Come from the Shadows

Review of WET: A DACAmented Journey, Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series

In the news this week is coverage of what appears to be a change in HUD policy, denying loans to home-buyers who are registered with DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program instituted under the Obama administration as a means of countering the deportation of persons living in America since childhood who were not born in U.S. territory. The effort by the current administration to dismantle DACA—prevented thus far by a court injunction—continues, causing upheaval in the lives of those in the program (which, with a recent “off-year” spike in registration, numbers nearly 700,000 people at present). One of those persons is Anner Alexander Alfaro, and his complex and inspiring story is told by Alex Alpharaoh, his performance artist alter-ego, in WET: A DACAmented Journey, playing at the Iseman Theater for one more performance, tonight at 8 p.m.

 Alex Alpharaoh in WET: A DACAmented Journey, at Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series, December 13-15, 2018 (photo by Youthana Yuos)

Alex Alpharaoh in WET: A DACAmented Journey, at Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series, December 13-15, 2018 (photo by Youthana Yuos)

Anner (AY-neer), now about 30, was smuggled into the U.S. by his fifteen-year-old mother when he was a few months old, so that they could be with his father, who was already in the U.S. All of Anner’s relatives were either born here or were naturalized. He alone grew up with no papers, and Alpharoah dramatizes for us how that fact might well cause panic in a child who hears too many playground rumors. The rumors—though exaggerated and demeaning—point to his vulnerable status. As he grows up, Anner finds that, without a social security number, he can’t get a driver’s license, work legally, or vote. Eventually, he makes up a SS number and gets work as a social worker in elderly care. A case of abuse that requires his testimony reveals his illegal status and causes his arrest, thus making him even more vulnerable to deportation. Anner makes a deal that gets the case expunged—in time—but not before much anxiety over how his status will be affected. Not until DACA’s existence does there seem to be a way for him to become an acknowledged citizen of the only country he has ever known or lived in.

The ins-and-outs of these events are put across by Alpharaoh with a nimble sense of how to dramatize—in quick bursts of characterization—the more-or-less Kafkaesque aspects of dealing with governmental agencies and the legal system. We see Anner the child, Anner the social-worker, we hear and see other children, Anner’s mother and father, a prosecutor who is grateful for Anner’s testimony, a cell-mate who counsels “don’t take any deals,” and the attorney who brokers the deal. Alpharaoh punctuates the story—which might seem too prosaic—with short bursts of hip-hop poetry, giving voice to the indignities and outrages of lives like Anner’s in the idiom of street rhymers. The whole presents one man’s odyssey, told as a series of encounters and accounts that work as both scene and narrative, drawing us into a way of life we might find hard to imagine and harder to cope with.

The point is that, for someone in Anner’s position, dealing with the powers that be is a steady source of anxiety. There is nothing guaranteed in his status in his own country. Alpharaoh dramatizes that situation with both a scrappy sense of urgency and sustained emotional moments involving his parents, his teen-age daughter, and others.

Guatemala, where Anner was born and where his grandfather is deathly ill, becomes—to a certain degree—a nemesis-like fate. Anner realizes he might be able to get an “Advance Parole”—a special dispensation that would give him a set window of time to visit another country, for a documented reason, and return. He could visit his birthplace, meet his grandfather for the first time, see his father’s final resting place, and, if the consulate cooperates, attain a proper passport for return to the U.S. The visit sounds fraught with difficulty and considerable risk, which Alpharaoh makes palpable for the audience, while his family members uniformly urge him to go. No one really seems to believe he could get stuck in Guatemala (except Anner). And yet, because these events are happening during Trump’s contested “Muslim Travel Ban,” there is very real cause for concern about who else might be prevented access.

On his visit to Guatemala, he tells us, he didn’t want to like the place, fearing that anything like a native’s affection for the country would “tip the scales” and land him there permanently. The story of how he navigates—with his cousin—the consular services at the embassy builds up an excruciating suspense as though we’re watching someone recount a Hitchcockian espionage thriller.

As entertainment, the show has much to offer because Alpharaoh is a born raconteur, engaging and mercurial. When we step away from Anner’s story and look at the status of those whom DACA serves—as Alpharaoh does in a polemic late in the show—we might suddenly feel that too much of one person’s story is too little of another’s. And that should bring home the enormity of trying to police the porous borders between nations. In its focus on one “case,” WET gives us a glimpse into a world where any person’s claim to the common rights of citizenship must be corroborated and can be challenged. It would be a nightmarish glimpse without Alpharaoh’s charm and smarts.

Whatever our dealings with the state and its functionaries, we can’t possibly envy anyone whose life falls under its scrutiny. Alpharaoh knows that even by telling his story, and, as he says “coming out of the shadows,” he risks possible reprisals from those elements of our society that see him as a threat or problem. It’s a risky business, just working and living in the current climate—with or without DACA—and it’s even riskier, though rewarding, to make art out of one’s conflicts with the state of things. That’s what Alex Alpharaoh does, and it’s a story very much of its moment in U.S. history, and one that deserves to be widely heard.

To that end, Alpharaoh’s show is on an eight-city U.S. tour.

 

WET: A DACAmented Journey
Written and performed by Alex Alpharaoh
Directed by Brisa Areli Muñoz

Costume Design: Niki Hernandez-Adams; Lighting Design: Aaron Johansen; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Scenic Coordinator: Bradley Gray; Scenic and Costume Artist: Nery Cividanis; Production Consultant: Elise Thoron; Production Stage Manager: Graciela Rodriguez

Yale Repertory Theatre
December 13-15, 2018

Comfort and Joy

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This is my fourth “go” at the Hartford Stage’s traditional production of Charles Dickens’ famed yuletide classic A Christmas Carol—now celebrating its 20th anniversary, having debuted in 1998, adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. That’s a lot of Christmases past, indeed. I saw two productions with Bill Raymond as Scrooge, and this is my second time seeing Michael Preston in the role, and the third time with Rachel Alderman as director. And you know what? I think it’s the best version I’ve yet seen.

Not sure why that is, since most of the cast is identical with last year, and the staging has not varied much in the four years I attended. This time, though, there seemed more gravitas to the whole. It could be that I’ve simply got beyond the warm haze of familiarity and am seeing the show not in comparison to the various Christmas Carols that have gone before, but as something in its own right. Or rite. As a ritual enactment, the Hartford Stage version has much to recommend it.

 The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s moving, and it moves. The show boasts a wide-open set, with entrances from every direction, and has a second story that adds much visual interest. And there are skeletal ghosts—some even fly—that create a feel for how haunted is this story of a mean-spirited old miser. They’re fun but can also be a bit unnerving.

Preston’s Scrooge, even when he’s at his worst, tends to feel a bit sympathetic because we see how he’s beset by his own bluster. Scrooge, as we learn, was once much more of a softie, but some hard knocks—a very unaccommodating father and the loss of his beloved sister, for starters—and some bad choices, like letting the love of his life get away, have made for a very testy middle-age. He also prizes his fortune as something that’s for him to hoard and for others to do without. That’s the part that really needs a make-over.

 Scrooge (Michael Preston)

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The supporting cast—many in more than one role—have had time to make these roles their own. That includes, of course, Noble Shropshire, who delights as the air-borne and woebegone ghost of Marley, and as the doting Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper, and Robert Hannon Davis’ dignified Bob Cratchit, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, who provides a welcome focus in the early second act as Scrooge’s warmly effusive Nephew, Fred. As Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancée, Vanessa R. Butler plays well the heartstring-tugging of Scrooge’s big loss, a break that she treats as a sacrifice on her part.

The three debtors who transform into the spirits that haunt Scrooge’s uneasy slumbers on Christmas Eve are all top notch, both as street vendors and as ghosts. Bettye Pidgeon (Rebekah Jones), a doll vendor, Bert (Alan Rust), a fruit and cider vendor, and Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison), a watchworks vendor, already feel like familiar characters, and the three introduce some welcome comedy at Scrooge’s expense.

This year, I think the rebukes aimed at Scrooge by the spirits landed with a bit more force—maybe the travails of 2018 make even Christmas spirits less patient with pig-headed old fools like Scrooge. As Christmases Past, Rebekah Jones telling Scrooge not to blame her for the mistakes of his youth, and, as Christmases Present, Alan Rust’s use of Scrooge’s own callous words against him certainly come across as the dire lessons they’re meant to be. For all their cheeriness as ambassadors of Christmas, the spirits have to shock Scrooge into examining his life. And Preston’s Scrooge is every bit as fearful and repentant as he should be when the baleful Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come shows up.

 Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

This year, I saw the show with some viewers who never saw A Christmas Carol before—in any form, I believe—and that fact made me attend a bit more anxiously. Certainly I wanted their experience of this great story to be memorable—as any first viewing of it should be—and I’m very pleased to say that, trying to make myself follow the story as if I didn’t already know it, I was thoroughly caught up and found the Hartford Stage version wonderfully faithful to the spirit of Dickens. I admired again how the script keeps much of his quaint but vivid language in play, as it should—such as the bit about the doornail and the Victorian fussiness with statements of sentiment. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, how the dialogue at the Cratchits, in a scene from the possible future, could be improved upon, made effective by the way Davis and Shauna Miles, as Mrs. Cratchit, underplay their grief for the children’s sake.

As Cratchit reminds Scrooge early on, Christmas Day comes but once a year. True, but it comes round every year. Whatever significance one attaches to the fact of the day and its long tradition, A Christmas Carol attests to the notion that we could all do much better in treating others—whether strangers, co-workers, employees, or relatives—humanely, and that, as we close in on the date when we change the old calendar for the new, many of us would do well to turn over a new leaf. How one nasty man becomes generous and open with others is a tale worth seeing, and seeing done well. Hartford Stage’s production delivers comfort and joy.

 Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

 

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Design: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Associate Choreographer: Derric Harris; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Vanessa Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roody, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

The Hartt School Ensemble: Christopher Bailey, Patrick Conaway, Austin Doughty, Karla Gallegos, Holly Hill, Aubrey Jowers, Mark Lawrence, Peter Mann, Rachel Moses, Ariana Ortmann, Haley Tyson, Leslie Blake Walker, Matthew Werner, Reid Williams

The Children: Isabella Grace Corica, Ethan Dinello, Damien Galvez, Elijah J. Gibson, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilly Harris, Maddiekay Harris, Tyra Harris, Maxwell (Max) Albert Kerz, Emma Kindl, Michkael Jude McKenzie, Andrew Michaels, Addison Pancoast, Shannen Penn, Meghan Pratt, Messiah J. Price, Divena Rai, Tessa Corrie Rosenfield, Fred Thornley IV, Jake Totten, Ava Lynn Vercellone, RJ Vercellone, Leela Hatshepsut Washington-Crowther, Julia Claire Weston, Anderson Wilder, Tilden Wilder

 

Hartford Stage
November 23-December 29, 2018

The Mysteries of Life

Review of The Whale in the Hudson, Yale Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret ends the first half of its season with a bittersweet tale of a whale that ventured into the Hudson River, as happened for real in November, 2016, the year the play is set. The fact of the whale’s presence sets off an effort by self-styled sleuth Taylor (Laurie Ortega-Murphy)—aka, on duty, “Warren G. Smugeye”—to uncover the whale’s motives. It should be mentioned that Taylor first hears of the whale in their 4th grade class, from inspiring 4th grade teacher, Miss Melody (Evelyn Giovine). When Miss Melody tells a colleague she may quit, seeing the whale as “a sign” of things going wrong—such as the 2016 election—Taylor feels an even greater urge to risk their credibility as a detective to get to the bottom of things.

Cab9-hero.jpg

The play, which invites audience participation in performing the catchy “whale in the Hudson” jingle with voice and hand-gesture, is at times whimsical, at times absurdist, and even a bit heartbreaking. It’s a potent mix of emotions for a younger audience who will no doubt enjoy watching a play in which kids are more important than adults. Directed by Maeli Goren, The Whale in the Hudson has the feel of an episode in the continuing adventures of Warren G. Smugeye (like Encyclopedia Brown) and, as with any detective yarn, there are odd clues—such as the mysterious use of the number 52—and a series of informants and obstacles. The plot tends to meander around, saving its best bit for last: Evelyn Giovine’s affecting turn as the voice of the whale (called “52”) matched with a truly amazing whale puppet devised by costume designer David Mitsch.

Part of the fun is how Taylor’s peers are depicted. Fellow 4th graders at first seem merely clueless—which makes them try the patience of the budding P.I. Then, in need of expertise, Taylor visits a school club of brainiacs (Maeve Brady, Rob Hayer, Ipsitaa Khullar), complete with thinking caps, who like to dicker about Hume and Kant while presuming themselves to be flawless intellectuals. Again, not much help with the case, despite an amusing sequence with a juggling robotic computer (Giovine). Another lead takes Taylor to the playground madcap known as Poppy Hobnobber (Khullar) who speaks with spellbinding clarity about nonsense the way so many characters do in Alice in Wonderland. And she—eventually—sends him off in search of the notebook of an older boy—a dreaded 8th grader!—adorned with a drawing of a whale and, yes, the number 52. That pursuit brings us to a team of jocks (Brady, Giovine, Hayer) with a penchant for ritual humiliation, and from that stressful encounter Taylor manages to salvage a friend, Douglas (Brady).

