Hometown Blues

Review of An Opening in Time at Hartford Stage

“The purpose of playing,” Hamlet says, “is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” A statement that might lend itself to a support of realism in theater, so that what happens onstage should be very much like what happens in real life. That argument works as a rationale for mimetic works that are based on real people, real places.

In Christopher Shinn’s An Opening in Time, the intention to portray his hometown—Wethersfield, Connecticut—as it was in his youth creates a play that will certainly resonate with local audiences who will recognize place-names and appreciate how deliberately the dialogue recreates the tentative, non-emphatic speech of people accustomed to a certain pace of life. There is a pervasive small town feel to the play—which includes scenes in a local diner and in a Denny's and in a homey farmhouse kitchen—and that helps to sell the small talk that sometimes sounds exactly like real life, which is to say, not really very interesting.

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), a middle-aged woman recently widowed, returns to Wethersfield after selling off the farm to which she, her husband, and their young son had moved about thirty years before. Nothing much has changed in the riverside town, “Ye Most Auncient Towne in Connecticut,” according to its website. We meet Anne first when the boy next door, George (Brandon Smalls), hits her door with a baseball which sets up her neighborly attempt to get to know him. Anne is a retired schoolteacher so that justifies her somewhat needy interest in the young man. Later, we learn she is having problems with her own adult son, due in part to his status as a sex offender (also a teacher, he had an affair with one of his underage students).

George, it turns out, is living with foster parents and there are odd tensions surfacing as Kim (Molly Camp), the mother, at first reaches out to Anne and then seems to avoid her. Or at least that’s how Anne sees it. Meanwhile, Ron (Patrick Clear), who spends most mornings and evenings at the same diner in the same chair at the counter, often trading familiar jibes with Frank (Bill Christ), notices on his friend’s iPad that Anne, with whom he obviously has history, has bought a house in town. Not much more occurs in the first act except someone unknown—George? Anne’s son?—is breaking Anne's kitchen windows when she’s not at home. Ron and Anne take very tentative steps toward one another, sharing one of her pies, meeting for lunch and then . . . nothing.

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

Shinn seems to have learned from Chekhov the technique of using an entire act to establish the main narrative lines, that will then alter through significant changes in the later acts. But that’s where the comparison ends. The subplots that drift through the story of Anne and Ron don’t have any urgency, not even the fact that George is on his way to being transgendered. And whatever’s up with Kim plays out in a few scenes of awkward forced neighborliness. Meanwhile, the story of Sam (Karl Miller), Anne’s son, becomes little more than an occasion for Anne to try to get back to some kind of emotional balance.

What Shinn gets convincingly right occurs in the second act when Ron and Anne finally have it out about who remembers what about the time, right before she left town with her family, when he came to her house to let her know how he felt about her. It was an intense evening, full of feeling that, in memory, has become a failed turning point for each, something they both blame the other for. The scene, with its grasp of how people with grudges who cared for each other and would like to continue doing so can spar, catches fire and shows us how, beneath all that simple, everyday chatter, there are real passions and regrets and resentments. And the focus of the interplay between Hedwall and Clear, as they let us into what’s really going on inside these average, unassuming types, has real impact, making the other currents in the story seem force-fed into the tale.

Directed by Oliver Butler, who has shown great facility with Will Eno’s precise and hilariously gnomic version of dysfunctional family life in Open House, as well as a grasp of the scurrilous barbs of a family in each other’s faces in Bad Jews (at the Long Wharf last season), shows a softer, more easygoing side here. The heat between Hedwall and Clear certainly shows his touch, but that’s not enough to make Hedwall’s scenes with Camp and Smalls work.

Antje Ellerman’s wonderful set, showing the classic lines of Connecticut homes adorned with bare trees and artful lighting from Russell H. Champa, urges us to feel the autumnal air that surrounds these characters, but doesn’t do so well when it has to switch to a diner or a Denny’s. With booths and counters rising up from below through trapdoors, only to sink again when not needed, the briskness of the transitions distracts from the dialogue’s deliberate pacing and seems almost a joke at its expense. Or maybe that’s a way of saying that, hoping for something that will interest or amuse, one finds it as one can.

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Shinn gets intentional laughs from jibes at Rent—Ron is a semi-retired schoolteacher who puts on the school’s big musical each year and grumbles about Rent as the show the kids want and he doesn’t. Whether Shinn shares any of Ron’s feelings about the popular pseudo-gritty musical, An Opening in Time does allow that, for someone like George, Rent might be a glimpse of a world he needs to know more than he needs a book of Hemingway stories or mollycoddling from Anne.

As Anne, Deborah Hedwall has a wavery voice that cracks with feeling; she speaks like a woman who has made her living talking and is trying to find a way, now, to speak about herself and her feelings. Patrick Clear’s Ron is likeable and very natural, a good neighbor type who no one would accuse of being an exciting catch. As Frank, Bill Christ adds some male camaraderie where it’s needed. The other parts—a policeman (Mike Keller), a surly Polish waitress (Kati Brazda), George and his mother—come and go without becoming more than sidelights. As Anne’s uneasily guilty thirtysomething son, Karl Miller’s Sam seems bemused at his mother’s attempt to stay connected to him, while the actual logistics of their previous life are hard to fathom from their scene together.

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

A play of bits and pieces, An Opening in Time needs perhaps more time to find its opening toward a more fully resonant and rewarding slice of Connecticut life.


An Opening in Time
By Christopher Shinn
Directed by Oliver Butler

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Original Music & Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Casting: Binder Casting; Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger; Assistant Stage Manager: Arielle Goldstein; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Deborah Hedwall; Brandon Smalls; Patrick Clear; Kati Brazda; Bill Christ; Molly Camp; Mike Keller; Karl Miller

Hartford Stage
September 25-October 11, 2015



Against the Grain

Review of Knives in Hens at Yale Cabaret

The second show of the Yale Cabaret’s Season 48 is Scottish playwright David Harrower’s starkly beautiful Knives in Hens. Directed with a brilliant grasp of how to translate the play into the Cab’s space by 2nd-year director Jesse Rasmussen, Knives features a cast of three and a drama that is both an erotic triangle and a meditation on traditional roles and the path to self-determination.

The play is set in an unnamed village at an unspecified time (Harrower intends rural Scotland; Rasmussen and company transport the action, quite effectively, to what seems like the Appalachians). A couple, identified by their roles—he, William (Niall Powderly), a ploughman; she (Elizabeth Stahlmann), his faithful wife and helpmate—live a life close to nature and their erotic relationship. Powderly is amazingly effective at inhabiting the subtleties of the ploughman’s patriarchal authority and its hold over his wife; a scene where he upbraids her for just standing and looking in public—as unseemly behavior—plays out both as deliberate control of a possession and as fear of others’ perceptions of him via his wife. That point comes to its inevitable dramatic realization when he sends her to carry their grain to the miller to be converted to flour.

The miller, Gilbert Horn (Paul Cooper), is a figure of almost legendary malevolence. Did he kill his wife and child? Is he mad? Rumors circulate about him, and Harrower predicates the context of the play on the strict division of labor in pre-industrial farming communities: the ploughman digs the earth and plants and reaps, consequently his horses, as his essential laborers, are dearer to him than anything; his livelihood depends on them. But that also makes him a figure for jibes; as the miller tells the young wife, the village calls her husband Pony William. Already she’s seen how his care for a mare at foaling can take precedence over his need for her (he’ll spend a night in the barn and forsake her bed). While to the couple, the miller, though he performs a necessary task, seems something of a parasite, even a pariah, because his toil is mechanical—via his great grinding stones—rather than physical. Harrower’s play effectively lets its context work on us imaginatively as we try to get into the heads of these figures to understand their very basic lives.

Elizabeth Stahlmann (Young Woman); Niall Powderly (Pony William); Paul Cooper (Gilbert Horn)

Elizabeth Stahlmann (Young Woman); Niall Powderly (Pony William); Paul Cooper (Gilbert Horn)

Key to our understanding is Harrower’s stripped-down but very poetic language, its effects mainly gained by short, emphatic phrases and—as was common to many Christianized barely literate societies—a Biblical intonation that gives unusual power to individual words. So that when the wife accuses the miller of “envy,” the word bears the weight of a mortal sin. The wife is referred to only as “woman”—at one point she writes her name down for the miller but we never learn it. Indeed that act of writing is the first infraction against her fidelity to William, and the sight of black powder on the long white surface that forms the main playing space creates a sense of stain—both the ink upon her fingers and the stain upon her soul. In a recurring set-piece, the woman speaks poetic phrases about nature into a hanging microphone—finding herself challenged to describe the sky. These instances of stream-of-consciousness show us a woman struggling to articulate her own sense of nature and her place in it, under the challenge of her husband likening her to “a field,” or a thing of nature herself.

As the drama plays out, the relation between the woman and the miller becomes paramount as he seems to signal possibilities beyond the earthiness of her former existence. As Gilbert, Cooper is a darkly good-looking figure for the woman’s infatuation, having a way of speaking to her that seems more concerned for who she might be than, as her husband does, who she should be, for him. As the woman, Elizabeth Stahlmann is uncannily perfect for the role. In her simple dress, looking like she stepped out of one of Walker Evans’ photos for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, she lets us see how her own mind becomes a wonder for this uneducated but not illiterate woman. She is on her way by play’s end but not before a necessary death, a form of sacrifice informed by the themes of planting and grinding that is cruelly fitting but nonetheless unsettling.

Knives in Hens slackens a bit as we relax into its world, though managing to keep us on edge even when no direct threat is present. The production benefits from Elizabeth Dinkova’s stark set: two white cots on either side of a long stretch of white flooring represent the beds of the couple and of the miller respectively. A simple but significant dramatic shift occurs as the woman begins in one bed and ends up in the other; stretched out on the miller’s cot after fainting, she becomes an object the two men regard with both awe and suspicion. Feeling vulnerable, the ploughman invokes God; the miller, coming to terms with volition and knowledge—in a register moving from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel—realizes that the voice in his head is not God but “just me.”

Harrower’s styling of the stakes here is as deliberate as a Morality Play, and Rasmussen’s production capitalizes on the play’s grim rhythms, letting judicious use of sound—for the grinding mill and for very specific voices offstage—add dimension, and the striking visual effect of black smeared on white create the drama’s hieratic aura. A fascinating night at the Cab.


Knives in Hens
By David Harrower
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Producer: Adam J. Frank; Set Designer: Elizabeth Dinkova; Costume Designer: Fabian F. Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer: Tom Larkey; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Technical Director: Alexandra Reynolds; Assistant Director: Shadi Ghaheri

Cast: Paul Cooper; Niall Powderly; Elizabeth Stahlmann

Yale Cabaret
September 24-26, 2015

Eros the Erratic

Review of We Are All Here at Yale Cabaret

Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime is a play about relationships, mixing the bedroom farce with existentialism—or maybe it’s more like an existential comedy based on who’s sleeping with whom. As adapted by David Bruin and Jiréh Breon Holder at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Bruin, the show, called We Are All Here, puts the give-and-take among this large cast of 10 front and center where it belongs. Dispensing, for the most part, with props and scenery, Bruin and Holder make the play as streamlined as possible. And that’s to the good, as Wintertime is a very verbal play, with occasional physical flights—such as a routine of door-slamming and a full cast dance number—and We Are All Here is even more so (minus the throwing things tantrum, but with a great ping pong match to literalize a metaphor Mee uses).

front: Christopher Ghaffari; back, left to right: Sean Patrick Higgins, Jenelle Chu, Jonathan Higginbotham, Edmund Donovan

front: Christopher Ghaffari; back, left to right: Sean Patrick Higgins, Jenelle Chu, Jonathan Higginbotham, Edmund Donovan

Leon (Jonathan Higginbotham) and his girlfriend Ariel (Brontë England-Nelson) come to his family’s getaway spot for a hot weekend during which Leon intends to propose. Soon after arrival they find that Leon’s mother Maria (Jenelle Chu) is already in residence with her lover François (Christopher Ghaffari). This causes some embarrassment to all, which is further aggravated by the arrival of Maria’s husband—Leon’s father—Frank (Sean Patrick Higgins) and his current lover Edmund (Edmund Donovan). To complete the sexual smorgasbord there’s also a lesbian couple, Hilda (Victoria Whooper) and Bertha (Maria Ines Marques) enjoying the great outdoors nearby. And then there’s the philosophical deliveryman Bob (Ian Williams), and Jacqueline (Claire DeLiso), an ob-gyn on the make, to round things out.

Jenelle Chu (Maria), Ian Williams (Bob), Sean Patrick Higgins (Frank), Christopher Ghaffari (Francois)

Jenelle Chu (Maria), Ian Williams (Bob), Sean Patrick Higgins (Frank), Christopher Ghaffari (Francois)

For a set, there’s a backdrop with occasional projections, while the costumes—such as slinky dress, jogging suit, short terry-cloth robe, and, eventually, very colorful underwear—seem aimed to make everyone look as appealing as possible. And that may, to some extent, hurt the overall effect since it is sort of important that we believe, for instance, that Maria and Frank are the parents of Leon, and that Hilda and her partner Bertha are significantly older than the others. We have to work a little to believe these encounters are inter-generational, otherwise we might feel that we’re watching a group of twentysomethings deciding how to pair off.

