Three New Plays Find Readings This Weekend

Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, October 20-22, 2017

In its third year, the Contemporary American Voices Festival at the Long Wharf Theatre is a growing event and one of the more welcome local theater presentations. It showcases new work, most often plays that haven’t received full productions or which are undergoing further work. The dramatic readings, with each play matched to a director who is often already an admirer of the play, let audiences in on the process of how plays develop.

Long Wharf Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto chooses the plays for presentation and sees the Festival as a helpful event both for playwrights and for the Long Wharf, contributing to the theater’s reputation for new work and giving younger playwrights greater visibility.

“New work is the lifeblood of the theater. It’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. And how better to support new work than to give opportunities to today’s most exciting young writers?” Scarfuto said. She reads 100-150 new plays to find the three that will be presented on Long Wharf’s Stage II, this Friday through Sunday.

In selecting the plays, Scarfuto draws on a network of literary managers and playwrights. Key to her consideration is “where the plays are at.” Some may be programmed for future productions, some may be brand new, with no production yet scheduled, others may have had a production but are in search of an opportunity to revisit the script. Several of the plays featured during the first two festivals have gone onto to award-winning productions. In general, as Scarfuto put it, “the plays are really in good shape, almost ready for production.” The Long Wharf festival gives them an important opportunity to let audiences into the room.

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The schedule this year is:

Passage, by Christopher Chen, directed by Saheem Ali, on Friday, October 20, at 7 p.m.

Poor Edward, by Jonathan Payne, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, on Saturday, October 21, at 7 p.m.

All the Roads Home, by Jen Silverman, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, on Sunday, October 22, at 3 p.m.

Christopher Chen, Scarfuto said, is the author of one her favorite newer plays. Caught, which was included in the 2016-17 season at the Yale Cabaret, is a “really smart” play that asks some probing questions about art and politics in the globalized world. In Passage, Chen’s play at this year’s Festival, seven actors take on twelve roles. The play adapts elements of E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India for “a new view of colonialism,” Scarfuto said. Set in “two imagined countries” in order to undermine “preconceived notions,” the play, Scarfuto said “is really about perceptions and prejudice.”

Christopher Chen’s plays include The Hundred Flowers Project (The Glickman Award and Rella Lossy Award), The Late Wedding, Mutt, Caught (The Obie Award and The Barrymore Award) and You Mean To Do Me Harm. Other honors include the Lanford Wilson Award; the Sundance Institute/Time Warner Fellowship; and the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. A San Francisco native, Chen is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, and holds an M.F.A. in play-writing from San Francisco State. He is currently resident playwright at Crowded Fire Theatre Company.

Jonathan Payne is a playwright Scarfuto has known for a while through friends. Currently a student at Julliard, Payne works with the homeless as a social worker in New York city. His play at this year’s Festival, Poor Edward, follows the fortunes of Opal and Eddie, two homeless persons who share a hovel in a homeless community that is about to be bull-dozed. Scarfuto described the two-person play as “dark and funny,” combining elements of some of Scarfuto’s favorite playwrights: Suzan Lori-Parks, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett. Payne, Scarfuto said, has “a really exciting imagination” and his play adapts a Czech fairytale about a tree root into a story about contemporary social issues.

Jonathan Payne's work has been produced and developed at the Tristan Bates Theatre (UK), Ars Nova, Fringe Festival NYC, The Bushwick Star, and the Fire This Time Festival. He has been a fellow at New Dramatists, Playwrights Realm and The Dramatist Guild, as well as an Ars Nova Play Group member 2014-15. Awards include the Princess Grace Award (2015), Holland New Voices Award (2014), Rosa Parks Award (2011), John Cauble Short Play Award (2002). He holds a BA from the GSA Conservatoire (UK) and an MFA in Playwriting from Tisch School of the Arts, and now attends the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School.

Jen Silverman’s The Moors, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016, showed a striking ear in its dialogue and visited a revisionist sense of the Gothic story on the situation of women across class and education and erotic inclination. All the Roads Home considers the legacy of parent to child across three generations of “headstrong women,” from the 1930s to the present. Scarfuto called the play “moving, poignant, and heart-warming” with the “off-beat comedic tone” that made The Moors so successful. The play, which includes live music with two guitars, addresses sacrifice, the influence of the past, and “fighting for your dreams.”

Jen Silverman’s theater work includes The Moors (Yale Rep premiere, off-Broadway with The Playwrights Realm, Susan Smith Blackburn finalist); The Roommate (Actor’s Theatre of Louisville premiere, produced across the U.S. including South Coast Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival and upcoming at Steppenwolf); and Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth premiere). She is a member of New Dramatists, an affiliated artist with the Playwrights Center and SPACE on Ryder Farm, and is a two-time MacDowell fellow, recipient of an NYFA grant, the Helen Merrill Award, the Yale Drama Series Award, and the 2016-2017 Playwrights of New York fellowship. She was educated at Brown, Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Juilliard.

Tickets are $10 for each play, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting longwharf.org.  There will be a happy hour with half-priced drinks an hour before the beginning of each reading, and a Talk Back after each reading, with the respective playwright.

The festival is sponsored by the Burry Fredrik Foundation, Helen Kauder and Barry Nalebuff, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Contemporary American Voices Festival
Long Wharf Theatre
October 20-22, 2017

An Inconvenient Truth

Review of An Enemy of the People, Yale Repertory Theatre

Thanks to Trump’s designation of the press as “the enemy of the people,” the question of what exactly that phrase means is in the air again. In the playbill for the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by James Bundy from a new translation by Paul Walsh, we are apprised of the many times in history that some party or policy or organization has aimed that epithet at an antagonist. In the play, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers) has the phrase hurled at him due to his discovery of information that would undermine his town’s comfortable status quo with an inconvenient truth.

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Tanneries upstream have polluted the waters of the town’s famed spa, making its once healthful springs a source of slow poisoning. The environmental threat of that truth and the way in which the powers that be dismiss the dangers in favor of keeping the economy running makes the plot device analogous to everything from chemical contamination to radiation to fracking to global warming to the shark in Jaws. The town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), who would rather table the findings, is the brother of Dr. Stockmann, a fact that adds an amusing element of sibling rivalry to the power struggle.

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

As played by Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni the brothers are vastly entertaining, and that’s a very strong component of this production. While maintaining a grasp of the political and polemical aspects of the material, Bundy never loses sight of the play’s comedy. Ibsen wrote a human story, not a political tract. The playwright himself was uncertain whether to call the play a comedy or a drama, and that’s because he is willing to make fun of all sides—both conservative and liberal and moderate—for the sake of dramatic effect. Ibsen tends to assert the heroic stance of the loner, in the end. Along the way, he pokes fun at the press, special interests, the arrogance of intellectuals and elitists, small-town Schadenfreude, cowardice, hypocrisy, bullies, and sexism.

In Walsh’s updating, the range of targets doesn’t feel scattershot. The tone is very different from the production of David Harrower’s adaptation, Public Enemy, that played in New York last year in the months leading up to the election. That show had a hectoring quality, making us both fear the democratic process—election of a know-nothing by a bunch of know-nothings, which is how Dr. Stockmann sees majority rule—and want to take part in it to rectify its abuses. Ibsen’s play, in Walsh and Bundy’s hands, is nimbler, letting phrases like “the free liberal press” sound naïve in the mouths of its champions, but also a worrisome target of the demagoguery that becomes the key note of public commentary and civil leadership as sides get drawn. By putting the dispute “in the family,” Ibsen indicates how power can often seem a personal asset of the few. These two men, in all their self-serving egotism, have the fate of the entire town in their hands.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Rogers’ performance, funny, breathy, agitated, conceited, goes a long way to making this play a fascinating portrait of a certain type: The well-intentioned man of science, convinced of an intellectual superiority that others should recognize by giving full assent to his views. It’s not that he’s overbearing, exactly, but his manner indicates a restless mind barely held in check by social niceties. He is beloved of his daughter Petra (played with conviction by Stephanie Machado) who aspires to more than the wifely duty her mother excels at.

