scary challenges: doing something new with an old story, measuring up to past versions, and bleeding thrills & chills out of a subject that has become almost too familiar to evoke horror.

Left-Hand Theatre's Dracula: The Undead doesn't fully succeed at any of the above, though it takes a fresher approach than most. The script, adapted from Stoker's original story by Patrick MacMaster, is written around Dracula rather than about him-the title character spends most of the play offstage, while his various victims and enemies take up the dramatic slack. This approach seems to aim for an eerie atmosphere of psychological horror, and sometimes it hits the mark-but more often, the show lapses into turgid melodrama, endless exposition and flashes of unintentionally funny B-movie cheesiness.

MacMaster's script is faithful to the basics of Stoker's story, and it does some justice to characters such as Dracula's pawn Renfield and vampire hunters Doctor Seward and Professor Van Helsing. Most of MacMaster's characters develop little personality beyond their plot functions, though-and this, coupled with reams of expository dialogue, makes for a rather boring talkfest. Events are often recounted after the fact rather than depicted (thanks largely to Dracula's offstage status), important plot points (notably the existence and significance of Harker's connection to Dracula) are given little or no setup before their payoff, and the story advances at a glacial pace-several scenes could have been combined or compressed to good effect. Even some of the characters seem expendable-the pointless Quincy Morris, for instance, could be purged from the play without losing anything of value.

Director Joe Boyd's cast and crew muster an uneven effort marked by uncertain cues, unremarkable blocking, and an unappealing set (the flats in particular look like a Grade-D shop class project and accomplish little beyond further undermining the audience's suspension of disbelief-no flats would have been better than bad flats, and the dark void of a backdropless background might have actually enchanced the show's mood). That being said, a fog machine and Tim Gormley's innovative, ambitious sound design salvage some semblance of an eerie atmopshere.

Much of the acting is forgettable or best forgotten, but there are noteworthy performances. Jodi Hawkins shines all too briefly as the sunny Lucy, Boyd is a solid though somewhat tedious Van Helsing, and Gormley invests the role of Seward with both strength and vulnerability, crafting one of the better-realized performances in the show. The most vividly memorable performance comes from a genuinely creepy Evan Brown as the mad Renfield. His vampire master, alas, is far less spooky: in his early silent appearances as a cloaked and hooded figure, Dracula (Todd MacLean) moves with all the mystery and menace of a milkman, making his over-the-top antics at the end of the show seem all the more excessive by comparison.

There are moments of brilliance amidst the silliness-the opening scene, for instance, is a genuinely chilling (though perhaps overlong) voice-over account of Dracula's bloody sea voyage to England, delivered over the dimly lit, broken body of the ship's captain. The rest of the show seldom lives up to the promise of that first scene, though, and the result is perhaps the weakest of the various Dracula plays staged at the Kings Playhouse over the years. Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of the coffin.

Sink or Swim

Adrift

Review by Sean McQuaid

Lars Davidson is best known to Islanders as a local writer who has scripted and sold Hollywood screenplays (beginning with 1995's A Deeper Danger); this summer, however, he tests the waters of a different medium by writing, directing and starring in Adrift, a new play running at the Carmody Comedy Barn in scenic Stanley Bridge. 

Billed as a romantic comedy and set in 1912 Prince Edward Island, Adrift is the story of estranged lovers Jack Coady (Davidson) and Faye MacLaren (Amber Coffin). They were sweethearts when Coady left the Island to seek his fortune, but he returns to find an older, embittered Faye who seemingly wants nothing to do with him. Deciding that the best audience is a captive audience, the persistent Jack swims out to Faye's rowboat off the coast of Launching Point and makes a desperate last-ditch attempt to win her back. 

The entire play takes place in the boat, where Jack helps Faye scatter the ashes of a mutual friend and each helps the other deal with the painful secrets that keep them apart. 

Davidson took a sabbatical from screenwriting to study drama at UPEI this past year, and he spent two years on the research and writing of Adrift. The research is apparent in the wealth of topical references and linguistic oddities that pepper the script-and while this lends an air of authenticity, it sometimes has the cumulative effect of seeming almost overdone in an attempt to infuse as much period flavour as possible.

The dialogue flows surprisingly smoothly, though, and is often very funny-especially when Jack is joking his way into Faye's bad books or charming his way into her heart. Faye has fewer good lines, partly because she spends most of the play angry or distraught.

The first act establishes a solid momentum as Jack invades Faye's boat, professes his love and tries repeatedly to get to the bottom of what's bothering her; however, the second act drifts a bit (pardon the phrasing) in terms of plot, tone and characterization. After a beautiful and genuinely touching funeral scene, the remainder of the play seems somewhat forced and calculated as Faye confesses her truly horrifying secrets and Jack conveniently counters with an untold trauma of his own-an "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" reconciliation, one might say.

