Office Politics

Review of Fade, Yale Cabaret

What is a community? Is it people who live in the same place, people who work in the same place or have the same job or pursue the same activities? Is it anyone of the same ethnicity, or who speaks the same language or worships the same God or values the same things? The term can apply to a number of situations, not all of which are commensurate. And the question of who belongs to the community and who doesn’t can be a contested matter.

In Fade, a play by Tanya Saracho at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Kat Yen, the question of whether or not the two characters belong to a community is key to the drama. Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martínez) is a new “token hire” on a team of writers developing a television show. Everyone else is white and male, and Lucia, as a female of color, feels both excitement at the opportunity and dismay at the racist perceptions of her colleagues. She reaches out to Abel (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a custodian, because they “look the same” as nonwhite workers.

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel knows all-too-well that, whether or not he and Lucia share a community—through Mexican heritage, the Spanish language, or by being nonwhite in a white man’s world—they are not colleagues. Her job station is well above his, and yet she’s willing to use a range of appeals—helpless female to capable male, companionable co-worker, fellow underappreciated employee of color, and possibly even sympathetic friend—to win him over. We see Abel, played quite effectively by Sánchez with wary charm, overcome his misgivings and resentment to be on Lucia’s side. While not a romantic comedy, there are certain elements that suggest we could be headed that way. In an earlier era, a story about a woman on her way up would find a possible love interest/nemesis in a man, manly in a traditional way, who makes her question why she puts her job before her heart. This isn’t that era.

In this era, a woman such as Lucia never has a thought that isn’t all about herself. She is a nonstop font of information about what’s happening in her world. A published novelist who should be working on her second novel, she has taken a job that she feels is beneath her—hence, perhaps, the ease with which she claims kinship with Abel—and is trying to cope. The play works so well at the Cabaret because of Martínez’s wonderful performance, mercurial and various while always seeming to be utterly genuine. Abel, who shows up every night to clean the offices, never knows what he’ll find—Lucia working late on an assignment, or brooding over slights at a meeting, or waiting to take a late night call from her boss in another time-zone, or going into deep angst after finally besting her main rival on the team. Each time, playful, distressed, or beseeching, she manages to draw him into her situation.

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Along the way, Abel parcels out bits of information about himself, but he’s not the kind to openly confide. When he finally does render a very dramatic evocation of an event from his past, he worries that he has given away too much. He has cause for concern.

What makes the play more than simply a drama of how difficult mismatched friendship can be is the context of the world Saracho is presenting. It’s a world where something that might unite people—a shared cultural background, a first-language in common—can also be divisive if such markers, often used to ghettoize people, are feared as efforts to pigeonhole or label. Lucia and Abel did not originate in the same neighborhoods, and the differences play not only into what they can assume about each other culturally but who they are at work. No one, we might believe, is wholly defined by their occupation, but neither can a workplace friendship ever lose sight of what it means to be on the job. Saracho applies such pressure points usefully throughout without ever making the story feel too manipulated.

Set in an office space that looks like an open cage, Fade knowingly evokes the workplace as both a source of security and a place of anxious efforts to be oneself and to better oneself. The only real risk for Abel is to be caught slacking off (though he does have a secret he shouldn’t divulge); the risk for Lucia is that her attempts to assert herself creatively may backfire. In that she shares her precarious position with other communities—women in the workplace, persons of color expected to be “representative” of a poorly understood demographic—and as such we’re on her side, up to a point. That point is reached, dramatically, in a way that any member of yet another community—writers—might well recognize, with different views. Does anyone own the copyright on their own experience?

Well-paced by director Kat Yen, Fade lets tension and entertainment support one another as we learn more about these characters on their paths of support and exposure. In the end, Saracho leaves us with the realization that betrayal may simply be part of a writer’s job.


By Tanya Saracho
Directed by Kat Yen
Proposed by Juliana Aiden Martínez

Producer: Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer: Kat Yen; Technical Director: Yara Yarashevich

Cast: Juliana Aiden Martínez, Dario Ladani Sánchez

Yale Cabaret
September 20-22, 2018

Child's Play

Review of Make Believe, Hartford Stage

Bess Wohl and Jackson Gay, the author and director, respectively, of Make Believe, the opening play of the 2018-19 season at Hartford Stage, worked together early in their careers, collaborating at the Yale Cabaret while students in the Yale School of Drama. That fact seemed significant to me while watching Make Believe, which might work best as a one act (such as one sees at the Cabaret). Here, the play is in two parts without intermission, and it’s the second part, which has to make believe it depicts the present day of the kids we meet in the first part, that suffers from cuteness and an uncertain tone. The first part, played by actors under age 12, is dynamite.

Four kids, ranging from the eldest, Chris (Roman Malenda), to Kate (Sloane Wolfe) to Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) to the youngest, Carl (RJ Vercellone), who is about five but doesn’t talk, occupy themselves in a huge playroom in a house where the adults are absent. Certainly, that’s meant to make the helicopter-parents among us feel freaked out, and it doesn’t help that we have to keep hearing Mom’s chipper voice on the answering machine (still a relatively novel device in the 1980s when the first part is set) as a series of callers leave messages about missed appointments and, from a distraught husband, a garble of bitterness. Mom’s MIA, in short, and the kids aren’t quite alright.

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

To amuse themselves, the kids—who, we expect, take care of themselves quite a lot—tend to play house, with Chris a funnily morbid pater who likes to let his family know that, eventually, we all get to either rot or get burnt up, we have no other choices. Kate, as the mom, is able to take a right to the jaw and get right back to work on whatever dinner might be. Addie, who has her own baby in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll, is apt to be off in her own world, and Carl is perfectly happy playing the dog, pantomimed pissing included.

The version of life the children get up to is darkly entertaining. We never forget (that damned phone won’t let us!) that they’re on their own for what starts to feel a distressing length of time. A letter Kate writes to the late Princess Grace (not knowing the celebrity has just died) lets us know not only that Kate may be the unknown offspring of the Princess of Monaco (compare the bone structure) but that the kids have eaten most of the food in the house, including the frozen stuff.

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Wohl’s dialogue is wonderfully sharp and zestfully foul-mouthed as only children—for whom each expletive is a gem—can be. As Chris, Roman Malenda gets several chances to shine: first in an under the sheet-tent tale about a boy he dislikes, then in a call to school—as a British nanny—to excuse the children from attending. At times he has an odd quirk of raising his voice mid-sentence for emphasis, as though a suppressed passion is ready to burst forth. As Kate, Sloane Wolfe is studiedly adult as precocious children often are, and she’s ready to defect. The younger kids are wonderfully physical in their ability to romp as if they aren’t in fact onstage. Playing a young girl at play is something Alexa Skye Swinton does remarkably well.

If the play ended when the child’s portion does, we would have to connect the dots and, who knows, might even have to allegorize a bit what the adults are doing to this insular world we’ve come to know and love. Instead, what a falling-off is there! Enter adult versions of the children, played with a kind of tense familiarity while speaking lines meant to connect things from then to now.

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

As Kate, Megan Byrne is still trying to cope with everything that doesn’t add up. As Addie, Molly Ward is a mom herself (remember that Cabbage Patch doll?) and still trying to be a free spirit. Brad Heberlee’s Carl is at first MIA himself, then arrives to give a speech he was meant to deliver earlier. His extended crying jag that morphs into the howl he exulted in as family pet is a good example of the earnestness of the dot-connecting and underlining going on. Chris (a different one) played by the always presentable Chris Ghaffari is on hand to earn jokes about Millennials, be the object of MILF desire, and, yes, even a lover in mourning. Ghaffari handles it all by being sweet, as his namesake would never be. Thus we lose much of the acid that the irrepressible playacting master of the house interjected into the proceedings. Pity. Meanwhile, there are jokes at the expense of Scandinavians, a demographic (I guess) it’s still okay to otherize.

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Wohl, not content with the dysfunction among the adults in this family, has to give us an explanatory moment that adds more distress, from other adults in the past. Kate objects to the way that bit of backstory gets dropped into the scene, and I have to agree with her.

If you ever needed, in the course of one evening, evidence about how sad it is we grow up, find it here. Jackson Gay is to be commended on how seamlessly this show runs, and for having the guts and heart to direct this play on the big stage, with great help from a set both spacious and cluttered by Antje Ellerman, effective but unobtrusive lighting cues by Paul Whitaker, with music by Broken Chord and, no doubt, very vital stage managing by Rob Chikar and Kelly Hardy.

There’s much to think about here in terms of how we portray children, protect and neglect children, and project ourselves onto (and back to) children, as well as how children grow into the world as they find it. A fascinating evening of theater.


Make Believe
By Bess Wohl
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Original Music & Sound Design: Broken Chord; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast: Megan Byrne, Chris Ghaffari, Brad Heberlee, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone, Molly Ward, Sloane Wolfe

Hartford Stage
September 6-30, 2018



Peter Pan's Origin Story

Review of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park

Ever wonder how Peter Pan became Peter Pan? If yes, then Peter and the Starcatcher, the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Peason and the play adapted from it by Rick Elice, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Sean Harris, will be just the ticket. Its conceit is that we’re watching a telling of the story much as children might perform it, with whatever materials come to hand—toy ships, and crates, and bits of rope to outline a ship’s hull. This lends the story a very busy immediacy, charming if a bit belabored.

The telling is worth more than the tale, in many ways, because the twists and turns often seem motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep the episodic story going. That’s particularly true in the setup featuring twin crates on two different ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, that are simply elaborate MacGuffins more or less (one of the crates contains either treasure or stardust, the other sand). Eventually, everyone is off the ships and getting washed up on the shore of an island where magical things begin to happen.

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

In the Playhouse on Park production the lively tone, needed for all that exposition, gets bogged-down in the telling. It’s the sort of play that requires very good diction because most of the dialogue is silly, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get much. Silliness is the play’s strength, but here it seems to take a backseat to a certain earnestness that gets in the way.

