Reviews

Reworked "Working" Works at ACT

Review of Working, ACT, Ridgefield

There’s a new kid on the block. ACT, or A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, a new musical theater in Ridgefield, CT, has launched its first full season with a reworking of Stephen Schwartz’s Working. The original debuted in 1977, turning the stories collected by Chicago-radio personality Studs Terkel for his best-selling book on working lives into occasions for song and dance. A later version received an Off-Broadway production in 2012 and featured new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 2019 version at ACT,  revamped by Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, in consultation with Schwartz, updates elements of the show and, significantly, incorporates material from interviews Levine conducted with Ridgefield workers. The new version offers the best of both worlds: the Broadway polish of the original show together with home-grown local elements.

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

Schwartz in fact combines both aspects as well: a Ridgefield resident, he is a very successful Broadway composer, with shows like Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked to his credit. He is one of the inspirations behind ACT, and the first three seasons will each feature one of his works as part of the Presenting Stephen Schwartz series. But ACT isn’t only about classic musicals. The second slot of the debut season is taken by Austen’s Pride, a new musical about ever-beloved author Jane Austen that is on its way to Broadway, and the third show at ACT will be the popular musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, winner of the 2005 Tony for Best Book of a Musical.

The theater at ACT features seating higher than the stage, creating a very open playing space for this very energetic play, accessorized with scaffolds and screens as both backdrops and moveable scenery. The ladders and stairs and various props used to suggest different working areas are augmented by a wide variety of multimedia effects, including clips of local workers at work while their voices can be heard ruminating about their lives and their jobs (Scenic Design, Jack Mehler; Media Design, Caite Hevner). It all blends together seamlessly with the songs and speeches presented by the six-member cast. The intimacy of the staging is such that every member of the audience feels directly addressed by the performers, and that makes for a vibrant community feel.

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

In swift vignettes, we learn something about a range of occupations—tree-cutter, waitress, teacher, firefighter, trucker, mason, care-provider, office worker, fast food deliverer, housewife, housecleaner, millworker, drugstore clerk, tech support, receptionist, deli owner—and can let ourselves by cheered by the fact that there are people who perform these tasks, some of whom are deeply gratified by the nature of the work they do. The point of the show, not without its tensions, is that work is essential to one’s identity and to feeling part of a community, to say nothing of the capitalist system in general. Leisure may be a wonderful thing, but here it’s all about getting down to what needs to be done, for the sake of work itself.

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

The cast of three men—Brad Greer, André Jordan, Cooper Grodin—and three women—Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz—maintains familiar gender binaries of the working world: the cleaners are women, the truckers are men. There is a female millworker (Ramirez) and a male caregiver (Jordan), but a bit more mixing might add some new wrinkles. Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” given a soulful rendering by Washington, serves up the plaint of the stay-at-home mom, which may be pertinent again as it was back in the ‘70s. Stay-at-home dads—was that just an ‘80s thing? Another song with a nice sense of occupational anxiety is Woyasz’s believably ethnic teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How,” a sharp aside on how education is always inflected by its setting (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, music by Mary Rodgers).

From the guys, there’s an inspiring speech by Greer as a firefighter; he also, guitar in hand, serves up Carnelia’s “The Mason” as a celebration of folk endurance; in the staging of James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” the guys are serviced by the female cast members in sexy attire, to let us know that the road has its rewards as well as its regrets. Then there’s “Joe,” Carnelia’s ode to the retiree (Grodin) whose life without work is a struggle to maintain interest. The man’s failing health segues nicely into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” a song for caregivers and nannies which strikes a plaintive note about doing the work that family members shirk.

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

With such a range of musical collaborators, the songs are varied in their styles, but all land with a snap, and the unseen musicians pack a punch in Dan Pardo’s arrangements for what is essentially a rock band. Particularly memorable, as a blend of movement and song, are Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” a tribute to the finesse of waitressing led by Woyasz, and, incorporating significant media effects, “Brother Trucker” and Miranda’s “Delivery.” Other songs, such as Schwartz’s potentially mawkish “Fathers and Sons,” work well in context: here, we’ve just heard three Ridgefield students talking about their families, their studies, and their hopes for their own professional futures.

Formerly a two-act show, the current version plays under 90 minutes with no intermission. And so the two closers of the respective acts follow one another to form the finale. This means that the rueful sense of lost opportunities in Micki Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been” is immediately parried by Carnelia’s “Something to Point to.” The juxtaposition is telling. Whatever we become, in this world, there may be a sense, perhaps known to none but ourselves, of what we might have been or wanted to be; however that plays out, it’s the reality principle that ultimately triumphs in Working, where you are what you do.

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

It’s rare enough to find the workers of non-glamorous careers celebrated. In our era of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, learning how regular people live can be a worthwhile antidote. There ought to be school trips to see Working, if only to touch base with modern society’s bedrock. And the show isn’t only an occasion for admiring lives given over to workaday jobs, director Daniel C. Levine’s Working is a snappy example of musical theater that really works.

Working: A Musical
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg and Daniel C. Levine
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor
Directed by Daniel C. Levine

Choreography: Chip Abbott; Music Director: Dan Pardo; Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Costume Design: Brenda Phelps; Scenic and Lighting Design: Jack Mehler; Media Design: Caite Hevner; Sound Design: John Salutz; Wig Design and Hair Supervision: Liz Printz; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Michael Seelbach; Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz

Musicians: Dan Pardo, conductor/keyboard; Matt Hinckley, electric and acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric and acoustic bass; Dennis Arcano, drums and percussion

ACT of Connecticut
February 14-March 10, 2019

In So Many Words

Review of What Remains, Yale Repertory Theatre, No Boundaries Series

Claudia Rankine’s poetry is notably situated. In her books Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, the perspective is that of an African American woman, a writer, a teacher, a wife. Hers is a view that shapes itself, as writing, through the provocations of the times through which she lives. The political climate, the mainstream culture, the prevailing ideology en academe, all tinged with an awareness of the generally racist assumptions that mark our time. In interacting with her books to create the performance piece What Remains, choreographer Will Rawls has created a poetic visual and aural language that invokes that very situatedness without naming or describing it.

Four black bodies in flowing, shiny wraps expressive as drapes upon a body can be, moving through a wide open space, dotted here and there, and from time to time, with accoutrements of performance: microphones, a piano disguised as a slab, folding chairs, a mirror ball, light-stands and an umbrella. Here, everything is movement, voice, and sound. Intelligible words, when enunciated, draw attention by their rarity, and by their matter-of-fact address. A statement about late night ads for anti-depressants, a reiteration of what seems a doctor’s advice, phrases—“in so many words”—and quotations from song lyrics. A story about walking behind two men when one tells the other that if he dies, he’s OK with what his life has been. Nothing orients us toward a speaker or a deliberate persona.

what-remains-150x150_1.jpg

Three of the dancers, female, create moving tableaux that might set off a variety of echoes—three fates, three graces, three sisters, a trio of backup singers, and at times they play off those associations deliberately, as when they form a line that moves through space, each figure experiencing and expressing the movement differently. One (Tara Aisha Willis) might give utterance to a particularly guttural voice, able to twist away from intelligible sounds in a provocative way. Another (Leslie Cuyjet) is more likely to pitch her voice in a melodic way. At one point, late, Jessica Pretty struggles with pitch and we’re suddenly in an impromptu jam session. Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, sound designer, composer and pianist, creates a soundscape that commands our attention, quiet enough to let us feel the force of each different inflection of the reiterated word “you,” loud enough to make chests rattle with the volume of bass, or making us succumb to a loop of sound that sits in space like a physical presence.

