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, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, sounds like a bit of a Harold and Maude tale, as a comedy about an unlikely cross-generational relationship. The play entails themes of adult care and the autonomy of our aging Baby Boomer population, and involves a mysterious big white book. December 8-10

When we all return from seasonal holidays and welcoming in the new year in a January that looks to be joyous indeed, Cab 10 proffers a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, 2007 YSD graduate, 2013 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize winner. In the Red and Brown Water is the second-written play but first in chronology of the Brother/Sister trilogy that includes The Brothers Size (staged at the Cab at the close of the 2013-14 season). Oya is a young woman and a skilled track star under pressure to develop and cash in on her talent, an expectation at odds with her ties to her family and her own romantic interests. As with the others in the series, the play is based on Yoruba myths in which Oya is a goddess of wind and change. The play is directed by third-year playwright Tori Sampson, who co-authored Some Bodies Travel in last year’s Carlotta Festival and wrote This Land was Made for the Langston Hughes Studio Series last year. The production was proposed by Folks, the African-American theater artists collective at the Yale School of Drama. January 12-14

That takes us through Cab 10; the next eight shows will be posted early next year, along with the date of the annual Yale School of Drag show. For a few weeks more, see you at the Cab!

For tickets, passes, donations, menus and show info: www.yalecabaret.org

Yale Cabaret 49
2016-17
217 Park Street

Business Ethics, an Oxymoron?

Preview of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

When I spoke to Steve Routman, who plays Coles in the Long Wharf’s upcoming production of Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, the election hadn’t happened yet, but was impending. That fact colored somewhat our chat about the play, which features the efforts of a corporate raider, Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle, played by Jordan Lage (last at Long Wharf in Ride the Tiger), to buy up New England Wire and Cable. Garfinkel’s scheme conflicts with two other interested parties: the factory owner Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) and Coles, the owner of the company. As Routman puts it, the three characters, “each selfish in their own way,” are “trying to navigate different possibilities of capitalism,” and that gives the show its main theme.

As Routman sees it, Jorgenson represents the past and a focus on a business model that was passing away when the play first appeared in the late 1980s; Coles, somewhat “judicious” in Routman’s view, is “considering the long term” and what kinds of economic opportunities will be available for future generations. Between the two, Garfinkle is a fast-and-loose conniver who lives in “the now,” trying to make a score to plump up his portfolio. In taking us back to the days when the ostensible president-elect was a hot young wheeler-dealer in real estate investment, the play “still feels current,” though some of its references “are ripped from the headlines” of the time. Garfinkle is “not Trump”—either then or now—Routman stresses, but we may see some similarities: the charisma, the misogyny, the emphasis on making money that all seems to go with the territory.

Steve Routman is a familiar face at Long Wharf. In my years covering plays there, he has added richly realized supporting roles to three shows, all directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. Probably Routman's most memorable role was as Cohen in Steve Martin’s The Underpants where he got to display his comic, slapstick abilities. In the Long Wharf’s updating of Our Town, he played Professor Willard, and, in The Second Mrs. Wilson, Routman brought a bristling irony to the role of Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice President who found himself out of the loop when the president became ill.

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Routman, a Connecticut resident, is “extremely grateful” to Edelstein for regularly finding roles for him to play. With a 4-year old child, Routman is glad not to have to spend long months away. He feels like “a member of the [Long Wharf] family. For the bulk of my career I played in regional theater all around the country,” but his first equity job, back in 1985, happened to be at Hartford Stage. So Connecticut, which “has more regional theater than most states,” has been good for him with many “likeable” roles and venues.

Since I tend to think of Routman in comic turns, as in The Underpants and to some extent The Second Mrs. Wilson, I asked about his preference in roles. He loves comedy and “the challenge of the technical aspect of comedy,” but is glad to have played a variety of roles to show his range, including Chekhov, and film and TV roles. He referred to the great opportunity for The Underpants, in moving from Long Wharf to a later run at Hartford Stage, to perfect its timing and staging. “It grew tremendously,” he said, as finding what's funny can require trial and error in front of audiences.