Dr. Stockmann’s sweeping personality is met by Colantoni’s terse and heavy tones as the mayor. He not only wants to keep the spa in business, but the fact that the current problems stem from decisions he made when the spa was created means that the new information would spell his political death. Colantoni gives Peter Stockmann a judiciousness that seems genuine even if it is a cover to dodge his worst fears and nightmares. No one can really “win”—Thomas’ victory will be a hard blow for the town, though ultimately for the future good; Peter’s victory will be very costly, in the long run, but will give the people what they—in their guarded ignorance—want.

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Everyone has an iron in the fire, not least the publisher Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a lively moderate who ends up sticking with the mayor, for political reasons. And that means the pressmen Hovstad (Bobby Roman) and Billing (Ben Anderson), initially critical of the mayor, fall into line too. In Act Two, Ibsen makes the about-faces for the sake of personal interest almost dizzying, but no more so than the kinds of bald-faced retractions of stated—or tweeted—convictions we’re all too familiar with these days. The cast does a good job showing us men who aren’t malicious but who pride themselves on knowing which way the wind is blowing.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

As Thomas Stockmann’s put-upon family, Joey Parsons shines as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann. She has a gracious manner in the presence of company and shows, in a nicely mimed moment, a shrewd sense of her husband’s tendency to grandstand. The fact that she risks everything for her husband’s convictions, which are strengthened by his deep need to prove his brother wrong, makes her “stand-by-your-man” loyalty compelling rather than meek. The family seated onstage during Act Two’s town meeting creates a visual support to Dr. Stockmann’s view of himself as the only right-thinking individual. We sense their ostracization at once.

During that scene, toxic sludge makes its way down the high walls of Emona Stoykova modernistic and movable set. It’s a nice visual correlative of the spreading poison in the water and of the poisonous political farce being played out in the town. The set, open to the wings, works against the kind of drawing room set more typical for Ibsen, making the drama feel more deliberately theatrical, complete with an outdated-looking backdrop to signal a Norwegian landscape.

In their willingness to be steered by those in power without demanding accountability, the townsfolk in Ibsen’s play are a cautionary example. Ibsen, abetted by Paul Walsh’s breezy translation and James Bundy’s lighter-than-usual touch in directing, makes us consider a situation in which “we the people” are our own worst enemies.

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

 

 

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Chad Kinsman; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle

Cast: Ben Anderson, Mike Boland, Atticus Burrello, Enrico Colantoni, Jarlath Conroy, Mark Sage Hamilton, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Bill Kux, Stephanie Machado, James Jisoo Maroney, Joey Parsons, Arbender Robinson, Reg Rogers, Bobby Roman, Mariah Sage, Setareki Wainiqolo, Greg Webster

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 6-28, 2017

A Presence in the Process

Review of This American Wife, Yale Cabaret

Cab Enthusiast: Hey, I just saw this interesting play at the Yale Cabaret. It’s called This American Wife and was conceived, written, staged and performed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley. It’s about these two gay theater guys who become obsessed with the various “Real Housewives” reality TV shows and it’s like their obsession becomes the only thing they can talk about and it’s how they see themselves and each other and relationships and, um, even theater, I guess.

DB: Yeah, I know, I saw it. It has two more shows tonight at 8 and 11.

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin (photos by Brittany Bland)

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin (photos by Brittany Bland)

CE: OK, cool, because I wanted to ask you what you thought about being talked about at the end of the show.

DB: You know what Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

CE: Hah, yeah. I mean, it’s not just you, they kinda diss some people and even comment on the audience. It’s very real, like no fourth wall at all.

DB: Right, yeah, well, they mention my review of last year’s Satellite Festival, where their portion of the lengthy program got short shrift. My point was, like, if you’re going to bring reality into your show, well, there might be other realities that are more fun or demanding or whatever.

CE: It seemed like it hurt their feelings.

DB: Well, yes, but this is school, and part of the learning process is that it’s not going to be a group hug and a gold star after your every effort. Anyway, much worse gets said about every show only it doesn’t get written down.

CE: True. And it wasn’t in print, just online. Like, who takes the internet seriously?

DB: Right. What year were you born, again?

CE: Never mind. So, you don’t like this kind of reality theater?

DB: Well, it’s reality TV I was dissing initially, like I’m not going to willingly sit through episodes of Real Housewives of New Jersey. I mean, I grew up across the bridge from Jersey. And housewives? C’mon, man, I grew up when it was like a slur on a guy’s manhood if his wife worked. You ain’t gotta tell me, y’know?

But This American Wife has a definite structure. It might seem like it’s just these two guys Michael and Patrick talking on microphones in front of video cameras about one particular show, but its outreach is much more than that. I mean, first of all, it assumes that there’s some analogous level of obsession in almost every life, that participation in “the culture” means you have introjected these almost random bits from the media, and those are the things that help you forge your identity. Living in a simulacrum, all that stuff.

CE: Uh huh.

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin

DB: So, it starts with this kind of “true confessions” moment with them “coming out” about being obsessed with the show. Like, it’s not the kind of thing you’d tell your elitist friends, the high culture police, if you could help it. But once the kitten leaves the box, then there’s no telling where it will go. At one point Patrick starts talking about amateur porn and then he admits to liking “behind the scenes” porn, which is not quite a performance and not quite reality but is a more “real” version of the scene, and the point is that something very real, like sex, is being treated with varying levels of “reality.” And what the Cab show is about is that specular moment of wanting to be the thing or person or performance or reality you see on the screen. But it’s also about those guilty secrets. Like “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” and so the audience is made complicit at that point. And there’s this great moment when Michael is on stage/camera and Patrick asks him about his mother. And we’re just on his eyes and he holds the look and then changes the subject. It’s stuff like that that keeps me coming to the Cab.

CE: Yeah, I remember that part about porn but I wasn’t sure what porn had to do with The Real Housewives franchise, or Kim Kardashian, for that matter.

DB: Yeah, good. She came up late in the play, during the part with the really intense partial closeups. The use of the cameras is both an element of the play and of the tech, it’s something that, theatrically, probably hasn’t been theorized and certainly not codified, yet. You know, you can talk about the camera as a character and as audience at the same time. But that part you mentioned was when Patrick started doing a little historical analysis of reality TV in the wake of the OJ case and the way all these reality stars sprang out of the possibility of just being on camera as a part of life. Way back in the Seventies though, there was An American Family which was a video diary of a family called the Louds. But, y’know, I was a kid then and I didn’t watch that either.

CE: Well that was a long time ago, and you mean “cameras in theater” hasn’t had its moment yet?

Michael Breslin

Michael Breslin

DB: It’s not exactly a progressive medium. Its biggest names all came before the camera was invented. Early on, Michael Breslin name-checks Brecht, y’know, because it’s like if you’re going to talk about subverting bourgeois normativity, as a theatrical construct, you gotta bring him up, it’s like de rigueur. Which is sweet in a way, you know, the way these old names keep hanging on. But then, it’s Yale. Out in the real world, most people know who Kim Kardashian is but they’ll frown and squint about “Brecht.” Sounds like a supplement or something. “Use Brecht each morning and let reality take over.”

CE: “Plato the Greek or Rin-tin-tin, who’s more famous to the billion million”?

