Struggles of a Son and Artist

Review of My Name is Asher Lev, Playhouse on Park

The clash of cultures is central to the drama of My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Joseph Discher, the story shows how a driven painter, Asher Lev, raised by orthodox Jewish parents, struggles to be understood by his people while becoming an artist in “the goyische style.” He paints nudes and crucifixions, subjects which are seen as a betrayal if not outright blasphemy.

Told by Asher himself in direct address to the audience, the story is fraught with disappointments and hopes, success and failure. Much of the early going has Asher recreating his viewpoint as a child, not really understanding why what he’s doing should be a cause for conflict. The play opens with the elder Lev appalled by his son’s drawings of “naked women” and blaming his wife for taking the boy to the art museum. We see how his mother and father are confused by Asher’s talent, recognizing his gift as a child but seeing little purpose for it. As Asher grows older, his father becomes even more dismissive, seeing drawing as a distraction from the important matters of life. The elder Lev serves the Jewish community’s leader, or Rebbe, and in the orthodox view only what the Rebbe approves can be meaningful.

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

At last, in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Asher has a meeting with the Rebbe himself who is more benign than might be expected (especially since Asher, as a child, drew a rather unflattering caricature of him). The Rebbe assigns the teenaged Asher to Jacob Kahn, a successful Jewish painter who becomes Asher’s mentor. The most lively aspects of the story are found in Asher’s apprenticeship to Kahn, whom he gradually comes to surpass as an artist. As Kahn says, he doesn’t take on a pupil unless he can “make a David,” referencing Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece. Asher lives up to that challenge, it seems, but manages to create a serious affront to his parents’ sensibilities.

A difficulty in Playhouse on Park’s production is Jordan Sobel’s performance as Asher. He seems too likeable and guileless, so forthright and naïve, that one is hard-pressed to see him as the major artist he becomes. He seems to remain the wide-eyed child amazed by his own gift and barely able to consider how he should regard the feelings of others or his larger obligations. We might see him as a willful child or as the possessor of a talent so large it can’t be suppressed, but all the darker elements of the story—having to do with Asher’s sense of his mother’s afflictions—are rarely given sufficient dramatic weight. The notion that Asher’s art is an invocation of Sitra Achra, or the evil side of human nature, is mentioned as if a school lesson outgrown.

Of the three actors—Sobel plays Asher, all other male roles are played by Dan Shor—Stefanie Londino fares best in making Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, take on dimensions that exist beyond Asher’s view. Otherwise, the characters all seem to be painted entirely in the colors he sees them in: the Rebbe is kindly and stern; Asher’s father is at times a caricature of bullying indifference or of mystified concern; Shor is best as Kahn if only because the artist is mercurial in his approach to his pupil, at times challenging and harsh, at other times fond and encouraging. We sense that Asher never quite grasps the full weight of Kahn’s relation to art.

The tone of the whole is of a sentimental recollection in which the parents seem touchingly or comically out of date; the difficulties between the parents, having to do in part with Rivkeh’s will to continue her deceased brother’s work, come across as a minor subplot. The gravitas that Potok employs as the tone proper to the weighty struggle of religion and art finds, in this adaptation, a much more genial portrayal.

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Discher’s vision of the play is not aided by David Lewis’ scenic design in the Playhouse thrust space. Much of the action would benefit from more freedom of movement, but in the early going many scenes occur around a table toward the back of the stage. Some of the seats in the wings are forced to regard these scenes through easels set on either side of the stage. The later scenes gain from taking place outside the Lev home, though, for a play that moves around in time and place, dictated by Asher’s memories, the action has a static quality.

In the end, the story of Asher Lev is of an artist trying to see the truth about himself. Since we can’t see his work, we can only view him in terms of his interactions with others. Though he seems satisfied with the story he tells, his audience may find themselves less so.  

 

My Name is Asher Lev
By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Lighting Designer: Joseph Beumer; Associate Lighting Designer: Justin Dudzik; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Master/Set Dresser: Pamela Lang

Cast: Stefanie Londino, Dan Shor, Jordan Sobel

Playhouse on Park
April 24-May 12, 2019

Home of the Brave

Review of Alma, Yale Cabaret

The final show of Yale Cabaret 51, Alma, by first-year playwright Benjamin Benne, directed by Cat Rodriguez, intervenes subtly into the national discourse about immigration. On the surface, it’s about a mother and daughter experiencing crossed purposes and escalating anxieties about the daughter, Angel (Ciara Monique McMillian), scoring high enough on her SATs to get into USC, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about Alma (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) worrying about whether or not she will be deported when her daughter turns 21. The context of these concerns—as we are alerted by what seems a haunted TV demonically tuned to FOX and a certain blustering, bigoted presidential candidate—is the U.S. government’s efforts to deport the undocumented.

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Benne’s play—a bit like Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls earlier this season—takes what might simply be a charming genre piece about teen life and layers it with the meanings that political reality imposes on normal lives. Every teen, we might say, has enough to worry about when trying to get into college, but here a “catch-22” situation ratchets up the tension: when she turns 21, Angel will be old enough to sponsor Alma, but when Angel turns 21 she will no longer need a parent or guardian, by the rationale of the courts.

The way these issues come to light is handled subtly, and often comically, as the fractiousness of the two women is placed front and center. In a small, homey apartment that graces the Cab stage, Alma treats her daughter both solicitously and domineeringly. She arrives while Angel is out and there’s a dodging of certain issues—where has Angel been, and has she been studying or drinking?—and even an outburst in which Alma wields a flipflop the way some parents wield belts. Paulino, who can be very imposing with a voice that commands attention, delivers as well Paulino’s fragile side, and, notably, her willingness to manipulate her daughter through every emotion possible. She’s a livewire, at times incandescent.

Angel, for her part, gives as good as she gets. She has not been eating well or wisely and at one point barely makes it to the bathroom before she begins puking. She’s then willing to work the pathetic sickie for all its worth, sucking on a frozen pop. Later, after incurring sufficient wrath for the dreaded la chancla, she brings out a plush elephant to curry favor. McMillian has been the angel of the Cab this year with three remarkable performances, beginning with The Purple Flower at the start of the season and concluding with back-to-back shows in weeks seventeen and eighteen.

The play’s dramatic peak arrives with a sudden spike in alarm. While Trump blusters in increasing volume, Alma wails with a power some might reserve for watching an execution. The lights go out and a knock comes upon the door that feels like it has the full force of the most malevolent of ICE agents behind it. To live in fear of that knock is never to experience the “land of the free.” But watching Alma and Angel we are certainly in the home of the brave.

Benne knows how to serve up the sweet, the savory and the bitter, blending the flavors of real family life well to give us a full meal, depicting the bond of love under duress.

Director Rodríguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the anti-deportation defense of Nelson Pinos—living in sanctuary at New Haven’s First and Summerfield Methodist Church since November 2017—hopes the play can be restaged after Nelson’s day in court in Minneapolis in May. For information about Pinos, go here, and for helping with his legal defense costs, go here.

With this production, its eighteenth, Yale Cabaret 51 ends, concluding a season of engaged theater—“cultivating surprise, embracing divergence, and practicing compassion.” Congratulations to Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe for an inspiring season well done. The team for Yale Cabaret 52 was announced at the shows last week and will consist of Co-Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, Brandon Burton, and Alex Vermillion, with Managing Director Jaime Totti.

 

Alma
By Benjamin Benne
Directed by Catherine María Rodríguez

Producer: Eliza Orleans; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Lighting & Projection Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Sound Designer: Marisa Areliano; Technical Director: Jenna Hoo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
April 25-27, 2019

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

Preview, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New Haven Theater Company

If you’re a regular at New Haven Theater Company shows, you might remember the time the company built what looked to be a functional luncheonette in their theater space in the back of English Building Markets. That was George Kulp’s set for William Inge’s Bus Stop, which he directed. Last year, there was the set for Neil Simon’s Rumors that turned the space into a two-story living room with numerous doors to slam. That was Kulp’s too.

Beginning this Thursday and running for the next three weekends, the space will be the dayroom at a mental hospital where a host of inmates live placid lives under the purview of a controlling nurse as Kulp directs NHTC’s next offering, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kulp, who says this is “the most ambitious and challenging” play he’s directed yet, seems to like plays with a lot of characters and a very focused set.

If you were around in the 1970s, you no doubt remember the film version of the novel, directed by Milos Forman, which won Oscars for picture, director, actress (Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and actor (Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy), and adapted screenplay. Indeed, the role of McMurphy was easily the most famous of Nicholson’s impressive career—until he took an ax to a bathroom door in The Shining.

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McMurphy is a boisterous ne’er-do-well who considers a stint in a mental hospital preferable to prison. His fellow inmates are an odd assortments of “lifers” who prefer the hospital to trying to get along in the outside world. And Nurse Ratched is there to make sure everything runs the way she likes. The confrontations between McMurphy and the nurse become a battleground over the quality of life. In the film, you just have to root for McMurphy as Fletcher’s version of the nurse is so inhumanly impersonal.

Kulp is wary of expectations derived from the film. First of all, the film was adapted from the novel, not from Wasserman’s play. And, while the drama’s trajectory runs much the same, the filmed versions of certain characters sometimes aimed for comic caricature. Kulp stresses that his cast is “very careful” to avoid that pitfall, and that means creating useful backstories for the characters to give them fuller dimension. Which might be a way of saying that Kulp is urging them to put some method in the madness.

McMurphy will be played by Trevor Williams who directed NHTC’s previous offering, Marjorie Prime. Williams acted under Kulp’s direction as the naive cowboy, Bo Decker, in Bus Stop and was one of the two hitman in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter last season, directed by John Watson. McMurphy’s nemesis, the maternal Nurse Ratched, will be played by Suzanne Powers, who worked with Kulp in Rumors.

Other NHTC members on hand include John Watson as Dr. Spivey, who tends to back the authoritarian nurse; Erich Greene, the other hitman in Dumb Waiter, as Cheswick, an anxious patient; and J. Kevin Smith, the obstreperous neighbor in Rumors and the boozing professor in Bus Stop, as Harding, the patient with the most self-control.