One could imagine the play done with actual children so as to maintain the childishness the story thrives on—with farts and bad puns and wry slippages (“dyke” for “deck,” for instance). Here, only Natalie Sannes as an indomitable Molly (the girl who becomes a chum to Boy with No Name (Jared Starkey) who will become Peter Pan) fully maintains the requisite sense of make believe, like a child on a playground. If she were, it’s likely she’d be a bit nonplussed that her playmates haven’t her concentration. She’s a delight throughout, acting with an innocent single-mindedness that dissipates for most people around age ten. As Boy, Jared Starkey seems a bit wishywashy in the early going, but grows into the part well, as Peter should. He’s on a learning curve to become a hero, with Molly’s good will making that happen.

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Able support in the large cast comes from Bill Daniels as Slank (one of the ship’s captains) who gets a very funny tragic moment in Act 1, and from Elena V. Levenson as Fighting Prawn, the outrageously Italian “native” king of a tropical island (all the actors play ensemble parts as well and Levenson is particularly busy). Colleen Welsh is better as a Scottish mermaid than she is as the Cockney Mrs. Brumbake, whose always alliterative pronouncements should be clearer and quicker.

As second-in-command to the dastardly villain (we’re getting there), Miss Sandra Mhlongo is a Smee who seems quite at home in the absurdity, and times well her corrections of the boss’s verbal errors. As her master Black Stache, Matthew Quinn gets to chew more scenery than does that fearsome crocodile made of planks. Quinn has assayed the part of Hook in more than one incarnation and he seems to the manner born in his fey and flighty bonhomie and casual malapropisms. One way to know it’s an adventure story is that the villain will be the best part, and that’s certainly true here.

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

The songs, by Wayne Barker, are mostly little ditties that crop up within the narrative, though “Swim On” has the rousing quality necessary for an Act 1 closer. “Mermaid Outta Me,” the Act 2 opener, is even better, abetted by Kate Bunce’s fanciful costumes, and a highpoint of the show, though not much related to the plot.

And that’s pretty much the way of the show—lots of exposition, random action (not all of it necessary, one feels), deliberately bad jokes that don’t always land in all the busyness, halfhearted songs with a few showstoppers, and here and there, something that’s bound to tickle your fancy (at the show I saw, one audience member had an extended laugh at the sight of Alf (James Fairchild) transformed into a mermaid). The staging is quite imaginative, in its own right, and that helps, but, for the sake of the plot, there’s a lot of eager loose-ends-tying at the close simply to make the legend of Peter Pan take shape as it must.

This Peter and the Starcatcher is catch-as-catch-can.


Peter and the Starcatcher
A play by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Sean Harris

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Lighting Designer: Joe Beumer; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Judi Manfre; Musical Arrangements: Melanie Guerin and Sean Rubin

Cast: Brianna Bagley, Thomas Daniels, James Fairchild, Elena V. Levenson, Miss Sandra Mhlongo, James Patrick Nelson, Nick Palazzo, Matthew Quinn, Nicholas Dana Rylands, Natalie Sannes, Jared Starkey, Colleen Welsh


Playhouse on Park
September 12-October 14, 2018

Blood Will Have Blood

Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret


The Yale Cabaret is back, opening its 51st season with The Purple Flower, a powerful and fairly obscure work by Marita Bonner. Bonner, an African American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though based in Chicago, published the play in W.E.B. DuBois’ Crisis magazine in 1928. It was given readings but no full production in her lifetime. Its themes, unfortunately, are still timely 90 years later.

At the Cabaret, the show’s proposer Mika H. Eubanks, director Aneesha Kudtarkar, and a talented team, many of them Cabaret associates this year, have devised a unique presentation of the play. Bonner’s script allows for over a dozen parts, but the Cabaret does it all with two mercurial actors, Ciara Monique McMillian (as the male characters of “the US’s”) and Adrienne Wells (as the female characters of “the US’s”). The brief non-speaking roles of “Sundry White Devil” are played, with masks and foppish manners and duds complete with tails, by Devin White and Patrick Young.

The text lends itself well to this streamlined approach, giving us a poetic play, amorphous in its characterizations. The action shows a collective of dark-skinned US’s pitting themselves against sundry white devils. The white devils hold the hilltop where the purple flower can be found. Their main intention is to keep the US’s from having access to it. Set on long planks surrounded by the detritus of what the text calls “the thin skin of civilization,” the play occurs in a mythic time that is both current and ancient (as is racism itself).

The play’s dialogue renders, at times almost telegraphically, the various views of the situation among the US’s. Some, like a lazy male who can’t be bothered, assume that sooner or later the situation will change; others, like an old woman who has slaved away for decades in hopes of improving her station, are becoming embittered. The tenor of the piece is to suggest—with a kind of light satire—the state of the US’s as they fool themselves into thinking that education (a bag of books) or wealth (a bag of gold) will gain them acceptance by the white devils. Bonner cannily alludes to the disappointments of such strategies, pointing, in the end, toward a more direct confrontation.

Describing the plot schematically is to rob the play of much of its poetry. Bonner’s text works like a parable. The language makes use of the prophetic mode found in the Bible and in works that derive from its sense of mysteries and portents. Much of the fascination is in trying to grasp the world portrayed and to see the world we know through its eyes.

The relation of one US to another is conveyed through dialogue, action, and movement, and McMillan and Wells are tellingly effective in rendering the different voices and mannerisms within the community. “Average,” for instance, a middle-aged, middle-class male, is brought to life by McMillian with a hat, a stoop, and a kind of laissez-faire patriarchy that’s all in the voice and body language. Sweet and Finest Blood represent the generation that may finally unseat the white devils. Sweet is girlish and lively, until molested by a white devil hiding in the bushes; her brother Finest Blood wants to avenge her honor.

An Old Woman, saying “it’s time!,” mixes, in a hard-iron pot, a handful of dust, the books, the gold, and, finally, blood, to produce “the New Man.” The refrain, “blood has been taken, blood must be given,” suggests one or both of two things: a mixing of blood—as in mating and intermarriage—or a shedding of blood, as in a fight to the finish. Finest Blood, as a figure associated deliberately with Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was called upon to sacrifice him in Genesis, might seem a possible victim, but he also emerges as a David against a Goliath, or a Christ before the Romans. The blood that must be given, in our day, might sound like a call for reparation of some kind for the social and political crimes committed against African Americans.

Bonner’s text is rich with the aesthetic tendency—a common practice among vanguard artists of the 1920s—to find new meaning in old myths and political significance in religious imagery. The play’s ultimate meaning, as with any parable, is ambiguous, but the show’s skillful presentation here makes for a thought-provoking and fascinating kick-off for the new season.


The Purple Flower
By Marita Bonner
Conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young


Yale Cabaret
September 14-15, 2018

Action Kafka

Review of The Understudy, Westport Country Playhouse

Once again, Westport’s co-artistic director David Kennedy has found a notable play to direct. Theresa Rebeck’s multivalent comedy The Understudy has entertaining fun with theater, show-biz, romantic comedy, and Kafka. Kennedy’s direction weaves together the various levels of the play’s action in a very engaging way, keeping before us the play’s main contention: theater is the existential art par excellence.

The play opens with a bang, literally, as Harry (Eric Bryant), the titular character, storms into the theater shooting off a prop gun, threatening the audience to turn off their damn cell phones (with good reason: let’s compare most egregious cell phone disruption at a play). Harry, as he proceeds to tell us, is a respectable actor who has taken on the role of understudy in a theatrical version of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which—in the play’s fiction—is playing on Broadway. The Kafka play stars a Hollywood action hero known only as “Bruce” whose “quote” for a film is upwards of $22 million. We never see him.

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

The other actor in the show, who will have to go on for Bruce if he should be absent for some reason, is Jake (Brett Dalton), an up-and-coming (he hopes) film actor, far below Bruce in pecking order, but far above Harry. As it’s explained at one point, in Shakespearean terms, Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry is seventh spear carrier. Harry, in fact, missed getting a small part in the disaster film that Jake is currently starring in. Its breakaway line—“Get in the truck!”—gets a lot of comic mileage.

Harry will understudy Jake, so that if Jake has to take Bruce’s part—which is a multi-character role, basically every character but the protagonist—Harry will take Jake’s. Helping along this percolating male rivalry, and at times aghast at it, is Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), the beleaguered Stage Manager. She’s very good at her job, but her emotions get involved because—the romantic comedy aspect—she and Harry have history. He jilted her.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

That romantic subplot gives considerable status to Roxanne and lets Syglowski run away with a number of scenes. She’s very good at playing sarcasm, emotional explosion, and self-conscious irritation, all in the same speech. The romantic comedy elements work into the actors’ one-upmanship quite well, particularly with the staging of kiss before or after slap.

Roxanne’s distress is what makes real-life messiness impinge on the make-believe of the theater and the “can you believe it” of show biz. The earning ability of pointless, barely entertaining movies, and the money and power of those who star in them, is the source of Harry’s bitterness, and Bryant is generally entertaining in putting across Harry’s realization that, in terms of the star system, he’s wasting his life and his talent and is a nothing. His failure with Roxanne shows that he’s not even very good at starring in his own life. Cue Kafka.

Kafka is a dead writer with considerable hipster cred—virtually unknown and mostly unpublished in his lifetime, he’s now a household word (well, in literate households), his name synonymous with a state of modern anomie in which the experience of living is a kind of purgatory of dread and uncertainty, marked by the creeping suspicion that all decisions and actions—and the success or failure they entail—are arbitrary in an arbitrary world. For some must understudy whilst some must star, and so runs the world away.

One of the play’s easy jokes is that a three-hour play derived from Kafka would be a hit on Broadway if only an actor with Bruce’s instant recognizability would take part. We may be reminded of unlikely hits in which a similar casting coup carried the day, and that’s the point. Very capable actors find themselves earning “real money” as minor characters in Law and Order, while big name actors can make or break plays beyond their skill set.