As the first time this piece has appeared in a traditional black box, What Remains, at the Iseman Theatre under the auspices of Yale Repertory Theatre, makes the most of the open theatrical space. The lack of visual interest means that the lighting, abetted at times by the players moving the light-stand about, plays a key role in how we read the choreography. The moments that captivated me most were those instances when all four spread out to create kinetic sculpture, each figure an embodied attitude, a marker, a fluid gesture.

The show keeps us awash in stimuli, as we watch the tone and manner change without ever quite being sure of the continuity or the context. The four players are distinct in appearance, making the most of differences in stature or a close-cropped head compared to a torrent of hair. We might want to read associations of place and background in how they shape themselves, but they remain mostly enigmatic. By extrapolation we glimpse how the negotiation of social space is a performance, enabled by a tension between the individual and the collective, with each trying to find a rhythm that gets through.

Fascinating even when somewhat opaque, What Remains is a vibrant ensemble piece that plays out like a sequence of musical tracks, some solemn, some funky, some harsh, some sweet, but always inflected by the richly articulated presence of beauty.

 

What Remains
Direction and Choreography by Will Rawls
Text by Claudia Rankine

Creative Consultant: John Lucas; Production Designer: David Szlasa; Costume Designer: Eleanor O’Connell; Sound Designer: Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste; Music by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste with Will Rawls

Created in collaboration with and performed by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, and Tara Aisha Willis

Yale Repertory Theatre
2018-19 No Boundaries Series
February 14-16, 2019

Heroes of Happy Meals

Review of Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang, Yale Cabaret

This weekend at Yale Cabaret, it’s the new kids in town, or, more properly, in the Yale School of Drama. The high spirits of first-year playwright Angie Bridgette Jones’ Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang is matched by the high spirits of its cast, all first-year actors at the School, and is directed by first-year director Alex Keegan. Most of the tech team marks Cab debuts as well.

The play lends itself to youth—though maybe youth that’s beginning to feel its oats. Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang were, in their day, a pack of pubescents working with zest and commercial zeal in a televised version of a fast-food restaurant. Not exactly Reality TV, the show offered a recipe for diversity, and was the kind of sitcom that forever marks those who watched it in their younger and more impressionable years. Of course, being on the show marked the cast for life, to some extent, and the mix of nostalgia, bitter memory, and theatrical cheer that attends one’s best-remembered role is served up with seasonings that have marinated over the years.

51632648_10157091721199626_997900385249132544_o.jpg

We’re generally predisposed to see our past as more innocent than the present—not just because we were but because the world was too, or at least that’s how it seems. So, if the beaming face of Bush II on the wall brings back a flurry of fond memories, then you already share a world with the Kids Gang. Likewise, your frame of reference for the kind of kids’ show Lenny’s FFKG was in its day will date you. Let’s just leave it at “Nickelodeon,” with Lenny, who was played by Kaleb (in a feisty portrayal by Bre Northrup), supposedly the leader. It’s due to Kaleb that this reunion is taking place, after fifteen years, as though he can’t quite get over the time when he was the focus of all that attention.

The others—Jason (Daniel Liu), Jessica (Malia West), Daniella (Madeline Seidman), Walter (Holiday), and Bam Bam (Julian Sanchez), the talking dog—have all moved on, more or less, but some have hopes that a reunion, with press and possibly agents, will revive interest in the show. But let’s not worry overmuch about the plot. What makes Jones’ play work is how the cast navigate their former roles and their current status. It all lands as both tribute and inquest, each wondering how they endured the show and who they are without it.

Bam Bam, for instance, has been a substance-abuser for quite some time. Once you’ve been a talking dog on TV, what’s life got to offer? Walter has a tale of woe as well. On the show, his tag was his endless consumption of burgers. Now he’s got diabetes and his health is in decline. Then there’s the way the Asian-American boy and African-American girl played by Jason and Jessica respectively were simply token parts with no lines or silly ones. And Daniella, though she educated herself beyond her eye-candy white girl role, still feels marked by it. And that leaves Kaleb, the white male of the group, as the only one still uplifted by the show’s part in his life.

Further tensions come to light with a gun, an emergency signal that produces a lockdown, and an anxious wait for some kind of intervention. Along the way, there are various send-ups, put-downs, and very amusing occasions to vent about what was what. Liu and West come across memorably as real life characters that put to shame their televised caricatures. Sanchez’s strung-out dog pouts and whines and rolls about like a live-action cartoon, Seidman gives Daniella a wide-eyed intensity and Holiday’s Walter delivers the tones of the sad sack trying to overcome a minor part. The possibility of an impending moment of truth keeps the action moving with a frenetic sense of incident. Lenny, ever the autocrat, often standing on a chair, gets a comeuppance that would probably have made a good episode of the show.

The set is a reasonable facsimile of a fast-food restaurant, complete with plate-glass windows and doors, little tables for two, a bathroom (where Bam Bam does lines and hides out), and—for a touch of aging nostalgia—a payphone. Liu and Northrup open the show as cheerleaders for Lenny’s Burgers, a  restaurant in Orlando, Florida, as they work the crowd with questions and mimicry and quick, versatile patter. The opening sets the tone of hyperbolic “fun” that nothing apart from actors on a children’s show could possibly live up to. From the start we’re in the world of hyper simulacrum, and the gaps between role and actor sell the Cab show. Kids grow up and learn the world really isn’t fun, while those beloved figures from childhood who helped sell the idea that it is are apt to be sadder than sad to our grownup eyes.

 

Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang
By Angie Bridgette Jones
Directed by Alex Keegan

Producers: Emma Perrin & Madeline Carey; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Technical Director: Laura Copenhaver; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Holiday, Daniel Liu, Bre Northrup, Julian Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
February 14-16, 2019

But in these cases we still have judgment here

Review of Good Faith, Yale Repertory Theatre

The case: Ricci vs. DeStefano was a lawsuit brought by twenty New Haven firefighters against the city for not following through on the results of a promotion exam, administered in 2003. The city, dismayed that so few firefighters of color scored in the top ranks, chose to throw out the results, claiming the test was biased. The city’s decision was twice upheld but then, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was decided for the firefighters in 2009, in a 5-4 decision. The suit’s victory seems to indicate that even whites can be discriminated against, since the case involved Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act aims to prevent any employer from using race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as a factor in hiring, promoting, or dispensing other work-related benefits. While generally seen as a means of fighting against discrimination arising from factors irrelevant to a given job, the article can also make a judgment call—like throwing out the results of a test deemed unfair—an act of prejudicial discrimination, rather than of a more neutral “discrimination,” i.e., determining whether a test serves its proper function. The ambiguous space between discriminating between applicants based on accomplishment (e.g., scoring high in a test) and discrimination as upholding social inequity or bias might be the realm of philosophy. In the U.S., it’s the realm of the legal profession.

Fine, but is it the stuff of drama? Certainly, tempers flare at such topics, and voices get raised, there may even be threats of violence or of additional lawsuits, but is that reason enough for theater to get involved? Apparently, yes. Yale Repertory Theatre, with the Binger Center for New Theatre, commissioned playwright Karen Hartman, a Yale School of Drama alum, to create a play about the case and its effects. A task that entailed many interviews with principal figures in the events and with many other New Haven citizens. The result, Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and The New Haven Fire Department, is playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 23, directed by Tony-Award-winning director Kenny Leon with an engaging cast.