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While there is humor in Other People’s Money, Routman said, the actors and director Marc Bruni “are still finding it.” The play is “not pure drama, nor comedy.” It’s “darker than the movie” version, starring Danny DeVito, that came out in the 1980s. Though Routman hasn’t seen a production of the play, he was aware of it having “a regional life” in the early ‘90s, with its single set and strong five character cast—another key role is that of a female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), who must decide how to meet the challenge of Garfinkle.

Coles’ appeal as a character, Routman said, is in his “complexity. He seems to have a good heart and wants the best, even while looking out for himself.” Routman sees him as “the voice of reason to some extent.” For Routman, much of what is at stake in the play is a question of values: The difference between business as a way of life that makes products of value, or as simply a way to “make a killing” in some market, then move on. With such a clash, Routman said, “there’s no way to not see today in this play,” and he “looks forward to seeing what the audience finds in it.”

With the country experiencing the change that comes from moving to a Republican administration after eight years of a Democratic president, it’s timely enough to revisit an earlier Republican era. Sterner, who died in 2001, wrote the play after seeing what happened to a company, whose stock he sold to a corporate raider, and to the surrounding community after the company was sold off and closed down.

Other People’s Money runs from November 23 to December 18, with a press opening on November 30. Tickets start at $29. www.longwharf.org

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

Sly Oneupmanship

Review of Sleuth, Music Theater of Connecticut

Two men playing head games in an English country estate may seem far removed from the pressures of our times. Indeed, Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s captivating comic drama of sleight-of-hand twists and flexible identities dates from the 1970s and tweaks genteel detective fiction. But it also traffics in something that never ceases to fascinate: power, as in, what you can do to others when you have it, and how to get it from others when you don’t.

Sleuth is a whodunit that has been called, more properly, a whodunwhat. Milo Tindle (David Brickman), a London-based travel agent for well-to-do clientele, visits the very successful and very high-handed author Andrew Wyke, a murder mystery writer, at his Tudoresque pile. Milo has been summoned by the elder man, it turns out, in order to discuss how Milo might successfully keep his mistress, Wyke’s wife, in the manner to which she has become accustomed. The scheme involves burglary and an insurance settlement, but before you can say fraud, Wyke is having Milo choose a costume for a kind of fancy-dress felony. And then he proceeds to complicate matters further.

Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The repartee between the two is swift and sure in Pamela Hill’s well-paced production. As Tindle, David Brickman squirms with poise and even manages to take his host off-guard at times by playing to his vanity. John Little’s Andrew Wyke is a carefully controlled turn as someone who is always toying—with his prose, with his verbal sallies, with his plots and with putting Milo through his paces. Though neither actor plays the scenes of emotional extremity as forcefully as they might, their handling of the quid pro quo jousting over who has the upper hand keeps things lively. The role of Inspector Plodder, in the second act, is particularly well played, and Wyke generally comes off as more cheeky than sadistic, which keeps us a bit sympathetic to his intentions. His is an intelligence always ready to find amusement in the way that events play into familiar patterns of narrative. And it’s Wyke’s level of meta-archness, displayed throughout, that keeps us guessing as to his ultimate motives and even as to how much he is taken in.

How much the audience is taken is is also a key question. For the full effect of the play, it’s best that viewers not already know where it’s going, so if you’ve seen it, don’t tell others much about it beforehand, but do tell them to go. Sleuth, as a play, is a kind of parlor trick that is well worth seeing done well, its ending arriving with all the aptness of a mousetrap’s satisfying click.

Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The detailed set, by Jordan Janota, makes more of MTC’s modest playing space than one could expect, and the audience’s closeness to the many props and other visual features adds a compelling intimacy. The themes of the play—such as class tensions between an up-and-comer and a lordly eminence—play out with a fluidity of affect so that sometimes we side more with one, then the other. Eventually, the play seems to shift for the underdog, but, even so, how much one sympathizes with the painfully deliberative Plodder over the high-and-mighty ironies of Wyke, the skilled plot manipulator, will be a matter for the individual viewer. Shaffer writes like a dream of self-consciously pretentious prose, so that much of the battle of wits here is verbal, having to do with a cruel eye for characterization, in Wyke, and a canny eye for loose ends, in Plodder. Milo, on the other hand, offends at the start by being too agreeable and one is in hopes that he’ll get his own back.

Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Cunning and crafty, Shaffer’s Sleuth serves up diverting escapist entertainment.

Sleuth
By Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Fight Direction: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: David Brickman, JohnLittle, Philip Farrar, Harold K. Newman, Roger Purnell

Music Theater of Connecticut
November 4-20, 2016

A Chance for Late Romance

Preview of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

The New Haven Theater Company returns this week with their fall offering. The play chosen by the democratic company, Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance, was proposed by NHTC member Margaret Mann, last seen in the NHTC production of Doubt. Like Doubt, The Last Romance is a play for a small ensemble, in this case three actors: Mann, as Carol Reynolds; NHTC member John Watson—last seen in the staged reading of Incident at Vichy a few weeks ago, and in last season’s celebrated run of Bus Stop before that—as Ralph Bellini; and Equity actor Janie Tamarkin as Rose Tagliatelle.

As Mann well knows, it’s not easy finding good parts for actors over 60. And to find a play in which all the characters are well above middle-age is even more unique. Most theater-goers in the New Haven area seem to fit that demographic, so why not a play that, as Mann says, treats the possibility of romance between elders as “the same as between much younger people.” She describes the play as “a small play about the one thing that can change everything.” Finding someone is never easy, and DiPietro’s play shows both the luck and chance involved, as well as the obstacles.

Ralph is an opera-lover who once even got a call-back to sing at the Met—the kind of thing one is liable to look back on in later life as a big, lost chance. Now a widower who takes a walk every day, Ralph happens to take his walk at a different time, in a different direction, and that small change causes him to meet Carol, a widow who likes to take her beloved chihuahua to a particular dog park. Mann sees the play as taking a serious—though at times funny—look at “the intersection of lives, later in life,” with “a little bit” of class considerations as well. The play’s setting is not really specified, Mann says, but the NHTC team are thinking of it “as happening in Wooster Square.”

Directing the show is NHTC member Trevor Williams, also seen in Vichy and Bus Stop, who hasn’t directed for NHTC before, but who, still in his thirties, is bringing a more youthful view to the play, according to Mann. Mann directed Almost, Maine for the company in November 2013 and, like that play, Last Romance takes place in “an imagined space” that represents different settings—in this case three, though mostly the dog park.

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

For Mann, acting is “a chance to step out of my own skin” while enjoying the pleasure of working with other actors. She admits she had “to sell” the play a bit to her colleagues in NHTC, but Watson was also intrigued with the play, and the chance to “play our age” as characters with distinct, “well-written speech patterns.” There’s “a lot of talking over” in the dialogue, and much of the play’s effect should be in its naturalness.

“The characters feel like people you’ve met,” Mann says, and, while the play touches on “aging, illness and loss,” it’s decidedly “not morbid but realistic and touching.” The humor, she says, is “not silly or nasty, but sweet.”

“It’s about trying something new, when you’re stuck,” Mann says of the interactions between the characters, and the risks and rewards of getting to know new people after a lifetime amidst familiar ways.

Any show with “last” in the title is apt to make us think about how much time we have left, but that question is even more relevant to those who have already lived most of their lives. Don’t miss out on last chances, and don’t miss out on New Haven Theater Company’s The Last Romance, showing for the next two weekends at the English Building Markets, November 10-12 and 17-19, at 8 p.m.