Which puts the focus on Jake. Assumed to be an unintelligent, talentless success by Harry, Dalton’s Jake is an acting enthusiast as only a fan boy can be. He speaks of Kafka with the kind of relentless admiration generally reserved for Dr. Who or Star Trek. He makes the telling point that the $2 million he received for the disaster epic “doesn’t go very far,” when you consider how much money has to be shelled out to keep his circus running. Theater is always precarious, but perhaps more precarious is remaining “A-list”—even more precarious is trying to break into that world, as Jake hopes to do.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

At Westport, a key comic element works well. Up in the booth is Laura, Roxanne's assistant, seemingly a stoner who misses cues, won’t take direction, and switches scenery unasked. She’s a kind of demented god in the machine, cueing the Kafka play’s sets and making The Castle—our play is supposedly a run-through rehearsal—pursue its arc, from bar-room to trial room to prison cell, letting each change contribute to the exchanges among the trio. The changes let us know not only where we are in the shambles of a rehearsal but also where we are in terms of The Understudy’s own arc. One of the underlying perks of The Understudy is that any given production gets to determine how a “Broadway play of The Castle” might look and sound. Andrew Boyce’s scenic designs, complete with Disneyesque castle backdrop, Matthew Richards’ lighting design, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, with Kennedy’s direction, almost make us wish the play were real. The delightful “old soft shoe” in the conclusion is a suitably existentialist gesture, as in Kafka meets Chaplin.

Not everything in the script is as sharp as it could be. The use of fortuitous exits and of the oft-stated and just as oft forgotten fact that everything said on the stage can be heard throughout the building at times forces action or revelation in highly scripted ways. But even that is not without charm, since Rebeck’s working conceit is that life has its “cues” and its “reveals” in ways that seem to be part of a play. The Kafkaesque sense that our lives may be rehearsals for a part we never get to play (see “Before the Law”) underscores The Understudy with understated irony. Life is so unfunny all we can do is laugh at it. Amusing theater helps.


The Understudy
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Maiko Matsushima; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Choreographer: Noah Racey; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy

Cast: Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski

Westport Country Playhouse
August 14-September 1, 2018


A Satanic Sock-Puppet

Review of Hand to God, TheaterWorks

A hand-puppet goes rogue with hilariously scary results in Robert Askins’ Hand to God, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Tracy Brigden. Brigden directed the show at City Theatre in Pittsburgh and several veterans of that cast are in the production at TheaterWorks, which features a gripping intimacy that fully exploits the play’s foul-mouthed charm.

Key to the production’s success is Nick LaMedica’s simply stupendous turn as Jason, the bashful and depressed son of a Sunday school teacher, Margery, who is trying to put together a hand-puppet performance among her charges, and as Tyrone, the hand-puppet with a mind and voice of its own that takes over the play like a male monster of the Id. At first, Tyrone, like a ventriloquist’s dummy with the dirt on its master, is simply a bit too forthright in expressing what Jason would rather not say, then, after Jason fails to destroy him, he sprouts fangs and turns Jason into his aghast appendage.

Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

As Margery, Lisa Velten Smith is also perfectly cast, with a surprising mix of religious fervor, impatient mothering, and volcanic passions. Her husband, Jason’s father, has died recently and the loosely-structured plot uses that event as a way of explaining the wild mood swings of his surviving family. Both mother and son are seemingly schizophrenic in veering between their normal, mealy-mouthed personae and the extremes of their out-of-control acting up. It may be a bit too-too to have mother and son both fly off into surprising behavior—on paper—but on stage it works because the manic version of Margery, and Tyrone, as the vicious version of Jason, are so much fun.

Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

And the rest of the cast is not just a bunch of straight-persons to these hyperbolic hi-jinx. As Jessica, Maggie Carr is a great comic asset, playing a mostly imperturbable teen whose lending a hand-puppet in an explicit seduction scene with Tyrone is one of Act Two’s high-points. Miles G. Jackson plays Timmy as a tough kid with feet of clay, or maybe just a confused teen with the mercurial nature that implies. He’s got a crush on Margery, resents Jason, and sneers at everything, that is until Tyrone shows his bite is as good as his bark. And as Pastor Greg, Peter Benson’s musing tone keeps the unctuous platitudes of the local religious leader from being a mere cliché. He’s got his eye on Margery too and his effort at seduction, for all that it tries to pose as anodyne and uplifting, is blandly creepy in the era of #MeToo.

Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

There is much bad behavior flying past quickly onstage, and Tyrone, who speaks with the kind of expletive-ridden, verbal crassness that seems de rigueur in the era of our uncouth president, comes across as a mad-as-hell rebel. As with puppets used in therapy to help patients act out aggression and mimic traumatic events, Tyrone, in the scheme of the play, can be seen as a kind of desperate therapy, not only for the mourning, anger, and suppressed urges of Jason and Margery, but for a culture in which politeness masks all kinds of unpleasant truths. The play is set in Texas, and its author, a Texan, knows whereof he speaks in showing how the typical locutions of the milquetoast version of Jesus’s love can drive almost anyone to distraction.

Luke Cantarella’s scenic design is nimble in presenting the different spaces of the show—the classroom, Jason’s bedroom, Pastor Greg’s office—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, as ever, is a godsend. Fight Choreography by Robert Westley deserves plaudits as well as this is a very physical show in a fairly small space, and the puppet design by Stephanie Shaw provides props able to seem as real as their handlers.

Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Askins’ target here is “the devil” as an explanatory concept for whatever is deemed heinous, inappropriate, or foul-minded in human nature. The opening and closing homilies by Tyrone, in his good and bad incarnations respectively, are simple-minded gestures toward what could be called social context. It’s not that we expect a puppet to be profound, but might wonder why the author deems it necessary to make the puppets his mouthpiece. Within the story, Tyrone’s malevolent force and Margery’s erotic urges are made to seem coping mechanisms and needn’t be considered the result of demonic possession. And yet, Askins is asking why we need both an ultimate good—Jesus—and an ultimate evil—Satan—to convince us we’re not so bad.

While some might be shocked by the behavior and/or the language of the play, there’s a rather contemporary sense in which the play—first produced Off Broadway in 2011—lets “locker-room talk” become part of classroom talk, and treats the pornographic imagination as matter-of-fact. The play may aim to exorcise our demons, in a sense, though it plays more like a Feast of Fools pageant where free license actually supports social cohesion. Hence the show’s popularity.


Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Directed by Tracy Brigden

Scenic Design/Projections: Luke Cantarella; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Elizabeth Atkinson; Puppet Design: Stephanie Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Robert Westley; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Peter Benson, Maggie Carr, Miles G. Jackson, Nick LaMedica, Lisa Velten Smith

July 20-August 26, 2018

Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.


A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

Superstar of Sorrows

Review of Jesus Christ Superstar, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Certainly, there is genius in the notion of Jesus Christ as a “superstar.” The venerable rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dates from a time when the adulation surrounding rock stars could combine with counter-cultural possibilities to suggest a populist savior (think John Lennon and the “bed-in for peace”). Jesus, as a counter-cultural force both within the Roman empire and within the orthodoxy of Judaism, seems tailor-made to fit the bill.

All that was needed was to concoct a musical that combined both aspects of Jesus’s appeal—the religious and the political—with the energies of the youth of the day. Rice and Webber’s rock opera presents the main details of the Passion Play while also stressing the tensions without and within. As Jesus leads his hand-picked troupe of apostles into Jerusalem, the authorities grow concerned at the size of the mob following him, and Judas, one of the disciples, grows worried that “Jesus can’t control it like he did before.”

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

In Terrence Mann’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the trappings of a hippie theatrical troupe—put on the screen so indelibly by Norman Jewison in the 1973 film version—stress the youth of the followers, and with half the apostles male and half female, this Jesus leads a co-ed apostolate. The way in which youth and high spirits and community will be ground down by religious authorities and Roman potentates, while the fall of the Jesus cult will be seized on by media spoke to the times of the original Superstar, and Mann’s version—with vivid staging and design—brings all that back. (I saw a later Broadway production, way back in 1973, and the film, from which Mann borrows a few key touches, many times over the years.)

So what’s new in this classic tale? The element that struck me most forcefully is how overwhelmed Jesus is by the forces he has put into play. The part, as written, doesn’t give him much to say after his great soliloquy (or colloquy with God) in “Gethsemane,” and that song, in Alex Prakken’s rendering, is confrontational and brittle. Jesus, in the authors’ view, is anything but a “lamb of God.” He chides his followers (“why are you obsessed with fighting—stick to fishing from now on”), provokes Judas (“save me your speeches I don’t want to know”), and throws Pontius Pilate’s own words back at him. Prakken delivers accordingly. This is a Jesus who might be easily conceived as the rabble-rouser the high priests Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby) and Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt) fear he is. Jesus’s high-pitched screech at the clinging, needy sufferers who hound him—“Heal yourselves!”—is anything but compassionate.

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

The notion that the musical should show us a human Jesus is well-taken, but nowhere at CT Rep do we see a hero who rises above his suffering. The part of Judas is generally seen, rightly, as the main role, one driven by both a complicated love of Jesus as well as a belief in how best to serve the collective purpose. Ryan Vona gives Judas a canny, second-lieutenant look, and makes him the figure here who is actually betrayed. His cries in extremis leading up to his death in despair are suitably tortured. The rave-up of the song “Superstar”—as it always does—comes as the questioning of Jesus by the show’s authors, its words put in Judas’ mouth. “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” Then comes the gripping answer. Jesus, whether “misguided martyr” (as Pilate says) or not, sacrifices himself.