The play: The subtitle is important because the play is not about the case directly; the “chats” are meant to emulate and stimulate a collective sense of unease about how often race is generally made all-too-relevant in our society. On a spare stage graced by Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set design, a stylized firehouse, and featuring the welcome visual interest of Zachary Borovay’s projections, Writer (Karen Heisler) interacts with, mainly, Frank (Ian Bedford), based on the white man whose name appears in the case as plaintiff, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), based on Mike Briscoe, Tyrone (Rob Demery), based on Tyrone Ewing, both African Americans who took the contested test but did not score high enough for immediate promotion, and Karen (René Augesen), based on Karen Torre, the attorney who took the case to the Supreme Court and won. Each actor, but for Heisler, plays ancillary roles as well. Frank and Tyrone both eventually made Battalion Chief; Mike became director of the 911 communication center.

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

We get to hear their voices as they speak up for their views in cordial arguments, friendly diatribes, and assertive lectures. Strategy becomes a factor in every interaction, as we see lawyers before judges, friends bickering over opinions, colleagues differing over ends and means, and, in some educational vignettes, the way firefighters deal with fires. The fire, we might think with the stretch of a metaphor, is the conflagration that can easily ensue should the spark of injustice fall upon the always flammable body politic. Hearing each other out, as a social good, is part of the good faith underlying Good Faith.

The play’s main weakness is Writer: egregiously passive, overtly “cute,” she is a thin interlocutor for everyone she interviews. The best she can manage is a pleasant smile, a cringe, or a look aside. Her viewpoint, as a narrator or as the one who must pull all these scenes together into a story, is almost nonexistent. This is deliberate, as though the facts speak for themselves, or, at least, that all these speakers running off at the mouth will generate enough interest to coast us through the shallows.

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

An early interview scene between the Writer and Mike and Tyrone—set in a restaurant—establishes the technique. This is not a narrator who will break in for our benefit to move things along. This is much closer to a verbatim presentation of real voices—handled extremely well by Jones and Demery—given free rein no matter where the steed of thought runs. The purpose is to get liberal views (Mike) and conservative views (Tyrone) on the table to show that we can disagree and remain friends, but if you were drinking with these guys, you might buy a round, say ‘I see your point,’ and be on your way. But this is a play, so we have no choice but to let each speaker hold the floor for however long the script allows. At times, in a very realistic manner, Briscoe and Ewing talk over each other. They know they’re being taped by the Writer and they want their views on the record. And in such cases, it’s generally more important to be heard than to listen. And that’s the way it goes.

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

While it is interesting to have a theater full of “blue state” citizens, most affiliated with Yale and/or the greater New Haven area, sit and listen to the pro-Republican diatribe of a caustic ex-liberal (from Connecticut), the dramatic interest in Karen Torre’s prickly harangue occurs between spectacle and audience, not in the play itself. We are often all-too-aware of how the play wants to situate its audience—as “community,” which is to say, people who perforce share the common ground the play engages. By throwing around the names of our presidents, current and recent, it makes us feel how implicated we—collectively, not individually—are in any miscarriage of justice, in any disservice, so to speak, to the least of our number, or, indeed, the most. And yet, the dramatic force of that indictment plays out as a wishy-washy pride in our courts and judges, our cops and firemen, the people to whom we cede the power to tell us what to do when something goes wrong, or that some wrong has occurred.

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

When Mike and Frank meet up in the latter’s office to hash-out the impact of the case and the way both have prospered since, it’s the best scene in terms of relevance to the social reality behind the Ricci case. Both men, knowing each other’s blindness and choosing not to bicker any more than is necessary, come out not only with their own dignity but with respect for each other. As they say, as firemen they risked their lives for each other and for helpless people. They aren’t beholden—until lawsuits get involved—to hired sophistry nor political expediency. They can simply agree to disagree. And the play can leave it to us which we side with.

Choosing between candidates, like reviewing applicants or lawyers’ briefs, is always an act of discrimination (i.e., the ability to understand the difference between one thing and another). And who the choice excludes, inevitably, is the other team, the other side, often the other, period. The logic of that act of choosing is built into every institution America has ever created. It’s what maintains its borders and its laws and its largesse, it drives its wars and its deals and its treaties and its aid. The spectacle of how the existing system benefits some and not all, and how an argument can be made for x over y, may be endlessly interesting, on the pages of our dailies and in a lawyer’s casebook and in a history lesson. As theater, Good Faith depends on how well it can dramatize its situatedness, a situatedness that might better entertain the “mauvaise foi” behind all our good faith.

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

 

Good Faith
Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department
By Karen Hartman
Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Zachary Borovay; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher: Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: John A. Carlin

Cast: René Augesen, Ian Bedford, Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones

 Yale Repertory Theatre
February 1-23, 2019

Whitewash Backlash

Review of Trouble in Mind, Yale School of Drama

The third thesis show at the Yale School of Drama for the 2018-19 season is a powerful play not often produced. In 1957, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its author the first African American playwright to win an Obie, and she would have been the first African American author on Broadway until she balked at changes she was expected to make to the play. Consequently, the play is much less-known than it deserves to be. Aneesha Kudtarkar, a third-year director at YSD, performs a considerable public service in staging Childress’ play. One can’t help wondering why it hasn’t shown up on Connecticut stages before now, while hoping that it will soon. To say nothing of New York, where the play has yet to receive a mainstream production.

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s not surprising that the Off-Broadway version of the play would be seen as not commercially viable, in 1957. It’s an ensemble piece but the play’s heart and soul is an African American actress, Wiletta Mayer, played here by second-year actor Ciara Monique McMillian in a commanding, charismatic performance. The main white male role is a posturing and mostly unsympathetic director, Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), seconded by an even less prepossessing main actor, Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz). These are good roles—and Cefalu and Oz do great work showing us the dominant viewpoint as seen from a different perspective—but the parts might not attract actors who want to be liked. The rest of the cast are the actors, some of them rather fledgling, who have been gathered for a production of a liberal race play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and two other white men, one Manners’ put-upon assistant, Eddie Fenton (Devin White), and the other the theater’s factotum, a doting and doddering elderly Irish gent, Henry (John Evans Reese).

Why did I say “public service”? Perhaps I should amend that: a service for the white viewing-public, rather. Since white folks can’t be in a room without white folks in it, Trouble in Mind provides a rather striking view of what it’s like when we’re not around. Sure, there are many plays—not least A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African American on Broadway—that show life among non-whites. But Childress’ play—quite often comically but always knowingly—shows us blacks who move back and forth between their normal manner and their manner when whites are present. Add to this mix how the play they are rehearsing makes them act—think Gone with the Wind—and you’ve got a play about race that is acute, astute and, now and then, revelatory.

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

The first act mainly provides the comic aspects of this situation: the dissembling, the false bonhomie, the earnest entreaty by Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), the white ingenue, that the cast come to her daddy’s house in Bridgeport for some barbeque, the pointed jousts between the two would-be theater divas, Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava) and Wiletta, and Wiletta’s advice to cub actor John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges) about how to succeed in a white man’s world. As the rehearsal goes on, we hit snags, whether Manners’ hissy fit over not getting Danish in the breakfast delivery, or Judy’s uncertainty about where exactly “downstage” is. The point is that the company is all on tenterhooks, with no one sure of how secure their careers are. So, regardless of provenance, all are in thrall to a monster we call “the theater.”

In the second act, the play being rehearsed becomes the problem: Wiletta cannot abide what she is called upon to perform. The play is supposed to–in Manners’ view—milk the white audience’s tears at the atrocity of the senseless killing of an innocent black youth, thus creating an awareness of injustice. And yet, in Wiletta’s view, that point could be made equally well or better by black characters who aren’t stereotypes and whose actions have the ring of truth. The passion behind her position becomes a major catalyst for dissatisfaction in the company.