 

The Last Romance
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams
New Haven Theater Company

Three on the Street

Review of Thunder Above, Deeps Below, Yale Cabaret

A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below plays in some ways like a fairy tale, but what the playwright has in mind, given the title’s reference to Pericles, are the plays, often called “romances,” that Shakespeare wrote later in his career. The possibility of tragedy is present, but a certain saving grace, often beyond the bounds of the merely human, carries the day.

Gil (Bianca Castro), Hector (Ricardo Dávila) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Gil (Bianca Castro), Hector (Ricardo Dávila) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

In Pamatmat’s play, the tragic dimension comes from the hand-to-mouth life on the streets of an unlikely trio: Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), sort of the den-mother of the bunch, a Filipina who stills mourns the mixed-race child her parents wouldn’t allow her to have; Hector (Ricardo Dávila), a Puerto Rican youth who sells sexual favors on the street and who has become the obsession of Locke, (Jason Land), a married black man; and Gil (Bianca Castro), a transexual who wants to trade her male equipment for female. Together, they’re trying to raise the money for three bus tickets to California, to escape the encroaching cold of another Chicago winter. They hang out near, and sometimes take shelter in, a coffee shop where Marisol (Patricia Fa’asua) waits tables and lends a helping hand when she can. A further device, where Shakespearean romance comes into view, poses James Udom as Perry, a figure from Teresa’s past who seeks his Perdita, so to speak, and imagery of a ghostly boatman (Fa’asua), and, for Gil, the hope that one day her prince will come.

In the Cab production, the play's tone can be hard to pinpoint. That might be deliberate, but for the romance elements to surprise us, the hard scrabble elements have to be convincing. The street characters here are all easily likeable, and that very quality makes their desperation feel a bit like an after-school special about “choices.” The bonds these three feel for each other are best perceived under duress, as in the final show-down in the coffee shop, when Marisol confronts Hector with his past. Other scenes of struggle, such as the love-hate relations between Hector and Locke, are the most vivid aspects of the drama. Also on the plus side is Gil’s big number, providing show-stopping charisma that earns her either an admirer or a stalker (Armando Huipe) whose intentions create further drama.

Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Marisol (Patricia Fa'asua), Hector (Ricardo Dávila) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Marisol (Patricia Fa'asua), Hector (Ricardo Dávila) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Director Sebastian Arboleda, working with non-actors in some key roles, makes the most of the play’s potential for open staging. The cast move easily between imagined street, imagined lakeside, imagined coffee shop, imagined swanky apartment; the main set element, a large, transparent curtain at the back, is used effectively to set off some incidents from the immediate action. One also has the sense that, to make this full-length play fit a Cab show’s running time, certain cuts have perhaps thinned-out elements of characterization that might help us inhabit this world more fully. Pamatmat’s text can be rather lyrical, and that quality needs a certain pacing to be developed fully.

Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Gil (Bianca Castro) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Gil (Bianca Castro) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

A compelling element here is that the production combines impersonation and authenticity. Dávila, always a very capable actor, makes us see Hector as the changeable teen he is, while Castro is not an actor playing a transgender character—she is herself a trans performer and becomes Gil for the play’s purposes. Her role asks her to be acutely discerning, sympathetic, quick-witted, and dreamy, by turns. It’s a tall order. As Teresa, McKenzie frowns and scowls like a harried mother of wayward children, though her pay-off scene at the end is conveyed with winning joy.

A complicated stab at giving us a sense of lives lived on the edge, while also buttressing such lives with deliberate romance elements, Thunder Above, Deeps Below is best at registering the mystery of friendship.

 

Thunder Above, Deeps Below
By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Sebastian Arboleda

Assistant Director: Jamie Farkas; Dramaturg: Amauta Marston-Firmino; Set Designer: Riw Rakklulchon; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Higginbotham; Technical Director: Matt Davis; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Producer: Trent Anderson

Cast: Bianca Castro, Patricia Fa’asua, Jason Land, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Armando Huipe, Ricardo Dávila, James Udom

Yale Cabaret
November 3-5, 2016

Disaster Management

Review of Current Location, Yale Cabaret

When you hear a rumor of unusual, threatening occurrences, how do you react? Do you buy into the speaker’s sense of panic? Do you try to distance yourself from the situation, perhaps undermine the report’s veracity?

Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s Current Location—translated by Aya Ogawa and directed by Josh Goulding at Yale Cabaret—implies that, in today’s world, we are all under threat in a generalized way: climate change, pollution, military interventions, the testing of weapons and chemicals we know nothing about. We might say that our ability to soldier own, despite our intuited sense of how toxic is our environment—not least the one the media creates—is our lives' main dramatic situation. The phrase used as the play’s title echoes its general use in describing a threat—whether a killer on the loose or a natural disaster. Everyone is concerned about a threat’s “current location,” so as to differentiate those people “there” from us, “here.”

the cast of Current Location (photo: Elizabeth Green)

the cast of Current Location (photo: Elizabeth Green)

In Okada’s play, the sense of generic threat we all live with, at some level, becomes real for a group of women in a village where everyone sort of knows everyone else. Which means, ostensibly, there should be some solidarity in how they react to odd events—a glowing blue cloud, a remarkable drop in the lake’s water level, unusual behavior among other villagers—and yet. . . .

As the play goes on we mainly encounter what may be called different coping mechanisms. Cassie (Molly Fitzmaurice) is the most panicky, but then she’s the one who saw that huge, glowing cloud, while out with her boyfriend who, to add to her stress, wanted to view the phenomenon “romantically.” Like Cassie, Hana (Bianca Boragi), also freaking out, comes to two sisters, Irina (Chiara Klein) and Katrina (Emily Reeder) for advice. The sisters are presented as the bedrock dispensers of practical viewpoints. They are not easily swayed to hysterical outbursts, evincing a patient sense of the plausible and the practical, what is usually called, in sci-fi or horror movies, “a logical explanation.” Of the two, Irina seems more sympathetic; Katrina, more imperious and flinty. Eunice (Eunice Amo), another neighbor, expresses her gratitude for the kinds of heart-to-hearts the sisters provide.

Katrina (Emily Reeder), Hana (Bianca Boragi), Irina (Chiara Klein) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Katrina (Emily Reeder), Hana (Bianca Boragi), Irina (Chiara Klein) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Whether there is an explanation or not is something that Okada keeps us guessing about. And so, as viewers, our sense of implication becomes a matter of how we react to such provocations. Are the sisters so rational we want to scream? Is screaming Cassie or Hana so extreme we want to stifle her? How do we get to the truth? And, even if we know the truth, how should we act on it?

One way to deal with what we don’t understand, Okada suggests, with a sense of satire, is to satirize it. Maya (Amber Koonce) and Audrey (Caitlin Crombleholme) attempt to put on a play that mimics the kind of dread and dread-defeating rationales to which all the characters are susceptible. But it proves too much for Cassie. Art is no refuge, if in fact the entire village and its environs are contaminated. (Okada wrote the play in the wake of the 2011 nuclear reactor crisis in Japan, following the Tohoku earthquake, so that the play within the play is very much apt to the author’s situation in writing Current Location.)

Audrey (Caitlin Crombleholme), Maya (Amber Koonce) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Audrey (Caitlin Crombleholme), Maya (Amber Koonce) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The Cab’s staging takes place in the round, the set itself consisting of two chairs that face each other as on a talk show. The actors open and close the play seated amidst the audience, which of course has the effect of including us in “the village.” In fact, the way in which the action includes the audience is much to the point here. Goulding’s cast make us feel their discomfort; they aren’t acting so much as reacting, and, it’s implied, how can we remain so detached when lives are at stake? With an all-female cast, the play deliberately avoids the presentation of males in authoritative roles, so that our sense of the crisis is filtered entirely through how these women speak to each other.