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

In this production the crucifixion is strikingly executed, putting stress on the fact that there’s only one possible outcome. Having to enact Jesus’s death is harrowing and that means, as a musical, the ending is bound to feel bitter. Along the way, the more typically heart-tugging moments come from Sasha Renae Brown’s soulful Mary Magdalene, singing the popular hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the requisite passion surging up in the midst of bewilderment. The bewilderment becomes even more eloquent in her duet with Peter (Will Bryant), “Could We Start Again, Please?”, delivered after Jesus has been taken away without a fight. As Pilate, Jonathan Cobrda lords it up well, and plays to our sympathies as a man who hoped to avoid this particular date with destiny. The iron sense that, as Jesus says late in the play, “everything is fixed and you can’t change it,” plays out badly for the humans involved. Jesus, in his immortal guise, lets things take their course.

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

The dance numbers—especially “Simon Zealotes” (with Simon Longnight as Simon)—and the forming of tableaux, such as a Da Vinci-esque Last Supper and a Pieta-like moment between Jesus and Mary, are where the power of this production lies. The big show-biz number—“King Herod’s Song”—is camped up amusingly by Griffin Binnicker, perfect as Herod, backed by a colorful ensemble. In general the ensemble, often in the aisles, makes the “50,000” feel palpable, and enacts all the joy to be found here.

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

And, of course, there’s the score—which makes guitar riffs feel “operatic” and, in the hands of a capable band, streamlined enough for “classic rock” status. I particularly liked having guitarist Thomas Bora come onstage at the opening to lead off the “Overture” with the needling guitar figure from “Heaven on Their Minds.” Elsewhere, some nice choral effects from the ensemble caught my ear, and Ryan Vona impressed me with his vocal ability to give new readings to familiar lyrics.

Prophet, messiah, confused leader, patsy to his Dad’s plans for the firm, Jesus is a superstar grown truculent with his management and tired of having to play the same role all the time, trying, in the early going, to keep his fans on course (“you’ll be lost, you’ll be sorry, when I’m gone”), and then throwing in the towel. Have no fear, the “cult” went on and became its own authority, though, given the events of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s not surprising its hero has—to date—not returned.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Terrence Mann

Music Director/Conductor: Bryan McAdams; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Scenic Designer: Tim Brown; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Technical Director: John Parmelee

Cast: Alex Prakken, Ryan Vona, Jonathan Cobrda, Griffin Binnicker, Sasha Renae Brown, Will Bryant, Tyler Grigsby, Simon Longnight, Bryan Mittelstadt, Jamie Colburn, Madeline Dunn, Shaylen Harger, Annelise Henry, Michael Katz, Nick Nudler, Jovick Pavajeau-Orostegui, Hayden Elizabeth Price, Paige Smith, Alessandro Viviano

Orchestra: Bryan McAdams, conductor, keyboard 1; Thomas Bora, guitar; Daniel Gonko, drums; Seth Lisle, bass; David Parsons, trumpet; Philip Plott, reed; Katya Stanislavskaya, keyboard 2

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2018 Nutmeg Summer Series
July 12-22, 2018


Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.


In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Once Upon a Time in the West

Review of Flyin’ West, Westport Country Playhouse

A Western set in the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, a settlement established by African Americans after the Civil War, finds its way toward a non-white version of Americana, or the tales we like to tell ourselves about the pluck and determination of our settler forebears. Here, the cast is entirely “colored” (as they would have been identified at the time) with at least one able to “pass,” or live as if a white person. All of which means that Pearl Cleage’s engaging Flyin’ West, at Westport County Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott, dramatizes a saga often overlooked in the many stories of immigrant populations finding their little slice of the American dream: how the first free generation descending from slave ancestors heard and heeded the call to “go west.” And how that story is as much a part of the sustaining myth of the Great Plains as any, or should be. Flyin’ West helps to make that case.

Seret Scott, who directed the much more intense and disturbing Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre last fall, shows her grasp of the comedy, the heartache, the trials and tribulations of a sort of “three sisters” of the Prairie. Cleage’s script exults in the kind of melodramatic turns that make stories of family and community bonding so near and dear to the hearts of so many. Here, the story isn’t about pining after glory days in a grand place, but rather the value of holding onto what one has and seeing its worth.

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

A great asset of the production is Brenda Pressley as Miss Leah, a local matriarch who enters Majorie Bradley Kellogg’s handsomely rustic set fully in possession, not only of the setting but of her sense of her own dignity. The latter may need to be asserted against the bossy determination of Sophia Washington (Nikiya Mathis), the eldest of the three young women who grew up in the house, and the one most familiar with Miss Leah’s attitudes. The play’s opening features a wry but loving joust between these two strong-willed women, set in their ways.

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

The other two sisters are the fresh-faced and docile Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), whom local handyman Wil Parish (Edward O’Blenis) is sweet on, and married Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) who returns to the homestead shortly before her twenty-first birthday with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), a poet with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the Midwest in general and Nicodemus in particular. It all might devolve into a case of country mouse vs. city mouse but for the fact that there’s a bit more at stake. The town of Nicodemus is comprised entirely of African Americans and Sophie, more than the rest, sees how important it is that the folks of the town stick together and not sell off its land in parcels to land speculators and white folks with money. Times are changing in Nicodemus, as it moves from a town all but forgotten to one that might be of value to land-grabbers looking to expand.

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The story of how the West was won, and bought and sold, is familiar terrain, perhaps, but rarely is it given a racial dimension. Here, the abolitionist tradition of Kansas helps to create a world, in the play, where these characters can shape their own destinies, even under patriarchy. For that’s the other threat here, which is even more immediate than white folks nosing around for a sweet piece of land on the cheap. The villain of the piece is that high-and-mighty Mr. Charles, able to pass for white and able to treat his own wife as his menial. What’s more, he has a violent temper, and is looking to make it big any way he can.

The main tension centers on how Frank Charles’ intentions will be dealt with or met by the women of the place. Wil Parish is quick to assert his own courteous attitudes toward the womenfolk and that’s all to the good, but not even his willingness to deal with Frank, man-to-man, can carry the day. This is a situation for the women to handle for themselves, and gun-toting Sophie isn’t shy about what it might take to scare Frank off or change his tune. Miss Leah has another plan, and it leads to the play’s high-point, a monologue of action and speech, perfectly timed and vastly entertaining, inciting what might be called a somewhat macabre belly-laugh. Brenda Pressley commands the stage and what befalls follows from Miss Leah’s command of certain secrets she learned back on the plantation. Another rousing speech delivered by Pressley tells of how she lost all her sons to slavery and how she herself made it to freedom. The history behind the story is more dramatic than much of what is on stage, but there are many sharp stabs in the dialogue, and, in the action, a telling recognition of how often justice, on the American frontier, was a case of who had the upper-hand. Thank God things are so much better now!

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The set, with its indoors and outdoors fully viewable, perfectly suited to the action, and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Fred Kennedy, add greatly to the show’s realism, as do costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson that show off the different self-conceptions of the sisters and Frank’s near-dandified air, which includes credit to J. Jared Janas’ work on hair. Some impromptu songs let us share in the familiarity of these women with one another, though the song choices might be the same if meant as a parody of homespun cliché.

A familiar sort of story with a familiar sort of family dynamic, with an added treatment of a threat reminiscent of The Beguiled, adds up to a story with prickly sort of uplift.


Flyin’ West
By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Heidi Leigh Hanson; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Wig, Hair and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Brittany Bradford, Michael Chenevert, Nikiya Mathis, Edward O’Blenis, Brenda Pressley, Keona Welch

Westport Country Playhouse
May 29-June 16, 2018

Consider the Aloes of the Veld

Review of A Lesson from Aloes, Hartford Stage

Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes is a taut, fraught drama about weathering the storms of marriage and friendship as well as the storms of terrible social and political conditions. In other words, it might have a lot to say to us now, much as it did in the early 1980s when Fugard finally finished and produced a play he’d begun in the early 1960s. The original context for the play was a bus boycott by anti-apartheid workers and the massacres of protesters by police in South Africa, where the play is set. When the play was first produced, the fate of Stephen Biko created an immediate relevance, and it’s interesting to see how a play intended to intervene in its contemporaneous situation plays out half a world away and almost forty years later.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directed by Darko Tresjnak with a firm grasp of how to pace this play and make the most of its tensions, A Lesson from Aloes presents Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), a white couple attempting to talk normally while waiting for invited dinner guests. He’s of Dutch descent, she’s of British colonial stock. Steven, an old comrade of Piet’s from the protest movement, is supposed to call on them with his wife and three children. The discomfort between Piet and Gladys seems to be caused by the need to entertain, but gradually, as we learn more about the situation, we see that Gladys is trying to cope with the aftermath of a police raid in the couple’s home, and that Steve, who is identified under apartheid as “colored,” has recently been released from prison for alleged political crimes, and that Piet is under some suspicion for what part he may have played in the arrest.

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Randall Newsome, is a thoughtful man who likes to quote great British writers in his Afrikaners’ accent, and who has become obsessed with cultivating and cataloguing his collection of aloe plants. The plants, in their spiny oddity, line the rim of the stage, an outdoor deck on the couple’s home, and stand as metaphors for having the knack of flourishing and flowering in the harsh veld. How does one survive in a devastated environment? By a kind of steady osmosis of what nourishment can be found, Piet seems to think. The plants oppress and disturb Gladys, a sign of her vulnerability even before we know her story.

There’s a brooding power to the play’s first act, where every statement becomes a difficult negotiation with the past, as both political and personal affront. Gladys can’t get over the violation of having police agents reading her private diaries and has her doubts about Piet, whose efforts to make nice might be a glib avoidance of guilt. In the second act, when Steve (Ariyon Bakare) finally arrives, the play shifts into a more overtly emotional tone, if only because the social aspects of the visit—Steve and Piet are still affectionate chums—might all be theater to avoid recrimination and defense.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Both Steve and Gladys are given outbursts that go a long way to making their individual trials clear and convincing. As Gladys, Andrus Nichols is a great asset, able to move from withdrawn to confiding to a kind of stringent loathing that encompasses the country she can no longer tolerate, much as she can’t tolerate her husband and herself for remaining. Ariyon Bakare’s Steve arrives jesting, and then warmly takes the couple into his confidences about the problems of packing up and moving—he has decided to go into exile in England rather than live under a ban that refuses him a livelihood in his homeland. With the wine flowing, it’s only a matter of time before the questions lurking under the friendliness begin to surface.