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

It’s the question of what is most “true” (and what that has to do with a manifest fiction like theater) that eats away at the company’s resolve. At one point, Manners, trying to speak for everyone, asserts that none of them have ever seen a lynching, thank God. That’s when the elder of the company, Sheldon (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), has to speak up.

Up until that point, Sheldon has been willing to play a familiar stereotype, the genial, elder black man, able to speak frankly to white folk because capable of couching his views in a humorous presentation. It’s a wonderful portrayal by Kumasi, full of appropriate mannerism, but when called upon to tell what he saw, Sheldon becomes dramatically relevant to the play-within-the-play and a source of knowledge and of pain that outweighs anyone else in the room. After that, there’s no easy way to recover the balance of power that the process requires. What’s more, despite Manners’ diatribe, vividly delivered by Cefalu, about how brave “Chaos in Belleville” is, and how no one is ready to see blacks as they really are, the whites can only feel inadequate and the blacks feel even more pointedly the silliness of what the play asks of them. It’s not only a travesty of the story “Chaos” is supposed to be telling but a much more sobering travesty of events like those Sheldon witnessed.

Childress’ play, in Kudtarkar’s production, is sharp too in its eye for the other kinds of subservience on hand. A character who might be gay—Eddie—is often the target of Manners’ caustic ire, and Henry, in a conversation with Wiletta, reveals his own sense of the wrongs of history, the kinds of scars that genial “blarney” is meant to hide. Even Manners has his vulnerability—as a put-upon breadwinner paying alimony, and as the man answerable to the money backing this risky, well-meant, but ultimately vain endeavor. And speaking of vain, there’s Millie, a woman who, unlike the others, doesn’t really need the acting job, she just likes to show off (not least a diamond bracelet). Childress manages to play with types as comic material while interrogating how and why we all playact. It’s a bracing theatrical experience, and Kudtarkar’s cast handles well the moves between broad comedy, more subtle satire, and the serious confrontation of difficult truths.

Alexander McCargar’s scenic design makes the University Theater feel like the venerable space it is, filling the stage with the odds and ends of theatrical rehearsal and eventually removing a wall for a dramatic sense of the real people behind the play. Lighting, costumes and sound—including a recording of applause—all are topnotch and serve to create a sense of the real 1950s, and of the theater of that time. And downstairs during intermission and after the show, “For Your Consideration,” a film installation by Erin Sullivan, makes wry comment on the whole question of breakthrough African American artists in a field seen as normatively white: as years flash by, we see white woman after white woman gripping the Best Actress Oscar and emoting (soundlessly), until the sole nonwhite winner—Halle Berry—can be heard, thanking a history of all those who got passed over. It’s quite striking. After Berry, everyone who is shown seems part of a self-congratulatory “business as usual,” a cultural matrix that sustains itself by replicating itself, without apology. The film comments on Wiletta’s struggle—believing in the theater even as she must face how relentlessly it fails to deliver what it seems to promise.

 

Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Scenic Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Gregory Saint Georges, Amandla Jahava, Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi, Zoe Mann, Ciara Monique McMillian, Hudson Oz, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale School of Drama
February 2-8, 2019

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance: as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character.

There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction. The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

Mirthful Birthday Murder

Review of Murder for Two, Playhouse on Park

In Murder for Two, playing through this weekend at Playhouse on Park, the laughs come from the improbable situation, exploited as much for its silliness as for its show-biz potential: his own murder as a birthday surprise for Arthur Whitney, a murder novelist, and a cop, with an unseen partner, Lou, who has to play detective among a roomful of suspects. One actor (Trevor Dorner) plays all the suspects, the other (John Grieco) plays the policeman, Marcus Moscowicz. Sent in to vamp by the local police department, Marcus wants to solve the crime before the real detective gets there, hoping to make detective himself.

Together and separately, Dorner and Grieco play the piano as both a prop and accompaniment, keeping up vaudevillian repartee and trading off gags. Both actors have experience playing the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet and their showmanship at the piano is a great asset of the show here.

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

The set by scenic designer David Lewis is a sprawling room crammed with books and the kind of genteel trappings common in detective novels. An alcove up a few steps from the stage floor will be an ideal spot for certain dramatic and musical moments—not least a somewhat gratuitous film noir death from the creepy backstory of our haunted flatfoot.

Anyone willing to show up for the novelist’s birthday has already been used by the voracious writer as material for one of his score-settling fictions. And that means anyone could be guilty of the murder, not least because one of the suspects present, the gruff psychiatrist Dr. Griff, has seen pretty much the entire town professionally—including Marcus—and so apprised the author to the sorts of things the others told in confidence. Why was he so close to Whitney? Well, let Griff enlighten us with a song about the importance of friendship . . .

One of the features of the show that lands best is the notion that everyone present is a kind of performer—whether in the past or in the making—each ready for a big number. It might be ditzy Southern belle Dahlia—who, she says, was forced to give up her successful stage career after marriage—waiting for her showstopper, or her niece, Steph, an eager criminologist in training, wanting to pant musically about being smitten with Marcus. The songs can be witty, are always jaunty, and help to make the most of the whirligig of Dorner’s performance as he launches into one improbable Broadway-style number after another. And there’s good fun with an audience member—as the victim of a second murder—that capitalizes on the close-to-the-action setup of Playhouse on Park.

Not all the characters are as keenly drawn as we might hope—a sparring couple are thinly characterized and their put-downs tend to fall flat—and making the aloof ballerina, Ms. Lewis, a love interest for Marcus feels very much a sitcom element. In fact, the Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (also music and lyrics respectively)—a Drama Desk nominee in 2014—tends to mix together the tropes of detective fiction, musicals, sitcoms, cartoons, and vaudeville without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. A good example of the verbal style on show here are the titles of Whitney’s books, which are so literal as to be clues in themselves, almost. The one he was working on at his death, All of Them Bananas, might point easily to the entire cast, including three members of a boys’ choir (whom Dorner enacts on his knees—and then proceeds to Charleston!).

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

Not quite as sharp as 39 Steps, where the Hitchcockian elements help with suspense, nor as inspired as A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which won the Drama Desk’s Award for Best Book in 2014, Murder for Two makes the most of its featured players’ talents. Grieco presents a very earnest and unassuming Marcus, his frequent references to detective protocol a good ongoing gag, and Dorner is as manic as necessary, though the introduction of each new character might work better if not off to the side on a thrust stage. Directed by Kyle Metzger, the play isn’t always as slapdash and swift as it needs to be. All in all, every bit of the show is food for whipped-up fun, a kind of murder meringue, without much flavor for thought, so it can’t afford to less us ruminate.

 

Murder for Two
Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair
Music by Joe Kinosian, Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Kyle Metzger

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Chris Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master: Judi Manfre

Cast: Trevor Dorner, John Grieco

Playhouse on Park
January 16-February 3, 2019

Something in the Air

Review of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

 Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre’s second feature of the season, is billed as a “comedy-thriller,” centered on workplace racism—in both its more and less deliberate registers. The play, directed by Elizabeth Nearing, is more comedy than thriller, providing many a knowing chuckle about the way office politics takes its tone from favoritism and ostracism and how easily racism plays into both.

