Holy Shite!

Review of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The featured theatrical event of this year’s Arts & Ideas is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre, New Castle. Lee Hall, who turned Billy Elliott into a successful musical, adapts Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos—about a group of Scots Catholic school girls run amok in the capitol—for the stage as Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, directed by Vicky Featherstone, veteran director of many NTS productions.

Lewd, crude, and rude, Our Ladies follows the exploits of six teen girls as they let loose within the confines of their day and age. Which is to say, in the words of Pulp’s song “Common People,” “You can dance, and drink, and screw / Because there’s nothing else to do.” The show energetically, and relentlessly, showcases the time of life when that was enough. To say, as the Pulp song does outright, that such are the only opportunities for fun and self-expression among the “common people,” or working class, as all these ladies are (only one, Kay, is college-bound), is to recognize the subtext to these high spirits. They’ve got to get their rocks off young because it’s all downhill from here.

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The salty language, slang, and dense Scots accents of these gurls (think Maggie’s Smith’s pronunciation in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie whilst touting the crème de la crème) keeps it all very ribald and just comprehensible enough. Don’t worry, when some narrative business is important, such as Orla (Joan McGuiness)’s account of how she tries to shag a fellow patient in a hospital with unfortunate results, you’ll follow it just fine. Orla has cancer and so her efforts to “dew et” while still able are understandable, though trying to get off a guy with a urine bag is not only a bit daft, it’s pathetic. And that’s the tone of much of the show—its hi-jinx are high times with an undertone of pathos.

The best dramatic situation along those lines comes from Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) deciding she might like girls better than boys and trying out her newfound emotions on Kay (Karen Fishwick), who’s been in bed with both at the same time. Efforts to suggest the bittersweetness of the girls’ tender age helps give some depth to a show which otherwise might simply seem the Scots female version of bro-mance films of frat boys trying to do the dirty. And it does seem like that often enough.

And there’s music too, played live onstage with conviction, though if the notion of teens rocking out to ELO tunes seems a bit contradictory, you’re not alone. Still, Jeff Lynne provides some decent songs like “Long Black Road,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” (a very spirited performance), and “Wild West Hero” (used very effectively). Then there are the hits from the classical canon that the girls sing with lovely, angelic voices, making clear why the nuns who teach them might be fooled into thinking they can be trusted on their own. Some—like Handel’s “My Heart is Inditing” and Williams’ “O Taste and See”—get a nice little spin when heard from the girls’ perspective.

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The music adds distraction but it also draws out the show’s length, which begins to feel interminable. By the time the girls are writhing about, getting their trip on with Magic Mushroom Lager, I had hopes their odyssey was near its end, but they still have to get back to Oban in time for that last dance at the Mantrap. You might be feeling up to a pub-crawl of your own by that point.

As Kay, Karen Fishwick is a cut above—she can do querulous old man, earnest young boy, and melancholy dude, and gives Kay nuances of conflict. Some of the others, when called upon to enact males, seem not much different than they are as girls, which I don’t think is deliberate, though maybe. Frances Mayli McCann and Caroline Deyga are compelling musical performers with a good sense of rhythm that enlivens the musical parts. As somewhat sad Orla, McGuinness gets a touching scene with Kirsty MacLaren whose nerdy boy character is memorable. And Sievewright handles well the role of Fionnula, the girl with something other than boys on her mind.

Plotwise, the fact that girls do go boy crazy at a certain age is certainly not new, and that Catholic girls are anything but chaste is not much by way of comic contrast. Full disclosure: I was in a Catholic school among Catholic schoolgirls up to age 13 and I remember many as far more mature than this lot. What’s more, I didn’t think, until seeing Our Ladies, that anything would make me sympathetic to the nuns overseeing teens and attempting to impose standards of conduct. Guess I’ll have to rethink that. As Eugene O’Neill says, “If you can’t be good, you can at least be careful.” Maybe our ladies will catch on before too much damage is done.

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Based on The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Adapted by Lee Hall
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Music Sourced, Arranged and Supervised by Martin Lowe

Designer: Chloe Lamford; Lighting Designer: Imogen Knight; Sound Designer: Lizzie Powell; Associate Director: Debbie Hannan; Associate Music Supervisor: Stuart Morley; Co-Casting Directors: Amy Ball, Laura Donnelly

The Band: Laura Bangay, band leader/keyboard; Becky Brass, percussion; Emily Linden, guitar

Cast: Caroline Deyga; Kirsty Findlay; Karen Fishwick; Joanne McGuiness; Kirsty MacLaren; Frances Mayli McGann; Dawn Sievewright

June 10-25, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Yale Repertory Theater

Light as Air

Review of Air Play, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Yellow and red fabrics that float like flames, undulating in fascinating patterns as they move on the eddies of air blowing from a circle of fans. That’s how Air Play, a two-person show featuring a mix of aerodynamics and clowning begins. Unlike some recent years at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the aerodynamics here are not about humans flying through the air, but rather a more gentle and charming use of materials that float. Air Play reminds us that air is a substance and makes us feel how expressive that substance can be, under certain conditions.

Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone—she in yellow, he in red, both with blue hair—are a couple of clowns adept at dumbshow, mime, and interaction with the audience. Their skits tend to revolve around props that can float—feathers, balloons, very thin umbrellas—and those that can’t: suitcases, clothes, shoes. The ongoing tone of their interaction is of like-minded individuals who might be rivals, might become friends, maybe even lovers (there’s a suggestive breaking of an “egg” to release tens of balloons swirling like spermatozoa at the show’s close), but whose major bond is their fascination with sending things aloft.

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

Bloom goes into the audience to follow errant balloons, and calls up participants from the audience. When I saw the show, the volunteers where a small girl and a full-grown adult. The contrast in their size was a nice visual jolt, but the childlike wonder inspired by how things can float or soar or drop makes us all kids to some extent. And the show is best at working its magic when the laughter and surprise of children in the audience is audible. There’s something about the vulnerability of a balloon that inspires identification in small fry, and the show maintains a certain pathos simply by keeping us a little worried about how fragile some of the props and effects are.

Apart from the superb air sculptures and tableaux, there’s also some notable clowning when Bloom and Gelsone insert themselves into huge balloons and then turn into heads protruding from spheres. It’s not every day that kids can see adults transform themselves into cartoons and it’s a notable effect, with Gelsone eventually shrinking in a comically disconcerting manner. And there are some wonderful effects that, in an era of CGI-dominated entertainments, are reassuring in their manipulation of physical properties to achieve moments of enthralling beauty. Everything here is on a very human scale that capitalizes on our capacity to control inanimate objects in surprising and graceful ways. In a time when so much entertainment comes via screens, the show offers the spectacle of poetry and humor happening in real time.

Air Play makes for a relaxing and visually interesting hour, and should delight the young, no matter how old.

 

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas
presents
Air Play
Conceived and created by Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone
Performed by Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone
Air Sculptures in collaboration with Daniel Wurtzel
Directed by West Hyler

Technical Director: Todd Alan Little; Stage Manager: Flora Vassar; Lighting Design: Jeanne Koenig; Costumes: Ashley Dunn Gatterdam; Sound Design: Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone; Additional Sound Design: Phil Ingle; Props: Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone

June 21-22 at 12 p.m. and 7 p.m.
June 23-25 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
University Theatre

In the Name of the Father and of the Son

Review of The Total Bent, The Public Theater

I happened to see The Total Bent, the energetic musical playing for a final extended week at The Public Theater, on Father’s Day. It was fitting, in a way. All over my facebook feed were fond tributes to great dads. Rarely did one hear a breath about the overbearing father, the belittler, the bully, or of the agon with one’s parental generation that, once upon a time, was de rigueur for any coming-of-age spirit, artists especially.

The Total Bent, text by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, directed by Joanna Settle, keeps alive the generational struggle. The stakes are high because Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a charismatic gospel star who relies upon his talented son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), to provide him with lyrics and melodies he can use to get his message across. When we meet them—during the bus boycotts in Alabama (here the town is “Bluntgomery”)—Marty is dissatisfied with his role. Dad is too square to embrace the Civil Rights movement the son is hot to address. The funny, and catchy, song that delivers Roy’s critical take on the protest movement exhorts blacks gladly to take seats in the back of the bus. His view of black distinction, he feels, will be lost by becoming just like whites.

Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The racial themes in the play would be enough to make this an interesting show—particularly as Stew is quite adept at registering what the older generation feared about “equal rights,” and Curtis Hall is expert at getting across the smug high-mindedness of the preachers who told Martin Luther King, Jr., he should “wait.” But Stew has even more on his mind, and that can make for some fairly symbolic axes to grind: in particular, the problem of gospel music’s credo of an afterlife with a benign God who will soothe the racist indignities—and the lynchings and beatings and police actions—with heavenly balm. As one of Marty’s songs pertinently asks: “Why should black people, of all people, still believe in God?”

At the heart of this musical is a struggle that Stew conceives of in mythopoeic terms: the Father vs. the Son for the Holy Ghost. Joe Roy, who seems to have God on his side, is the patriarchal and paternalistic form of religion. He goes so far as to bless slavery for having brought Christ to blacks. It’s a view that infuriates Marty, but Joe’s line is not a self-serving come-on from a snake oil salesman. Curtis Hall’s portrayal is remarkably subtle in giving us both the willful coddler of the uneducated masses, and a sincere man who wants to promote the “turn the other cheek” humility that, Marty’s generation feels, goes cheek by jowl with oppression.

Early on, we see that Marty has his own path to follow, and Stew is at some pains to give his trajectory enough coherence for the theater-going audience. The show feels like a concept album on stage in the way that songs, more than story, control our access to what is happening. Unlike most musicals, the songs don’t simply replace speeches for characters: the songs are thematic expressions.

Abee (Curtis Wiley), Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Abee (Curtis Wiley), Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Key to the power of the concept’s enactment is the unflinching talent of Ato Blankson-Wood as Marty. Each time we think he’s finally pulling out all the stops to deliver Marty’s latest take on what the times demand of a black musical artist, Blankson-Wood goes yet further. The transformation is breath-taking. We see Marty go from a cynical assistant of his preening father to a driven, hungry, angry, sexy, and super bad musical artist in his own right. The music and costuming (Gabriel Berry) and hair (Cookie Jordan) put Blankson-Wood through some serious changes, and it’s great fun trying to catch all the cats he conjures up—Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Sly Stone, Lou Rawls, and, of course, Michael. At times, Marty seems to be courting the intricacy of the studio geniuses—the way Stevie Wonder met the challenges of The Beatles—while at other times he ignites a performative frenzy that his old man can only aspire to. Stew and Rodewald’s imaginative score takes gospel to places it ain’t been before.

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood) and back-up singers (photo: Joan Marcus)

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood) and back-up singers (photo: Joan Marcus)

And the songs, as they both comment on Marty’s progress and express his condition, become engaged with the spiritual struggle at the heart of Stew’s vision of black music: the force of gospel, as an affirmation of the beauty and worth of suffering, vs. the great need to find a way to voice political and social and racial dissent. Marty’s ideal—which may be Stew’s, though it would be wrong to see Marty as his spokesman—seems to be a religious bond with the suffering black body, as Marty urges his listeners to drink his blood and eat his body, not as a delusion of himself as Christ but as a radical vision of blacks as Christ.

While this might sound incredibly heavy, it should be said that the show lets the music do the talking, and the band—led by Music Director Marty Beller on drums, with Stew on guitar and keyboard, and Rodewald on bass—is great, the songs pithy and impassioned, and the dialogue, which sometimes rhymes, only quasi-naturalistic. An added element, for entertainment’s sake, is the character of the British producer, Byron Blackwell (beaky David Cale, looking a bit like the aged Keith Richards), a lover of blues and authentic R&B, who has to choose between father—a blues legend before he went gospel—and the son, an up-and-coming genius. Cale delivers a few comic songs with a touch of Anthony Newleyesque showmanship to keep us apprised of the fact that—whichever Roy God is speaking through—show-biz is this man’s idol.

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), center, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), foreground (photo: Joan Marcus)

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), center, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), foreground (photo: Joan Marcus)

There are no female parts in the play and the conceit of Marty’s mother Mary—Joe Roy thinks of her as a saint, Marty as a Magdalen—drifts into oedipal cliché, but needn’t. If the show goes forward, it could do with a flashback or two to let Mom add her pipes to the proceedings, letting us see how much those two views of femininity—the gospel choir and the street-corner mamas—fed the life’s blood of the musical journey Stew and Rodewald’s lively and inventive show takes us on.

Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design gives us a homey recording studio that transforms swiftly into a concert venue with catwalk. Some scenes, like a visit to the dark studio by awed Abee (Curtis Wiley) and Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (think Amos and Andy) don’t make much narrative sense, and sometimes we flip a bit quickly in period, but the songs make it all work. Not to be missed for the performances by Curtis Hall and Blankson-Wood, The Total Bent is totally mind-bending in its ambitions and delivery.