That leaves many parts featuring actors who will be appearing in a NHTC production for the first time, though, in most cases, Kulp has worked with each before. They include: Al Bhatt, Tristan Bird, Ralph Buonocore (who appeared in NHTC’s Urinetown), Robert Halliwell, Ash Lago, Empress Makeda, Joseph Mallon, Jodi Rabinowitz, John Strano, and Aaron Volain.

For Kulp, much of the challenge, with so many characters “and so much going on”—including a basketball game—is to keep the play “moving at the right pace.” His approach, he said, is to tell his actors “to go for the moon and then pull back.” The casting is key and his previous experiences with the cast make for a lot of trust.

The play was chosen in part because of its name recognition, its diverse cast, and because, Kulp said, it’s “an entertaining and timely story to tell.” He suggested that the issue of how our society treats mental illness and the play’s convincing sense of “the misuse of authority” are meaningful in our time, as they were when the novel was published in 1963 and when the film version was released in 1975, both key works of the Vietnam era of American culture.

Is it “cuckoo” to place such a largescale play in the New Haven Theater Company’s intimate space? Get your tickets and find out (the play is running for three weekends rather than two because seating is limited).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman, from the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by George Kulp
New Haven Theater Company
April 25-27, May 2-4, May 9-11

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

Incendiary Situations

Review of Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

“Behind every great man,” the saying goes, “there is a woman.” Donja R. Love’s Fireflies—at Yale Cabaret, directed by Christopher D. Betts, for two more shows tonight—might be said to alter that adage: “in front of every great woman is a man.” Love shows us a couple where the man, Charles (Manu Kumasi in a Cabaret debut), is an analog for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the woman, Olivia (Ciara Monique McMillian), his long-suffering wife.

Olivia cooks her husband’s food and waits patiently—or not so patiently—at home while he, “the face of the [Civil Rights] movement,” is on the road preaching and uplifting spirits. She’s also carrying his child, and, in fulsome reminiscence, he says he knew she would bear his child from way back when they were children themselves working in tobacco fields. When did she know? When she realized she was pregnant. Olivia rarely plays into her husband’s efforts to script her responses.

In the not-so-distant background of the difficulties faced by Olivia and Charles is the bombing of a church in Alabama that took innocent lives. Charles has been called upon to deliver a eulogy. Olivia is plagued by the sound of bombs—a premonition of some disaster still to come?

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On his return home, Charles is flirty and horny, using techniques that likely work with other women; he is met by a range of emotions from Olivia who, though not playing hard to get, is hard for her husband to understand. Ciara Monique McMillian’s Olivia is a delight, even in the portrayal’s darker moods and rousing speeches. McMillian gets out all the nuance there is in this strong role. Charles is far from one note as well, and Kumasi lets us see many sides of the man, not least as a minor tyrant trying to dictate how his wife should feel and the kind of life they should lead. Love writes their interactions well and Betts gets fully engaged performances from his actors.

Eventually we learn that Olivia not only writes the speeches that have earned Charles such a following, she also coaches his delivery of her words. And that’s not all. Olivia, we discover through letters she wrote and never sent, has a sweetheart: a woman named Ruby. This emerges after the FBI thoughtfully sends Olivia a package containing a tape recording, complete with tape player, of Charles getting it on with one of his women of the road. Charles, whom Olivia accuses of always playing tit for tat, uses the letters as a way of worming out of guilt about his infidelities. The story of her attachment to Ruby, plaintive as it may be, gives Olivia the backbone to assert her decision to leave Charles. The upshot is that Olivia—who resented being pregnant—is now determined to terminate the pregnancy.

As Claudius might say, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Love’s technique is to pile on racial injustice, spousal mistreatment, a sleazy doctor, dramatic foreboding, and not one but two speeches addressed to God as, seemingly, the author of the couple’s plight. There are also snatches of Charles’ way with Olivia’s speeches, and, in the end, a moving sermon by Olivia that brings into play the notion of fireflies as the spirits of the slain finding their way to heaven. The play could be said to pack a few too many complications into its 90 minute running time, so that the ultimate fate of Charles seems yet another dramatic shift.

At the Cabaret, the set by Anna Grigo packs verisimilitude aplenty, from the GE icebox to the Formica table to the range and sink, a true “kitchen-sink” style presentation. Mika H. Eubanks’ costumes—as ever—strike becoming and appropriate notes, greatly aided by Earon Nealey’s hair. Both actors look so much their parts we feel transported to another era at once. The straight-forward set is magically enhanced by Nicole E. Lang’s projection design, which combines the smoke of explosions with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and fire-streaked clouds that creep at times across the entire set. Riva Fairhall’s lighting helps cue us to the play’s many mood changes, not least the fireflies effect at the end, and the sound design by Kathy Ruvuna makes Olivia’s imaginary bombs viscerally real.

With Yale students and residents taking to the streets this past week to protest police shooting at two local African Americans charged with no crime, the lines in Fireflies that speak to the social straight-jacket imposed on nonwhite lives in America resonate, as intended, from the Jim Crow era of the play, set in 1963, to today. The conviction of the Yale Cabaret production is formidable and its skilled presentation convincingly apropos.

 

Fireflies
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Producer: Dani Barlow; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Projection Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Technical Directors: Chimmy Anne Gunn & Frnacesca DeCicco; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Fight Choreographer: Michael Rossmy; Hair: Earon Nealey

Cast: Manu Kumasi, Ciara Monique McMillian


Yale Cabaret
April 18-20, 2019

The Book of Mormon is Back

Review of The Book of Mormon, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Seeing The Book of Mormon, the irreverent and gleefully foul-mouthed Tony-winning musical by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone in a touring production now at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14, is like going to a party—either a party where you know everyone and have fun, or a party where you don’t, and don’t.

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

If you do have fun, it’s as at the expense of goofy Mormons and their made-in-the-U.S.A. myth; cartoonish Ugandans, suffering from poverty, AIDS, and a warlord who wants to circumcise all women; a range of references to Disney and Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings; a big seduction moment that features a baptism; a big production number set in a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” that includes simulated sex with heinous inmates like Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer; and a lengthy fantasia of a foundation myth in which fucking a frog—as a cure for AIDS—is preferable to fucking a baby. The laughs depend on how much of a kick you get from things like the surprise of hearing a glowing Jesus, complete with blonde hair, call the main protagonist “a dick,” or watching a village of Lion King-like Africans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated as “Fuck You, God”) instead of “Hakuna Matata,” or seeing the same villagers sport incredibly long black phalloi.

Fans of the show—which has been around since 2011 and has passed through Connecticut before—will find the show given an appropriately discordant setting at the Palace. Looking like a temple of theater, the venue features the kinds of high-tone trappings that help this brash brat of a musical score its points. Those points, while allegedly aimed to outrage the sensitivities of the venerable theater-goer, actually play into all the old familiar territory—the schlemihl proves himself, the bad guys are routed, and the powers that be see that all is not lost. It’s not so much a spoof of Broadway musicals as simply the kind of musical most suitable to the 21st century’s loss of all proprieties.

While some of the bigger numbers can feel a bit perfunctory, there are some musical standouts here, including the aforementioned “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” as well as “Turn It Off,” the Mormons’ paean to keeping unwanted feelings at bay, and the numbers featuring Kayla Pecchioni as Nabulungi, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and “Baptize Me.” The latter also features Jordan Matthew Brown, as Elder Cunningham, the role played originally by Josh Gad, and Brown does well at being goofishly, nerdishly endearing. He becomes the hero due to his talent for “Making Things Up Again,” despite the efforts by his much better-prepared partner—Elder Price (Luke Monday, standing in for Liam Tobin)—to make it all about himself in “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

The stage is big and often filled with a lot of actors, and the backdrops, costume and props help to keep the show busy. The religious segments—which might put some in mind of the diorama display in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—are given the kind of gloss Hollywood tends to give to biblical epics, and the stories of Mormon (Tyler Leahy), Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), and the angel Moroni (Andy Huntington Jones) might be diverting enough even without the pop epics Elder Cunningham brings into play. Andy Huntington Jones does good work as Elder McKinley, as does Jacques C. Smith as Mafala and Corey Jones as the General.

To not have fun is to find this all more sophomoric than Parker and Stone’s famed adult cartoon South Park. The latter aims to offend and does so with absurdist brio, but what makes it work—when it does—is that the main characters are children, and the mishmash they make of the adult world, together with their joy in whatever is obscene or dirty, pays off. With The Book of Mormon, it helps to maintain the attitude toward religion, sex, bodily functions, and dirty words you might’ve had when you were about eight. In any case, this Broadway smash from the era of adult-sounding President Obama strikes the ear a bit differently in the era of trash-talking President Trump.

 

The Book of Mormon
Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Oremus

Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Ann Roth; Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman & Stephen Oremus

Cast: Jaron Barney, Ron Bohmer, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Jordan Matthew Brown, Andy Huntington Jones, Corey Jones, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Luke Monday, Monica L. Patton, Kayla Pecchioni, Jacques C. Smith, Teddy Trice

Ensemble: Jaron Barney, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Zach Erhardt, Kenny Francoeur, Jeremy Gaston, Eric Geil, Patrick Graver, Kristen Jeter, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Josh Marin, Stoney B. Mootoo, Monica L. Patton, J Nycole Ralph, Connor Russell, Teddy Trice

The Palace Theater
Waterbury, CT
April 9-14, 2019

Short and Sweet

Review of Girlfriend, TheaterWorks

At 80some minutes, Girlfriend, the newish musical at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is short, and, with the music from Nebraska-born musical artist Matthew Sweet featured, it is certainly Sweet. The play, by Todd Almond, is indeed sweet as its boy meets boy story set in Alliance, Nebraska, 1993—while it has drama—is mostly easygoing. The two characters are Will (David Merino), a gay senior in high school, and Mike (CJ Pawlilowski), a still closeted senior. Mike’s opening overture to Will is the gesture of giving him a tape of Matthew Sweet’s LP, Girlfriend (released 1991). The duo’s story is set to Sweet songs mostly from that album.