With songs accompanied by Bard McKnight Wilson, the playwright, on guitar, The Whale in the Hudson delights in the kinds of weird non-sequitur that kids—who all see themselves as misfits—glory in. In the end—which borrows from the fate of a whale trapped in a bay off Long Island that same year—the kids learn the limits of their ability, but they also learn the value of each other. As Taylor, Laurie Ortega-Murphy is perfect, having a hard-boiled boyishness and a mean way with a juice-box or a lollipop. Maeve Brady’s singing voice is a great asset, as is the inspired goofiness of Rob Hayer and Ipsitaa Khullar. And Evelyn Giovine shines as a beloved teacher and a beloved whale, as well as rather salacious cake frosting.

A whale of a good time, The Whale in the Hudson ends 2018 year with a charming tale of kids learning to connect in contemporary New York.

 

The Whale in the Hudson
By Brad McKnight Wilson
Directed by Maeli Goren

Co-Producers: Madeline Carey & Oakton Reynolds; Dramaturg: Sunny Jisun Kim; Scenic Designer: Jimmy Stubbs; Lighting Designer: Nicole Lang; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Music Director: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Costume/Puppet Designer: David Mitsch; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: William Neuman; Community Connector: Madeline Charne; Accompanist: Brad McKnight Wilson

Cast: Maeve Brady, Evelyn Giovine, Rob Hayer, Ipsitaa Khullar, Laurie Ortega-Murphy

Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

The Cabaret is dark until the second weekend in January when it returns with School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, by Jocelyn Bioh, proposed by Christopher Betts, a first-year director, about tensions in a posh school in Ghana around the school’s beauty pageant, January 10-12.

Beat Those Christmas Blues

Review of Christmas on the Rocks, TheaterWorks

What are some of your favorite memories of the Christmas holidays? If the list includes such things as the black boot of Santa waving in the face of a young boy before he plummets down a slide at a department store North Pole, or a cartoon boy with a blanket intoning words about the true meaning of Christmas, or the beleaguered manager of a Saving and Loan fixing to jump off a bridge into icy waters, or a sickly boy enlivened by “the pudding singing in the copper,” or a young girl accosted by giant mice, or a cartoon snowman cavorting as the “baddest belly-whopper in the business,” or a distraught young reindeer facing cruel taunts due to his beaming nose, then TheaterWorks has the show for you.

With Christmas on the Rocks, director Rob Ruggiero has brought together different playwrights to create dialogues for characters from Christmas classics. This year, the list entails A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. For many of us, Christmas has taken its tone from such entertainments for as long as we can remember. So, we might ask ourselves, how would those familiar characters experience Christmas now, in 2018?

The show’s title “on the rocks” is apropos. Not only have the holidays become rocky terrain—which they pretty much were even in the original stories—but the entire action of the play takes place in a cozy little corner bar, presided over by Tom Bloom as the bartender. If the setting and the pace of featured character actor skits doesn’t bring to your mind Art Carney as the barkeep on the Jackie Gleason Show, then you’re probably younger than I am. The shtick is familiar, the exchanges between each guest and the barkeep anything but.

The jokes tend to assume familiarity with the shows from which these characters originate, which is fair enough. Playing off to the side on big screens, before the play starts, is a loop of clips from the requisite features to help jog your memory, should that be necessary. Each respective playwright takes the material and runs with it, adding absurdist humor, many a knowing chuckle, and some outright hilarity. There’s also a touch of the Christmas blues throughout so that the show caters to those of us who find Christmas—in its commercial insistence—a bit too incessant.

 The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

This year, the effervescent Randy Harrison—of the TV show Queer as Folk—plays all the male guests, while Jenn Harris—a talented comedienne who puts me in mind of the irrepressible Ruth Buzzi—plays the females. John Cariani’s “All Grown Up” starts things off with the Ralphie facing the fact that he’s a fictional character everyone knows thanks to “the movie.” Because the story of Ralph is so richly told in the original, there’s plenty to work with. Harrison is a believable grown-up Ralphie, getting laughs from his true feelings about that bunny suit.

 Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

The part of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life has less to offer, but Jacques Lamarre rises to the occasion with “A Miserable Life” which lets us see the grown Zuzu, forever haunted by those damn bells that signal an angel getting wings. Her paranoia, in Harris’ hands, is quite funny in a quirky way. Harris really comes into her own with “My Name is KAREN!” which she co-wrote with Matthew Wilkes. Karen, you might not remember, is the little girl who accompanies Frosty through his life and death adventures in the Rankin/Bass cartoon. Here, she has become an online celebrity of sorts, taking the followers of her video postings on a retributive journey that includes tying up the hapless bartender with Christmas lights. She’s a memorably psychotic rendering of the Christmas spirit, complete with screen projections from her cell phone, which she speaks to as an audience and trusted confidante. Then, as the girl from the Nutcracker ballet, Harris turns in a frenetic performance in Edwin Sánchez’s “Still Nuts About Him,” complete with comic Russian accent, some not so chaste moves, and a great deadpan.

 The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

Harris’ best role is as the put-upon dentist Hermie from Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion puppet production of the Rudolph story, adapted from the famous song. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Say It Glows,” the character of Hermie, a bit awkward and whiny in the original show, hasn’t changed much. But he is much more “out” than he was as a kid, understandably, and that’s the main takeaway: that wanting to be a dentist wasn’t the only reason Hermie was a “misfit,” and Harris does this queerer version of Hermie proud, complete with a “Tooth Fairy” T-shirt. Here, growing up and coming of age seems an improvement rather than a downer. It does get better.

 The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

Something maybe not so true for the grown-up Tiny Tim, who Harris plays like a Cockney who might once have joined a punk band. In Theresa Rebeck’s “God Bless Us Every One,” Tim is down on the whole Christmas bit, seeing Ebenezer as an old gent who cracked and went about handing out money recklessly. Here, the dialogue with the bartender proves the most meaningful. Often, he’s merely a genial looker-on at someone who briefly takes over the place, but with Tiny Tim he gets to debate the merits of the Scrooge story, which shows, yet again, that Dickens is a hard man to beat when it comes to Christmas.

 The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Charlie Brown segment—“Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre—is something of an anticlimax, if only because a soured Charlie Brown seems less suitable than the other transformations, and being married to Lucy a bit of a stretch. His unexpected encounter with a special someone gives us a romantic close, a nice way to end, but with less of the edginess that sustained the more offbeat laughs.

A fun shot of cheer—with some of the bite of holiday hangovers from yesteryear—Christmas on the Rocks, like the shows it recalls, is the stuff of a collective fantasy that’s been dancing in our heads like sugarplums at least since “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Love Christmas or dread it, this show has a place in your holiday traditions.

 

Christmas on the Rocks
An Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales by
John Cariani
Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas
Jeffrey Hatcher
Jacques Lamarre
Theresa Rebeck
Edwin Sánchez
Conceived and Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Tom Bloom, Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison

TheaterWorks
November 27-December 23, 2018

Talky at the Apocalypse

Review of Taking Warsan Shire Out Context on the Eve of the Great Storm, Yale Cabaret

A woman named Aparna (Arya Sundaram) trudges across the tundra in arctic temperatures. Is she on a quest for a fabled talisman or rare necessity? No, she is on a trek to what may be the most epic of destination weddings: her sister, Tanvi (Disha Patel) is going to marry Belcalis (Karina Nuñez) at a scientific observation post in the arctic circle, where Tanvi is stationed with her extremely bright and talkative fellow observers, Javier (Edwin Joseph), Shamika (Kaylah Gore), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon) and Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu). That’s the situation in Christopher Gabriel Núñez’s Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm, or what a romantic comedy might look like in a world of natural disasters.

 Shamika (Kaylah Gore) and other cast members in Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm (photos by Yaara Bar, courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Shamika (Kaylah Gore) and other cast members in Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm (photos by Yaara Bar, courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

We meet the cast of warm and witty, frostbound bon vivants slightly before Aparna arrives, and their chat apprises us of who’s with whom. Javier and Shamika are a couple who like to joke about sex in the arctic; Zhao and Jamar are more likely to be talking about how to outfit their prospective dreamhouse. It all sounds smart and privileged, fueled by a certain globe-trotters’ ethos that tends to feel precious if not romantic. Then we realize this is 2050, the seas have swallowed up most coastland, and many geographical and biological aspects of the earth as we know it simply don’t exist anymore. This is brought home for us when Tanvi—who tends to be the strident one in the midst of the bubbly bonhomie—talks wistfully about a last chance visit to a doomed city that she made but Belcalis missed out on.

 Aparna (Arya Sundaram), Tanvi (Disha Patel), Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon)

Aparna (Arya Sundaram), Tanvi (Disha Patel), Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon)

Later, Tanvi talks about keeping some all-but-extinct tulips alive in a terrarium—speaking with that kind of preemptive strike against blame for enjoying something selfishly that might well earmark her generation. But what generation is this? Living far ahead in our future, this crew seems all-too of our moment. They can more easily live without coastal cities than without service—watch Aparna have a bit of a snit when she realizes that the frightful cold in her long journey into ice has destroyed her phone. How can she send selfies to the folks back home?

For, whatever may have happened to some areas of the globe, there are parents and grandparents elsewhere waiting to receive cellular transmissions of the nuptials. Núñez gives us characters who seem at home with whatever dire events have unfolded, living—as the most adaptable species must—with whatever comprises the status quo. Where this goes is toward two crises a bit long in coming.

 Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

When Zhao injures his ankle on a mission to secure some equipment, he must be replaced and Tanvi volunteers (since five are needed) as her sister has already joined in. That leaves Belcalis to chat with Zhao and we soon learn that she might not be “OK” with a wedding and a marriage in a frozen waste. She wanted, she says, “the island.”

Then there’s the Great Storm of the title. It’s on its way, the team knows, but there should still be time for that outdoors ceremony the pair—or at least one of them—dreamed of. The ending—featuring some eye-entrancing aurora borealis-like projections by Brittany Bland—comes on strong with a kind of “you had to be there” spike. After all the grad student banter, Tanvi and Belcalis enact a rite that might almost generate enough heat to save them.

The play’s wordy title is never quite explained, but its air of a meaning for the cognoscenti is matched by much of the dialogue, which includes a crude joke based on Plato’s allegory of the cave, and no doubt many other references I missed. One of the more striking aspects of the show is its oddly desultory feel. At one point, while the other four are on that mission that injures Zhao, Tanvi and Aparna dress Belcalis in the lovely sari (costumes, Mika H. Eubanks) she will wear in the ceremony. For a full ten minutes they engage in this task, letting us look on at what seems a private activity, with the two sisters very much on the same page. There’s a feel as if we—the audience—just happen to be there while this is happening, guests who can be depended upon to entertain themselves.

 Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

Director Olivia Plath and the cast of seven—none of whom study acting and only one—Rakkulchon—a YSD student—should be commended for keeping the dialogue, with its mix of inside jokes, different languages, scientific explanations, terms of endearment, and occasional poetic flights and trenchant put-downs, bouncing. Special mention to Disha Patel, who plays Tanvi as a kind of insufferable older sister, the know-it-all who must remind herself that other people—even in this band of brainiacs—are apt to be ordinary. And to Arya Sudaram as Aparna, arriving in this forbidding situation and bringing into it the impatience of a younger sibling’s total lack of awe at an elder. Compliments too to composer Aaron Levin’s evocative score, played live by a welcome band during every sojourn into the outdoors. The whiteout design for the windows and other effects—in a set somewhere between a capsule and a dorm commons—are by Stephanie Bahniuk (scenic design) and Noel Nichols (lighting design, in a Cab debut), with Technical Directors Hao-En Hu and Mike VanAartsen.

Taken in context, Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm is a look ahead—sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating—at how today’s fears and obsessions and joie de vivre might play out while time is running out. Seemingly, it’s never too late to talk shit.

 

Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm
By Christopher Gabriel Núñez
Directed by Olivia Plath

Co-Producers: Leandro A. Zaneti & Yuhan Zhang; Dramaturg: Sunny Jisun Kim; Composer: Aaron Levin; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Noel Nichols; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna: Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Choreographer: Julia Crockett; Technical Directors: Hao-En Hu & Mike VanAartsen; Stage Manager: Oakton Reynolds; Assistant Stage Manager: Paige Hann

Cast: Kaylah Gore, Edwin Joseph, Karina Nuñez, Kezie Nwachukwu, Disha Patel, Riw Rakkulchon, Arya Sundaram

Band: Nate Huvard, guitar; Aaron Levin, piano; Ross Wightman, bass; Matt Woodward, violin; Sam Zagnit, bass

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 1, 2018

 

Coming up at the Yale Cabaret this week: The Whale in the Hudson, by Brad McKnight Wilson, proposed by Maeli Green: a kids’ friendly production about a fourth-grader trying to figure out why a whale is in the Hudson River. Showtimes for Saturday the 8th have been changed for the sake of younger audiences: 4 p.m. & 7 p.m. For more info go here.