DB: Exactly. The parts I was most impressed with were when the cameras and the videos were used to best effect. Patrick Foley has great presence, even on the small screen. And there’s that sequence of the duo going into “Real Housewives” drag, where it was—almost—as if the wish-fulfillment factory had finally swept them up in its benign embrace. And the “ending,” when they start arguing like the sisters in the limo, where their bond via vicarious pleasure starts to fray. Good stuff. And when they do their voice-overs on the scenes of “the ladies” themselves. Like they’re hijacking the material. I could watch that kind of thing all day. Especially with those edits Michael Breslin imposed on the clips.

CE: Oh really? Why?

DB: Getting back at TV is like my own personal revenge fantasy. Really. I can’t even talk about the things it has done to us. Not even now. But what did you like best?

CE: Yes, I liked the drag part. I always like costumes. The rest of the time they were just in T-shirts. Though they did put on these cool jackets at one point. And Michael Breslin looks great in a blonde wig.

DB: Well, yeah, that part was letting you see them as they are, in another reality. But there’s another idea lurking in that asymmetry. The ladies on the show are stuck with the reality they live, even if it’s a televised reality, but Michael and Patrick are in a different world, adjacent to that one. It could be called commentary or critique, or, hell, theater. The show finally ends “in the green room,” like “back stage with Patrick Foley,” though not “off-camera,” and it’s like the extras on a DVD. The actor crits the critics.

CE: Hermeneutic circle?

DB: You got it. When he says he always feels safe on camera, he demonstrates the axiom in the playbill, from dramaturg Ariel Sibert: “the self needs a medium.” Then again, the self itself is a medium. A construct.

CE: Shall we to the play, for by my fay I cannot reason . . . .

 

This American Wife
Created and performed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley

Dramaturgs: Ariel Sibert, Catherine María Rodríguez; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: Austin Byrd; Set Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland, Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Director of Photography: Amauta Martson-Firmino; Video Content Creation and Editing: Michael Breslin

Yale Cabaret
October 12-14, 2017

For What It's Worth

Review of Re:Union, Yale Cabaret

The fraught sacrifice required by war is given an unusual spin in Sean Devine’s Re:Union. The war dead are in most cases those who fought and died, on either side. In the case of the story of Norman Morrison, the part of civilian casualty of war takes on a different dimension—not only of a personal sacrifice but also of public protest.

In 1965, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Morrison, a married Quaker teacher and father of three, staged a self-immolation outside the Pentagon window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The event was one of a few such protests on U.S. soil, perhaps spurred by the famous coverage from 1963—including photos and film footage—of a Vietnamese monk lighting himself on fire in Saigon in a call for religious equality after Buddhist monks were killed by government forces in South Vietnam. In the case of Morrison, the choice of location and the fact that his three-year-old daughter, Emily, was in his arms at least until he doused himself in kerosene, added not only more potential symbolism to his act but also more mystery and drama.

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson), Robert McNamara (Charles O'Malley) (Photographs by Johnny Moreno)

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson), Robert McNamara (Charles O'Malley) (Photographs by Johnny Moreno)

Re:Union capitalizes on the degree to which Morrison’s act was likely meant as, and was certainly viewed as, an indictment of McNamara specifically, as the man who, at that time, argued most pervasively that the war could be won. The play’s main action takes place in 2001 when Emily (Louisa Jacobson), now in her thirties, confronts McNamara (Charles O’Malley) about the escalating war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. She’s seeking a means to protest the Patriot Act as sanctioning tyranny, but is also, as becomes clear, looking for a way to come to terms with the past.

The play, which has been shortened for the Yale Cabaret’s running time with the permission of the author, triangulates the action by showing us, 1) Norman teaching a lesson on Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in 1965; 2) Emily, in 2001, addressing both McNamara and her father on video, as well as, eventually, McNamara in person, and 3) staged “clips” of McNamara, during his time in the Pentagon, addressing the press or TV in various contexts, and, eventually speaking with Emily.

Director Jecamiah Ybañez and the production's proposer and projection designer Wladimiro A. Woyno R. evoke the varying levels of conscience through trenchant overlaps, so that the story and its ramifications seem to occupy a claustrophobic, obsessional mental space. Emily speaks into a camera which projects her image on screen, as she tries to find the words that would elicit a sense of complicity from McNamara; McNamara, always very poised and relentlessly dry, expounds his war strategy to unseen listeners or deflects criticisms with a lofty tone; Norman, with cute overhead projections, expounds on Abraham’s pact with God, then announces that God has shown him his purpose. As Norman, Jared Andrew Michaud, in a Cab debut, moves from a driven teacher to an eerily detached zealot with only one purpose.

Norman Morrison (Jared Andrew Michaud)

Norman Morrison (Jared Andrew Michaud)

Emily wants closure on the Vietnam War, as a misguided sacrifice of U.S. lives and the destruction of the land and peoples of the belligerent regions of Vietnam, even as the U.S. embarks vaingloriously, and some would say cynically, upon another costly military enterprise. While still personally troubled by her father’s act, Emily, played with an involving sense of conviction by Jacobson, ponders the effects of inaction. She’s not opening old wounds but rather showing that there has never been a return to health in the U.S.

But the play also reflects somewhat the change of heart toward the war that McNamara displayed in works such as the film The Fog of War (2003), and in his comments to Emily’s mother as recorded in the latter’s memoir. O’Malley plays McNamara as a bit of a Vulcan, all about rationality and the logic of his strategy. His main emotion is a certain vindictiveness toward Morrison for fouling the air so abysmally and causing him great personal distress. He seems at best petulant about the event, only gradually, and grudgingly, allowing that Morrison’s conviction caused him, at least to some degree, to question his own beliefs.

What comes out most forcefully in the Cabaret’s gripping and effective staging of the play is the extent to which McNamara demanded sacrifices of his country to an unconscionable degree or at least for a cause he found himself doubting. That demand is set against the faith of Morrison’s uncompromising act, which lets the cost of his loss fall upon his family. Both men, whether acting for the sake of God or for their country or for the dying Vietnamese, are willing to cause great suffering. Of the two, only McNamara had to live with that.

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson)

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson)

 

Re:Union
By Sean Devine
Directed by Jecamiah Ybañez
Proposed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.

Dramaturgs: Patrick Young & Alex Vermillion; Set Designer: Gerardo Diaz Sanchez; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Sound Designer/Composer: Frederick Kennedy; Producers: Kathy Li & Laurie OM; Stage Managers: Cate Worthington & Madeline Charne; Technical Director: LT Gourzong; Associate Projection Designer: Brittany Bland

Cast: Louisa Jacobson, Jared Andrew Michaud, Charles O’Malley

Yale Cabaret
October 5-7, 2017

Desperate Measures

Review of Pentecost, Yale School of Drama

A large cast playing multi-ethnic, multilingual characters; a realistic rendering of an ancient church partly destroyed, partly restored, undergoing reevaluation; the bickering of academic approaches to art history; the vying of political agendas, including nationalism, statelessness, and the long durée of displacements, occupations, enslavements and mass slaughters “on the battlements of Europe”; warfare and war by other means; budding romance; betrayal; early electronic communication; militias and mobs and hostages; the cultural clash of West meets East; and stories, both mythic and horrific, of survival, and of salvation, both spiritual and political. David Edgar’s Pentecost, very much of its moment in the mid-90s during the siege of Bosnia, mixes on the stage a cauldron of concerns while managing, for the most part, to maintain a sense of dramatic coherence. Revived this week at the Yale School of Drama by third-year director Lucie Dawkins as her thesis project, Pentecost is an amazingly well-orchestrated display of intellectual challenge presented with a grittiness and naturalness missing from far too many local professional productions of late.

There’s a lot at stake and a lot going on, but Edgar and Dawkins trust in viewers attentive enough to follow the often-overlapping dialogue and its implications. It helps that the script has the kind of deft timings familiar in Tom Stoppard, so that jokes and asides and plays on words have a space to land amidst the arguments, threats, and desperate appeals.

