Review of Thousand Pines, Westport Country Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thousand Pines
By Matthew Greene
Directed by Austin Pendleton

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

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

Westport Country Playhouse
October 30-November 17, 2018

Leaving the Nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Bromden (Santos)

Chief Bromden (Santos)

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

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

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

Playhouse on Park
October 31-November 18, 2018

On the Inside

Review of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Collective Consciousness Theatre 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Collective Consciousness Theatre
October 25-November 11, 2018

The Process is the Thing

Review of TBD: Festival of Rough Drafts, Yale Cabaret

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



TBD: festival of works-in-process

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

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

Created and presented by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
November 1-3, 2018

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

This Sex Which is Not One

Review of Agreste (Drylands), Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
October 25-27, 2018

But Little Touch of Harry

Review of Henry V, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

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


Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

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

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

Hartford Stage
October 11-November 11, 2018

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

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

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


The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

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

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

October 4-November 11, 2018

Like Kids Causing Trouble in the Dark

Review of Untitled Ke$ha Project, Yale Cabaret

Subcultures are almost always interesting. The most recent offering at the Yale Cabaret combines attention to two kinds of subculture: that of spectator, in the fans of pop-star diva Kesha (formerly Ke$ha), and that of artist, in the life of grad students at the Yale School of Drama.

Conceived and directed by—and featuring—the Cab’s co-artistic director Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Untitled Ke$sha Project adapts songs by Ke$ha to a loosely rendered story about life in the three-year Masters program at the School of Drama. From orientation to graduation, the students we see are fretting about their standing in the program and in their social life, often simultaneously. A glossary of terms is provided in the playbill, in case viewers can’t identify a reference to James Bundy, the dean of the School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, or to Little Mix, a British girl group formed in 2011. More important than such allusions are references to “Beers,” a weekly hangout in a classroom to take the pressure off, and the “semi-occasional dance off,” an event that occurs from time to time at Beers and which serves as the culmination of the show.

Taylor Hoffman, Alex Worthington in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

Taylor Hoffman, Alex Worthington in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

For regulars of the Cabaret or of other shows featuring students at YSD, the UKP has the vibe of a glimpse behind the scenes. Just how do students negotiate their schooling when part of the work occurs in classrooms and part in front of live audiences? There’s an element of risk and exposure to theater studies that UKP captures and spoofs. The humor is pointedly good-natured.

Gourzong, a production designer in her third year, keeps the show upbeat and fast-paced, with its main dynamic being focused—at first implicitly and then explicitly—on the factor of popularity. We see a little exchange between Gourzong and Taylor Hoffman that indicates how the bonds formed in orientation don’t necessarily translate into friendship over the long haul. Meanwhile, some students form couples, though with perhaps unequal access to the perks of certain assignments. Alex Worthington plays a tech student who can get lost in the creation of set design rather than make it to class, while Alex McNamara plays his girlfriend stressing about course work. Their duet on the song “Hymn” is a highlight of the show. Then there’s Rachel Kenney as a put-upon student who is not quite sure where she fits in, or if she ever will.

The sound/songs, lighting, costumes, and colorful, logo-like projections are lively, suiting the feel of ad hoc, late night jams matched with surfing the net. Everyone these days tends to go about life with a personally endorsed soundtrack playing on ear buds, and Gourzong gives us dance routines that show us how songs like “Tik Tok” merge perfectly with the lockstep of daily tasks—whether of school or jobs. Many of Ke$ha’s songs tend to be suggestive invitations to party hearty with an edge that implies girls just wanna have fun—even if it kills them. Here, the pace of trying to have fun with the same kind of dedication and passion that one brings to “the work” is part of the challenge of being young, and of theater or creativity more generally. What our musical artists tend to give us is a version of the struggle to be unique and uniquely desired that risks becoming generic in its “we all want the same thing” approach.

So how to incorporate the competitive spirit of the arts—if only as a battle for attention—into the show? The “dance-off” features audience members cavorting to musical clips, or beats, while a panel of three judges—also audience members—looks on and rates the steps, like so many Olympic judges. It’s impromptu—I believe—and plays like a popularity contest slash creative jam, which is what popular art by the numbers is too.

Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Alex McNamara in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Alex McNamara in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

The show ends a little abruptly, as, I suppose, does graduate study. Still, the show’s a lot of fun and we’re all going home satisfied.

Untitled Ke$ha Project
Directed and conceived by Latiana “LT” Gourzong

Producer: Lisa D. Richardson; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher; Set Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Costume Designer: Yunzhu Zeng; Projections Designer: Elena Tilli; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Cast: Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Rachel Kenney, Alex McNamara, Alex Worthington

Yale Cabaret
October 11-13, 2018

Memory Plays Tricks

Review of El Huracán, Yale Repertory Theatre

The opening scene of Charise Castro Smith’s El Huracán, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is literally magical. A young woman in an elegant dress performs magic tricks on a circular stage, aided by a male partner in a tux. The swankiness of the act—set in the celebrated Tropicana nightclub in pre-Castro Cuba—is abetted by the dance the couple, Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio) and Alonso (Arturo Soria), perform to Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.” It’s suave and nostalgic and at a remove from the realities of the play, and for a little while we get to bask in a rare kind of show-biz transcendence.

Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Looking on with us is Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), now a woman in her eighties. We soon learn that her current world—Miami—is under threat by Andrew, the impending category 5 hurricane that caused death and major damage in 1992, and by advanced Alzheimer’s. Smith’s play dramatizes the way the past is made precarious by our memory and the playwright uses the cataclysms that repeatedly strike the region to signal the precariousness of its inhabitants’ present and future. (As I write this, Michael, a category 2 hurricane, is set to strike the gulf.)

Directed by Laurie Woolery, who showed a similarly useful grasp of the amorphous for Imogen Says Nothing at Yale Rep last year, El Huracán is a kind of dream or memory play. Its action takes place in different times, amplified by the memories that beset Valeria, and made lyrical by Yaara Bar’s beautiful projections, acts of legerdemain (Christopher Rose, Magic Designer), and a striking set by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez. The staging is consistently interesting, keeping us off-guard, never sure where the story is going or how events will be manifested.

Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria is barely aware of her surroundings most of the time and mistakes her granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio) for an assistant, while her daughter Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) has to play parent to both her own mother and her daughter. Miranda—a rather immature doctoral candidate who seems more like an undergrad—is back home in Miami to help defend the homestead from Andrew. She’s aided by Fernando, a local mensch helping out her abuela. A flirtatious scene between Fernando and Miranda helps to focus us on the action, which otherwise—but for effective special effects to signal the hurricane—tends to be elusive.

It’s clear that Valeria is more apt to be talking to her sister Alicia (Jennifer Paredes) on the beach, back when they were girls together and having their first flares of male interest, than to be conscious of what her daughter and granddaughter want of her. But the past barely congeals, despite some very diverting projections of Alicia swimming. The courtship between Alonso and Valeria is mostly pro-forma, whereas little moments, like Fernando appreciating Miranda’s butt when she’s on a ladder, or both Miranda and Valeria appreciating Fernando’s physique when he removes his shirt, help us experience the tactile qualities of the 1992 setting.

Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

With the past in Cuba vague—as presented in a simultaneous English and Spanish rendering by Valeria and Alonso (Jonathan Nichols) respectively—the main action takes shape around the youngsters, until an unfortunate occurrence brings home the perils of the present. We’ve barely had time to digest that before Smith’s plot flings the action into 2019 in the aftermath of a category 6 storm that devastates Miami. By then, Ximena is elderly and Miranda middle-aged. Indeed, the years are imposed upon them by a costume-change, complete with padding, that occurs onstage about midway through the play.

In 2019, Miranda is back in Miami to help Ximena, now suffering from the same memory-devastating malady that beset her own mother, and to seek forgiveness for an awful “accident” that happened in 1992. Again, a young male is on hand to help (Arturo Soria, engaging in each incarnation), though Theo is a relative and a Cubano trying to learn English, to be matched with Val (Jennifer Paredes), Ximena’s granddaughter, who speaks Spanish straight out of a school primer. The scenes of Miranda, a bit professorial now, trying to take care of Ximena, who is even less sympathetic toward her daughter than when both were much younger, don’t do much for either character, though Ximena gets a poetic speech about the mother she’s trying to remember.

Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

There’s a strange disconnect at the heart of the play as it tries to find a way to evince both the devastation of the hurricane, where special effects can help, and the elusiveness of memory, where a deliberate porousness between eras and identities, decorated with a smattering of Shakespearean references, can only do so much. Smith’s play is highly suggestive in its setting and staging, but not quite convincing in terms of the particular characters who live through its changes.

As the aged Valeria, Adriana Sevahn Nichols is charming and somewhat mysterious, playing well the youthfulness of Valeria in her own mind. As Ximena, who we see go from fretful caretaker of Valeria and castigator of Miranda to fretful elder and castigator of Miranda, Maria-Christina Oliveras registers the changes in the family dynamic gracefully. As Miranda, Irene Sofia Lucio is best when flirtatious and youthful—chastened and regretful seems not to become her. As Young Valeria, her prestidigitation is impressive. Jennifer Paredes is brightly active as Alicia, and she brings the right note of earnest maturity to Val, the college student of 2019. As the aged Arturo, Jonathan Nichols handles well the best scene between Arturo and Valeria, where we learn how things ended up. And, as Young Alonso, Fernando, and Theo, Arturo Soria gets to show off his moves, his smile, his bod, his Spanish and to be an asset in every scene he’s in.

El Huracán can best be seen as an intergenerational love story, where the love is for family, Cuba, Florida, and other threatened areas, and where the generations are formulated as: a past long gone, a fitful present apt to fail its elders, and a future where, if there’s any hope, it’s in the young. It’s also a revisiting of the Tempest where the magician Valeria, unlike Prospero, can’t control the storms to come, nor when the book of the brain will be drowned.


El Huracán
By Charise Castro Smith
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Choreographer: Angharad Davies; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Magic Designer: Christopher Rose; Puppet Designer: James Ortiz; Production Dramaturg: Amauta M. Firmino; Technical Director: Alex Worthington; Dialect Coach: Cynthia DeCure; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

 Cast: Irene Sofia Lucio, Jonathan Nichols, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jennifer Paredes, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, Arturo Soria

Yale Repertory Theatre
In collaboration with The Sol Project
September 29-October 20, 2018

A Hero of Our Time

Review of Man of La Mancha, Westport Country Playhouse

A revival of a popular crowd-pleaser has to make you wonder: is it to have on the schedule something everyone knows and loves, or is it to make a difference with a well-known war horse? The Westport Country Playhouse’s Man of La Mancha, directed by Mark Lamos, is having it both ways. It’s packing them in, as the saying goes, but it’s also spinning the show with an eye to our times.

Take that opening. Sure, the show always begins with Miguel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez), the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, arriving at a prison that houses those who have run afoul of the agents of the Inquisition. That historical fact of Christianity, once persecuted and oppressed, become persecutor and oppressor is key to the setting, the background to Cervantes’ flights of fancy and the madness of his knight-errant. Here, Cervantes is escorted by officers who look like they work for ICE. And those bars at the edge of the stage remain in place until the dramatic shift into Cervantes’ tale. When the bars return, if they don’t make you think of a concentration camp and those cages for the children of immigrants, then you must be as great a fantasist as Don Alonso Quixano, the man whose imagination creates the world of Don Quixote.