 

The Whale in the Hudson
Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

Paradise Missed

Review of Paradise Blue, Long Wharf Theatre

With her trilogy of plays set in different eras in Detroit, Dominique Morisseau is making her mark on Connecticut. First up is Paradise Blue, playing at the Long Wharf Theater through December 16. At Hartford Stage early in 2019 will be Detroit ’67, followed by Skeleton Crew at Westport Country Playhouse in June. Comparisons to August Wilson, who wrote ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, mostly in Pittsburgh (some of which debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre), are perhaps unavoidable. Like Wilson, Morisseau sets the plays in one town at different eras and writes with a feel for how the people who live there talk, peppering their colloquial tones with references to poets and musicians and significant contextual events—here, the fact that Paradise Valley, a famed strip of businesses and jazz joints owned by African Americans, is perilously close to being razed in favor of “urban renewal,” that catch-all phrase for driving out those unwanted by the city’s vested interests. The play’s dialogue has a robust feel for the people of a unique period, even if the plot invites comparisons to many a noirish B-movie.

 P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

We have Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), the inheritor of a jazz club his old man originated, making a go of it with his house band, while his paramour and factotum Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) keeps everything shipshape in the kitchen and in the rooming-house upstairs. As the play starts, the combo’s drummer, P-Sam (Freddie Fulton) is learning to his dismay that their bass player has quit over altercations with Blue. Genial elder piano-player Corn (Leon Addison Brown) tries to strike a conciliatory note. The back and forth of all this establishes that Blue, whatever his actual talents, views himself as the best trumpeter and best leader of a combo in the best club with the best accommodations in the Black Bottom area of Detroit. He can be more than a bit overbearing. Meanwhile, P-Sam seems sweet on poetry-reciting Pumpkin and would be plying her with “I’ll take you away from all this” blandishments, if only she weren’t so dedicated to Blue.

Into this volatile situation strides Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), with a walk that has “femme fatale” written all over it. She’s from Louisiana and she’s got money and attitude and a history with jazz clubs. What’s more, she makes no secret of the fact that her Ex met an early demise. Her status as a woman of mystery seems like the main plot point—the men call her a “spider,” and we wonder who’s going to get caught in her web. Meanwhile, Blue, coming to terms with his declining powers as a performer, may be ready to sell the joint to those developers nosing around—and Silver might be interested.

For Morisseau, with the hindsight of what became of Paradise Valley, Blue can be seen as a selfish culprit, engaged in a form of race or at least community betrayal. The possibilities of what will develop keeps us in the play, though there’s no role here that sets the measure of the drama. In this production, directed by Awoye Timpo (previously an Associate Director on Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway), each character functions as part of the plot, but without giving us much sense of inner illumination. The big reveal before the Act One curtain is that Silver’s got a gun.

 Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

What Morisseau delivers—which tended to elude Wilson—is a heart-to-heart between the female characters. If the males here are mostly perfunctory—with Addison Brown fairing best in making his every scene shine—the two women have a chance in Act Two to get some things out on the bedspread. In Silver’s tidy little room, complete with record-player and Lester Young LPs she brought along, the two come to terms with spousal abuse, which Silver suffered in the past and Pumpkin is suffering from now. The scene plays out as an awakening for Pumpkin, a view of how things could be changed with Blue, but we might still wonder about Silver’s motives. That she’s there to undermine Blue is clear from the start; she also romances Corn—their post-coital scene in bed plays well as a frank chat between a woman who doesn’t want to get caught and an aging gent looking for a lover who will stick. And yet, when things get violent—as they must—Silver is off to the side, an onlooker at a situation she helped inspire.

 Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Without going too far into the dynamics of how that happens, and how docile Pumpkin, a woman who seems genuinely to enjoy serving men (this is 1949, after all), and whose idea of cussing is to say “Fudge!” and “Grits!,” ends up brandishing a weapon, let’s just say that Morisseau determines that the most dramatic outcome will be the least probable. And who can argue with that?

It’s troubling that a few key scenes in this production don’t manage to land with the level of feeling Morisseau may intend. Key to where the play goes is a scene early on between Blue and Pumpkin. Whatever the level of abuse she later admits reluctantly to Silver, in this scene Pumpkin seems fully attached to Blue, despite his “demons.” Those demons take the form of both abuse of others and a devastating memory that gets trotted out like a required traumatic backstory. Williams’ Blue never quite delivers fire, despair or threat, seeming to be a blusterer who likes female sympathy and the sound of his own voice. If there’s anything deeper in this “genius” (so-called by Corn and Pumpkin) it has to make its presence felt.

As Corn, Leon Addison Brown is likeable, with a folksiness that helps us feel the set-in-its-ways tones of the locale. He also delivers the show’s best speech about how being a black man in a white world is a constant check to the ambitions of a big talent like Blue. Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam is volatile, comical, belligerent when drunk, sweet when he tries to be, and he gives a good account of a proud and underappreciated heart. As Pumpkin, Margaret Odette is never quite as mousy as maybe she should be, having a definite point of view. She seems our contemporary, despite her penchant for poetry with antiquated locutions like “nay.” As Silver, or trouble in a tight-skirt, Carolyn Michelle Smith makes some grand exits and entrances, and wears well the sleepwear she’s assigned, but what she’s meant to manifest—other than temptation for the men and a view with no illusions to Pumpkin—never quite arrives.

Some of the fault with this production’s lukewarm temperature comes from the staging. Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set, a club in its off-hours, looks suitable and creates a public yet intimate space for what amount to haphazard encounters. The bedroom slides in over the bar—a production element a bit too slickly distracting—and is an odd box of a space for some major scenes to play out in. For music, we have prerecorded bits that give us the lone, lorn horn of Blue, occasional jazzy background, and accompaniment for a little song-poem from Pumpkin. For a play situated in a beloved and storied center of jazz and blues, it all looks and sounds a bit antiseptic. Given our druthers we might well decamp for another club along the strip well before the show’s over.

 

Paradise Blue
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Awoye Timpo

Set Design: Yu-Hsuan Chen; Costume Design: Lex Liang; Lighting Design: Oona Curley; Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Composer: Alphonso Horne; Hair & Wig Design: Jason Hayes; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight House: Original Artwork: Hollis King; Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Leon Addison Brown, Freddie Fulton, Margaret Odette, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Stephen Tyrone Williams

Long Wharf Theatre
November 21-December 16, 2018

Pick Up the Pieces and Go Home

Review of It’s Not About My Mother, Yale Cabaret

People mourn in different ways, true, but one of the tasks of surviving someone is having to dispose of all their stuff. This can be an emotionally fraught act, even more so when the partners on the job are estranged half-sisters, born over a decade apart, who have rather different takes on their late mother. It’s Not About My Mother takes familiar ground—children rehearsing a deceased parent’s failings—and, as directed by stage manager Sam Tirrell and enacted by third-year actors Kineta Kunutu and Amandla Jahava, conjures up a celebration of siblings coping.

Midge (Kunutu) is the elder, and she opens the show by opening a box among the dozens in her mom’s packed basement. There she finds a glam jacket that immediately conjures up a memory of Mom (played here by Jahava) as a bitter, chain-smoking live-wire, almost feral in her fierceness. This is going to be tough, we readily assume. Shortly after, storming in like Mom, the Sequel, comes younger sister Nancy (Jahava) who claims she’s twenty-three but acts, around big sister Midge, like a precocious brat age-shifting back to puberty and even earlier. Her latest discovery is how to include “fuck” or “fucking” in every sentence. When she went off to college, Nancy left Midge to deal with Mom all alone, which wasn’t such a change as, we learn, Midge has pretty much been playing mother to both her sister and her mom since age twelve.

45632917_10156849309654626_4323432758689923072_o.jpg

It’s Not About My Mother is about making sense of the life that shaped your own. The rifts and gaps between the sisters are the stuff of the play and what makes it work so well, in the Cab’s actual basement space, is the appealing rapport between Kunutu and Jahava. Kunutu plays well the authoritative adult, so that when she falters before her sister’s laser-like vision, things get interesting. Jahava plays Nancy as a bundle of nerves, with so much energy that watching her is almost exhausting. She moves with the abandon of a child who seems not to take the physicality of objects seriously. Together, the two actors create a fascinating back-and-forth between sisters who don’t want to be strangers.

A key moment is Midge’s memory of childhood and a vision of Mom—working as a layout artist for a newspaper—that feels like a fairytale to Nancy (when Nancy was four, Midge was already the employed adult in the house). We don’t know the story of what went wrong with Mom, but we do get the story of how siblings can help each other get out from under the shadow of such a dominant personality. Both sisters are lesbians and Nancy wonders aloud whether it was the lack of men in their lives that clinched the predilection. She’s fond of psych-major summaries of what things mean. Midge isn’t so naïve and remains focused on getting things done and not making more drama than is unavoidable.

At one point, Kunutu transforms into Mom, in a much more together version that the one we saw through Midge’s eyes, and talks in a bantering way with Nancy. The sense of Nancy as the favored sibling, the baby, and, for that reason, the more selfish one, comes through forcefully, a vision learned at her mother’s feet. What Nancy—ultimately—has to give Midge is the use of selfishness. Midge’s life was home with Mom, who seemed to withdraw from the world more and more. The mother’s only consolations, apparently, were cigarettes, clothes, and the music of Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac, the romantic band of the late 1970s.

The play very deftly makes us see Mom and her heroine from the kids’ point of view. The sense comes through loud and clear that life with Mom meant hearing Stevie Nicks ad nauseam, and the play’s use of her songs—quite able to conjure phantoms in their own right—lets us hear how the music of Mom’s good times was the soundtrack of her kids’ childhoods. When—after airing griefs enough—Midge and Nancy set the glam jacket on a sofa with boa and cigarette, then kowtow, the sense of being fully on the same page is joyous.

Finally, even straight-laced Midge lets her adolescent self loose. The show’s climax has Kunutu and Jahava going wild to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s live rendition of “Rhiannon,” the quintessential Stevie Nicks song, with Jahava vamping with drapes appropriately. It’s an explosion of fellow feeling, a conspiracy between siblings to kick out the jams and toss survivor’s guilt into the reject pile. This is survivor’s glee, an ecstatic goodbye that replaces the memory of their mother’s depressing funeral with a hearty rave that Mom the party girl would’ve embraced. As a send-off, it’s the stuff of rock’n’roll dreams.


It’s Not About My Mother
By Lizzie Milanovich
Directed by Sam Tirrell

Producer: Laura Cornwall; Dramaturg: Rebecca Adelsheim; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Lighting Designer: Kyra Tamiko Murzyn; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Stage Manager: Taylor Hoffman; Technical Designer: Austin J. Byrd

Cast: Kineta Kunutu, Amandla Jahava

Yale Cabaret
November 15-17, 2018

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Review of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

The bond between siblings gets an interesting and amusing rendering in John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, in a production by New Haven Theater Company, co-directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson. Beane (Christian Shaboo) seems bipolar, leading a lonely existence in a shabby room. His successful sister, Joan (Susan Kulp), likes sounding off to her husband Harry (George Kulp) about “nincompoops” and incompetent interns at the office, while swilling large wine pours. Harry has a detached complacency, playing devil’s advocate against his wife’s peremptory judgments because “that’s what conversation is.” Beane suddenly appears in their elegant living room and agrees to subject himself to some kind of psychological evaluation Harry pulled, Joan claims, from Cosmo or the like. Soon, the way Beane’s mind works becomes a source of considerable amusement for the audience and a matter of some consternation between the fractious couple.

Beane’s encounter with Molly (Jo Kulp) turns his world upside down. His manic side becomes very much evident as he nearly hyperventilates over a turkey sandwich while at lunch with Joan and engages his waiter (a bemused Erich Greene) with varied queries. The highpoint—a peak for both the play and Beane—arrives when Beane sings the praises of sex and Molly, inspiring a bout of amorous cooing between Joan and Harry. Shaboo—who once played a would-be cult leader in Drew Grey’s The Cult at NHTC—capably takes the energy up a notch and becomes almost rapturous. It’s here that Love Song lives up to its title, with Kolvenbach creating a truly lyrical language for Beane’s flight.

 Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

We expect a crash and, sure enough, it comes, but not before we get a wonderful scene of middle-aged lovers rediscovering the spark through playing hooky, role-playing, and becoming enamored with being in love. The Kulps do a fine job of transforming Joan from a workaholic to a borderline alcoholic to a sex kitten, while Harry shows off his knack for fun while also retaining his essential Harryness. It’s a centerpiece matched by a scene between Molly and Beane that takes off in a somewhat different direction, a shared fantasy of meeting naked in the pond in a park, that—perhaps—tries a bit too hard to become poetic but which Shaboo and Kulp orchestrate with spellbinding rhythms.

A late scene between Beane and Joan lets us see what’s been at stake all along. Describing the scene would no doubt make it sound creepier than it is, but Joan’s monologue to Beane takes stock of the arc we’ve traveled. Joan and Beane—neither of whom might be fully wound—share a kind of symbiotic relation that works because Joan keeps Beane in reality just enough, while Beane helps Joan feel the thrill of what lies beyond the safe boundaries. As Molly said earlier, in a toast with Beane, “here’s to the end of literalisms.” A cup, in other words, isn’t just a cup.

Kolvenbach wants to imagine a world where love and passion can illuminate mundane lives with the feeling of flight and freedom. The catalyst might be a glimpse of someone different, or it may involve a sustained fantasy of the ideal soul mate who knows what you could never say. As Molly, Jo Kulp provides much of the spirit here; she’s as demanding in her way as Joan, but also full of an outsider’s sense of purpose, even at times dangerous. Her contempt for the sentimental closets where most people have squirreled away their keepsakes of identity and for the pretensions of minimalists are darkly pointed. When her vision infuses itself into Beane’s naïve outlook it remakes the world for him, and that in turn stretches his sister’s—and perhaps the viewer’s—sense of possibility.

With its set divided between Joan’s and Harry’s comfortable living room and Beane’s derelict room, Love Story even looks bipolar. The soundtrack of musical selections is apt and enjoyable, and the light/sound cue that creates a significant oppression in Beane’s room is handled quite effectively. All in all, there’s a lot to love about Love Song, not least the company’s way with the lyricism and bite of Kolvenbach’s script, the Kulp family’s engaging spirit, and Shaboo’s haunted disconnect from the normality we prize even as it kills us slowly with boredom.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

Cast: Erich Greene, George Kulp, Jo Kulp, Susan Kulp, Christian Shaboo

New Haven Theater Company
November 8-10 & 15-17, 2018

A Hot Cat in Connecticut

Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Music Theatre of Connecticut

What makes a play great? That it explores human complexity with characters that generations of actors can lose themselves in and find compelling truths. That its setting and style, in being specific to a time and place, manage to incorporate a wider sense of human possibility. The people in the drama are caught where and when they are, but they speak to us, across time and distance, with a directness and a passion for life that will always be meaningful.

In every sense, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a great play. And Music Theatre of Connecticut, in a production directed by Kevin Connors, has done it proud. And that means playgoers have the unusual treat of seeing a powerful and professional production of this masterpiece in an intimate space that makes us aware of how voyeuristic our attention can be. All the action takes place in a young married couple’s bedroom, with the audience flanking it on three sides, as if spies watching the struggle at the heart of this fractious and uneasy family drama.

 Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Pollitts—Big Daddy and Big Mama—are well-to-do landowners in the south who came from nothing. Big Daddy scraped his way to a position of power and wealth, but his health is at issue. The family—the Pollitts’ two sons, Gooper and Brick, with their wives Mae and Maggie, and a slew of Gooper and Mae’s offspring—have gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The news from the clinic is good. Big Daddy doesn’t have cancer, merely a spastic colon. That’s the situation, seemingly, as the play opens, and it’s clear that all is not well right from the start.

Brick was a sports hero, now he drinks relentlessly and has broken his leg in a drunken attempt to jump hurdles as he once could. His wife just as relentlessly belittles Gooper and Mae and schemes at how to make sure that she and Brick are not cut out of the old man’s will. At the base of their marital dysfunction is an act of infidelity and the nature of the affection between Brick and his best sports buddy, Skipper. And then there’s the fact that everybody but Daddy and Mama Pollitt know that, in truth, the news is cancer and the cancer is terminal.

 Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

How the characters cope with a hopeless situation and each other is intrinsic to this drama. There is humor because Williams had a wonderful ear for the locutions of southern speech, both in its willful gentility and in its pointed lapses. His characters can lash out with language and can also avoid speech with particular emphasis. By the end, we find surprising turns in some of the characters and, at the play’s heart, a coming to terms with grim truth on the part of Big Daddy and Brick.

Here, director Connors makes the tense and difficult scene between these two men achieve a cathartic climax, abetted by his two fully engaging actors whose control of the material is impressive and convincing. Frank Mastrone’s Big Daddy isn’t simply an egotistical bully—though he is one—but also a man of the world with an almost fatal attachment to his beautiful son, Brick. He lets us hear the fondness, feel the ache, and see the man take the bullet of the last straw. It’s riveting.

 Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

And Michael Raver’s Brick deepens and deepens as the play goes on. He begins the play sullen, in a towel, a hedonist trying to withdraw from the world into his own private pleasure palace. His showdown with Big Daddy occurs almost despite himself, driven by the booze he needs so desperately. Late in the play, he nearly steps out of his senses, playing as if a whirlwind of suppressed emotion makes him, finally, one of the “weak, beautiful people” who fall under the sway of the Maggies of this world, an outcome that feels enheartening.

 Brick (Michael Raver)

Brick (Michael Raver)

And what of Maggie? It’s a tough role because Maggie can so easily become a caricature of feminine wiles wedded to a desperate resentment, but she’s so much more, and Andrea Lynn Green makes her a memorable mix of sex appeal and sly charm, with a refreshing girlishness that suits her steady awe of her husband, in spite of—or even because of—all his failings. Connors’ blocking always puts Green where she can do the scene most good.

 Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

As the put-upon and unprepossessing Gooper and Mae, Robert Morley and Elizabeth Donnelly do the parts full justice. Again, caricature can be too easily achieved, but Williams clearly wants us to see that the griefs of this grasping and manipulative couple are real. Morley gives us the pathos of Gooper—never favored, never preferred, but trying to live up to his life’s challenge. Donnelly’s Mae is snitty, and, when she believes she has the upper hand, insufferable as she should be. Excellent support is also provided by Jeff Gurner as Doc Baugh, a professional man who tends to look on in constrained silence, and by the entertaining turn of Jim Schilling as Preacher Tooker, a pious conniver delivered with great comic relish.

 Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Finally, there’s Cynthia Hannah as Big Mama, nearly upstaging Big Daddy. As a role that requires both silliness and heartbreaking pathos, it’s in some ways the more complex role. She rises to the great threat posed by Gooper and Mae with a commanding strength, but her most affecting moment is carrying a cake with lighted candles offstage, pathetic and chastened. Williams’ grasp of the ugliness of marital strife is deep and abiding but he always leavens the bitterness with flashes of affection and the sudden recognition of dependence and sympathy that keeps us fascinated, waiting for the next illumination.

Luminous, bracing, sexy, and satisfying, this Cat stays on that Hot Roof just as long as it can.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kevin Connors

Scenic Design & Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Stage Managed by Gary Betsworth

Cast: Elizabeth Donnelly, Andrea Lynn Green, Jeff Gurner, Cynthia Hannah, Frank Mastrone, Robert Mobley, Michael Raver, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
November 2-17, 2018

Golden Girls

Review of The Queens of the Golden Mask, Ivoryton Playhouse

Ivoryton Playhouse is not known for new plays on difficult subjects, tending to specialize in spirited revivals of classic or soon-to-be-classic musicals. The decision to close the 2018 season with a hard-hitting topical play should make theater-goers glad to be surprised, though the play may not be considered a pleasant surprise. In The Queens of the Golden Mask, playwright Carole Lockwood creates a play that, in the words of its director at Ivoryton, Jacqueline Hubbard, is like “a cross between Steel Magnolias and Mississippi Burning,” a description that is accurate enough. As such, the play is something of a remedy to the cutesy version of the South as full of charming and idiosyncratic “characters.” Here, there’s even a touch of The Stepford Wives—a creeping unease about the costs to one’s moral values and autonomy in belonging to the neighborly town of Celestial, Alabama.

 Jean (Jes Bedwineck), Faith (Gerrianne Genga), Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black) in Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Queens of the Golden Mask (Photographs by Jonathan Steele)

Jean (Jes Bedwineck), Faith (Gerrianne Genga), Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black) in Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Queens of the Golden Mask (Photographs by Jonathan Steele)

The Queens revisits a world that, once seemingly relegated to history, is on the upswing again. The Ku Klux Klan—as a voice for white supremacy—is a reference point for much of the racist hatred and violence in our current political climate, and the KKK was enjoying a virulent resurgence during the era of the Civil Rights movement in the South when the play is set. In Lockwood’s play, we first hear the Klan spoken of—as a part of the social culture of Celestial—the way that belonging to any “ladies’ auxiliary” might be, or, say, joining a Yankee organization up north such as the DAR.

The cluelessness necessary to sustain denial about the potential for cold-blooded acts of persecution or murder is maintained for a good portion of the play by Rose Jackson (Anna Fagan), a newlywed, newly arrived from Ohio, where she met and married an Alabama boy. Now, in his hometown, she’s trying her best to fit in. The other ladies make that seem easy, pressuring her into a “blood oath” as if as chummy as sharing recipes. And that’s an apt comparison because the sect seems to be nothing more than a “taste” shared by the seven members of the local chapter.

 Ida (Ellen Barry) and Rose (Anna Fagan)

Ida (Ellen Barry) and Rose (Anna Fagan)

A lot of the dialogue is just so we get to know the seven members: Ida Sage, aka Moma (Ellen Barry), the ringleader; Ophelia Barnett, aka Fifi (Bonnie Black), the ditzy one; Faith Carlyle (Gerrianne Genga), the fashionable one; Jean Mooney (Jes Bedwineck), the sassy one; Kathy (Two) Boggs (Bethany Fitzgerald), the oft-pregnant girlish one; Rose Jackson, the newcomer; and Martha Nell Sage (Sarah Jo Provost), the subservient daughter-in-law to Ida. The interplay among the women may be too much Steel Magnolias in the sense that we’re already a bit too familiar with the types, but also in the sense that we immediately assume there must be a death or two to bring gravitas to the circle.

 Martha Nell (Sarah Jo Provost), Rose (Anna Fagan)

Martha Nell (Sarah Jo Provost), Rose (Anna Fagan)

The hints that the menfolk are up to some clandestine activity that isn’t harmless are too overt not to be noticed, so we know the play’s dramatic crisis will involve a revelation of the Klan’s misdeeds. Mention of the Klan is like the gun in that famed saying by Chekhov—once you introduce it, it will have to go off.

The story references the actual bombing of a church in Birmingham, an appalling act that certainly overwhelms whatever fellow feeling we might have for these ladies. The shift from southern charm to baleful malevolence occurs best in Ellen Barry’s fully nuanced performance. Early on, we detect that Ida is tough as nails, but by the end we might easily see her as a monster, empowered like a minor crime boss to exact vengeance with a steely smugness. It’s a chilling role and, impressively, Barry does it full justice, letting us see how self-righteous the pitiless can be.

 Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black)

Ida (Ellen Barry), Fifi (Bonnie Black)

The plot requires a certain number of events that might strain our credulity, as for instance, the number of traitors in the ladies’ midst. Martha Nell Sage is played by Sarah Jo Provost with a sense of dutiful suffering that transforms into active malice, but her downfall comes via a fairly flimsy device, in more ways than one. As Kathy (Two) Boggs, Bethany Fitzgerald has two over-the-top scenes, one in which she begs Rose to join the Klan, another when she mourns the death of a friend who died standing up to police. The switch from devoted member to disillusioned member comes across as excessive in its staging.

 Rose (Anna Fagan), Kathy (Bethany Fitzgerald

Rose (Anna Fagan), Kathy (Bethany Fitzgerald

As Fifi, Bonnie Black takes on most of what we’d consider comic relief, furnishing the kind of dimwit that, it seems, many take racists and bigots to be. That she should be the one most trustworthy is a judgment on the determined need to be needed and trusted that seems to underwrite many an urge to conformity. Her verbal sparring partner is Jean, and Jes Bedwinek plays her as the one most likely to be “woke,” if only because she’s able to see through the plastered-on niceness the ladies exude. In a sense, Faith, played with a self-aggrandizing sense of purpose by Gerrianne Genga, is the most dangerous, the type best able to make bigotry fashionable and reasonable.

All told, the play is one with its heart in the right place, played across a sprawling set where a middle-class kitchen is flanked by a shed and a somewhat rundown porch. There’s a contrast between a lower-class identity and an upward mobility that feels right for a demographic en route to dumping the Democrats for the Republicans. The play leaves us with hope, perhaps, for some of the individuals in the drama, and acts as a stimulus against the kind of bullying defended by evasive logic and repressed facts we are all-too-familiar with today. The best aspect of the play, as drama, is its staging of how insular accepted views can be, and how fatal.