It’s a play without a hero, so to speak, and thus risks an alienation effect different from the kind we’ve become accustomed to. Everyone here has something to prove, and sometimes a life-or-death need to be met, and everything is negotiable, if only because authority is simply a question of who has the upper hand at the moment. Whom we may be rooting for can change with a phrase.

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), an art curator at a local museum in an unnamed, fictional East European country, has stumbled upon what may be the art historical discovery of the age: an unknown artist who may have anticipated rather than copied Giotto’s breakthrough into three-dimensional representation. She brings in Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), a British art historian, for consultation, and sweeps him into her enthusiasm that the painting’s provenance, which is tenuous but tenable, prove true. For Gabriella, it would be an historic coup for a country deemed backward due to the cultural suppressions endured under Communism. For Oliver, it would be a new masterpiece to admit into the world’s cultural currency. Neither have a problem with removing the work from the twelfth-century church—which has also been a prison and is now a shelter for acts of prostitution—and installing it in the local museum.

American art historian Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson) does have a problem with that, and he’s willing to use any expedient to stop them, beginning with discrediting their dating of the painting. For Katz, art works belong where they were made, to age and suffer the vicissitudes of fortune just like people and countries do. And the arguments aren’t only secular: a representative priest of the Catholic church, Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), and of the Orthodox church, Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), are on hand to make sure their faiths don’t lose a work worthy of veneration. Then there are the government officials, a minister (Patrick Foley) with the swagger of a gangster and a gun-moll of a secretary (Evelyn Giovine), and a former dissident now turned magistrate (Danielle Chaves), to make sure the state’s interests are served. And don’t forget José Espinosa as a seething skinhead who designates himself as the people’s champion.

Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Anna Jedikova (Danielle Chaves)

Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Anna Jedikova (Danielle Chaves)

The show’s first half is well-served by the fun Edgar has with sending up these various vested interests, and the cast, while necessarily a bit young for the roles, put in strong performances, some—as with Foley and Soria particularly—full of comic brio. Others—like Chaves and Colley—play secondary characters with rich backgrounds. As the sparring trio of art officials, Madden gets Edgar’s subtle undermining of British élan (perhaps more audible now than in the 1990s), while Johnson’s Katz is surprisingly energetic, twitching with the passion of a zealot, and Baker as Gabriella is the real star here, as both the heart and soul of this production and the character who, whether or not history is on her side, wants desperately to believe in the value of art over chaos.

foreground: Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden)

foreground: Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden)

While the trio get into an argument about artistic appropriation and how authorities—particularly the political kind—like to assign meaning and status to others, right on cue comes a ragtag band of refugees, seeking asylum in the church while trying to emigrate to somewhere less lethal. They’ve taken hostage Toni Newsome, a clueless Cockney TV host (Evelyn Giovine), and swiftly add the three art historians to their prisoners. It’s then that Katz switches sides, arguing that the painting is an unprecedented masterpiece as Gabriella and Oliver claimed, and therefore the most important hostage of all.

Abdel Rahman (Abubakr Ali), Raif (Jose Espinosa), Amira (Danielle Chaves), Gregori (William Nixon) Antonio (Kineta Kunutu), Cleopatra (Isabella Giovannini)

Abdel Rahman (Abubakr Ali), Raif (Jose Espinosa), Amira (Danielle Chaves), Gregori (William Nixon) Antonio (Kineta Kunutu), Cleopatra (Isabella Giovannini)

The show’s second half suffers somewhat from Edgar’s earnest attempts to create platforms for a few stray figures from the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The ensemble cast are impressively secure in recreating the accents and manners and languages of a heterogeneous tribe of refugees. Each has a story and their individual paths of suffering are also emblematic of nations and peoples brutalized by conquerors and, all too often, saviors. Particularly strong are Amandla Jahava as Yasmin, the leader, a refugee from Palestinian Kuwait, and Kineta Kunutu as Antonio, a Mozambican with a sharp eye and a gift for parable. Sohina Sidhu, as Tunu, acts out a dramatic fable in a tongue no one present understands, a showcase for the need to tell stories and the limitations of language in communicating them.

The play’s richly ironic conclusion is also heartbreaking—leave it to the British to combine those perspectives in one. As Gabriella, the heartbroken one, Baker powerfully registers hysterics as both outcome and response. Standing next to a stroller with a swastika graffitied on it, her breakdown is for us.

There are many fine aspects to this production. Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set is one of the best uses of the Yale Repertory stage and space I’ve seen. Herin Kaputkin’s costumes not only get the garb of various peoples right, but also of that odd tribe called academia c. 1995—check out Katz’s jacket with the rolled sleeves and baggy elegance. Wigs and hair-stylings and props are also handled with great care, and lighting and sound effects—including gunshots, and candlelight, and the ballet of death late in the play—point up the skill of Nic Vincent, lighting, and Kathryn Ruvuna, sound. Music is well-served by Danielle Chaves’ evocation of “the Cellist of Sarajevo,” and, as Father Karolyi, John R. Colley’s dramatic entrance, nude, in the manner of Leonardo’s famed Vitruvian man speaks as the best art always does: as image and reference and thing-in-itself.

Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Mikhail Czaba (Patrick Foley)

Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Mikhail Czaba (Patrick Foley)

As with Stoppard, Edgar can be a bit self-congratulatory in his effects. Oliver’s fable of an Arab artist transplanted to Eastern Europe, creating a synthesis of East and West, Muslim and Christian, smacks of trying too hard, where accommodation is meant to be more progressive than appropriation. Unconvincing or not, Oliver’s pitch writes uneasy conscience into art history which, no matter how benighted it may be, is preferable to the presumptuous supremacy of earlier versions.

 

Pentecost
By David Edgar
Directed by Lucie Dawkins

Choreographers: Gwyneth Muller, Varsha Raghavan, Garima Singh; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Production Dramaturg: Matthew Conway; Technical Director: Phillip Alexander Worthington; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Stella Baker, Danielle Chaves, John R. Colley, José Espinosa, Patrick Foley, Isabella Giovannini, Evelyn Giovine, Amandla Jahava, Steven Lee Johnson, Ipsitaa Khullar, Kineta Kunutu, Patrick Madden, William Dixon, Sohina Sidhu, Arturo Soria

Yale School of Drama
October 3-7, 2017

To the Meeting of True Egos

Review of Sex with Strangers, Westport Country Playhouse

Two writers meet at a writer’s retreat in Michigan during a blizzard. She—Olivia (Jessica Love)—is a fortyish novelist whose first novel was mismanaged and sank without a trace. He—Ethan (Chris Ghaffari)—is an internet sensation who has parlayed his blog documenting his record-setting sexual exploits into a New York Times best-seller. We expect some version of the tried and true mixing of oil and water to reach romance. What we get is a talky and unintriguing series of exchanges between two characters who are stuck with each other in Laura Eason’s vapid take on passion and publishing in the internet age in Westport Country Playhouse's revival of her provocatively titled Sex with Strangers, directed by Katherine M. Carter.

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

At first Olivia is wary and distant. Ethan barges in on her after she’s become certain no other guest will be joining her. Turns out he has read her only novel, given to him by a mutual friend, and he adores it. The broken ice melts swiftly and the two repeat often the show’s only gag—they begin pawing each other, removing their clothes, and we go to blackout.

It may be amusing that Olivia is so eager for a little loving that she’ll bed a guy who admits he’s an asshole and has told her he writes, in self-serving detail, about every one of the sex-mates he’s had. Ghaffari plays Ethan as a charmer, with a bod to be proud of, and, though he doesn’t know who Marguerite Duras—Olivia’s favorite writer—is, he’s able to sling advertising copy at her book and other works that got through to him. Olivia, though, is old enough to know better, so if she accepts him as sincere when he promises he won’t write about her, well, we suppose she knows what she’s doing.