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

The story, following Quixote’s adventures, tends to be tongue-in-cheek, as those he encounters know he’s mad, but find a certain amusement in humoring him. None sets that tone better than Michael Mendez, who plays the Innkeeper who is willing to dub Quixote a knight. Others, such as Aldonza (Gisela Adisa), a prostitute and serving girl, find playing along too strange, at least at first. Meanwhile, Quixano’s sister Antonia (Paola Hernandez) and his housekeeper (Lulu Picart) want him to come to his senses before something bad happens to his fortune—as they make clear in the witty number “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Gauging the point at which cynicism enters into the indulgence of Quixano/Quixote has always been part of the paradoxical story: we know Quixote’s vision is foolish but we indulge it because it’s more interesting than reality. But, here, when Quixote thunders that “facts get in the way of the truth” and nods at the audience’s reaction, we can begin to wonder why we are so willing to indulge a fantasist who believes that a gold-colored shaving dish is a helmet of real gold or that a prostitute is an elegant lady. In other words, this version of Man of La Mancha gets closer to Cervantes’ novel than, I expect, many a production of the musical ever has. And that aligns it well with our time in which—call it what you like—a sow’s ear remains a sow’s ear.

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Granted, when the show won all those Tonys back in 1965, “The Impossible Dream,”—the show-stopping song that became ubiquitous in that period—might give backbone to a “glorious quest” to “march into hell” for the “heavenly cause” of stopping the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Once one entertains that notion, it’s easy to see how vainglorious are Don Quixote’s noble dreams.

And if that point needs more punch, there’s the rape of Aldonza by a pack of muleteers that Quixote and his friends—Aldonza and the ever-loyal Sancho Panza (Tony Manna)—had earlier dispatched in quite a busy fight scene (Michael Rossmy, fight director and intimacy coach). Quixote, foolishly, lets Aldonza “minister” to his fallen enemies. The rape, which Lamos handles as tastefully as one can, becomes uncomfortable sooner in the #MeToo era, particularly after the unsavory accusations that have been leveled at the most recent Republican Supreme Court nominee. To watch the scene was always to think about what it says about the nature of the reality Aldonza lives (despite Quixote’s romantic fantasy), but now it must make one think about the reality that even well-born and educated and successful women face, in all walks of life.

Certainly, when this show was decided on to fill this slot in Westport’s season, no one could know that Brett Kavanagh would be in the hotseat as the show opened, but it’s where we are now. Made all the more telling by that huge mirrored shield enacting Hamlet’s idea of the purpose of playing.

Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

As far as crowd-pleasing aspects of the show: start with the evocative stage design by Wilson Chin, which broods enough for a prison but has elements of sanctity as well, with that cathedral-like clerestory. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes are sumptuous when needed—such as the cape and armor of Quixote’s get-up or the threads that drape Antonia—and feature a range of homespun ensembles, and on Lulu Picart exciting color combos. As Aldonza, Gisela Adisa is perfectly outfitted, and she’s a tour de force of reactions and glances aside. Her movement and singing put much of the fire into the show, with “What Does He Want of Me” a high point in Act 1.

As our hero—a chastened Cervantes, a doddering Quixano, and, especially, a fully assertive Quixote—Philip Hernandez is perfect. He looks the part, tall and a little craggy, and he gives “The Impossible Dream” all the gusto it requires, letting the audience exult in its inspiring uplift. He’s abetted by Tony Manna’s Sancho, who shines best when we can see the wily peasant only too eager to serve whatever pays. He’s a little flat at times, not quite the colorful bon vivant one expects.

Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

The rest of the cast play a number of roles, as prisoners and as the persons in Quixote’s story. Particular mention goes to Esteban Suero’s great turn as the Barber (I wanted more of him!), Mendez’s canny Innkeeper, and Ceasar F. Barajas (Pedro) and Ian Paget (Anselmo), the prisoners/muleteers who lead “Little Bird,” and much of the action, which is eye-catching and well-choreographed throughout.

In the end, the “impossible dream” is likely what it always was: a glimmer of hope for those who are trying to make a sad reality better and more bearable. And while Mark Lamos’ Man of La Mancha perhaps needs a little more stirring to become the wonderful dish it could be, all the ingredients are there. And that’s no fantasy.


Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Musical Staging: Marcos Santana & Mark Lamos; Choreographer: Marcos Santana; Music Director: Andrew David Sotomayor; Music Supervisor: Wayne Baker; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Samantha Shoffner; Production Stage Manager: Ryan Gohsman

Cast: Gisela Adisa, Ceasar F. Barajas, Carlos Encinias, Michael Scott Gomez, Philip Hernandez, Paola Hernandez, Tony Manna, Michael Mendez, Ian Paget, Lulu Picart, Jermaine Rowe, David Sattler, Clay Singer, Esteban Suero

Musicians: Ben Clymer, trombone; Nicholas DiFabbio, guitar; Daniel Louis Duncan, trumpet; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Joseph Russo, string bass; Marshall Sealy, French horn; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Westport Country Playhouse
September 25-October 13, 2018

Consider the Nutria of the Swamps

Preview of Rodents of Unusual Size, film screening at Real Art Ways, Hartford

Yo, dude. Got an urge to hunt and kill in large numbers? Then grab your arms and your ammo and get down to the Louisiana bayou where the scourge known locally as “nutria,” from the Spanish for “otter,” but more formally, myocastor coypus, and sometimes “coypu,” is eating its way through any and all vegetation that might give the coastal swampland a chance for survival. These “rodents of unusual size,” as the surprisingly amusing and enheartening documentary by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer calls them (with a nod to The Princess Bride), can weigh as much as 20 lbs. and are generally 24 inches long, with a tail of a foot or more. They breed like rabbits and they are never dormant. As one spokesman for the local taskforce assigned with exterminating the critters puts it, “they are an invasive species that needs to be deleted.”

How did they get there? Do they have any advocates? Can they be acculturated? What’s the price on nutria tails? How long does it take to skin one? What do they taste like?  All these questions and more are answered in this gritty documentary that—like the local Cajuns, we’re told—is not afraid to get its hands dirty.

The documentary, from Tilapia films, followed by Q & A with Jeff Springer on opening night, will be featured at Real Art Ways, Hartford, from October 5th to 11th.

Thomas Gonzales walks the decimated wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Still photos courtesy of Tilapia Film)

Thomas Gonzales walks the decimated wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Still photos courtesy of Tilapia Film)

In a nifty animated sequence, the film gives background on the phenomena. Apparently the same family that brought you Tabasco sauce, decided, during the Depression, that these “swamp rats,” imported from Argentina, could sustain a poor-man’s fur industry. With muskrats more scarce and too dear, nutria pelts did become a thing and Louisiana was in the forefront of our national fur industry for decades. But—as the locals tell it—when, in the 1980s and 1990s, animal activists came down on the fur industry, many trappers found their yields much less lucrative and decamped to other resources. And that left the prolific nutria without a predator.

As the film opens, the nutria are fair game and we see the work of local hunters who get $5 per tail through the “bounty incentive.” The tail is the proof of a kill; the Coastwide Nutria Control Program (in place since 2002) doesn’t want the animal carcass. And that leaves the question of whether or not there’s a market for other aspects of nutria.

Thomas Gonzales defending Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria.

Thomas Gonzales defending Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria.

Through the film, we mostly follow the fortunes of Thomas Gonzales, descendant of the original Spanish-speaking peoples who settled on Delcroix Island, a shrinking landmass way down the bayou. He’s been working the waterways since age 13—crabbing, fishing, trapping, hunting alligators and nutria. Now, more than half-a-century later, he has survived major hurricanes, though his house and property haven’t. He, with his wife and son, are our main guides to the world the nutria has invaded, already a perilous environment. As his wife says, the water is your livelihood, but it’s also your enemy.

Musician Kermit Ruffins frequently BBQs nutria before his shows.

Musician Kermit Ruffins frequently BBQs nutria before his shows.

Folk wisdom is on warm display in this film about people who have been formed by an environment and whose fierce identification with the land and water of the place gives them each a unique character. We also meet jazz musician Kermit Ruffins who tells us “cooking is improvisation, just like jazz,” as he tries to make nutria meat palatable to his community at block parties outside a club. The advocates of nutria-based cuisine say it’s “like” rabbit or maybe dark turkey meat, is very lean and, because nutria are vegetarians, very clean. Award-winning chef Susan Spicer says she does what she can to make the meat a treat, likening it to zucchini in its versatility. She also points out, sensibly, that people object to eating rabbit because bunnies are too cute. “No one will ever say that about nutria.” Indeed, most people can’t abide the notion of eating rodent, no matter how cheap its meat.