 

The Queens of the Golden Mask
By Carole Lockwood
Directed by Jacqueline Hubbard

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Costume Designer: Elizabeth A. Saylor; Stage Manager: Andrea Wales; Assistant Stage Manager: Kayla Gardner

Cast: Ellen Barry, Jes Bedwineck, Bonnie Black, Anna Fagen, Bethany Fitzgerald, Gerrianne Genga, Sarah Jo Provost

Ivoryton Playhouse
October 31-November 18, 2018

Aftermath

Review of Thousand Pines, Westport Country Playhouse

In the news this week is the story of a shooting of numerous people in a bar in a town called Thousand Oaks. The play I’m reviewing deals with the aftermath of a shooting at a school called Thousand Pines. The echo is merely coincidence, but it’s also baleful. Thousand Pines, by Matthew Greene, directed by Austin Pendleton, takes its impetus from the fact that mass shootings occur with distressing regularity in our country. Such murders are a chronically recurring topic in our news feeds, and, for the dead and wounded, often chosen at random, an utterly sad and senseless end, while for those close to the victims, and those who knew the attacker, life becomes a traumatic and almost unbearable “before” and “after.”

The great strength of Greene’s play is that it doesn’t treat these matters as filtered through the media but rather as events that occur in the lives of people who aren’t defined by their roles in the horror story. These are people who have their individual ways of coping, amid others, also effected, who they may not trust, understand, or even like. The messiness of these lives is made even more self-aware and confused by the fact that murder has intruded, and the death of loved ones, never an easy situation, becomes traumatic, nagged by the question of how things could have gone differently.

 At the Forsters; Andrew Veentra, (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Katie Ailion (Actor 5) in Thousand Pines at Westport Country Playhouse (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

At the Forsters; Andrew Veentra, (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Katie Ailion (Actor 5) in Thousand Pines at Westport Country Playhouse (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

The play’s success, as theater, depends on how one reacts to a dramatic gimmick. A cast of five play all the characters in the play, which takes place in three different households, all represented by the same set, a dining room that stands for the identical layouts of tract housing. The three families—the Fosters, the Kanes, and the Garrisons—all send their children to the same middle school and all are trying to cope with their first Thanksgiving since the tragedy, several months ago. At the heart of each scene is the mother of each family, and part of the fascination of the play is watching Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1) enact three very different matriarchs. Among the Fosters, she’s a peppy Martha Stewart type, in deep denial; among the Kanes, she’s a take-charge stepmother of the slain boy and she’s seeking retribution via a civil lawsuit against the school; among the Garrisons, she’s a devastated mother, who may be self-medicating and who recognizes more than ever how dysfunctional her way of life is.

 The cast of Thousand Pines: William Ragsdale (Actor 2), Katie Ailion (Actor 5), Joby Earle (Actor 4), Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

The cast of Thousand Pines: William Ragsdale (Actor 2), Katie Ailion (Actor 5), Joby Earle (Actor 4), Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

By the time we reach the third house, the characters we’ve met in the other households can easily begin to blur. Greene’s script can be a bit schematic in setting out the details by which we will differentiate characters who are only circumstantially different. Good as Katie Ailion (Actor 5) is as a former girlfriend pretending her relationship with the remaining Foster boy hasn’t ended, if only to promote a false status quo, that character pales beside the bitter, recriminatory daughter she plays among the Kanes. Of the other trio of characters played by a single actor, Joby Earle (Actor 4) fares best: he’s a bit of comic relief in the first scene, as someone who got mauled by a violent Thanksgiving’s Day shopper; while, in the second household, he’s a tense dad in mourning who seems little more than a piece of furniture in his own house until provoked to explosion; in scene three, he’s the uncle of the deceased, a ne’er-do-well who deeply resents the decision by the shooter’s family to turn up at each funeral.

 At the Garrisons: Joby Earle (Actor 4), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), foreground; Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), background

At the Garrisons: Joby Earle (Actor 4), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), foreground; Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), background

The way the stark situation plays out in each household differs significantly, colored by reactions to the maternal figure in each scene. The Foster son (Andrew Veenstra) is aghast at his mother’s attempt at blithe holiday activity; the daughter in scene two disputes the advisability of a lawsuit and the means necessary to attain a deposition from a witness; the mother in the Garrison household doesn’t seem to tolerate anyone who’s present, which is why the appearance of a stranger sparks what may be the play’s most compelling sense of compassion and affinity in shared loss. Veenstra (Actor 6) plays the most conflicted character well, underscoring what may be the play’s own sense of uncertainty about how to make amends for its own presumptions.

The cast brings these situations to life in a fascinating world premiere of a play that, in providing a glimpse of the murder scene via that witness (Anne Bates, Actor 3), opens questions it doesn’t answer, leaving us in some doubt about how events merely referred to by others actually unfolded—to William Ragdale (Actor 2) falls most of the exposition. The plot, as such, isn’t the point however, and Greene’s characters, under Pendleton’s direction, make us inhabit that difficult space of questioning and judging the actions, and even the emotions, of other people.

 At the Kanes: Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

At the Kanes: Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

The play, which was developed in the WCP’s New Works Circle Initiative, runs several risks, and all are worth the effort. First, there’s the fact that the subject matter risks trying to make art out of tragic loss. Then there’s the risk that our investment with this or that character will be frustrated by the shifts in the play. Finally, there’s the risk that, however one tries to structure such a story, the logic of events will feel imposed and artificial. In essence, Thousand Pines is a kind of open question about how we should tell stories that are hard to countenance, and how we make sense of mass murder as a very real part of “who we are,” as people of the United States in the early twenty-first century.

 

Thousand Pines
By Matthew Greene
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Barbara A. Bell; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design and Composer: Ryan Rumery; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager; Roxana Khan

Cast: Katie Allion, Anne Bates, Joby Earle, Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, Andrew Veenstra

Westport Country Playhouse
October 30-November 17, 2018

Leaving the Nest

Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Playhouse on Park

Randle Patrick McMurphy is a famed character—from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) to the play Dale Wasserman made from the novel a year later, to the film by Miloš Forman, using Bo Goldman’s screenplay, the role for which Jack Nicholson won a Best Actor Oscar in 1975. Kesey and Wasserman were free spirits, anti-authoritarian, extra-institutional, and they fashioned McMurphy to be a protean Everyman type—boisterous, crude, full of the life principle. He’s a charmer and not nearly as clever as he’d like to be, naïve in ways that prove to be his Achilles’ heel.

It’s as if we’ve always known McMurphy and have never stopped wishing him well. But, these days, a certain tangled air encircles him. The life principle, as conceived in the book-play-film, is decidedly male, and it’s set against the ball-busting, castrating, emasculating power wielded by a society that—in the name of motherhood, religion, manners, and being nice—suppresses the raw “barbaric yawp” that American heroes so often sound. These days, politesse is all but dead, and many forms of misogyny, some subtle and some overt, have been hash-tagged if not debagged. Cuckoo’s Nest, now, could even seem a “backlash,” or at least a cautionary tale about how badly “real men” fare beneath the thumb of a culture determined to outlaw their badass antics.

 Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

If you don’t know the story: there is an asylum where a group of male inmates live out their days medicated and playing cards and watching TV and taking recreation according to a prescribed schedule. Many elements of life in the common space are by agreement, ostensibly, but all is overseen by Nurse Ratched, a figure of authority who treats the patients as children trying to get away with something. They can’t be trusted and they don’t trust themselves, since most suffer from extreme social anxieties. One or two “chronic” patients are too debilitated to take part in common functions, most notably “The Chief,” a very large Native American who appears to be catatonic, but in fact is a source of stream-of-consciousness commentary about the ward.

Into this world of settled routine comes McMurphy, a repeat-offender sent over from prison for an intervention into his violent and anti-social tendencies. To him, the asylum beats lock-up and he’s soon engaging the inmates in card games and wagers to leech their government checks away. He is an unregenerate hustler and the anathema of Nurse Ratched who resents how easily McMurphy’s charm sways her patients and even Dr. Spivey, the doctor assigned to the ward who previously agreed with her if only to avoid confrontation.

As revived at Playhouse on Park, directed by Ezra Barnes, whose The Diary of Anne Frank there was a notable success last season, Cuckoo’s Nest takes too long to click and never soars. The play picks up momentum as it goes, with the first half weighed down with the task of introducing characters and the elements of life in the asylum. The second half comes more fully into its own as the camaraderie among the inmates of the asylum catches fire and makes their interplay more interesting, while the battle of wills between Ratched and McMurphy becomes more pronounced.

The principle characters are particularly well cast. As McMurphy, Wayne Willinger has plenty of swagger and charm, and busy eyebrows reminiscent of Nicholson. Willinger never lets us forget—for all the heroizing of his fellow inmates—that McMurphy is just an average guy, mostly flying by the seat of his pants. His main delight is going against the rules simply because they are rules. The others, against whatever comfort they find in routine, eventually start to see his point, but it does take a while. The Act One closer is the first breath of fresh air: a collectively imagined baseball game on a shut-off TV.

As Big Nurse Ratched, Patricia Randell is perfect. Randell looks a motherly figure and acts like a school principal: no-nonsense, and convinced of the value of the particular brand of socialization she wields. Her “all right, boys,” at one point, risks a certain devilry. We might suspect that, in other circumstances, she might be a bit more indulgent toward McMurphy, but his cock-of-the-walk routine has to be squelched. Of course, there will be violence and a sacrificial victim.

Santos, in the role of Chief Bromden, plays up the outward debility of the character. The Chief, for all his size and latent power, sees himself as dwarfed by the system that has robbed his tribe of all status and respect. His voice carries a gravitas that does much for the allegory Kesey and Wasserman intended. This isn’t ever meant to be simply a therapeutic institution but rather a metaphor for how we self-medicate ourselves into complacency for the sake of a quiet life without complications. All the inmates are afraid of life “out there,” and all but a few, including the Chief and McMurphy, are free to leave if they wish. But they don’t.

 Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Part of the problem here is with the patients. They risk becoming tics of behavioral oddity, and to make them characters would take more time than the play can afford. The neuroses from which they suffer fall away rather quickly and some—most notably Harding (Adam Kee)—seem perfectly fine from the start. The era when one sought out psychiatric—or medical—intervention for homosexuality is, thankfully, long gone, our current vice president notwithstanding. Wasserman, who died in 2008 at 94, unfortunately never updated the play for the twenty-first century.

Barnes uses the playing space well, with the action moving around the set convincingly, including circled discussions, card games, fights, a party, and an improvised basketball game. The use of see-through walls in David Lewis’ set works very well and suggests how porous this asylum is. Lighting, which the script can be very definite about, is used to good effect by Aaron Hochheiser.

Whatever the intentions of the revival, the play comes across as a period piece, a fight for the souls of males of the Vietnam era. However, the climax—with the Chief’s big moment—takes on more potency today as a gesture against the white man’s world and its clinical devaluation of persons of color. In that, the play is of its time but also ahead of its time.

 Chief Bromden (Santos)

Chief Bromden (Santos)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Michele Sansone; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Original Music & Sound Designer: Lucas Clopton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen OConnor; E. John McGarvey for Les Cheveux Salon

Cast: Katya Collazo; Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr.; Harrison Greene; Justin Henry; Adam Kee; Rick Malone; Ben McLaughlin; Alex Rafala; John Ramaine; Patricia Randell; Athena Reddy; Santos; David Sirois; Lance Williams; Wayne Willinger

Playhouse on Park
October 31-November 18, 2018

New Haven Theater Company Plays a Love Song

Preview of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

When it comes to selecting plays, the New Haven Theater Company goes for whatever the entire company approves. The troupe is entirely democratic in its selections, though sometimes a work selected takes a while to get a production. If a play is likely to be done by a bigger theater anywhere in the vicinity, it’s unlikely that the small production capacities at NHTC will get the rights. That’s the case with Love Song, by John Kolvenbach, the first show of their 2018-19 season and the 17th production that the venerable New Haven company has staged at their performance space on Chapel Street. The run begins this Thursday and continues through two weekends.

According to the directors of the show, Margaret Mann and John Watson, the process of choosing a play begins when someone in the company pitches a choice they are willing to direct. And much of the talk at that point, Watson said, is about “our audience, fairly sophisticated people who see a lot of theater and who may also know some of the players.” One feature of that familiarity is that audience members may have ideas for the company. In fact, Love Song was first suggested by a friend of former company member Megan Chenot. Getting the rights caused a delay and now that the time has come, the show goes forward without Megan and her husband Peter, both longtime members of NHTC who have gone west, to the San Francisco area. Never fear, the show, which always seemed a good match for the company, has found suitable casting.