 

The Total Bent
Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Joanna Settle

Scenic Design: Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design: Gabriel Berry; Lighting Design: Thom Weaver; Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson; Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan; Music Director: Marty Beller; Music Contractor: Dean Sharenow; Choreography: David Neumann; Production Stage Manager: Chris DeCamillis; Stage Manager: Elizabeth Ann Goodman; Dance Captain: Curtis Wiley

Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood; Kenny Brawner; David Cale; Vondie Curtis Hall; Damian Lemar Hudson; Jahi Kearse; Curtis Wiley

Musicians: Marty Beller, drums; John Blevins, trumpet; Kenny Brawner, organ, keyboard; Damian Lemar Hudson, keyboards, guitar, harmonica; Brad Mulholland, woodwinds; Heidi Rodewald, bass, keyboard; Stew, guitar, piano.

 

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY
May 10-June 26, 2016

Go Ask Alice

Review of Alice in Wonderland, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s summer of Seven Deadly Sins has begun with a two-week run of Alice in Wonderland based on a energetic adaptation by the Manhattan Project.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were always about coping with childhood. Charles Dodgson composed the tales to amuse a young girl with take-offs on “grown-up” behavior and the kinds of inspired nonsense that delights because it doesn’t try to instruct. As does this show, most adaptations combine elements of both stories—in the first, Alice goes down the rabbit hole after the White Rabbit, in the second, she goes through a mirror. In both, she encounters figures from common nursery rhymes and other characters less explicable. A later age might seek neurosis in Alice’s adventures, but Carroll’s text wreaks havoc with efforts to explicate the whimsy of the imagination.

As re-conceived by theater director Andre Gregory with the Manhattan Project, Alice takes on the tone of the old “the inmates run the asylum” trope, so that anyone supposedly rational, such as Alice, will be bedeviled by the willful inanity of her interlocutors. As adapted for the Yale Summer Cabaret by Co-Artistic Director Jesse Rasmussen, Gregory’s script gets revamped as an Alice facing gleefully playful playground theater. The show is deeply suggestive of the creativity—and the misgivings—that are part and parcel of childhood.

Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

As played by willowy Sydney Lemmon, Alice is full of a youthful curiosity and an engaging willingness to be engaged. She wants her oddball playmates to make sense and to be amusing and informative. And most of them—a companionable Rabbit (Paul Cooper), an acerbic Hatter (Ricardo Dávila), a haughty Caterpillar (Marié Botha), an eerie Cheshire Cat (Brontë England-Nelson), a vaporish Humpty Dumpty (Patrick Foley)—try to be. But the further Alice goes into what seems to be a dream-logic version of something she might have read, the less likely it is that anything will make sense to her satisfaction. Her mind plays tricks on her, seeming to make her a younger child again, sometimes tall, sometimes small, and often incapable of reciting rhymes the way she learned them. And some of the other characters might be leading her away from her studied innocence. By show’s end she may be done with make-believe altogether.

Staged with Haydee Antunano’s elegantly simple white costumes and Zoe Hurwitz’s backdrop of books painted white, Rasmussen’s vision of the show incorporates imaginary props—the way children playing often do—and devised moments, such as the Red Queen (Brontë England-Nelson) giving an arch rendering of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” There’s inventiveness aplenty, and the figures who might have wisdom to impart—such as Botha’s stern (and stoned) Caterpillar, or Foley’s insecure Humpty Dumpty—turn out to be more in need of help than helpful. And that goes double for figures who might be expected to be authoritative, such as the White Queen (England-Nelson, in her most winning role) and the White Knight (Cooper). Led by Dávila’s slippery performance, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as it should be, plays as the centerpiece with its lesson in how polite norms can be subverted, and how the art of conversation might be nothing more than a gift for entertaining non sequitur.

The show’s pace could pick up in some places and Rasmussen allows or encourages a few too many accents, where a more distinctive and less regional voice would do, but the real delight here is in the physicality of the show. Lemmon bends like a sapling and becomes acrobatic at times in her movement through a space peopled by the other cast members in a balletic frenzy of attitudes that is remarkably changeable.

Paul Cooper keeps his eye on the gravitas in the proceedings. He begins the show as Carroll narrating Alice's initial confusion, then takes part as the White Rabbit and others, to finally end up as the White Knight who tries to interest Alice in his inventions. With a somewhat Shakespearean song that pits odd activities against utterly absurd flights of fancy, the Knight draws from Alice her most emotive response. It’s as if she suddenly sees through the refusal to make sense and discovers how debilitating prolonged childhood can be.

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Gregory’s text ends with something like a coda, a cascade of words à la James Joyce (the last word in the coda is “and,” famously the last word of the Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s dream book, and that’s no coincidence I’m sure) that covers here the transition from the rabbit hole world to the book Alice reads. “Wonderland” may be the resources of her own imagination or the inspiration reading brings. In any case, the bizarre journey seems to take Alice to the cusp of young adulthood.

At the Criterion Cinema, Disney’s new version of Through the Looking Glass is playing. A sequel to the travesty of Alice in Wonderland already perpetrated by the world-wide hit the studio unleashed in 2010, the film, I have no doubt, is vastly inferior to the low budget, live action, basement staging at the Summer Cabaret. In this Alice, the special effects are all in our minds—and that’s fitting, for that’s ultimately where Alice lives.

 

Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s classic as adapted by The Manhattan Projection under Andre Gregory
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Costume Designer: Haydee Antunano; Set Designer: Zoe Hurwitz; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Production/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha; Paul Cooper; Ricardo Dávila; Brontë England-Nelson; Patrick Foley; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Summer Cabaret 2016: Seven Deadly Sins

Jesse Rasmussen, Artistic Director; Elizabeth Dinkova, Artistic Director; Emily Reeder, Producing Director; Sam Linden, General Manager; Jordan Graf, Management Associate; Anna Belcher, Chef; Aaron Wegner, Design Associate

June 2-19, 2016

The Land of Yesterday

Review of Anastasia, Hartford Stage

Back in 1997, Don Bluth et al. created Anastasia, a musical cartoon feature film (adapted from a 1950s movie that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar). The cartoon musical, from Twentieth Century Fox, gave Disney a run for its money. The latter studio had come back from the dead in the 1980s and discovered box office gold by incorporating the methods of Broadway musicals into animated films with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994). All three were later adapted to the stage—such is the interchangeability of show biz—with different levels of success. Now, Hartford Stage bring us Anastasia, A New Musical, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak with choreography by Peggy Hickey, another Broadway-bound show adapted from a popular animated film.

The story of Anastasia Romanov takes its cue from the many imposters who claimed to be her, keeping alive the story that she had survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Russian revolution of 1917. Bluth and company clearly saw the usefulness for an animated feature of any story involving a princess, and Disneyfied the story with anthropomorphic animals and an evil mystical villain—Rasputin!—to give some humor and thrills to the tale. Composers Stephen Flaherty, music, and Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, created for the film several big numbers, notably “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past,” “Learn to Do It,” and “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart).” For the stage show, Flaherty and Ahrens have expanded their supplementary songs from the animated film into a full scale musical that tells its tale through song more than dialogue.

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The task facing Terrence McNally, who wrote the Book of Anastasia, A New Musical, is to create yet another story based on the spurious legend of Anastasia’s survival that lets viewers have their fairy tale—she is a princess!—while doubting it too. McNally replaces the evil mad monk with dastardly Communist apparatchiks who must lay to rest the dangerous notion that a Russian princess might yet live. This alteration in favor of something a bit more historically accurate helps in some ways, even as it flattens the fairy tale aspects considerably. For one thing, there are nearly no comic roles and what passes for jokes are basically quips—cue Gertrude Stein (Rayanne Gonzales). And Communists make for rather colorless villains. The story has little dramatic interest, most of the songs serve only narrative purpose and are uninspiring as vehicles for feeling, and the performances, for the most part, are adequate rather than stellar.

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of the kudos in the show go to the technical features. Anastasia is a spectacle and in that sense it’s spectacular. The movable set decorations of Alexander Dodge’s brilliantly conceived scenic design make us look forward to each scene change—which is to say, each new song—and video & projection design by Aaron Rhyne makes the background more fascinating than the foreground action more than once. Peggy Hickey’s choreography gives this huge troupe of dancers—there are 14 in unnamed but multiply-costumed roles including a segment from Swan Lake—much to do and it is all brought off flawlessly. Linda Cho’s costumes will no doubt spawn facsimiles for figurines, or should. The Dowager Empress’ get-ups are gorgeous at a level that only the regal can wear, and Mary Beth Peil looks every inch a queen in her outfits. And getting to put on stage peasant garb, military wear, bohemian chic, and haut bourgeois splendor makes Cho’s contribution very much a high point. The projections and scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting design make the stage able to compete with animated action, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design gives the actors’ voices that ever-bright note that makes cartoon sound so distinctive.

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

With such a spectacle on offer, I wish I could say more in favor of the show tunes. It helps that “Once Upon a December”—which we hear three times—is a pretty song. It has to carry the emotional freight of the show, but is never more moving than it is at the start when Peil, as Anastasia’s Nana, the Empress, sings it with Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca). Which is to say the real Anastasia—at the last time the two actually see each other. The reunion and reprise, for McNally’s purposes, is real too, in the sense that everyone comes to believe that Anya (Christy Altomare), an amnesiac, Cinderella-like menial taken under-wing by two opportunists, Vlad (John Bolton, amusing) and Dmitry (Derek Klena, mostly still a cartoon), is the actual Anastasia. But there’s really not much suspense or satisfaction in whether or not the aging Empress will accept Anya as kin.

The flight from the dogged Kremlin agent Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and his minions provides some excitement here and there—a train sequence gets things moving near the end of Act I—but most of the high-points on stage are incidental to the actual story. Two such are the moody song of the exiled Russians, “Land of Yesterday,” and “The Countess and the Common Man,” a comical duet by Vlad and his onetime flame, Countess Lily (the Empress’s companion, coincidentally). Both those numbers feature Caroline O’Connor as Lily and, performance-wise, she’s the best thing in the show, which helps Act II, set in Paris where she and the Empress reside.

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The other key bit from the film that holds its own here is “Learn to Do It,” the Eliza Doolittle-like number wherein Vlad and Dmitry try to get Anya to become sufficiently aristocratic. At that point, halfway through Act I, I still had hopes that the show had lots more such tunes up its sleeve. Alas, no. “Journey to the Past,” the big rousing number before the curtain, gives Altomare a chance to show off her range and puts the show’s purpose into song.

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a journey into the past, the notion that every little girl wants to be a princess—which Disney has done much to perpetuate—returns to the point in history at which aristocracy became a dirty word, for the sake of an ideology that, in Anastasia’s view, is pernicious because it’s against grandeur and beautiful accessories. If the show has a point, it’s achieved when the three renegades from Soviet Russia, one of them allegedly nobility, hit Paris and find themselves outsiders to the capitalist fat cats as well. One needn’t really be a princess, simply able to dress like one. Better go see Grandma.

Tresnjak, who began the season trying to adapt film noir to the stage with Rear Window, again with much better tech than story, gets closer here to what seems his desiderata: stage productions that are interchangeable with movies in their attention to visuals over script. The point made by the top-notch animated features produced by Disney in the late 1980s, early 1990s (named above) was that the Broadway musical’s tendency to employ caricatures rather than characters could suit cartoon characters perfectly. That Broadway should then make caricatures of cartoon characters might reasonably nonplus a few, while for those who like that sort of thing that’s the sort of thing they like. Anastasia, if you’re willing to forego laughs, excitement, complex motivation, and are happy with great visuals and a handful of winning numbers, should not disappoint.

 

Anastasia, A New Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Video & Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. Lapointe; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Doug Besterman; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Music Preparation: Joann Kane Music, Russell Bartmus & Mark Graham; Fight Choreographer: Jeff Barry; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Vocal Arranger: Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arranger: David Chase; Associate Music Director: Steven Malone; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson; Stage Manager: Trey Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast (in order of appearance): Nicole Scimeca; Mary Beth Peil; Lauren Blackman; Constantine Germanacos; Molly Rushing; Alida Michal; Samantha Sturm; Shina Ann Morris; Manoel Felciano; Derek Klena; John Bolton; Christy Altomare; Ken Krugman; Kevin Ligon; Johnny Stellard; Rayanne Gonzales; Janet Dickinson; Caroline O’Connor; Kevin Munhall; Max Clayton; James Brown III

Hartford Stage
May 12-June 19, 2016

The Sweets of Sin

Preview, Yale Summer Cabaret

Sin. The fascination with sin goes way back, so much so that seven particular sins have traditional status as the “deadly sins” or cardinal sins. Which is to say “fundamental,” because these are sins that originate as thoughts or desires. In other words, you may be guilty of them even if you don’t commit them. And they lead to all kinds of naughtiness and a level of indulgence that . . . well, let’s just say you’ve been warned.

The Seven Deadly Sins, based on the list that Pope Gregory determined in the period often called “the Dark Ages,” are comprised of Sloth, Gluttony, Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, and Lust. The Seven Deadly Sins are also the thematic link for the Yale Summer Cabaret’s 2016 season.

To celebrate Sloth—which is a tendency to do nothing or to want to do nothing to a sinful extent—the Yale Summer Cabaret, led by “the Sin Sisters,” Co-Artistic Directors Elizabeth Dinkova and Jesse Rasmussen and Producing Director Emily Reeder, is kicking off this Friday, the 27th, with a party at the Cab space, 217 Park Street, 8 p.m. There will be actors and costumes and activities almost certainly but we might say that the main idea is it’s summer and time to relax and take it easy. Which includes taking in the rest of the season.

