There Was an Old Woman Who...

Review of Mrs. Galveston, Yale Cabaret

The final play of the first half of Yale Cabaret’s 49th season is an entertaining look at the at times fraught world of elder care. Mrs. Galveston, by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Sarah B. Mantell, enjoys some of the easy laughs at misunderstandings between an old woman and the young people assigned to impose some kind of regimen on her stubborn existence, then develops more interesting narrative devices. These include a big white pop-up book that Mrs. Galveston treats like a precious heirloom and an array of Post-It Notes that a young man’s grandmother berates him with.

An interesting conflict in the play comes from a somewhat surprising correspondence. Jim (George Hampe) visits the elderly Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon) because a Mr. Sanford has requested she be looked after, though she doesn’t welcome the intrusion, while, at home, Jim is not doing such a good job of taking care of his grandmother, though also refusing any care-givers from the organization both he and his cousin Liz (Aneesha Kudtarkar) work for. The highest-rated caregiver is Mark (Edmund Donovan), but neither Mrs. Galveston nor Jim have any interest in accepting his services. The frustrations Mark faces are expressed comically, and that helps to keep things light. And the irony of Jim’s situation—he’s failing with his own grandmother but succeeding with Mrs. Galveston—opens up the implied theme that, sometimes, families do need professionals, that the familiarity of blood ties can cause more tensions than they ease. While Mrs. Galveston is never quite comfortable with having a stranger in the house, she eventually is pacified by Jim’s ability to concoct a story that goes with the pop-up images in her big white book.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The book, and the scenic design by Claire Marie DeLiso, add elements of charm and visual cohesion to the story. The living room Mrs. Galveston resides in is situated in a charming little house that echoes the paper house in her book. A step down and across a connecting space of paneled floor sits the table festooned with Post-Its where Jim attempts to meet his grandmother’s demands. Both spaces are united with framing posts that situate the action within a homey interior that expands to join both houses.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

The play, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, is particularly nimble in its transitions and in dialogues that find characters mostly having to feel their way. Mantell’s script registers the caregiver’s ups and downs and confusions, the good intentions that go awry, and, in its sweetly realized conclusion, the comfort of the familiar. Along the way, there are the tensions of dealing with elders as though they were children, of trying to anticipate concerns, of trying to make time in one’s prime of life for a life past its prime, and, in a speech Liz directs at Jim, the fact that, in most families, the care of parents is left to female family members. Mrs. Galveston provides a touching corrective to that perception when we finally meet the mysterious Mr. Sanford (Edmund Donovan).

The neat doubling of the situations means there’s potential for confusion about who Jim really cares for. Playing the role with a kind of nervous distraction, Hampe’s Jim wants all to go well but seems to wish he could be doing something else. Donovan’s Mark is a bit unctuous and we don’t really fault Mrs. Galveston for preferring Jim. Kudtarkar’s Liz seems mostly at a loss—her scene with Mrs. Galveston is the funniest of the attempts to the fathom the big white book because the least patient. And, as the chair-hugging Mrs. Galveston, Lemmon plays the title role as a mistress of her detachment, a woman defiantly herself and with a child’s sense of entitlement in deciding what works and what doesn’t.

As a family dramedy, Mrs. Galveston seems well positioned in the season as a reminder of the bonds of home and the allegiance owed the elderly as the holiday visits begin.

 

Mrs. Galveston
By Sarah B. Mantell
Directed by Rachel Carpman

Co-Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Co-Dramaturg: Molly Fitzmaurice; Set Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi; Sound Designer: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Production Manager: Scott Keith; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Calling Stage Manager: Paula Clarkson; Co-Producer: Jaime Totti; Co-Producer: Adam J. Frank

Cast: Edmund Donovan; George Hampe; Aneesha Kudtarkar; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Cabaret
December 8-10, 2016

That's Shoe Biz!

Review of Kinky Boots, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Harvey Fierstein’s and Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleasing tale of how difference saves the day. Or, rather, how difference-driven niche markets do. In any case, its message is progressive and its songs full of the moxie for which Lauper is well-known. The best thing about the show, though, are the drag queens—or “angels”—led by Lola, played with a winning understatement by J. Harrison Ghee who seems born to be charismatic and show-stopping.

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

The story concerns Charlie (Adam Kaplan), the heir to his father’s show factory in Northampton, England, who has plans to live the life of a Yuppie in London with his svelte and fashion-shoe-struck fiancée Nicola (Charissa Hoagland). But, like a latter-day George Bailey, Charlie can’t give up on the little folks at home. If he doesn’t step in and find a workable solution to get the ailing factory—which has been eating its unsold inventory—solvent, then it’s the dole for all the workers so loyal to his late Da. A chance encounter in the street—where Charlie tries to come to the aid of Lola, a drag-damsel in distress otherwise known as Simon—leads to the idea to save the day by developing the glitzy thigh-high boots beloved of queens, thus inaugurating Lola’s career as a designer of kinky boots.

A strong suit in this tale of working lads and lasses putting their collective noses to the grindstone, for higher than high heels able to support a cross-dressing male, is how well-oiled the machinery is. The big production numbers have many moving bodies and moving parts—including conveyor belts on “Everybody Say Yeah”—and it all works wonderfully well on the Palace Theater’s old school stage. Many a Broadway house looks tawdry compared to the Palace’s well-kept sumptuousness, and Kinky Boots fills it with Broadway-style pizzazz. The orchestra is tight, and many songs have a familiar Eighties feel that really starts to work after a while.

The action bits—such as the boxing bout between Simon and Don (Aaron Walpole), the manly bloke distressed about working for a cross-dresser—are well-staged and add some drama to a second act that otherwise doesn’t have much to do, except create some faux suspense over whether or not the boots will be ready for Milan. It’s Act One that really cooks, with standouts like the aforementioned “Everybody Say Yeah”—its big finish—“Sex is in the Heel,” a manifesto for the libidinal charge of accessories, “Not My Father’s Son,” a touching duet between Simon and Charlie, and “The History of Wrong Guys,” a snappy comic relief tune in which Lauren (Tiffany Engen), a factory worker with a crush on Charlie, puts out there a love-struck feminine view as only Lauper could, and which Engen puts across with show-stealing brio.