The inter-generational aspect works best in certain interludes, such as François condescending to Ariel while also flattering and flirting with her, and in a father-son moment between Frank and Leon late in the play. The couples drama gets its sharpest treatment between Maria and her men, respectively, and between Frank and the painfully disappointed “fourth wheel,” Edmund. The main burden of being in a couple, for Mee and perhaps for the world in general, is the question of being “faithful”; when that quality is tested, the very meaning of life hangs in the balance. We see how jealousy on that score is the main canker in the bud of each relationship here, and our Greek-lit-referencing delivery guy has some ideas about why: no one can love someone in perpetually the same way. I choose the word “perpetual”—unchanging, eternal—deliberately because much of what Mee’s play, apropos of Greek drama, thrives on is the perpeteia: the change or reversal that exposes character, or reveals fate, or simply shows—existentially—that our emotions tend to veer with the winds of change.

The play is all about eros—the word even gets projected as a block of text at one point—as an experience that is mutable and changeable, no matter whether we “put a ring on it” or not. Leon hopes to, and gets verbally abused by Ariel—with England-Nelson in fine fettle—for his suspicions of her and François. François, who is pretty much willing to sleep with anyone he finds attractive (he’s French), can still get mighty riled when he feels like he’s playing second-fiddle to Frank. And Frank . . . in Higgins’ grounded performance, Frank seems the one with the most depth, if only because, as a father with a wife and a male lover, he’s at a nexus of eros. He’s also the one bereft, in the end, by his handling of things—or maybe it’s just that, older white guy fashion, he gets to be our romantic hero.

Sean Patrick Higgins (Frank), Christopher Ghaffari (Francois), Edmund Donovan (Edmund)

Sean Patrick Higgins (Frank), Christopher Ghaffari (Francois), Edmund Donovan (Edmund)

There’s a lot of fast verbal “action” in We Are All Here, and music—which includes operatic arias and pop tunes—keeps us apprised of how much our emotions, in love, are a question of mood. Bruin and company let Mee’s plot constructions—drownings that aren’t drownings—float in the mix. More important than what is allegedly happening is who is saying what to whom and why. What makes We Are All Here work as theater is that characters hear each other and reconsider themselves based on what others say to them. At times it’s a bit like a wild echo chamber, but everyone adds something to the mix. If not quite “the more the merrier,” than at least the more the more interesting. We need others as onlookers sometimes, it seems,  to give weight to what has been called “the unbearable lightness of being.”


We Are All Here
A Remix of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime
Adapted by David Bruin and Jiréh Breon Holder
Directed by David Bruin

Dramaturg: Jiréh Breon Holder; Choreographer: Chalia La Tour; Producer: Libby Peterson; Set and Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Costume Designer: Alexander Woodward; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Technical Director: Rae Powell

Cast: Jenelle Chu; Claire DeLiso; Edmund Donovan; Brontë England-Nelson; Christopher Ghaffari; Jonathan Higginbotham; Sean Patrick Higgins; Maria Ines Marques; Victoria Whooper; Ian Williams

Yale Cabaret
September 17-19, 2015

Arm in Arm

Ending its extended run at the Goodspeed Opera House, La Cage aux Folles, directed by Rob Ruggiero, officially brings the summer season to an end. The show commenced on June 26 and closed on September 10, a lengthy run that indicates the attraction of musicals, with their big casts, complicated costume changes, live musicians, songs and, in this case, a hint of slapstick and a touch of sentimental schmaltz in an affecting tale of true love triumphant.

The Book by Harvey Fierstein, which won a Tony back in 1983, has become by now quite venerable, however outrageous it may once have been. Key to it all is the character of Albin, played here by Jamiston Stern in a faultless and winning performance. Albin’s alter ego is “Zaza,” a top notch drag star at La Cage aux Folles, the St. Tropez cabaret run by his romantic partner Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds). Georges, once upon a time, begat a son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan), and the latter has come round to say it’s time for his folks—Georges and a long absent mère—to meet the folks of his intended bride, Anne Dindon (Erin Burniston). This inspires some despair over the youthful marriage but the real catch is who those prospective in-laws are. M. Dindon is a man with a mission: as leader of the “Tradition, Family, and Morality” Party, he’s all for cleaning up places like Georges’ club and doing away, Anita Bryant-style, with anything that suggests same-sex coupling is not a crime or an outrage. So, of course, swishy Albin must be forced into hiding.

What makes the show work in the first half are the jumps between the apartment, where Albin frets over his feelings and reviles everyone else’s lack of feeling, and, downstairs, the stage of La Cage where Georges prowls about in swank threads and regales the audience with pleasantries while “the girls”—a collection of cross-dressers known as The Notorious Cagelles (Darius Barnes, Michael Bullard, Alexander Cruz, Erin M. Kernion, Alex Ringler, Nick Silverio, Nic Thompson)—entertain. Ralph Perkins’ choreography for the show tunes features acrobatic splits and flips as well as sinuous gestures, the costumes by Michael McDonald are as pizazzy as one could hope—particularly for the “La Cage aux Folles” number—and the songs by Jerry Herman let the girls strut their stuff.

The Notorious Cagelles

The Notorious Cagelles

Less effective are the musical efforts to be more touching and less tongue-in-cheek. Reynolds, with his firm jaw and twinkling eyes, is a lady-killer of a Georges, but “Song on the Seine,” his number in tribute to his love for Albin, doesn’t quite stir as it should. And the other love song, “With Anne on My Arm”—sung by Ryan winsomely—sags a bit, especially following Stern’s worked up rendering of “A Little More Mascara.” Thankfully, the two lovebirds, Albin and Georges, make “With You on My Arm,” a variant on Jean-Michel’s number, debonair and delightful. And Albin’s show-stopping curtain song “I Am What I Am” is in every sense a tough act to follow.

Jamison Stern (Albin), James Lloyd Reynolds (Georges)

Jamison Stern (Albin), James Lloyd Reynolds (Georges)

The shorter second act doesn’t quite cook as much as the first. Whenever Albin is onstage we get to bask in the fascination Stern finds in the part, even when simply the object of Georges’ admiration—as the only mother Jean-Michel knew—in “Look Over There.” But the staging of the dreaded meeting between the Dindons (Mark Zimmerman and Stacey Scotte) and Georges, sans wife until Albin shows up in a dress, is short on pay-off. The dialogue’s never quite as entertaining as one might hope and soon enough it’s time for another song with everyone whirling a partner and, of course, M. Dindon leading the Chanel-clad Albin. Things go awry and then get realigned with the age old schtick of comic cross-dressing.

Theatrically, one of the neat tricks of La Cage is that it is able to exploit the sexiness of guys (the Cagelles) who look good as gals, the perceptiveness of a guy (Albin), who identifies feminine, trying to act masculine, and the comic yuks of a guy (M. Dindon) who considers himself all male having to dress as a woman. And then there’s Cedric Leiba, Jr., as maid/butler Jacob, who does all that can be done with the role of a sassy and surly underling in hot pants and heels.

By the end of the show, the warmth of affection for Stern’s touching Albin and Reynolds’ doting Georges carries the day, and, in the light of recent refusals to grant legal marriage certificates to gay couples, one might say that the lesson of La Cage is still pointed enough and not simply all in fun. The audience was on their feet cheering and one hopes it’s a cheer for the show’s benign depiction of same-sex love as equally amenable, as marriage always is, to “tradition, family, and morality.”

Jamison Stern as Albin as Zaza, with Nic Thompson, Nick Silverio, Alexander Cruz, Darius Barnes

Jamison Stern as Albin as Zaza, with Nic Thompson, Nick Silverio, Alexander Cruz, Darius Barnes


La Cage aux Folles
Book by Harvey Fierstein; Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Musical Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Ralph Perkins

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Michael McDonald; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Hair, Wig & Makeup: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Production Manager: R Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: James Lloyd Reynolds; Jamison Stern; Conor Ryan; Cedric Leiba, Jr.; Wade Dooley; Barbara McCullon; Kristen Martin; Sue Mathys; Chris Hietikko; Alex Ringler; Erin M. Kernon; Mark Zimmerman; Stacey Scotte; Darius Barnes; Michael Bullard; Alexander Cruz; Erin M. Kernion; Alex Ringler; Nick Silverio; Nic Thompson; Brett-Marco Glauser; Emily Grace Tucker

Goodspeed Musicals
East Haddam, CT
June 26-September 10, 2015

Beating the Drum

Preview of Yale Cabaret season 48

For fans of the Yale Cabaret, this time of year introduces the new season under the venue’s new team. Next week will come the official kick-off to celebrate the opening of season 48. This week, tickets are on sale on the Cab’s website. Last week, I talked with the new co-Artistic Directors—David Bruin, dramaturg, Julian Elijah Martinez, actor, and Leora Morris, director—and the Managing Director Annie Middleton, all commencing their third year in the Yale School of Drama, about what’s in store.

“The Cab” is the basement performance space at 217 Park Street, run by YSD students, presenting shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and at 11 Friday and Saturday. The Cab’s kitchen, run by chef Anna Belcher, offers pre-show dining, with beer and wine served, beginning at 6:30 and, for the later shows, small plates and desserts and drinks beginning at 10. The Cab is a unique theatrical experience in its immediacy and, in its rapid turnover of shows, a challenge to keep up with.

rear to front: Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton, Leora Morris, David Bruin

rear to front: Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton, Leora Morris, David Bruin

As is usual, the ADs and MD came to our meeting knowing the first three shows of the season and looking forward to fleshing out the rest of the semester, through January, a bit later this month. First, a few words about the team.

Bruin, Martinez, and Morris have each directed and performed in shows at the Cabaret. Most recently, Morris directed the varied and amorphous theatrical extravaganza love holds a lamp in this little room for the Yale Summer Cabaret 2015. She also performed as one of the four dancer/actors, along with Martinez, in Solo Bach in last season’s Cabaret, and directed the powerful play He Left Quietly in her first year at YSD.

Martinez appeared thrice at the Cabaret in his first year: as a sensitive boyfriend in The Defendant, as a conflicted street artist in We Fight We Die (proposed and co-produced by Middleton) and as one of The Brothers Size in Luke Harlan’s gripping production of Tarrell McCraney’s myth-based play. Last year, in addition to his role in Solo Bach, Martinez directed a production of Touch, starring classmate Jonathan Majors. Between the two term-time Cab seasons, Martinez played in four of the five productions in the Yale Summer Cabaret of 2014.

Last Cab season, Bruin directed the challenging two hander Quartet and acted in a new translation of Korean playwright Geun-Hyung Park’s odd family drama Don’t Be Too Surprised. The previous year, Bruin conceived and directed The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, an imaginative recreation of the early days of theater greats Edward Albee and María Irene Fornés, and also took part in the topical comedy Derivatives and acted in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Taken together (to say nothing of time spent in the kitchen), that spells a lot of Cab time, but we might say the team ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of how much dedication to our favorite New Haven venue they’re in for.

Seeing the Cab as “the cultural hub for artistic expression,” this year’s team hopes to expand the Cab’s audience with giveaway tickets, lowered prices, and a mission to “help each show find its audience.”  What the Cab has going for it is “the passion behind the projects.” The students who present work there are doing it on their own time and for their own reasons. “There’s a roughness to the Cab,” as Bruin says, “the space is not pristine,” and that informality gets students “excited to create what they want to create.” As facilitators in this process, Morris says, the Cab team will be holding “office hours”—as sounding boards and a first response team to whatever their colleagues come up with.

When I asked the team if their first impressions of the Cab made it seem “the theater of their dreams” Martinez told how, on his visit as a prospective YSDer, someone got him into YSD night (the performance reserved for students and faculty at the school). The show, Lindbergh’s Flight, and the camaraderie of the audience got him excited about YSD—and his dad, visiting with him, also had a great time. The Cab, in its offbeat offerings, can have that kind of effect, making you wonder why you bother seeing more traditional theater.

For Middleton, who ran the Cab's box office in season 46, the space is “the place of my dreams: theater as a community with everyone welcome and everyone wearing different hats and collaborating.” Everyone who praises the Cab eventually comes back to the fact that it’s a team effort and that the audience is very much part of what makes it work. Compared to many a theater venue, the Cab has a rather young clientele and the team wants to find ways to make the Cab an early theater experience for younger audiences.