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The choice of this play now is a deft move by Hartford Stage’s artistic director—for one more season—Darko Tresjnak. When Piet, early in the play, voices his unshaken faith that man-made laws can be changed and life can improve, we hear the hope that drives political commitment, a lesson an aloe can’t teach. And when, later in the play, Gladys speaks to her husband of her distress, with barely suppressed rage and despair, Piet sits in his chair, lit a bit like an icon, a figure for “white maleness” in its insular convictions, a kind of weed able to flourish even where it’s not indigenous. We’ve heard from his wife and from his colored comrade, and we see in Piet perhaps Fugard’s own struggle to get his audience beyond that bland acceptance of how things are—because they could always be worse—that we might as well call “privilege.” Or is it simply a mask to mimic the imperturbability of the aloe?

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Shaw’s sound design plays subtly with natural sounds and subdued percussion, while Matthew Richard’s flawless lighting design incorporates candlelight and atmospheric silhouetting. The set by Tim Mackabee has a rough-hewn beauty that looks, like it should, as an attempt to maintain familiar comforts in a wilderness where the harsh environment is matched by harsh policies.

Sharply written, well-acted, handsomely mounted, and tellingly presented by its director, A Lesson from Aloes is one of the best productions of the season of Connecticut theater it closes.


A Lesson from Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert

Cast: Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols, Randall Newsome

Hartford Stage
May 17-June 10, 2018

Stoops to Follies

Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre

Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.

Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.

Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.

To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.


The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers

Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld

Goodspeed Musicals
April 13, 2018






Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.


It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018

Recap of Cab 50

Yale Cabaret’s 50th Season, Some Highlights

The 50th Anniversary season of the Yale Cabaret has been and gone. Much thanks to its artistic directors, Josh Wilder and Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, associate artistic director Rory Pelsue, and its managing director Rachel Shuey for a challenging season.

Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Cabaret 50 offered plenty of off-beat fare, in the sense of plays in which the performers stood in a theatrical space between fiction and fact. We might think that Reality TV is having an impact, likewise we might think that the irreality of our current political climate makes fiction, no matter its intentions, seem a bit escapist. So, even the shows this season that were pre-existing plays seemed to take their tone from the tensions of our time, perhaps to an unusual degree.

Or maybe not. The way we—or each member of the audience—experiences what gets done before our eyes onstage takes its tone from our own conflicts, I expect. It seems to me that the Yale School of Drama students making theater in the basement at 217 Park Street in 2017-18 were particularly aware of the conflicts.

Here’s my own individually chosen favorite bits, in thirteen categories, with shows listed in chronological order but for my top choice, the choices in no way reflective of the views of any existing or imagined demographic.

Speaking of pre-existing plays, here are five I’m glad Cab 50 tackled:
Re:Union by Sean Devine (proposed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.): Violent protest of the Vietnam War era and the sins of the fathers, including the bland bureaucrat Robert McNamara, is visited upon the next generation
This Sweet Affliction by Blake Hackler (proposed by Stephanie Machado): Treats comically the scary social effects of vying for attention and acting out
The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg (proposed by Lucie Dawkins): Plays fast and loose with our desire to be the most desired one in the room
Camille, A Tearjerker by Charles Ludlam (proposed by Michael Breslin and Molly FitzMaurice): Finesses a mix of melodrama and comedy in the name of Ridiculous Theater
and . . . Mud by María Irene Fornés (proposed by Danielle Chaves): A harrowing and uncomfortable allegory of how our bodies betray us

In the new play arena, some unusual offerings that lived up to the Cab’s brief of experiment and exploration:
Fuck Her by Genne Murphy: Call it science-fiction burlesque, a tale of a future where procreation by copulation is a status service
the feels… (kms) by Jeremy O. Harris: A script of inspired self-excoriation and abrasive ideas for ending it all
the light is… by Jake Ryan Lozano: A fascinating combination of poetic words and interpretive movements in atmospheric lighting
The Guadalupes by Noah Diaz: A funny, touching, and awkward remembrance play as real as anything onstage can be
and . . . This American Wife by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley: The foley à deux of two gay guys who find the meaning of life in the bad behavior of televised housewives as a way of unmasking/masking themselves

Tech. Where would we be without it? These remarkably talented people do surprising work in a basement. Everyone who undertakes that task earns our gratitude. The samples here are simply those I can most readily call to mind.

Scenic Design:
Ao Li, The Apple Tree: Eden as a clean, white, well-lighted place . . . with a curtain
Sarah Nietfeld, This Sweet Affliction: Uniting the Cab space with several locales to up the intimacy
Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, Mud: Creating a simple but memorably derelict space
Emma Weinstein, Camille: Turning the entire Cab into a boudoir with a stage at the center
And . . . Stephanie Osin Cohen, Ni Mi Madre: A beach, a memory space, a museum, a shrine (and, oh, the colors)

Matthew Malone, The Apple Tree: From the white shorts & white first formal of innocence to the red everyday wardrobe of shame, plus one helluva snake suit
Stephanie Bahniuk, For Your Eyes Only: What the creative sex worker wears depends on the task at hand, with much showing and suggesting
April Hickman, Non-Character Player: Avatars dress for success (with props by Alexander McCargar) to add to the ambiance of the virtual world
Alicia Austin, Camille: Dress-up taken to the extremes of a fantasy-world of fashion, both comic and lovely
And … Beatrice Vena, Fuck Her: A future where clothes make the client and the client chooses the look

Lighting Design:
Krista Smith, with Emma Deane, The Apple Tree: A range of effects for this fanciful musical’s trajectory
Erin Earle Fleming, the feels… (kms): When the action is everywhere, even in the audience
Dakota Stipp, the light is… : The light, and the dark, as expressive elements with subtle cues
Emma Deane, Wolf/Alice: Gothic, moody, fascinating
And … Evan Anderson, One Big Breath: From shadow forms to indoors/outdoors spaces to in your face

Wladimiro A. Woyno R., with Brittany Bland, Re:Union: Many events in the past exist for us as video; in this play, the action of the present took on the “pastness” of video
Erin Sullivan, The Guadalupes: Video here becomes a kind of self-surveillance, in an in-between theatrical space of public/private
Brittany Bland, Sea Witch: Opaque shadow-puppet foregrounds over colorful transparencies to create bewitching visuals
Christopher Evans, Jack Wesson, Non-Character Player: When theater becomes a virtual, digital space, and vice versa
And … Brittany Bland & Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Michael Breslin; Amauto Marston-Firmino, This American Wife: The edited video from the television show provided context, the video within the performance, expressive device

Sound Design:
Megumi Katayama, One Big Breath: Total environmental theater with a varied soundstage
Frederick Kennedy, Re:Union: An interplay of video and live sound, including historical enactments and interpolations
Kathy Ruvuna, Sea Witch: Foley and musical effects, to create a textured aural backdrop in this wordless narrative
Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama, Non-Character Player: What’s a digital video game without sound effects?
And … Liam-Bellman Sharpe, The Ugly One: Live Foley as a performance to the side of the main performance, which included onsite video

Frederick Kennedy, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Mud: Moody background sounds that worked to focus us on the surprising events in Fornés’ world
Michael Costagliola, Hey Secret Service… A brave stand-up, proto-musical revue that considers the vexed relation between our twit(terer) of a president and the cultures of guns and of theater, and trumps its penciveness with wit and humor
Sylvia D’Eramo, Roxy Jia, Wolf/Alice: The singing by D’Eramo was stunning, the use of music atmospheric and eerie
Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Camille: Bellman-Sharpe is the great in-the-wings performer of Cab 50; here, at the piano, he added immeasurably to the play’s effectiveness
And … Jill Brunelle, music director, with Jenny Schmidt and Emily Sorenson; music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, sung by Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison, The Apple Tree: I often say I’m not the target audience for musicals, but when they’re directed by Rory Pelsue I change my tune, and Jill Brunelle is the maestro of musical adaptations for the Cab. Bravo!

Shadi Ghaheri, One Big Breath: The season opened with a memorable dance routine done by shadows with Jakeem Powell stealing the show
Ensemble, This Sweet Affliction: A topflight group of actresses as cheerleaders, strutting their stuff
Jake Ryan Lozano, the light is…: The range of emotions that movement and music inspires finds its focus in the many mute gestures of these mini-dramas of dance
Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria, Camille: An orchestration of movement—duels, dances, entrances/exits—very colorful and busy
And…Yasin (Ya-Ya) Fairley, Commissioned Choreographer, with Alex Vermilion and Chelsea Siren, For Your Eyes Only: Choreography, as dance, is only part of it; Vermilion’s show walked a fine line on the wild side, where every move is part of an elaborate fantasy trying to be reality, or vice versa

Acting takes many forms. One of its forms is a well-executed merging of a range of characters that feels as satisfying as a good band that’s got it together . . . Ensembles:
This Sweet Affliction, Stella Baker, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Courtney Jamison, Rachel Kenney, Stephanie Machado (directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie): A group of girls, plus a few adults, coming apart, coping, not coping in a sharp social satire
the feels… (kms), Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell: A mercurial troupe acting out the different strands of a darkly comic use of theater as coping mechanism
The Ugly One, Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder (directed by Lucie Dawkins): A frenetic collective caught up in the before-and-after benefits of radical surgery
Enter Your Sleep, JJ McGlone, Ciara McMillian (directed by Rachel Shuey): A two-hander that puts a pair of actors through their paces in a series of free-associated character turns
And . . . the light is…, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams: I’m not sure what it was all about but I’d watch this group of actors read from the want-ads; here, they inspired a range of emotions in intricate choreography worked out by the cast and creator Jake Ryan Lozano, with a riveting Cab debut by Williams