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

At CCT, the play provides a plum role for local actress Gracy Brown. She plays Jaclyn, an African American employee—for the past sixth months—of Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), the kind of white boss who hires a woman of color as a way of doing a “good thing,” then regrets it and looks for reasons to get rid of her. As Jaclyn, Brown’s capable presence holds our sympathy even when she’s being rather unsympathetic to a timorous patient, Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh). Because Jaclyn is free—at least at the start—of ulterior motives, she is a welcome contrast to Dr. Williams and his recently promoted office manager Illeen (Susan Kulp), who open the play conniving against Jaclyn before we even meet her. When she arrives, Jaclyn carries herself with a no-nonsense work ethic that does seem a bit hard-edged after the doctor’s touchy-feely flattery of Ileen. By insisting on being called “Jaclyn,” rather than the doctor’s preferred nickname, “Jackie,” Jaclyn strikes her boss as the kind of worker that doesn’t “fit in” with the office as he’d have it be.

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

One of the play’s best comic features is how Jaclyn subtly turns the tables. She begins the play at a distinct disadvantage—she’s been out sick for five days, due to—we’re told by Williams—anxiety attacks and, in her own view, the ill effects of toxins in the office. Her return is met by Williams’ efforts to get enough bad notes on her to get her transferred. Illeen, who may live to regret how easily she lets the doctor turn her into a stoolie, takes on the role of spying while denying it. In the early going, the two office assistants show traces of the friendliness that, until now, they used with one another—as Ileen fondly recalls Jaclyn’s “yammering,” and Jaclyn—while complaining relentlessly about how messy and disorganized Ileen is—entertains her colleague with tales of her noisy Mexican neighbors. Eventually we will see how much of Jaclyn’s behavior is a form of performance.

The escalation of the tensions between them—with Jaclyn trying to bedevil her colleague at times and, at other times, making conciliatory gestures—almost goes a bit too far, with Ileen becoming the anxious one, confused and scared by Jaclyn’s mood-swings. It’s to Kulp’s credit that, as Ileen starts to veer off her usual ingratiating manner, we can believe how swiftly she is at her wits’ end (all the action takes place in four days). Ileen emerges as a woman without much mind or backbone of her own, easily caught up in her boss’s machinations while unable to be the tough-minded office manager he believes he needs.

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

As Doctor Williams, Ethan Warner-Crane has a distracted manner, as if he’s barely aware of the people who work for him as more than extensions of his own day. He’s boyish as befits a boss who is younger than his employees, and the women’s efforts to fatten him up with sweet rolls and pecan pie, while each accuses the other of having a crush on him, serves to remind us that sexism is also a part of the workplace dynamic. Ageism comes in a bit more subtly with the way everyone treats Mrs. Saunders as though a child not fully in possession of her faculties. Meanwhile, offstage, there are Rose’s son and Ileen’s husband and son, who all provide repeated insights about how Jaclyn’s behavior is a symptom of the anger “her people” feel about slavery.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

There are symptoms aplenty on view here, certainly. But what’s the cure? Johnson’s play doesn’t have any answers, perhaps, but it does end where we can see what might have been clear to an unbiased viewer all along: Jaclyn is the better worker, if only her boss would treat her as a person and not a problem.

 

Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Producers: Jenny Nelson and Dexter J. Singleton; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Molly Flanagan

Cast: Gracy Brown, Susan Kulp, Debra Walsh, Ethan Warner-Crane

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-February 3, 2019

One Ring to Rule Them All

Review of The Engagement Party, Hartford Stage

Dinner parties never seem to go well onstage. The assembled characters are bound to find some cause for friction that will defeat the best-intentioned bonhomie. Think only of two plays produced last season at Hartford Stage: Sarah Gancher’s Seder and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Though Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party, currently in its world premiere there, doesn’t quite launch us into the contested waters of those two predecessors, it does live up to the expectation that the thin veneer of social cheer will be cracked and warped and all but destroyed by evening’s end.

There is entertainment in watching that happen—if only because Baum’s characters are so insular in their attitudes—but the play’s insistence on a whodunit moment (or, more properly, a “was something done?”) creates a catalyst that leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe I’d just like to think better of everyone gathered here than they do of each other, or maybe it’s that Baum, and director Darko Tresjnak, want characters we can “suspect” rather than characters we can expect to be complicated.

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Catherine (Beth Riesgraf) are a well-to-do couple in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, its living and dining areas’ comfortable modernism perfectly established by Alexander Dodge’s enthralling set, which spins to reveal a showcase kitchen—with an incredibly high ceiling inferred—and, later, a second floor bedroom we see through a picture window. Each space is more enclosed than the last, and that makes for an escalating sense of claustrophobia as the partyers find themselves looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to catch hints of the conversation walked in upon.

The guests are: Catherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), a fit septuagenarian, and his wife Gail (Mia Dillon), who disdains sporting a needed crutch; Haley (Anne Troup), much frumpier than her friend Catherine, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Josh’s not-as-successful colleague. The two younger couples have been mutual friends since college—Harvard—along with Alan (Teddy Bergman), the intellectual of the bunch who now teaches at Columbia and disdains the trappings of wealth that his former classmates are so keen on curating. But he’s not the real odd-man-out: that role is filled, with jocular, working-class machismo, by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), a childhood friend of Josh’s who knew him when.

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

The revelations that come out about what the characters are hiding or lying about deserve to be preserved from spoilers, but the reliance on a misplaced—and insanely costly—engagement ring as the evening’s turning point spoiled what had looked to be a play in which we get to see what friends of long-standing say about one another when one or another is out of the room. That play gets swept away, more or less, by an extended investigation of suspicion that traps the characters (for a time) as though in a “lite” version of The Exterminating Angel. When Alan—whom Teddy Bergman plays with captivating dryness—leaves the party, close behind tearful Haley and exasperated Kai, I was quite sorry to see him go and wished we could follow him to some other destination where he might continue to add interest to the evening.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Back inside, the drama unfolding between the sophisticated elder couple and their vapid daughter and up-from-Canarsie son-in-law-to-be escalates to near violence. Johnny—important if only because he knows the backstory that Josh has told no one—heads out for coffee, inviting Josh for a dialogue that never occurs. Pity, but the host can’t leave until the expensive engagement ring’s whereabouts are determined.

The revelation you might be expecting—Baum is the author of The Wizard of Lies, the gripping story of Bernie Madoff, and the play is set, deliberately we imagine, in 2007, just about when the lie that was our nation’s economy was exposed—doesn’t materialize. That’s too “Noughts”; the exposures of the “Teens” have been “Me-Too” moments, so think along those lines.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

 The women here are mostly engaged in low-key reaction—with the always excellent Mia Dillon almost entirely wasted—though Catherine eventually gets to vent at her parents and husband. She may be the one we sympathize with most, but since she has cluelessly not divined much about the men in her life, we can only go so far with that. As Josh, Zach Appelman has to go from grabby husband to alienated son-in-law to awkward boss-friend-host (of Kai) to embarrassed chum (of Johnny), and eventually to hyper, almost paranoid, frenemy to everyone and, at last, hero egregiously wronged while also still wronging. We might think better of him were it not that he seems to understand himself so little.

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

The others do what they can with what they’ve got. Bekins, in his confrontation scene with Josh, plays concerned pater convincingly until the unsavory past is thrown in his face (with Baum stacking the deck with not one, not two, but three wrongs!). The scene comes undone well, but there’s nowhere the play can go after that. Fortunately, it doesn’t have much longer to go.

Brian Lee Huynh keeps things lively as Kai who is, in his own eyes, the most put-upon person present; as Haley, Anne Troup plays distraught well, but never gets to have a scene alone with her friend Catherine. Teddy Bergman’s Alan is spot-on, including recalcitrant hair, and Brian Patrick Murphy gives Johnny the touch of soul that no one else here has any inkling of.