The dueling angst feel somewhat staged (though lighthearted Jack's deep, dark secret does get a smidgen of foreshadowing beforehand), and Davidson paints himself into a corner of sorts by starting this sequence with Faye's long, heart-wrenching tale of woe. Not only does Jack's tale pale by comparison, but Davidson has to spend minute after minute acting more and more horrified as Faye's truly hideous story unfolds, and it quickly becomes awkward and repetitive, not to mention making much of what follows seem anticlimactic. Most of act two falls prey to heavy-handed melodrama and facile sentiment as a result, though the script retains some heart and humour throughout. 

Apart from the jarring tonal shifts, the show's principal weakness is imbalance. Jack is a much more sympathetic, substantial character than the shrill, acerbic Faye (though you can't help feeling sorry for her after she tells her story), and this imbalance is accentuated by Coffin, whose almost uniformly one-noted performance drags the play down; she has a wonderful singing voice, though, and her few flashes of emotional range show promise. Davidson is a more comfortable and natural performer, though his vocal reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. Their efforts, combined with a mostly strong script, an economical and inventive set and some very tight blocking make Adrift a production that swims more often than it sinks.

Are We There Yet?

Hood Ornaments

Review by Sean McQuaid

In 1999, the Homegrown Productions writer-producer team (Graham Putnam, Jason Rogerson and Josh Weale) debuted with Players. This summer, the HP trio return with a new comedy, Hood Ornaments; and like its 1999 ancestor, HO bears more than a slight resemblance to the films of Kevin Smith: lots of pop culture references, sexual content, and a primarily twentysomething cast of characters rooted in the strained longtime friendship of two young underachievers. 

While HO's setting (an international road trip) and its events (ranging from moviemaking to a murder conspiracy) are more exotic than Players, HO feels more realistic. It's a darker, sometimes meaner comedy with a bittersweet (though upbeat) ending; there are no purely fantastic or metadramatic characters; and HO manages to do a bit more meaty character work beyond its two oddly familiar male leads. 

The story: Charlottetown natives Jack (Mickey Acorn) and Ketchup (Dan Caseley) drive to New York to visit Jackís long-distance girlfriend, Kate (Kelly Larter). A chance encounter with faded TV star Mayim "Blossom" Bialik (Carly Martin) turns Ketchup into an overnight celebrity. Meanwhile, Jack's reunion with Kate goes sour, thanks in part to the interference of cinematic boy wonder Steadman Sterling (Jonathan C. Stewart), who casts Kate in his new movie; and porn-obsessed pizza cook Carmine (Ed Rashed), who wants Kate for himself and will stop at nothing to get her. 

It's a consistently funny script, though the comedy is somewhat uneven-often thoughtful or clever, but occasionally resorting to vulgar stabs at cheap laughs (some of Carmine's scenes in particular may constitute crude and unusual punishment). It's not a play for the easily offended. The production's reasonably long running-time could stand some trimming, though a drawn-out epilogue has already been condensed since the show opened. Some opening night uncertainty regarding lines, cues and blocking will presumably improve over the course of the run as well. Problematic sight lines might be more challenging, though, notably the delightful but too low-lying automobile set. 

Acorn is a well-rounded male lead as Jack and has great chemistry with Casely, who effortlessly shifts gears from cynical philosopher to faux-urban celebrity; unfortunately, Ketchup assumes a more peripheral role in the second act and the play suffers for it. Larter is a capable albeit sometimes one-noted Kate, while Martin makes the best of the play's thinnest role with a gleeful Bialik sendup. 

Stewart (a quirkily endearing Steadman) and Rashed (a potently disgusting Carmine) are wonderfully cast, both individually and as the ultimate theatrical odd couple-like their characters, these actors are strikingly dissimilar and make great foils for one another. They also deserve credit for being sporting enough to take on roles that could be construed as self-parody: Rashed is a real-life restaurateur, and Stewart has a reputation as a theatrical wunderkind not unlike Steadman. 

The HP crew in general deserve credit, too, for retaining their sense of fun while staging their most ambitious multimedia production to date. Various audio effects (such as Blossom's signature tune and Carmine's interior monologues) add colour; the show's program is one of the best-designed, funniest and most disturbing in town; and a film projection screen is used extensively to great effect-mostly for the surprisingly effective illusion of the car set being out on the open highway, but also for some funny opening credits and the hysterically weird Steadman Sterling movie that closes the show.

Rosewatered Glasses

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Review by Sean McQuaid

The latest Left-Hand Theatre production may have come out of left field, but it was definitely worth catching. The world needs more plays like God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. 

This musical satire (based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel and crafted by the celebrated songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) chronicles the misadventures of Elliot Rosewater (Greg Stapleton) as he strives to find a worthwhile purpose for his fabulous family fortune, which he manages through the Rosewater Foundation. He eventually settles on using his money to help needy people in his hometown of Rosewater, Indiana. 