As the lead male dressed as a male, Kaplan’s Charlie is a little too timid to be interesting and a bit too earnest to be amusing. He’s got looks and a voice, but could open a bit more in his movement, particularly on his big Act 2 number “Soul of a Man.” As his intended, Nicola, Hoagland looks great in a thankless role that feels a tad unfair, as if it’s fine for the “angels” to be all about couture but we should see Nicola as shallow for harboring similar tastes. Meanwhile, no one seems to wonder why men and women alike, at the factory, are content with a rather unisex look of dungarees and pull-overs. Glamor, it seems, is for those who pursue it as an identity, though, in the end, everyone gets to sport a pair of kinky boots.

As a progressive tale about having the courage to be yourself in a hostile world, Kinky Boots still rings true and is a welcome reach-out to soften the heart of the glowering Dons of the world. Though it could also be said that the threat of violence or ostracization is rather anodyne here, and, by the same token, the kinkiness is rather mild. A plot in which Charlie ends by giving Lola/Simon a go would make for a kinkier show and a more surprising case of “the girl” getting the guy.

In any case, if—as the saying goes—you can’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, that goes double for taking a few steps in their kinky boots. Kinky Boots is at its best bringing home the camaraderie of people stirred by a common purpose, so that the design, production and marketing of Lola’s creations feel as rewarding as the creation of Lola herself, or of a show about her. In each case, it’s worth our time to see how it’s done and why that should matter to our general self-esteem.

 

Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus

Starring: J. Harrison Ghee, Adam Kaplan, Tiffany Engen, with Aaron Walpole, Charissa Hoagland, Jim J. Bullock

Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner: Sound Design: John Shivers; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Make-Up Design: Randy Houston Mercer; Associate Choreographer: Rusty Mowery; Associate Director: D. B. Bonds; Music Director: Roberto Sinha; Music Conductor: Michael Keller

The Angels: Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, Sam Rohloff

Cast: Meryn Beckett, E. Clayton Cornelious, Tami Dahbura, Alfred Dalpino, Madge Dietrich, Alex Dreschke, Annie Edgerton, Jhazz Fleming, Collin Jeffery, David Jennings, Ellen Marlow, Ciarán McCarthy, Ashley Moniz, Sebastian Maynard-Palmer, Casi Riegle, Andrew Scanlon, Tom Souhrada, Harrison Wright, Sam Zeller

The Palace Theater, Waterbury
December 6-11, 2016

A Dream Deferred

Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.

For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.

Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.

It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.

Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.

Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.

 

August Wilson’s
Seven Guitars
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller

Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016

Insurrection Songs

Preview of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

Bulgarian native and third-year director in the Yale School of Drama, Elizabeth Dinkova has long dreamed of dramatizing poet Geo Milev’s epic poem, September, about the suppression of a peasant uprising in her homeland in 1923, and this week her dream will be fulfilled. This semester, Dinkova and her collaborators Miranda Rose Hall, a third-year playwright, and Michael Constagliola, a second-year sound designer, have developed an original “tragicomic musical,” Bulgaria! Revolt!  that revisits the situation in which Milev wrote his most famous work, and also extends his vision to the U.S.

The play debuts this Friday at the Iseman Theater as the second thesis show of the season at the School of Drama, and runs through December 15.

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

Bulgaria! Revolt! derives from the story of Milev, a poet who wrote a poem about an armed insurgency against a new government, formed by a military coup, that deposed an Agrarian leader and placed a fascist, Alexander Tsankov, in power. The uprising was brutally suppressed, the Communist Party was outlawed, and, after a terrorist act at a military funeral stirred up further reprisals, Milev was killed along with 400-500 others and buried in a mass grave in 1925.

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the poet is tried and convicted as an enemy of the State and is forced to rescind his poem. His faith in art’s political use shaken, the poet makes a deal with the devil to have his poem “disappeared,” so that no memory of it will exist. The poet’s wife protests, and the devil accepts her challenge to prove that poetry can still inspire revolutionary ideals, though this time, he insists, it will have to do so in the meat-packing district of 1920s Chicago, which is where Act II is set.

Chicago, Dinkova points out, has the highest population of Bulgarians in the U.S. due to a popular Bulgarian travelogue, To Chicago and Back, that painted conditions in the country around the time of the 1890 World’s Fair for would-be emigrants back home. As an immigrant, Dinkova wanted to work on a project that could bring together both her home country and her current one, with continuity between the two settings provided by the question of the artist’s responsibility to the public, and to the political forces of a given time and place.

Adapting Milev’s poem required a collaborator and in that Dinkova has been blessed by her close working relationship with Miranda Rose Hall. The two worked together last year on Hall’s second-year play The Best Lesbian Erotica, 1995, and on a wildly satiric Yale Cabaret show about a viral health crisis, and, this past summer, on the lampoon Antarctica! at the Yale Summer Cabaret where Dinkova was Co-Artistic Director. Each of the works featured a decidedly satiric element, at least in part, and the latter was also an adaptation—of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. This time, the duo say, they felt the show had to be a musical, and that brought in the talents of Michael Constagliola to compose the score.

Why a musical? Hall speaks enthusiastically of a class on the musical that impressed upon her how the “genre has a lot of requirements,” and with so much in their play requiring imaginative leaps, she “took refuge in the given structures” of the form. It also helps that their plot fits well the requirements of standard musicals, such as “two opposing worlds,” a main character “with a counterpart,” and songs that provide exposition and also big “I am, I want” solos of motivation. The American musical “feels larger than life,” and that’s a quality the play is decidedly going for. Both Dinkova and Hall look to collaborators in musical theater like Brecht/Weill who “recognized the power of music to ask questions and change minds.” And, of course, most popular movements have their songs to inspire and to “galvanize the masses.”

The poem, September, is “romantic and epic,” Dinkova says, filled “with a naïve, idealistic vision,” trying to imagine “a world where earth will be a paradise with no lord or master.” It may have been a stretch for Milev, a modernist and expressionist, to encompass such themes, but the times demanded it. Even so, she says, “the protagonists are not ideological heroes but tragic figures.” For Hall and Dinkova, the effort has been to capture the tone while letting artistic freedom guide the choice of events and scenes. Hall says their earlier collaboration on Antarctica! was a “fertile proving ground” for learning how to adapt works of another time to our contemporary occasions. As with that play, Hall’s participation in Bulgaria! isn’t part of her own degree requirements at YSD, so there is a similar freedom, though, she says, with the budget and prep time of a thesis show, this production “is like the Cab on steroids.”