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The Chenots weren’t the only couple in the company. The married couple in the production—Harry and Joan—will be played by the Kulps, George and Susan. And Molly, the love interest for Beane, Joan’s brother, will be played by the Kulps’ daughter, Josey, last seen in Urinetown (2012), the only musical the company has done. Beane will be played by Christian Shaboo, who has often taken leading man or love interest roles, as in Proof (2016), Shipwrecked! (2014) and Our Town (2013). George Kulp directed NHTC’s final show of last season, Neil Simon’s farce Rumors, which featured Susan as one of the more memorable characters. George was responsible for the truly impressive set built in the company’s space at the English Markets building, and part of that set will serve as the living room of the home of Joan and Harry in Love Song.

 Susan Kulp and George Kulp

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

The other section of the set is decidedly more derelict, and that’s where Beane lives. The play, which Mann and Watson call, “provocative, funny, sexy,” while eliciting “serious thoughts,” involves the relationship between the siblings and how that plays out when a new person—dubbed a “mystery woman”—comes into Beane’s life. The couple in the play are in a longtime marriage, and their dialogue, Mann said, is “a dance, brittle and amusing.” Watson stressed that the company cannot be held accountable for how playing a couple onstage affects the Kulps as a couple offstage. Both directors praised their cast, actors “with a good grasp of who they are playing” and “how to land it.”

 Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Speaking of siblings, fans of NHTC will remember that Watson played a single-man looking for love while more than a bit burdened by a sister in The Last Romance, the mature love story that began the 2016-17 season. Mann played the love interest in that one, a single lady with a dog. Together, the two directed last season’s tersely funny two-hander The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter, featuring Trevor Williams and Erich Greene, who returns in Love Song as (wait for it) a waiter.

For Mann and Watson, collaborating as directors seems to work well, since neither felt entirely sure which did what. Watson said that Mann takes care of the more detailed aspects of the show, “a lot of things I don’t handle,” and that she “covers the bases” while he is more reactive. Mann, however, sees Watson as the one “more plotted out beforehand,” while she “likes to see things up and moving.” What it comes down to, on Love Song at least, is that Watson brings “the vision” of knowing how he wants things to play, while Mann is attentive to what’s missing or what needs encouragement.

In any case, they both see the script, which runs through 11 scenes in a continuous 90 minutes, as “funny as hell” and “dark, but not depressing.” The main question, Watson said, is “can Beane be healed” from the effects of some earlier damage, “and how will that affect others?” As Mann said, “there is baggage all over the place” between the siblings, with Harry acting as a strong support for his brother-in-law. In the end, she said, we don’t necessarily know “what then,” and, in a certain sense, it’s “not over,” but we have grounds to be optimistic.

When asked about how they know a play will work for the company, Mann said, “the goal is something really good that we can do a good job with,” a play, Watson said “that’s not fluff, or a sitcom, something with enough to chew on.” Mann complimented Kolvenbach’s ear for dialogue which she characterized as “idiomatically idiosyncratic.” And dialogue, more than action, is what makes the plays NHTC produces work. The main criteria for a play being done by New Haven Theater Company—a troupe of 11 most of whom also direct—is that it suits their company and their audience. Both have grown and changed over the years, but NHTC has maintained a keen sense of how to keep doing what they do well.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

 

New Haven Theater Company
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 8-17, 2018

For tickets and more info, go here




On the Inside

Review of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Collective Consciousness Theatre 

Collective Consciousness Theatre, the black box theater in Erector Square with a penchant for urban dramas and works by authors of color, is back with its first production of the season: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sobering Jesus Hopped the A Train. First produced in 2000, the play sets up a situation where crime and punishment combine with a story of charisma and faith, where the legal system and a higher law meet.

Incarceration is a way of life, particularly for African Americans in the U.S., but does it serve any purpose? The story focuses on the interaction between two men locked-up in protective custody. One, Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Riggins), is an avowed serial killer trying to avoid extradition to Florida where he would be put to death, while also telling anyone who will listen about his faith in Jesus; the other is Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), a somewhat confused youth accused of attempting to assassinate the leader of a religious cult who, Angel says, brainwashed his best friend. The shooting was not intended to be lethal, Angel claims, and was a just action. The two prisoners meet during the recreational hour they spend in outdoor cells divided by a narrow walkway. Jenkins never misses his hour outdoors and puts the time to use as best he can, including vigorous exercise while reciting the names of the books of the Bible backwards.

 Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

In this gripping production directed by Dexter J. Singleton, the personalities of the two men dominate the play. Mostly contentious, the two find terms of uneasy fellowship, though most of the sympathy tends to run in one direction only, from Lucius to Angel. The play establishes a simple contrast that yields much complexity: Lucius is by far the worse criminal, but he has a view of life—now that he’s likely to lose his—that has redeeming value; Angel has lost his faith in God, but his crime, in his view, was a blow for goodness. He’s desperate to find an attorney who can make his case—assault, yes, but not attempted murder. He gets Mary Jane Hanrahan (Bridget McCarthy), an attorney Angel offends by calling her a bitch, but who takes the case because she sees a certain sense in Angel’s plea and prides herself on turning juries her way. Of course, as the day in court nears, Angel must be coached in how to deny everything.

 Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Jenkins, by contrast, doesn’t deny anything in his sordid past, and his challenge to Angel is to own his actions, even if, as in Jenkins’ case, they are cold-blooded killings that “didn’t feel wrong.” Long before we hear Jenkins share horrible details of his crimes, we have already gotten to know him—we might think—as a personable older inmate trying to look out for a younger one. Initially, we see him using his considerable charm to elicit favors from D’Amico (Rob Giardian), a white guard under Jenkins’ sway. When D’Amico is replaced by Valdez (Jason Hall), a surly guard who seems to relish sounding like a movie hard-ass, the change makes more emphatic the “us against them” outlook of Jenkins’ pitch to Angel.

Riggins, who played a topdog-turned-underdog in last season’s Topdog/Underdog at CCT, has a knack for playing canny street dudes who earn our trust with a steady patter of amusing observations and insights. He creates a memorable Jenkins, a character who makes us confront how easily good and evil can be at home in the same person. It’s easy to—as D’Amico—says “like him,” and yet Riggins makes it hard for us to trust Jenkins. His “act” is so studied as to seem perfectly natural and that gives us pause. In a very different register, Delossantos’ Angel is as well-realized. He’s not as garrulous or personable as Jenkins because he hasn’t learned to mask his vexations so smoothly. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and provides the main focus for our sympathy.

A harder read is McCarthy’s Hanrahan. She’s forthright to the audience in several brief monologues that often serve simply as plot devices, doing little to evince her character, but setting up the tension of the story outside the jail: what will be the result of Angel’s day in court? Hanrahan emerges as someone whose motives get in the way of her ends, but the legal situation, in the play, serves only as a way of contrasting the law with the truth. Thus, much of the time spent on the case seems less than necessary.

 D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

As the sympathetic jailer D’Amico, Giardian scores with a monologue about attending an execution that just manages to shift from being all about the speaker to show us something of Jenkins’ fascination. As the sadistic jailer, Hall at least makes us feel that Valdez is playing a role to avoid falling under Jenkins’ spell, a role forced on him by the situation.

With David Sepulveda’s realistic set design and effective lighting design by Jamie Burnett, sound design by Tommy Rosati, and costumes by Carol Koumbaros, CCT’s Jesus Hopped the A Train has a fascinating power, its tension sustained by characters who draw us in and keep us there. Giurgis specializes in showing us people who are in love with the sound of their own voices, and in Jenkins he gives us an especially spell-binding hero—a possibly regenerate villain who, with death looming, has no time for the lies we tell for the sake of ego or to spare feelings. Lucius and Angel are well-worth the time spent with them on the inside.

Jesus Hopped the A Train plays for four more performances, Thursday, November 8-Sunday, November 11.

  

Jesus Hopped the A Train
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Production Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emiley Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Producer: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Jhulenty Delossantos, Rob Giardian, Jason Hall, Bridget McCarthy, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
October 25-November 11, 2018

The Process is the Thing

Review of TBD: Festival of Rough Drafts, Yale Cabaret

This week, the Yale Cabaret’s co-artistic directors Molly FitzMaurce and Latiana “LT” Gourzong offer their fellow Yale School of Drama students an opportunity to try out before audiences works that are still “in process.” On each table at the Cabaret are questionnaires and index cards inviting commentary and input from the audience. The five presentations on the program feature students working outside the area of their study at the School.

As described by FitzMaurice and Gourzong in the playbill: a playwright, Benjamin Benne, and a dramaturg, Sunny Jisun Kim, become “devisers and puppeteers” in “light+shadow demo (mvmts i-iii)”; an actor, Rachel Kenney, tries her hand as the playwright of an untitled play; Samuel Kwan Chi Chan, a lighting designer, presents a multimedia show, “LXB O.1”;  scenic designer Jimmy Stubbs enacts an unusual performance of Ravel’s Bolero; and costume designers Mika H. Eubanks and April M. Hickman act as talk show participants in “The Weaknesses of Men.” The watchword of the night is “process.” All of the works evolve through the necessary addition of an audience.

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In a sense, the Festival is, in miniature, an overview of the offerings of a typical Cabaret season. Scripted plays with characters rub against multi-media pieces, and alternate with devised pieces that showcase their creators in a variety of performance styles. One key aspect of the Cab is its ability to provide space for examples of interpretive theater. Such pieces, as in “light+shadow demo,” often involve movement, mime, puppets, music and interesting props. Here, an exploration of light and space is made more tangible by a Chinese lantern, by wands of shiny strands and by papier-maché masks with lights affixed to them. The actions by Benne and Kim, hypnotic in themselves, become more interesting once they’ve donned masks and taken on particular postures trying to articulate an almost anthropological sense of being.

Kenney’s untitled play features Juliana Aiden Martínez as Tory, a college student visiting her grandmother Leanna (Caitlin Crumbleholme) who may be having problems with her memory—she answers the door knife in hand and treats Tory as a stranger at first—and eventually sharing laughs with her former bestie Sam (Awa Franklin). An amusing episode of breast-naming leads to a promise of greater intimacy, with Martínez’s Tory seeming to go through mood-swings that, perhaps, the full plot would help us grasp.

It’s hard to describe Jimmy Stubbs’ one-man interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero. The questionnaire asks us to define “virtuosity,” a nod to the notion of a virtuoso as someone fully versed in a variety of musical forms. Stubbs, in a tux with a music stand, assays Ravel’s well-known piece by means of whistling, playing a ukulele, and tap-dancing. In what was easily the most entertaining entry in the Festival, he shows-off an usual skill as though an entrant in a pretentious talent show, his stage persona full of a preening insistence on solemnity while eliciting numerous laughs.

The other two presentations in the Festival are even harder to get a handle on. Samuel Kwan Chi Chan’s “LXB O.1” solemnly revisits the protests in Tiananmen Square of 4 June 1989 in the light of the 2017 death, from liver cancer, of Nobel Laureate and Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo. The multi-media aspects of the show include brief internet clips about the beloved dissident as well as a computer-generated version of his face that moves its mouth while a voice reads from a script. The script tells of a dinner party where the speaker and his wife meet with casual attitudes toward the political crisis of 4 June, now fading into history. The speaker seems both critical of China and defensive about its autonomy. The reading is elusive and, without any effort to dramatize the scene, there is not much to take away beyond high-minded calls for liberty and equality.

The notion that “the weaknesses of men” might be addressed by reading from notecards about “worst date” experiences could be revealing, appalling, entertaining, perhaps some mix of all three. On the night I attended, Hickman and Eubanks, friendly and amused, didn’t quite manage to click with a story compelling enough to merit the attention given a staged event. The title of the piece borrows from an early 20th-century tract on how to promote virility in men (one assumes, against impotence and behaviors deemed effeminate), but Eubanks and Hickman take the title as a means to “deconstruct the patriarchy.” Fine, but we don’t hear anything about manly weakness, either as physical condition or moral failing. Rather, the shared stories tell more about the weakness of women in drinking / dating / texting against their better judgment. Reprehensible male behavior is described, though with a somewhat gleeful sense of exploring “worst” behavior as a form of competition for best morning-after story. A better title for the piece might be “The Weakness for Men.”

As with The Untitled Ke$ha Project, which featured a competitive aspect with audience participation, the Cabaret from time to time lives up to the notion of cabaret by providing a public performance space to explore the obsessions and interests of YSD students. Hit-and-miss as such productions—or festivals—are, they give a useful glimpse of how theater can evolve out of the everyday while acting as a means to work through the process of living in our moment.