If this sounds to you like a rather thin Book—take a bunch of songs and construct a story to accompany them—then you and I agree. Unlike some instances of rock we might imagine, Sweet’s songs have the strength of being unprovocative. They can be somewhat propulsive, like the title song, and somewhat lyrical, like “Your Sweet Voice,” and one or two—“Winona,” “Evangeline”—have interesting lyrics. The live band playing them at the back of the stage—Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums—can be as fun to watch as the play’s action.

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

The story is comprised of very static scenes: Will in his bedroom with his boombox; Mike in his with his more imposing all-in-one stereo; the friends sitting in Mike’s car at a drive-in, watching the same film—about a superhero alien whose alter-ego is a nun named Evangeline—night after night. Eventually (spoiler alert!) they do get to Mike’s bedroom while his somewhat domineering father is away (we never meet him, but he seems to be pressuring Mike into maintaining relations with his girlfriend, whom we also never see).

The play insists on being a two-hander so any schoolmates who might sneer at this budding romance never show up. Any threat to the status quo that this same-sex couple poses must be imagined (mostly rude stares from the other guys on the baseball team Mike plays on). All of which is deliberate. This romance isn’t about overcoming parental disapproval (which certainly factors in for all sorts of couples for all sorts of reasons) or about overcoming peer pressure (ditto), but about whether or not Mike really loves Will.

Will (David Merino)

Will (David Merino)

Will, who is played with disarming, outgoing cheer and charm by Merino, is clearly the girl in this relationship. He sits at home waiting to be asked out; when he is, he always goes. His passivity might be seen as comic, or pathetic. Here, it just is. The implication is that, as a gay boy in a predominantly hetero culture, he has to take what he can get. What he gets is Mike’s vacillations. Is giving music to someone a sexual overture? Depends. Is going to the drive-in together an invitation to make-out? Depends. What the play mostly explores is the gray area of that “depends.” Will lets us know he’s up for it but not enough to make a first move. As Mike, Pawlikowski plays obtuse well. The guy acts like leading Will on is the last thing on his mind, though of course it’s the first thing on Will’s. Whether or not Mike can admit that or not is really the only question here.

It’s all coy and almost-not-quite closeted. We’re waiting for a big breakup or big breakthrough. Things don’t get nasty, but they do get a little more complicated: Mike is off to college; Will, apparently, can’t think of anything better to do than stay in this Nebraskan town some 300 miles from the university in Lincoln. Was this all just an experiment for Mike before moving on?

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Almond’s approach to dialogue is to stick with the demotic. These guys need those songs because they have nothing much to say. The best dialogue is Will trying gently to suggest that the movie isn’t all that good. Indeed, we might easily believe Mike is actually straight since he has so little of interest to say. Will, whatever he may feel for Mike, is clearly slumming.

The opening weekend matinee I saw featured an audience comprised mostly of people who might well have grandchildren the ages of these characters. They seemed warmly touched by the romance. The play might strike with a bit more force played for an audience closer to the boys’ ages. In fact, that would be the perfect audience for this play—and, I suppose, fans of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. The band do the songs justice, Merino and Pawlikowski have suitable singing voices, and the sound design, by Joshua D. Reid, is perfectly adapted to the Wadsworth’s auditorium.

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

 

Girlfriend
Book by Todd Almond
Music & Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music Direction by Evan Zavada

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid; Hair: John McGarvey; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: David Merino; CJ Pawlikowski

Band: Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums

 

TheaterWorks
At the Wadsworth
March 22 to April 28, 2019

Inane Antics of the Idle Rich

Review of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Hartford Stage

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet Jeeves are beloved figures of British fiction. Brought to BBC television, they inspired a popular show in the 1990s that brought them to life via actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I must confess I had never sought out these incarnations.

Onstage at Hartford Stage in the Goodale Brothers’ adaptation, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, directed, as it was in London, by Sean Foley, the duo are indelibly enacted by Arnie Burton and Chandler Williams, respectively. And wonderful they are in the roles.

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in  Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense , at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

The conceit of the Goodale Brothers’ stage show is that Bertie has decided to make a play of the tangled story of the cow-creamer—as a one-man show. He soon realizes he’s helpless to tell the story much less dramatize it without Jeeves, who abruptly turns up and also enlists fellow servant Seppings (Eddie Korbich) to flesh out the cast. This means that all the subsidiary roles are played by Burton and Korbich, and that the staging of the varied elements of the story—involving several locations—involves a comic and inventive handling of the illusions of theater. And that means much credit is due Alice Power who handles both Scenic Design and Costume Design (indeed, they are inextricably entwined).

A fireplace is wheeled into place to indicate Wooster’s digs, then, when it becomes a room at the club, a different painting is cranked into place. The entrances and exits are as amusing as anything, involving every possible variety, from graceful to rushed to incorrectly costumed. A recurring gag is that the villain of the piece, a fascist named Strode (patterned on Oswald Mosley, Britain’s leader of the blackshirts--here, blackshorts, a boy’s club) increases in height each time he appears. Played by Korbich as a pint-size dictator, Strode becomes more preposterous with each new appearance—until he is both set and costume. Other characters, such as the newt-enthusiast Gussie Fink-Nottle (Burton), are memorably enacted as well, and there’s much fun with coming in and out of a bedroom by door and window, and, my favorite, a scene in an old roadster with Korbich enacting a man observed in passing. The gags are nonstop.

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Unfortunately, there is also plot aplenty as the play combines elements from two separate tales in The Code of the Woosters, the one involving a cow-creamer, which Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (Korbich) wants Bertie to “sneer at” to bring down the price, that then falls into the hands of Sir Watkyn Bassett (Burton), a rival collector, and must be pinched, and the other involving a dinner party and Fink-Nottle’s book of notes on Strode and Watkyn-Bassett. The plotting, ingenious as it may be, would seem much ado about little were it not for the diverting techniques of impromptu staging at which the cast is amazingly and breathlessly adroit. If you do want to settle in to follow the path of such MacGuffins as the cow-creamer, the notebook, and a policeman’s helmet you will find yourself checked at every turn by the outrageous and highly professional mocking of amateur theatricals.

When all’s said, I have to say that what I liked best was Chandler’s forthrightly clueless and feckless Bertie Wooster. His appeals to the audience have the brash charm of someone who knows you can’t possibly think too ill of him—privilege, m’boy. Wooster opens Act 2 sitting in a bubble bath and Chandler renders charmingly the sangfroid of someone able to field the impertinence of several hundred prying eyes suddenly present in his bathroom. His Wooster is always the life of the party and very much the guiding spirit of his “one-man show.”

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

The other great asset is Burton’s Jeeves. No doubt we’ve all seen some version of the stiff-upper-lip of the indefatigable English valet, but Jeeves is more—he’s apt to be psychic about what’s to come, encyclopedic about what has occurred, and never the least bit ruffled even when having to climb in or out windows. It’s all part of serving perfectly, with only the differing amounts of dryness in his tone to let us know his view of the situation.

That said, I wish there were more of the two titular characters interacting, which is really the heart of the thing. I am aware of how readily the Brits must guffaw at males in female wigs and feminine trappings affecting a falsetto—Monty Python did it, Benny Hill did it, and no doubt countless others—but such humor strikes me as a sepia-toned invocation of those glory days when theater was a boys only affair, letting us smirk at the drollery of the masquerade. Granted, a joke isn’t dated if it still makes an audience laugh, and Kobich’s fun with Aunt Dahlia, and Burton’s with Madeline Bassett, an ingenue of the old school, add their charms to the proceedings as well.

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Still, I was most amused at Bertie’s efforts to convey the intricacies of this perfect nonsense from his point of view, because ultimately, his is the view that matters—everything is on the verge of becoming a disastrous embarrassment that will never happen so long as Jeeves is on the job. With its penultimate show of the season, Hartford Stage offers perfectly silly escapist entertainment—but, as the saying goes, nothing’s perfect. You might find yourself wondering why a giggle at 1930s Britain, complete with fascists on the rise and a baffled upper-crust, should be such a timely target for spoofing.

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
A new play from the works of P.G. Wodehouse
By the Goodale Brothers
Directed by Sean Foley

Scenic Design: Alice Power; Costume Design: Alice Power; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Choreographer: Adam Cates; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Cast: Arnie Burton, Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
March 21-April 20, 2019

A Dark Cabaret in Norwalk

Review of Cabaret, Music Theatre of Connecticut

As a musical, Cabaret has much to recommend it. The songs by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) are catchy and full of the charm of the demimonde. Joe Masteroff’s book manages to provide romance while capturing the risks of bohemia and the shock of the rise of Nazism. The story unfolds as a bitter lesson on several fronts, and yet, like its showman of an emcee, it manages to be engaging until all is lost. Played again—in MTC’s second staging of Cabaret—by Eric Scott Kincaid, The Emcee seems less a Mephistophelean overseer of the fortunes of the other characters and more like the portrait of Dorian Gray, suffering more the uglier the situation in Berlin grows. Kincaid’s Emcee looks tortured and tired from the start, an emblem of the Kit Kat Klub’s seediness and its losing effort to deny its days are numbered.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The show has a small cast, so there aren’t quite the big dance numbers we might expect, which also gives a realness to a Kit Kat Klub that lacks the glitz and sparkle of Broadway versions. The opening “Willkommen” has plenty of energy, and the dancers are close enough to flirt with audience members or to upbraid them for not flirting enough. Two male dancers, Tony Conaty and Alex Drost, provide the requisite Fossean physicality, and Hillary Ekwall, who plays Fräulein Kost, does a mean split.

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

The droll numbers—like “Two Ladies”—have a tawdriness that showcases the unreality of the romance between pining British showgirl Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar) and straitlaced American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard). The romance between timid Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling) and pragmatic German landlady Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) has perhaps a better chance of enduring, but that’s where the menace of the rising Nazis becomes most keenly felt. As Ernst Ludwig, Cliff’s student of English lessons, Andrew Foote is disarmingly friendly, even after everyone notices his armband, but as the edicts against Jews escalate, we know there will be violence.