 

The season proper starts off on Thursday, June 2nd, with the opening of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Rasmussen and featuring Sydney Lemmon as Alice, abetted by a cast of actors—Marie Botha, Paul Cooper, Ricardo Davila, Brontë England-Nelson, Patrick Foley—who get to populate the mind-bending world Lewis Carroll created to delight little Alice Liddell ages ago. He wrote the two-part tale as a fabric of brain-teasers, drawing on puns and parodies as well as chess strategies and mathematical formulas. Some of the figures—the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter—and sayings—“Off with their heads!” “Jabberwocky”—have become overly familiar, the stuff of kiddie classics. The basics of the story have served Disney well, both as cartoon and live-action animation, and some version of Carroll’s whimsical, verbal, and at times surreal work has been given who knows how many live and filmed treatments over the decades.

The version Rasmussen and company are mounting comes via Andre Gregory—a maverick theater personage, of My Dinner with Andre fame—and dates from a time when “counter-culture” was all the rage (much like the rage for Bernie now). That’s not to say that Gregory politicized the story (which some believe was fairly politicized already), but rather that a story set in a “Wonderland” sets off allegorical possibilities.

How will the Summer Cab transform this most transformational of tales? You have till June 19th to find out. The sin to be explored: Gluttony—or, Look what happens when you listen to voices saying “eat me, drink me.” The notion that appetite can stand for a capacity to experience much at once, as we say “a glutton for punishment,” helps fill out this particular sin’s applicability to our Alice, the girl who finds things “curiouser and curiouser,” and whose curiosity seems insatiable.

A brief spot of Pride occurs on June 24th when the Summer Cabaret will hold a staged reading of a new play by rising third-year YSD playwright Tori Sampson. The play Cadillac Crew is set in Virginia during the Civil Rights movement, with an all-female cast. Sampson, in plays like This Land Was Made—about the period in which Black Panther Huey Newton was accosted by the cops, with fatalities—and Some Bodies Travel, her collaboration with Jiréh Breon Holder at this year’s Carlotta Festival, has a knack for exploring historical situations with a very contemporary sensitivity to the way the past inflects the issues of our present. One night only, June 24, 8 p.m.

The rest of the summer consists of Antartica! Which Is To Say Nowhere, Miranda Rose Hall's new adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s bizarre Ubu Roi, set in the land way down under now being colonized by greedy Americans, directed by Dinkova, June 30-July 10; Adam Geist, by German playwright Dea Loher, an odyssey of redemption for a young man prone to wrath and yet in some ways an innocent, directed by Dinkova, July 21-30; Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, directed by Rasmussen, in an update of the classical tale of a stepmother lusting after her women-spurning stepson, August 4-14. And, for an added event, don’t forget the face-off of sound designers/musicians Frederick Kennedy and Christopher Ross-Ewart on July 15 for “Envy: The Concert.”

More on the individual shows as we get closer to their production. In the meantime, take it easy, eat, drink, and be proud of yourself. The team at the Summer Cab is aiming to “shock our audience out of complacency” (which sounds like it might be the biggest sin of all in this fraught US election year). Just remember, pride goeth before destruction . . .

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
Seven Deadly Sins

Co-Artistic Directors: Elizabeth Dinkova, Jesse Rasmussen
Producing Director: Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street
May 27- August 14, 2016

The Milieu Makes the Man

Review of My Paris, Long Wharf Theatre

Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec certainly led a colorful life. As an aristocrat slumming in Montmartre, painting and drawing the denizens of the demimonde and the performers at Mirliton, a seedy cabaret his work publicized, Toulouse-Lautrec practically defined “bohemian.” What’s more, his health was poor and a disabling congenital defect left him with a man’s body on a boy’s legs. He was under 5 foot tall and had difficulty walking. Thus, in true romantic fashion, art was a way for him to overcome adversity—including a disapproving father. The heroism of Lautrec’s lonely, passionate, and talented life, lived in the milieu of entertainers with a lust for life, makes him an interesting choice as a subject for Charles Aznavour’s vibrant My Paris, with Book by Alfred Uhry, in an English adaptation by Jason Robert Brown. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall the show, after workshop productions last year at Goodspeed, is playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 29.

If we can forget how transformative Baz Luhrmann’s incandescent film Moulin Rouge! was back in 2001 (more or less destroying the tired mannerisms of movie musicals), we can find fun in this more direct and studious approach to the era. But even so, My Paris takes a little while to get into the good stuff. The decision to stress Toulouse-Lautrec’s relation with his family leads to a few scenes in the early going—“Father and Mother,” “Where Are You Going?”—that begin to make us wonder if we’ll ever get to Paris.

It’s well known that Toulouse-Lautrec hung out with the some of the premier artists of his day, but there’s no sign of them here. No doubt, the emphasis on family is meant to underscore Toulouse-Lautrec’s aristocratic origins and, given that his malady was in part due to in-breeding between cousins, milk the sorrows of the family drama element of his life story. And while performers like Tom Hewitt as Papa and Donna English as Maman are certainly worth our time, scenes about the manliness of hunting or a mother’s fears for her weak boy don’t make for interesting characterizations.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The songs set in the Moulin Rouge are the winners that make this show worth seeing, led up to by Henri and his cronies singing “We Drink!”, a kind of “Off to See the Wizard” number that draws us in with its effortless brio, followed by “Vive La Vie,” a full-tilt company number that introduces the likes of charismatic Aristide Bruant (Jamie Jackson), and local sensations such as La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Le Chocolat (Darius Barnes), and Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), and “Au Mirliton,” which ends Act One breathlessly, but still in “introductory” mode. Unfortunately, those named stars of Toulouse-Lautrec’s scene won’t be anything more than figures on stage matching figures in his work, as none but Bruant, a cheeky master of ceremonies with a brilliant red scarf, get to assert themselves as characters.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I was hoping, for awhile, that Sweany would get a number in her role as The Green Fairy—aka, absinthe, one of the stealers of Henri’s heart—but no such luck. Mara Davi as Suzanne Valadon, the other stealer of Henri’s heart, does get several expressive numbers such as the heart-stabbing “What I Meant to Say.” As Henri, Bobby Steggert carries himself with a fascinating blend of nonchalance and melancholy, or sangfroid and mauvais sang, in songs like “To Paint,” a call-to-arms; “The Honor of the Family,” a jaunty little knock-down of parental values; “Bonjour, Suzanne,” a celebration of his lady love, and, with Maman, “The Life I Lead,” a stunning bit of pop dialogue that works as the emotional center of Act Two.

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

The songs, with their easy rhymes and rhythms short-handing complex emotions, recall some of Jacques Brel’s tunes in spirit. Unlike some musicals one could name, where the setting or situations don’t immediately suggest song and dance, My Paris capitalizes on the fact that Henri haunts a world that is inherently theatrical, and Aznaour et al. find in his predicament pathos enough to sustain any amount of lyricism. While not strong on dramatic conflict—there’s no real villain other than overbearing Papa and Henri’s malady and alcoholism—the story has a satisfying arc of “misfit makes good,” and “urge to art finds success with unlikely subjects,” as well as plot points about unrequited love and the ills of dissolution.

The technical aspects of the show are all superb. The tiers of Derek McLane’s set manage to create a subtle sense of Henri’s small stature when necessary, and the distinct areas for tableaux backed with luminous projections of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work keep up a high level of visual interest throughout. The knock-out costumes are wonderful period recreations, including the Japonisme-influenced kimono the artist once posed in. The ensemble work of the dancers/singers is first-rate, having the kind of naturalness of expression that suits characters given to a showy sense of life. The variety of movements and the precision of it all is particularly impressive on Long Wharf’s relatively small amphitheater stage.

Where is it going? The Impressionists, as an artistic style and a style of being artistic, have never gone out of fashion in the public consciousness, and musicals this lively make for an agreeable evening out, giving viewers a vivid sense of art as a communal affair that suits theater more than most painter’s lives would.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mais oui—
vive Henri
au Paris!

 

My Paris
Music & Lyrics by Charles Aznavour
Book by Alfred Uhry
English Lyric Adaptation & Musical Adaptation by Jason Robert Brown
Directed & Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Associate Director/Associate Choreographer by David Eggers; Music Supervisor & Orchestrator by David Chase; Musical Direction by David Gardos

Set Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky; Hair and Wig Design: Leah Loukas; Production Stage Manager: Chris Zaccardi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Telsey + Company/Craig Burns, CSA

Costume Construction: Roberta Hamelin; Jennifer Love Costumes; Long Wharf Theatre Costume Shop; Millinery: Stephanie Taff; Wig Supervisor: Samantha Abbott; Costume Crafts: Ann Marie Donnelly; Stitcher: Alexandra Nattrass

Cast: Darius Barnes; Mara Davi; Donna English; John Grisetti; Tom Hewitt; Anne Horak; Timothy Hughes; Jamie Jackson; Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Tiffany Mann; Kate Marilley; Andrew Mueller; John Riddle; Bobby Steggert; Erica Sweany

Dance Captain: Timothy Hughes

Musicians: David Gardos, conductor, piano, accordion; Sean Rubin, bass; Jeffrey Carlson, guitar, mandolin; Andrew Smith, violin

Originally produced by Goodspeed Musicals

Long Wharf Theatre
May 4-29, 2016

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

With David Auburn’s four character play, Proof, New Haven Theater Company once again proves that what they do best are plays driven by natural dialogue in a static location. In focusing on Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), the daughter of Robert (George Kulp), a ground-breaking mathematician, who is trying to cope with her father’s loss, while fielding intrusions from her dad’s one-time grad student, Hal (Christian Shaboo), and her take-charge sister, Claire (Deena Nicol-Blifford), Proof departs from most NHTC offerings by presenting a female main character. And that’s to the good as Chenot is one of the troupe’s most versatile actors. Here, she gets to be prickly and melancholic, romantic and distracted, all while keeping us in tune with what’s going on in Cathy’s interesting head.

Turning 25 as the play opens, Cathy is a young woman who has inherited some of her dad’s math genius, but hasn’t really applied herself, it seems. Worried that mathematical minds tend to peak around 28, she opens the play in a funk, chatting with her already deceased father. It’s a nifty opening because it gets the relationship between Robert and Cathy on the table fast: he doted on her, but, in his last decade or so, he needed her as his companion and attendant because he was, as he puts it, “in the bug house.” From beyond the grave, as it were, Robert’s voice can be encouraging and consoling, but his very presence may suggest perhaps that Cathy might share both the capacity for mental breakthrough and breakdown.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Into the situation comes a possible love interest, Hal, who is dedicated to his mentor’s past greatness and hopes against hope that something worth publishing can be found in the reams and reams of notebooks Robert left behind. Robert, suffering from hypergraphia, tended to write gibberish as though straight from the Burning Bush, and so there’s a lot to slog through. Cathy is both dismissive of Hal’s efforts and a little bit conciliatory, though he may be trying too hard to draw her out. Shaboo seems always to play sympathetic guys, so we probably aren’t as distrustful of Hal’s intentions as Cathy is.

The one to be distrustful about is Claire who is not nearly so star-struck about the old man as Cathy is, and who believes the sisters erred in not turning him over to professional help. Claire has a much more practical mind than either her sister or father so tends to be the wet-blanket to their enthusiasms. It’s important that she be a not-so-sympathetic voice of reason and Nicol-Blifford gets her across as likable and even-tempered, if pushy.

Directed by Steven Scarpa with a good sense of pacing, the NHTC production is strengthened by its ability to make somewhat prosaic situations—bickering well-intentioned sisters, ingratiating but nerdy guy, overbearing has-been paterfamilias—come alive with forthright charm. The flashbacks to Robert while alive let us see both the manic side of his condition and his mellow months of remission. Kulp handles both with a sincerity that shows us Robert from Cathy’s point of view, as someone who was once something extraordinary and then, sadly, could only hope for being normal.

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

As a play, Proof works by short scenes of two or three characters and keeps its dialogue focused on the back and forth of exchange. Some of the best moments are in the timing between Chenot and Nicol-Blifford as Cathy is apt to verbally undercut her sister’s views, and vice versa. The hot and cold approach to romance between Cathy and Hal feels contemporary enough, though tinged with a romantic comedy tone.

The play’s main issue is whether or not a woman can be a math genius—a plot point that works both for the theme of what we inherit from our forebears and for the theme of the incalculable equation of love. There's also a neat play on proof, as mathematical solution and evidence. In the end, we see that the burden of proof can be too easily assumed by those who don’t know as much as they think they do, and that love is something that has to be proven again and again.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Margaret Mann and Erich Greene

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot; George Kulp; Deena Nicol-Blifford; Christian Shaboo;

New Haven Theater Company Stage
at English Markets Building
839 Chapel Street
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

For Art's Sake

Review of Red and ‘Art’ at Westport Country Playhouse

“…all of art is a portrait of an idea”—Mark Rothko

Two Tony-winning plays are playing in repertory at Westport Country Playhouse, both directed by Mark Lamos. Red, by John Logan, which opened Saturday night, and ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza, which opened on Sunday, both treat fraught relations with fine art. The first, from the point of view of the maker, specifically the great mid-twentieth-century painter Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and a fictional assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews); the second, from the point of view of the buyer, Serge (John Skelley), and his bemused buddies, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan).