Dinkova and Hall say they have taken their inspiration this time out from the working relationship between playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, the co-creators of the Yale Rep’s Broadway-bound play Indecent. A bit like the latter work, Bulgaria! Revolt! seeks to find a contemporary meaning in an older text and to find poetic and dramatic significance in historical events. There the similarity probably ends, since Hall, when working with Dinkova, seems to be drawn to the absurd and to irreverent satire.

And why not? I spoke to the co-creators days after the election of 2016, and Dinkova spoke of how rehearsals had become a kind of “refuge” and a “fire pit” where one could burn up the energy of dismay and foreboding inspired by the unexpected turn of events. For Hall, though the script was finalized before the election’s outcome, there is a question for artists in “how to find hope” and, for herself, in discovering the meaning of a much-abused term like “revolution.”

A leftist poet suppressed after writing a poem celebrating a brave but failed insurrection against a fascist leader? A deal with the devil that lets the poet and his wife try again in “the land of the free”?  Bulgaria! Revolt! has the potential to needle the way a good political cartoon can, and with tunes to whistle while you work for the future.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Book and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Constagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016
Iseman Theater
1156 Chapel Street

Say What You Think

Review of Kaspar, Yale Cabaret

As a one-man show of a single character pitted against the problem of identity, Peter Handke’s early play Kaspar, translated from the German by Matthew Ward and directed at Yale Cabaret by Ayham Ghraowi, seems at times like a more than usually active Beckett monologue. There’s a similar disconnect from immediate context—no particular where or when but only an abyss lurking around and behind and beneath each statement. The drama is a lengthy grappling with verbalizing, as though repeating a phrase often enough will confer meaning. And as if words are an object to throw against the body’s cage until either the body breaks or the self breaks through.

Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

On a stage that acts as a cell, Kaspar, played with amazing physical abandon by Josh Goulding, is trying his utmost to articulate a view of himself that would be authentic to his experience. But his main struggle is to make his own experience intelligible. He is tortured or taught—it comes to the same thing—by voices that speak dispassionately and provide instructions and cautions and even bits of wisdom. Kaspar can treat these speakers as oracular or as simply part of the environment, like air or light, or an object to be used or ignored, like a broom.

The culprit of consciousness, for Handke, is language itself as it normalizes the flow of time and being as an interplay between sentences and otherwise inchoate moments. Handke’s text, which makes a virtue of repetition, circles around a single sentence that Kaspar Hauser, the German misfit who inspired the play, was able to speak when he was first discovered, a teen who, he alleged, had lived for most of his life with no human interaction.

The background to Kaspar is germane to the play but not really necessary to viewing it because, in any case, we are forced to interpret how it is that Kaspar can seem to mean what he says and not understand it, simultaneously. Handke can trust to the theatrics of his creation’s mannered grasp of speech to sustain our fascination. Seemingly articulate though not coherent, Kaspar struggles to master his body, objects—such as a chair, a table heaped with printed pages, a broom—and, most naggingly, the relation between the presence in his head and the words he has learned to shape into intelligible if often cryptic sentences.

The repeated sentence, “I want to be a person the way someone else was once,” is Handke and Ward’s variation on the actual Hauser’s single sentence of introduction, "I want to be a calvaryman as my father was." The statement floats through the play like a mantra but also as a claim upon language itself. The speaker announces his condition as a claim based on feeling—“I want”—in which the object “a person” stands for a desired identity—“to be”: “I want to be a person,” but this simple and very complex statement is further modified by a perception of a past state—“the way . . . was once”—that suggests as well the non-identity we all have with earlier selves. The way we might say: “I want to be the person I once was,” though that’s not quite it. For Kaspar, there’s a “someone else” who was a person the way he would like to be, which carries with it a sense of succession, as though saying, “I want to be a man (or a person: both “Mann,” in German) the way, for instance, an ancestor or relation was.” In other words, there’s a number of differing but related intentions embedded in the statement, together with a kind of untranslatable disjunction born of the vagueness of its denotations: “a person,” “the way,” “someone,” “once.” And this array of uncertain objects is brought together by a desire for identity stated by someone for whom the statement is his only identifiable intellectual trait. It’s all he knows, whether or not it actually corresponds to anything he wants or believes. And that, as they say, is the rub.

Brought to us by a quire of dramaturgs—eight are listed in the playbill and includes everyone connected to the production but for its director—Kaspar is a play that drowns in text. Kaspar is almost always talking, whether or not he’s saying something, and the voices speak almost as much; then there are the pages full of writing sharing his cell, and the words cycling on a trio of teleprompters, often distracting the viewer from Goulding as he reads aloud what we can read as well. If we look on, the words of the text enter our consciousness both by vision and hearing, just as they do for Kaspar who hears himself read them. At some points, we may find ourselves trying to articulate to ourselves what it is we think we are hearing.

There are moments when Kaspar seems to be speaking only to himself and other moments when he is proclaiming to us all, and other times when he seems to want desperately to address us and be acknowledged. It’s a fascinating and tiring performance, as Goulding falls about the stage, knocks things over, topples, hurtles, strips, and occasionally performs quirky rhythmic movements as if to an inner tune. His expression is often puzzled or deeply concentrated, and a segment of inarticulate grunts and growls is as comical as a child’s effort to mimic other creatures, or even other humans, can be.

Indeed, Kaspar is, in some ways, a cosmic child, a kind of poetic Id at play in the fields of indeterminate psyche, where he has all of language before him. Though he is not in a joyous state, Kaspar does not seem to be despairing either. Rather, he seems caught up in the solving of an endless puzzle. Mostly frustrated, he seems to exist on the hope that something may become clear—if only he can get past the words in his way, or if only he can find the array of words that will illuminate, in an unprecedented way, what he has in mind.