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TBD: festival of works-in-process

light + shadow demo (mvmts i – iii)
By Benjamin Benne & Sunny Jisun Kim

Untitled Play
By Rachel Kenney
Cast: Caitlin Crumbleholme, Awa Franklin, Evelyn Giovine, Juliana Aiden Martínez

LXB O.1
Created and presented by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan

Ravel’s Boléro
Performed by Jimmy Stubbs
Dramaturg: Patrick Denney; Costume Design: Meg Powers

The Weaknesses of Men
Conceived by Stephanie Bahniuk, Mika H. Eubanks, & April M. Hickman
Performed by Mika H. Eubanks & April M. Hickman

Festival Team:
Producers: Latiana “LT” Gourzong & Molly FitzMaurice; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana; Technical Director: Tatusya “Tito” Ito; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Associate Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Voiceover: Valerie Tu



Yale Cabaret
November 1-3, 2018

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

Shakespeare’s As You Like It abounds in binaries: good brother, bad brother; daughter of duke in power, daughter of duke in exile; woman dressed as a woman, woman dressed as a man; and the most formative: the court where Duke Frederick holds sway, and the open spaces of the forest of Arden. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, as U like it, a thesis show at Yale School of Drama, directed by Weinstein, takes the idea of Arden and runs with it toward utopia. There might be a future imaginable that would redeem all that is unbearable in our current world, beginning with the binaries that govern our sexual identity, our politics, our way of being in the world.

As the playbill states, quoting Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” Breslin, the production’s dramaturg, comments: “the word and the concept of utopia contains a paradoxical challenge: Can the perfect place ever exist? Perhaps not. But if it could, how would you draw it up?” For Weinstein and Breslin, the perfect place follows the thinking of Tavio Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam (as quoted in the playbill), foregoing “the idealizations of straight utopian thought for the wilder speculations of queer utopia.” In its panoply of mash-ups that tease at the edges of libidinal freedom, as U like it is born of such speculations.

But first, that court. Its status as a prison-culture is underlined on every front. The audience sits regimented in seats as if waiting their turn at Motor Vehicle Services. The closed-circuit television randomly scans the crowd and puts our faces onscreen, behind all-capital declarations like on SNL. The loud drum loop is a call to martial glory, a downer deadening to any chipper bonhomie. Eventually Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese) arrives, a preening coxcomb of a leader. He wants answers, he wants results, he wants to browbeat everyone, including his somewhat vaporish daughter Celia (Eli Pauley) and her scrappier bosom buddy Rosalind (Amandla Jahava). (You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Cher and Dion.)

 Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind becomes enamored of Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz), a Leo-like hero who reacts to her interest as if he just got tickets to a sold-out show. And that’s after he has defeated the Duke’s champion Charles (Brandon E. Burton, playing up sports-star narcissism with the help of Danielle Chaves’ hilariously fawning and preemptory News Anchor). This part of the show, with its fascistic trappings—such as name-tags each audience member is given that ask questions about gender, marital status, virility, and sexual preference—is blessedly short, but long enough to give us a clear glimpse of a future we’ve feared at least since 1984.

Rosalind, glad to be banished from this total bummer, invites—nay, exhorts—us to go with her, now dubbed Ganymede, and her sidekick Celia, now called Aliena. And we do, traveling down a short hallway to a new world unfurled. Here there are bowers and closets of to-die-for accoutrements, there are strolling players inviting us to paint our faces, tattoo our bodies, and get to know one another NSA. On a catwalk, Chaves has metamorphosed into Hymen, a glam queen à la Aladdin Sane, a mistress of ceremonies who teaches us a dance and holds forth in song, punctuated with the kind of salacious patter made famous by the MC of Cabaret.

 Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

If you might expect the story we’re following to begin to fall apart, have no fear. Weinstein’s cast keeps its discipline in the midst of the freely moving audience and it’s quite impressive to see. Putting on the show means moving props and that sectional catwalk to places as needed, and it also means the principles have to be on spot in the different regions of Arden to deliver their additions to the new plot, which is—of course—all about eros. There’s a hint of Sleep No More in the way, as a visitor of Arden, you might find yourself caught up by some of the displays courtesy of scenic designer Elsa GibsonBraden, with Emma Deane’s bower-like lighting design and ambient sound (Liam Bellman-Sharpe) and projections (Brittany Bland) creating a total environment. Observably impressive too is the way the “radical faeries”—Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Tarek Ziad—take care of business, making sure things happen when and where they should, and standing in as ancillary figures to start a progress, swell a scene or two.

The thinker of this utopia is Dyke Senior (Kineta Kunutu), dressed like a kind of psychedelic revolutionary, spouting—as revolutionaries will—earnest slogans from texts meant to liberate as they berate. She dwells in her Lesbian Colony where patriarchy is the source of all woe and sex-by-penetration an act of violence. Meanwhile, over in Silvius’s Poetry Glade, poor lovelorn Silvius (Burton again, now a challenged-by-fashion nerd) earnestly seeks the smiles of Phebe (Evans again, a lad on the make in a skimpy tie-dye sleeveless T). And don’t neglect Jacques’s Out-of-the-Closet corner where Jacques (Erron Crawford), the Prince-like cynic of Arden—“fuck children, fuck the future” is his mantra—gets an airing, letting us know that self-actualization is the order of the day. Later, his “seven ages” speech stresses how much our “ages” are roles we play, or maybe it’s just that we let others cast us in those parts.

Phebe, a professed top, finds himself entertaining notions of bottoming in abandon for Ganymede, a butch Rosalind in leather and hose and attractive facial hair. Poor Celia/Aliena flounces about in drapery and wishes Rosalind would drop the hetero hang-ups and embrace omnisexuality. But alas, though Orlando might don foppish attire and let Ganymede give him one on the lips, it’s still a story of girl meets boy and boy meets girl. Orlando loves Rosalind and vice versa, and Jahava enacts the aggressive damsel well, full of androgynous machismo. Who might be equal to Celia’s pining? Who should arrive but Duke Frederick’s sister Olivia (Zoe Mann, a bit like Janet at Dr. Frankenfurter’s), alienated from her macho brother and maybe ready for reeducation.

 Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

The play, in the midst of all the diverting busyness, goes off much as you’d expect while being vastly entertaining and wonderfully apt in its re-conceptions. An added treat is seeing the shows collaborating creators, Weinstein and Breslin, inhabiting Arden with the rest of us, duly tickled or moved by what goes on there—such as, for hilarity, Phebe’s show-stopping take-off on Mommie Dearest, and, for lyrical beauty, the passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa contemplates Sally Seton, recited by the ever-eroticized Celia.

The attentive will catch an array of allusions, quotations, borrowings and such throughout. The whole punctuated by Chaves’ strutting and asiding and singing and making a show of being on show. And don’t forget the songs by Julian Hornik, my favorite probably the one sung by Jacques, a paean to how animal we all are when the accessories come off. The play ends not merely with the marriage of three couples—male/female, female/female, male/male—but our subversive MC orders us all to find a partner—dosey-doe—and get hitched along with the characters. As Groucho might say, “Bigamy? Of course it’s big o’ me. It’s big o’ you too. Let’s all be big for a change.” Eros, after all, is the life force. Til death do us part.

A fantasy, a celebration, a provocation, as U like it is also a lesson in how to rise and risk against a repressive status quo for the sake of joy and fun. If you don’t like it, I fear for U.

 

William Shakespeare’s
as U like it
adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin
with original music by Julian Hornik
directed by Emma Weinstein

Choreographers: Michael Breslin, Erron Crawford; Music Director, Arranger, Composer, Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projection and Video Designer: Brittany Bland; Tent Installation Designer: Itai Almor; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Technical Director: Kirk Keen; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Erron Crawford, Amandla Jahava, Chad Kinsman, Kineta Kunutu, Zoe Mann, Hudson Oznowicz, Eli Pauley, John Evans Reese, Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Oliver Shoulson, Camille Umoff, Tarek Zlad

Musicians: Margaret Douglas, bass; Thomas Hagen, drums; Jeremy Weiss, piano; Jonathan Weiss, guitar

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

This Sex Which is Not One

Review of Agreste (Drylands), Yale Cabaret

Brazilian author Newton Moreno’s Agreste (Drylands) features propulsive storytelling. As translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Danilo Gambini at Yale Cabaret, the play, a narrative about two characters and a community, is told by three actors who narrate and mime events in a rhythmic round.  By turns lyrical, funny, surprising, tragic, Agreste (Drylands) achieves folkloric power. This is the kind of tale that would live on in the minds of locals, a defining act of bloodletting that makes us confront the fate that outsiders and outliers too often find in communities that fearfully maintain a baleful conformity.

The three actors—Abubaker Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino—are abetted by the show’s careful design. They act inside what looks like a large sandbox to signify the drylands—or “agreste” region of Brazil—where two mostly inarticulate persons meet regularly at a fence that divides them, the way that wall divided Pyramus and Thisbe. Eventually, the woman, a fresh-faced innocent (most often enacted by Kenney), finds a hole through the fence. The hole is a widening spot of light, very effectively realized at key moments in the story. The two leave behind their own land and journey over the drylands to the ocean where they nearly lose themselves until a motherly woman takes them to a nearby community. There, the lovers build a shack and begin a life together.

 Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

This is a story of a fated love, a consuming passion that isn’t necessarily physical in its main emotion. The lovers gaze at one another and in that togetherness don’t need to do anything else or be anywhere else. Living together for decades, they are treated as husband and wife. They plan to marry officially and have finally gotten together all the trappings needed for the ceremony when the man (Abubakr Mohamed Ali) dies suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even more unexpected—but not unheard of by the parish priest (Ali) who comes to investigate the situation—is the fact that the old women of the community who come to help the widow lay out the body find no sign of “a willie” on the deceased. This scene, in which all three cast members enact a conclave of voices commenting on and joking about male genitalia, is both very funny and vicious. We see how, as beings of flesh, we are all vulnerable to a materialist reading. The widow tells how she and her husband coupled always in the dark, through a sheet, and that she has no knowledge of male anatomy. Her husband is, to her, the only man she has ever known and the loss of his dignity, as a naked body she has never seen, laid out on a table, is appalling enough. The loss of his status as a man and husband is devastating.

But that’s not devastating enough for this community. Thus the presence of the priest who chides her for “the commotion” she has created by letting the old gossips have access to her secret. Now there’s no way the priest can bury the body as a man, as he might’ve done otherwise. This aspect of the play is key to what unfolds. The authority here—the church—can turn a blind eye when it deems it best but it can’t risk its standing in the community by openly contradicting the ethos—such as it is—of the consensus. And the consensus is that the couple is an outrage and an abomination. It ends with the inevitability one finds in tales of the early Christians, a death for the sake of a persecuted love, an agape that, in promising paradise, asserts that its proper sphere is beyond this life on earth. Song—such as Paulino’s wholly captivating rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow”—helps this aspect of the tale find its emotional tone.

The cast performs with great precision the ins-and-outs of the round-robin style of presentation, each stepping forward to give shadings of feeling, whether through narrative or dialogue or singing. Kenney presents a young woman captured by what she believes to be male beauty, and Ali enacts well both the mystery of her husband and the sympathetic but ultimately callous priest. In her Cabaret debut, Paulino’s characterizations have a lightness that helps with the somewhat homespun elements of the tale while her room-filling a capella vocals express both rapture and agony. The songs chosen, like the southern U.S. drawl of the sheriff (Ali) and of the townsfolk at one point, take us out of the Brazilian setting, but that only makes the story more immediate to the deep social dysfunction of our own time and place in America.

With its ensemble presentation, the play is simply fascinating to watch, its story seeming to be spun from the air around us. Use of the material of the “sandbox” is effective too, and Yaara Bar’s always magical projections create here a key manifestation of beauty. The costumes, by April M. Hickman, are lovely, suggesting a desert culture with great aesthetic sense. We feel the culture’s presence behind the story, a collectivity that must somehow atone for the wrong done but which also—as with other stories of tragic endings at communal hands—finds a shared identity in the sacrifice of a scapegoat.

 

Agreste (Drylands)
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime F. Totti; Set Designers: Alexander McCargar and Sarah Karl; Costume Designers: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
October 25-27, 2018

But Little Touch of Harry

Review of Henry V, Hartford Stage

A production in the round is unusual in current Connecticut theaters, and it’s unusual to see a Shakespeare production as stripped-down and bare bones as the version of Henry V now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson. The choices make for an almost behind-the-scenes feel to this varied play.

 Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

This is the third production Williamson has directed at the theater—following Caryl Churchill’s satiric Cloud 9 and an explosive Seder by Sarah Gancher—and she tends to go for edgy. Here, as with the Churchill play, the text requires many different tonalities to succeed fully. The cast—many playing multiple roles—delivers only some of them. The main tone is a very American address to a very British play, leaving the viewer in some doubt as to what and why.

Shakespeare’s play chronicles the effort of the newly crowned Henry V, formerly the dissolute rowdy Prince Hal, to wage war on France, driven by advisors who insist he has a claim to the French crown. Here, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Felicity Jones Latta plays up the comedy of the torturous detail by which the claim is justified without necessarily convincing anyone but Henry that there is a claim. He trusts it and so, at the start, we see a king driven by a prideful decision to prove himself, particularly when the scornful Dauphin of France (Anthony Michael Lopez) sends Henry a bunch of tennis balls as a message. Henry, in France’s view, is a total lightweight, and, while we might recall recent events in which two over-wielding political leaders exchanged taunts while the fate of the world hung in the balance, the exchange doesn’t land as definitive for the action to come. Are we to see Henry as a true king in the making (the general version of the character), or misguided, spoiled, or worse?