The tags for this year’s Cab marry images and ideas to describe the Cab (never easy): a cave, a cauldron, a drum, and a kaleidoscope. We might parse that collection of objects in various ways, but, for the team, each image-idea makes for an association: the Cab is a cave where community gathers, a kaleidoscope in its diversity, a cauldron where the art of cooking up something unusual takes place, and a drum that sends a message and calls us together. So let’s beat the drum. As Martinez says, the first three shows of the season give a good sense of the breadth of the Cabaret, showing “the full range of what can happen” there:

First, a welcome back show with a cast of 10 and a theme that seems appropriate. Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime has been adapted by Bruin and third-year playwright Jiréh Breon Holder as We Are All Here, which means, Bruin says, “we’ve taken a lot of liberties” with the play, but that’s in-keeping with Mee’s desires. The playwright wants his plays to be adaptable and tweakable for a variety of circumstances—professional and amateur and everything else. The play, Bruin says, “embodies the ideals of the Cab: turn it into what you want,” and involves music, dance, “surprise guests” and a plot that takes romantic comedy somewhere else. Two lovers visit a beloved spot only to find others there. Can we all get along? September 17-19

Next, a darker, text-based play, highlighting the virtues of an intimate playing space when viewing a play more confrontational than comedic. Second-year director Jesse Rasmussen’s proposal for Scots author David Harrower’s Knives in Hens stresses the play as “a democratic experience”—with its theme of a woman “learning how to speak in a man’s world”—and Morris stresses the “pleasure in the play’s suspense.” A three-actor love triangle—a ploughman, a miller, a woman—in a rural world becoming industrialized, the show is, the team says, “a contemporary, poetic fable.” September 24-26

Up third is a new, devised piece that will showcase the advantages of the collaborative and more creatively scripted production: “I’m With You in Rockland”—a line from Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem “Howl”—brings together three participants from each of the three artistic schools at Yale: Drama, Music, Art. Created by Kevin Hourigan and his company of collaborators, the play offers not a bio of Ginsberg but takes his life and work as an inspiration and provocation. The play’s title borrows a repeated phrase in the poem, addressed to Carl Solomon whom Ginsberg met when they were both relegated to “Rockland”—a facility for psychiatric evaluation. Part play, part concert, part installation, the show is “an interdisciplinary inquiry that asks ‘what is the value of the artist today?’” October 8-10

Sometimes, as Morris says, the Cab has been “too cool” in its detachment from reactions to its offerings. The current team asks its colleagues and creators and audience to “not be afraid of being overly passionate” and to not let irony undermine the always positive “value of heart.” The Cab team means to put their hearts and souls into this year’s season. Won’t you join them?

Visit the website to see info about shows, menu, to buy tickets and to make donations. There are a range of sponsorship possibilities that allow the audience to put their money where their mouth is. As Joyce said of Finnegans Wake: “its consumers are they not also its producers?”


Yale Cabaret
48th Season
217 Park Street

All the Way from Memphis

Review of Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse

Memphis, the Tony-winning musical by Joe DiPietro, Book and Lyrics, and David Bryan, Music and Lyrics, closes its run at Ivoryton Playhouse tonight. The show, a spirited crowd-pleaser, finds at Ivoryton an intimate showcase for its story of interracial relations surrounding the rise of black R&B—known, in the white music business of the 1950s, as “race music”—into a cultural force that eventually gave birth to rock’n’roll. Key to R&B making it across the racial divide were disc jockeys like real-life Dewey Phillips who first played black music for white audiences in Memphis. Inspired by Phillips, Memphis dramatizes the struggle to desegregate the radio as a key element in the effort to desegregate our country. In that sense, it’s a show with a vivid historical sense of how popular music could be a force for change.

One of the best things about DiPietro’s book is that it finds in the story of Huey (the character based on Phillips) drama enough to sustain the show, though at first that might seem a shaky proposition. There’s enough interest and tension, for one act, in watching Huey (Carson Higgins) defy his bosses—first at a record store and then at a radio station—while riding high on giving the people what they want. And, at the same time, courting and hoping to promote Felicia (Renée Jackson), a stunning singer he hears—and falls for—at the club owned by her brother, Delray (Teren Carter), where whites are decidedly not welcome. Songs like “Underground,” “Scratch My Itch,” and “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” celebrate the life force of the music Huey also loves—as he attests in “The Music of My Soul.”

Renee Jackson as Felicia

Renee Jackson as Felicia

Meanwhile the “rights” to the music—as a racial and not simply a cultural heritage—gets disputed hand-in-glove with the question of whether or not love can cross racial boundaries, with Felicia’s soulful “Colored Woman” and Delray’s electric “She’s My Sister” insisting—in the face of Huey’s often naïve indifference—that race is always a factor in the lives of African Americans. These themes come to a dramatic crest at the end of Act One when, after an act of violence shocks Huey into reality, Gator, a formerly mute bartender, steps up to sing “Say a Prayer,” a song with a strong sense of how gospel music was the basis for the heart found in R&B. But where can the show go from there?

Much depends on Huey expanding beyond the "hock-a-dooing" huckster of the first act. Carson Higgins inhabits the role with the kind of natural sure-footedness that makes even Huey’s less likeable aspects fully engaging. So, as he rides to success in Memphis, Huey must also deal with Felicia’s ambitions, which stretch beyond the Jim Crow South, her eyes on New York. Huey, in other words, has to face the fact that his love—whom he would like to marry—may be a bigger sensation than he is. While this takes us into A Star is Born territory, it does make Act Two an emotional struggle for Huey, and Higgins, with director Todd L. Underwood, is able to find the heart of this shifting, self-satisfied showman. His big song in Act Two, “Memphis Lives in Me” feels heartfelt and earned because we see what the town has done for him and to him and how much it has meant to him and cost him.

Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Melodie Wolford (Gladys) and Carson Higgins (Huey)

Along the way, there are many powerfully charged moments, in part because the show is so well-cast, with fully developed turns from Teren Carter as Delray, Melodie Wolford as Gladys, Huey’s mother, Beau Allen as Huey’s canny boss, and David Robbins as Bobby, a worker at the radio station and regular at Delray’s club who gets his moment of fame singing “Big Love” on Huey’s local TV show. These supporting parts lend the show much of its cred, and, in its key role, Renée Jackson gives Felicia a palpable hunger and sadness that help to sustain the meaning of the “blues” in R&B. Otherwise, we might think “race music” is all about having a good time. What even Huey can’t register is the degree of suffering the music acts as counter to, for its singers and makers and dancers. Jackson lets us feel what the structure of the show only suggests.

For, in the end, this is still Huey’s story. He, like many a hero, goes too far and grabs for a do-or-die moment that cooler heads would steer him from, and ends up with far less than he hoped. DiPietro does well to pull back from the happy-go-lucky happy-ever-after, that Huey would wish for himself, to take a sadder but wiser look at the time’s realities. Music may inspire us and bring us together, but—when it comes to recording and commercial radio—it’s a business first and foremost.

Underwood also choreographs the show and compresses the musical’s incredible energy onto the Ivoryton’s modest stage with great finesse. The dances seem to spring from the songs themselves without any labored sense of “dance routine,” and the big ensemble songs keep the energy level high throughout, with musical director Michael Morris conducting his orchestra from the piano, all situated as cool, shadowy figures behind a tasteful scrim. With no bad seat in the house, a show like Memphis—which can be seen in bigger houses on Broadway—demonstrates the full value of touring shows. The audience has full access to the power of the show, as every seat is “orchestra.”

Racial tensions, as DiPietro knows, were becoming more strident at that time in the South because it was becoming possible to challenge them. A key moment in that story comes when Huey’s mother (the excellent Melodie Wolford) has to overcome her deep-seated fear about her son’s interracial love, a fear mirrored in the resentment Delray (the excellent Teren Carter), feels for Huey. Such detentes are part of the complex story of how age-old systems can find challenge and courage in something new—at a time when, as Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby, and they called that baby rock’n’roll.”


Books and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W. George
Orchestrations by Daryl Waters and David Bryan
Directed and Choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Costume/Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Stage Manager: Phill Madore

Orchestra: Michael Morris, conductor, piano; Andrew Studenski, alto sax, flute; Alan Wasserman: tenor sax, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Seth Bailey, trumpet; Matthew Russo, trombone; Luke McGinnis, keyboards; Dan Hartington, guitar; David Uhl, bass; Adam Holtzberg, drums; Elliot Wallace, drums

Cast: Beau Allen, Erik Bloomquist, Teren Carter, Roderick Cotton, Tiffani Davis, Taavon Gamble, Matthew Gregory, Carson Higgins, Renée Jackson, Amanda Leigh Lupacchino, Melissa McLean, Kevin Moeti, David Robbins, Jenna Rapisarda, Mya Rose, Tim Russell, Jamal Shuriah, Michael Sullivan, Garrett Turner, Chawnta’ Marie Van, Melodie Wolford

Ivoryton Playhouse
August 5-August 30, 2015




To Each According to Their Needs

Review of Love & Money at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

A. R. Gurney’s new play Love & Money, now playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York after previews at Westport Playhouse, seems the kind of light comedy of manners that Gurney, now in his eighties, can probably write in his sleep. The usual Gurney elements are present: upper-class WASPs, Cole Porter songs, Buffalo, Irish housekeepers, a breezy grasp of the current idiom—with “whatever” and “google” wielded by an elderly woman—and, here, a moral center that seems earnest though not earned.

At best we might say the play, directed by Westport Artistic Director Mark Lamos, tries to imagine, without taxing its audience too much, how to redistribute all that wealth stored by storied families on the upper East side. It also pays homage to other literary inspirations, dropping references to Hamlet, “Richard Corey,” The Dining Room (perhaps Gurney’s best-known play), and a tip of the hat to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which it recalls via a very affable African-American character who may be a con-man.

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

We enter upon Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous set representing the sumptuous in-home office of Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), "a woman of a certain age." It might take us a moment to realize that everything in the room—the leather-bound books, the art, the Empire desk and chairs and tables—bears a tag as for a White Elephant sale. Mrs. Cunningham, at long last, in the wake of the death of her stern, money-making, Big Game-hunting husband, is selling off everything to benefit charities and any project that aids underprivileged people or endangered species. As played by Anderman, Cornelia is a perky presence, firing ripostes at her skeptical new lawyer, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) who tries to intervene with judicious caution. He’s playing a weak hand because Cunningham’s progeny—a son and a daughter—have both been outlived by their indomitable mom, and her unloved grand-kids have been bought off comfortably enough, so who is there to resist the liquidation?

Enter our plot complication: a letter from a man named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) who presents himself as the unknown, illegitimate offspring of Cornelia’s daughter. Raised in Buffalo by his black father and mother, he carries as introduction a letter ostensibly written by his biological, well-to-do mother exhorting him to seek his fortune from his grandmother when “he’s ready.” What he wants is to be set up on Wall Street with the family funds. Harvey, of course, doesn’t buy any of it (he blames Williams’ scheme on a recent newspaper story about Cornelia’s intentions), but Cornelia, after the charming young man makes his way into her study, is willing to entertain the possibility of kin if only for a certain emotional frisson lacking in her life. That, one supposes, is where “love” comes into it. Cornelia has no reason to love Walker—who goes by “Scott” as in Fitzgerald and speaks accordingly—but he is certainly willing to be loved. And stranger things have happened.

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Walker’s ingratiating willingness to be appreciated comes up in a more unflattering light when he comes on to Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), a self-possessed Julliard student on hand to audition a player-piano Cornelia is donating to the school. That piano becomes the key prop in the play, helping to pan out its running time, inspiring graceful dance moves as “Scott” tries to sweep Cornelia off her feet, as well as conjuring a brisk rendition of Porter’s “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” by Kim, and a funny blast of Porter scorn from Harvey. But, despite class and racial differences, despite shadowy pasts and allusions to painful back story, not much gets sorted out here. Cornelia and her faithful maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap) give us and Williams the condensed tale of the Cunningham children—a drunken son, a gad-about daughter—whose respective demises their mother blames on the riches that kept them above the fray.

Gurney lets everyone keep it light, and the patter—Cornelia calls it “badinage”—aims to entertain. Lamos, if there might be awkwardness or awareness to bring to light, doesn’t delve. We end with the sense that everything unpleasant in life can be handled by a check in the right amount in the right hands (such as at a certain local drama school). Certainly no one in the play doubts this, though Cornelia, with easy conscience, inveighs against money as “a curse” that caused suffering in her family. No doubt it did, and her expiation via eradication feels justified; it’s just that her solution seems to play into a fairy-tale sense of how things might be if only the privileged would divest their privileges, smugly loving all those needy people out there. The rich need the needy, you see, in order to feel richly rewarded by gratitude.

Breezy, friendly, and short, Love & Money feels like a TV installment and makes us wonder what would be happening if we "tuned in next week."

Signature Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse present
Love & Money
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Maureen Anderman, Gabriel Brown, Pamela Dunlap, Kahyun Kim, Joe Paulik

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Associate Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker

The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York




The Singing Detective . . . and Suspects

Review of Murder for Two at Long Wharf Theatre

The key insight underlying Murder for Two, now playing at Long Wharf Main Stage in a touring production, is that the characters in your typical whodunit are generally a cast of caricatures, only present to fill out the list of suspects. In this high energy musical production, imbued with the spirit of rapid-fire vaudevillian schtick, one actor (Kyle Branzel) plays all the suspects and the other (Ian Lowe) plays Marcus, a cop intent on crime scene protocol as a means to move up the ladder to detective. The murder of famous novelist Arthur Whitney, at a surprise birthday party in his home, is the occasion for Marcus to make the most of his nascent detective chops.

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

The suspects include Dahlia, Whitney’s wife, and Dr. Griff, the local psychiatrist, who, it turns out, was not only Whitney’s confidante but also saw, professionally, pretty much everyone at the party, not to mention Marcus himself, still haunted by an on-the-job romance that went awry. There’s also a ballet star who Whitney was sweet on, a bickering couple—the husband believes his wife is the culprit in every killing—Whitney’s niece Steph (a would-be criminology student), three members of a boy’s choir, and, rewardingly silly, an Irish fireman with his hose. The key plot point is that all the guests appeared as characters in Whitney’s books: the motive of any one of them might be the shame or anger his portrayal inspired. And what about All Them Bananas, the book Whitney was preparing for publication at the time of his death?