Individual performances, because all roles aren’t created equal:

For playing his larger-than-life mother as himself or vice versa: Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre
For being both uncomfortably ugly and commandingly attractive, without benefit of make-up in either case: Patrick Madden in The Ugly One
For a scary yet pitiful version of toxic masculinity: Devin White in Mud
For a dream role as a dying diva in this period life: Michael Breslin in Camille
And … for letting us in and letting (some of) us have it, while working the slippery line between truth and appearance: Patrick Foley in This American Wife

For charming the first man, the serpent, and us (her children): Courtney Jamison in The Apple Tree
For hard truths and hard lessons handed down from the fathers: Louisa Jacobson in Re:Union
For a funny and chilling lesson in what happens when a theater person gets rejected (good thing she was an actress, not a dramaturg): Stephanie Machado in This Sweet Affliction
For a dream role as a mercurial and devious diva: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in Fuck Her
And … for existential truth in its hunger, need, and abject beauty: Danielle Chaves in Mud

Directing, because someone has to be in charge:
Rory Pelsue, The Apple Tree: For a touching and amusing evocation of the pleasures of old-fashioned sexism set to music
Lucie Dawkins, The Ugly One: For finding the tone of absurdist satire for an image-conscious world
Emma Weinstein, The Guadalupes: For showing real life and real death in one life, almost as it happened
Molly FitzMaurice: Camille, A Tearjerker: For unleashing a cross-dressed extravaganza of wild indulgence
And … Patrick Madden, Mud: For rendering one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking plays of the season

And, for overall production (or, simply, the shows I liked best overall):
The Apple Tree, producer Gwyneth Muller, dramaturg Molly FitzMaurice, Stage Manager Abby Gandy: A relentlessly entertaining and tuneful version of how we went from Eden to domesticity to death
This American Wife, producers Melissa Rose & Lucy Bacqué, dramaturgs Ariel Sibert & Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Olivia Plath: Ever-reflective reflection on how we like to imagine ourselves through others
This Sweet Affliction, producer Caitlin Volz, dramaturg Rory Pelsue, stage manager Sarah Thompson: Great fun at the expense of our obsession with belonging to the in-group and becoming more famous than our friends
Camille, A Tearjerker, producer Sophie Siegl-Warren, dramaturg Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Madeline Charne: A multivalent gender study and an entertaining exercise in flamboy/girlant acting
And … Mud, producer Leandro Zaneti, dramaturg Nahuel Telleria, stage manager Olivia Plath: A rich and mysterious play, Old School but undimmed

So, fifty years. Let’s see where they go from here…


The team for Cab 51 will be Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe. There will be no Yale Summer Cabaret for 2018.

Much gratitude to all who took part in Cab 50 and in signature events like the 3rd Satellite Festival and the 5th “Dragaret.”

Yale Cabaret

Hats Make the Woman

Review of Crowns, Long Wharf Theatre

With Regina Taylor’s Crowns, playing through May 13, Long Wharf Theatre shows once again that it’s a great venue for a concert. Crowns has a story but that story is mainly an excuse for many lively numbers, invoking gospel, blues, African folk, and hip hop, some original to the show, some traditional. Each song lets the show’s almost entirely female cast win over the audience. The power of the show is in the singing and it’s wonderful.

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

After her brother was killed by her boyfriend over drugs in the rough Englewood section of Chicago, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who tells us her story in an early dramatic rap number, is sent by her mother to her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), in South Carolina. Each woman in the community imparts to the teen a view of how hats make the woman.

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

It’s not simply a question of fashion, but of the values that sustain the church-going women, making the rules of how to wear hats and how to bring off a certain self-fashioning not only a question of status but also a community expression. People don’t dress up for themselves, after all, it’s for others and that’s the lesson for Yolanda: how to think of others and of herself in finding fulfillment among them.

As Mother Shaw, Shari Addison possesses a voice of such deep feeling, she immediately establishes the bona fides of this collective. She stands for a sense of spiritual heritage that will serve Yolanda in good stead if she gets onboard.

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

There are plenty of comic moments, as the culture of hats creates friction among the ladies, and even a certain exasperation on the part of the preacher (Lawrence Clayton) who hears that women are avoiding church because “they don’t have the wardrobe.” Clayton, who plays all the male roles, enacts Yolanda’s teen brother in a late flashback—it’s a surprising transformation.

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Adapted from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry that portrayed the importance of hats—or “crowns”—in African-American culture, Crowns is rich with a sense of how “a look” and “a sound” combine for theatrical effect. Emilio Sosa’s hats and costumes complement each other well, giving each woman distinctive motifs, supported through songs that tell the tales of their hats.

The distinctions among the ladies as characters can become a little vague, though Stephanie Pope, as Wanda, distinguishes herself as the stickler for rules and lessons. As a vocalist, the stand out is Latice Crawford as Velma, whose show-stopping rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” takes the singing to another level where the passion of faith and showmanship overlap.

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Choreography by Dianne McIntyre, with dance numbers the entire cast takes part in, keeps the show lively. Danielle K. Thomas, as dance captain and the character Mabel, is particularly impressive, while Beckford’s Yolanda, when she becomes moved by the spirit of her mentors, steps out in good measure.

The musicianship of musical director Jaret Landon, on piano, keyboard and guitar, and David Pleasant, as “Drumfolk Riddim Specialist,” is an entertainment in itself. Pleasant looks the hardest working man in New Haven during the show, so busy is he with any number of percussive implements, while Landon switches nimbly among instruments and keeps the score remarkably diverse. They are a great strength of this production.


Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

While the set design is simple, the graceful stairway at the back of the stage is eye-catching, and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s amazing projections, sometimes street scenes, sometimes banners and lyrics, provide a wealth of visual interest and information.

Crowns requires a welcome willingness to follow the songs more than a plot. While Taylor’s script does present a sense of intergenerational difference—thanks in part to Beckford’s wonderfully expressive Yolanda—the key note is one of communal identity. The young girl learns to drop the high hat and to get in vogue with the high hats these ladies sport.

If there’s a better show around town for Mother’s Day, I can’t imagine what it might be.

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)


Written and directed by Regina Taylor
Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

Choreographer: Dianne McIntyre
Music Director: Jaret Landon
Original Compositions: Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, Chesney Snow
Arrangements: Diedre Murray

Set Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Bradley King; Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova; Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Lawrence Clayton, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas

Dance Captain: Danielle K. Thomas

Musicians: Jaret Landon, piano, keyboard, guitar; David Pleasant, drumfolk riddim specialist

Long Wharf Theatre
April 18-May 13, 2018

The Second Time as Farce

Review of Camille, a Tearjerker, Yale Cabaret

In Hollywood terms, a “tearjerker” is a film in which, generally, the heroine dies, often suffering from what Mad magazine called “old movie disease,” a condition that allows heroines to die looking better than they ever have, transfigured by their love and the love that the grieving display.

Sentimental? Mawkish? Clichéd? Yes, but that’s the very thing that attracted the late playwright/actor Charles Ludlam, the performer behind Camille, a Tearjerker, a flagrantly over-the-top adaptation—or “travesty”—of La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, a novel Dumas adapted into a play, which, in English, became Camille, and as an opera by Verdi, La Traviata. Onstage the central character, Marguerite Gautier, was played by many of the greats—Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Tallulah Bankhead—and, in George Cukor’s film, by Greta Garbo.

The heroine, a pampered courtesan, juggles the love of a Baron and of a bourgeois young man, Armand Duval. She’s willing to let the money of the first help her finance her romance with the second. Eventually, due to the entreaties of Armand’s father, she sacrifices her love for Armand in that grand gesture evoked in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (which copped most of its plot and operatic manner from this tale) as, “hurt him to save him.” In the end, of course, Armand realizes the depths of her sacrifice at the very moment when “old movie disease,” or consumption (its equivalent in nineteenth-century novels), carries Marguerite away in a rapture of lovely death.

Ludlam, the reigning genius behind “Ridiculous Theater,” a creation of the 1970s, treats this story, in which he played Marguerite, to several insights. One: audiences love both to laugh and to cry, and if they can do both at once, they become nearly ecstatic. Two: the aesthetic of gay theater has much to do with walking the fine line between bathos and eros. Typically, in straight theater, a guy in a dress is the height of laughable; in gay or drag theater, a man who acts out as a woman stands for a kind of longing that might be sad, might be a turn-on, might be amusingly self-aware. Ludlam let it all in, and that supplies the energy behind the version of Camille at Yale Cabaret, directed by Molly FitzMaurice, and starring Michael Breslin, both second-year dramaturgs at the Yale School of Drama.

Emma Weinstein’s fascinating set design includes the entire Cabaret space, making us intimates of Marguerite Gautier’s boudoir. On the piano, Liam Bellman-Sharpe performs a soundtrack that might accompany a silent movie, creating all kinds of mood and support, as well as dramatic comment when Breslin or Devin White, as the Baron De Varville, mime playing.

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)


Alicia Austin’s costumes too are key to the effect, from Marguerite’s great meringue of a dress, coupled with Bo-Peep curls, to the tall chapeau atop the tête of Prudence Duvernoy (Rory Pelsue) that threatens to scrape the overhead lights with each entrance onto the central raised stage. The action is entirely in the round (or in the rectangular), and that means the blocking is itself an expressive device. We look on from our respective vantages as a gaggle of characters flounce on and off, with the majority of the roles played by men dressed as women and women dressed as men. It goes on a little overlong, but everyone is having so much fun it’s like being a guest at a wedding of someone close—even if you’re a little bored, you can’t look away.