 

Kaspar
By Peter Handke
Translated by Matthew Ward
Directed by Ayham Ghraowi

Composer: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Dramaturg: Abbey Burgess; Dramaturg: Erin Fleming; Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Dramaturg: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Chad Dexter Kinsman; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Dramaturg: Matthew Ward; Lighting Designer: Erin Fleming; Stage Manager: Abbey Burgess; Producer: Chad Dexter Kinsman

Cast: Josh Goulding

Yale Cabaret
December 1-3, 2016

 

 

 

 

Winner Take All

Review of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

The sign of a good play is that viewers can read different things into it at different times, and directors can find new relevance in it. Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, at Long Wharf, directed with sharp transitions by Marc Bruni, could easily seem a trip back to the late 1980s when business liquidators were an up-and-coming breed, “mergers and acquisition” became practically a household phrase, and old production standbys like automobile manufacture became ailing dinosaurs of the corporate world. While the period aspect of the play is still very much prevalent, it’s hard to watch the play in 2016 and not think of the recent election. Allegory may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think not.

We’ve got Wire and Cable, an all-American company that cares about its employees and their families, owned by Mr. Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), a conscientious and somewhat loquacious elder who admires Harry Truman and treats the business like family. He’s got a very loyal assistant, Bea (Karen Ziemba), who sees no divide between work and her personal life. Both are dedicated to “the American Dream” as a solvent business that makes a good product and provides decent lives for all involved, debt-free. They don’t even have any outstanding fines with Environmental Protection. The manager, Coles (Steve Routman), is a canny heir apparent, serving his time until the old man steps down and he can take over and modernize a bit.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into their cozy little world comes crass, big league player Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), a self-satisfied man of business who exists to make money, legally. He’s rapacious, avaricious, and even charming in a cold-blooded way. He’s buying up shares not because he wants Wire and Cable to make him money as a satisfied stockholder, but because he wants to gut the still breathing carcass and make his money off its dismemberment. The only person who might figure out a way to stop him is a blonde female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), Bea’s daughter, who dresses sharply and is tough-as-nails, and who is more than equal to any “grab ‘em by the pussy” innuendo that might come her way. In an amusing sequence, she gets Garfinkle to grab his own crotch and give it a stern talking to.

What’s at stake? Well, if you’ve been wondering what it means to put the fox in the henhouse, by democratic consent, then this play might be the kind of entertainment to light your day. It shows us how vulnerable are core values—like loyalty and dedication—in the face of the almighty buck and the historical inevitability. A world where naked self-interest makes the wheels go round, and the devil take the hindmost. And, though Wire and Cable is in Rhode Island, we’re watching the predatory tactics that helped destroy jobs in the dissatisfied Rust Belt.

In Bruni’s taut direction, the play is even better than the script, and that’s because his crackerjack cast has a sense of the pace of TV drama, say, The Good Wife. There are still speeches that fall a little short of crisp, and the second act has too many scenes and way too much speechifying, but this cast does all it can to sell it. And the set by Lee Savage makes it all feel real.

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Garfinkle, Lage is no doubt way better-looking than Sterner envisioned—the script seems to call for a bit of a donut-popping schlub, maybe even with a bad toupe—but he plays the part with a kind of greased ease that recalls, at times, Pacino as Roy Cohn. Garfinkle is never quite that foul, but he tries. And he gets to comment, in a winning, “get a load of this” way, on the other team’s efforts to undermine his intentions (it’s almost like he’s hacking their strategy). Lage plays large, but there are lots of nice touches, as when he first takes in and sums up in a glance the proud but unpretty site and Jorgenson’s sentimental grasp of business.

Hyland is quite good as Jorgenson, giving the head man a very lived-in feel. He seems sort of doddering but can lead when his back’s to the wall. It’s clear that Sterner wants us to feel something more is at stake than a “seen better days” business, and Hyland makes us feel the heat of the man who watches what little legacy he had go under.

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Best of all may be Rooth, who acts the hell out of Kate. It’s a role that requires considerable presence of mind as Kate plays the pressured go-between, trying to outsmart Garfinkle, while shamelessly flirting with him, and trying to get Jorgenson to fight for his life with strategy, even if it means going low when the other side goes low.

The scene where Kate gives the other three the what’s-what on how to survive—with “shark repellent” and “poison”—is a masterful riff on how the system can be worked to advantage. Typically, the good guys think of themselves as too good to think of even playing at bad. And then there’s the possibility that, good or not, some will sink the ship to save themselves.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Coles gets the first and last word, and Routman plays it with the clear sense of a man who never takes his eye off the balance sheet, managing to humanize the pro who supports a thing not because it’s right or better than another thing, but because he’s paid to. Ziemba’s Bea is the other side of the coin; she supports Jorgenson, not because he’s right, nor because she’s paid to, but because she loves him, giving a venerable veneer to the office romance.

Sterner draws the lines of attack and retaliate very carefully for all the characters and it’s a treat to see them treated to such well-crafted performances. Sure, it’s fun to spend other people’s money, and it’s also fun to spend time with Other People’s Money.

So, what d’ya think of that payoff?

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Anita Yavich; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Assistant Director/Drama League Directing Fellow: Jesca Prudencio

Cast: Edward James Hyland; Jordan Lage; Liv Rooth; Steve Routman; Karen Ziemba

Long Wharf Theatre
November 23-December 18, 2016

No Time Like the Future

Something for Cyber Monday?

Review of Labor Day by Joseph Farley

With Labor Day, Joseph Farley, a longtime fixture in Philadelphia’s underground literary scene, has raided parts previously unknown and come back with a science fiction novel, of all things, worth a second and even third reading. Of course, for those familiar with Farley’s poetry, it’s hard enough to imagine the poet behind the emotionally complex yet dispassionately composed Longing for the Mother Tongue working in common prose, let alone the most popular of popular genres. And yet, despite the whiff of pulp inherent in genre fiction, we should remind ourselves that on the same shelves where so much of tomorrow’s hamster bedding resides we also find the works of Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Ray Bradbury.

Of course, this is only to say that even the most sophisticated readers among us should keep an open mind. And, indeed, in the case of Farley’s novel, they won’t be disappointed if they do. What is delightful about Labor Day is, in a word, how thoughtful a book it is, without sacrificing an inch of plain, giddy Twilight Zone-style dystopian fun. Farley seems to have had a hilariously good time upending the conventions of both speculative fiction and literary pretension, without letting these ends eclipse the kinetic drive of a book with enough pulse to stir those looking for an exciting read over the holidays.