Up until the fateful wine spill a third of the way through this quick 85-minute play, I was engaged by The Engagement Party, thereafter not so much. Some viewers will be sustained by the low order curiosity concerning what became of that much admired ring. If you must know, go!

Gail (Mia Dillon)

Gail (Mia Dillon)

The Engagement Party
By Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Casting: Laura Stancyzk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, Anne Troup

Hartford Stage
January 10-February 3, 2019

Remake the Rules

Review of The Rules, Yale Cabaret

Playwright Charles Mee’s “The (Re)Making Project” invites theater groups to take the scripts on his website and “use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays . . .”  The latest offering at the Yale Cabaret is a remaking or “pillaging” of Mee’s play The Rules, which began life with the title “The Constitutional Convention: A Sequel.” With that in mind, the Cab’s version, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, and Evan Hill, begins with some of the text of the Constitution, cut-up and overlapped in a busy voice-over that becomes a hallmark of this funny, unsettling, and exhilarating show.

49897378_10157032115489626_6683003377825087488_o.jpg

Mee’s lines have a certain delirium. They tend to be stream-of-consciousness even when there’s dialogue because everyone in The Rules seems to be contemplating or recalling or trying—arguably, in Mee’s words—"to arrive at a new set of conventions to live by, now that the old ones are gone.” But what conventions, exactly? Conventions of social intercourse? Conventions of gender, of genre? Conventions of the artifice called theatrical representation?

All of the above, as I read it. Three actors—Adrienne Wells as Susan, David Mitsch as Arthur, and Robert Hart as David—enact scenes that amount to performance art pieces, for the most part. Seated fully clothed in a bathtub, Susan might be talking about an exercise regimen while David enacts the trainer as a kind of stock figure of guttural humor. Or Arthur might be remembering the first Thanksgiving as a a macabre feast upon the dead with Susan vaguely questioning his accuracy.

While Susan is fairly consistent in her airy tones, David—in Hart’s hands—is an assault of mercurial voices, including the yuk-yuk tones of a stand-up comic of the old school, and a carefully paced rap about racial profiling that feels all-too-contemporary. Meanwhile, Arthur, who begins the evening looking fairly butch in his cowboy hat and distressed jeans, eventually finds himself sporting red high-heels, and later comes onstage in full drag, wearing an amazing get-up of a gown (April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng, costumes). His in-out-and-all-around-the-tub performance, lip-synching with passionate abandon to 4 Non-Blondes’ early ‘90s hit “What’s Up?”, is the kind of tour de force show-stopper one sometimes encounters at the Cab. It’s so over-the-top it pushes the entire show to another level.

But that’s not to overlook other aspects of the show—such as a strange monologue by Susan, quite amused, about how she “came into her own,” or a video of a woman engaging in what we’re supposed to take as cannibalism while the cast disputes the etiquette for eating one’s own species. There’s also a more phrenetic speech by Susan, as she wanders the stage as though on a catwalk, considering where the selling of oneself enters an area forbidden by “the rules”—selling one’s body for sex, selling one’s body parts for someone else’s use?

From the later 1990s, The Rules feels very much of the moment in this bracing production. Mee’s script, in giving us speakers isolated in their self-regard, easily updates into the era of the selfie and the choice of one’s phone as preferred amusement, interlocutor, and chronicler. Here, the characters are monologues aware they’re overheard, set on a spare white stage with the feel of an austere boudoir, enhanced by lights and projections to become a space where we regard these embodied voices as significant things. As Susan says, dreamily, “Life is more complicated now than it used to be. People have relationships these days with their objects, and sometimes just with pictures of their objects.”

Throughout the show, there is much interesting use of sound—Dakota Stipp, sound design and composer. The overlapping of voices and a wide-range of sound effects and electronics—including the sounds from the phones of patrons who texted to a prescribed number—make the show a multi-media onslaught, never dull, often quizzical. If we feel implicated in what we’re watching it’s because of the many ways we’ve all learned to navigate identity as an aspect of the internet and other media. We don’t necessarily know “the rules” for the many versions of virtual community, but their protocols bleed into the world we take up space in. And—what’s even more to the point I think—we don’t know what it is precisely that “rules” the worlds we access and populate. If “late capitalism” was what we lived through at the end of the twentieth century, where the hell are we now?


The Rules
By Charles Mee
Adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, Evan Hill
Directed by Zachry J. Bailey

Producers: Caitlin Crombleholme & Eliza Orleans; Dramaturgs: Evan Hill & Alex Vermillion; Scenic Designer: Sarah Karl; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Costume Designers: April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng; Projection Designers: Camilla Tassi & Elena Tilli; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell; Technical Director: Mike VanAartsen

Cast: Robert Hart, David Mitsch, Adrienne Wells

Yale Cabaret
January 17-19, 2019

The Yale Cabaret will be dark the last weekend of January, then returns February 1 & 2 with its popular drag show; Friday, February 1, showcases drag performers local to the area; Saturday, February 2, is for drag performers in the Yale School of Drama.

One Man's Surface

Book Review

Poet Mark Dow, from Houston, Texas, has an ear for tricky syntax, making his sentences read with what seems a unique logic. His poems abound in embedded rhymes and echoes, creating a dense texture of effects that becomes more fascinating with each reading. And as collections of sentences, each poem—some are verse, some prose—plays with expectations, creating an individualized, highly concentrated language that can be quite beautiful, as well as philosophical, funny and, at times, baffling. As one poem states, “One man’s surface is out of another man’s depth” (p 33).

What’s going on here?, you might find yourself asking as you dip into this slim volume. It begins with a poem invoking a mother’s consoling presence and “the pity of one / who could see in another what / the other had yet to discover or forget” (“With,” p 13), then moves onto a father beating his son (“One Fell Swoop”) that contains a glimpse, by the child, of the parents having sex. It would seem we’re deep into Freudian family romance territory, a view born out late in the collection by a long prose poem—partially a narrative—called “Water and Light.” There, Mama and Daddy are joined by Handyman, a lover figure who may be an archetypal stranger, contributing an estrangement that gets taken up by the son—“He and I and she and I were a perfect mishpack until I was born” (p 46). Both mother and father tell tales of their encounter with an other—an angel, a hobo—stories that arrive as “The overheard version was handed down in a spiral of tell-and-no-telling” (p 52).

Indeed, the genius and the genesis of the tale, as we hear it, is in the telling and not telling. Dow has arrived at an elliptical manner of storytelling that compels us to receive the story as we might a dream, but a dream borne by the way sound and sense never quite mirror each other, but act more like light on a stream: “I had a story to tell but the edges were blurred. Instead was a song which your ears might have heard. The hard horizon stops short of the sky and what slipped into that gap was the I” (p 54). What’s clear is that Dow is contemplating origins—of the person of the speaker, of his poetics, and of the creation itself. This is not so tendentious as it may seem because Dow’s poetics, a combination of craft and vision, make us feel presence as a certain kind of being-in-the-world, and that world is itself a linguistic conception. In the beginning was the word, and “Water and Light” ends with the Hebrew characters for “one term for / the one considered One, / big O, a.k.a. the creator” (p 56). The story resonates as foundational myths do, as the kind of tale, metamorphosing as we read it, that one finds Joyce mining so richly in Finnegans Wake.