The main question is: do we care? After the characters were introduced, during which time Olivia’s spikey crust turned soft dough, I had a sinking sensation realizing that, no matter how long this play goes on, no one else is going to come through the door. We get only Olivia and Ethan, and they’re pretty tedious company, and, strangely, not sexy. Director Carter’s approach to the material can be best described as workmanlike. The blocking uses the sets well.

The selling point that this play addresses the difficulty of remaining private in the public world of online self-advertisement seems wishful thinking. Ethan tells Olivia all about who he is, she doesn’t even have to google him. And he knows who she is before he meets her because she’s actually a published author he has read as prep to sweep her off her feet. The play dates from 2011 and the more a work tries to stay on top of the “now” of the internet it risks looking foolish. Ethan, back then, was immediately recognizable as an analogue to that “hope they serve beer in hell” dude. Remember him?

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

What it all comes down to is that Ethan wants to be Olivia’s internet-savvy hero, able to resuscitate the heat in her stalled career through his new book-hawking app, while Olivia is more excited about the prospect of using his agent to get a shot at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, aka FSG. You may wonder if Ethan can be trusted. You may want to see who is using whom more or better. Almost any plot you think you see coming at the close of Act I is bound to be better than what actually does ensue.

Could this play work better with snappier delivery, more chemistry between the two actors, and a surer grasp of pacing? Doubtless, but I’m not convinced any of those factors would offset what is mostly pretentious and interminable dialogue sparked by an occasional laugh. The characters are made to discuss books we likely haven’t read—because only the ones by Duras and Tolstoy exist. Much is made of the celebrity that surrounds Ethan’s “Sex with Strangers” blog and book—which is being made into a movie—but Olivia, like the most naïve of ingenues, wants to believe that such callous events as Ethan narrates are all in the past or were only invented for sensationalism. Love plays Olivia as the sensitive type, ready to swoon if a cute guy takes an interest or if an anonymous Amazon reviewer gives her a thumbs up. All the while, Eason seems to want us to believe that Ethan isn’t really the cad he’s cracked up to be, but is in fact a prospective “brilliant” novelist trying to overcome the problem that he’s become rich and infamous instead of serious and respected. It could happen to anyone.

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Edward T. Morris’ set for the bed and breakfast looks like a combination of a lodge and college common room, a look entirely appropriate for the collegiate ideas about hooking-up and producing copy that engage these two. In Act Two, the set is converted into a swanky-ish apartment—that circular staircase and the wall of shelves are no doubt desired features—where Olivia, now on her way to the big time, has traded in her dumpy Dell for a sleek Mac, and faces the wounded pride of her paramour. Stay through intermission to see the set change, it’s one of the more interesting features of the show.

There may be some effort on the part of Eason and Carter to saddle these romantic antagonists with emotions beyond lust, pride, and thirst for fame, but not much else has a chance to register. Serious writers, I expect, know that proper names and adjectives don’t help much in expressing ideas. That’s left to blurb writers. For the likes of Olivia and Ethan, online gossip, name-dropping, blog-crit, and jacket copy are the tools of the trade and the best that can be hoped for. That may well be true to life, these days, but Eason hasn’t any idea how to satirize or complicate that state of affairs for the sake of her characters, or of her viewers.

Thanks, but no thanks, in times like these, the griefs of shallow egos aren’t enough. For diversion, I’d rather fire up a Tracy-Hepburn flick.

 

Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by Katherine M. Carter

Scenic Design: Edward T. Morris; Costume Design: Caitlin Cisek; Lighting Design: Alan Edwards; Sound Design: Beth Lake; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Garrett Rollins; Assistant Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Chris Ghaffari, Jessica Love

Westport Country Playhouse
September 26-October 14, 2017

Aging Youth

Review of Avenue Q, Playhouse on Park

A certain irony creeps into the revival of the Tony-winning hit musical from 2003, Avenue Q, now playing at Playhouse on Park through October 8, directed by Kyle Brand. The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who co-wrote the music and lyrics with book by Jeff Whitty, this lively and imaginative musical uses tropes that recall the long-running children’s program Sesame Street to explore the problems of a post-college existence in a less trendy area of Queens. The show’s strong closing song makes the case that most things in life are only “For Now.” That sense of the obsolescence of events and tastes may include, for younger viewers, the show’s key reference points, more than a decade after the show’s initial run.

There are always twenty-somethings, but they aren’t always the same twenty-somethings. The generation that grew up with Sesame Street, and would instantly recognize the name Gary Coleman—represented onstage as the quintessential has-been celebrity by Abena Mensah-Bonsu—is likely to be in its forties, as are Lopez and Marx. The show’s progressive songs, like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay,” effectively mimic the bright-eyed pedagogy of the award-winning PBS show, which aimed to educate and entertain simultaneously. But they must also seem a bit quaint to a twenty-something of today. Since it’s stressed that Avenue Q is not a show for children, its best audience may be those with nostalgic feelings for the turn-of-the-century era.

The cast of Avenue Q (left to right): Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman), Brian (James Fairchild), Princeton/Rod (Weston Chandler Long), Bad Idea Bears (Colleen Welsh), Trekkie/Nicky (Peej Mele), Kate/Lucy (Ashley Brooke), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) (photos courtesy of Curt Henderson, Imagine It Framed)

The cast of Avenue Q (left to right): Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman), Brian (James Fairchild), Princeton/Rod (Weston Chandler Long), Bad Idea Bears (Colleen Welsh), Trekkie/Nicky (Peej Mele), Kate/Lucy (Ashley Brooke), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) (photos courtesy of Curt Henderson, Imagine It Framed)

Still, it’s a great idea: using the tropes of children's TV to help render the growing pains of young adulthood. Princeton (Weston Chandler Long) must come to terms with the fact that his B.A. in English doesn’t open the doors of opportunity. He’s trying to find his way, helped by neighbors to learn important lessons about getting along, much as would any guest on Sesame Street. A key conceit of the show is that puppets are people, monsters—also played by puppets—live among us, and that some characters will be rendered by live actors.

A major aspect of Avenue Q—and one of the strengths of the Playhouse on Park production—is that the puppeteers are usually the actors and that all are fully visible on stage. This permits the audience to look both at the puppets—as for instance the porn-addict Trekkie (a ribald take-off on Cookie Monster)—and at the actors who manipulate them (for Trekkie, both Peej Mele and Colleen Welsh). Mele is a good example of an actor in service to a puppet: he manifests a variety of entertaining voices for different characters and generally maintains a self-effacing wide-eyed glare as though he were a puppet himself. Welsh, who helps with much of the ancillary puppet-handling, sometimes wielding the puppet another actor is voicing, is a key member of the cast.

The expressive aspects of the simultaneous presence of actor and puppet are particularly effective in Long’s body language for Princeton, and as the more uptight—and closeted—Rod, and in Ashley Brooke’s opposition between sweet Kate Monster and salacious Lucy T. Slut. These two fine actors do a lot, with their movements and their singing voices, to keep this revival fun, romantic, and endearing.

left to right: Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke, Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (Princeton)

left to right: Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke, Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (Princeton)

As the live actors—without puppets—Mensah-Bonsu, in a boyish outfit that would suit the diminutive Coleman—steals the show, and she’s abetted by the couple Brian (James Fairchild) and Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman). The fact of a mixed-race couple is meant to be progressive as well, but the insistence that Christmas Eve speak broken English makes her a caricature (“The More You Ruv Someone”), and Brian seems to have little purpose other than to be an example of an older slacker (“I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”).