But perhaps the most interesting part of all this is how Farley strikes this balance: science fiction, like all genre work, has its conventions, and its fans expect, nay, demand them—to the point that (as yours truly can attest, having worked as a pro comic-strip writer) such readers will often react ferociously if a story swerves even slightly from the comfort zone of their cozy clichés. Farley, however, fiddles with the convention of convention itself, assembling Labor Day from a hodgepodge of smart readings and re-renderings. We find bits of 1984 in how the novel’s protagonist, Tom Fried (and do notice the dual pronunciation here, by the way), finds himself under constant surveillance; we also have something of an homage to The Metamorphosis, insomuch as Fried’s world is dominated by man-size cockroaches; and we even discover random references to key scenes from other works, as when a couple of police in Labor Day kick the bejesus out of an old drunk, à la A Clockwork Orange.

Still, to merely name these easy allusions isn’t to do Labor Day full justice. Labor Day ’s middle-age author, it seems, wasn’t satisfied until he had appropriated pieces of everything he grew up with, including one work that is about as sci-fi as an alarm clock: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Nor is this allusion nearly as oblique as that made to Burgess’s “bit of the ol’ ultraviolent.”  Arguably, any reader who isn’t reminded of the Draytons by Fried’s near apoplexy at learning of his daughter's plans to bring a cockroach home isn’t actually reading. Moreover, the scene comes after Farley makes it expressly clear that the world of Labor Day is, quite literally, post-racial as far as homo-sapiens are concerned; Fried, for instance, is described as having a “flat nose … almond-shaped eyes … [and] black curls,” as are all the other humans we meet throughout the novel. So, while at first glance it might seem Sidney Poitier’s Dr. Prentice is being compared to a man-size cockroach in Labor Day, Farley’s book is quite obviously aiming for something else altogether.

No doubt, race is a standard theme in American sci-fi. Don’t believe me? Consider whether ET is just an extraterrestrial, or whether our several definitions of alien are coincidental. No, by convention the bulk of today’s mainstream American sci-fi seemingly can’t keep itself from pitting a majority of lily-white humans against a malevolent minority of humanoids with a few features unnervingly dissimilar from humans’ (think Star Trek’s Klingons); at its softest, this implicit racism takes the form of a token alien friend like, say, Star Wars’ Chewbacca. But we must also remember that Han Solo wastes a good number of other others at the Mos Eisley Canteen before picking up Luke and company.

In Farley’s Labor Day, in contrast, the humans, including the protagonist, are the disenfranchised, oppressed minority segregated to the outskirts of civilization by man-size cockroaches. What’s more, the roaches are themselves, absurdly enough, descended from human scientists who spliced their genes with cockroach DNA to help their offspring survive a nuclear war. As for roach behavior, in Labor Day a cabal of elite roaches introduced late in the novel can only be compared to how the characters in the soap opera Dallas behave; these malevolent roaches are not so much a race in Farley’s novel but a class, more akin to Russian oligarchs than anything else.

Thus, it is important to clarify here that Farley’s treatment of race in Labor Day isn’t just a great example of how to turn a genre convention on its head but of how to do so while remaining socially conscionable. Granted, the novel opens with a scene in which Fried dines on putrefied rat yet is more nauseated by the sight of a fellow diner, a cockroach with “multifaceted eyes like an insect” who “slobber(s) a dark liquid onto (his) lobster.” But Farley eventually pushes Fried past his fear of the other: in an attempt to visit his soon-to-be in-laws at their high-rise apartment, he witnesses the deplorable conditions the building’s roach residents deal with daily. Not only is the elevator a death trap; the building’s security guard isn’t even remotely interested in guarding the place, and there’s filth strewn everywhere. Indeed, the prospects look so bleak for these roaches that Fried’s own poverty pales in comparison. (And that’s saying a great deal, considering Fried’s luxuries consist of eating a rotted rat once a month and occasionally buying a patch for his battered shoes).

So, eventually, the novel shows us that not all roaches are equal, and not all are the affluent oppressors Fried initially assumes they are, a revelation that has plenty of real-world resonance not only in terms of race relations but because of what Fried subsequently realizes on the heels of this epiphany: in actuality, his fight always was with economic exploitation and the select few in his world who benefit from oppressing the rest of the population, be those oppressed individuals human or roach. Furthermore, the lucky few in question consist of those Dallas-style roaches mentioned above: a handful of roach plutocrats planning a Nazi-like final solution for Fried and his fellow humans. So if we sum the entirety of Labor Day’s retake on standard sci-fi treatments of race, only Farley’s rich roaches have anything in common with the lily-white humans of mainstream sci-fi; in contrast, our protagonist, his friends, his family, and most of the roaches we meet decidedly do not.

Then again, all this talk of Labor Day’s racial themes might give the false impression that it is exclusively a serious book. In fact, it’s not, or rather, it is only serious insofar as you want it to be. If you’d rather forego focusing on all the poignant and socially relevant subtext, Farley so expertly pushes social satire into the realm of laugh-riot you’ll be far from bored. For example, early on he offers this bit of over-the-top absurdity:

 

The horizontal [subway] cars were filled with horizontal tubes. The cars resembled rolling beehives. Riders were forced to slide into tubes headfirst. They rode in stacks to the next station, smelling the sweat and other human excretions of former tube occupants. If the passengers wished to be discharged at a station, they had to push a button. If it worked, they were ejected at the station. If it did not work properly, there was an emergency button that could be pushed. If that button was also broken, a commuter could end up riding inside his or her tube for hours or days before anyone noticed. It was not infrequent for passengers to pass out or become hysterical from claustrophobia. This was not always a bad thing, for if the passenger was subsequently diagnosed as truly being claustrophobic or having post-traumatic syndrome, that individual was issued a special pass, enabling future transport on a car with seats.…

 

All this is to say, then, that Joseph Farley’s Labor Day isn’t just a book that riffs on and mines the best of the past half century’s literature, film and pop-culture; it plays with these pieces in such a way that we’re made to think even as we’re laughing ourselves silly.