Elliot's family and peers think he's crazy to even associate with the lower classes (let alone waste good money on them), and opportunistic lawyer Norman Mushari (Joey Baglole) takes advantage of the situation by trying to have Elliot declared insane in hopes that the Foundation's millions will go to Mushari's clients, money-hungry distant relations of the Rosewater clan.

The show confronts timeless social issues such as poverty, inequity, class structures and conservatism, doing so in a realistic but hopeful fashion while never turning preachy or losing its sense of humour. As director Jonathan C. Stewart says in his program notes, the story offers no easy answers-the world is still a greedy, stupid, mean-spirited place come the end of the play; but even if one can't change the world, one can still change himself. Elliot Rosewater reinvents himself for the better, and in so doing he makes life better for many other people.

This musical's slyly subversive advocacy of respect and compassion for all humanity is more timely than ever now that much of North America is abandoning and even demonizing its less fortunate people with self-satisfied gusto. Our own nation might benefit immensely from locking the likes of Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, Preston Manning, and the National Post crowd in some cozy theatre where they would be forced to watch this show over and over again until enlightenment comes out their ears.

Ideology aside, Left-Hand's Rosewater is first and foremost a fun show. It's a weird story about a very weird character with weird passions (Elliot's obsessions include firefighting and science fiction), which makes for an amusingly absurd tone. Stewart and company exploit this with a variety of playful little touches, such as the musical's god-like narrator (Stuart Neatby) spelling out the terms of intermission for the audience, or Mushari and his staff handing out delightful propaganda brochures aimed at turning "Plain Clean Average Americans" against the "lunatic" Elliot Rosewater. At the same time, Stewart never shrinks from the script's serious side-the sequence where Elliot goes truly mad while musing about his family history and his wartime experiences is rendered in an eerily expressionistic and genuinely disturbing fashion, for instance.

The Arts Guild is always a difficult playing space, but it's downright miraculous that Left-Hand manages to squeeze a variety of large musical numbers into it-and apart from the lighting not quite managing to take it all in at times, they pull it off. The singing, dancing and acting ability of the cast varies (Baglole is a bit too tentative and self-conscious as Mushari for instance), but they all acquit themselves capably and some are quite impressive. Stapleton is a revelation as Elliot Rosewater-he perfectly captures the character's guileless good will, and proves himself to be an appealing, endearing musical performer in the process. His vocal reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, but very rarely-this is one of his best performances ever.

This show also gives us one of the best Left-Hand productions to date, too. Or as Elliot Rosewater might put it, "I love you goddamn sons of bitches, I really do!"

Life Sucks, Then You Die

Woyzeck

Review by Sean McQuaid

Woyzeck was a funny thing for the UPEI Theatre Society to tackle as its latest major production. Funny as in odd, not funny as in ha-ha (there's not much to laugh at in Woyzeck, though there are a few black chuckles to be found). It's a somewhat unsatisfying play-short and none too sweet, an unfinished meditation on man's inhumanity to man and the resultant erosion and corruption of the individual psyche. This territory has been covered in a meatier, more entertaining fashion by other playwrights many times over (Beckett, Mamet, Miller, Pinter and Stoppard all spring to mind), so I'm not sure why UPEITS would focus its energies on a work as fragmentary and fleeting as Woyzeck.

The play is certainly not without merit-but it's not exactly the pick of its thematic litter, either; and with a running time hovering somewhere around an hour, it's not the fullest evening of entertainment one might hope for-assuming, of course, one is entertained at all. Many might regard Woyzeck's cavalcade of cruelty and futility as depressing and pointless, though one man's meaningless misery is another man's thought-provoking revelation. At the very least, Woyzeck (like the recent Rorschach) might have been well-served by pairing up with another short work to form a somewhat more substantial double bill, perhaps with a less dismal companion piece to serve as a counterpoint.

Setting aside the virtues of the play itself, UPEITS did a creditable job of bringing Woyzeck to life. Richard Thomas Haines's stark, bleak direction captures the feel of the piece with minimal sets, costuming and props-little is present to fill out the dreary twilight world of Woyzeck apart from the actors themselves, who seem appropriately lonely and solitary figures in more than a few scenes. The quality of the performance is inconsistent, though; Ben Hughes is a great superficial match for the title character, looking and sounding every inch the broken man, but his Woyzeck sometimes seems more lifeless than hopeless--and on a more technical note, Hughes was one of several cast members who seemed to be having trouble with projection in the MacKenzie Theatre space. When a great deal of the dialogue (including much of the lead's lines) verges on the inaudible, something is amiss.

On a brighter note, several of the supporting players make consistently strong contributions. Nick Kenny exudes a smarmy self confidence as the Drum Major, for instance, and Trenton MacKinnon is a hoot in his several roles, most notably the cheerfully sadistic doctor who helps drive Woyzeck to madness. Overall, though, this production echoes the uncertain quality of its source material: a darkly thoughtful but uneven and vaguely unsatisfying work.

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