Arturo Soria’s Armand Duval, ostensibly a Frenchman, is a hilariously smitten young man who spouts Spanish and adopts poses typically associated with ‘the Latin lover.’ Meanwhile, Emma Weinstein plays Duval père as a fussy Brit. Nahuel Telleria’s Nanine, Marguerite’s ever-attentive attendant, keeps a tongue firmly in cheek and dotes well. In supporting roles, Catherine María Rodríguez as Gaston Roué and Patrick Young as Olympe de Taverne chew scenery while swaggering or mincing, as appropriate. Caitlin Cromblehome does catty demure as Nichette Fondue and Devin White’s Baron is quite convincing in the role of the Byronic nobleman eager to walk on the wild side. The challenge of a duel between the Baron and Armand is a hilarious joust of spouting saliva. Then there’s Pelsue’s Prudence, a walking travesty of camp, which is no easy thing to be. Her voice seems at times a Bronx transplant, and her manner that of a runner-up belle of the ball, capricious, carping, and, when she comes begging late in the play, full of cupidity.

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

The star, ever ready for her DeMille close-up, is Breslin’s Marguerite, Dumas’ heroine by way of Hollywood and Tennessee Williams, clowning while entirely caught up. The pathos—and there is plenty beneath the extravagant comedy—is that of a woman who lives entirely by her wits and her charms. That’s an essential skill for a life in the demimonde, of course, but also for the stage. In the nineteenth century, those realms were interchangeable; in the twentieth, après Stonewall and Warhol, la demimondaine, c’est la reine. In our transgender era, the camp aspects of drag give way to a both/and aesthetic that puts Breslin’s performance beyond mere mimicry or travesty. Which is what Ludlam was aiming for, a kind of theater that you never believe for a minute—as a facsimile of “real life”—but which holds any fantasy’s artifice to the fire.

Once upon a time, they wept for Marguerite’s sacrifice, her story both a cautionary tale and a heroic embrace of the way that so few would dare live—for love alone. From the verge of such a plunge, audiences returned to their drawing-rooms still flushed from such an exposure. In Ludlam’s Camille, the jest is a glimpse of a world where the absurd and the sublime are two sides of the same coin, like butch and femme, and all the world’s a stage.


Camille, A Tearjerker
A Travesty on La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice
Starring Michael Breslin

Producer: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Sound Design & Original Music: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Design: Emma Weinstein; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Lighting Design: Emma Deane; Production Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Madeline Charne; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria; Choreography: Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria; Makeup Artists: Ashley Holvick, Catherine María Rodríguez; Videography: Amauta Marston Firmino

Cast: Michael Breslin, Caitlin Crombleholme, Rory Pelsue, Catherine María Rodríguez, Rachel Shuey, Arturo Soria, Nahuel Telleria, Emma Weinstein, Devin White, Yaro Yarashevich, Patrick Young

Yale Cabaret
April 26-28, 2018

The Folks at Home

Review of Fun Home, Music Theater of Connecticut

In its Connecticut premiere, directed by Kevin Connors, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home, which was staged in a thrust space at Circle in the Square on Broadway, finds a home in the intimate thrust space at MTC. The show, which includes several children in its cast and fits the band into the back of the playing space, feels very much at home in the community-theater aspects of the venue.

And there is definitely a homegrown aspect to the musical’s concerns, its living room set made odd by a coffin in the wings. In the early scenes, the children (Ari and Jonah Frimmer and Caitlin Kops) in this house that incorporates a funeral home—nicknamed by the kids “fun home”—set the tone, including a show-stopping and bouncy Jackson Five homage.

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett


With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home, adapted from the graphic novel memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For), looks back at the pains of growing up gay in a small town in Pennsylvania, keeping one eye on the upward trajectory of the protagonist—who we see at three different ages: Small Alison (Caitlin Kops), Middle Alison (Megan O’Callaghan), and Alison (Amy Griffin), our grown-up narrator—and the other eye on a crippling dysfunction in the family.

Bruce (Greg Roderick), the father of three, has another life as a sometimes predatory gay man. Early in the show, Alison announces that she became a lesbian and that her father was gay and killed himself. The effect is to suck much of the bounciness out of what had seemed to be a family chronicle about kids coping with a demanding and fussy father, replacing it with Alison’s brooding view of her childhood. While it may be, in some ways, a happy coming-out story, Fun Home houses a bitter tale of intergenerational failure.

Bitterness is the main note of Amy Griffin’s Alison, but the youngest version of Alison is lighter if only because not so keen to judge Bruce, and Caitlin Kops does a nice job of making Small Alison seem her own person. Small Alison’s struggles with her father tend to be about matters of taste—he takes command of her reading, belittles her choice of TV programs, and demands she make her drawings conform to his dictates.

As played by Greg Roderick, Bruce is not as threatening as Alison views him, merely an unpredictable bully. He seems to be genuinely attached to Alison, as his eldest child and only daughter, and we don’t really get interactions with his sons after those initial scenes. Alison’s view of her father might resonate more if he were creepier, but the scenes she didn’t witness—such as her father’s efforts to seduce high school students and handymen (Anthony Crouchelli)—seem more sad than bad.

While we might see Bruce’s tale as a tragedy in its own right, the elder Alison is more concerned with how his lies and bad choices undermined the family. Alison’s youth is summed up by a few key scenes—an early aversion to wearing dresses, a fascinated view of a butch delivery woman, a visit to the Gay Union at college, followed by the discovery of sex sweetly invoked by Megan O’Callaghan’s bright rendering of “Changing My Major.”

At one point we learn, when Helen (Raissa Katona Bennett), the mother, finally admits her knowledge of the hidden side of Bruce’s sexuality, that the couple has coped their entire lives with his closeted homosexuality and a festering resentment on both sides. We might expect Middle Alison, in college and in a couple with Joan (Abby Root), to feel some compassion, but that doesn’t seem to occur to her. The sense in which adults are unknowable to their children resonates, but, within the memoir conceit, the focus is always on the child’s perspective, making Bruce unknowable to us as well.

Helen is something of a mystery too. She’s away a lot, it seems, as an actress in theater. Raissa Katona Bennett’s performance puts heart into Helen’s songs, such as one about how it feels to maintain a museum-like household to her husband’s satisfaction, and a powerful aria to her daughter about the psychic costs of a long marriage to such a man. Her scenes with Bruce are mostly arguments, and a recollection of their earliest days together ends prematurely.

Late in the play, a visit to the “fun home” by Middle Alison and Joan seems like it might assuage the tensions, though a drive between Alison and Bruce goes nowhere, as neither father or daughter have a clue about how to speak about themselves. In place of a connection, there’s a song by Alison that chronicles the missed opportunity.

The play reaches for a resolution—since it’s harder to leave a musical than a play unresolved—that seems to me more maudlin than moving. It might register with more feeling if there weren’t so many unanswered questions—about Bruce and Helen—and so much overwrought feeling in Alison.

Without Bechdel’s artistry, in her drawing and her wide-ranging literary allusions, the book of Fun Home feels a bit like a Sisyphean punishment in which Alison must circle round and round the story of her life and never come to a different conclusion or a deeper understanding. Not much fun.


Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic & Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Raissa Katona Bennett, Anthony Crouchelli, Ari Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops, Megan O’Callaghan, Greg Roderick, Abby Root

Musicians: Thomas Conroy, conductor / keyboard; Susan Jiminez, violin; Michael Mosca, guitar; Chris Johnson, drums

Music Theatre of Connecticut
April 20-May 6, 2018

Of An Age

Review of The Age of Innocence, Hartford Stage

Edith Wharton understood well the humor and the pathos of those conditioned by the rigors of the Gilded Age in “Old New York.” Her eye and, particularly, her ear for how the upper-crust navigated delicate social situations permitted her to paint their portraits with considerable vivacity and knowledge. And The Age of Innocence is her greatest novel. Dramatized on the stage in her own day, it was made into a very faithful film by Martin Scorsese in the early 1990s, and has been adapted to the stage in our day by Douglas McGrath (the filmmaker of Emma), and, directed by Doug Hughes, is in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

The story concerns Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a young lawyer ostensibly in love with lovely May Welland (Helen Cespedes), both the products of families that pride themselves on their social standing. They seem particularly well-matched, and yet their elders—especially Mrs. Welland (Deirdre Madigan)—prefer to delay the marriage. The couple are almost ready to announce their engagement when May’s cousin, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), returns to New York, fleeing an unhappy marriage to Count Olenski, a Polish nobleman. For reasons of family solidarity, Archer finds himself compelled—due to the air of scandal that hangs about his fiancée’s cousin—to speed up the announcement of the engagement and, eventually, the settling of a wedding date, all the while dallying in an increasingly passionate flirtation with Madame Olenska.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

In McGrath’s adaptation, the action is framed for us by a more elderly Archer (Boyd Gaines), who looks back with a knowing indulgence on his youthful infatuation with Ellen. The tone of his narration isn’t nearly as arch as Wharton’s narrator can be, but it goes a long way to make the play feel more contemporary than the novel. The novel’s narration is focused almost entirely through Archer, so having him reflect on his past in this way corresponds to the novel’s manner of being both in the story and above it. It’s a device that lets us enjoy our distance from the action, and to counter the naïve Archer with Gaines’ wonderfully dry view.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

Though the focus on Archer is key to what Wharton wrote, it’s also the element that might make the play feel a little too male-dominated for our times. The women are as Archer knows them, not as they know themselves. A constraint, yes, but it lets us see how much he misses, gets wrong, and mismanages. His is a story of an effort to be original in a world that only values tradition, but it’s also the story of how a man in love wants to cling to his illusions about the object—or, here, objects—of his desire. We—and, in age, Archer—learn how the women in the case control so very much without him quite seeing how they do. The “innocence” is entirely Archer’s, much as he might consider himself a worldly man.