In the middle of the play or thereabouts an act of violence perpetrated by Katrina is staged with a kind of matter-of-fact solidarity by the others (except Irina). It’s not a do-or-die moment, where a definite threat must be suppressed, and the act feels almost ritualistic, a kind of group mind enactment we are suddenly complicit with. As with the final imagery of the play, we are asked: are you in or out—on the ship looking back at the deluded fools who remain behind, or, secure in the only world you’ve ever known, looking on at deluded fools who try to escape their own fears?

Current Location is a thought-provoking play, a stab into the complacency of the onlooker, an effort to suggest that catharsis should occur in real life. This production’s immediacy and lack of distancing helps make the play’s point.

 

Current Location
By Toshiki Okada
Translated by Aya Ogawa
Directed by Josh Goulding

Composer: Molly Joyce; Music Director: Chiara Klein; Dramaturg: Kari Olmon; Set Designer: Joo Hyun Kim; Lighting Designer: Erin Fleming; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Fight Director: Michael Commendatore; Stage Manager: John Carlin; Technical Director: Brian Pacelli; Assistant Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Producer: Chad Dexter Kinsman

Cast: Eunice Amo, Bianca Boragi, Caitlin Crombleholme, Molly Fitzmaurice, Chiara Klein, Amber Koonce, Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
October 27-29, 2016

Next up at the Cabaret this week:  Thunder Above, Deeps Below, by Yale School of Drama MFA and celebrated playwright A. Rey Pamatmat, directed by third-year actor Sebastian Arboleda, who also directed last’s season’s intriguing Cloud Tectonics, which also featured elements of magical realism, as does Pamatmat’s play. As the last play this season to be staged before the 2016 election, Thunder Above, Deeps Below asks us to look at the “quintessentially American lives” of characters who are “disenfranchised, queer, trans, or immigrants.” November 3-5.

Send in the Clowns

Review of Goldfish, Yale Repertory Theatre No Boundaries Series

Viewers expecting the bare stage typical of a dance troupe may be surprised by the prop room-like setting of Goldfish, a touring show by The Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company at Yale Repertory Theatre. The choreography of this 60 minute show is precise and often set to music, but it’s a choreography that features clowning and manipulating objects and costumes more than interpretive dance routines. Zvi Fishzon and Ella Rothschild are a white-clad couple who display a bizarre array of tics amid the give and take of what seems a domestic world—tea cups are heavily featured, and a box that recalls a TV set, except that it houses Noga Harmelin’s screaming head.

Early on, one has the sense that we are watching the animation of a costumes wardrobe, as a pair of legs sticks out from a rack of white clothes to dance in the air and to be washed by attendants. That sense becomes more definite late in the show when Harmelin performs an erratic dance in an outfit still upon its hanger. The routine has the look of a puppet controlling its own movements. Indeed, the relation between movement of one’s own volition and movement as a result of another’s actions plays out in interesting ways in many of the routines. The degree to which any relationship—between adults, between parents and child, between humans and pets, and so on—is primarily “about” action and reaction is key to much of what occurs here. The show’s title is meant to make us think of how circumscribed our own habits are, like goldfish in our little bowls.

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

Setting up the show, and providing its visual climax, is the role of Avshalom Pollak, in baggy black with a comic mime’s ability to convey emotional cruxes with a glance, a frown, a lifted eyebrow. At times he seems to be only a spectator, off to the side of the stage, but his reactions at other times are more interactive.

The poetic and comic dimensions of the show are unlikely to strike any two viewers alike. The effects play upon the poetics of gesture, and the way that costuming and attitude and body language can communicate volumes. The music is mostly “old time,” which gives the show the air of vaudeville and of Big Band era romanticism. The Chaplinesque feel of some of the movements recalls silent film comedy, but placed in a more surreal context, where, for instance, an ostrich can emerge from the rack as easily as a maid or butler. Sound effects are also an important element of the whole, as Pollak sets the stage early for intense listening as he reacts to sounds in the theater and imitates bird calls.