Some of the parts—signaled by Branzel mostly by body language and voice—come off better than others and the ones that don’t—the couple, for instance—bring down the fun a notch. Scott Schwartz’s direction aims for speed over clarity and the scripting of what each suspect adds to the mystery could be better worked-out, since not all are funny enough to justify their presence for the sake of comedy. Best in that light is Mrs. Whitney, a southern belle with wild mood swings, the imperious ballet dancer, Ms. Lewis—Branzel’s high split each time he turns into her is a nice grace note—and the endearing and inquisitive Steph, dotingly eager to become Marcus’s new partner. Meanwhile, the shrink demands to sing a song about friendship and Mrs. Whitney wants to regale us with her big number from back when she walked the boards. Which is where the music comes in.

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

A piano is the main prop here, as Branzel and Lowe keep up spirited musical patter to match the scripted shenanigans. Sometimes one accompanies the other’s vocal, sometimes they engage in comic oneupmanship at the keys. The songs tend to be music hall versions of Broadway numbers, which means they give us character notes—not always as clever as we might like—so we know something about the different suspects. Marcus’s ditty about crime scenes takes its tone from Gilbert and Sullivan, while Steph’s big number, “He Needs a Partner,” throbs with an ingenue’s musical pining. Both Branzel and Lowe are readily likeable and make the most of the best the show—written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair—has to offer. It helps greatly that Branzel is so good at playing ditzy females. He grabs the role as if he were born to play it, making the most of his long legs, lanky frame, and ability to contort Jerry Lewis-style and play dumbshow à la Harpo.

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

If you’re not the type to seek out Lewis and Martin or the Marx Brothers in re-runs on cable or in your Netflix cue, there’s still something to be said for watching physical and musical comedy performed live and, as it were, in your face. Murder for Two proffers a kind of mash-up that should have great audience appeal—and seems to, given the show's tours and awards—of the murder mystery and the musical, as well as the small cast/many characters turn of crowd-pleasers like The Mystery of Irma Vep and The 39 Steps.

The illusion of setting is pretty much dispensed with in Murder, given the piano, the proscenium with doors for other spaces, and the actors’ attention to the audience—to demand applause, scold for ringing phones, and entreat a volunteer to play a corpse. There’s a zany “anything for a laugh” quality to the show—including visual references to the board game Clue and the cartoon Scooby-Doo—that adds surprises to help distract from the show’s static elements. In the end, it’s all about performance, and with the irrepressibly manic Kyle Branzel as the suspects and Ian Lowe, an able abettor as straight man and ambitious if questionable sleuth, Murder for Two keeps the ball rolling, though sometimes giving us the feeling that we’ve been treated to a few too many parlor tricks.


Second Stage Theatre presents
Murder for Two, a New Musical Comedy
Book and Music by Joe Kinosian
Book and Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Starring Kyle Branzel and Ian Lowe

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Andrea Lauer; Lighting Design: Jason Lyons; Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff; Music Director: David Caldwell; Choreographer: Wendy Seyb; Casting: Calleri Casting; Production Stage Manager: Katrina Olson; Production Supervisor: Production Core; Associate Producer: Tom Casserly

Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage
August 19-30, 2015

Celebrity, Devised and Deconstructed

Last weekend, the Yale Summer Cabaret ended its 2015 season with a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando. Earlier this summer, in the season’s second slot, the Summer Cab offered a devised piece called love holds a lamp in this little room. At the time, the NHR site was going through an update and no review appeared. Here, for the record, is the review that didn’t get posted. The play’s director, Leora Morris, has begun her term as one of the co-artistic directors, with David Bruin and Julian Elijah Martinez, of the coming season’s Yale Cabaret. More about that later.—DB

Though it might wear inspiration from Branden Jacob-Jenkin’s entertaining and challenging play An Octoroon a bit too much on its sleeve, love holds a lamp in this little room, at Yale Summer Cabaret, directed by Leora Morris and conceived by the ensemble, is a richly associative work that makes much of its well-wrought visual sense and the inventive interplay of its cast.

The five actors—Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson—were set the task of devising vignettes to express or represent or comment on or allude to the varied self-conceptions, works, roles and autobiographical gestures—including a suicide note—of Adah Isaacs Menken, a curious celebrity of nineteenth-century American theater who was notorious for a role in which, playing a man, she allegedly rode nude upon a horse. She actually wore a body stocking, but that’s the kind of distortion and legend-managing that love holds a lamp comments on and, it may be, sustains.

Menken, who professed Judaism at some points and was most likely raised Catholic, also claimed kin with Creoles and, at times, voiced Confederate sympathies. We may assume that, as a person, she had her reasons, but the play isn’t out to explain her or to give her definitive tags. All five cast members “play” Menken, rendering her as a collective fantasy—ours, hers, and theirs.

Leland Fowler, Melanie Field, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann

Leland Fowler, Melanie Field, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The show opens with a group striptease, full of knowing smirks and suggestive play, with voice-overs that quote from Menken’s obituaries and notices. Revealing the unisex corsets and leotards worn by all, the playfulness of the opening extends to almost all aspects of the show. Especially served up for hilarity are operatic enactments of the kind of lurid dramas Menken starred in—particularly fun is Stahlmann as Menken as Lucretia Borgia.

But whereas An Octoroon used Boucicault’s play, The Octoroon, as the reference point for its re-imagining of racist motifs and sensationalist theater, love holds a lamp lacks a key structuring reference point. In an aggressively cut-and-paste manner, Morris and company let Menken surface through the words of her writings, of what is written about her, of roles she played. Just when we think we’re going to get a direct account we might get something else—an interlude of expressive coupling, a frenetic bit of vaudeville or clowning, a graveside monologue by a cowboy acquaintance (Ross-Ewart) speaking to a silent figure with a pantomime horse head.

Such descriptions make the play sound more bewildering than it is. Onstage, the routines are effective as a kind of fluidly gestural theater. Everything we see is happening in a pre-digested past that refuses to remain fixed, and the drama is in watching the cast tease out the various strands of Menken’s life. This they do with incredibly deft timing.

Much of the play’s success has to do with how it looks, presenting a pastiche of inventive costumes (Fabian Aguilar) on an oldtime playing space (Christopher Thompson) where the flicker of time itself seems present, thanks to a lighting palette from Joey Moro and projections from Rasean Davonte Johnson that effectively recreate the garish glare and expressionist shadows of gaslight footlights, as well as the shadowy dimness common to the era before electric lights. Here we’re treated to changeable acting styles, grandiloquent nineteenth-century phrasing, contemporary musical interludes, and even a clip from George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights with a staging of the horse ride of Mazeppa, featuring Sophia Loren in a blonde wig and a youngish Anthony Quinn scoring heavily in reaction shots.

Along the way, we get glimpses of “the Menken” as the kind of provocation she must have been to her contemporaries. Fowler walking about in white leggings and high-heeled boots, hanging up wardrobe, has a kind of grand resignation; Wilson, in man’s cutaway and top hat, gets shit-faced looking like a boorish carpetbagger, then later accompanies a sing-along on tambourine; Stahlmann, in a wedding dress, chews flowers and belts from a bottle concealed beneath her skirts, then sheds the array for a man’s coat-and-tails, vamping for Mr. Menken (Ross-Ewart), complete with prayer shawl, while the Menken’s views on marriage are heard in voice-over; “Answer Me,” a meditative poem by Menken, gets a lyrical rendering as a song sung by Ross-Ewart and Fowler; again and again the horsehead looms onto the stage, a recurrent reminder of the role Menken couldn’t live down.

The mix of motifs throughout the play—and the hovering question of race relations for a woman of mixed race who could pass as white—receives its most direct presentation in Melanie Field’s blackface enactment of Menken’s ambivalence about her racial identity. Field’s vignette includes partial nudity—part of the tease of Menken’s onstage persona—followed by dressing up in the trappings of stage stereotypes. Her self-aware miming manages to signal the extent to which, paradoxically, role-playing is necessitated by the very notion of stable identity. To Field also falls the delivery of a final speech written by Menken. Sounding like a somewhat skeptical Prospero trying to sum up her vexed relation to the theatricality of spectacle that made her name, Field makes us consider the pathos of the celebrity who becomes an appendage to her own reputation.

We might say that, at last, the show is a meditation on celebrity—the person behind a well-known aura can change, but how that person’s particulars are made to “mean” something audiences can bank on remains constant in the odd process of identification. Many people found “something” they wanted access to in Adah Isaacs Menken, during her life, and love holds a lamp in this little room is at its best in questioning what that might have been, all the while deconstructing its own processes of enactment and identification.

Love holds a lamp in this little room is one of the best devised pieces I’ve seen at the Cabaret and a fine follow-up to Midsummer, the summer season’s pastiche of Shakespearean romance that preceded it.


love holds a lamp in this little room
Based on the life and writings of Adah Isaacs Menken
Created and performed by the Company
Conceived and directed by Leora Morris

Scenic Design: Christopher Thompson; Costume Design: Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Joey Moro; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda

Ensemble: Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 9-July 18, 2015

On the Doorstep

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Admirers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves who pick up his enormous new volume will be surprised at how inviting it is—how linear in thrust, how accessible. Since the novel is intended as the first of twenty-seven volumes (the details can be found here), with Volume 2: “Into the Forest” scheduled for October publication, it seems natural to assume that The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” will prove a work of truly forbidding complexity.

Danielewski’s first novel, the immensely successful House of Leaves, consistently challenges its less than-than-committed readers:  Johnny Truant’s footnotes (the middle set of three) interrupt exciting passages, go on too long, and manage to punish (although in different ways) both those readers who have grown to care about Truant and those who could not manage to read the notes in their entirety. The immediate observation about “One Rainy Day in May”—and most observations, this early in Danielewski’s project, must needs be provisional—is that the new novel presents far fewer obstacles to a first reading than does House of Leaves. Not because the narratives of each of the nine major protagonists are color-coded on their pages’ upper-outside corners, nor that the first and last pages of each chapter are time- and place-stamped (these are merely convenient), but because each narrative sets into motion a story that is linear as a vector. When there are interruptions by third parties—and there are many—they come as brief comments amid the flow of action, as though spoken by a chorus whose identity will at some point become clearer, rather than, as in House of Leaves, long footnotes or orthogonal interpolations that compel the reader to uncouple from one sustained discourse and follow another.

This ease of entry is important, for Danielewski’s “story”—nine discrete narratives, plus other material not so easily categorized—is taking the form of something extremely complicated. All nine stories take place on the same mid-May day in 2014, all of them told in the third person, and limited to the perspective of a single individual. Each narrative—of a twelve-year-old girl, a young LA gang leader, an Armenian-born taxi driver, to name a few—is presented in its own layout and font to aid identification.

Although the schema does not privilege any one character over the others, the “center” of the novel is clearly the girl Xanther, whose parents’ stories constitute two of the other narratives, and whose five chapters give her more space than any other character. In an unlabeled section (its pages unnumbered) that stands at the novel’s center, an entity that has been commenting upon the text suddenly identifies itself and offers some information about what we are reading. The only character to get more than a passing mention is Xanther:

And Xanther is extraordinary. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Adorable too. Loves magic tricks, scary movies, scary video games, painting her fingernails, experimenting with C++, watching Speculative Fiction, or what her friend Che calls “Speculative Science.” We’ll meet him later. Unlike many of my subsets, Xanther remains captivated by the scurry of life around her, whether in the rustle of branches or how fog slips down a steep hill. Both starlight and LED light enchant her. She could chase fireflies for hours but would never cap the jar.

Fearless, inquisitive, loving, Xanther possesses every quality to catch the sympathy of a reader. Indeed, the just-adolescent girl—resourceful yet vulnerable, neither a child nor quite a woman and, Roger Zelazny once wrote, “at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic”—seems especially attractive to male writers. From Dickens’s Little Nell and Henry James’s Maisie to the young protagonists of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and recent novels by Geoff Ryman, Jonathan Lethem, and David Mitchell, the intellectually precocious but not yet sexually mature girl seems emotionally engaging and (perhaps crucially) comprehensible to men. The appearance of this familiar figure—as straightforward an incarnation as that in the new Pixar film Inside Out—is perhaps the most conventional element in Danielewski’s new novel.

As tangled as its structure is, one can descry the shape of House of Leaves: it comprises the professionally annotated edition of a manuscript discovered and “edited” by a troubled young man, a manuscript that purports to discuss a documentary film. While easier to read, the first volume of The Familiar offers us few hints as to the final work’s overall design. Four (by my count) sections precede the title page announcing Volume 1, and might be taken as prologues to the entire work. Their nature is unclear, although one appears to originate in the far future and another in the prehistoric past, suggesting enormous vistas whose relationship to each other will presumably become clear in succeeding volumes. The unnumbered central section offers a bit more clarification; an iteration (typographically distinct, as all such have been) that has been making unannounced appearances throughout the novel, abruptly introduces itself: “I’m a Narrative Construct. Narcon for short.” This Narcon—there are two others—is chatty and seems to explain much, though what it confides finally tantalizes more than it illuminates, and moreover seems subject to censorship from yet another entity, not otherwise known. When the Narcon declares that “There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all,” we perhaps get closer to Danielewski’s intent: to tell the story of everything. House of Leaves curls inward on itself, but The Familiar moves forward like a wavefront, its every section (however initially bewildering) comprising narrative, as in “story,” as in What Happens.