Then there are those who are trying to bring back the fur industry’s use of nutria. Calling her company Righteous Furs, designer Cree McCree thinks that the opprobrium placed on fur will be lifted when people realize that killing nutria is necessary for conservation, and that harvesting only the tails is a waste of very fine fur. We also meet Tab Pitre, whose family worked in the fur trade when it was an industry in Louisiana and, as a fur dealer, he is one of a dying breed. He knows that the harvesting of pelts won’t happen unless there’s a monetary incentive. Otherwise, the carcasses are left to rot in the marsh.

Cree McCree designs new fashion for Righeous Fur, her organization that is promoting nutria fur as a stylish way to save the wetlands.

Cree McCree designs new fashion for Righeous Fur, her organization that is promoting nutria fur as a stylish way to save the wetlands.

There’s lots more—like an interesting discussion of how nutria tear up golf courses in the area, and the way that trappers must negotiate the sensitivities of “the rich folk” who consider exterminating the creatures shameful. There are some who have domesticated nutria—mostly, it seems, for the oddity of it—and others who seem quite willing to adopt the furry critters, with their prominent orange, beaver-like teeth, as mascots and local fauna. As one person says, the nutria have been in the bayou long enough to become honorary Cajuns.

The film saves the most fitting tribute to the last, as Thomas Gonzales admits that, when other forms of sustenance are scarce, you can always count on harvesting nutria. The nutria has been “a good friend” and fellow survivor in this unique environment. “I’m not going anywhere, and neither are they.”

Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer

Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer

Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer specialize in interesting subcultural documentaries. Rodents of Unusual Size, like Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, their study of the Salton Sea area of California, a vast salt-flat where once were resorts, and the oddballs who still make it their home, captures the unique feel of a place and its people. Everyday Sunshine, their documentary of the fortunes of the band Fishbone and its fans is celebrated for its grasp of the many facets of show-business life. Rodents of Unusual Size has won documentary awards in a variety of festival venues from Nevada to Alabama, from Mississippi to California. The film’s pacing is exemplary, giving us just enough of each perspective on the nutria situation, and finding lots of quotable moments. My favorite was from a prayer written especially for the bayou community: “Spare us from the tragedies to come.” Amen.


Rodents of Unusual Size
From Tilapia Film
Chris Metzler, co-director, producer
Jeff Springer, co-director, cinematographer
Quinn Costello, co-director, editor
Wendell Pierce, narrator
Music by the Lost Bayou Ramblers

Real Art Ways Cinema
56 Arbor Street
Hartford, CT

October 5-11, 2018

Seek Hyde

Review of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Music Theatre of Connecticut

MTC opens its 32nd season with a real winner. ‘Tis the season to get scary and this production of Jekyll & Hyde fits right in, a dramatic adaptation of the hoary Robert Louis Stevenson classic about a man of science who experiments on himself and releases the demon within. As adapted to musical theater by Leslie Bricusse (Book and Lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn (music) and conceived for the stage by Wildhorn and Steven Cuden, Jekyll & Hyde isn’t a toe-tapper so much as a riveting foray into the darkness we may each harbor, in one form or another.

Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

As a popular show that was first staged in the 1990s, it’s likely that audiences have had a chance to see Jekyll & Hyde by now. Whether you have or not, be sure to take it in at the intimate space of MTC. Here, you’re thrust into the heart of the action as this very talented and intense cast delivers this show with a power that could easily fill a much larger theater. Director Kevin Connors has assembled a great troupe to put this tale through its paces and everyone is splendid.

The set is simplicity itself, a long riser stretching into shadowy offstage areas, with a crackerjack band led by David Wolfson behind an arras. Nothing distracts from the action, which is abetted by Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes—jackets, vests, flounces, bustles, hats, hair, whiskers, it’s all well realized. The mic sets can be obtrusive, here and there, but Will Atkins’ sound design is sharp and clear, and all the voices—whether commanding majestic arias or remarking sotto voce—are compellingly present.

foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

Despite the fact that our hero is also our villain and gets to own the stage, this is very much an ensemble piece in the sense that all the attendant figures help create this tale of a man at odds with his society, trying to prove something he believes will be of benefit to mankind but managing to ruin himself and nearly everyone else in the process. And, without getting too morbid, it might be fun to imagine some choice hypocritical leaders of our day falling into the hands of the ruthless Mr. Hyde, the way the board of governors does here. The song “Façade” felt only too relevant last week.

Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

In Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote) we see a driven man, trying to convince a board of naysayers—Lady Beaconsfield (Kirsti Carnahan), Sir Archibald Proops (Peter McClung), the Bishop of Basingstoke (Lou Ursone), General Lord Glossop (Bill Nabel), and Sir Danvers Carew (Donald E. Birely—a welcome return), father of Jekyll’s betrothed—that he has developed a serum that will isolate the two aspects of humanity, the good and the evil. Rightfully skeptical, the board also fear what will become of the evil part, once isolated. Good question!

In fact, after Jekyll proceeds to experiment with himself as guinea pig, the evil part runs amok in the form of Edward Hyde, a more hirsute version of Jekyll with none of the latter’s kindness. We see Jekyll’s kindness when he, alone among those of his social class, takes pity on a prostitute named Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria). To her, he becomes a hero, and to his fiancée, Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), he is a man without peer, even if he does seem to be treading into deep waters. Elissa DeMaria and Carissa Massaro have done much fine work in a variety of shows at MTC and it’s a treat to see them together here perform the affecting duet about their shared object, “In His Eyes.” Massaro’s Emma is a paragon of the Victorian virtues, a seemingly flawless Angel in the House, while DeMaria’s Lucy is both frisky—“Bring on the Men”—and increasingly vulnerable, “Sympathy, Tenderness.” As with the two sides of the hero, the two main female characters gesture at a dichotomy that our social norms never quite seem to bridge.

Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Having to be both good and evil, alternately, falls to Andrew Foote’s very vulnerable—if somewhat overbearing—Jekyll and his monstrously vicious Hyde. Flinging a lengthy hairpiece over his visage for the latter and snarling, Foote’s performance is all the more fascinating for taking place so close to the audience. His singing voice is electrifying, and his energy as an actor is both scary and inspiring.

Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

And that’s the word, I’d use for the entire cast and production—inspiring. And that includes notable support by Sean Hayden as Gabriel John Utterson (Horatio to Jekyll’s Hamlet), Jeff Gurner, in a trio of roles, all impeccable, Christian Cardozo as a fussy Simon Stride, and Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera and Carolyn Savoia shape-shifting between courtesans and denizens of St. James.

In Kevin Connors’ capable hands, MTC’s Jekyll & Hyde shows what a small, regional theater can do when it sinks its teeth into a show it is able to realize fully. In its humble surroundings, this show bests some bigger houses we could name. This is a Jekyll & Hyde worth seeking.


Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Conceived for the stage by Steve Duden & Frank Wildhorn
Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg
Arrangements by Jason Howland

Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Michael Blagys and Kelly Burr Nelsen; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelsen; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Fight Choreography: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Donald E. Birely; Christian Cardozo; Kirsti Carnahan; Elissa DeMaria; Andrew Foote; Jeff Gurner; Sean Hayden; Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera; Carissa Massaro; Peter McClung; Bill Nabel; Carolyn Savoia; Lou Ursone

Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 28-October 14, 2018

Don't Open the Door!

Review of The Light Fantastic, Yale Cabaret

If you follow films, you know that the horror movie genre has certain set tropes and one that has become fairly prevalent is the spoof version—it retains the genre’s love of “gotcha” moments and the necessary feel of dread and suspense, but it also references beloved gotcha moments from earlier films, and retreads, affectionately or ironically, much of the familiar gobbeldy-gook that passes for the meaning/context of the dire events. Nice-guy psycho, pact with the devil, ancient burial grounds, evil rituals of the mundane (don’t watch that tape, turn on your set, answer the phone, or stay at that cabin!), and, of course, demonic possession. In The Light Fantastic, Windham-Campbell award-winning playwright Ike Holter revisits many of those genre expectations and re-tunes them to suit a contemporary tale of one woman’s path to redemption—or not.