Of the two, ‘Art’, well-known as a play performed all over the world and generally a hit with audiences, is easily the more entertaining and likable play. Red, boasting a great set and Rowe’s intense rendering of Rothko, has no sense of humor—like Rothko himself seemingly—and only a weakly realized “agon” between mentor and assistant to recommend it as drama.

It’s not that Red sells Rothko’s ideas short—though hearing someone in a position of authority behave in so surly and dismissive a manner certainly won’t win over non-admirers—but rather that it makes Rothko’s modus operandi seem inflated, vain, misguided, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. Or, if one wants to be kinder, it suggests—scarcely a new idea—that each new generation of significant artists “kills” the previous generation. So, as those considered Abstract Expressionists—like Rothko—killed off the Cubists, so the Pop artists killed off the Abstract Expressionists. That’s true enough if we treat art as fashion, but as an assessment of the art of the twentieth century it’s extremely facile. And yet when Ken, considerably beside himself after taking as much abuse from Rothko as he can stand, offers this as an insight, it’s meant to feel telling.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The best thing about Red is seeing Rowe make Rothko in his studio come alive for us, a studio so well-rendered in Allen Moyer’s set you almost believe New York city is right outside its papered-over windows. Rothko, by all accounts, could indeed be difficult and had an uncompromising approach to his work—elements of his personality that come out here but without much sense of what he is trying to achieve with his work (viewers who think that the slapdash “paintings” hung on the stage have anything to do with Rothko’s work will be sadly mislead). The disconnect between Rothko’s work and the play, however, seems to be the point, as its story (such as it is) is told from the point of view of Ken. If only Ken had a point of view.

We learn he is an artist, though we never see evidence of it, nor do we ever get a sense that he, like Rothko, is bent upon achieving something that goes beyond himself. He tells the painter, after taking a job as his assistant, that his favorite artists are Pollock and Picasso, and eventually he defends Pop art because it’s fun. It might be more interesting if Ken defended figurative work or advocated that Rothko dispense with shapes altogether, but as it is he’s a cipher not given enough depth to be a character. It’s not even correct to say that he is skeptical of Rothko’s work since his reactions are to the man, primarily.

As a man, Rowe makes Rothko memorable by attitude more than by statement. He babbles about Nietzsche and puts down other painters, critics, and the general public in a manner that comes from an essentially depressive view of the modern world. Rothko actually had an interesting personal history but none of that matters here. What we get is, thanks to Rowe’s portrayal, a believable Rothko in, thanks to Logan’s script, an unrewarding situation.

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps the most obvious point of transition between Red and ‘Art’ is when Rothko, bemused, speaks of how buyers want “a Rothko” or to collect “Rothkos,” so that he has become an object, synonymous with the objects he creates. In ‘Art’, a dermatologist named Serge buys “an Antrios,” for 200,000 euros. The assumption is that, like many dilettantes who bought Rothkos when his name became synonymous with modern art, Serge is buying the reputation more than the object. His friend Marc is aghast. The painting, which looks to be solid white, though allegedly possessing some white stripes on a white ground, or perhaps even some other muted colors, is deemed by Marc to be “shit.” The two eventually bring into their disagreement a mutual friend Yvan, who is in the midst of preparing to get married and who tries to be fair to each man’s point of view, a strategy that only fuels the fire when it fails.

What makes the play rewarding is the command of dialogue. Reza, as translated from French by Christopher Hampton, writes a stylized form of speech that can range from direct appeals to the audience, to rapid-fire ripostes and undercutting between characters, to a somewhat middlebrow version of highbrow discourse, to a hilarious monologue to his friends in which Yvan vents on the difficulty of getting all the women implicated in the wedding—his fiancée and her stepmother, and his own mother and stepmother—to agree. In fact, it is that monologue, which lets Dugan begin to run away with the play, that happily shifts us from the somewhat antiseptic discussion of the painting.

Which is fine, as the idea that this play is about art does it a disservice. All along we suspect that the difference in tastes about art is simply an easy notational device to characterize the three men. Serge, the others well know, is a would-be modernist; Marc likes landscapes; Yvan has a sentimental attachment to a canvas his father painted. What makes for the drama here is that Serge’s willingness to pay so much for such a work puts him into a different category. He’s attempting to rise above Marc’s conception of him by aligning himself with intellectuals (who use novel words like “deconstruction”—the play dates from the late 1990s, after all). And the sense of how our friends don’t remain fixed in the niches to which we assign them is what galls Marc and makes the play come alive as each airs his griefs with the others.

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The comic pay-off of the play helps to undercut its own pretensions, though it also risks aligning itself with the tactics of the easy word-of-mouth consensus that is more relevant to theater than to the art world. Riza is never in danger of deconstructing the comedy of manners—and tastes—that is ‘Art’’s biggest selling point, but one can’t help feeling that, in French, she might get closer to something more pointed. The play, to me, seems underwritten by the sociological treatment of bourgeois “cultural capital” in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (hence, the specifics of each man’s occupation), and so is a way of showing how each man’s taste fulfills a certain function. The best moment, as theater, is when the three men share a small plate of almonds, for then their similarity is inescapable.

Mark Lamos’ productions of the two plays is best when it lets us dwell on such non-verbal moments—such as the covering of a canvas with a red undercoat that Rothko and Ken undertake simultaneously. In bringing the two plays together in repertory, Lamos underscores a telling moment in each: Ken’s defense of Pop art against Abstract Expressionism is replayed in ‘Art’ when Marc draws a cartoon figure upon Serge’s minimalist “masterpiece.” In both cases, the notion that art should amuse or please is for a moment lifted above its ability to confound or be profound. And yet, even then, both plays keep alive the sense of art as an irritant and a confrontation, and each play is deepened by its relation to the other.

And that, we may say, is the idea.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

Red
By John Logan
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Patrick Andrews; Stephen Rowe

‘Art’
By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Sean Dugan; Benton Greene; John Skelley

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Rachel Kenner; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
May 3-29, 2016

As Good As It Gets

Review of Happy Days, Yale Repertory Theatre

In the course of seven years of reviewing plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen some interesting productions of new plays, but I’ve been waiting for a revival or a staging of a classic play that might be considered definitive and simply not to be missed. Now I have: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director James Bundy and starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest as the irrepressible Winnie, not only does full justice to Beckett’s most feminine play, it brings to light elements of characterization that couldn’t be more trenchant.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of Beckett’s best-known plays are fairly masculine affairs, as are his most famous narrative works. The typical consciousness in Beckett is not only male, it’s one that primarily sees women as ill-understood maternal functions or via procreative urges to which his characters are sometimes hostile but are mostly indifferent. Happy Days, essentially a monologue by a middle-aged woman sinking into a barren mound, lets us hear the other side of the coin. Do I even have to say why that might be socially and politically relevant in 2016?

We might say that, more than ever, we have to listen to Winnie not simply as a symbol of something, but as a particular quality of mind.

While mostly a monologue, Happy Days is not a soliloquy, and that’s very important. Winnie speaks sometimes to herself and sometimes simply for the benefit of some imagined onlookers, but for the most part she speaks to Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who is not visible to us for most of the show’s two hour running time, but who can be heard sometimes, and seen by Winnie if she turns her head.

That she is able to do in the first half of the show while we see her, from waist up, in a corset, with arms bare. She can rummage in her bag, brush her teeth, consult a mirror, interact with a revolver, don a hat, and, quite memorably, hoist a parasol above her head. When the curtain rises on Act 2, the earth is up to her chin. With nothing to do but talk, she remains cheery if weary, almost but not quite ready to relinquish her consciousness.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a discussion question, the meaning of her condition could no doubt float many a literary seminar, but, as a physical state to find someone in, it is, for an audience, profoundly uncomfortable, and therefore humorous so as not to be appalling. In other words: in real life we’d rush to her aid; in theater we simply have to accept it, as does Winnie herself. And, the play suggests, as we will have to, in our own cases, sooner or later. Hamlet tells a skull to remind “my lady” that she’ll become one herself, cosmetics notwithstanding. Beckett makes an entire play of that insight, so that we can’t ignore the baleful significance of the little Winnie retains, nearing the end. Though she can still laugh and hope for something.

In fact, Winnie’s primary effort is to look relentlessly on the bright side. Hence the show’s title, as she finds reasons to consider herself—like Camus would have us imagine Sisyphus—happy. And making of this existential tableau something “lighthearted” takes every bit of Beckett’s incredibly detailed sense of the minutia of human life. Much of Winnie’s talk is trivial, but focused with deliberate endearment on the everyday, with occasional flights of fancy.

Wiest and Bundy have found a tone and a tempo that makes Winnie seem, rather than dotty or in denial, a fully lucid commentator upon her fate. The moods the actress is able to convey with slight facial alterations, with a voice that moves from consoling cooing to spikes of excitement to lamentation and resignation make this a vivid enactment of a vital presence.

It helps considerably that Wiest has a very sensual voice. She can sound sexy when pleased with herself or Willie, gruff when she’s not, and like a musing schoolmarm when trying to remember apropos quotations or appropriate usage, or, at times, like a whimsical child, as when trying to see how much of her own face she can see. She uses dramatized voices to recall a couple who looked upon her plight once and made rude comments. That couple—named Shower or Cooker, Winnie seems to recall—is us: looking on, thinking our thoughts about what she’s wearing or why she’s there or what she means.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Throughout, with his rags on his head, his newspaper, his “straw” (a boater), and, finally, his dress suit (which might be worn equally appropriately to come a-courting or to a graveside), Willie enacts a kind of attenuated autonomy that intrudes itself from time to time on Winnie, if only to increase her sense of immobility. “What a curse—mobility!” she clucks sympathetically at one point.

Essential to the tableau, Willie is a presence of which Winnie is solicitous and which she requires not simply as foil but as the sharer in her sense of her own presence: “Something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself.” There are few plays comparably as deft at suggesting the uncountable days of a long, uninterrupted marriage and the toll such a union takes as well as the enduring sense of identity it confers. If you’re anywhere near middle-age yourself, you’ve probably seen your parents go through it; or you may be, at this point, able to see yourself in the same boat. This play will accelerate that recognition.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

The set, by Izmir Ickbal, with its lifelike mound and painted sky befits a diorama into which we peer at a captive for a sign of how life might be conducted under such conditions, while Stephen Strawbridge’s requisite relentless lighting creates a desert atmosphere. The props and costumes, particularly Winnie’s charming little hat and igniting parasol, maintain an air of what Winnie is fond of referring to as “the old style.”  There’s a sense that once upon a time life was normal but that it has long since ceased to be so, thus Winnie becomes a figure for the lightness of the mind when faced with the encroaching uselessness of the body. At one point she wonders if gravity might cease to be what it once was and if she could be—like the Madonna herself—“sucked up” into the sky.

Fans of Wiest and admirers of Beckett should not miss this show, even if they’ve seen the play before. I profess myself to be both, and largely because of the sly sense of comedy both author and actress possess. And I’m glad this memorable version of Happy Days represents my first viewing of the play. As Winnie might say, “Oh the happy memories!”

 

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by James Bundy

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Cast: Dianne Wiest; Jarlath Conroy

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 29-May 21, 2016

King of Comedy

Review of Spamalot at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and of Monty Python in general. I saw the film on its first U.S. run, several times, and had, in my teens, committed to memory many Python routines, including most of the dialogue of the film. I resisted going to see the Broadway run of Spamalot because, frankly, the idea of actors trying to take on the variety of roles and voices that the Pythons themselves—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and sometimes Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland—originated struck me as a kind of sacrilege. But time goes on and we’ve got to get over that.

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Particularly as Spamalot has managed to bring to the stage the inspired inanity of the film, but with the advantage that the actors can actually hear the audience laughing. Where the film spoofed certain genres of film-making, not least the documentary and the arthouse film, Spamalot spoofs the stage and, particularly, Broadway musicals. Both film and musical, of course, spoof the august tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, and the mix of the fabulous and the folksy that comprises the world of legend. Idle, who had to go it alone without his former colleagues in converting their best-known work into a stage show, is clever in how he “lovingly rip[s]-off” (to use the official terminology) the film and adapts it to the stage.

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Tremendously popular, Spamalot has played all over the world—which is fitting as the good old British empire got about a bit. As staged at University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Richard Ruiz, with a few professional parts and the rest student actors, Spamalot comes across as a wacky romp trying to “find its legs.” The notion that Arthur has to put on a Broadway show, as charged by the Knights Who Until Recently Said Ni, feels like a quest indeed. Though production values may have been a bit different on Broadway, the show sends up professional theater while remaining true to what Idle conceived: taking aim at Broadway while aiming for Broadway. That means there are plenty of cheesy visuals that are remarkable for how serviceable they are—such as the castles for the outrageous French taunters and the plaintive plight of Herbert. There’s even catapulted cows and a hilarious plush, fanged rabbit. And a great variety of costuming by Heather Lesieur.

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The pros in the cast—Richard Kline as Arthur and Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake—together with choreographer Tom Kosis give this show its Broadway shine. The stagework throughout is lively and inventive (and special credit to Voice and Accent Coach David Alan Stern for keeping an ear to the original). Kline’s Arthur has the right straight-man tone—diffident and generally perplexed—but he can also soft-shoe and sing and break the fourth wall—“there goes my career”—all while seeming like an aging CEO trying to find out what makes his business go. And Torres, besides looking great in her various get-ups, from Disneyish princess to outlandish Vegas-style hoofer, handles the vocals given to the Lady—who is mainly only there to provide musical commentary—with joyous comic aplomb.