Labor Day
By Joseph Farley
Peasantry Press
$29.99 HC; $10.99 PB
206 pages

A Showman's Show

Review of He Wrote Good Songs, Seven Angels Theatre

Anthony Newley, subject of actor/singer Jon Peterson’s dazzling one-man show, “…He Wrote Good Songs”, in its CT premiere at Seven Angels in Waterbury, was a colorful entertainer who achieved his greatest successes in the 1960s and died in 1999. I recall seeing him on variety shows in my childhood—he was unforgettable—while many were introduced to him either as a child actor playing the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s non-musical version of Oliver Twist (1948) or in his role as Matthew Mugg in the musical Dr. Doolittle (1967) for which he co-authored the songs.

Newley’s songwriting is no doubt better-known than his performances, as he co-authored—with his primary writing partner Leslie Bricusse—the songs to the cult classic film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which included “The Candy Man,” a song that seems inescapable. Newley and Bricusse also had their hand in the well-known James Bond movie theme “Goldfinger,” and Newley’s songs—such as “Who Can I Turn To” and “What Kind of Fool Am I”—have been successful hits for various singers, including Nina Simone and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Peterson, who first created “…He Wrote Good Songs” in 2014, was last at Seven Angels in 2009 in his show Song and Dance Man, in which he performed songs by a number of noted singers, Newley among them. The current show—its title comes from a line Newley said should be carved on his tombstone—presents Newley’s story as he himself might tell it, as a mix of his greatest hits held together by a freewheeling narrative of his life.

Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley

Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley

 

Peterson’s Newley is a consummate showman who lets us in on his somewhat checkered career and his string of marriages and infidelities with endearing charm and feckless egotism. This is the world according to Newley—or Tony—and there’s not a lot of soul-searching. It’s more like a view of life as a series of trials, where some things—a song, a show, a marriage—are successes, for awhile, and others aren’t.

The ups and downs are recounted colorfully in Peterson’s off-hand manner. We learn of Newley’s difficult childhood East of London and during the Blitz, of encouragement along the way, of early breaks, of the heady world of a child star in pre-Beatles Britain, and of his ongoing lust for the ladies, which leads him into three marriages—including to British actress Joan Collins—and a host of affairs. Newley, it seems, simply can’t turn off the charm, either in real life or on stage. There’s a lot of success, with Broadway hits and a popular Vegas show, but time keeps moving on and eventually he’s older, accused of being “a self-parody” at one point, and hailed as a genius at another. There are affecting moments, such as a reconciliation with the father who abandoned the family when Tony was a child, and lots of little Borsch-Belt-style asides served up for a chuckle—Newley paid his dues in venerable Catskill venues too.

Daniel Husvar’s set is a bright version of the tough Hackney streets where Newley’s life began, augmented by a comfy chair and clothes trunk, and Peterson runs through numerous costume changes before our eyes, always while chattering on. The songs, though not as familiar as they might be to some, are a constant delight; they are clever, catchy, and, at times, the stuff of soliloquy—“Pure Imagination,” “Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am,” “The Joker”—while elsewhere they give us a chance to bask in Newley’s knack with a hit—“Pop Goes the Weasel.” He throws away big numbers like “Goldfinger” and “Candy Man” as if too well-known (and admits to disliking the latter), and shows an agreeable ability to take whatever life hands out. The show ends, as it must, with “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” the standard that closes Newley’s first major musical, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, and serves as commentary on a life dogged by many foolish moves.

Peterson’s showmanship is the star here, as he gets to live out for us a life and talent that was meant for the limelight. Newley comes across as a born performer with Peterson giving an uncanny sense of the singer’s unique vocal style, in spare but effective arrangements by Bruce Barnes. And Peterson’s take-offs of those whom Newley encounters punctuate the show with artfully rendered mannerisms, making Newley an accomplished mimic as well.

Newley wrote good songs, indeed. And many are inherently theatrical in being written for shows. Peterson’s brilliant use of the songs to structure Newley’s life story makes this more than just a revue of hits while also serving to remind us of Newley’s way with a song, and way with a story. The best feature of the show is how winning Peterson is, providing the kind of interpersonal thrill that comes from finding oneself, as the saying goes, “in the palm of his hand.” It’s a showman’s show. One imagines Newley himself would be tickled by it.

 

“…He Wrote Good Songs”
Written and conceived by Jon Peterson
Directed by Semina De Laurentis
Musical Direction by Bruce Barnes
Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Bruce Barnes and Jon Peterson

Scenic and Prop Design: Daniel Hsuvar; Lighting Design: Scott Cally; Sound Design: Matt Martin; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth Salisch

Musicians: Musical Director/Arranger/Conductor/Pianist: Bruce Barnes; Bass/Guitar: Louis Tucci; Percussion: Mark Ryan

Seven Angels Theatre
November 3-27, 2016

Only Collide!

Review of Collisions, Yale Cabaret

Collisions, a collaboration between music, theater and visual projections now playing at the Yale Cabaret, co-directed by Frederick Kennedy and Kevin Hourigan, is a multimedia extravaganza. No two shows will be exactly the same, as the projections and other effects by a team at a tech board in the center of the space respond to what is happening on stage, and the music played live by a four-man band is improvised. It’s the kind of show for which the Cab is uniquely suited, with a range of meanings and sensations happening almost spontaneously.

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

So, the performers are sometimes interpreting music, sometimes being supported by music, sometimes performing a song, and the music is sometimes the main focus, sometimes background, and the projections are sometimes extending or amplifying the stories and sometimes seem to have gone a bit rogue. It’s a wonderful mix of effects and routines and jazz workouts whose effect will be mostly in the eye and ear of the beholder.

The set is a mélange of actual instruments to be played and a kind of electronics dump of obsolete bric-a-brac—a dusty old VHS deck c. 1980 is a treasure. The band—Evan Smith, saxophone and woodwinds, Kevin Patton, guitar, stage right; Frederick Kennedy, drums and percussion, Matt Wigton, bass, stage left—are placed amidst the visual cacophony to create a variety of musical textures that can be at times a hypnotic groove, at other times, celestial sounds, and at times a hot jam.

Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The performers—Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon—are clad in different costumes of white. Buzan has the knit cap, England-Nelson, the baseball cap, Lemmon is hatless. At times they narrate what they’re doing, as in Buzan’s “bit at the podium,” a kind of Ted talk to open the piece. Other times, they wordlessly interact with the music—which can mean expressive slow-mo or very physical jousting with chairs, much of it designed to play with the various ways we might experience “collision”: something hitting something else, an idea meeting an obstruction.