Before the novel and the day is out, all nine of the distinct characters encounter something extraordinary. Some have led hitherto mundane lives, while others have long dealt with wonder, which they now find kicked up to a higher level. 

There was real terror here. Beyond whatever obvious extensions Cas could easily foresee, whether at the hand of local police, federal agents, or even some abstract laws twisted enough to decry them as traitors, terrorists, seditious to the point of world toppling. Forget jail cells or street-corner executions. This was something else. To have put so much out there and watch it be swallowed without a trace.

Cas is owner and co-inventor of the Orb, a viewing device capable of bridging time and space that has driven its creators into hiding from a powerful and malevolent secret organization; her musings are presented in a prose that is vivid but concise and straightforward. But the left-hand margin of the paragraphs on this (right-hand) page all bulge inward, as do the right margins of the opposite page. To look at the open book is to see here an empty circle within the lines of print: a vacancy (or Orb) like the limb of the eclipsing Moon moving across the disk of the Sun. This typographical Orb first appears on the chapter’s first page; by chapter’s end it occupies dead center of the page.

This combination of normalized prose and pictoral typography is reversed in other sections, such as the one set in Singapore, about the young man JingJing and Tian Li, the older woman everyone calls “auntie”:

jingjing love the parks too. he and auntie same like that. botanical gardens abruthen, but also just sit in toa payoh, pearl’s hill, or emerald park. or cross over to sentosa to lay backs down in the sand, jingjing finding monster cards in the clouds, tian li swinging her arms around like repelling monkey. green both their thing. even if  , xanh lục, [ ], 綠色, зеленый,  , are still not enough to know what that means. Words so tua kang. Words need worlds in order to be words. Worlds though don’t need words in order to be words.

The brackets here designate a word printed in an alphabet that I cannot reproduce (I was lucky to manage the Cantonese). The Russian word, “zelenie,” means green, as does “xanh lục” (Vietnamese), as well as and 綠色 (a subtle distinction, a helpful website tells me), and presumably the other as well. There is a lot of this in the JingJing chapters, and often the reader can work the meaning out through context. If you can’t, and you find this annoying, you are certainly not alone.

And what “happens” in this 839-page tome?  The nine characters are all confronted with problems, some urgent, but the closest thing to a climax takes place when Xanther rescues a kitten and brings it home. Cats, and sounds perhaps made by a cat, have figured throughout the novel, though only fleetingly. Clearly there was something about the kitten (and Xanther’s role in saving it from drowning) that partakes of the supernatural; almost certainly it is the “familiar,” as in witch’s familiar, of the title. Every use of the word in the text is printed in a distinct color (as was “house” in House of Leaves), but these have all been as adjectives, not the noun. The familiar has appeared, perhaps repeatedly, but only by implication.

In Danielewski’s 2005 novella, The Fifty Year Sword, the words “Then what happened?” occupy the entirety of one page. It is the question that Danielewski wants us to ask at every moment, although “What just happened?” may sometimes occur to us as easily. The second volume will certainly tell us more, although “What just happened?” will likely remain a frequent refrain for some time to come. Popular press reviews are already describing “One Rainy Day in May” as a “doorstop,” but a better term might be doorstep—the threshold of a vast edifice whose dimensions we, standing on the verge, can only begin to discern.


The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May”
By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2015; 839 pages


Play or Poem?

Review of Orlando at Yale Summer Cabaret

Orlando, the final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret season, directed by artistic director Sara Holdren, presents the kind of frenetic, improvisatory work that has been a hallmark of the season. But this time, the only devised aspect is the staging. The script is by Sarah Ruhl, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, untampered with by the Rough Magic Company. Having seen the company have its way with Shakespeare and Marlowe, we might wonder if other takes on Woolf’s text might present themselves, which is a way of asking, I suppose: how successful is Orlando as a play? Prose stylists like Woolf might be said to be best in their own element: on the page.

Joey Moro’s set takes note of that thought by offering us a long scroll upon which the players cavort as though, literally or literarily, on the page. And that’s as it should be since, as the play goes on, we find ourselves wondering what is “real” and what is merely the fantasy of a would-be poet—Orlando (Elizabeth Stahlmann)—an Elizabethan nobleman seated in the garden of his great estate and dreaming the world and the life to come. A life in which, at age 30 (and the dawn of the 19th century), he becomes a woman.

Much of the brio of Woolf’s novel is in the rendering of a fantasy of the English past from the present (the 1920s), viewing the past with the prescience of the future. The conceit makes for an interesting hybrid interplay—between the past we invent and the past as it was—that Ruhl’s play maintains effectively. The difficulty comes from the fact that Woolf never set herself to write “characters” per se (all are “charactered in the brain” of Orlando); Ruhl gets around this by creating a chorus who can alter as necessary, through the scenes and through the ages.

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

That makes for much of the fun here as the staging and costume work is comical, inventive, breathless. My favorite moment features Orlando in a kind of Elizabethan fetish costume (the ruff, the rosettes, the pantaloons) twirling about on a hanging hoop (viewers of Holdren’s fascinating thesis show will recall her work with gymnast-actors) with Sasha (Chalia La Tour, one of the most chameleonic actors currently at the Drama School) in a graceful white cape and white fur cap. Sasha is the best secondary character in the play, if only because La Tour makes her as real as Orlando is. She could easily take over the play, since Orlando sees that she’s way more fascinating than he.

The other characters that interact with Orlando seem more brainspun: Melanie Field has fun with a motorized Queen Elizabeth, a dowager who dotes on a fine leg in tights, and gives our hero a bawdy lesson in a courtier’s duties. Niall Powderly does all he can to make a cross-dressing Romanian count/countess as ridiculous as possible, including an outrageous accent that would do Tim Curry proud. Leland Fowler plays the Byronic Shelmerdine pretty much as written—which is to say that we begin to suspect that Woolf might be fantasizing life in an Emily Brontë novel or as Mary Shelley. Till then, the point has been made, it’s much more exciting—in Orlando’s view—to pursue a female than to be pursued as one. Unfortunately, Shelmerdine, though he receives the accolade of making Lady Orlando feel “a real woman,” might be any well-spoken, well-born hero of many a romance novel, though for Woolf, writing under the spell of Vita Sackville-West, the meeting of soul mates requires that both Orlando and Shelmerdine imagine they are in a same-sex relationship.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Ruhl and Woolf take delight in satirizing the ubiquity of marriage, a target that never seems to go out of date, though—in same sex, soulmate terms—it has taken on, in our time, more possibilities than it had for Woolf in the ‘20s. And that’s what helps make Orlando interesting as theater: even more than on the page, we feel the spin through the years (costumes by Fabian Aguilar and Haydee Zelideth are great aids in the fantasia), and we’re even more aware of how the all-important “present moment” infuses our viewing and our experience.

Ultimately, Ruhl’s Orlando “longs to be only one thing” while Holdren’s production, and the mutable Rough Magic company in general, suggests that playing only one character with one gender is a tired approach to theater. In Orlando, Holdren and company find an ideal text for the transformations they’ve played with all summer. And yet, Orlando strikes me as what used to be called “closet drama”—a play to be read and imagined. We become aware of how hard it is to playact Woolfian fictions. Nimble as the Rough Magic troupe is in bringing the play to life on stage, they can at best only approximate the unfettered flight of the poetical mind, as Ruhl’s Orlando only suggests Woolf’s.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Casting only one actor as Orlando brings home the fact that a story, no matter how variously conceived, must always be the story of someone. Stahlmann plays Orlando as if each moment is a new thought, full of fresh insight into what life can offer. She achieves the gusto of the Keatsean ideal of the poetical character (“it is not itself - it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character […] it lives in gusto”), but that makes for a passive hero always amazed at what is happening, much as we are in dreams.

Finally, though, to this production’s credit, Stahlmann makes us feel, more than fiction can, the cost of such flights from one’s time; her Orlando suffers before our eyes as only intensely imagined characters do. In the end, being one thing means being a thing that will end.

By Virginia Woolf / Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Design: Joey Moro; Costume Design: Haydee Zelideth & Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Joey Moro; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Photographs: Andrea H. Berman

Ensemble: Orlando: Elizabeth Stahlmann; Chorus: Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 6-15, 2015


A Dance to the Music of Time

For Sara Holdren, artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2015, and director of its final show of the summer, opening tonight, Orlando, above all, requires fluidity. Adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Virginia Woolf’s novel, the play should feel like “a stopper was pulled and rushing waters are flowing like a river.” In thinking of the play during the course of the summer, Holdren says, she began “to really feel like the play is a dance.” In talks with her design team, she has come back again and again to a notion of how spare and simple the set and costuming should be. “Even the actors’ bodies should be like abstract elements.”

This summer’s Cabaret has been strong in physical theater, with varied and inventive improvisations worked upon Shakespeare’s plays, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, while the second show of the season, love holds a lamp in this little room, was entirely devised by its cast and director Leora Morris. Orlando is the only play this season with a pre-existing script, and, while that might suggest something a bit more straight-forward, Holdren insists that “physical storytelling” is very much the goal. For inspiration, she gave the cast of seven—Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson—“The Storyteller,” an essay by Walter Benjamin that stresses how the oral storytelling tradition, being lost in the era of print, was a matter of gesture, combining hand, eye, soul.

That view suits Ruhl’s play, Holdren says, because the script is all from Woolf’s novel, cut-up and arranged. For Holdren, “all along, a key attraction of the play is the fact that it is narrated.” While for some that very fact sins against the “show don’t tell” mantra that drives much storytelling, the challenge of dramatizing the telling is intrinsic to Holdren’s view of the play. It helps that Ruhl’s play is very unfixed in how it assigns text to character. That leads, in Holdren’s phrase, “to the strange and fortuitous assignment of parts,” based on what the actors do in rehearsal with the voices of the chorus. Much is a matter of gesture indeed.

“Rather than work with a facsimile of a depicted world, Orlando works with the world of telling,” Holdren says, and that world is one that moves from Elizabethan times to post-World War I as narrated by a seemingly ageless protagonist who also alters gender from male to female. The presence of the narrating Orlando, played by Stahlmann, might make the play seem like a tall tale, a story of magical changes and wonders that correspond to the character’s self-conceptions. Orlando is, after all, a poet, and his/her literary efforts are signified by a set shaped like a blank page. What Orlando is writing is, in a sense, both the novel and the play, but, at the same time, the events she experiences are shaping what will be written.

For Holdren and her Rough Magic company this summer, much wonderful theater has come from a similar approach: finding the play through enactment, where the experience of working on the play produces the play. As Holdren points out, even Stanislavski, best known in the U.S. as the theorist behind “the method” school of acting, valued improvisation and allowed that the work of theater could precede text. “Truth on stage,” Holdren says, needn’t be “character-based” in the sense of revealing a consistent psychological portrait. The shows at the Cabaret this summer have been strong in fluid characters changing before our eyes, and with that comes, in Holdren’s view, the possibility of transformation as key to the theatrical experience.

The season has looked at how magic and wonder can be expressed in the telling, in enacting—as with the bewitched actors in Midsummer, or the five enactments of “the Menken” in love holds a lamp in this little room, or the shifting roles of the tripartite Mephisto in Dr. Faustus—the multiplicity of identity. At the same time, all the plays this summer, even if not tragic like Faustus, have kept in touch with a darker side, what Holdren, in speaking of Orlando, calls “death moments.”

At the run-through rehearsal I attended, I could see what she meant. In the character of Woolf herself—as the author behind the narrator—there is a certain element of depression, of finding history and the rigors of either gender not to her liking. She is able to align that element of her own nature with the melancholy that has been fashionable for poetic souls at least since Elizabethan times, and Ruhl’s play and Holdren’s production pick up on that. But, as with all the plays this summer, there is also much fun with the “amorphous multiverse” of theatrical conceptions.

And yet, for all the playfulness of their theatrical conceits, the plays of the Rough Magic season have revealed—in dueling fairies casting spells in strife and in actors shocked by what their playacting reveals of themselves, in the subterfuges by which a consummate performer may divert her audience and deceive herself, in the quest for a kind of immortality that ends in a humbling of vanity—that the spell theater casts is not without its dangers and its discomforts. Orlando celebrates the wit required to endure through the ages, but at the cost, perhaps, of being equal to a particular age. Or as Orlando’s (initial) contemporary might say, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

By Sarah Ruhl, adapted from the novel by Viriginia Woolf
Directed by Sara Holdren

Yale Summer Cabaret, August 6-15, 2015

Revels . . . and Revelations

Last weekend the Yale Summer Cabaret closed its first show, a most various Shakespearean pageant called Midsummer. Now, in the northern hemisphere, is the time of “midsummer,” and the Rough Magic Company will celebrate the season with Moonlight Revels. This Saturday, for one night only, the upstairs and downstairs of 217 Park Street will be transformed into a bower of bliss—or at least it will be the kind of party space where one may pursue one’s bliss. As a fundraiser/party Moonlight Revels asks that you pay what you will, at the door. What you’ll find inside is “music and merriment” in a “forest and fairy”-themed celebration of summer. Sprites galore, no doubt. And there will be “surprise performance pieces” that certainly sound intriguing—sort of Punch Drunk in an Arcadian setting. Beer and wine for sale, and solving a puzzle may win you a prize—and of course there will be door prizes as well.

It’s an excellent opportunity to party with the players and all those behind-the-scenes forces that make the magic—rough and otherwise—happen in that little room below. So whether you be fairy queen or rude mechanical, get in the spirit of the season—dance, drink, and beguile the time most festively.