Directed by Molly FitzMaurice at the Yale Cabaret, the play provides a few standout “gotchas” and, amazingly, in such a small space, manages to maintain a feeling of dread—despite the general air of hilarity that the audience might well bring to the proceedings. You know how people laugh when they’re scared? Yeah, like that.


What’s to be scared of? Well, for starters there’s our main protagonist named—meaningfully—Grace (Moses Ingram). She’s more sinning than sinned-against, and tends to be bad news to anyone around her, not least the cop, Harriet (Anula Navlekar), a former schoolmate with a grudge, who shows up in answer to a call. It’s a great opening: we’re so distracted by the back-and-forth of these two antagonists we (and they) forget all about the reason the cop was called in the first place. Something evil could be happening, even though Harriet searched the premises and found nothing but some hellacious housekeeping. There follows one of those “before the titles” scenes (titles to be provided by an overhead projector) we’re all familiar with (think The Sixth Sense) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still pack a wallop.

Now we move forward into the present where Grace is back and trying to mend her ways. There’s a fairly feeble welcome-home party; not that many people are happy to see Grace, but a few can be counted on: her fuck-buddy Eddie (a very amusing Gregory Saint Georges), her bristly Mom (Adrienne Wells, spot on), and her mom’s therapist-buddy Adam (Noah Diaz, show-stealingly nerdy). A strange, uninvited guest (Doireann Mac Mahon) appears, a spooky girl with a face like a zombie and a mysterious present. As things develop we find out that the girl, Katrina, visited Grace before and she’s got some bad news about Grace’s current condition.

Suffice to say it involves a shaking set, sound effects, lights that flash and a door to utter blackness that we soon begin to fear seeing opened. There are stories of slaughtered sheep—this is somewhere in Indiana—and people disappearing or being sucked through the air, and it appears that Grace’s second-chance is on borrowed time. Holter combines the deadly and mostly offstage carnage with, onstage, Grace trying to come to terms with her mother, who has an affliction of her own, and even trying to make up with Harriet. The latter’s showboat speech late in the play riffs on many self-assertive ploys to arrive at a kind of revivalist vibe. Navlekar is perfectly cast as she has a special way of making a comic persona feel completely believable. Eventually, we meet an eerie demon who calls himself Rufus (played with satanic-slacker charm by Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) and it’s anyone’s guess how the story will end. Snatched screaming to hell like Faustus, or pull a switch and get a reprieve?

There’s a showdown where (to me anyway) the terms of the struggle are a bit murky, and one of those aftermath endings in which things seem to be better, though that might just be wishful thinking. The set, by Stephanie Bahniuk boasts a creepy door and creepy wallpaper and areas out of sight, the Lighting and other effects come by means of Emma Deane (lighting), Andrew Rovner (sound & music), with Rajiv Shah as technical director, and Olivia Plath in the booth as stage manager, while the creepy makeup for Katrina and Rufus is by Yunzhu Zeng.

The Light Fantastic (as in “tripping the”) lives up to its name. It’s playful and out-there. It toys with the genre and gives us, in Grace, a heroine who, in Ingram’s performance, seems way more likeable than her hellion backstory sketches her as, so that it’s not really clear why forces of evil have gotten involved. The characters are all articulate and engaging—as so rarely happens in horror movies—and that makes this something of a kitchen-sink meets occult phenomena play. It’s fun, it’s dark, and it’s got an edge.

Three winners in a row for Cabaret 51, which will be dark this week, then return with a devised piece in interaction with music star Kesha called Untitled Ke$ha Project by Latiana “LT” Gourzong, October 11-13.


The Light Fantastic
By Ike Holter
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice

Producer: Rebecca Adelsheim; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Set Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Makeup Designer: Yunzhu Zeng; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer & Composer: Andrew Rovner; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Noah Diaz, Gregory Saint Georges, Moses Ingram, Doireann Mac Mahon, Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells

Yale Cabaret
September 28-29, 2018

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