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, Baize Buzan (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, Baize Buzan (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Here and there, dialogues sprout up—one, particularly amusing, has Lemmon as a tensely serious art-maker talking about her collage deconstructions as England-Nelson skeptically quizzes their purpose. At one point, Lemmon sings a song and the others join in, breaking up the jazz score with simple melody and, yes, feelings. A favorite segment for me was England-Nelson leading a meditation class more apt to cause anxieties than allay them (“what’s that, is that the water level rising to engulf us all?”), and Lemmon sounding off in a kind of lecture that skewers some of the pretensions of our particular cultural moment (“how can we make violence safe again?”).

Brontë England-Nelson (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson (photo: Elizabeth Green)

There are a lot of meta moves, where the three are commenting on what it is we’re all experiencing—at one point, as they consult their snapchats or tinders, the camera man at the tech board pans the audience to let us appear in a projected cellphone frame. The interaction between the trio never feels portentous, and they can be remarkably eloquent even when—or especially when—they aren’t saying anything.

Frederick Kennedy (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Frederick Kennedy (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The point of mixing media is in the mixing, generally. Here, one is often struck by the wherewithal to sculpt with sound and image and physical performer. Collisions can be a very immersive or contemplative experience, and, in the best tradition of live performance, it makes you glad you were there.

 

Collisions
Conceived and written by Frederick Kennedy
Developed in collaboration with the entire company
Co-directed by Kevin Hourigan and Frederick Kennedy
Additional text: Jeremy O. Harris
Additional music: Molly Joyce

Choreography: Jake Ryan Lozano, Emily Lutin, Gretchen Wright; Dramaturgy: Ashley Chang, Jeremy O. Harris; Set Design: Choul Lee, John Bondi-Ernoehazy; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green, Krista Smith; Sound Design: Christopher Ross-Ewart, Frederick Kennedy; Assistant Sound Design: Haley Wolfe; Projection Design: Yana Biryukova, Michael Commendatore; Technical Director: Rae Powell; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson; Producer: Rachel Shuey

Cast: Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon

Musicians: Frederick Kennedy, drums/percussion; Kevin Patton, guitar, custom interactive system design; Evan Smith, saxophone/woodwinds; Matt Wigton, bass

Yale Cabaret
November 17-19, 2016

Mature Attraction

Review of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance is a quiet little drama about taking a chance, late in life. Its best feature is attention to the kind of small distinctions that can make a big difference in how people learn to accept and trust one another.

NHTC member John Watson plays Ralph Bellini, an Italian-American widower who suddenly, in his 80s, becomes sweet on a woman he sees with her pet dog in a park he ventures into by chance. Soon he’s trying his best to chat her up, using all his resources of gentle joshing and kidding, turning on the charm. The object of his interest, Carol Reynolds, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is not so warm or inclined to be charmed. She’s a bit prickly, a bit distracted. But she’s not indifferent to the attention.

As played by Watson, Ralph is indeed a likeable guy, the kind we would expect to have many casual friends. In fact, the only other major person in his life at this point is his sister Rose Tagliatelle, played by Janie Tamarkin, a bossy but also needy woman who never married. Ralph and Rose are the only siblings left of a large family. They’re settled in their ways and Rose can’t help wondering what’s up with her brother in taking a shine to a complete stranger.

And it’s not just doubts about the value of romance so late in life that Rose shows. There’s a subtle sense of this odd couple coming from different walks of life that she is well aware of. Mann’s Carol is WASPY and more than a bit uptight—her repeated phrase “for shame!” should give you an idea. She speaks of having cared for a husband struck down by a stroke. The main connection between her and Ralph seems to be that they are survivors. They paid their dues in marriages, and they’re still here, and that means, maybe, that something good may yet come their way.

For Ralph, dreams of romance seem to always come back to opera. He auditioned once at the Met, and director Trevor Williams handles effectively the operatic moments in the play, so that we get a strong impression of the youth and gifts that Ralph looks back on (with thanks to a cameo from Christian Shaboo). Mann’s Carol is a harder sell. It’s not clear exactly what she sees in Ralph, since she’s so slow to open up. But she does make it clear—and here changes in her wardrobe help to make the case—that she greatly appreciates being romanced again, after having pretty much given up on it.

As such there’s a nice contrast between Carol and Rose, both still hopeful—in Rose’s case, it’s hoping that the husband who left her will return—and both trying to live without illusions. Which generally means they’re quick to spot others’ unreal hopes. The question hovering in the air, as with any romance, is whether this is going to end happily ever after or whether some kind of deal-breaker will surface.

New Haven Theater Company finds in this simple and direct story a good vehicle for its actors, with Janie Tamarkin’s support adding a touch of authentic Brooklyn. In the end, DiPietro’s play seems to suggest we’re creatures of habit, but if so, it shows how some habits come from stronger ties than others. The Last Romance is a realistic romance that shows that getting what you hope for might not be for the best.

Three more shows: tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

The Last Romance
By Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Margaret Mann, Janie Tamarkin, John Watson

Additional voices and video by Christian Shaboo & Peter Chenot
Lighting Design: Peter Chenot

New Haven Theater Company
November 10-19, 2016

Entertaining Entrapment

Review of Unnecessary Farce, Playhouse on Park

With Unnecessary Farce, West Hartford native Paul Slade Smith has concocted a slapstick farce that is very popular with small regional theaters like Playhouse on Park. Set in twin hotel rooms, and featuring eight doors that create a choreography of exits and entrances—at inopportune times, mostly—the play’s frenetic pace keeps the game cast of seven in frantic motion. Act One is the more breathless and compelling of the two parts, as it introduces the basic set-up and a series of increasingly funny complications. In Act Two, of course, all these shenanigans have to resolve, somehow, and that transition tends to undermine the hilarity somewhat.