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

As the irrepressible Sally Bowles, Desirée Davar sounds remarkably like Liza Minelli, the most famous Sally, in the big numbers “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” Davar is better in Act II, when emotions begin to take their toll, than she is as the bubbly, flirtatious Sally of Act I. As Cliff, Dromard is also best in Act II, when he begins to see what’s at stake. To Fräulein Schneider falls such great numbers as “So What?” in Act I and “What Would You Do?” in Act II, both trenchant expressions of a life with no illusions and not many choices, but their fatalism exposes the quietism that let the Nazis have their way. Kanengeiser plays the part perfectly, giving the aging fräulein a weary wit. Jim Schilling’s Herr Schultz is a nice match for her. He’s touching in his wooing, and their duet, “Married,” is a fragile, lyrical moment. His insistence that Nazism will pass because “I know the Germans and, after all, what am I? A German” acts as a sad reminder of how deluded even a Jewish merchant could be.

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Some of the popular songs featured in the film and in other iterations—such as “Money” and “Mein Herr”—are not here, as they weren’t in the initial version of the musical. Instead, “Sitting Pretty” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” both less jaunty, fill those spaces. This is a more chastened Cabaret, and its powerful ending stabs not only with the sorrow that no one gets what they want but with how horribly correct the Nazis were in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (here greatly helped by the singing voice of Andrew Foote, who played Jekyll/Hyde with such power earlier this season). Against the Nazis brutal will to power, the call to “come to the Cabaret” is desperate, and Sally’s insistence that she’s “going out like Elsie,” her roommate who ended her life rather than live in an uncaring world, is apropos to the fates we see visited upon Herr Schultz and The Emcee.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

Somber in mood, Kevin Connors’ production of Cabaret is all-too appropriate to times when denial and dancing away a sense of doom are endemic. In that sense, one hopes life isn’t a Cabaret.

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic Design: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Prop Design: Merrie Deitch; Choreography: Simone DePaolo; Fight Staging: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Tony Conaty, Desirée Davar, Nicolas Dromard, Alex Drost, Hillary Ekwall, Andrew Foote, Anne Kanengeiser, Eric Scott Kincaid, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 29-April 14, 2019

The Cab of the Cab

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

Billed as “a weekend of new works across multiple venues and genres,” this year’s Satellite Festival at Yale Cabaret—the fourth—was a curated collection of musical performances, solo shows, looped electronics, and a play in a truck. What follows are impressions from attending five shows in quick succession on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, March 28.

Cab16-hero.jpg

The evening began in the Cabaret space at 8 p.m. with Exit Interview, featuring playwright Christopher Gabriel Núñez in his persona Anonymous (And.On.I.Must), a rapper with a very frenetic style and a warm intensity. Earning whoops and cheers from a rapt audience, and much encouragement from the YSD students working the kitchen, Núñez paced and swooped through a range of material, one hand holding a mic, the other vigorously beating the air. While most of the songs were fast and aggressive, giving off an angry urban vibe, a few were more lyrical, including one that Núñez introduced as a “love song for the ‘90s.”  Hooks were plentiful, and Núñez’s singing voice, those times when he vocalized, has a husky, soulful intensity. My favorite part was the final number when the artist was joined by an impromptu collection of students and audience members, including one old enough to be a grandfather to some of the others, who proceeded to groove with the most upbeat and infectious song of the night.

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Upstairs in the rehearsal space, second-year sound designer Liam Bellman-Sharpe and dancer/choreographer Sarah Xiao collaborated in Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece, an atmospheric work that seemed to pit the musical direction of the piece against the physical component. At first, Bellman-Sharpe, with a prop forearm swaying, played guitar riffs with his back to Xiao. In a nude leotard wearing face-paint and a blonde wig, Xiao, in striking lighting, crept about the floor, holding poses and moving in slow motion. Later, Bellman-Sharpe, also wearing a nude leotard with face-paint and a head-wrap, faced Xiao and played arpeggios while counting aloud, at intervals, through a sequence of numbers. Eventually, the numbers seemed to meet with no response and went off on unpredictable sequences, with Xiao ignoring or interpreting the direction (if that’s what it was) as she chose. The guitar parts Bellman-Sharpe played had a crisply fluid sound, never too abrasive or strident, while breaking once or twice into a rhythmic number. Xiao’s movements were always spell-binding, executed with a flair for precision and contortion as when, early on, she bent over backwards while emitting a breathy flutter. As the piece wound down, Bellman-Sharpe produced a cellphone to Skype with his mother in Australia while Xiao arranged him in fetal position on the floor.

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Back downstairs in the Cab, first-year actor Malia West’s black girl burning: an open letter addressed white culture in general as “you,” giving you to understand the mix of defiance, grievance, and pride felt by a black girl growing up in a society that under-appreciates and stigmatizes her race. Citing black female cultural heroines such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntosake Shange, Maya Angelou and others, West gave her audience—many of whom snapped fingers in response to a particularly pithy line—a clear sense of the tradition empowering her. A funny and spirited set-piece, which might be called “no you can’t touch my hair,” worked through a series of possible responses to the off-putting request to touch a black person’s hair. West worked rhyme and sing-song rhythms into the piece, but generally kept to a measured spoken word cadence she has clearly mastered. The different voices of the piece—called “a poem, a plea, a panic attack, a prayer…and some praise”—took us through a variety of emotional states, from anger to love to doubt to inspiration, and finally to simple admiration of West’s strength of conviction.

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Upstairs again to hear second-year director Kat Yen, in This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian, give voice to her many frustrations with theater’s treatment of Asian Americans. Yen’s spoken piece was very much in her own person, telling of her experiences in a direct and disarming way. When she applied to the Yale School of Drama, Yen told us, she insisted that she was not interested in staging Asian American plays. Now, concluding her second year, her view has changed, but there aren’t enough actors of Asian descent to stage an Asian American play at YSD. The change in her view, it seemed, came from a heightened sense of individual cultural identity currently much in vogue in the School, which, in her view, caused her to be pulled off projects that required a certain ethnic authenticity, thus restricting her still more. The most telling grievance—at least as a set-piece—was Yen’s story of visiting the home of her white fiancé’s parents and being told by her future mother-in-law that her bedroom was decorated in the tropes of “Asian Ladies of the Night.” The story worked as an awkward and painful indication of how Asian women are perceived by a culture with a strong tendency to identify them with exotic sex workers. Yen also opened the question—as she read from author Frank Chin’s take-down of author David Henry Hwang—of how a fragmented and disparate Asian American culture can find a clear sense of political voice.

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

The evening ended—in the usual late night 11 p.m. time-slot—with third-year theater manager Sam Linden’s UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia adapted from an essay that was based on a true story about a play that was based on a true story—a work adapted from Alexandra Petri’s story, “We Are Not A Muse,” about having to attend a writing workshop where an ex-boyfriend, Dave, uses their breakup as material for a story. Taylor Hoffman played Alexandra as more perky than bitter, seeing the humor of her situation while mining it for laughs. A Greek Chorus added their takes on the dynamic, in which a “he said/she said” exchange escalates into “what he said about what she said” and vice versa. The songs are mostly light and jaunty with some ready wit in capturing the kinds of vanities that get ruffled whenever someone puts one’s business out there. In one song, Dave (Dario Ladani Sánchez) wandered a bit off-key, drawing shared looks from the Chorus. Whether deliberate or not, the effect created was along the lines of “he’s a guy, he’ll get by.” And that attitude did indeed underscore the resentment aimed at Dave, who, oblivious to any viewpoint not his own, sailed blithely along with his self-involved account. Linden’s play has the wherewithal to include a meta-moment in which Alexandra reflects that she made Dave the fodder for her presentation just as he had done to her. And that view gamely takes us back to the fact that, when it comes to breakups, even if we get both sides of the story, we never do get the whole story.

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

And, on Friday night only, in a workspace at 149 York Street, two Alexas, the voice-activated electronic assistant developed by Amazon, were locked into an exchange of lines from Samuel Beckett’s seminal play of absurdist situations and gnomic communications, Waiting for Godot. The play’s very repetitive structure was perfect for the robotic interactions between the two machines as created by Elliot G. Mitchell. Listening for about ten or fifteen minutes, I was tickled each time Alexa 1 and 2 reached this exchange: A1: “Let’s go” A2: “We can’t” A1: “Why not?” A2: “We’re waiting for Godot.” After that line, A1 might come back with different responses from different points in the play. But each time the “why not” was in the exact same inflection, as though the question were being asked for the very first time. At times, the “happy path” by which one Alexa responded to the other would produce a shorter loop, coming back to repeat the same material, as for instance the bit about the willow tree (“no more weeping”). The part about Gogo and Didi possibly hanging themselves was included as well—which could only make one sympathetic to the two poor machines with less means of accomplishing the task than Beckett’s characters. The series of insults was particularly amusing in the affectless voices of Alexa 1 and 2.

A range of experience, certainly, containing much anger and distress, but also mystery, poetry, and the celebration of creativity. The festival atmosphere, as opposed to the one show per weekend format, lets one encounter different audiences throughout the night which can become a factor in how one experiences a particular show. Co-Artistic Director Molly FitzMaurice called the Satellite Festival “the Cab of the Cab,” as a weekend of pieces in progress or not full-show length or simply less like plays and more like cabaret performances. As ever, the Satellite Festival is a various occasion to sample more of the talent passing through the Yale School of Drama.