The cast and staging of the play are fully engaging, and the adaptation plays a bit like the kind of plays that Archer and his crowd flocked to see: it’s a story of a certain love—the approved one—triumphant, and of another love—the “wrong” one—become a romantic possibility never fulfilled. The whirl of Archer’s pre- and post-nuptial affair holds our attention because it is so very much like a play within a play. The manners of the time are all about maintaining a show and speaking according to a script that rarely reveals real feelings or thoughts.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Fans of the novel (or of the film) will find certain characters rather flattened here, such as the priggish Larry Lefferts (Tony Ward), and the elusive yet ubiquitous Julius Beaufort (Nick Wyman), though certain elements—like the austere views of Mr. and Mrs. Van der Luyden (Tony Ward and Deirdre Madigan)—come through entertainingly. Darrie Lawrence’s every scene as Mrs. Manson Mingott, the dowager empress of this society, is a delight and all too brief.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Andrew Veenstra is a young heartthrob of an Archer, fully living up to the obtuseness the role entails but rather a harder sell as the self-examining aesthete of Wharton’s conception. Sierra Boggess is a Countess Olenska who seems thoroughly American and, unlike Wharton’s vision, untainted by the wicked old Europe she has lived in since shortly after her coming out. Boggess and Veenstra sing a lovely duet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” however unlikely such an act would be for the Countess. May, we find, is unable to sing the part with the same lyricism, a strike against her. Helen Cespedes comes off as closest to Wharton’s sense of her character, as her May is both girlish and fully able to wield the upper hand through a successful stratagem.

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

John Lee Beatty’s set, with its array of transparent doors, makes the most of Hartford Stage's wide open spaces, and Linda Cho’s costumes regale us with the fashions of the times. The world of The Age of Innocence is one in which all is show and that makes for an entertaining spectacle. What’s not so clear is what we gain by contemplating such romantic misalignment in our age. A live pianist onstage adds color to the vestiges of romance that still move Archer as “the old gentleman,” offering a chastened remembrance of things past.

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan


The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath
Directed by Doug Hughes

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Choreographer: Peter Pucci; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist

Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Sara Norton, Dan Owens, Josh Salt, Sara Schwab, Andrew Veenstra, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman

Hartford Stage
April 5-May 6, 2o18

It's All in the Game

Review of Non-Player Character, Yale Cabaret

How do you get to know people, and how do you get rid of people you no longer want to know? Vexed questions, in any context, I imagine, but in the world of online video games, where people meet as avatars in digital worlds—as for instance the realm of Spearlight, “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game”—such social interactions become fraught with a new kind of peril.

Particularly when, as the playbill for Walt McGough’s Non-Player Character at Yale Cabaret says, the social is “a simultaneous hybrid of feeds from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, online news and basically anything that has a comment section.” In other words, the characters in this play are “themselves” (whatever that means), and they are player-characters in online games, and they mostly connect via “text” delivered digitally. And when one sunders ties to another, there’s not only a trail of electronic communications, there may also be viral online reprisals.


For Katja (Rachel Kenney), online life is not only a way to meet virtually with old friends from high school, like Trent (Dario Ladani Sanchez), but also a potential livelihood. When we first meet her, she’s developing a digital environment in which players do things like interact with and contemplate a tree. Not as exciting as offing opponents with gleeful vengeance, but it could find its niche, she believes. Trent has been her dogged supporter and too-shy-to-make-his-feelings-known admirer for years. She is in Seattle, he’s in Lancaster (PA, I assume), stuck in a swamp of arrested development, and the twain shall meet regularly to do battle in various video terrains.

When they join a game that requires a team, Trent introduces a bro from one of those online sites best known for vigorous trolling and toxic masculinity. Feldrick the Barbarian (John Evans Reese), let’s say, is living out a role close to his Id. His pal is the salacious fire witch Morwyn (Alex Vermilion), a person of uncertain gender. What’s amusing here, even if you don’t sample role-play games, is how McGough’s characters are so conscious of their chosen roles in the video environment even as they try to be themselves and figure each other out. The characters, in director Logan Ellis’ production, are rigidly earnest in their purposes, apt to dispute strategy and the kinds of hierarchies the online environment dictates.

One of the repeatedly funny elements is provided by Anula Navlekar as an amorphous range of “non-player characters,” figures generated by the game to aid plot and provide motives. The most fun here is when we’re in the game because, without that focus, these people don’t have much of what used to be called “interiority.”

The love story aspects of the tale, we might say, are old as time, but the twist comes when Trent, given the big freeze out by Katja, takes a page from Feldrick’s playbook and trashes her with posts online. Soon she’s the victim of stalkers who circulate photos of where she lives and doctored images of her bloodied. It’s not just that she’s not interested in an actual, physical relationship with Trent (who dreamed of joining her in Seattle, where she works at a Starbucks), she also may be using her looks to advance her career, and that’s just not fair!

What seems to interest McGough is the battle of the sexes dynamic here, but not much gets delivered on that score. There’s a moment of female-female bonding between Katja and her boss, Naomi (Navlekar), a veritable “non-character” in the plot pretty much denuded of anything but “support-speak.” There’s also a potentially funny moment in which Katja meets the man (Jason Najjoum) behind Morwyn that just becomes an awkward scene in which outrage meets obtuseness.

The projections provided by Christopher Evans and Jack Wesson, the video game animator, are the life of the party, helped along by the Spearlight costuming by April Hickman with props by Alexander McCargar. Rachel Kenney, who took over at the last minute for Sohina Sidhu, who has been cast in the Yale Rep’s production of Kiss, keeps her script in hand but could play a role this straight-forward with both hands behind her back. The rest of the cast, in Cab debuts but for Vermilion, are game, if not quite characters.


Non-Player Character
By Walt McGough
Directed by Logan Ellis

Producer: Jason Najjoum; Scenic & Props Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: April Hickman; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama; Original Music: Roxy Jia; Video Game Animator: Jack Wesson; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dramaturg: Alex Vermillion

Cast: Rachel Kenney, Jason Najjoum, Anula Navlekar, John Evans Reese, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Sohina Sidhu, Alex Vermillion

Yale Cabaret
April 19-21, 2018

Maria's Choice

Review of The Revisionist, Playhouse on Park

By pairing David, a twenty-something author from New York, with Maria, a Holocaust survivor in contemporary Poland, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist guarantees itself a certain relevance. At a time when those who lived through the Holocaust are dying off and a younger generation is growing up largely ignorant of what actually happened, the play keeps alive what could be called a necessary historical sense. With its intergenerational dynamic, The Revisionist successfully dramatizes how difficult communicating can be between those born in the first half of the twentieth century and those, born in the second half, who have come of age in the twenty-first century.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

For too much of its running time, that seems to be the play’s entire point, a comic mismatch of intentions that aren’t quite funny or disorienting enough to justify their belaboring. In the later scenes, the revelation we’ve been waiting for arrives to make a stronger point—about family and remembrance and debt—that gives the play an uneasy resolution. The play’s dramatic arc, while not always as well-developed as it might be, mostly works, and Sasha Bratt’s production at Playhouse on Park maintains a quizzical and bemused tone that keeps us interested.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett) is an elderly Polish woman living in an apartment she treats as a shrine to her family, many dead and gone, others—like David’s grandfather—relatives who escaped to America. David (Carl Powell), Maria’s second cousin, is the author of a reasonably successful Young Adult novel (a political allegory that got reviewed, though not favorably, in the New York Times), who is trying to revise his latest manuscript for publication. He has come to her apartment in Poland as a last ditch refuge from his distracting life in New York. He needs a writer’s retreat, and finds instead a lonely relative poised to smother him with attention and chatter.

As an actor, Eisenberg is best-known in movies for playing somewhat quirky young men, intense with intelligence and often misguided. In the initial production of The Revisionist, he played David himself, paired with Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that earned raves. The performances in the Playhouse on Park production are strong and well-matched. As neither character is entirely likeable, we expect some development that will firmly tip the scales one way or the other, or that will lead to a happy rapprochement. We may warm to either, both, or neither character, but we do come to understand them better, whether or not they ever really understand each other.

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

Cecelia Riddett’s Maria is the more readily likeable, but she isn’t someone easy to be with, if only because her expectations are so high. She lives a quiet life, mostly punctuated by watching CNN and answering the phone—it’s always a telemarketer. Her right-hand man is a taxi driver named Zenon, nicely played as both easy-going and scary by Sebastian Buczyk, who drives her, carries her groceries, and, in one scene, tends her in a more intimate manner. Maria lets David use her own bedroom, while assuming a connection that, she believes, family members should have even if they’ve barely met (she saw David when he was a child; he doesn’t remember it). Her effort to coddle him is the kind of thing that would drive away someone his age, even if they had more of a family backstory.

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

David, for his part, is the epitome of the guest who is only there to suit himself. Bratt and Powell wisely don’t make David an Eisenberg clone, but rather play him as a youthful and insecure success, in a tone that perfectly suits his demographic. He’s used to taking himself seriously and knowingly descends to Maria’s level when his curiosity gets the best of him. He’s a chronic pot-smoker but never shows the stoner’s typical bursts of hilarity and depth. David is more of a latter day Woody Allen character, apt to feel put-upon and unappreciated, expecting consideration simply for the difficulty of being himself. Scenes in which the play seems to call for broad situation comedy—as when David walks in on Zenon shaving Maria’s legs, or when David gets his jollies having Zenon misuse American expletives—tend to be low key, here, as if the production knows such moments fall flat without a laugh-track.

And that’s the weakest aspect of the play: it has only a scatter-shot idea of how to make the situation amusing, so that much of what we see is simply working its way toward the Big Reveal. That aspect, full of the backstory of Maria’s life under the Nazis and just after, makes sense of her assertive effort to claim kin, and, in its outcome, takes aim at the worst of David right about the time we’ve come to accept him. The way people often do with family.

A prickly comedy aiming at deeper themes, The Revisionist works best as a cautionary tale about the ways to abuse a host and mislead a guest, and how sharing confidences is not a heart-to-heart if the hearts concerned never quite align.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)


The Revisionist
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Sasha Bratt

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Dialect and Language Coach: Sebastian Buczyk; Properties and Set Dressing: Pamela Lang & Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Sebastian Buczyk, Carl Howell, Cecelia Riddett

Playhouse on Park
April 11-29, 2018