Moonlight Revels Fundraiser – Party – Spectaculars
Saturday, June 27
8 p.m.-2 a.m. (dance party starts at 11 p.m.)
Open to the public; donation at the door requested
18 and over

Yale Summer Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven

The next play at the Summer Cab, love holds a lamp in this little room, is a show even more devised than Midsummer was. The play itself is a-making as the rehearsals continue.

“Amorphous” is a good word to describe Adah Isaacs Menken, the subject of the play, a heroine who, in her short life of thirty-three years, became a theatrical celebrity, notorious for riding a horse on stage “nude.” Adah, who was friends with literary celebrities like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, saw herself as a poet (the show’s title is a line in one of her poems), and yet was aware that some of her poetry might be too personal for publication. The practice of advance ticket sales was instituted due to the demand for her appearances. She was one of a kind and entirely sui generis.

Guest director Leora Morris is the main force behind the Summer Cab’s second show of the season. She was led to curiosity about Adah from a book called Women with Biceps, an exploration of how, throughout history, some women have re-drawn the borders between masculine and feminine appearance. Morris was struck by how “subversive” the idea of women with muscles could be, particularly in the time of Adah’s life, 1835-68.

Adah tended to reinvent herself as the situation required, and that fluidity—between genders, races, religions, ethnic background, as well as husbands and means of artistic expression—makes Adah a fascinating figure for Morris. Of Creole background, apparently, Adah was racially mixed and passed as white, so much so that she was willing to wear black-face in performance at times. She married a Jewish man (her second husband, though that wasn’t known at the time) and would sometimes speak as though she were raised Jewish—Judaism certainly interested her enough to study Kabbalah (traditionally, women can't)—while at other times referring to her actual antecedents in Christianity.

Morris is more concerned with how Adah dramatized and even fictionalized herself rather than with the literal particulars of her life. And that may be how Adah would prefer it. When writing autobiographically, including a farewell note for a suicide that didn’t succeed, Adah could be deliberately contradictory about her origins and her allegiances. For instance, while moved to distress by seeing lynched black men from a passing train, she could also go so far as to demand a Confederate flag be hung in her dressing room in Baltimore. Today, commentators would most likely see Adah as “conflicted” about her race, and would try to find the psychological and sociological factors that might contribute to her chameleonic personae. But Morris wants her collaborators to inhabit the theatrical possibilities of Adah’s contradictions and her willful sport with how people define themselves and others. The kind of uncertainties that might make a biographer despair are the very features that make Adah a great heroine for devised theater.

As Walt Whitman, another pal of Adah’s might say, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.” The theme of a poem like “Song of Myself,” however, is that the poetic soul—and we all have one—“contains multitudes” and can’t be bounded by other people’s assumptions. “America,” Whitman saw, is just a unifying concept floating above vast mutability and diversity. Now, when recent outcries against the Confederate flag are unscoring the question of how unified “America” ever was, Morris and company’s play may be alerting us, in one unique woman’s journey, to the kinds of contradictions we’ve never solved, as a nation. It may also suggest how creative—and outrageous—“contradiction” can be. Think of Rachel Dolezal and the effort to weigh in on what she is and isn’t.

Seeing Adah as “the first real celebrity,” which she defines as someone known to many, many people who feel connected to the private life of a public person, Morris felt herself drawn to Adah for personal reasons: Morris, a native of Toronto, was drawn to dance as a youngster, and studied acting after receiving a BS in biology, with a second major in theater, from McGill. And if that’s not eclectic enough, Morris has ancestors who worked in vaudeville, and the kind of shows Adah appeared in draw from that background. Adah, from all accounts, was a consummate showperson, but was often frustrated—as actresses still are today—with the kinds of roles for which she was cast. Once she achieved fame for her role (with the horse) in Mazeppa, her fans asked little more of her than recreations of that show. So Adah can become a figure not only for the problematics of “identify” and “identifying as” in the varied history of our nation, but also for the tensions between what the public accepts or “demands” and what the artist wants to achieve.

Morris hopes her cast will be “free from the responsibility to depict the facts” of Adah’s notoriously ambiguous life, and “give impressions” rather than actual events. Part of the challenge—for cast and audience alike—is to conceive the constrictions of the time for a woman like Adah, and to realize how creative, and in some senses tragic, was her struggle to fulfill what she saw as her own artistic potential. On the day I visited a rehearsal, the cast was involved with two texts that may find their way into the show, to some degree. One was Adah’s rather rhetorically inflated account of her ancestors—including a mother who seemed to double as the Blessed Mother—and the other was a play about Lucretia Borgia in which Adah had acted. Both gave a sense of the florid theatrics of the time in which Adah thrived, and of the possibilities of imagining the kind of self-referential performance piece Adah might fashion around her various personae were she alive today.

As director, Morris says her role is to be a witness to what the piece becomes. Going into the room with her own sense of Adah and the important aspects of her story, Morris has to be attentive to how her cast—Chris Ross-Ewart, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson—find ways to enact and express the poetry, passion and conflicts of this fascinating figure. The first reaction to Morris’s project, for most, is disbelief. “People can’t understand why they never heard of [Adah].” Love holds a lamp in this little room may be an important step in changing that.

love holds a lamp in this little room
Based on the life and writings of Adah Isaacs Menken
Created and performed by the Company
Conceived and directed by Leora Morris
July 9-18, 2015
Yale Summer Cabaret

Future Past in the Present

Review of Employee of the Year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

What are the limits of storytelling? How minimal can a story be and still be a story? How temporally episodic is memory?

Brought to you by 600 Highwaymen, a husband and wife team based in Brooklyn, Employee of the Year, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, is an unusual theater piece. Using young girls under the age of 10 as the show’s only actors would seem to indicate that the action takes place from the point of view of a minor. And, indeed, the method of the show is at its best while that is the case. It opens with J. (initially played by Rachel Dostal with forthright confidence) recalling disconnected scenes of early childhood that involve her mother. The point seems to be that, even for a nine year old, memories of early life have an unusual clarity and mystery.

Yet the story moves inexorably through time and soon our underage narrator is telling of a date, at age 17, with a boyfriend. Arriving home, she finds that her house has burned down and her mother has died. A couple, friends of her mother, take her in and eventually, in cat-out-of-the-bag fashion, they let her know that she was “adopted” (but not officially adopted) by the woman she thought was her mother, because her birth mother couldn’t keep her. Seeing a picture of a girl who looks like her in the couple’s home and discovering the inscription “Lynn, Boulder, CO” and overhearing the couple’s discussion, J. steals money and takes a bus to Boulder. But things don’t go as planned.

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

Thereafter the story, as it passes from one childish voice to the next, takes on a rhythm reminiscent of the children’s story Are You My Mother? as J. journeys about, sporadically, over the course of the next 63 years, trying to find her mother. She almost gets close once or twice, perhaps. Along the way she gets taken in by another surrogate mother, her actual mother’s sister. Bits of information about the missing Lynn make us begin to think that her story is probably more interesting than the one we’re hearing about. And that seems to be the point. Though J. has people who love her and has a child of her own—who grows into an adult understandably tired of the “missing mother” syndrome—she only sees fit to tell us about her occasional search for the woman who gave birth to her, and that doesn’t make for much of a life.

The method of storytelling truncates continuity, oddly. Told in an eternal present, everything our young narrators tell us is happening “now,” though the movements of the four girls who take on the role of J. suggest “action” in only the most minimal manner. As a study in rote, affectless presentation, the show is compelling and all due praise to these youngsters, who also sing in crystalline voices a capella songs by David Cale that add lyrical interest to the proceedings. In particular, a song with the lines “I wished I loved you more” is quite lovely, as is the final song, sung by Candela Cubria in her own name as a reflection on the fact that, much as J.—in her 80s at the end of the show—can only recall bits and pieces of the story she’s trying to tell, so Candela may or may not remember being in this play, and will we recall, years from now, her face as she sang the song?

Intriguing as such questions about memory are, Employee of the Year seems contrived as a memory play, one in which anything that we might consider surface or anecdotal interest in a person’s life has been stripped away for a single idée fixe. And as a story of obsession about an undiscoverable past, it would benefit from some rooting interest in J.’s developing persona. For the sake of the purity of its prepubescent muses, the show’s method eschews “acting” in any sense of the term, so that, while we may find one girl more personable than another, we can only accept J. on her own limited terms. In closing, she tells us there “was a lot of blindness” in her life. One could say that putting the burden of such blindness on the audience is the show’s main feature: we only “see” what J. tells us, and that’s not much.

At first, one might assume that the young age of the cast of Employee of the Year has to do with the ultimate age J. reached before she learned the truth about her adoption, but she’s older than the cast is when she learns this. Had she been 8 or 9, we might find a motivation for her arrested development, but Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, aka 600 Highwaymen, seem to want to do away with any such realist conceits. And yet a certain reality does come through: Choices are arbitrary, events are random, a life—even a full, long life—may in fact be missing the one element, in this case the certainty of origin, that would make it meaningful or happy.

The show takes its title from one of the few things J. learns about her mother: that for a time she was “Employee of the Month” in a restaurant. J’s mother had wanted to be an actress and pursued a painter the way J. pursues her, though perhaps with more success. In any case, the specificity of the phrase—one particular employee, one particular month—is subsumed by its generic qualities, and its ephemerality. There will always be another month, another employee. But, J.’s relentless obsession seems to assume, there can be only one mother for one person, in a once upon a time that forever eludes discovery in the future because it already happened.

The cast of Employee of the Year

The cast of Employee of the Year

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Employee of the Year
600 Highwaymen

Songs by David Cale Design by Jessica Pabst and Eric Southern

With: Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Levy, Violet Newman, Candela Cubria

Long Wharf Theatre: June 20 & 27, 2015, 3 p.m.; June 21 & 26, 8 p.m.

The Once and Future King

Review of Rodney King in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

For the moment, the racist slaying of black church members in Charleston, SC, by a young white man has eclipsed, in news cycles, the wealth of stories of the racist law enforcement tactics of police—some leading to death—in a number of states in the past year. While the events in SC are a horrendous blow, joining the many acts of social and often political violence perpetrated by “lone gunmen” in our national psychosis, the violence against citizens of color, some of them committing criminal acts, some of them not, by our public defenders points up the persistence of what used to be called “institutional racism.” And whenever you invoke the names of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, you might as well begin with Rodney King.

King was, in the words of Roger Guenveur Smith, “the first hero of reality TV” whose bludgeoning by the clubs of the LAPD in 1991 “went viral before viral was invented.” That’s worth saying because the status of King, in U.S. racial history, is due to hand-held personal video equipment and media dissemination. His treatment was not unusual, for uncooperative blacks facing the law in the U.S.; what was unusual was that the beating was filmed, shared, and seen.

Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith

Smith’s words are part of his solo performance piece Rodney King, which closed today at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Smith says he began working on the show when he heard the news of King’s death in 2012, a “second-generation death by drowning drunk” in King’s family (King drowned in his swimming pool; King’s father had drowned drunk in the bathtub). Smith wanted to reflect on why King’s death made him feel, though he had never met the man, like he had lost a brother.

Rodney King presents a dramatic apostrophe to King, addressing him familiarly and knowledgeably, often implicitly questioning King’s decisions and lifestyle—he had been convicted in the past of robbery and assault and battery—while working-in details recounted in his subject’s autobiography. Smith’s almost musical, partially improvised script creates an echo chamber of voices talking about and around and through King’s beating and its aftermath, the LA riots of 1992. In shorthand fashion we hear of the trial of his assailants (acquitted of use of excessive force), and of the destruction and slayings—at least 50 deaths—in the riots afterward, and of the lead-up to and content of King’s famous public statement during the riots, “can we all get along?”

We watch Smith’s emotive performance with fascination, never quite sure which buttons he will push, which taglines from our nation’s hysteria about racial difference and its unease about its racist assumptions will suddenly take on swift new resonance. Gripping as Rodney King is, Smith occasionally over-reaches, his delivery seeming to circle around events as on a loop and making more of some than they merit (such as King’s “incog-negro” visit to the scene where rioters killed someone); at other times he mimics more emotion than he inspires.

Smith’s King is an unassuming, Everyman hero, the kind of person who would never achieve a spotlight through his own efforts. He’s simply a not-so-hard-working guy, enthrall to “the four horsemen,” pot, PCP, coke, and booze. King, it seems, managed to attain his “modest house with swimming pool” by virtue of having survived the “most famous ass-kicking of all time.” Smith is fully aware of the irony of singing King’s praises in this light, and that fact lends a certain jocular affection toward King, and, lest we think that the offense to King was too slight (after all, such logic runs, he lived to tell of it and became famous and was paid millions in damages), Smith includes the story of Latasha Harlins, a minor gunned down after an altercation with a convenience-store owner who believed she was shoplifting a bottle of OJ. Thus, as Smith says emphatically more than once, “it’s not just about you, Rodney.”