A collection of mysterious and inventive humoresques, Goldfish is a theater of visual effects, rich in implication and suggestion, delightful in its odd surprises and jaunty grace.

 

Goldfish
Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company

Choreography: Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak; Scenic and Costume Design: Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak; Sound Design: Asaf Ashkenazy; Master Carpenter: Gilad Banneau; Tour Manager: Ofer Lachish

Performers: Zvi Fishzon, Noga Harmelin, Avshalom Pollak, Ella Rothschild

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 28 & 29, 2016

 

 

A Haunting Heirloom

Review of The Piano Lesson, Hartford Stage

Of August Wilson’s ten-play American Century Cycle, tracing African-American life through each decade of the 20th century, The Piano Lesson, which won the Pulitzer in 1990, is one of the most popular, and in this very handsome and involving production at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, it’s easy to see why. The show has clear themes of haunting and legacy, boasts enthralling musical numbers that help create the sense of solidarity among characters with disparate intentions, and offers its actors lots of room to stretch out in, discovering nuances of character in dialogues that seem to move backward—into a past that hovers over everyone here—and forward—into a future still to be forged—simultaneously. It’s wonderfully rich writing, and Wilson is in no hurry to get the play where it’s going. These characters need to steep awhile before the tensions can get ironed out. The fact that most do helps as well.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) shows up unexpectedly at the house his sister Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) shares with their uncle Doaker (Roscoe Orman) and her daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor) in the Hill Section of Pittsburgh. Accompanied by his friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Willie's intention is to sell a truckload of watermelons. Boy Willie’s secondary intention, he soon reveals to his uncle, is to sell an heirloom piano that sits in the parlor of the house. With the money from both sales, together with what he has saved, he plans to buy land that his family worked, first as slaves and then as share-croppers, back home in Mississippi.

Doaker, Berniece, and even Lymon have no interest in returning to the South, but Boy Willie’s dream of being a man of property in the town where his ancestors were treated as property is the main tension driving the play. But the piano has been decorated with the carved faces of ancestors—including Willie and Berniece’s grandmother and father, sold to pay for the piano—and polished with their blood. As such, the fate of the piano becomes an allegory about the relation of the present to the past and the question of what should constitute a basis for identity—historical, racial, familial.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

To compare the production to the Yale Rep’s revival in 2011, directed by Liesl Tommy, the main difference, noticed at once, is how much better the Hartford Stage playing space delivers the feel of a real house, one that gives the audience very direct access to the action. Alexis Distler, who designed the Delaney sisters incredibly detailed home last season for Long Wharf’s Having Our Say (also directed by Jade King Carroll) has created a space for the Charles family that looks homey and accommodating and even features a glimpse of a neighboring house, styled after Wilson’s own family home on Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh. “The Hill” is home to most of the plays in Wilson’s cycle and the Hartford production maintains a sense of place that surrounds the action.

Key moments, like the four men—Willie, Lymon and Doaker are joined by the latter’s brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks)—bonding in a blues learned from doing hard labor at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, are placed front and center and are fully involving; the effects of the presence of Sutter’s ghost—the death, from falling down a well, that leaves the land free for Willie to buy—are subtle but strong in the final confrontation.

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The development of this production shows a distinctive grasp of each character’s trajectory: Berniece, harsh and unwelcoming, becomes a figure of strength and pathos as we realize all she has lost and all she wants to hold onto; Boy Willie, essentially a smooth-talker looking out for number one, gradually gains stature as he speaks of how he wants to turn the tables and overcome his family’s past; Doaker, with his speech recalling the piano’s history, is an older and wiser figure, removed from the fray, until his threat to protect the piano brings out an almost forgotten strength of will; Lymon, at first a laconic sidekick for Boy Willie, becomes capable of enough romantic eloquence to sway Berniece to tenderness; and Wining Boy, a piano player tired of being a piano player, commands a towering voice in his rendition of a song he wrote for his wife, now deceased (Baikida Carroll, composer).