The Festival’s creative teams:

Alexa, wait for Godot
Created by Elliot G. Mitchell
Projection Design: Camilla Tassi

black girl burning: an open letter
Written and performed by Malia West
Dramaturg: Gloria Majule; Lighting Design: Riva Fairhall; Sound Design: Bailey Trierweiler; Voiceover: Adrienne Wells

dot the jay
Performed by Robert Lee Hart and Dario Ladani Sánchez

Exit Interview
By Christopher Gabriel Núñez aka Anonymous (And.On.I.Must)
Beats by The Brainius

This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian
Written & performed by Kat Yen

Truck II
Written by Margaret E. Douglas
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Dramaturg: Madeline Charne; Truck Design: Sarah Karl; Sound Design: Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Technical Director: Alex McNamara

Cast: Margaret E. Douglas, Sarah Lyddan, Juliana Martínez

UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia…
Adapted from “We Are Not A Muse” from A Field Guide to Awkward Silences by Alexandra Petri
Book, Music & Lyrics by Sam Linden
Directed by Kat Yen
Music Director: Charlie Romano
Producer: Yuhan Zhang
Dramaturg: Henriëtte Rietveld

Cast: Taylor Hoffman, Ipsitaa Khullar, Edmund O’Neal, Zak Rosen, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Jessy Yates

Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece
Created and performed by Sarah Xiao and Liam Bellman-Sharpe
Costume Design: Alicia Austin

Satellite Festival
Yale Cabaret
March 28-30

The Yale Cabaret will be dark for the next two weekends, then returns April 18-20 with Fireflies by Donja R. Love, an Afro-queer playwright, poet and filmmaker from Philadelphia, directed by first-year director Christopher Betts, who directed School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play earlier this season.

Collective Consciousness Theatre Delivers a Knockout

Review of The Royale, Collective Consciousness Theatre

In certain contexts, “The Royale,” best-known perhaps from its memorable description in Ralph Ellison’s important and influential novel Invisible Man, was a humiliating contest that white men imposed upon black men—usually servants or simply people rounded up for the occasion. The black men—about half a dozen—were blindfolded and put in a ring to knock each other around to the spectators’ entertainment. The last man standing got to scoop up as much of the money thrown into the ring as he could carry.

When his trainer Wynton (Gregoire Mouning) tells Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) about his experience in “The Royale” in Marco Ramirez’s play of that name, it’s during the lead-up to Jackson’s heavyweight championship bout with Bixby, the white champ. Bixby has agreed to fight Jackson, a black man, on the condition that, win or lose, Bixby gets 90% of the take. Max (Ian Alderman), Jackson’s savvy manager, thinks Jackson can do better—if he bides his time and waits.

Jackson is through waiting. Convinced he truly is the best boxer living, Jackson knows that the sports press won’t acknowledge that fact so long as there’s an existing champ. And, since this is happening in the 1900s in the era of Jim Crow, the obstacles to a black man fighting a white man in the ring as an official championship bout are many. The fact that Bixby has agreed, even in such insulting terms, indicates the seriousness of Jackson’s challenge. Wynton tells Jackson he would “fight the son-of-a-bitch for free.”

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

In its production at Collective Consciousness Theatre, The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, is a knockout. The small playing space is dominated by a very convincing cast that put across the drama, the wry humor, the sheer physicality, and, at last, the incredible tension leading up to that final bout. It’s a winner.

It would be hard not to root for Jackson right from the start. Based on the charismatic boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, Jackson, as played by Bethune, does the original proud. He’s got great looks, a boyish smile, and the cockiness older viewers will remember from Muhammad Ali, a way of making every fight seem in the bag long before it happens.

When we first meet Jackson he’s in the ring with yet another pretender, called “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester), and the scene is played out with wonderfully precise timing. Rather than pretend to hit one another, the actors make arm movements and stamp their feet—which puts across a sense of the power of the punches, while the recipient reels. Mostly it’s Hawkins doing the reeling, but he manages to lend a few punches that impress Jackson—before the champ goes in for the kill. Which he does after toying with Hawkins in a credible, engaging manner.

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Jackson’s considerable charm is palpable as, after the fight, he gets past Hawkins’ resentment and guardedness and hires him as his sparring partner. Jackson, in his fine suits and expensive tastes, is a tough act to manage, and Alderman is a perfect fit in putting across Max’s carnival barker style, his dogged dedication, and his casual racism. At times, Wynton has to caution Jackson in his presumptions, and Mouning exudes canny wisdom. When Jackson hears there have been whites trying to get into arenas armed, he is more upset about the fact that Wynton and Max have teamed up to keep the fact from him than he is frightened by the threats. Jackson’s “you working for him or me?” to Wynton bites hard.

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

So compelling is this small cast in taking us into the manly world of prizefighting, we may tend to forget the prim, well-dressed woman seated at the back of the stage (Tamika Pettway). Eventually she will arrive—on the very eve of the championship fight—and throw shade upon all that Jackson has accomplished.

She’s not (as you might expect) a woman with a dirty secret from Jackson’s past, but rather his sister, Nina. And what she has to say is a heartfelt fear that, if Jackson wins, the sight of a black man rising above his station will bring down reprisals against innocent blacks and children, such as her sons, Jackson’s nephews. She sees Jackson, in his ambition and self-love, as concerned only with himself and his fame. But in Jackson’s view, the stakes are higher; he sees himself fighting as his sister’s champion, to strike a blow against cultural ideals restricted to white standards. In some ways, the fight between brother and sister eclipses the championship bout and The Royale dramatizes that quite well with Pettway giving Nina a single-minded purpose quite the match for her brother’s.

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

To the victor goes the spoils in a Battle Royale, and here the victims are the victor’s too.

 

The Royale
By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Jenny Nelson

Assistant Director/Choreographer: Michelle Burns; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emily Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda and Jamie Burnett; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Producer: Dexter J. Singleton

Cast: Ian Alderman, Christopher Bethune, Oliver Sai Lester, Gregoire Mouning, Tamika Pettway

Collective Consciousness Theatre
March 28-April 14, 2019

What's Up and What's Coming

Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre opened Carl Cofield’s lively, hilarious, and hi-tech version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which features a very engaging cast. The show is up until April 6th. My review can be found here.

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

 On Monday, Long Wharf Theatre announced three of the four shows of its 2019-20 season, which will be the theater’s 55th. As the season that precedes 2020-21, which will be the inaugural season of recently hired Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, next year was billed as transitional, as Padron spoke of Long Wharf’s will to “lead a revolution that will redefine American theater.” Citing managing director Joshua Borenstein’s comment that “all great movements have local beginnings,” Padrón outlined the three characteristics his team looked for in choosing plays: 1.“Undeniable excellence,” 2. Plays that reflect the demographics of the city of New Haven (which is over 42% white, over 35% black, over 27% Hispanic or Latinx, and over 4% Asian); 3. Plays that are “in conversation with the world.” Padrón said, “the world is on fire,” and he sees theater as “a catalyst for social justice.” In terms of emergent strategies, theater can either be advancing and progressing, or regressing into stagnation. Padrón wants Long Wharf to be known for its inclusiveness, as a theater that welcomes everyone, for its artistic innovation, and for its ability to forge connections with community.

First up, from October 9 to November 3, is On the Grounds of Belonging by Ricardo Pérez González, directed by his longtime collaborator David Mendizábal of the New York-based Sol Project, of which Padrón is founder and artistic director, and which partnered with Yale Repertory Theatre on El Huracán, the opening show of the Rep’s current season. The play is a “breathtaking new story of forbidden love in 1950s’s Jim Crow Texas.”

In the Thanksgiving to Christmas slot is “a modern adaptation of a classic work” (that’s not the title, though sounds as if it might be). The play, yet to be announced, will be one “in conversation with new work,” in a production that “breathes new life” into an important, older work of theater.

The new year begins with I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, a Yale grad, with a director still to be determined. The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play “about survival and identity” of a transgender person in East Berlin during and after World War II, with a single actor playing over 40 roles. February 5-March 1, 2020.

Mid-March to mid-April is The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. In its third production, the play, “inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant,” will be directed by Ralph B. Peña, a founding member and current artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater. March 18-April 12, 2020.

Work by a female playwright and a female director will by featured in The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, a Yale grad and member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and directed by Madeline Sayet, a CT native noted for her work incorporating the stories and traditions of the Mohegan tribe. The play is “a thrilling underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in 1980s China.” May 6-31, 2020.

This week the Long Wharf’s current season continues with tonight’s press opening of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (in Robert Fagles’ translation), directed by Brooklyn-based theater person Whitney White. It’s a two-person play with Rachel Christopher as The Poet and Zdenko Martin as The Muse and runs unti April 14. My review can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Yale Cabaret opens its fourth annual Satellite Festival, which runs Thursday, 3/28, through Saturday, 3/30. My preview can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, March 28, Collective Consciousness Theatre opens its third and final show of the 2018-19 season, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, a play set in the racially segregated world of boxing in the early 20th century. The show runs 3/28-3/30, 4/4-4/6, and 4/11-4/14. For Brian Slattery’s preview go here.

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Oh, Avital!

Review of Avital, Yale Cabaret

When I got to graduate school in Princeton in 1989, there was a story going around about a gay male faculty member who, after a party for grad students at his home, had aggressively hit on a grad student he had gotten alone. The incident was traumatic for the student and irritating to the faculty member, who got suspended, briefly, I believe. In any case, I didn’t know anyone involved, but it indicated something about graduate studies.

That was ten years after Avital Ronell received her doctorate at Princeton, and she had recently become known for The Telephone Book, a super cool work of cultural criticism heavily laden with post-phenomenological philosophy. Ronell hung with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler, one of Ronell’s Berkeley cronies, released her highly influential Gender Trouble shortly after.

The story of the randy faculty member and the legacy of the glories of early ‘90s cultural criticism shared uneasy space in my mind when the story of Ronell’s treatment of a doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman, at NYU in the 2000s broke in 2018. Reitman added Ronell to the #MeToo mix when he accused her of sexual harassment and stalking and other actions generally reserved—in the popular consciousness at least—for predatory males in power. Judith Butler earned internet ire for her defense of Ronell, who was tried in various think-pieces, some rather captious. Both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay; all the more reason, one might suppose, for gender trouble and the difficulty of reading how power is inscribed into discourse relations to be relevant to whatever was going on between them.