The key poem for Dow’s poetics in Plain Talk Rising, it seems to me, is “Between the Lines and Above the Gaze, Which is a Phrase of Mallarmé’s,” its title a good example of the way Dow plays with rhymes and patterns throughout the collection. Early in this eight and a half page poem, we encounter what struck me as a key statement: “It may be that you’re the window and the / being seen through it at once and between” (p 33). The notion that language is a mirror, able to render reality with always a degree of distortion, is almost commonplace. Language—where the eye and the I combine, fortuitously, in English—lets us contemplate a window we see through that is also us being seen through. It’s our only means of consciously “seeing” the world, “at once and between” because we know that, even if we want to believe our perceptions are nothing but a window on the world, there is something “between” us and the world—consciousness itself, or, as some philosophers and poets would prefer to say, language. Mallarmé, of course, is the supreme poet of language as game, a kind of hide-and-seek of meaning where the slightest departures from the norms of syntax create gaps and slippages that almost suggest an alternative way of seeing and saying. That too is the province of Dow’s best poems.

This is not to say that Dow is never simply a poet talking about the prosaic world we generally, or generically, live in. He can be marvelously apt at converting something real into grist for his word-mill: “In the pool in the crownshaft fifty-some-odd hard candies with tiny tongues attached are snails. Mouth is filled with teeth the tongue touches” (p 31). That short prose poem—“Double Lull”—is little more than a tone poem creating an analogue for “Middle-night rain with two voices.” The next poem, titled “Partial Inventory of Immediate Surroundings Omitted from the Preceding Poem,” gives a litany of mundane objects to let us know that, yes, Dow is aware he’s not often using language to take pictures, but then, when he does, watch out: “Wall calendar from last year / with photographs of national parks, / six or seven toilet seats, a sombrero. / Cigar boxes covered with glitter and glue. / A Wiffle ball, sunglasses, / the Los Angeles County / Driver’s Education Handbook, / mouse droppings, mouse traps, / signed pictures of ex-presidents, / pinball machine, crucifix, / small bronze Buddha, / and about a thousand cheap spoons / of every conceivable size” (p 32). Detritus, random junk? Specificity, we’re often told, is the mark of the true writer, able to banish abstractions to the void and give us “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, its box “covered with glitter and glue.”

Dow’s playfulness is often the point. His mind, it seems, tends to be alert to the kinds of linguistic conundrums that need a sharp eye to divine, but he lets that challenge buoy up his imagination rather than drive him into doldrums about meaninglessness. The poet is the one who gets to define things, after his own fashion: “For years one mind, or so I thought, it part of me, but recently, / that world complete in terms with which we’ve yet to come to terms, / secession starts, autonomy yet wholly me” (“Interim Agreement, p 17). Coming to terms with the terms one’s mind—in its autonomy which is also the “me” of the speaker (perhaps his defining characteristic)—invents? arrives at? while witnessing its “secession.” This could be something like a dissociative personality, or it could be a creative crux, a moment when one is aware that the writing has its own logic, its own way of getting at the world, creating a world with which the writer must “come to terms,” in every sense of the phrase.

And that phrase—“every sense of the phrase”—is something Dow is ever alert to. There are more senses in most statements than the speaker ever senses, and a poet like Dow is apt to find that that’s where, as Emily Dickinson might say, “the meanings are.” Perhaps the best place to end, giving you a sense of the self-consciousness that Dow mines so effectively, is “A Poem by Mark Dow.” Here, the poet looks askance at himself, not in a mea culpa way, but rather in the way we might contemplate a photo of ourselves, recognizing things we dislike and things we must admit, all the while asking “is that really me?”

Before he’s lost or bored you through the door you’re
headed for and Mark Dow looped around to head
you off at so that he could open it in time if he can
find the handle, he’ll try to make up for that fact
he’s always been unable to make things up

and turns, in fact, to find my breath leads back to
back to him and then the outside’s renewed as if
windows had been washed in Mark Dow’s absence.
His poems are nothing but I enjoy saying them to
you or reading them to myself to see if I’m here. (p 27)

The pleasures of following this corkscrew syntax are great, letting us feel “looped around” indeed, even as we can sort of glimpse “Mark Dow” trying to get us to the door, as he gestures to the “outside” we can see through those newly washed windows whose presence recalls his absence. An absence that is present whenever he reads his own poems to “see if I’m here”—he and his own breath somehow “back to back.” The feints and bobs aren’t distractions to throw us off the scent but are instead the main game, keeping in play a way of being in the world of language like “involutions in the corner of some empty warehouse / elaborating as they aspire to their own proud demise” (p 27).

Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising is a vivid performance of a self-aware poetics, able to make us feel our lived-in time and a kind of eternal time, addressing the world as a state of mind and a land of language to be mined for what value we can find. Dow’s brilliant wordplay is equal to the stringent—and playful—task he sets himself. His themes, of creation, identity, and the mystery of our sex-engendered existence, reference a possible mythos while always keeping poesis as the wildcard up the sleeve of meaning.

 

Plain Talk Rising
Poems
By Mark Dow
PTR, 2018

 

Before being "self-published," Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions; it was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.

Dow's work (poems and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Paris Review, Pequod, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, Threepenny Review and New Haven Review.

Plain Talk Rising can be found for purchase here: IndieBound

29ee6e91-885d-4094-98f3-67e97ac2b21e_1.dec126dfd5b8cd82d135d61f91c77bac.jpeg



 

Teach Them Well

Review of School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Yale Cabaret

Sure, we all know teens can be rather image-conscious—isn’t that when that tendency begins? No one—for the most part—quite likes the hair, skin, shape, features they inherit and have to “grow into.” In a girls’ boarding school in Ghana in 1986, the setting for Joceyln Bioh’s funny and thoughtful play School Girls, the growing pains are exacerbated by the pressure of a beauty pageant competition that will select a “Miss Ghana” from among the nation’s best schools to compete for the title of Miss Universe. The play dramatizes well the tension between community and competition—which is always part of schooling, often to debilitating effect. Someone gets to be “best student,” “most popular,” “most likely to succeed,” “best-looking.” Here, Paulina (Moses Ingram) wants to corral all those tags for herself, and woe to anyone who upsets this Queen Bee.

The play does a lot to tarnish Paulina. She’s an abusive bully toward hapless Nana (Malia West), a student who smuggles snacks between meals and gets called “a cow.” Paulina also undercuts her “best friend” Ama (Kineta Kinutu) at every opportunity (being “best friends” translates as “knowing all the dirt on each other”), and flaunts her popular-girl status for two underclassperson cousins, the hilarious Mercy (Vimbai Ushe) and Gifty (Gloria Majule). These two have mastered the art of public face—for Paulina, in line with her edicts—and private face—for each other, dispensing succinct shade. The early going of the play is refreshing in how it pokes fun at everyone, and at both the vanities of teens and the entire genre of teen comedy. As Headmistress Francis, Alexandra Maurice delivers the spot-on manner of the teacher—both steely and lovable—who cares deeply for her students.

unnamed.jpg

Will Paulina get a comeuppance, and what form will it take? That’s the general question of this genre, but Bioh knows whereof she writes in choosing this particular school-girl population: the playwright’s mother went to the school depicted in the play, and Bioh knows the kinds of family situations these girls come from, not least Ericka (Adrienne Wells), a brand-new transplant from the U.S. (Ohio, specifically) who has come to finish her last year of schooling in Ghana where her dad is a big cocoa tycoon. She is lovely and seems thoroughly guileless and that may be the hardest combo for Paulina to best. And Ericka knows the difference between designer clothes and knock-offs and, contra Paulina, that “White Castle” is nothing like a castle. Worse, Ericka’s late mother was white, and that unleashes Paulina’s  deepest insecurity.