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

But about that part: since most of the Python’s works were “boys only” affairs, with an occasional actual female cameo, mostly in the T&A category, there’s not much for a female star to do in Spamalot. Idle’s solution is to make that lack thematic, having the Lady gripe—in full-throated song—about being underused. It’s funny, yes, but misses taking advantage of the Zoot/Dingo dichotomy from the film, as the stage play—disappointingly—drops the entire Castle Anthrax scene. It should’ve been expanded rather than excised and then there would be some actual female “peril” and possibly a song or two for a female character that isn’t simply meta-commentary.

The show is well cast, particularly in key roles: Gavin McNicoll is perfect as Pasty, Arthur’s overlooked Cockney assistant, who gets a major song, and Nick Nudler is rather Idle-esque as the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin, who gets to lead the droll “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”—very Gilbert & Sullivan—while, as Sir Lancelot, Bryce Wood does full justice to the delightful “His Name is Lancelot.” Both songs develop facts about the American stage—the prevalence of Jews and gays—in a breezy, poking-fun way. Like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “Twice in Every Show,” the song routines laugh at the convenience of conventions even while benefiting from them, for the sake of a laugh.

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

And that’s pretty much the only take away from the show, as stated in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which Idle, who wrote it, cleverly steals from the Python’s other successful film, The Life of Brian): “They say it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go / Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” The laugh, initially, was that a show that spoofs successful Broadway musicals became a successful Broadway musical, winning three Tony awards. Here, the “last laugh” is that the show is also a delightful big production event for university theater with its infectious sense that it’s best not to take anything too seriously.

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

 

 

Richard Kline in
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Featuring Mariand Torres
Directed by Richard Ruiz

Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland; Lighting Designer: Adam Lobelson; Musical Director: John Pike; Costume Designer: Heather Lesieur; Voice & Accent Coach: David Alan Stern; Technical Director: Gregory Maine; Dramaturg: Benjamin McSheehy; Video/Projection Designer: Josh Winiarski; Choreographer: Tom Kosis; Sound Designers: Justin Graziani, Joel Abbott

Cast: Mikaila Baca-Dorion; Valerie Badjan; Juliana Bearse; Olivia Benson; Kent Coleman; Jeff DeSisto; Zack Dictakis; Tabatha Gayle; Derrick Holmes; Sarah Jensen; Richard Kline*; Kirsten Keating Liniger; Curist Longfellow; Gavin McNicoll; Chester Martin; Nick Nudler; Joon Ho Oh; Scott Redmond; Susannah Resnikoff; Ryan Rudewicz; Meredith Saran; Ben Senkowski; Ryan Shea; Brian Patrick Sullivan; Mariand Torres*; Bryce Wood; Jacob Harris Wright

*AEA member

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts
April 21-May 1, 2016

Yale Cab 48 Recap

“There’s no accounting for taste,” the saying goes. Here, at the end of another season at the Yale Cabaret—Season 48, but the 7th I’ve been a witness to—it’s time for my annual recap, which might be described as a way of accounting for my own tastes.

It’s not a competitive environment, the Cab. So many names recur again and again in these lists because there’s very much a “get it done as best you can with who’s available” mode at work much of the time. So, I’ll start off with paying tribute to everyone who took the time to take part in Season 48 at what remains my favorite place for theater in New Haven. Season 48—2015-16—was a tough year for many reasons and it was good to have that little life-raft down the steps at 217 Park Street, maintained by Co-Artistic Directors David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, and Managing Director Annie Middleton.

David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

Here are, in chronological order, my four best-remembered and, in final position, most treasured contributions to the season in the following categories: New Plays; Existing Plays; Set Design; Costume Design; Lighting Design; Sound Design; Music; Projections and Effects; Ensemble Acting; Actor (male), Actor (female) in supporting role; Actor (male), Actor (female) in main role; Directing; Production.

Here goes.

There weren’t that many New Plays in the season, which began with an adaptation of a preexisting play, and the other eligibles are here as well: We Are All Here, an adaptation of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime by David Bruin and Jiréh Breon Holder: a large cast enacting complex relationships with a great frenetic use of the Cab space; MoonSong by Sean Patrick Higgins: a touching and gently comic look at a talented family struck by illness; Salt Pepper Ketchup by Josh Wilder: the first part of a topical tale about the tensions surrounding gentrification in food service in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood; Lake Kelsey by Dylan Frederick: a contemporary coming of age musical in which the kids are not so alright; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Miranda Rose Hall:, my favorite because I grew up on Monty Python and sketch comedy and this zany, rapid-fire take on current anxieties (don’t get me started on the medical profession) scored with me all the way.

For Existing Plays, there are more to choose from, and my selection is based on the kinds of things I find most fascinating in works I haven’t seen before: Boris Yeltsin by Mickaël de Oliveira, translated by Maria Inês Marques: an update of the story of Agamemnon and Orestes, sharply scripted and sharply acted, with a definite ax to grind; Cloud Tectonics by José Rivera: a lyrical love story exploring archetypal relations in a convincing way; Dutch Masters by Greg Keller: a class-and-race clash, forcing us to delve into the vulnerabilities behind the issues; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder: an intimate glimpse of a diva at home experiencing life-changing love, touched with both cynicism and romanticism; and . . . Knives in Hens by David Harrower: my favorite because of its truly striking ear for the English language, and its cast and setting perfectly captured a world both elemental and deeply suggestive.

For Set Design: The Secretaries (Jean Kim), a finely worked up space able to accommodate very different settings, from bedroom to work place to lumber camp; Trouble in Tahiti (Rae Powell), an amazing cartoon cut-out look that suited the show perfectly; Cloud Tectonics (Izmir Ickbal), a surprisingly real space for this rather unreal tale; And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens (Lucie Dawkins; Sarah Nietfeld), a room can reveal and conceal, and this space did both with more origami cranes than could be counted; and . . . The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Christopher Thompson; Claire DeLiso), you can’t put a functioning turntable in a set and not get my attention, and this set was not only worthy of Fassbinder it made me want to visit.

For Costumes, the first thing I noticed was that the same person—with different nominal designations on the programs—was responsible for much of the stuff I was most impressed with: The Secretaries (Asa Benally): matching look to type is always helpful in comedy and the various takes—and take-offs—of these ladies had work to do; Boris Yeltsin (Haydee Zelideth): costuming can include use of nudity and how that played into this tale of a bizarre family romance was casual and crafty; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Sarah Nietfeld): if only for the transformations of Trisha, and the other quick changes before our eyes; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Haydee Zelideth Antunano): clothes make the lady in this tale of a fashion designer, which just wouldn’t work without the semiotics of appearances; and . . .  Trouble in Tahiti (Haydee Antunano; Asa Benally): my favorite because of the look of the vocal trio and the elegant bourgeoisity of the principals.

For Lighting: Knives in Hens (Andrew F. Griffin): the look of this show stayed with me for a long time; The Secretaries (Elizabeth Green): lighting was at times a special effect in the varied moods of this wildly funny show; Trouble in Tahiti (Carolina Oritz): a show with a visual style that fully complemented its music; Cloud Tectonics (Elizabeth Mak): lighting and other subtle effects helped in this play of stopped time; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Andrew F. Griffin): with much of the action occurring behind scrims, the play of light in the show was an expressive and striking element.

For Sound: Knives in Hens (Tom Starkey): many nice aural touches to create a surround of tension; I’m With You in Rockland (Nok Kanchanabanca): balancing jazz, spoken word, and videos into a coherent whole; The Secretaries (Kate Marvin): the range of soundscape added to the exaggerated reality of this sharp satire; Cloud Tectonics (Tye Hunt Fitzgerald): the sound of the storm felt palpable and impressive; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Frederick Kennedy): important use of unsettling sound effects and live and recorded voices made this the most memorable to me.

For Music: I’m With You in Rockland (Ian Gottlieb; Dylan Mattingly): percussion and piano were the stars of the show; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Frederick Kennedy; Christopher Ross-Ewart): composed music and songs on the stereo added extra levels of emotion; Someone to Watch Over Me (Andrew Burnap): fine renditions of the voice and trumpet of the great Chet Baker; Lake Kelsey (Dylan Frederick): catchy and incisive exposition through song; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein; Music Director: Jill Brunelle): a beautiful arrangement of a score with classical lyricism and ethnic inflections,  somewhere between opera and musical theater.

For Projections and Artistic Effects: Roberto Zucco (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): a barrage of effects for the finale of a killer’s bad end; Slouch (Brittany Bland, projection design): moody, collage-like effects added much visual interest to this tale of groping interiorities; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Brittany Bland, projection design): video intrusions added to the spectacle of medical chaos; Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? (Aylin Tekiner, Conceptual Artist; Kemal Gökhan Gürses, Illustrator Artist; Brittany Bland, projection design): a wonderfully involved use of video, shadow puppets, animation to tell a child’s eye view of violence and death; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): the visuals brilliantly created commentary and expanded on the dramatic situations presented.

For Ensemble acting: We Are All Here (Jenelle Chu, Claire DeLiso, Edmund Donovan, Brontë England-Nelson, Christopher Ghaffari, Jonathan Higginbotham, Sean Patrick Higgins, Maria Inês Marques, Victoria Whooper, Ian Williams): a rough and tumble ensemble with everyone adding to the comic tensions; The Secretaries (Jenelle Chu, Annie Hägg, Chalia La Tour, Annelise Lawson, Shaunette Renée Wilson): a ladies only night—and it was irresistible to see five of the six actresses of the class of 2016 tearing it up together; Salt Pepper Ketchup (Mia Antoinette, Jason de Beer, Eston J. Fung, Sean Boyce Johnson, Steven Lee Johnson, Tanmay Manohar, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo): a sustained sense of community with delicate detentes and violent intrusions; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Baize Buzan, Anna Crivelli, Sydney Lemmon, Annelise Lawson, Leyla Levi, Shaunette Renée Wilson): another ladies only play that lets us into an inner circle being destroyed from within; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Juliana Canfield, Paul Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Aubie Merrylees, Alyssa Miller, Jacob Osborne): though there’s clearly a central character, there were many mini-cameos of a variety of types in this darkly comic tale.

Even in the midst of great ensemble work, there were roles that lit up with memorable intensity: Actor (female), in supporting role(s): Baize Buzan as the mercurial love object in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; Chalia La Tour as the sadistic supervisor in The Secretaries; Brontë England-Nelson as several roles, including an enthralled woman and an old man in Roberto Zucco; Marié Botha for her comic shopping spree in Slouch; and . . . for a hilarious range of commentators, amazingly lucid in each incarnation, Juliana Canfield in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness.

Actor (male), in supporting role(s): Sean Patrick Higgins as the dad with wife, male lover, and nubile daughter troubles in We Are All Here; Paul Cooper as the fascinatingly dark and introspective Miller in Knives in Hens; Julian Elijah Martinez as a boyish Orestes learning to man up in Boris Yeltsin; Eston J. Fung as the harried and scheming fast food joint owner in Salt Pepper Ketchup; and . . . for two roles, equally memorable: the unnervingly patriarchal husband in Knives in Hens, and the wacky sick scientist with a song to sing in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, Niall Powderly.

For “main role,” I’ve chosen parts that dominate the action or share center stage together: Actor (male): Aubie Merrylees, the killing fool and homicidal lover in Roberto Zucco; Edmund Donovan, the wary white boy getting in too deep in Dutch Masters; Leland Fowler, the seductive, deceiving, amusing and sympathetic black kid in Dutch Masters; Patrick Madden, the accommodating queen of her own fantasy heading for a fall in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens; and . . . a thoughtful lover missing the cues for a full life but achieving a poetic end, Bradley James Tejeda in Cloud Tectonics.

Actor (female): Mary Higgins, as the mom with a song in her heart and a wry sense of her own frailty in MoonSong; Kelly Hill, as a wife looking for the romantic magic she never knew in Trouble in Tahiti; Stephanie Machado, as the mysterious time-stopping archetypal pregnant madonna in Cloud Tectonics; Sydney Lemmon, as a vital, successful woman with a void in her heart in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . as Woman, on her way to knowledge and, through stylized encounters with male figures, finding her own voice, Elizabeth Stahlmann in Knives in Hens.

For Direction, thanks to everyone who takes on this task, but to single-out productions where the grasp of complex material was very telling: Jesse Rasmussen, for the mysterious, portentous world of Knives in Hens; Christopher Ghaffari, for finding a way to stage at the Cab a truncated Bernard-Marie Koltès play with a sprawling cast of characters, Roberto Zucco; Lynda Paul, for the incorporation of music, voice, acting, visuals, comedy, romance into a Gesamtkunstwerk in Trouble in Tahiti; Leora Morris, with Jesse Rasmussen, for a pacing and tone that revitalizes Fassbinder in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . for going over the top, to the edge of chaos and back in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, and for a slowburn control of barbed material in Boris Yeltsin, Elizabeth Dinkova.