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Which is to say that the riots weren’t “just about” King’s treatment, which occurred less than two weeks before Harlins’ killing, or about the outcomes of the trials of King’s assailants and of Harlins’ killer, but about generations who have endured violence due to race, from the inception of slavery through lynchings and beatings to acts of racist terrorism from the Civil Rights marches to today, nor is Rodney King just about one man and his story. Smith sticks to that story, but makes us feel the history that informs it and the timeliness of its presentation here. King, like some of the family members of those slain in South Carolina last week, seemed inclined to forgive—a Christlike gesture that earns from Smith the phrase “the gospel according to Rodney King”—a stance that met with derision in certain circles, where the incitement to arm and avenge in strong. Whether outraged rapper who wants “to fuck Rodney King in the ass” or shrewd lawyer who wants to make Smith’s appeal to America “huxtable,” Smith lets the voices pass through him, leaving us with a glimpse of King as a man who drowns in a pool, dreaming of surfing and, as he allegedly did before his arrest, giving the finger to the eyes above.

Given the persistence of racial violence in our country, and the widespread, “viral” outbreak of officers caught in the act of killing black persons—Smith gives Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” to King while drowning—Rodney King is searchingly timely. Our era can’t claim any moral high-ground that would let us look back at the events surrounding King from some alleged “post-racial” society. In fact, we might even look back in something like nostalgia for a time when white lawmen descended after a highspeed chase upon a car containing three black men and let them all get out of the car. They beat King senseless, true, but today, in some localities anyway, they would most likely have opened fire the minute the car stopped.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Rodney King
Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith

Sound Design: Marc Anthony Thompson; Lighting Design: José López; Production Management: Kirk Wilson

June 18-20, 2015, 8 pm June 21, 2 pm

Long Wharf Theatre

An Aesthetic Festival

Review of Acis and Galatea at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

George Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a light opera and, in Mozart’s arrangement of the piece, full of serene pizazz. It’s hummable and bright, with only a handful of roles: Galatea, a nymph who wants to find love because, y’know, it’s spring; Acis, a shepherd in pursuit of her because of the force of nature; and Damon, Acis’ friend who suspects things may not go well. Mortals seeking immortals for permanent relations is not a good prospect. Then, in the second half, there’s Polyphemus, a lecherous monster who seems to expect all comers to yield to his pleasure, and who takes a shine to Galatea, with tragic results. Thereafter comes an apotheosis.

As a musical piece, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra and Yale Choral Artists, Handel’s short opera is diverting enough, lacking the grandeur and comic touches of Italian opera, but full of charm. As staged by Mark Morris and his dance troupe, Acis and Galatea is a pageant of color, movement, spirit, wit and wonder. A total of 18 dancers cavort about the stage, interpreting the action, reacting to it, creating quick riffs and flings and flourishes, as though musical phrases had taken human shape. As they say, there’s never a dull moment.

The dancers’ costumes, by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, consist of a unisex floral skirt of incredibly billowy fabric that creates wonderful undulations in Michael Chybowski’s lighting design, and, for the women, matching sleeveless tops. The males dancers are bare from the waist up. The costuming underscores the fact that both males and females are performing the exact same dance movements, though maybe the women do get lifted up a bit more. Still, Morris has cunningly devised dances that let male and female merge in the spirit of corporeal celebration. These are bodies that float like bubbles.

In the second half, when things get a bit more sinister, what with Polyphemus (Alexander Dobson) groping male and female dancers indiscriminately and lusting after Galatea, there’s a fascinating solo routine danced first by a female then a male dancer. Both have great suppleness and grace, and the female dancer’s angular proportions put me in mind of a Puvis de Chauvannes figure, which seemed a modernist touch quite at home against the huge painted backdrops by Adrienne Lobel, some of which seem to echo landscapes by the Fauves, albeit with toned-down color. Which is a way of saying that this Acis and Galatea is an aesthetic feast from first to last.

Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left
Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left

The singers get into the act as well. This is no “stand there and sing it” performance. When’s the last time you saw an opera singer run on or off stage? Or lie down while singing? There is plenty of movement and interaction with the dancers, and the costumes for the shepherds Acis (Thomas Cooley) and Damon (Isaiah Bell) suit contemporary working guys looking to dude it up casual, while Galatea (Yulia Van Doren) is gowned to do a night on the town with a skirt that’s made to swirl. Polyphemus looks a dapper, Mephistophelean gent, with his long hair, beard, and a suit that seems cut from a painting. The acting and singing are often played for laughs, as in breath-catching pauses in the midst of Cooley’s and Bell’s arpeggios. As randy Polyphemus, Dobson is a crowd-pleaser, getting surprising profundity from his slight frame. Dobson’s Galatea is a delight—light on her feet, and soulful and endearing in her solos.

Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)
Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)

Mark Morris knows how to play to audiences who want their high culture fun, and Acis and Galatea is an appealing show. Its pastoral aspects celebrate the turn to full summer and, without overdoing it, set true love against mere lustful thrills. The opera’s lyrics, by John Gay with help from Alexander Pope and John Hughes, flaunt the pastoral’s romance of nature with classical appreciation. With Morris, we're never in the wilds or even in Arcadia, but rather a zesty world of comic lust, everyday love pangs, and celebratory pageantry, tricked out with consummate artistry.

Acis and Galatea suits well the festival atmosphere of Arts & Ideas. It’s swift and sure and passes like a dream.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Acis and Galatea
Mark Morris Dance Group

Music by George Frideric Handel, arr. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by John Gay, with Alexander Pope and John Hughes

Nicholas McGegan: Conductor
Mark Morris: Director and choreographer

Set Design: Adrianne Lobel; Isaac Mizrahi: Costume Design; Michael Chybowski: Lighting Design

Cast: Yulia Van Doren (Galatea); Thomas Cooley (Acis); Isaiah Bell (Damon); Alexander Dobson (Polyphemus)

Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Max Cappelli-King, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Michelle Yard

International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra
Jacob Ashworth, director

Yale Choral Artists
Jeffrey Douma, director

Shubert Theater, June 18 & 19, 2015

The Losin' Louisiana Blues

Review of Cry You One at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, 2015

Cry You One, an outdoors theatrical experience at Arts & Ideas, provided by a collaboration of Mondo Bizarro and Artspot Productions, runs for three hours and, by its end, one has been somewhere. As “a play” it is episodic and participatory, and as “a tour” it aims to be transformational, and for those open to theater as event more than spectacle it could well be.

Divided into groups by stickers adorned with an image—Boar, Coyote, Gator, Snake, Spider—the audience members become identified with a creature to be found in the Louisiana bayou country where the show originated. Indeed, Cry You One’s urgency comes in reaction to the encroaching sea that has—as was said in a telling image—nibbled away the toes and much of the sole of the “boot” that is Louisiana. This bodes not well for those who live there, and much of the early going—with staged annoyances among the troupe about who gets to hog the telling for our benefit—is about the ravages to the unique land and culture of Louisiana. The ensemble is a mix of natives and non-natives of the area and their staged group dynamic illustrates how, even among those who want to help Louisiana, there are different agendas and allegiances. Eventually, each group follows its leader, which means attending a presentation specific to each group and (I assume, based on the one I joined) confidences and oneupmanship concerning the other guides.

Transplanted to Maltby Lakes in West Haven, the show does not feel out of place, though I can only imagine how much more moving it is in its natural habitat. To help keep the Cajun flavor, the show boasts much use of music derived from bayou country by music director Sean Larocca, and features Zohar Israel as a Griot poet and musician who speaks for people who have already been driven off the land. One affecting moment comes on the banks of a lake where Zohar tells how there’s a day reserved for the ritual of swimming a lake in Louisiana where the homes of ancestors lie at the bottom—except now, after hurricanes this century, the young are swimming over their own homes.

The communal parts of the production involve dances, singalongs, trooping together through the picturesque landscape of the Lakes, and visiting spaces turned into encircled stages or devised museums—the artifacts and artworks collected in the latter have the rough beauty of the salvaged detritus of lost homes and lives. For all its beauty and camaraderie, there is a certain gloom that hangs over the show—the gloom of time and tide. The walk to the museum space is accompanied by an eerie song that says “the waves come in, the waves go out, sinking, sinking.” The people of the bayou country have long been acquainted with the blues, and no wonder.

The dramatic tension at the heart of the show’s themes is between what is “natural” and what is determined by humankind. So while there is fear and loathing for the depredations of gas companies, and hand-wringing over what has become of the Mississippi for the benefit of business, and gestures toward the kind of projects needed to re-sediment its banks, there are also nagging issues of how some solutions create new problems. There is also a strong sense of how ephemeral human intervention is. Those in it for greed take their money and run, those in it for the sake of the land try to stay in places become uninhabitable. Through it all, Cry You One is crying for those displaced, for those who loved the place and want to preserve its traditions. But it also implies how mysterious and difficult is “man’s place” anywhere on this globe, and how important it is to respect the environment we identify with.

Since any individual experience of the play depends largely on what group you get selected for, I can only speak about the segments of the show from the perspective of “a spider.” Our leader, “Dr. Dr.” Carol Karl (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), is an overly self-conscious scientist who proffered her diplomas for our edification and became upset that her comrades had added a piece of “hate mail” from a former coworker; the innocuous-seeming card served to remind her of a disgrace she endured due to alleged lack of empathy for the people who live where a needed waste station was set to be built. Much later, this theme gets worked out in an alarming and almost schizophrenic fashion to let us know that poor Dr. Karl is bedeviled by charges of racism and a haunting experience of having to flee her own home as a child. Dr. Karl is an oddly likeable, forlorn character, her spider persona a chilling creation, and the space set up for their struggle one of the most memorable in the show I saw.

The talents behind Cry You One—including director Kathy Randels, writers Raymond “Moose”Jackson and Joanna Russo—clearly have a shrewd sense of group dynamics as well as a varied grasp of theatrical presentation. Three hours may seem long, but it’s key to the feeling of having stepped away from one’s own life to become “settled” in another environment with other people. The experience is apt to set off all kinds of associations, from tours of historical sites to enactments at amusement parks to classroom protocols on class trips to awkward gatherings of strangers to pay tribute to some common cause. What it feels nothing like is the passive viewing of a play in a theater.

Interaction is key to one’s experience, while observation, for a critic, is key to commentary. Cry You One offers much opportunity for both. Conceived as “a grand procession for the land that is disappearing, “ by its originator Nick Slie, Cry You One asks you to think about what you’d take if you had to leave where you live. When it was over, I walked out alone, thinking about where I’d been, and feeling like I’d left some friends behind.

International Festival of Arts and Ideas presents
Cry You One
Mondo Bizarro & Artspot Productions

Directed by Kathy Randels

Ensemble: Jon Greene; Zohar Israel; Hannah Pepper-Cunningham; Rebecca Mwase; Lisa Moraschi Shattuck; Nick Slie

Additional performers: Kathy Randels and Sean Larocca; Designers: Jeff Becker and Melisa Cardona; Writers: Raymond “Moose” Jackson and Joanna Russo; Music Director: Sean Larocca; Choreographer: Millicent Johnnie; Costume Design: Bear Hebert and Laura Sirkin-Brown; Banner Photographs: Monique Verdin; Stage Manager: Nick Moser; Associate Producer: Tracy Boyles; Line Producer: Bear Hebert; Set Construction: Zachary Grace; Scenic Painting: Alexandria Bozeman

June 13, 14, 16, 20, 21 at 2 pm; June 17, 18, 19 at 4 pm

Maltby Lakes, West Haven

A Dream's Midsummer Night

Review of Midsummer at Yale Summer Cabaret

One of the plot points of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a “changeling boy” that the fairy realm’s rulers—Oberon and Titania—battle over. The myth of the “changeling” refers, generally, to a fairy child substituted for a human child, so that parents find themselves raising a bizarre being not of their own. What the fairies do with the child they “adopt” is another matter. Doubtless, it becomes something wholly other, a strange hybrid of human and fairy.

Midsummer, the adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by director Sara Holdren and dramaturg Rachel Carpman, now playing at the Yale Summer Cabaret, is itself a hybrid, a strange change upon MND that might be seen as what would happen to the play if the fairies get a hold of it.

Midsummer often seems very much like the familiar play—one of the most oft-performed of Shakespeare’s comedies—and sometimes feels like a fever dream comprised of Shakespearean taglines on a ground of shifting unrealities. And that’s because Midsummer makes free use of Shakespeare’s oeuvre to match the word to the deed. (There’s even a drinking game advertised on the audience’s tables that recommends size of sips in response to recognized lines from various plays.) In short, it’s a trip.

Puck (Shaunette Renee Wilson)
Puck (Shaunette Renee Wilson)

This “Midsummer” begins with Puck (Shaunette Renée Wilson) brooding on how things used to be—the world was a much more enchanted place, once upon a time. A sprite more in sorrow than in spite, she soon decides to amuse herself and us by devising ways to bedevil a troupe of hapless actors gathered in the wood to rehearse a play. That play, it soon develops, will not be Pyramus and Thisbe (as in MND) but the story of the lovers of MND: the erotic travails of Lysander (Christopher Ross-Ewart), Hermia (Josephine Stewart), Demetrius (Leland Fowler), and Helena (Elizabeth Stahlmann). The transition from the hamfisted actors bumbling through their lines to the full enactment of their MND roles is only the first of many magical transformations the night offers.

The usual plot development—that the rivals for Hermia become instead rivals for Helena, while the once simpatico women become bitter enemies—plays out here with more asperity than it often does. And that’s in part because Holdren and Carpman get to cherry-pick Shakespeare to provide dialogue for these fools for love. While the changeableness of male affection is the theme Shakespeare’s text treats of with a certain arch candor, the handling of it here is full of surprisingly distraught energy—in Stewart and Stahlmann—and outrageous wooing and rejecting from Fowler and Ross-Ewart. It’s funny and physical, and lets us know that love hurts. Lurking in the wings, as it were, is every heartbroken teen who loved and missed, and Holdren gets her young cast to milk that for all its worth.