Nicky (Colleen Welsh), Brian (James Fairchild), Trekkie (Peej Mele), Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman)

Nicky (Colleen Welsh), Brian (James Fairchild), Trekkie (Peej Mele), Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman)

While not always progressive, the lessons of the songs follow an arc to make characters confront behavioral norms—whether about efforts to enact or avoid romance (“Fantasies Come True,” “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), or about how to face life (“Purpose,” “There is Life Outside Your Apartment”), or how to get it on—puppets Princeton and Kate simulate every variation of heterosexual sex in “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).” The rueful “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” sung by Kate, is a high-point, late in Act Two.

The set by Emily Nichols is a perfect rendition of a grittier Sesame Street, with fun fold-down, dollhouse-like sets as backdrops to serve as interiors. The band, let by Robert James Tomasulo, is clear and unobtrusive, and Kyle Brand’s choreography uses the wide-open thrust space well, including a visit into the audience for handouts.

Not quite as dated as the reruns of yesteryear, Avenue Q may inadvertently underscore how timely an experience young adulthood is. The revival at Playhouse on Park is served well by its cast and design and Kyle Brand’s energetic direction.

Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book by Jeff Whitty
Directed by Kyle Brand

Puppets conceived by Rick Lyons

Choreographer: Kyle Brand; Music Director: Robert James Tomasulo; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Properties: Pamela Lang; Video Designers: Zach Rosing and Ben Phillippe

Cast: Ashley Brooke, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Colleen Welsh

Musicians: Nick Cutroneo, guitar; Sean Rubin, bass guitar; Andrew Studenski, reeds; Robert James Tomasulo, keyboard; Elliot Wallace, drums

Playhouse on Park
September 13-October 8, 2017

One and Only Love

Review of The Apple Tree, Yale Cabaret

The second show of Cab 50 is sheer delight. With music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, both of Fiddler on the Roof fame, and book by both, the story of Adam and Eve, as filtered through Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” is retold as a tuneful, funny, rueful, and wise consideration of gender roles. Associate Artistic Director Rory Pelsue directs The Apple Tree with a loving grasp of the material and fulfills his passion-project dream of having third-year actor Courtney Jamison play the role of Eve.

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Jamison, last seen locally as Juliet in Elm Shakespeare’s summer production of Romeo and Juliet in Egerton Park, was also a stirring voice in the ensemble of last season’s Assassins at Yale Rep. She has the voice, the grace, and the comic gifts to render a charming version of our archetypal mother. She’s a wonder in a crowd-pleaser like “Feelings,” and tugs at the heartstrings in “What Makes Me Love Him.” It’s great to see a talent this big in a theater so small.

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The first couple are rendered as a kind of heightened Blondie and Dagwood with Eve’s clear instincts for how to manage life in Eden moving swiftly beyond Adam’s more plodding grasp of things. Tasked with naming the animals—which he regards as a wearisome chore—Adam calls flying creatures “flyers,” swimming creatures “swimmers,” and so forth. Eve, excited by the panoply of life forms, immediately designates creatures by their specific names. She also invents fire and undertakes the first efforts in home improvement and fashion statements, all without earning much respect from her skeptical partner.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Danilo Gambini, a first-year director, takes on the comic role of Adam—played in the original production, directed by Mike Nichols in 1966, by Alan Alda. That should give you an idea of the kind of fussy, WASPy egotist our first father is portrayed as. Gambini gives Adam the intense self-centeredness that mostly any man is capable of, but which might be a bit understandable for the first, “sole and single man” on Earth. His efforts to keep us on his side are nicely tongue-in-cheek, as is his hapless attempts to impress with his new invention, humor. His big song, “Eve,” is delivered with the growing sense of maturity of a stricken man-child.

Initially, the duo are clad all in spanking white to signify nakedness—she like she’s going to a formal, he in boyish shorts as if he hasn’t grown into long pants yet. Later, after eating an apple, they wrap themselves in more pedestrian costumes, with red the dominant theme. The snake—Eve’s tempter—is played by a natty Erron Crawford wearing a fanciful snakeskin suit for a number that is the high point of the show. Witty, and crafty, the snake turns poor Eve’s head only to increase her capacity for cognition. Eden, and its innocence, is lost, of course, but the couple gains from the introduction of more purpose into their lives, including the arrival of a being Adam assumes is a fish or possibly a miniature bear. Later, he admits to a certain pride in his offspring, though that Cain is certainly a hellion.

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The story skimps a bit on the difficulties of raising Cain and Abel, and ends with a sentimental tribute to the joys of long marriage. It all works thanks to the show’s charismatic leads and the way Bock and Harnick keep an entertaining focus on the compromises each partner makes with the other for the sake of their mutual bond. No marriage is perfect, but the couple understand each other much better after leaving paradise.

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Subtle lighting effects and projections, such as close-ups of flowers, add atmosphere. The sparse set helps the show maintain the feel of improvised theater, particularly when Adam often feels the urge to draw the curtain on his irksome helpmate. The musicians—the estimable Jill Brunelle, music director and piano, Jenny Schmidt, cello, and Emily Sorenson, flute—are visible accompanists off to one side of the long stage space with the audience spread out before it. Before the show starts the curtain acts as a screen for footage from The Judy Garland Show, featuring Judy’s guests Lena Horne and Terry Thomas. And, indeed, Jamison recalls some of Judy’s gift for nonplussed intelligence faced with that most endearing of obstacles: a well-intentioned man.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

The Apple Tree offers treats to savor.

 

The Apple Tree
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Additional book material by Jerome Coppersmith
Based on a story by Mark Twain

Producer: Gwyneth Muller; Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Scenic Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Assistant Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Sound Consultant: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Stage Manager: Abby Gandy; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo

Cast: Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, music director, piano; Jenny Schmidt, cello; Emily Sorenson, flute

Yale Cabaret
September 21-23, 2017

What Fools These Players Be

Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hartford Stage

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has much to delight. With three stories that dovetail into one, the play offers at the heart of each story comic elements that have kept audiences entertained for generations. In one story, four Athenian youths—Hermia (Jenny Leona), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet)—are caught up in a love triangle, overruled by Hermia’s father Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) in a dispute brought to the attention of King Theseus (Esau Pritchett). Meanwhile in the forest, the fairy rulers Oberon (Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are sparring over who should get custody of a changeling child. And a troupe of Athenian workmen, rehearsing in the forest, are putting together a play for the nuptials of Theseus and his bride Hippolyta (Strallen). Mistaken identity, love potions, metamorphosis, fits of jealousy, and ham-fisted theatrics combine to make the play a celebration of the different worlds theater can manifest.

Last year at Hartford Stage, director Darko Tresnjak gave us a silly, effervescent Comedy of Errors and seems determined to do the same with Midsummer. The problem, though, is that the latter play doesn’t lend itself as well to over-the-top hamming. That doesn’t mean the game cast doesn’t do all it can to provide belly laughs at almost every turn, but somewhere amidst all the preening and posturing, the pointing hands and waving arms, the crotch-grabbing and air-humping, the lampoons of American method actors by a showboat Bottom (John Lavelle) and the gauche ardors of lovers in school uniforms, a wise, witty, and sumptuously lyrical text goes missing.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That might not matter to everyone, and there is method in the director’s decision to rein in the set while unleashing the actors. This strategy gives us an English country estate, particularly its gatehouse, for Athens, complete with an ordered park as environs. When Lysander and Hermia, supposedly at large in the wilds, lie a little further off amidst trim hedges and park benches, something seems awry. It’s that kind of disjunction that may keep a viewer waiting for a moment when something like the playwright’s vision might occur. One supposes it’s to be found in an obscene prop that accompanies Brent Bateman’s eager turn as Snout as Wall.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Theseus, as everyone knows, is kind of a killjoy. Here, I found myself taking his side. It helps that Esau Pritchett gives the king much dignity, though he doesn’t seem much different when he becomes Oberon, but for his very becoming tunic. As Hippolyta, Scarlett Strallen looks good in a riding habit, with dark hair, and as Titania, she’s a begowned blonde who has the intonation to make the verse, and sometimes song as well, come alive. Her doting upon the “translated” Bottom is quite the set-piece it’s meant to be and the attendant fairy-maids (Melody Atkinson, Gabrielle Filloux, Anne O’Sullivan, Madison Vice) may be commended for actually downplaying what are often flamboyant parts, though the notion of an otherworldly fairy realm is lessened to nothingness. The lack of feyness in the fairy world is compounded by Will Apicella’s vigorous Puck, the least beguiling version I’ve ever seen.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