And for overall Production: Knives in Hens: Adam J. Frank, Producer; Davina Moss, Dramaturg; Rebekah Heusel, Stage Manager; Roberto Zucco: Tanmay Manohar, Gretchen Wright, Producers; Ariel Sibert, Dramaturg; Emely Zepeda, Stage Manager; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness: Kathy Ruoran Li, Producer; David Clauson, Stage Manager; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: Maria Inês Marques, Producer & Dramaturg; Avery Trunko, Stage Manager; and . . . (call me sentimental, but I was born at the end of the 1950s) Trouble in Tahiti: Steven Koernig, Producer; Taylor Barfield, Dramaturg; Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko, Co-Stage Managers.

Farewell, Cab 48. Howdy, Cab 49.

The Proof is in the Play

Preview of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

Though the New Haven Theater Company has stretched themselves in a variety of directions over the years—including the musical Urinetown, the fantasy Shipwrecked!, and large cast American classics like Our Town and, this past winter, Bus Stop—their bread-and-butter shows are small cast, dialogue-driven plays by playwrights like David Mamet, Conor McPherson, or the company’s own resident playwright Drew Gray. Getting back to where they once belonged after the stretch of Bus Stop, NHTC opens David Auburn’s popular, Tony Award and Pulitzer-winning play Proof next week at their performance space at the English Building Markets.

Directed by Steve Scarpa, who last directed Our Town for the Company, Proof was first considered years ago as an apt NHTC vehicle but they weren’t able to secure the rights. Fittingly, with Scarpa as director and the cast comprised of Megan Keith Chenot, George Kulp, Christian Shaboo, and Deena Nicol-Blifford, the play could be called “classic NHTC”—all four were in Our Town and have been in numerous productions. This time around, Kulp—who directed Bus Stop and typically pulls down “the father figure” parts—will play Robert, a deceased math genius who had mental problems, with Chenot, last seen as the put-upon chanteuse in Bus Stop, playing his daughter Catherine, who inherited his math smarts and, possibly, his mental problems as well. Shaboo, who often gets the romantic leads and was last seen as the harried husband in Smudge last fall, plays Hal, Robert’s former student who is trying to sort out the great man’s papers, among which is a proof that could be game-changing. Nicol-Blifford, who directed Smudge and appeared in The Cult last spring, is the older daughter, Claire, distanced from both her father and sister.

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

Chenot feels the play is particularly suited to NHTC because “it’s about family and we’re family.” Scarpa agrees: “It feeds into what we do best—shows with good parts and high stakes. Auburn said he could’ve used anything as the father’s special area; he wanted it to be a solitary undertaking in which one could be brilliant but that also has its burdens, so math here can also be, to some degree, what it takes to be an artist.” Kulp agrees, the play is “about having a certain gift and what it means, a legacy that can be passed on so that children, perhaps, do better than their parents.” Chenot has done some research into the math to sound like she knows what she’s talking about as Catherine, a brilliant woman, but she also takes seriously Catherine’s fears that genius and madness are related, “as they sometimes are for creative artists.”

It’s also helpful, in regard to NHTC’s resources, that the play has one setting: the backyard of a run-down home, where upkeep isn’t the strong point. In Bus Stop, which sold out its run, the setting was a public space where many personal interactions were taking place; this time, it’s a private space, so that the show, Scarpa says, is “even more intimate.” The whole cast is enamored of Auburn’s writing and that, they point out, is what the company looks for first and foremost: “great scripts with a lot of range.”

“We’re about the truth of the story,” Scarpa says, and Kulp adds out that the art of storytelling is ultimately what keeps the Company, who all have other jobs and pursuits, coming back to the back room at the English Building. Kulp, who is an Equity actor, gave up some professional jobs to be involved in Proof, but that’s the attraction of working with familiar friends on pet projects in their own space.

Scarpa, who sees himself as “the enabler of the process” as director, aims to be as supportive as possible of his cast. He knew from the start that Chenot was “perfect for the role” of Catherine, though it couldn’t be more different from the not-too-brainy singer she put across in Bus Stop. This time, Chenot, who has taught theater in high school, will be relying on some of that teacherly poise. As with Bus Stop, though, the drama and the humor comes from people being themselves, in the kinds of interactions that can be intense one moment and more lighthearted the next.

A play about family, genius, madness, fear, rivalry, and with a love story too. To the entire company, all of whom are involved in choosing the plays, it was “uniformly obvious” that Proof is a real New Haven Theater Company kind of play. Need proof? See the show.

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams.

The New Haven Theater Company
Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steve Scarpa

The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

A Scholar Undonne by Death

Review of Wit at Playhouse on Park

Mortality figures as a theme in many plays, but Margaret Edson’s Wit, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Stevie Zimmerman, dwells on the approach of death from first to last. Dr. Vivian Bearing (Elizabeth Lande), the main character, greets the audience brightly with the inevitable query of medical care-givers, “how are you feeling today?” She is in a hospital gown with a portable IV, bald head beneath a knit cap, when she asks. However we might be feeling, it has to be better than she is.

The story of the play is well-known: Vivian, a formidable English professor specializing in 17th century poetry, particularly the Metaphysical Poets and especially John Donne and, predominantly, the Holy Sonnets, is stricken with Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer at the age of 50. She agrees to the most vigorous treatment available, which requires bombardment with chemo, so that, while improving in some ways—her huge tumor does get smaller—she is on a downward slope that will, at best, be arrested for a time. What she is, in fact, is a test subject to determine the side effects and progress of the treatment.

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Key to the play, which is Edson’s only play and a Pulitzer-winning play at that, is the parallel between the rigor of the medical treatment Vivian receives from Drs. Kelekian (David Gautschy) and Posner (Tim Hackney) and the rigor of her training at the hands of the august eminence Professor E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck), and the rigor of her own teaching for decades. For Bearing and her mentor, the English language has never been used to more complex and concentrated effect than in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore faith in the face of mortality. An early flashback shows us Vivian, an undergraduate acolyte, taking in Professor Ashford’s lesson that punctuation matters in how one reads poetry as dense as Donne’s—specifically the “Death be not proud” Sonnet. Eventually, Professor Bearing gets around to expounding a bit of the poetry, the audience helped by overheads, but Lande is better at playing wry and puckish test subject than she is at donnish academic. Sonnet IX, with its theme of the mercy of forgetfulness, seems apropos to Bearing’s late misgivings about her solitary life and ended career, but the force of the conviction, if present, feels a bit scattered.

Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Better is a scene of Bearing in the classroom where her lack of empathy for her hapless students is paralleled by her research-based doctors’ lack of empathy with her suffering. The point comes off because Bearing’s students, like her doctors, don’t seem to believe that the mind has its own rewards. Certainly, the comparison being pushed is that Bearing has been an overbearing teacher much as her doctors are overbearing researchers—especially Posner, who, neatly enough, was Bearing’s student when an undergrad. Still, one wishes that the very notion of metaphysical thought would clash at some point with the extreme physicality of modern medicine’s point of view; for the students, Donne “hides” behind difficulty, and the obvious parallels are the cancer cells that hide within the seemingly healthy body, until too late; or the need for human contact that Vivian hides until almost too late. Getting it all out in the open is what, schooled by illness, Vivian eventually does.

the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

The irony that her former student, played with detached concentration by Tim Hackney, should be putting his former prof through an ever stricter barrage of tests is not lost on Bearing, but neither is it dwelt upon, any more than she would be apt to point out that her love of paradox finds its echo in being treated by a pair o’ docs. But, for the audience, the possibility of life—and, more importantly death—imitating rhetoric is some of the fun. As with the play’s willingness to both define and enact the “soporific” (high-toned English poetry and medical terminology both can qualify), the quality of Prof. Bearing’s mind is the main entertainment here. Lande is a figure of compassion almost from the start, with her childlike appearance, but the role would benefit from some less likable disdain.

Eventually, the play, which seems to be keeping death at bay much as Bearing keeps fellow feeling at bay, succumbs to both. Vivian risks becoming “maudlin” in her own estimation for the sake of companionship with her nurse Susie Monahan, played with winning efficiency by Chuja Seo. And Susie is important because through her we arrive at the main plot point once death has been admitted. Susie cautions Vivian, in a touching scene with shared frozen popsicles, that she might want a “Do Not Resuscitate” order and that brings about a moment of medical drama. The scene struck me with a force that worked against its manifest meaning—a paradox of which, whatever death might be, both Donne and Vivian might be proud.

Staging, lighting, sound—the technical requirements of mounting this spare but shifting play—are all handled brilliantly, so much so that one barely pauses to think about how it’s done. And that takes some wit indeed.

 

Wit
By Margaret Edson
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Properies Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
April 20-May 8, 2016

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Review of Lake Kelsey, Yale Cabaret

The very week that so many eyes turn to Minnesota with the shocking news of the death of one of the stellar musical artists of his generation, the Yale Cabaret takes us to Minnesota and the shores of the fictional Lake Kelsey. Perhaps the late Prince, whose film Purple Rain, in the mid-1980s, created an iconic myth of youth and creative struggle based on his own experiences in the Minneapolis music scene, might be said to be smiling benignly on fellow Minnesotan Dylan Frederick’s Lake Kelsey, a musical exploration of teen angst, gender confusion, and general confusion on the path to identity.

The world of Lake Kelsey, geographically, is dominated by its eponymous lake and by Route 63, the only major roadway in or out. There, a handful of teens do the things that teens stuck in a local rut—which might be Anywhere, U.S.—tend to do: drinking, reviling parents, engaging in furtive sex, working dead-end jobs that yet provide entry into the adult world, and dreaming of escape. Their longings, misgivings and clashes are set to very catchy tunes written by Frederick and played by a skilled pick-up band: Jenny Schmidt, keyboards; Ian Scot, bass and electronics; Frederick Kennedy, percussion, and sung well by all members of the cast.

The main drama here is teens negotiating the predatory landscape that their own hormones lead them into. Elijah Evans (Michael Costagliola) is the kind of laconic bad boy that turns on a dime from easy-going to cruel or from accommodating to pushing his own relentless libido. Apparently, young girls and girly boys of all stripes find themselves helpless to resist. Except for Boygirl (Anna Crivelli), so called because of a bad haircut she had as a kid and the name, as they say, “stuck.” She’s bent upon escape from the region and, possibly, exposure of Elijah’s reign of erotic bullying.

The play we’re shown ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but those who have been raised on the concept of sequels will accept that they’ll have to wait “till next time” to find out what becomes of Boygirl—played with an earnest, “I have that within which passeth show” manner by Crivelli, looking a bit like a female Kurt Cobain.

Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Annie Middleton, Rebecca Hampe (photo: Christopher Thompson)

Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Annie Middleton, Rebecca Hampe (photo: Christopher Thompson)

There’s a trio of girl singers: Annie Middleton as Virginia Virginia, the svelte blonde of the bunch with some distinct daddy issues stemming from his embarrassing tendency to want to be one of the kids—her “Daddy Dead” song is one of those numbers that could be a breakout for a musical like this; Rebecca Hampe as Sarah Sarah, a camp follower we’re introduced to at the start with her cloying “Star of the Class” presentation about herself; Leland Fowler as Sachi Sachi, a black girl whose racial difference seems to put her outside the reach of Elijah’s lechery, but “she” can really sing.

Anna Crivelli (Boygirl), Patrick Foley (Thousand); photo: Christopher Thompson

Anna Crivelli (Boygirl), Patrick Foley (Thousand); photo: Christopher Thompson

Then there’s Thousand (Patrick Foley) who seems to be Boygirl’s only real friend and possible accomplice on her escape plan, except he’s found out how popular a boy who gives blowjobs can be among working guys, and being popular, as several songs make clear, is what life is all about hereabouts. Frederick’s book and music manages to maintain both an affectionate clarity about the cluelessness of the age group, as well as a certain aggrieved sense of how, for many teens, nothing exists beyond the shared world of the kids they’ve grown up with.

The set by Alexander Woodward is an inspired mash-up of spaces: the heap of detritus that looks like the collective sweepings of a housing development’s worth of rec rooms; the mic stands that belong in a talent show or karaoke night; the desks for the school scenes; the couch for the inevitable trip to Elijah’s basement; and don’t forget the trampoline, an almost magical space that evokes memories of free pre-teen innocence in the midst of guilty teen scenes.

A work in progress, Lake Kelsey, if given a more extended treatment, might benefit from a parental cameo or two and from some onstage exploration of the woods we keep hearing about. The show as it currently stands is primarily about character depiction, with the songs as tuneful exposition, rather than plot, but that could change with more development. Not to be confused with Lake Wobegon “where all children are above average,” Lake Kelsey gives us the kinds of kids whose averageness is their best asset, even as they strive to see what possibilities exist for fun and status before the inevitable descent into adulthood. As someone once said, “whatever, whatever, nevermind.”

Lake Kelsey marks the last show of the Yale Cabaret’s Season 48. Next up, Season 49 (2016-17) to be helmed by Co-Artistic Directors Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, with Managing Director Steven Koernig. A fond adieu to the Cab 48 team—David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, and Annie Middleton—and a warm welcome to the new team. Fittingly, the last show of Cab 48 was directed by one of the incoming co-artistic directors, with members of the departing team working as dramaturg and a performer, respectively. How’s that for team work?