Titania (Melanie Field), Bottom (Andrej Visky)
Titania (Melanie Field), Bottom (Andrej Visky)

Meanwhile, there’s the centerpiece event: the enchantment of Bottom—who traditionally is given an ass’s head—and the passion for him created in Titania by “love-in-idleness,” a magical flower. That part of the story feels more allegorical than the rest, in MND, and here it’s almost beside the point. We’re much more beguiled by Titania (Melanie Field) and Oberon (Niall Powderly) facing off with magical bolts and scary voices like wizards in Harry Potter, so that the sport with Titania that Will seems to delight in gets upstaged by a parental stand-off over a child that feels more revealing.

Bottom the weaver, played with mercurial flair by Andrej Visky, is from the first the character most fully infused with the kind of wonderment that theatrical experience can provide. He’s ready to enact every part—including speeches from Hamlet spoken by the players and the prince. To give a sense of the range of this Bottom, I’ll mention that, as he wanders spooked in the woods, he breaks into “My Way,” and when he first discovers the sleeping Titania he says “she’s warm!” echoing Lear holding the recently deceased Cordelia.

The upshot of all this is that Midsummer creates a rich tapestry of Shakespearean verbiage as an overlay on a story of amateur theatricals, befuddled lovers, and spatting fairies. It’s not simply a re-imagining of MND, but a reassigning of Shakespearean lines and moments to create a lively variety that never ceases to surprise and delight. And those not so versed in their Bard needn’t feel left out, as there is a remarkable seamlessness to most of the juggling, except when it’s meant to be noticeable.

Christopher Ross-Ewart, Josephine Stewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Niall Powderly
Christopher Ross-Ewart, Josephine Stewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Niall Powderly

In the midst of the sheer love of Shakespeare’s words—as, as it were, non-character-specific poetry—Midsummer manages to make us aware of the varying levels of acting as entertainment. If Shakespeare’s comedies tend to be much ado about nothing, Midsummer insists that what Hamlet calls “the purpose of playing” is not so much holding a mirror up to nature but rather to play Prospero with what reality provides—and all actors are changelings. The strong suggestion is that we have at last gotten the play of Bottom’s dream, which hath no bottom. At evening’s end the players within the play troop off, considering what to call their play, riffing on Shakespeare, O’Neill, and others.

Finally, a mention of a remarkable set comprised of trees of twisted fabric and of seemingly real stone, wonderful projections that create worlds within the world, sound effects and special effects to give reality to the magical duels and spells, and costumes that let the cast move from clownish workers to lightly garbed youths and painted and fleshy fairies—to say nothing of Puck’s hybrid habiliments that seem more Caliban than Ariel. And Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting design is a poem in itself.

Midsummer plays through Sunday night. If you’ve already seen it, go again, and if you haven’t, do.

Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays of William Shakespeare

Adapted by Rachel Carpman and Sara Holdren
Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Design: Christopher Thompson, Claire De Liso; Costume Design: Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Sinan Refik Zafar; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager: Victoria Whooper

Ensemble: Al the Upholsterer/Titania: Melanie Field; Snout the Tinker/Demetrius: Leland Fowler; Peter Quince/Oberon: Niall Powderly; Flute the Bellows Mender/Lysander: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Snug the Joiner/Helena: Elizabeth Stahlmann; Starveling the Tailor/Hermia: Josephine Stewart; Bottom: Andrej Visky; Puck: Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret

217 Park Street

June 4-June 21, 2015

An Old Sweet Song

Review of And a Nightingale Sang at Westport Country Playhouse

C.P. Taylor’s memory play And a Nightingale Sang, running through June 27 at Westport Country Playhouse, gives us Helen Stott (an incandescent Brenda Meaney), looking back at life in Newcastle, England, during WWII and at her family’s experience of day-to-day existence under the Blitz. From her first words, Meaney establishes a presence of such frankness, poignancy, and strength that we are willing to follow her wherever she might lead. Meaney's acting belongs in the highest ranks. For her performance alone, And a Nightingale Sang is worth seeing.

Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)
Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)

The device of Helen’s direct address adds a pleasingly modern dimension to Taylor’s well-made drama. As the narrator, one moment Helen is introducing characters, the next she is explaining the subtext, and then for a time she melts into the action. Leisurely-paced and short on surprises, Nightingale is most powerful when Helen—whose limp has kept her (in her view) a spinster—tells her own coming-of-age story, which took place in her early middle years. David Kennedy’s direction, however, falls short of conveying the terrors of war, and thus this production slants a bit too far towards the comfortable and the bittersweet.

The opening scene serves mainly to establish characters and introduce the working-class Stott family. Pretty younger daughter Joyce (Jenny Leona) is trying to decide whether to accept the marriage proposal of Eric (John Skelley), a soldier who is about to ship off to France; Joyce’s mother, Peggy (Deirdre Madigan), is desperately trying to get out of the house to visit one of the priests who, she fears, is having a war-related crisis of faith. Meanwhile Peggy’s father, Andie (Richard Kline), has just lost his beloved dog (whose dead body he has brought into the house in a cloth sack) and is trying to round up funeral goers. In the background, George (Sean Cullen), the father of the family, plays merrily on the piano and provides a humorous commentary on the cacophonous events. We immediately see that everyone in the family depends upon Helen for her good sense, kindness, and alacrity with a cup of tea. The war first intervenes at this point, in the form of sirens signaling a possible attack.

Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline
Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline

Because Helen’s memory drives the plot, the strongest storyline revolves around her love affair with Eric’s soldier friend Norman (Matthew Greer), the only man who has ever looked at her, much less declared his attraction and affection. Some of the sweetest moments occur here, as well as some of the play’s few genuine revelations. Greer is appealing, touching, and appropriately mysterious, while Helen’s emotional and sexual awakening brings to mind a more emotionally stable Laura, of The Glass Menagerie, if the Gentleman Caller had fallen for her and in doing so, changed her life.

Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)
Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)

In the Stott household, humor, whether intentional or not, often pierces the darkness of the war, and Kennedy and his cast play up this element with crisp expertise. Indeed, these remarkable actors lift the script beyond its own limitations. Every performance shines. Sean Cullen brings a boyish twinkle to George Stott and sings and plays the piano as if he were born at the keyboard. As Peggy, Deirdre Madigan captures the conventionality of a staunch Catholic of her time and then layers this with unexpected nuance. Jenny Leona brings both fragility and fire to the role of Joyce. And Richard Kline, as Andie, delivers his fatalistic pronouncements, honed on the battle fields of WWI, with dry wit, while also conveying the vulnerability of a man who has come to love his pets as much as his family: Tibby the cat reminds him that he is still needed.

As the soldier, Eric, John Skelley keeps us on his side even when his behavior is at its most churlish. Eric—one minute a fun-loving guy, the next minute a lout— is a tricky role, but Skelley, under Kennedy’s guidance, helps us to see a youth made by war to act the adult before he is ready.

Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)
Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)

The scenic design, by Kristen Robinson, and the lighting design, by Matthew Richards, are to be commended too. The set is a large brick open space that serves most often as the Stott’s home, but that also remains abstract—like memory—so that two chairs brought downstage can become a park bench or a front parlor, and the characters can move through the central open space and enter a dance hall or a hotel or a homely flat. Richards’ lighting serves to create the effect of memory: when the spotlight isolates and illuminates Helen, we know we are in her mind, and when the light broadens, we know we are back in the scenes of the past.

With such a strong design team—including sound design by Fitz Patton—one only wishes that Kennedy had chosen to make the moments when war breaks into the Stotts’ domestic concerns more jolting, terrifying, and real. Sirens should be louder, bombs should shake the theater walls, and flashing lights should blind. However, the terrific cast nearly makes up for this missing dramatic element: they bring to the stage their own brilliance, in all senses of the word.

And a Nightingale Sang
By C.P Taylor

Directed by David Kennedy

Cast: George: Sean Cullen; Norman: Matthew Greer; Andie: Richard Kline; Joyce: Jenny Leona; Peggy: Deirdre Madigan; Helen: Brenda Meaney; Eric: John Skelley

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Michael Krass; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Props Master: Karin White; Choreographers: Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Marcie A. Friedman; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Flint

Westport Country Playhouse
June 9-27, 2015

A Play with Class

Review of Good People at TheaterWorks, Hartford

David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, opens with Margie (Erika Rolfsrud), a Dollar Store employee, losing her job. She has been late one too many times over the past eight years. As she tries, first humorously and then with rising rage and desperation, to negotiate with her boss, the young Stevie (Buddy Haardt), we come to understand quite a bit about Margie and about Lindsay-Abaire’s aims in writing this play.

Set before gentrification comes to the Irish-American working class neighborhood of South Boston (“Southie”), the playwright’s hometown, Good People explores the complicated role that luck plays in a person’s ability to escape impoverished circumstances. America’s increasingly shaky belief in a classless society is based on the notion that hard work and determination are all one needs for success. Margie is here to tell us otherwise.

Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne
Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne

In the following scene, set in Margie’s kitchen, we meet her brassy friend Jean (Megan Byrne) and her landlady, aptly named Dottie (Audrie Neenan). The talk centers on jobs: who has one, who hasn’t got a chance of finding one, how Margie can get herself another one, fast. Here we learn why Margie has lost numerous minimum-wage positions: her adult daughter, severely disabled due to a premature birth, requires constant supervision. When Jean remembers that at a catering gig she met one of their high school friends, Mikey Dillon (R. Ward Duffy), who got out of Southie and became a doctor, she’s certain that he’s Margie’s ticket to solvency: after all, Margie and Mike were an item for awhile in high school, and surely he’ll help someone from the neighborhood.

Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas
Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas

What unfolds between Margie and Mike—when she visits his office to test the limits of his loyalty to old friends; when Jean and Dottie react to this meeting during one of two funny and telling scenes set in a bingo hall; and during a searing scene in Act Two—dramatizes the play’s themes and provides an evening of thought-provoking, high-tension, nearly brilliant theater. I say “nearly” only because some of Lindsay-Abaire’s scenes go on a bit too long. While one could listen all night to these uniformly terrific actors speak his sharp, gritty, and at times hilarious dialogue, the plot, to its credit, creates a momentum that can’t afford to sag.

Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)
Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)

Lindsay-Abaire couldn’t hope for a better rendering of Good People than Rob Ruggiero’s terrific production. As Margie, Erika Rolfsrud gives a stunningly strong and nuanced performance. Margie is tough, but she must also convey anxiety without coming across as a victim (an epithet she would despise). She is brilliant and at the same time unapologetically uneducated. She has a mean streak and knows how to use it: watch her deploy the phrase “lace-curtain Irish” when talking about Mike’s rise in the world, and see her satisfaction when her words hit their target. Yet if the actress doesn’t also display warmth and humor, she loses the audience and the production falls apart. Rolfsrud nails every note.

The rest of the cast is no less remarkable. As Mike, R. Ward Duffy is coiled as tightly as a camouflaged snake. Mike knows how Margie can needle, shame, and possibly destroy him. He’s plenty arrogant, but he is also persuasive in his belief that hard work leads to success and, conversely, that the lack of success proves inadequacy. Mike is Margie’s natural enemy, yet Duffy and Rolfsrud’s arguments have a sexual spark that makes us believe in their intense youthful affair, and in Mike’s uneasy kinship with his background.

Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)
Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)

As Dottie, Audrie Neenan provides more than comic relief: her character’s comments on the surrounding events bring to mind one of Shakespeare’s fools. Her foolishness is real enough, and a riot, but her wacky utterances unwittingly convey the resignation of a life defined by Southie. Megan Byrne, as Jean, carries some of Lindsay-Abaire’s sharpest and most humorous dialogue, and her timing is perfection: she can deliver a zinger with one raise of an eyebrow or dart of an eye.

Buddy Haardt, as Stevie, who quietly endures Jean’s scornful certainty that he is gay because he plays bingo, gives us an understated, gentle performance that adds moments of rest amidst the women’s sharp repartee. And Chandra Thomas, as Mike’s wife—the least well-written role in the script—finds moments of subtle humor and genuine pain without overplaying.

Of special note in this production is the use of film-like, photographed projections (by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella) to create distinctively different neighborhoods, and to simulate, also, the movement between them: our movement along with Margie’s. We watch the Dollar Store and run-down strip malls roll by, and later the appearance of trees and large houses tell us we are in another world.

Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan
Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan

Beautifully rendered, too, is the sound design by Mike Miceli, especially in the bingo scenes. Of course, much of the credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire for writing these scenes as he has, but Ruggiero and Miceli—along with these terrific actors—have brought out the script’s sharp music. As the characters talk about Margie’s mounting difficulties, the marking of cards echoes the characters’ larger hopes, and the bingo caller’s voice drives the tension.

Ruggiero’s Good People is one of the most gripping, layered, and provocative productions seen at TheaterWorks in the past eight years, which is a high compliment indeed. The performances invigorate and inspire, and the play’s complex ideas resonate long after the evening ends.

Good People
By David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design: Harry Nadal; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Mike Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting LTD.; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia

May 22-June 28, 2015