Billie (Susan Slotoroff), Eric (Will Hardyman), Karen (Julia Robles), Agent Frank (Mike Boland) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Billie (Susan Slotoroff), Eric (Will Hardyman), Karen (Julia Robles), Agent Frank (Mike Boland) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

The show is simply silly fun, but, with themes such as government corruption, inept cops, potentially salacious banter, dubious security agents, and easy-to-rile hitmen, it clearly partakes of a contemporary tendency to find humor in what should be serious situations, and grafts nervous humor to the cheeky bed-hopping and disrobing of traditional bedroom farces. Some of the best-orchestrated laughs here come from someone opening a door to find displayed some kind of physical, possibly sexual, tableau that makes the hapless witness do a double-take. In fact, scripting the timing of overlaps and exposures is much to Smith’s credit, and director Russell Treyz delivers.

As far as following the story goes: there’s a stake-out in a hotel where two none-too-bright officers—Eric Sheridan (Will Hardyman) and Billie Dwyer (Susan Slotoroff)—are meant to record, as video surveillance, a meeting between accountant Karen Brown (Julie Robles) and Mayor Meekly (Everett O’Neil) in the adjoining room. Meekly is under investigation for embezzling and Brown is there to entrap him. But, we swiftly learn, Brown and Sheridan are poised on the cusp of a love tryst, and that adds tensions beyond the call-of-duty variety. Add the mayor’s security honcho, Agent Frank (Mike Boland, getting lots of laughs from a straight-arrow becoming increasingly bent), Todd (John-Patrick Driscoll), a hitman from the local Scottish mafia (or “clan with a c”), and the mayor’s ditzy wife (Ruth Neaveill) and you’ve got overlapping plot points piling up faster than bodies on a bed.

Karen Brown (Julia Robles), Eric Sheridan (Will Hardyman), Agent Frank (Mike Boland) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Karen Brown (Julia Robles), Eric Sheridan (Will Hardyman), Agent Frank (Mike Boland) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Script-wise, some of the best features are Boland’s hilarious delivery of Agent Frank’s narrative about the Scottish mafia; Robles’ plucky charm in Karen’s efforts to allure, distract, mislead, and save her skin; and Driscoll’s brogue that becomes more unintelligible the angrier he gets. Sheridan’s Officer Hardyman is also well realized, the actor showing the kind of spastic body language and fast-changing reactions worthy of old-time sitcom favorites like Larry Storch or Dick York. Slotoroff and Neaveill both do flips you have to see to believe, though the latter’s character’s transformation could be played for bigger laughs, and O’Neil’s mayor is affable but not really comical.

And that’s really the only criticism I can imagine leveling at this diverting romp: it could be funnier at times, particularly in the second half when exposition and explanation start to slow things down a bit too much. Even so, there are great visual gags throughout, such as Slotoroff—whose dexterity is remarkable—shimmying, gagged and bound, from door-to-door, and split-second switches in who has the upperhand. The title, playing off the phrase “unnecessary force,” even plays its part as a punchline.

Billie Dwyer (Susan Slotoroff), Todd (John-Patrick Driscoll) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Billie Dwyer (Susan Slotoroff), Todd (John-Patrick Driscoll) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

 

Farce may be unnecessary, but a good laugh can be hard to find. Unnecessary Farce keeps ’em coming.

 

Unnecessary Farce
By Paul Slade Smith
Directed by Russell Treyz

Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties: Pamela Lang

Cast: Mike Boland, John-Patrick Driscoll, Will Hardyman, Ruth Neaveill, Everett O’Neil, Julie Robles, Susan Slotoroff

Playhouse on Park
November 2-20, 2016

Catch the Cab

Preview, Yale Cabaret: shows 7-10

No, it wasn’t a good week, last week. But this week will be better in at least one way: the Yale Cabaret returns, with the three shows before the winter break and the first show of the new year already named.

The Yale Cabaret lets us see theater students early in their career, working on shows they are passionate about, working to give expression to the many complex themes of our current world, and letting us—the audience—participate in vibrant talent and creativity. This year’s Artistic Directors are Ashley Chang, Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, the Managing Director is Steven Koernig, and the Associate Managing Directors are Kathy Li and Sam Linden. Here’s a brief preview of the shows chosen for the next four slots.

First up: Cab 7: Collisions. Proposed by sound design student and free jazz percussionist Fred Kennedy, the show will include some elements seen in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s show, “Envy: the Concert,” namely jazz—featuring Kennedy and a group of musicians—as well as performance pieces, co-directed by  Kennedy and Cab co-artistic director Kevin Hourigan, who also worked with Kennedy in last year’s multidisciplinary performance piece “I’m With You in Rockland.” The notion of “collision” comes from trying to “collide” free jazz—which “abandons composition in favor of collective improvisation”—with narrative and theater performance. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris contributes as well, to provide a performance piece where theater, as developed by the entire company, structures the music. The musicians joining Kennedy are Kevin Patton, guitar and interactive systems design; Evan Smith, sax and woodwinds; Matt Wigton, bass; and they’ll be aided and abetted by a trio of actors: Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon. The show purports to be a collision of music and performance, with a definite narrative aspect. November 17-19

The following week the Cab is dark as we all drift about trying to find something to be thankful for on our national holiday.

Returning, Cab 8 offers Matthew Ward’s translation of Peter Handke’s play Kaspar, which takes its inspiration from the young adult foundling Kaspar Hauser, subject of a well-received film by Werner Herzog in the 1980s. In this production, the Cab’s graphic designer, Ayham Ghraowi directs dramaturg Josh Goulding—who recently directed Current Location and acted in Styx Songs at the Cab—as Kaspar, a man who grew up without human company and suffers estrangement while being integrated into society. The show features elements of vaudeville, slapstick, physical humor, and—according to Ashley Chang, who has a “heavy hand” in the show—“linguistic torture.” The play will be divorced somewhat from its original context. Think “clown figure assaulted by language.” The doctor who studied the actual Kaspar Hauser remarked that he “seemed to hear without understanding, to see without perceiving . . .“ Sound like anyone you know? December 1-3

Cab 9, the last show of 2016, will be Mrs. Galveston, a new play by third-year playwright Sarah B. Mantell, whose play Tiny was produced in last year’s Langston Hughes Studio Series. In this play, Mantell re-works her earliest play, deliberately re-scripting for her actor-collaborators at the Cab, which include George Hampe and Sydney Lemmon. Mrs. Galveston is an aged woman who one day finds herself visited by Jim, a young man who has been assigned to evaluate her health care needs. At the interview, she determines that he should be her caregiver. The play,