One imagines the lovers would fare better if differently presented. In their school uniforms, they look immature and, suitably, act petulant rather than passionate. That tone, once established, helps to make their plight comic from the first, and then it’s just a matter of who will run farthest with it. I would single out Fedna Laure Jacquet for highest praise—as Helena, petulance suits her, and since she’s able to fawn like a dog and coquette like an awkward doll, she inspires the most laughter. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius get in some fun as boyish rivals à la “Our Gang,” while Jenny Leona makes Hermia’s turn at jealousy very vivid.

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Vivid too are those mechanicals, with John Lavelle as a Bottom whose well of mugging and vocal mannerisms hath no bottom, abetted by Matthew Macca as a lollipop-licking Flute. The point of the play within a play seems to be to show that, once upon a stage, a player will strut for all he can.

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

The critic G. K. Chesterton is quoted in the playbill as proclaiming that “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.” By “design,” he means of course what we would mean by structure, the way the different worlds of the play impinge on one another to create a world in which magic—whether of love, fairies, or inspired clods—triumphs. Hartford Stage’s production gets demerits for design, as an unusually static take on this fluid play. Its failings help to show how much a play may be the creature of its appearance. The supreme merit this production aims for, and sometimes hits, is a merit of display.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Projection Design: Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Composer & Music Director: Alexander Sovronsky; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Will Apicella, Melody Atkinson, Brent Bateman, Robert Hannon Davis, Gabrielle Filloux, Fedna Laure Jacquet, John Lavelle, Jenny Leona, Matthew Macca, Anne O’Sullivan, Tom Pecinka, Esau Pritchett, Alexander Sovronsky, Scarlett Strallen, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Louis Tucci, Madison Vice

Hartford Stage
September 7-October 8, 2017

Drowning or Dreaming

Review of One Big Breath, Yale Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret returns this week with its first show of the season. A devised piece scripted by third-year playwright Josh Wilder and directed by second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, One Big Breath takes a poetic approach to the dire situation of refugees from an unnamed war-torn country. Wilder and his collaborators—including a cast consisting of Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Jakeem Powell, Catherine María Rodríguez—create a play that feels part timeless folk-tale and part contemporary exposé. The different moods of the piece jar at times, but ultimately jell into a memorable Cabaret experience that leaves a lot of latitude for interpretation.

One Big Breath (photos: Brittany Bland)

One Big Breath (photos: Brittany Bland)

The piece is served well by a powerful and mesmerizing opening. Behind a curtain, Powell, Crowe-Legacy, Fa’asua and Fernandez McKenzie cast shadow figures that wrestle rhythmically with their plight: a decision to leave their homeland for the “other shore,” wearing flotation vests and roping themselves together for safety. In a stylized version of frogman attire, Rodríguez stalks through the audience with an illuminated diving mask, narrating the action and making eerie noises on a strange percussion instrument. In the course of the play, we will learn the fate of the four lovers who seek to escape death for something better.

Some scenes strike up an endearing comedy, as when Fa’asua plays a beach-goer who discovers Fernandez McKenzie washed up on the beach and attempts to communicate with her. Fa’asua speaks a stylized version of English that could easily catch on as a charming variation of our language, while Fernandez McKenzie wrestles with mimicking foreign sounds while communicating her distress at finding herself alone without her other escapees. Her choice at the scene’s close shreds the complacency of Fa’asua acceptance.

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Later, Rodríguez plays a refugee called “Eet” who is introduced to a class by a demanding teacher (Fernandez McKenzie) and then barraged with questions by an enthusiastic TV interviewer (Fa’asua) while Powell—who has some great moves throughout the show, particularly in the opening segment—does an excited dance.

The play doesn’t do much to particularize the characters of the hopeful refugees, giving them a sort of collective consciousness that we can only intuit, and it renders their fates, whether in death or life, as an unwelcome alternative to whatever their previous existence was. A scene between Fernandez McKenzie, as a kind of shore patrol standing watch over two of the drowned refugees, and Crowe-Legacy as a photo journalist, doesn’t give us much to go on. The photographer is from Texas, but where in the world the shore is, is anyone’s guess.

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Late in the show, a haunting score provides backdrop to a romantic acceptance of death, as a waltz for lovers willing to go down together rather than live under duress. Many of the show’s best effects come from the blending of lighting, sound, movement, voice to create a range of impressions for the viewer. It’s not about story so much as it’s about the way we turn traumatic events into media or into myth.

Near the close, Fernandez McKenzie rehearses the ways in which the human body fights off asphyxiation, or death by drowning. Her speech is rigorously true-to-life but also, in the way it allows for the mind’s ability to dream before the final lights out, opens up the possibility that the refugees aren’t yet drowned, but only dreaming.

Ultimately, One Big Breath, in its technical wizardry and evocative storytelling, is a good example of the strengths of theater at the Cab: inspired, probing, diverse, uneasy. The kind of theater we need these days.

 

One Big Breath
By Josh Wilder
Directed by Jeremy O. Harris
Produced by Al Heartley

Dramaturgs: Kari Olmon, Amauta Marston-Firmino; Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Assistant Scenic Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: LT Gourzong

Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Jakeem Powell, Catherine María Rodríguez

Yale Cabaret
September 14-16, 2017

For my preview of the upcoming season of Cab 50, go here.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/turning_50_yale_cab_/

Small Mouth Sounds comes to Long Wharf

Preview of Small Mouth Sounds, Long Wharf Theatre

Opening this week at the Long Wharf Theatre is the first stop of the six-city touring production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which debuted in New York at Ars Nova, 2015, and then ran Off-Broadway at the Pershing Signature Center, where it was a New York Critics’ Pick of 2016. Though intrigued by the show, I didn’t get to either of those productions. So this is a welcome opener for the Long Wharf’s 2017-18 season. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who has directed the show from the beginning, but features an all-new cast. Chavkin was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

In the cast at Long Wharf is Brenna Palughi who I remember from her last year at the Yale School of Drama. In the 2009-10 season, she was featured in a show at the Yale Cabaret that was completely wordless and mostly in slow motion. Palughi’s silent scream in response to a catastrophic event has stayed with me for over seven years. It’s fitting, since the show that brings Palughi back to New Haven requires a lot of silent acting. Small Mouth Sounds concerns seven people—including a couple—who undertake a silent retreat in the woods.

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Since her time at the School of Drama, Palughi has had a Broadway debut, as an understudy in A Time to Kill, and has acted Off-Broadway and on TV. She loves doing new plays and sees Small Mouth Sounds as “walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy.” The characters, she said, “really have needs and are willing to grasp at anything” in their effort to change their lives. Alicia, Palughi’s character, “is really sick of herself and how she’s living.”

“The more you invest in the characters’ lives, the more you get from the play,” Palughi said. The playwright’s presence at rehearsals gave the cast “a lot to work with,” as Wohl “dropped great tidbits” for the actors to consider, “opening whole new trains of thought.” Alicia, who Palughi characterized as “not great at being quiet,” is a part that requires, she found, a particular kind of empathy. A key realization for Palughi, in getting into character, is that Alicia “starts where a lot of people end up.” Which means that the back story of Alicia has to be understood by the actor and conveyed with almost no exposition. Alicia “begins in a shitty place” and the play’s situation offers her, perhaps, the means to a better place.