In Avital, a performance piece by Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama, in collaboration with two actors, Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, the relation between Ronell and Reitman—with verbatim quotations from their published email exchanges played for lurid laughs—becomes the stuff of hilarious, irreverent, sad, surprising, creative and, finally, exhausting intervention. Apparently, Ronell began as a performance artist, and certainly her version of philosophical inquiry is highly performative, so this piece at the Yale Cabaret plays where she lives. Two more shows, tonight, at 8 and 11 p.m.

It begins before it begins. The set is an incredibly long conference table, complete with skirt and water carafe and microphone and chair. It’s the setting—if you’re in the academy—of “a talk,” “a presentation,” “a paper.” The three actors come in and mime energetically to a breathy ABBA tune and we’re off.

Michael Breslin in Avital

Michael Breslin in Avital

Breslin takes the lone chair and launches into a frenetic mimicry of Ronell giving a paper on Stupidity (the title of a later book). Breslin’s take-off is hilarious, a caustic injection of the carnivalesque into a domain generally too self-involved to note how ridiculous it can be. The mockery isn’t aimed at Ronell so much as the performativity of academia itself. Breslin, in his own voice, introduces the Ronell/Reitman story with a barrage of quick and funny clips, comedy-show style. I almost fell out of my chair from laughing a few times.

Soon Mann, in a distressed fright-wig and a black negligee, is giving a nicely controlled reading of Ronell’s verbal caresses and salient bon mots. Jahava, way off on the other end of the long table, with a helmet-like hairdo, puts Reitman through his paces. In emails to Ronell he’s rather ham-fisted at trying to play along with her flighty flirtations; in emails to others he vents about her unreasonable and distressing and disgusting demands.

Zoe Mann in Avital

Zoe Mann in Avital

To dramatize these exchanges simply to expose how pathetic they are—or, indeed, how private—would be worth a cheap laugh, doused in Schadenfreude. Breslin has more on his mind, and that’s indicated by how he presents the material. Eventually we get cartoon talking heads of the actors, muttering through their personal takes on the Ronell/Reitman repercussions like any internet savant. Mann takes Ronell’s side, attributing her poor choices to the loneliness of the international academic; Jahava opines that the story’s details are simply “too white.”

Eventually, Jahava enacts a comedy routine that compares the survival skills of black girls and white girls, but before she gets to that, she gives us a heart-to-heart on how she became possessed by the genius of Barbra Streisand, and, while Mann belts out “I’m the Greatest Star,” races back and forth and cavorts with manic glee. By then, we’ve strayed a bit from Ronell’s particular abuse of power, but, at the same time, we’re catching glimpses of certain contextual issues, having to do with representations of gender and with queer aesthetics, and that, for Avital, is all we need.

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Admittedly, some parts do drag a bit—or does it say something about me that watching cartoon faces talk tends to make me doze? But the musical numbers, including a rave up at the end, complete with mirror ball, bring in a devilish sense of the party ethic that plays into the human tendency to make other bodies do one’s bidding. At one point, Breslin, with Reitman wig, and Mann, as Ronell, lie upon each other as though in fulfillment of Ronell’s favorite bubble bath fantasy.

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Then there’s Breslin’s live typing of what might be a series of emails or private logs (happening publicly); these, in the self-consciously arch voice of text-message-confession, tell a story of date rape the most harrowing fact of which may have been the perpetrator’s “rainbow faux hawk.” Does the shade thrown return to plague the inventor, we might wonder, but the magic of performance is how well it exorcises demons while exercising those nimble skeletons in the closet.

What, we might ask, has Ronell been outed as, at last? And, whatever that is, would anyone ever hashtag it MeToo?

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital


 Avital

By Michael Breslin and the company
Directed by Michael Breslin

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Producers: Lisa D. Richardson & Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Projection Designers: Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann; Sound Designers: Daniela Hart & Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Julia Bates; Swing Stage Manager: Rory Pelsue

Cast: Michael Breslin, Amandla Jahava, Zoe Mann

Yale Cabaret
March 7-9, 2019

Prime Time

Review of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

“We have all the time in the world” is a phrase used by “primes,” synthetic humanoid entities that act as companions and consolations to humans in the, perhaps, not so distant future of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, playing through Saturday at New Haven Theater Company. In the play, the first prime we meet is a replica of Marjorie’s husband, Walter (Ryan Hendrickson). Marjorie (Margaret Mann) is in her ‘80s and her husband died some time ago, but his replica has a thirtyish appearance that makes him look younger than Tess (Susan Kulp), Marjorie’s only living child, a middle-aged woman married to Jon (Marty Tucker).

The disparate ages might make for the stuff of futuristic comedy, but that’s not what Harrison is going for. Though there is amusement here, it tends to come from a certain deadpan humor in the face of unpleasant truths. Marjorie is losing her memory and most of her interest in life, and she may be sliding toward dementia. Walter is an aid in trying to keep her focused on events in her life, to maintain the fragile sense of identity that memory gives us. In the care facility where Marjorie resides, conversation with Walter is encouraged. Primes store what they are told and can converse about a past they never lived, based solely on memories imported or inputted from others.

Tess finds it all off-putting. Not only that she’s faced with a father-replica younger than herself, but, worse, that Marjorie may be trusting and confiding in Walter Prime more than her own flesh-and-blood family. Much of the play has to do with the effort to find common ground in lived experience; the way, for instance, that Marjorie, when younger and more herself, disapproved of Jon as a husband for Tess, though now she has warmed to him; or the way the family dog and its replacement—Tony and Tony 2—are remembered; or the way that Tess still feels embattled by her view of her mother, even if that woman is no longer fully present.

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As the play goes on, there will be additional primes, each a bit more surprising than the last. And there’s a traumatic story about Damien, the son Marjorie and Walter lost, that comes up early and returns late in the play. The way little bits of information circulate is key to the effect here, letting us reflect on how we store up facts about others in our lives, and how we trot out stories of favors and slights we received as though they add up to a life. They don’t, and Tess is finding herself up against it: wondering if any of it matters, and what purpose sociability and chatter serve other than as distractions.

Watching her mother’s decline unmoors Tess more and more, and Susan Kulp plays her with grim and pinched features and an irritation that moves toward despair. Her transformation to a selfless serenity, late in the play, without benefit of makeup or costume change, is striking. Margaret Mann gives Marjorie a feisty charm that sets the tone we come to expect from the play, which is why the second act is so unsettling. We see how far a cry a prime is from the being it tries to replicate. In the third act, we might almost begin to believe in primes as substitutes for the troublesome humans we have lost. A factor that comments on the way we tend to sanitize our memories of the deceased.

Jon, played by Marty Tucker with a staunch affability that crumbles effectively in a story of a fateful visit to Madagascar, at one point says that, if he died before her, he would want Tess to find someone new. The possibility of new people never quite intrudes into this somewhat claustrophobic play where characters seem to want only what they’ve already known. Through interaction with humans, the primes strive to become more imbued with their assigned identity. Humans, on the other hand, can only look forward to loss of identity and death. Meant to be consolations and company, primes in Marjorie Prime come to seem an affable memento mori.

As Walter, Ryan Hendrickson has perhaps the toughest role. As the only character we see only as a prime, Hendrickson’s Ryan comes to seem the most “natural,” a way of being unfinished and full of potential that, while true of humans as well, makes the primes seem eternally hopeful beings. In the last scene, aided by significant lighting effects, we might feel that all we are, or were, is fated to end up in an animatronic display case for all time. Is that better or worse than a portrait gallery? Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime lets you make up your own mind about that, and Trevor Williams’ tight production at New Haven Theater Company doesn’t tip its hand, one way or another.

The primes have all the time in the world, to learn facts and to deepen their responses. Our time to determine who we are and achieve it is much more limited, and there’s no way to be sure what will survive, nor even what constitutes who we were in the minds of others. One thing’s for sure: living on as a memory in a mortal being is no way to achieve immortality. The primes may be just what we need as eternal witnesses of trivial existence, as if all our photos of pets and meals and travels and events could exist forever in a searchable database tagged with our individual DNA. Well, why not?

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Ryan Hendrickson, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Marty Tucker

Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo

New Haven Theater Company
February 28-March 2 & March 7-9, 2019

Reaching Out

Review of Detroit ’67, Hartford Stage

In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit exploded. There was looting and arson in black neighborhoods, where the racist treatment by the police incensed the residents into violence. The police, and eventually the National Guard and U.S. Army, retaliated. The rebellion played out over five days as the most destructive riot of the many that occurred that summer, and one of the worst in U.S. history.

Halfway through Dominque Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, playing through March 10 at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, the chaos in the streets starts and impinges on the story. At that point, the play, concerned with a drama of personalities, is set against a threatening background that will likely lead to death. If the role of the offstage violence in the play seems a bit convenient, its presence makes clear the kind of underground life these characters live, the risks they face, and the resentments below the surface.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Set entirely in the basement of the house Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey), short for Langston as in Hughes, grew up in, the action, initially, concerns the siblings’ efforts to earn money by hosting afterhours parties in the basement. To that end, Lank, contrary to his sister’s devotion to vinyl, has procured a new-fangled device: an 8-track player! Such details take us back to a different time, greatly aided by Dede M. Ayite’s period costumes and Leah J. Loukas’ hair and makeup design. The feeling of a bygone era is key to the play, recreating a world in which the greats of Motown—Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops—are at the top of their game. As a defining export from black Detroit also beloved of white America, Motown was an important cultural ambassador, a fact which makes the hostility in the streets all the more searing.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

The long shadow of that era in popular culture means we feel we know these characters and how they interact. They’re familiar, whether it’s the clash between the siblings over how to spend their inheritance from their deceased parents—Lank wants to invest in opening his own club, Chelle is skeptical—or Lank’s smooth-talking buddy and would-be business partner Sly (Will Cobbs), who may be sweet on Chelle, or Chelle’s sassy and brassy friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie) who has “a lot to go-around.” Into this mix, even before we get to the riots, enters Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white girl in a go-go outfit whom Lank can’t help helping when he finds her wandering dazed, bloodied, and bruised in traffic.