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One of the most beguiling aspects of Wilson’s drama is how the characters interact with one another. Though at times at loggerheads, they still have a lot of shared experiences, assumptions, and expectations. They are mostly related, and the others they know all about—like Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), an elevator-operator who aspires to be a preacher and also aspires to be Berniece’s husband, whom Boy Willie remembers well and vice versa. Wilson’s deep sense of how these folk scrape along and make plans and entertain their dreams—such as Lymon’s hope, inspired by Wining Boy, that a silk suit and sharp shoes will immediately earn him respect and female interest—makes for many revealing moments of truth.

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Of special mention should be Orman’s Doaker, whose speech patterns and silent reactions conjure a character somewhat in hiding from his own past, and Kane’s Lymon, whose strong, silent-type manner makes him memorable as a figure key to Wilson’s intentions in the play: to depict the newcomer in the North, capturing the contrast between the more gentlemanly southerners and more callous northerners. There’s also the sense of a grand style fading as Wining Boy helps us imagine figures of the glamorous Twenties becoming has-beens in this post-Depression era world. As the spatting brother and sister, Clifton Duncan and Christina Acosta Robinson register well the deep familiarity and stubborn differences that make all the characters seem peripheral to the struggle of the family’s younger generation—now in its thirties—to cope with its past and find its future.

Through it all the star of the show is Wilson’s ear for the rhythms of speech, rendered well by this top-notch cast.

 

August Wilson’s
The Piano Lesson
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Alexis Distler; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallace; Composer: Baikida Carroll; Music Director: Bill Sims, Jr.; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle

Cast: Toccarra Cash, Cleavant Derricks, Clifton Duncan, Galen Ryan Kane, Roscoe Orman, Christina Acosta Robinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Elise Taylor

Hartford Stage
October 13-November 13, 2016

On a Knife Edge

Review of Blood Wedding, Yale School of Drama

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding receives a gorgeous staging at the Yale School of Drama. The thesis show for third-year director Kevin Hourigan—and the first of the three thesis projects this season—Blood Wedding invites us to consider the elemental force of human passion. Lorca’s three act play is here staged as two acts, an intermission, and a short final act. The division of the material is made eminently sensible given the stark change in mood that follows the close of the play’s second act, here the first part curtain.

The first part has the feel of a folkloric exploration of the mores of an Andalusian village in rural Spain in the 1920s. Cole McCarty’s handsome costumes seem so authentic, we feel ourselves in a naturalistic depiction, while Choul Lee’s scenic design gestures toward the play’s more modernist elements that will come forward in the second part. The set combines a strikingly lit tree and tall, cathedral-like panes of glass, and, in the second part, poetic lighting to suggest the influence of the moon.

Lorca eschews character names (but for Leonardo), and that lets us know that we’re in for something more stylized than naturalistic. Yet director Hourigan presents the mounting drama of the play’s first two acts with strongly delineated characters. Sebastian Arboleda plays The Groom as likeable, if none too exciting, something his Mother (Lauren E. Banks) realizes, trying to persuade him that his proposed marriage to The Bride (Sydney Lemmon) may not be in his best interests. The girl has been tainted by the reciprocal desire between herself and Leonardo (Barbaro Guzman), a horseman and the town’s resident heart-throb; his Wife (Stephanie Machado) is already pregnant with his second child, even as he has begun to suffer jealousy at the prospective marriage of a woman he wants for himself. It’s not a healthy situation, and we feel the entire village—suggested by ensemble parts played by Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Rebecca Hampe, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, and Jennifer Schmidt—looking on to see what develops.

In the early going, the play’s tone lets us hope all may work out well. Despite The Mother’s misgivings—and Banks seethes with barely contained emotion—and her mourning for men in her family who have died by the knife over quarrels, The Groom and his Mother pay the requisite visit to the Bride’s Father (Jake Ryan Lozano, benignly patriarchal) and events pass without quarrelsome words. The