 

Lake Kelsey
Music, Book, and Lyrics by Dylan Frederick
Directed by Kevin Hourigan

Music Director and Arrangements: Samuel Suggs; Dramaturg: Leora Morris; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Sound Mixer: Ien DeNio; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Producer: Rachel Shuey

Musicians: Keyboard: Jenny Schmidt; Bass and Electronics: Ian Scot; Percussion: Frederick Kennedy

Cast: Michael Costagliola; Anna Crivelli; Patrick Foley; Leland Fowler; Rebecca Hampe; Annie Middleton

Yale Cabaret
April 21-13, 2016

My Idaho Home

Review of Lewiston at Long Wharf Theatre

Family legacy meets national legacy in Samuel D. Hunter’s low-key play Lewiston, now at the Long Wharf Theatre in its world premiere, directed by Eric Ting. Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran) are old friends, now roommates, who tend a fireworks stand on a stretch of interstate outside the play’s titular town in rural Idaho. The big issue in their world is when to sell Alice’s last remaining plot of land to the developers who are building condos, and for how much—the duo are hoping for a unit by the pool. Into their humdrum lives arrives Marnie (Arielle Goldman), a backpacking traveler who, it turns out, is Alice’s long-lost granddaughter. And she’s here to stay, tent and all.

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

The best thing about Lewiston is that Hunter’s dialogue plays things close to the everyday, and there are some unique aspects to the relationships revealed as the play goes along. His characters speak with a believable sense of entire lives already lived, so that when exposition is necessary it comes as one character filling another in. For Alice and Marnie, there’s much that has gone missing—the last time Alice saw Marnie was when the girl, now in her mid-twenties, was 8 or so. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, and there’s a lot of land missing from what Marnie remembers as the family spread, including her childhood home. The land has been in the family since Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, settled it.

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Director Eric Ting’s clear grasp of how these characters should interact means developments take their time: the coolness between Alice and Marnie keeps finding new reasons for sustaining itself. It’s not a question of grudges so much as a question of expectations. We learn piecemeal the story of Alice’s daughter, Marnie’s mother—whose young voice (played by Lucy Owen) we hear on tapes Marnie plays from time to time, recorded when her mother walked the Expedition trail to the Pacific Ocean—and we see why the two women aren’t quite sure what tone to strike with each other. Marnie isn’t so much settling old scores as trying to find a place to start again, arriving at the very moment when Alice is ready to let it all go.

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

As Connor, Moran’s role is important as an interested witness and sympathetic helper and a surprised host who extends the more effusive welcome to Marnie. The drama of the play is largely about how people can either shut others out or let them in, so that much of the talk isn’t simply about what happened or what will happen, it’s about whether or not characters will confide or find a shared relation. Marnie, played well with understated intensity by Arielle Goldman, had been in Seattle where she devised and sold an urban farm and seems to have been self-sufficient until now. Randy Danson’s Alice is, as Connor says “a bit prickly,” not willing to be knocked off course by a young person’s sudden need for roots. Though for obvious reasons generational differences can be expected to intrude, they do so as contextual details and not simply for cheap laughs.

Then there’s “Mom,” on the tapes. Voiced with an incredible sense of off-the-cuff authenticity by Lucy Owen, the tapes are mostly played in darkness, making their staging a bit disruptive and their desultory commentary more ambient than dramatic. In the end, an experience told on the tape dovetails rather too neatly with the need for some kind of statement to emerge in what seems ready to be a stalemate, though some life-changing decisions are overtaking everyone by the play’s end.

Alice (Randy Danson)

Alice (Randy Danson)

For visual interest, check out the detailed set by Wilson Chin, complemented by Matthew Richards’ lighting and Brandon Walcott’s sound design, while for figural interest there are the fireworks that tend to act as ironic commentary on the lack of excitement and the limited prospects for amusement in this stretch of the interstate. Lewiston is a thoughtful slice-of-life drama that manages to suggest a Chekhovian sense of how time and change leech from us the things we value, unless we do something about it now.

 

Lewiston
By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Paloma Young; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Randy Danson; Arielle Goldman; Martin Moran; Lucy Owen

Long Wharf Theatre
April 6-May 1, 2016

Orbiting the Yale Cabaret

Review of the Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

The first-ever Satellite Festival at Yale Cabaret was a sampling of works-in-progress and some short pieces with very specific focus. Sprawling over three nights in three locations, the Festival events could be accessed in different sequences and required at least two nights to see everything included, since some events were limited to a particular evening. The order in which things were seen may or may not contribute to the effect, and that’s part of the fun and interest of the festival format, making each person’s path through the offerings to some extent unique.

My approach was to see as much as I could in consecutive attendance at three separate locations in a sequence commencing at 9 p.m. Friday night and concluding around 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. That meant seeing the late show of the main-stage offering, at the Yale Cabaret, which seemed to suit the nature of the events on view.

Andrew Burnap as Chet Baker

Andrew Burnap as Chet Baker

Someone to Watch Over Me, created and performed by Andrew Burnap, felt, suitably, like an intimate, after-hours encounter with jazz great Chet Baker—whom Burnap impersonated in speaking, singing, and trumpet-playing. A short presentation, the show revealed something of Baker’s persona, and let Burnap display for us the lyricism of Baker’s playing, the melancholy of his singing, and the coolness of his stage patter. It was a great combo—I particularly liked the comments about the virtues of trumpet and piano unaccompanied by a drummer, the story of the try-out for Charlie Parker, and, of the tunes, “My Funny Valentine” was a highpoint.

Next up was Run Bambi, an exploratory work by Lex Brown of the Yale Art School, supported by performers Kate Ruggeri and Aarica West with lighting by Elizabeth Green. The piece, at its best, evoked impressionistic responses, as Brown’s spoken word and gestural theater riffed on racist and sexist problems in our culture, while also asserting the power of owning one’s own style and presentation. The use of props—white towels, white tires, a ladder—helpedcreate the performance space as an arena for free-form routines. An arena that Brown literally fled at one point to move through the space upstairs and back again.

the cast of Run Bambi: Kate Ruggeri, Lex Brown, Aarica West

the cast of Run Bambi: Kate Ruggeri, Lex Brown, Aarica West

 

All the movement of Run Bambi—dance was key to the show’s expressive sense of joy and defiance—was in marked contrast to the stationary nature of the next show, Christopher Ross-Ewart’s Stop Drop and Shop: Explosions for the 21st Century, a one-man monologue with sound effects. With a comic sense of inadequacy in the face of a world he doesn’t quite understand, Ross-Ewart played “himself,” a white West Coast Canadian trying to come to grips with tensions on the U.S. east coast during Election Year 2016. Ross-Ewart’s breathy, nervous delivery—punctuated by explosions and horn effects—created a sense of the put-upon, well-meaning, would-be liberal conscience of our day and age, with particular reference to that most definitive of American activities: grocery-shopping.

The first two shows benefited greatly from songs and singing; the third show would’ve as well, as Ross-Ewart is a better musician than stand-up comic, but the Festival’s rationale, at least in part, was to give students opportunity to stretch their talents beyond their expected competencies.

I began the evening with Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits?, A Memory Play by Aylin Tekiner, at the Annex, that used a fascinating mixture of puppetry, shadow puppets, and projections/animation to tell a story of mourning. The author’s father, Zeki Tekiner, was the victim of a political assassination in Turkey in 1980. The short theater piece let a child, a stand-in for Aylin voiced by Dora Schwartzman, tell the story with details gleaned from adults and from her own active imagination. The question of her source for the information she imparted, in fact, kept meeting with the oft-iterated phrase, “I don’t know.” As a child, our narrator is uncertain what she knows or how she knows it; as our narrator, the child speaks with full authority. The relation between the two states—knowing and not-knowing (and knowing things you’d rather not know) informed the entire piece. The shadow puppets were creepily perfect for the Grimm’s fairy-tale-like story—complete with an actual underground city below the Castle district of Neveshir, Cappadocia, where Tekiner was killed, in a grocery store. Bracketing the child’s tale were photos of the family as well as film of Tekiner’s funeral, both providing a factual setting in the past that helped to enhance what came to seem a perpetual child’s perspective in a state of stricken arrested development.

Shadi Ghaheri’s فریادا  , the second piece at the Annex, made effective use of the stage as a place where encounter becomes theater. Two young women, intrigued by and perhaps attracted to each other, find that neither can understand a word the other says. The situation is comical and ultimately frustrating—as the piece’s title, “Scream,” indicates—but only the English-language speaker seemed to find it embarrassing. Stella Baker, as the English speaker, acted the sheepish response of the American who can’t quite overcome surprise that the whole world doesn’t speak English, while Ghaheri played a woman with a passionate insistence upon communication. Ultimately, the show demonstrated that such commitment makes for connection: communication is what happens between people who interact, regardless of what they use to do it—eating apples, dancing, screaming.

I ended my evening at the Afro-American Cultural Center where Chiara Klein played an ingratiating female political candidate named Hedda (Gabler). Which is to say: the short piece, developed by Li-Min Lin, Tracy Tserjing Huang, and Pei-Yu Chu, asked us to consider Ibsen’s heroine as a contemporary political candidate, or, put another way, asked us to consider how a certain contemporary political candidate might be like Hedda Gabler. There were a few dropped references to other characters in the play, but it seemed to me the piece could really have pushed the notion of Hedda finding fulfillment as a contested candidate. Certainly, the idea as both a take on Ibsen’s play and on some current views of women in power is intriguing.

Finally, a staged reading of Emely Selina Zepeda’s From Clay and Water, directed by Sebastian Arbodela, with Bianca Hooi as Girl, Bradley James Tejeda as Dad, and Haydee Antunano as Mom. The play looked at her parents’ effects upon a young, impressionable girl, who narrated her recollections and her parents’ interactions. She seemed to grow up questioning what kept her mother in the marriage and expressed a lingering frustration at never having intervened in any significant way. She also recalled moments about her father, such as how his drunk, amateurish guitar-playing and singing showed a vulnerable side not often shown, as he tended to be abusive or unresponsive. More than the dysfunction between the adults, however, what the play highlighted, to me, was how children, even when they become adults themselves, understand so little of the full story of their parents’ lives. The young perspective of the narrator seemed trapped in a kind of emotional solipsism, a perspective that sees the parents themselves as trapped but without realizing how limited her view is. The play worked best as Girl’s effort to overcome the limitations of her own family romance, while acknowledging her debt to her parents.

Unfortunately, I missed other offerings. The best feature of the Festival was getting a sense of the variety of talent and the many different kinds of work being done at YSD. In stretching over three days, the Festival worked best, I imagine, for students and patrons already in the vicinity of Park Street. Piling show upon show, as I did, tended to dilute the primacy of any particular event, but it created an effect a bit like a theater version of the Art School’s Open Studios, where the audience can drop by and see what students are up to, in this case receiving perspectives and approaches that may be more diverse, if less developed, than pooling all resources into one show per week.

As an interesting experiment for the Cab’s season, I wonder if the Satellite Festival will continue to develop in subsequent years.

 

The Satellite Festival

Someone to Watch Over Me
Created and performed by Andrew Burnap

Run Bambi
Music, words, movement and direction by Lex Brown
Lighting design by Elizabeth Green
Performers: Lex Brown, Kate Ruggeri, Aarica West
Project manager: Cindy Ji Hye Kim

Stop Drop and Shop: Explosions for the 21st Century
Created and performed by Christopher Ross-Ewart

Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? A Memory Play
Conceptual Artist and Director: Aylin Tekiner
Illustrator Artist & Story Conception Collaborator: Kemal Gökhan Gürses
Artistic Director: Stuart Fishelson
Video Projection: Brittany Bland
Lighting Design: Carolina Ortiz
Sound Design: Ien DeNio
Costume Design: Katie Touart
Set Design: Izmir Ickbal & Zoe Hurwitz
Stage Manager: Francesca McKenzie
Video Composer/Editor: Gülcan Barut & Yusuf Bolat
Mandolin: Ian Scot
Artistic Advisor: Wendall Harrington
Technical Advisors: Larry Reed (Shadow Master) & Caryl Kientz
Graphic Assistant: Jessica Alva
Performers: Stefani Kuo, Li-Min Lin, Jennifeer Schmidt, Zoe Hurwitz, Jae Shin
Narrator: Dora Schwartzman

فریادا
Created by Shadi Ghaheri
Co-Directed by Chalia LaTour & Shadi Ghaheri
Performers: Stella Baker & Shadi Ghaheri
Dramaturg: Lynda Paul
Sound Design: Nok Kanchanabanca
Projection Design: Wladimiro Woyno Rodriguez
Light Design: Elizabeth Mak
Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld
Technical Design: William Hartley
Stage Manager: Jake Lozano

Hedda, or What Will Gabler’s Daughter Do Next?
Collaboration by Li-Min Lin, Tracy Tserjing Huang, Pei-Yu Chu
Producer: Li-Min Lin
Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld
Visual Design: Lih-Chyi Lin
Actors: Chiara Klein, Steven Koernig, Chad Kinsman
Special Thanks: Kimberly Jannarone

From Clay and Water
Playwright: Emely Selina Zepeda
Director: Sebastian Arbodela
Actors: Bianca Hooi, Bradley James Tejeda, Haydee Antunano

Yale Cabaret
April 7-9, 2016

Something New at the Cab

Preview of Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

With only two weeks left in its season, Yale Cabaret 48—led by its co-artistic directors David Bruin, Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris—has come up with something new. It’s called the Satellite Festival and it entails a series of performances and events at a trio of venues: the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, the Afro-American Cultural Center (across the walkway), and the Annex at 205 Park Street.