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Now we’ve got the makings for interracial romance, and that might be enough of a vehicle for revisiting the way black and white cultures didn’t cross lines much during those times. That they might and did was part of the thrill and risk when the races mixed, and Le Vine and Ramey do a good job of playing with a fire set on a low heat. It could catch, but there are many complications, not least Chelle’s aversion to Caroline—though she lets her stay and help with serving in the basement club—and Lank’s unease about going behind his sister’s back to buy a real club that’s up for sale.

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Director Carroll is skilled with a play that has a lot of episodic encounters, its characters chatting and sometimes grooving to the tunes, while having little moments of discontent or disagreement. The pacing, for a play that runs to two and a half hours, is nearly flawless. And, while we can feel the plot like a net closing in, there are many nice touches that keep our disbelief suspended. Not least is what strikes me as the heart of what Morisseau is getting at: a plaintive grievance that Chelle sounds to Bunny about what she sees as a kind of betrayal in Lank’s interest in Caroline. And that means that Lank is apt to fail his sister where it counts.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

At the heart of the play, then, is Chelle, and Myxolydia Tyler lets us hear her, not least in a gripping moment when the seductive power of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” reaches catharsis. Cobbs, groomed to look perfectly the part, is suitably sly and sexy as Sly, and Allie’s Bunny offers both comic relief and canny appraisal of the others, the kind of friend you want on your side.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

The further plot elements—the vulnerability of the club during the disturbances, Caroline’s ties to corrupt cops, the doomed love aspects—begin to pile up as though Morisseau can’t resist reaching out, trying to bring in all the possible obstacles and upsets the time and place afford. If there were less story, there might be more time for the characters to complicate the roles they’ve been written into.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

An ambitious, at times meandering play, Detroit ’67 works at Hartford Stage in Carroll’s capable way with a capable cast, each contributing to an engaging ensemble. Like the five-part vocals of a song by The Temptations, Detroit ’67 gives each voice its space.

 

Detroit ‘67
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Hair & Makeup Design: Leah J. Loukas; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Production Stage Manager: Heather Klein; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Nyahale Allie, Will Cobbs, Ginna Le Vine, Johnny Ramey, Myxolydia Tyler

Hartford Stage
February 14-March 10, 2019

Equality! Sorority! Levity!

Review of The Revolutionists, Playhouse on Park

Google Lauren Gunderson and you’ll learn that she is the living playwright most often produced in our country. Whatever that translates into, in number of productions, the playwright’s work has been a strange rarity in Connecticut and that’s reason enough to head to Playhouse on Park, where Gunderson’s playful, satiric, and serious play The Revolutionists runs through March 10.

Gunderson’s play, from 2017, achieves a quality many plays aim for these days: a relevance to our times, even if that causes strained analogies and anachronistic misreading. Here, the anachronisms, the meta gestures, the tongue-in-cheek tone that renders historical figures in our terms are all deliberate and mostly fresh conceptions. Directed by Sarah Hartmann, it’s at times a fast-moving historical farce, and almost a cri de coeur about the challenge of making art in a time of political factions and intellectual chaos. Offering vivid feminist revisionism, The Revolutionists puts the exchanges of its four notable female characters at the heart of the action. Or rather at the heart of trying to decide what action to take in perilous times.

The play is set at the height of the Reign of Terror in the Paris of 1793 when leftist forces, having seized power in the Revolution, were putting to death anyone sympathetic to the ancien régime and, in many cases, anyone who contested Jacobin rule. It was a time for a particularly heinous mob-violence and for extremisms of all kinds, not least in the journaux of the day such as that of Jean-Paul Marat.

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Four of the play’s three women fell to the guillotine in actual life: Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), a feminist playwright and political activist, Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe), the deposed queen of France, and Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), the assassin of Marat; the fourth, Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) is a fictionalized composite figure who combines Marianne (the personification of the ideals of the French Republic) with abolitionists of color who hoped, in the new France, to end slavery in the French Caribbean. Marianne’s husband is a political prisoner in Haiti and Marianne comes to Olympe in hopes she will write pamphlets in protest.

She finds Olympe in the throes of a writer’s crisis, desperate to write a new play for the times, a play that might be amazingly like The Revolutionists, even as Olympe admits it’s never a good idea to write a play about writing a play. Ironies abound, and Gunderson’s play (with apologies to Marie-Antoinette) manages to have its cake and eat it too. It sends up the kind of play it is, or might be, and still makes the most of its central conceit: the creative crisis of the playwright, with her need to address inequality and tyranny, to uphold feminism and freedom, and to be profound, inspiring, entertaining, and playable in a couple hours or less. Does The Revolutionists succeed? Hell, yeah. It’s even under 90 minutes.

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Gunderson peppers the play with jokes at the expense of our contemporary sensitivities, even as she manages to wink at the hip and amuse the cynical. The situation is dire enough, and characters really do die. There’s a heightened sense of danger that can intrude at any moment, as with the dramatic sound effects and lighting that signal the reach of the Terror. Meanwhile, through much of the play, there is no lack of feminine vanity nor of the kind of ditziness that has been a stock-in-trade of screwball comedies since forever. The ladies are all likeable types, as if college dormmates trying to decide what to major in now the revolution’s here.

As Olympe, Rebecca Hart is earnest with the kind of out-loud thoughts familiar from just about any teen drama (especially ones that have Winona Ryder). She’s at times a straight-man, at times a foil to the three interlocutors who burst rather peremptorily into her creative reveries. First, there’s Marianne, with the two getting on like sisters of the revolution who know they may only have each other, in the end. Marianne is more of a realist than Olympe, preferring pamphlets to plays, and Erin Roché keeps her attitude toward the other characters sharp throughout. That includes would-be assassin Charlotte Corday (Marianne wants to know right away if Charlotte has been jilted recently). Charlotte is counting on her looks to get past Marat’s defenses and do the bastard in for the part he played in the executions. The others tease her with alternatives, but nothing will stop her fixed purpose, played by Olivia Jampol with a bit of Valerie Solanis-like mania. Finally, there’s Jennifer Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette, a giggling, preening, preppie with, as she notes, a surprisingly trenchant view at times.

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

David Lewis’s set has the advantage of being always a set, pointing out the play-within-the-mind elements over any effort to distinguish, say, a study from a prison. The four are trapped as soon as they walk onto the playing space and the only way out is through the door that leads to death—effectively enacted by blood-red ribbons. Kate Bunce’s costumes play-up the anachronistic cartoonishness of these caricatures while letting each look her part. Lampol’s Pre-Raphaelite tresses and Holcombe’s confectionary wig help with the visuals. As do the masks and outfits donned by Jampol and Roché as they play male mockers of the doomed, speaking for the mob. Such scenes up the tragic dimension of the show, while giving each a kind of “voted-off-the-island” send-off.

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

While there are some groaners that might put you mind of the “levity or death” desperation of less ambitious comedies, the speakers in The Revolutionists are too vivacious to let deflation be their fate. The play might feel at times like a work in progress, a rehearsal, a late-night panic session or even an SNL sketch—in a way it’s all that and more, because it’s also a pointed reminder of the fates that befell strong, inspirational women who, at least in their own lives, were on the wrong side of history. All the more reason to make them engaging emblems of herstory.

The Revolutionists
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Sarah Hartmann

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Rebecca Hart, Jennifer Holcombe, Olivia Jampol, Erin Roché

Playhouse on Park
February 20-March 10, 2019

 

Prime Mover: New Haven Theater Company opens Marjorie Prime

Preview of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company returns this week with Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking play Marjorie Prime. Set in an indeterminate point in the future, the play engages with the ways, in the 21st century, technology has become an increasingly intimate part of our lives. The play premiered in Los Angeles in 2014, won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play in 2016 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Marjorie, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is a widow in her 80s, plagued with failing health and lapses of memory. Her daughter Tess, played by NHTC member Susan Kulp, and son-in-law Jon, played by guest actor Marty Tucker, have enlisted a “prime,” a synthetic humanoid entity, to be Marjorie’s companion. The prime (played by guest actor Ryan Hendrickson) wears the appearance of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter as he was in his thirties. He serves to focus Marjorie’s memory and help with her grief, though Tess fears an over-reliance on a relationship that isn’t real.

Marjorie Prime runs at the NHTC stage in the English Markets Building, February 28-March 2, and March 7-9, at 8 p.m.

For director Trevor Williams, the play is “very human and sometimes chillingly inhuman.” Williams confesses to be “drawn to nonhuman roles” and that may be the reason directing the play for NHTC fell to him. He was the brains behind “the baby console” in the company’s production of Smudge, and he played the showboating chimp Oscar in NHTC’s production of Trevor. The possibilities of putting onstage characters who aren’t quite people intrigues him. As does Marjorie Prime and the previous NHTC offering, fall 2018’s Love Song, both of those plays featured a sense of a domestic normality made darker and somewhat alarming by the ways the people in the plays cope with what Williams called “some kind of lack: a child, a spouse, memory, sanity.” In each case some potentially workable but also potentially dysfunctional solution is found and made dramatically interesting.

The primes in the play, Williams says, serve “as companionship and as consolations: they interact with their employers and store up memories.” Tell a prime a story from your childhood or from—as in Marjorie’s case—about some events from your marriage and the prime will accept the story as gospel, recalling forever those exact details.

Much of the play revolves around how humans interact with this new class of beings. The misgivings about having one’s life stored in synthetic memory banks—as with our online lives—certainly plays into Harrison’s concerns. That’s the chillingly inhuman aspect that Williams spoke of. But there’s also much attention to how the tales we tell form our identities for ourselves and others. What survives us in the minds of others? What happens when we forget our loved ones, or when contrary recollections are in conflict? At one point Tess, exasperated with Jon, says she might need a “reprogrammable spouse.” That’s the very human side of the story, where the frustrations of mortality and the shelf-life of our memories undermine even our most enduring relationships. There’s also the question of manufactured memories—versions of an event that we pretend to have to avoid recalling the truth.

For Williams, the play “shows us what happens when we choose what facts to record, in our digital lives or in the stories we tell each other. Now, when truth and what it means to be human are all becoming so mutable, for better or worse, this story compels us to reflect on the choices we’ve made and, perhaps, those we’ve yet to make.”