All of Paulina’s efforts to be best can be fatally undercut by one fact: she’s darker than Ericka. As “Miss Ghana, 1966,” Eloise Amphonsha (Wilhemina Koomson), a former fellow-student at the school with Headmistress Francis, is a conceited recruiter for the pageant. Amphonsha wants Ericka because her fairer skin will make her competitive against all those very white countries that set the standards. She’s no doubt right about that, strategically, and she’s not really worried—though Headmistress is—about the message that sends. And there’s a further complication that makes choosing Ericka simply wrong. And yet.

As things get more intense, and less funny, Bioh is able to bring in the kinds of details that let us know why both Ericka and Paulina set such store by the façade each maintains. Both have suffered much, and getting to be “Miss Ghana” would be a way of overcoming at least some of it. The showdown is nicely matched by a showdown between Headmistress and Miss Ghana, 1966, and the elders’ reactions to how the girls behave is key to the drama here. Bioh knows that school both forms and deforms character and she lets all her characters have a chance at improving.

The cast, directed by first-year Yale School of Drama director Christopher D. Betts, works the material to rich effect. There’s a convincing command of how teens act, both among themselves and when adults are present, and when trying to be nice or just trying to play along. Ingram plays Paulina as “mean girl” as survival strategy, though we see her enjoy her manipulative side too much for us to be in her corner. As Ericka, Wells delivers a great coup de grâce at the end of her solo part in a choral rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that is both impressive and funny. Seeing Paulina crumple in response makes us feel sorry for her even as we can’t help laughing. The other girls butcher their solos with awful aplomb, all the while singing lyrics like “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” as if they know what that means.

The gaps between what we say and what we do, between what we try to teach and what kids learn are very real, and Bioh’s play makes the most of the irony of those situations while never losing sight of why we, collectively, have faith that effort for the sake of the young is never time wasted.

 

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
By Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Producers: Riw Rakkulchon & Lisa D. Richardson; Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Technical Director: BenJones; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Cast: Moses Ingram, Wilhemina Koomson, Kineta Kunutu, Gloria Majule, Alexandra Maurice, Vimbai Ushe, Adrienne Wells, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
January 10-12, 2019

Up this week, January 17-19, is Charles Mee’s The Rules, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermilion, and Evan Hill. A wry and, one suspects, unsettling look at “the rules” we “civilized” try to live by.

Can History Be Healed?

Review of Seven Spots on the Sun, Yale School of Drama

As this gripping play goes on, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by third-year Yale School of Drama directing student Jecamiah M. Ybañez, becomes an instance of folk history, one that derives its force from traumatic events. Designated as “The Town,” figures in a collective ensemble (Brandon E. Burton, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell) voice a kind of stricken amazement at events that seem the stuff of legend. Zimmerman’s play, in treating the depredations of a civil war, its aftermath, and the effects of a general amnesty for war crimes, has its eye on the tragic course of more than one Latin American country, while the play’s manner lends itself to fable and the sort of retribution we may think of as Fate.

7 spots image.jpg

Early on we learn that the town, which is overjoyed when radio transmissions recommence, accords special status to Moisés (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a former medic who has suffered more than most. So when he smashes the radio so as not to hear pronouncements about the newly instituted government, no one confronts him. The story of all he lost is told in parallel with the story of Mónica (Adrienne Wells), who speaks to the audience about her love for Luis (Robert Lee Hart), a miner in Ojona, who becomes a soldier because he expects it will provide more stability and an eventual pension. Wells’ straightforward address does much to give us direct access to life within the town.

Then the civil war comes, creating a horribly fraught world where victims of soldiers can be left to die in San Isidro’s town square while the town, frightened off by the hand-prints in white paint left as a warning, must endure the misery in their midst. As Belén, Moisés’ beloved, Sohina Sidhu’s emotional reaction to the cries of the dying boy (Powell) provides an important crux for the events to come. Whereas most of us have to read or watch news reports to be reminded, in the midst of our comfortable lives, that horrors are occurring elsewhere, Belén is unable to enjoy the mangoes that Moisés traded morphine for. Finally, goaded by her distress, Moisés agrees to take the boy into the clinic.

When soldiers are reported to be coming back to town, it’s understood that whoever has helped the boy will die. Moisés, despite his overt contempt for the cowardly priest Eugenio (José Espinosa), tries to find sanctuary in the church. Eugenio’s narration of what happens then is delivered by Espinosa as a shameful failure but also as if events are beyond his control—a feeling that gains conviction in the second part of the play. Meanwhile, Luis eventually returns from the war to his wife and newborn son, but he’s no longer the man his wife loved and she fears him.

The full details of the punishment visited upon Moisés are not revealed until late. In the play’s present, we see how, despite Moisés’ antipathy, Eugenio must come to him with a plea: there is a plague in the area that is besetting the children, its symptoms painful but sweet-smelling boils that cause death. Moisés reluctantly agrees to examine a child, then withdraws, appalled by his lack of ability and his own indifference. Eugenio comes again to tell him of a miracle: the child was immediately healed.

The parallel course of the play means that we shouldn’t be surprised that the child of Luis and Mónica will need to be healed by Moisés, but when we learn the part that Luis played in what became of Belén, the play creates a situation worthy of Solomon. At the heart of the dramatic situation is the question of atonement and forgiveness, and how wounds to the social body cannot be healed any other way, though it is more typical to expect that whoever has the upper-hand will exact whatever price satisfies the lust for revenge.

The deftness of the play’s plot is much to its advantage. This is not a realistic tale that strains credulity, but rather a fable about war and love, about hatred and desperate need. The four main characters have both a genuine specificity and a generic quality. The male roles are difficult due to the extremes the actors must evince. Hart’s Luis seems an aloof lover who does what he wants and expects his wife to accept his view; his eventual transformation seems not to take as much toll on him as it might. Sánchez’s Moisés is quite effective in his despair, but perhaps less so in his ultimatums. We have to believe in these characters as persons caught up in events beyond their control and then see them as figures of ultimate nemesis. It’s a striking situation, and an admirable effort.

The boxlike set makes the town seem a cell, an interesting comment on how all are imprisoned by past events they can’t overcome. Late in the play, a wall falls as if breaking through a façade and into the dark events that keep the town spellbound. The fascinating ensemble, with expressive choreography by Jake Ryan Lozano, creates the manner of a people struck to the heart by the story it must tell for the sake of its souls, the individual members wearing haunted looks that stay with us beyond the wrenching outcome.

Grim and trying, Seven Spots on the Sun’s sense of humanity is not without redemption, though it firmly presents the horrors of history as a curse upon the present.

 

Seven Spots on the Sun
By Martín Zimmerman
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Choreographer: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer and Composer: Andrew Rovner; Projection and Video Designer: Christopher Evans; Production Dramaturg: Evan Hill; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, José Espinosa, Robert Lee Hart, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Sohina Sidhu, Adrienne Wells

 Yale School of Drama
December 13-18, 2018

Come from the Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
December 13-15, 2018

Comfort and Joy

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hartford Stage
November 23-December 29, 2018

The Mysteries of Life

Review of The Whale in the Hudson, Yale Cabaret

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

Cab9-hero.jpg

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

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

Beat Those Christmas Blues

Review of Christmas on the Rocks, TheaterWorks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Cast: Tom Bloom, Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison

TheaterWorks
November 27-December 23, 2018

Talky at the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

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

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

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

Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 1, 2018

 

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

 

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

Paradise Missed

Review of Paradise Blue, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paradise Blue
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Awoye Timpo

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre
November 21-December 16, 2018

Pick Up the Pieces and Go Home

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

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

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

45632917_10156849309654626_4323432758689923072_o.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Cast: Kineta Kunutu, Amandla Jahava

Yale Cabaret
November 15-17, 2018