The purpose of the new approach is to provide a moveable feast of experiences, many of them arranged by students working in disciplines that rarely get directly showcased. As most Cab patrons are aware, there is considerable behind-the-scenes talent on display at any Cabaret show, to say nothing of every Yale School of Drama show, and the Satellite Festival gives audiences a chance to see some of the work being done by Masters students in various disciplines at YSD, particularly Sound Design, and in other Yale graduate programs, and by visiting artists and fellows at Yale.

The festival works like this: there will be the usual 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, held at the Cab, but supplemented by several other offerings at other times at the other locations.

At the Cabaret, the multi-media and interdisciplinary program will consist of two shows: Run Bambi and Stop, Drop, and Shop: Explosions for the 21st Century. The first is written, composed, and directed by Lex Brown, of the Yale School of Art, “a poem in character sketch, song, rap, and text – a spastic movement about identity and moving through time” that explores “somebodies’ bodies.” The second, created and performed by Chris Ross-Ewart, YSD Sound Design third-year (and a regular contributor to Cab and Summer Cab shows), is a “performed sound design,” “an experimental opera” in workshop that looks at au courant consumerism, “using music, sound effects, audio and computer technology and improvised storytelling.” 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 11 p.m., Friday & Saturday, Yale Cabaret.

Previous to each evening’s Cab show, at 7 and 10 p.m. (10:15 on Saturday), the time during which food and drink is served at the Cab, there will be entertainment in the form of Someone to Watch Over Me, which features third-year YSD actor Andrew Burnap as jazz great Chet Baker, singer, trumpet player, and intense photo subject, once described as "James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix rolled into one." Burnap, who sings and plays trumpet, looks enough like Baker to provide an uncanny return of a star. Yale Cabaret

Armed with a wristband, purchased for $5 above the usual Cab show ticket price, audiences can view all of the following at any showtime.

The Afro-American Cultural Center hosts:

On Thursday at 9 and on Friday at midnight, From Clay and Water, written by Emely Zepeda, YSD third-year Stage Management, and directed by second-year YSD actor Sebastian Arboleda, a story about a family and a daughter trying to cope with the loss of her parents.

On Friday at 9: an audio storybook, The Children are Carried Off, by Ien DeNio, YSD Sound Design Intern, features a return to the abandon of childhood imagination.

On Saturday at 6, 9, and midnight: Prayers of the People / A Rite of Responsibility, created by little ray, Artist in Residence at Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and performed by little ray and Kate Marvin, YSD third-year Sound Design, combines theater and ritual practice to recreate the spiritual power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, aiming toward “reverent rememberance and principled action.”

The Annex hosts:

On Thursday at 9, on Friday at 9 and midnight, on Saturday at 9 and midnight: two shows together: فریادا  : created by Shadi Ghaheri, YSD first-year director, co-directed by Ghaheri and Chalia La Tour, YSD third-year actor and frequent Cab participant, and performed by Ghaheri and Stella Baker, YSD first-year actor, the show uses movement and media to explore how two women overcome language barriers to communicate with each other. And Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? A Memory Play conceived and directed by Ummugulsum Aylin Tekiner, YSD Special Research Fellow, about the assassination of Turkish politician Zeki Tekiner in 1980, recreated through family memories as “a multi-disciplinary shadow performance.”

Other events in the Festival include:

Hedda, or What Will Gabler’s Daughter Do Next?, conceived by Li-Min Lin, YSD Special Research Fellow in Theater Management, and co-written with Tracy Tzerjing Huang, Thursday 8:45 p.m., Friday at 8:45 & 11:45 p.m., Afro-American Cultural Center

Vignette of a Recollection, created by Wladimiro A. Woyno R. (YSD Projection Design first-year), a virtual reality experience for audience, one-at-a-time, 2-3 minutes per person, Annex, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday between 6:30 and 8 p.m., and between 10 and 11:30 p.m.

The Chu, created by YSD third-year actor Jenelle Chu, a culinary approach to storytelling, during dinner hour at the Cabaret.

PRAYIN WOMANITS, a collective, open throughout the festival, featuring “lady hungry for institutional critique and the dissolution of the patriarchal status quo.”

So, sample the variety on view and see what avenues of experience open beyond the usual theater set-up. See you at the Cab, and environs.

For more information on each element in the festival: http://yalecabaret.org/48/shows

Buy Tickets

Yale Cabaret
April 7-9, 2016

Beware, Doll, You're Bound to Fall

Review of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Yale Cabaret

Tired of fame, film icon Greta Garbo declared, “I vant to be alone.” Petra von Kant, the heroine of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, is the kind of self-involved diva who can’t bear to be alone. Directed by Leora Morris with Jesse Rasmussen, Fassbinder’s meditation on the vagaries of passionate love is also a character study that plays into considerations of how, for instance, all of a star’s or a director’s relationships are scripted with a central player and a supporting cast.

Played by Sydney Lemmon with a lithe sense of grand dame status, Petra is a successful fashion designer who lords it over her underling Marlene (Anna Crivelli, icily Germanic in a silent role) and holds court in her bedroom. The room, in Christopher Thompson and Claire DeLiso’s lush set, is essentially a large double bed framed by chairs and settees, a table with a typewriter, a turntable with LPs, and the ever-important house-phone on a pedestal. There are diaphanous red drapes that sometimes are drawn or opened by Marlene, who acts as both factotum and voyeur.

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

What Marlene gazes upon, as do we, is the social and erotic life of Petra. The two sides come together quickly when a visit from her well-set-up cousin Sidonie (Annelise Lawson)—in which the two women share details of happy and unhappy marriages (Petra has had one of each)—results in Petra’s meeting with Sidonie’s young friend Karin (Baize Buzan). For Petra, the meeting seems to be love at first sight, or at least it’s a really hot meet. The next scene, when Karin calls alone upon Petra, who insists she should become a model, is filled with the expectation of seduction. Petra may be changeable and peremptory, but her attachment to Karin while egotistical is also vulnerable. Karin, played with deer-in-the-headlights allure by Buzan, seems ready to become whatever Petra wants her to be.

Then comes the crash, by degrees. Fassbinder’s heart is in this one and Petra’s suffering for her ideal of love is a masochist’s delight. Having made Karin an arbiter of her happiness, she can only be made unhappy by the least sign of her object’s indifference. And Buzan is wonderful at rendering the kind of erotic self-possession that drives Petra wild. And she’s able to do so while also seeming to be much younger than Lemmon, whose probing questions and efforts to manage her lover’s life as she does her own career reminded me of the assured but apprehensive tone often struck by Judy Davis.

Eventually, as Karin’s background comes out—the working-class father who lost his job and killed Karin’s mother in a drunken rage then hanged himself; the estranged husband in Australia—we can see that Petra’s attempts to makeover Karin are going to have more lasting effects on herself than on her protégé. The fact that Karin has not given up men—the more casual, the better—becomes the source of the title’s bitter tears. And of the vicious abuse of the user by the used.

In the birthday scene that follows Karin’s departure to meet her errant husband’s return, we see Petra go to pieces by abusing those still close to her: her young daughter Gabrielle (Leyla Levi), Sidonie, who comes bearing a gift, and Petra’s mother Valerie (Shaunette Renée Wilson). In each case, there’s a sense of the cost of loving someone like Petra, but there’s also a sense—key to the notion of a central player—that all these females depend upon her to some degree. And all are quite able to act out in their subordinate roles: Sidonie with indignation; Gabrielle with earnest need for approval; Valerie with long-suffering attachment.

Masochism, then, is in the nature of love for one’s superiors, however we interpret the latter term, and Fassbinder lets that play out, while Morris and Rasmussen manage to find a tone between melodrama and camp. In the end, Petra’s relatives are used to her, and Karin has not, perhaps, disappeared for good (why abandon a powerful supplicant?), while Petra may learn to give Marlene her due, if not too late.

What we’re left with, I suppose, is a hope that some mutually helpful caring can be reached in a reciprocal fashion, but is that possible when the ups and downs of emotional investment are here as volatile as an unstable stock market?

Mention as well for the excellent use of songs emanating from Petra’s turntable, particularly The Walker Brother’s highly apropos “In My Room,” with its grandiose melancholy. A perfect song for when you vant to be alone with your own bitter tears.

 

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
By Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Translated by Anthony Vivis
Directed by Leora Morris

Associate Director: Jesse Rasmussen; Dramaturg & Producer: Maria Inês Marques; Co-Scenic Designers: Christopher Thompson, Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth Antunano; Co-Lighting Designers: Andrew F. Griffin Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer & Composition: Frederick Kennedy, Christopher Ross-Ewart; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Co-Technical Designers: Mike Best, Mitchell Crammond, Mitch Massaro, Sean Walters

Yale Cabaret, March 31-April 2, 2016

Strange Doings in the Scottish Borders

Preview of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Arts & Ideas Festival

Annie Grace, of the National Theatre of Scotland, has performed in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart more than 400 times, all over the place. The troupe and their signature play are back in New Haven this weekend to kick off the 21st annual Arts & Ideas Festival and to give New Haveners a newer taste of a play that first played here on its first world tour back in 2012.

There are two new cast members this time, filling the essential roles of Prudencia (now played by Jessica Hardwick) and her rival Colin Syme (now played by Paul McCole), and then there’s the supporting cast of three (Grace, Paul MacKay and music director Alasdair Macrae) who play a whirlwind variety of supporting roles and many authentic instruments—Grace plays Scottish Border pipes, whistles, ukulele and the bodhran (a drum), and sings. Her “musical husband” Macrae plays fiddle and guitar and they’ve been collaborators on many projects and performances.

There’s another member of the cast as well: the audience.

As conceived and written by David Grieg, with the original members of the cast and director Wils Wilson, the show is designed to take place in a pub and it’s meant to involve the audience in sundry ways. “The audience is in close contact to the spectacle and becomes part of the show, that’s essential,” says Grace. Last time, Prudencia played in June in the backroom of the Wicked Wolf. This time, it’s found a more suitable locale at Gryphon’s Pub, the hang-out of Yale grad students tucked away off York Street (officially it’s The Graduate and Professional Student Club—or GPSCY—at Yale). Prudencia’s tale of sparring and romancing academics at a winter conference in Kelso in the Scottish Borders region should feel right at home.

The music and story, Grace says, were inspired by border ballads, such as Tam Lin, a tale of metamorphosis at the hands of a fairie queen. There’s also a run-in with the devil and much enchantment, as well as a ribald romp of a bacchanal. As Grace says, Prudencia is a straight-laced, buttoned-up sort, who is “actually a wee bit naughty but doesn’t realize it.” Stuck in a blizzard in the Scottish Borders, she comes to learn that “hell is a bed-and-breakfast in Kelso.”

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Grace says Prudencia is a play “that keeps on giving,” an extended work “dear to our hearts because we helped create it.” Initially, Greig showed up with six pages of script and the basic idea. He had been working in site-specific theater for children and was eager to do the same thing for adults. And where do adults become most like children? Why, at a pub of course. The show has gone up in small halls and theaters as well but Grace says it’s not the same ambiance. In fact, a key comic scene takes place in a pub in the play—or a pub within a pub—where the cast gets to do knock-offs of the kind of folk scene one finds in Kelso. This time the tour will end in Kelso itself. One can only imagine the devilry the locals will get up to for that event—since the scenes set in the pub there were inspired by actual local performers that Greig encountered on his “fact-finding” visit to the town. So, instead of the kinds of ancient ballads Prudencia is keen to encounter, you get a laughable bollocks of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

No matter how many times they play their roles, Grace says, the troupe members are “always finding new things. David Greig is really a genius and the play is so very clever.” Most of the script is in verse and, Grace says, it sometimes takes a while for the audience to realize it. The devil, however, speaks prose and the scenes of satanic encounter strike a different note from the rest. There are also jokes about academia and popular culture and the once cutting-edge combination called “cultural studies.” “Colin is keen to bring folk studies into the twenty-first century,” Grace says, and Prudencia is less than amused by his fast and loose approach to their mutual discipline. Which makes for a lot of fun at the expense of both. Some of the references are starting to date a bit, Grace concedes, “iPods aren’t a new thing any more and are starting to be a bit passé.” Still, it’s not as if we didn’t all live through the early 21st century.

In looking for locales for the show, Grace says, the troupe needs a big room with good sight lines. “The play was conceived as a storytelling show—like 30 people sitting around a fire.” So it’s best with an audience of 120 max and tables and maybe a bit of drinking. In explaining the show and its setting, Grace refers to an old tradition: what it means “to have a song. Like a party piece, the thing you sing” that becomes your trademark, so to speak. Prudencia, she says, “has to find her song.”

And what better place to find a song—that’s also a tall tale, a quest for personal fulfillment, a journey of discovery, a research expedition, a romance, an enchantment, and a deal with the devil—than in the Scottish Borders, in the snow? Or in New Haven, in a pub.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart plays tonight, April 1, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 2, at 3 & 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 3, at 3 p.m.

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents:
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
From the National Theatre of Scotland

Created by David Greig and Wils Wilson

Festival 2016

March 30-April 3, 2016
The Gryphon's Pub
204 York Street
New Haven