The play, in three acts with an epilogue, runs for approximately 80 minutes and has been given a thrust space unusual for NHTC productions, increasing the sense of intimacy in the company’s black box, which has recently been expanded to include a backstage area.

Marjorie Prime is bound to affect viewers differently depending where they are in their own lifetimes. For some of the cast, the story is almost dystopian, showing us a less-human future that undermines ideas of each individual’s irreplaceable uniqueness. Others stuck up for the optimism of the play, its sense that maintaining human memory through art, through recordings, through artificial intelligence is a positive aspect of the human instinct for survival, making the future more human, whatever we take that to mean.

Tickets can be purchased at the New Haven Theater Company site, here.

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New Haven Theater Company includes Erich Greene, George Kulp, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Suzanne Powers, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, and Trevor Williams

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams
February 28-March 2, March 7-9, 2019

 

Online Therapy Onstage

Review of Tiny Beautiful Things, Long Wharf Theatre

Plot and character are intrinsically linked. Often what keeps us watching (or reading) is the question “what will happen?” And what happens tells us something about the people involved. We learn something about them, and they learn something about themselves. Or not, at their peril.

Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at Long Wharf Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by Nia (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s  book of that name. The book is comprised of letters Strayed received, while writing as “Sugar,” the anonymous online advice columnist for The Rumpus, and her replies. The stage show of this material orchestrates the questions and the answers so that there is a flow of lighter and darker elements, and throughout there is the ongoing question of who “Sugar” is. Not simply in the sense of what her real name is (it’s no spoiler to say that it does get revealed onstage), but in the more important sense of who she is, as a dispenser of advice and moral support to the many anonymous authors who query her.

That question, then, is the only element of character revelation the play can offer as dramatic interest. All the writers asking their questions—played onstage by Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati—are presented as one-time-only correspondents. There is no follow-up, no sense of whether or not anyone heeds Sugar’s advice, or changes their minds or behavior, nor of what they might think of what she told them. The queries cover diverse situations, from extramarital crushes to when to tell a woman you love her, from whether or not to reconcile with parents who mishandled their child’s gender divergence to whether or not to tell one’s boyfriend about a rape one suffered long ago, from how to cope with a devastating miscarriage to how to cope with the devastating death of a grown son.

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

What you might think of what Sugar tells them, I suspect, has a lot to do with how you approach the question of giving advice, based on a one-sided letter, to people you have never met. The key to Sugar’s success is that she thrives at the task and that her many fans loved reading her responses. She sometimes dramatizes, in writing, her difficulty in replying but she always finds something in the well and seems pleased with whatever she comes up with. The queries, even when encapsulating complicated situations, are often impressively succinct. Sugar’s replies rarely are.

The responses are only occasionally advice, in the play. More often they are occasions for Sugar to divulge information about herself. And that aspect—what she confesses—gradually lets us build up a picture of her character, an effect more interesting as simply a voice on the screen, I imagine. Onstage, we see Cindy Cheung play Sugar as a writer and novelist who takes the gig due to some affinity for it, and, one supposes, the attraction of reaching people immediately in writing. As a character, Cheung maintains a certain reassuring stoicism, as her honest self-appraisal is key to how Sugar has endured the trials and errors of her own life. And that’s primarily what she tries to pass along.

At Long Wharf, Kimie Nishikawa’s set design places the action in a comfy, green backyard, outside the rear of a very realistic house. There’s a certain logic to it. Sugar exists for her readers only in words, online. She spends most of her time, as a character, sitting at a picnic table at a laptop, or talking earnestly to people who mime listening as she speaks. Here, she is given a very mundane setting, an image of normality that works, as does Cheung’s steady voice, as a way of holding all the chaos and turmoil of such messy lives at bay. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction highlights the hominess and the sense of the letter writers as neighbors who “drop by” in Sugar’s mind.

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

How happy Strayed’s readers will be with the Long Wharf production will likely have to do with how well they feel the show catches the call-and-response drama of the exchanges. The most successful, in that view, is Brian Sgambati’s rendering of “Living Dead Dad,” a father whose son was struck down by a drunk driver. Sgambati gives a carefully modulated reading of LDD’s list of how he tries to cope and can’t. The reply finds Sugar mimicking his list structure, trying to push him beyond his settled misery into some other light. There is a small but dramatic gesture at the end of Sugar’s list. The play doesn’t say what became of the real LDD, but lets us take this as a moment of implied catharsis. If only it were that easy.

Occasionally, for the sake of her audience, Sugar will make light of her correspondent’s plight in a good-humored way. Some of the writers seem at least a little tongue-in-cheek. But when she finally responds to “WTF,” whose query “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck” is asked “about everything, every day,” she chooses not to treat this as a chance to show her sense of humor (or to advise having one). Instead, she tells a story of her own abuse as a child that puts the burden of making sense on WTF (and everyone listening). Victimization of children is appalling, and Sugar speaks of the experience as somehow intrinsic to her sense of where she wound up (which includes a period as a heroin addict). As a reply to WTF, Sugar’s story might easily inspire a more vehement “what the fuck?” In making “the fuck” be about herself, Sugar says, she wants WTF to see how s/he is also the fuck. One supposes this stopped the query, but one still wonders what the fuck WTF was pissed off about.

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

In the play, Sugar never connects the dots in her own life; she uses her experience as examples but not as events that contribute to a progressive narrative of how she became who she is. She tells us things that happened. Doubtless there were many other things as well. And many other letters. And more stories of fucked-up situations than there could ever be enough time for. Sugar maintained a connection through the site with the folks out there for two years. Then published a selection of the correspondence which became a best-selling book. Now, a smaller selection has been dramatized for the edification of audiences. What we learn, arguably, is how each querier is generally the same character, a voice trapped in a plot not of its own making and looking for a little clarifying input. As theater, the show strikes me as something like a punishment in Hades: to ask night after night the same question and get always the same reply.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design: Yuki Nakase; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati

Long Wharf Theatre
February 13-March 10, 2019

Kitchen Heat

Review of Novios: part one, Yale Cabaret

Arturo Luis Soria III, a third-year actor at the Yale School of Drama, steps up fully as a playwright with part one of his two part play, Novios (“boyfriends”), playing for two more shows tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., directed by third-year actors Sohina Sidhu and Amandla Jahava. Soria, besides being a graceful presence in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of El Huracan at the start of this season, played a theatricalized version of his mother last season at the Cabaret in his original play Ni Mi Madre. There, he mostly stuck to English; with Novios, he lets many of his characters speak in their native Spanish, with subtitles on screens in the corners. The effect can be a little awkward, since these characters speak very rapidly, often in four-way conversations, and yet even those whose Spanish is almost nonexistent (like me) shouldn’t have any trouble following the dialogue.

And the dialogue gains greatly by being heard in its native tongue. Four members of the kitchen staff at a Manhattan restaurant, though of different national origins, speak Spanish as a lingua franca closer to home than English—Gallo (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Dominicano (Raul Díaz), Micki (Christopher Gabriel Nuñez), and Luis (Jecamiah M. Ybañez). Then there’s a Russian, Vlad (Devin White), a white Chef (John Evans Reese), and the newcomer, Antoine (Gregory Saint Georges), a Haitian hired as dishwasher. The use of Spanish establishes a core bond among the four, even as they often argue and deal in putdowns and points of honor. In one scene, Gallo goes off into a fantasy addressed to an absent love, and her words are pure poetry. Cordero Pino also plays L’Azteka, a fierce spirit in a striking gown decorated with Aztec motifs. L’Azteka seems to exist primarily in the dream mind of Luis, who emerges as the main figure here.

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The play’s plot develops with a sense of inevitability, but, all the while, the liveliness of the characters, of their full engagement with the worlds they’ve left and the places their trying to get to, keeps us fully in the action, and keeps subplots percolating. There are impromptu dance routines to music the workers bicker over, there are shared blunts with smoke blown (for real) out the window, there is male coupling on top of a kitchen cart (to the cheers of the audience), and there’s Chef being condescending to his sous-chef Gallo, and short-tempered on the phone to his partner. And there’s Vlad, a character who plays as a bit of a loose cannon and who gets in a nice diatribe against “the home of the free” rhetoric that keeps bringing naïve immigrants to America.

The characters’ status in the country where they are making a home for themselves vary and that fact contributes to their general demeanor. Dominicano and Antoine seem the most easygoing; Micki has a short temper; Vlad is slightly sinister; Luis, put upon because he’s so often late (he may not have an actual home-base), is the one with attitude about why he deserves better than a job as kitchen help; Gallo at times plays at den mother to the boys, but clearly has a backstory of her own. Part 1’s main focus is showing a relationship develop between conflicted Luis (in a very affecting performance by Ybañez, a third-year director at YSD) and Gregory Saint Georges’ confident and likeable Antoine. The other characters, we sense, will move forward too, as the play moves into Part 2, and we’re left looking forward to when we’ll have the opportunity to watch the entire play.

Gerardo Díaz Sánchez’s set, a central kitchen space, is very effective, and Nic Vincent’s Lighting Design makes for a visually interesting show. The movement of so many bodies—dancing, cooking, pounding meat, and even creating an insistent percussion routine—is greatly facilitated by Jake Ryan Lozano’s choreography, including passionate physical outbursts and sexual expression.

While still a work in progress, Novios has passion aplenty, a strong sense of the people it represents, and the kind of mystery and poetry that makes for exciting and involved theater. Don’t miss a chance to see its first half early on, brought to life by the actorly empathy and instincts of directors Jahava and Sidhu in the Cab’s intimate and efficient space.

 

Novios: part one
By Arturo Luis Soria III
Directed by Amandla Jahava & Sohina Sidhu

Producer: Estefani Castro; Choreographer & Intimacy Coach: Jake Ryan Lozano; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone: Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent: Projection Designer: Sean Preston; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner: Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Raul Díaz, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, John Evans Reese, Gregory Saint Georges, Devin White, Jecamiah M. Ybañez

 

Yale Cabaret
February 21-23, 2019

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.

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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