 The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The problem lies mostly with Stephen Louis Grush’s interpretation of Henry. With his shaven head and forceful frame, we easily see him as a man of action. He speaks fast and with a diction better-suited to direct speech than iambic pentameter. His main vocal shift is irascible explosion, otherwise he rarely makes clear the emotions that guide Henry. He’s best when professing himself a soldier unable to woo properly, but that comes late. It may be that Williamson has chosen to downplay the big sentiments that are generally associated with the play, such as the rhetorical fire of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and that choice makes Henry blend into the ensemble work on view here. The play tends to be more interesting when its titular character isn’t around.

 Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

The staging is empty of most scenic devices, except an occasional table and chair, and wide open, with many points of entry and exit. The floor of the playing space is a map showing the British Isles in relation to mainland Europe. The costuming is a mix of fatigues and fancier uniforms that recall various armies, from the Great War onward. Suffice to say, it’s an eclectic look that does little to recall British history specifically, and the same is true of accents. One character—the truculent Pistol—is played by Miles Anderson with a British accent. As Captain Fluellen of Wales, Baron Vaughn speaks more sing-songy than do the others, which I suppose distinguishes him. A French prisoner, Monsieur Le Fer (Nafeesa Monroe) speaks English as a comic French-person would, and Katherine, the princess of France (Eveyln Spahr) speaks in French and broken English with her French-speaking maid Alice (Felicity Jones Latta). The scene between Alice and Katherine, like the wooing between Henry and Katherine, comes off well, made engaging by Spahr’s skill in romantic comedy.

 Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

At the heart of the play here, it seems, are the efforts to loot while at war on the part of Sir John Falstaff’s former companions, Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Pistol (Miles Anderson), and Bardolph (Liam Craig). The description of Falstaff’s death, by Mistress Quickly (Baron Vaughn), is played for laughs with but scant pathos, and the scene in which Henry agrees to the death by hanging of one of his former cronies brings forward little of the shared past. Here, it’s easy to overlook why these three ne’er-do-wells are even part of the play, as their role in shadowing Henry’s grandiosity is rarely if ever made pointed. They are comic relief, of a sort, though Anderson’s Pistol emerges as the most dynamic character in the play. Bardolph, shorn of his oft-remarked inflamed nose and pustular visage, is good-looking enough to be mistaken for Captain Gower of England (whom Craig also plays). In a key scene Pistol argues for saving the absent Bardolph while Gower looks on. Keep your playbill handy or you may suspect that Gower is Bardolph in a different garment.

 Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

In the midst of the lackluster readings of several of the 34 characters enacted by 15 actors in this busy production is the welcome presence of Peter Francis James as the Chorus. Florid, commanding, with a sure sense of the sound and cadence—to say nothing of the vowels and consonants—of Shakespearean rhetoric, James delivers his too few speeches quite effectively. At certain points, I found myself wishing he would simply narrate the story, which would help us to follow the who’s who and what’s what of this complex and not so well-known Shakespearean plot.

 Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Disappointing and quizzical, Hartford Stage’s Henry V succeeds at times, but its energy, like that of its hero, too often seems misdirected.

 

Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Matt Hubbs; Original Music: Christian Frederickson; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Yan Chen; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Karen Aldridge, Miles Anderson, Liam Craig, Kate Forbes, Stephen Louis Grush, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Mark Lawrence, Anthony Michael Lopez, Nafeesa Monroe, Jamie Rezanour, Evelyn Spahr, Haley Tyson, Baron Vaughn, Reid Williams

Hartford Stage
October 11-November 11, 2018

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

Sigmund Freud called it “repetition compulsion,” the psychological condition of having to repeat a traumatic event. It may involve revisiting the place where the event occurred, or trying to recreate a situation through specific actions. A popular depiction of the condition can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly praised film Vertigo. That film might come to mind when watching Jez Butterworth’s fascinating and mysterious play The River, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The setting—a fishing cabin “on the cliffs, above the river” in some out-of-the-way English dell—finds a suitable rustic charm in Brian Prather’s handsome set. It’s a homey place for The Man (Billy Carter) because he’s been coming there to fish for sea trout since he was a boy when his uncle was “the man” on the place. As the play opens we get one of those nice jolts that maintaining the fourth wall can still deliver. The Woman (Andrea Goss) is looking right out over the audience in TheaterWorks’ intimate space. She’s gazing raptly at a gorgeous sunset, and tries to entice The Man to share in the moment. “I’ve seen it,” he says, fussing with his gear for the big fishing trip, then proceeds to describe the sky with fulsome words, without looking, and creates a verbal painting.

 The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

He’s got a knack for poeticizing, and at one point, trying to convince The Woman she needs to be a part of his fishing expedition, he asks her to read a Ted Hughes poem from a book. She, on the other hand, would rather stay in the cabin and read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At that point we might be afraid, indeed. “They’re going to the lighthouse, will they get there?,” she asks, half-facetiously. And then the pair go fishing, but what happens?

Butterworth, for all that he might be writing this play tongue-in-cheek, has taken on an interesting assignment: how to convey obsession, loss, hope, love, and the playfulness of seduction while maintaining the mystery of such experiences? All the while keeping the glory of fishing—and the nature of sea trout has its metaphoric application—before us as, well, what it’s like to try to catch something wild and fleeting.

 The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

We might begin to think—after we meet The Other Woman—we’re in a Gothic story, a kind of Bluebeard-as-fishing-story that will reveal some awful truth about a serial killer. That would be a blunter version of what Butterworth offers. Instead, we’re contemplating something almost as off-putting: serial seduction, the strange-to-relate way that a search for true love—or an effort to recapture a previous moment—involves a set script. All we need to do is find the right actor for the part we’ve written in our heads.

That might sound like a very dark play, and in some ways it is. The brooding tone is leavened by the characters of the women. As The Woman, Andrea Goss is slyly mocking at times, apt to fear that The Man has plans more romantic than she’s prepared to accept. The Other Woman is played by Jasmine Batchelor as even more engaging, enough to make us think she may be “the One” after all. She brings a winning outlook to her match with The Man, even if she does catch a fish by a method forbidden in his code.

 The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Man could be a crashing bore, so set in his ways, but Billy Carter—in a role that Hugh Jackman played on Broadway—keeps us guessing about his motivations and where his heart really lies. He can be taciturn as well as rhapsodic. And he has to gut a fish on stage if only so we can watch him interact with his favorite species. He’s deliberate, almost devout. Later, he draws The Other Woman’s portrait with a similar concentration. The play asks us to see him as the women do: as someone who attracts interest but who also seems to hold others at bay, which only adds to his allure. His manliness may be the theme most at issue here, a studied self-sufficiency that requires a certain elusiveness in his prey, and his bride.

 The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

Every date between strangers is a kind of try out, we might suppose, but The River keeps an archly archetypal quality in play. A few oddities—like a scene about a bird getting into the cabin that plays the same for both women, each told “it’s happened before”—keep us guessing, waiting for a reveal that makes all the pieces fit. And fitting oneself to someone else is what successful romance is all about. 

Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the tension palpable, and the sound effects in Frederick Kennedy’s sound design, including a subtly hypnotic song, add an eeriness. The River makes the most of the scenic quality of theater, so that each new scene, playing with our sense of how narrative unfolds, establishes a static moment without a clear relation to before and after. It’s “the still point of the turning world,” while it lasts.

  

The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Associate Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Coach: Johanna Morrison

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

 TheaterWorks
October 4-November 11, 2018

Wedding Blitz

Review of The Drowsy Chaperone, Goodspeed Musicals

When Ben Brantley reviewed the original Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006 he noted what a crowd-pleaser it was, but seemed bemused by that fact. You could say there’s a certain critical prejudice against shows that are simply good fun and have, as the saying goes, “no redeeming social value.” It’s fitting that the show should be mostly fluff, since the idea for this musical spoofing musicals began as a party joke that Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison devised for the amusement of Robert Martin and his betrothed, Janet Van de Graaff. And so the main plot element here is how to keep the affianced lovers—Bob (Clyde Alves) and Janet (Stephanie Rothenberg)—from seeing each other before the marriage, while, of course, lots of ambient romance circulates and we wait to see who couples or uncouples with whom. An added attraction is that Janet is a Broadway star of some magnitude who has vowed to forsake the footlights for the sake of her man.

 “Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

“Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Lambert and Morrison wrote the music and lyrics and the songs are mostly excuses for silliness set to music, having the kind of effervescence associated with champagne in large quantities. And that’s fitting as the titular character—The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)—imbibes immodestly and tends to get drowsy (or so she says) when she drinks. Her faux dozing leaves her charge, Janet, free for a prenuptial espial of her betrothed, Robert, he of the gleaming teeth, as he roller-skates blindfolded in the garden. Their encounter there sparks a contretemps that may capsize their particular love boat.

 “Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

“Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

Meanwhile, the Chaperone finds herself mistaken as the bride for the erotic attentions of Adolpho (John Rapson), an operatic Italian who wants to seduce Robert’s betrothed as payback for a perceived slight. Meanwhile, there are gangsters on hand—two brothers played to the hilt by the brothers Slaybaugh (Blakely and Parker)—because, if Janet jilts the production she’s starring in, it ain’t going to be pretty for Feldzieg (James Judy), a theater producer accompanied everywhere by Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), an inspired ditz as strident would-be star. There’s also the lady of the house, Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall) and her fastidious butler, Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), George, the forgetful best man (Tim Falter), and, for good measure in the finale, a genial aviatrix, Trix (Danielle Lee Greaves).

 “Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

“Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

The book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar bristles with quick scenes, the kind of exchanges that set-up improbable songs—like Robert singing about “Cold Feets” and then proceeding to tap-dance enthusiastically with George, who channels his best Gene Kelly, or like the gangsters, Feldzieg, and Kitty enlightening us about the “Toledo Surprise,” a bit of vaudevillian vim that leads into the Act One closer. And while I’m on the songs, the show-stopper and untoppable topper is Janet’s big number “Show Off”—she changes costume at least three times on stage, hits high notes, twirls hoops, flings knives, and does everything she can think of to hold attention while insisting, quite fetchingly, that she’s done with it all. My other favorite was The Chaperone’s paean to the blitzed life, “As We Stumble Along,” dished up as what it is: the big number for an aging grande dame of the theater to showboat on.

 Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Pointing out how each song and plot-point and character-turn hangs together with featherbrained logic is the task of the real hero of this fizzy farce, Man in Chair (an affably flappable John Scherer). He’s a retiring nebbish ensconced in his favorite chair in his no doubt rent-controlled apartment, spinning his beloved platter of the original cast recording of The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s a lover of musicals, so long as the show’s not too long—preferably with no intermission and without the musical theater stylings of Sir Elton. The rest of the scenes occur by benefit of his memory and imagination as the show unfolds before us while the double LP plays. And whether you love musicals or approach them with trepidation, you’ll find him a simpatico host. I wanted to cheer when he chucked a ringing phone out the door. He’s even a bit more scathing than a critic might be: while the spit-take scene between Mrs. Tottendale and Underling is indeed pointless, it is also surprisingly hilarious.

 Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

In fact, most of the fun here is in seeing how much brio the cast—all top notch—and director Hunter Foster, with choreography by Chris Bailey, can bring to this balderdash. And don’t forget the costumes! Tony Award winner (for this show on Broadway, as well as Follies) Gregg Barnes does Man in Chair’s imagination proud, including the chinoiserie of a strange interlude that opens Act Two, and extending to countless costume changes—and not just for the starlet. The Slaybaugh brothers—who have perfected the slow burn—appear in different complementary get-ups each time they show up. The razzle dazzle throughout is in your face and eye-opening, including scenery that comes and goes as required thanks to the design by Goodspeed veteran Howard Jones, culminating with a biplane, by George!

 “I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

In the end, what if anything does this zany show say? Maybe something about the version we carry with us of a past we never saw in person. Filling out a recording with mental enactments is nearly a lost art, so that our nostalgia for Man in Chair’s nostalgia leads us to newfound delight in living actors able to embody, boldly and broadly, that old Broadway we missed.

 Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

It’s a hoot, and the most fun you’ll ever have chaperoned.

 

The Drowsy Chaperone
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Hunter Foster

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Chris Bailey

Scenic Design: Howard Jones; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: Jennifer Allen, Clyde Alves, Hallie Brevetti, Abby Church, James Spencer Dean, Tim Falter, Ruth Gottschall, Danielle Lee Greaves, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Jay Aubrey Jones, James Judy, Evan Mayer, Ruth Pferdehirt, John Rapson, Stephanie Rothenberg, John Scherer, Blakely Slaybaugh, Parker Slaybaugh, Gabi Stapula

 

Goodspeed Musicals
From September 21, 2018