Palughi, who has taught movement classes, said that the play, in its lack of dialogue, involves the kind of physical theater she loves. “The body becomes a tool for storytelling, but in a realistic, naturalistic way. There’s no metaphorical movement, but there is a lot of humor and meaning in the body language of the characters.”

We all might benefit from more silence in our highly articulate world. Wohl’s play lets us see how complicated confronting one another and ourselves can be without words to help or to get in the way. At the retreat, where they are addressed by an unseen teacher, the characters are “supposed to exist with but not interact with each other,” Palughi said, which might be easier said—or not said—than done.

Small Mouth Sounds opens August 30 and runs to September 24.

For my review at the New Haven Independent, go here.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/in_small_mouth_soun/

For a podcast on the play featuring myself and Lucy Gellman and Brian Slattery, go here.

https://www.artspaper.org/audio/2017/9/15/introducing-our-podcast?rq=podcast

Long Wharf Theatre

 

Inappropriate Behavior

Review of Appropriate, Westport Country Playhouse

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning play Appropriate lets viewers choose where to place the stress in the title, and it also leaves to viewers how many big dysfunctional family dramas are “appropriate” to name as “appropriated” material. The playbill trots out everything from the most obvious, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, to some a bit of a stretch—Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and even Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That kind of “spot the antecedent” game seems to me a bit counter-productive. The play not mentioned that at least would serve some purpose as a thematic comparison is Ibsen’s Ghosts where the true nature of a patriarch and what that means to his offspring is very much to the point.

The patriarch in this case is a once well-heeled Washington lawyer recently deceased after twenty years of decrepitude. His children are gathered to dispose of his plantation in Arkansas, spookily moldering with a hoarder’s trash inside and, outside, separate graveyards for family members and slaves. We watch as estranged son Frank, now Franz (Shawn Fagan)—missing from the family for ten years—climbs in through a window with his free-spirit vegan girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli). Their presence sets off the eldest sibling, Toni (Betsy Aidem), who, as executrix and chief caregiver during their father’s long decline, is quite vocal in her sense of propriety and grievance. The middle sibling is Bo (David Aaron Baker), a typical New York pater with a fussy Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), and two kids—Cassie (Allison Winn), a thirteen-year-old who claims stridently that she’s “almost an adult,” and a boy, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin), who seems content to be a child. Toni’s son, Rhys (Nick Selting), a twenty-something, is also on hand to feel generally put upon by all the middle-aged Sturm und Drang on display among his elders.

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is stunning, letting us experience the space with these visitors and giving director David Kennedy a fully realized world for Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, who are by terms abrasive, pathetic, amusing, and sympathetic, but never endearing.

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

Franz claims to be seeking reconciliation; Toni clings to Rhys and generally undermines everyone else; Bo plays middle-man as if it’s his natural calling. Every role is filled superlatively, with special mention for Aidem’s bull-at-a-garage sale of a domineering but vulnerable sister, and for Baker’s harried decency as Bo. Crivelli plays River as comic but not a caricature, which helps a lot, and Davis does well finding the heart of Rachael, a character who seems determined to be superficial. Fagan’s Franz is almost likeable, though we suspect, as the play goes on, that Toni is not simply spiteful in her view of her little brother’s failings; his character is rewardingly mercurial. And director Kennedy gets perfectly modulated performances of youthful disaffect and awkwardness from Selting's Rhys and Winn's Cassie.

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The clarity of exposition is much to the point here and makes staying in place with this family a drama of well-timed revelations. Family dramas owe some of their popularity, no doubt, to the fact that all families have skeletons in the closet and harbor family members who often bring out the worst in each other. We look on with a level of complicity that is determinate for how much we get out of the cast’s exchanges, which can be almost sweet at times, and, at other times, full-bore hostile.

Jacobs-Jenkins, however, has more on his mind than who said what to whom and who neglected whom and who has gone off the rails—there’s drug abuse, alcoholism, seduction of a minor, drug dealing, antisemitism, and divorce, in the past, and job loss and marriage and new parenthood in the prospective future. But that’s all, as it were, window dressing to the big question nagging everyone, perhaps more than would actually be the case: what’s with the photo albums of African-American lynching victims preserved on a book case, and what’s with the jars that contain what seem to be body parts?

Appropriate makes us ask what reaction is appropriate to such discoveries. Much as we might wonder how we ourselves might handle evidence of such virulent racism in a loved one, we also realize that this family is being made to shoulder a legacy it can ill sustain. The script cunningly lets us see each character navigate, badly, the minefield of these artifacts’ existence. And Kennedy, whose direction of The Invisible Hand last season at Westport showed a similar skill with ethical gray areas, keeps things tense and probing. Neither director nor author shy away from showing us how the family dynamic—any family dynamic—is a means to shelter and exclude. Here, the excoriation the characters level at each other serves to highlight a more general social dysfunction that festers where they can’t quite get at it.

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Engaging enough thanks to its wonderful cast, set, and direction, Appropriate’s structure can feel a little flabby at times, particularly in a second act that gives the younger cast members stage time and lets the elders take a bit of a rest, but is a bit too relaxed and sit-com-like to maintain the play’s edge. But that weakness is more than made up for by Act Three. With its teasing black-outs—punctuated by deafening cicadas—striking special effects, explosive fight, sustained speeches from all the principle characters, scene-stopping intrusion by Ainsley, and quirky sense of roiling crisis, Appropriate’s finale delivers appropriate theatrical thrills.

 

Appropriate
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Alixon Mantilla; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Cast: Betsy Aidem, David Aaron Baker, Christian Michael Camporin, Anna Crivelli, Diane Davis, Shawn Fagan, Nick Selting, Allison Winn

Westport Country Playhouse
August 15-September 2, 2017

Way Better Than OK

Review of Oklahoma!, Goodspeed Opera House

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is the big daddy of all musicals. Back in the 1940s it set the standard for what a musical could be—catchy songs, big dance numbers that are part of the narrative, recognizable character types that manage not to be clichés. In some ways, of course, the material has dated if only because so many of the tropes of the Broadway musical take their cues from this show. And yet. Even if you’re a longtime viewer fully familiar with every aspect of the show, the production at Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson with new choreography by Katie Spelman, and additional dance arrangements by David Chase, is bound to give you some fresh insights.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The story, while in some ways a simple “boy gets girl after obstacles” plot, has enough tensions under the surface to keep a contemporary audience engaged. The Goodspeed production is particularly well cast and that’s all to the good. Our heroine, Laurey Williams is given a smart, sassy, pretty, and full-voiced incarnation by Samantha Bruce, and as our hero, Curly McLaine, Rhett Guter plays his agreeable swagger with a touch of Elvis while also registering the role’s insecurities without overplaying them. Curly knows he is the best match in town for Laurey, but he also knows she has enough mind of her own, and maybe petulance, to refuse him out of spite. Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) keeps an eye on everything with the kind of knowing wit and wisdom that we come to expect from Okies ever after.

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Villainy in the play is given a nuanced presentation by Matt Faucher as put-upon Jud Fry. The difference in class between Laurey, the owner, and Jud, the hired man, is key, but there’s also a sense in which Jud represents the more unsavory aspects of male dominance—he keeps pornographic pictures, and in his “Lonely Room,” plots how he will best Curly and carry the day. Their scene, “Pore Jud is Daid,” is comic but is also permitted to be a bit melancholic, with the kind of mixed signals that give the show more strength than some interpretations might. Jud, however, is not above fighting dirty and that spells his doom. Director Thompson’s effort to add nuance to Jud stops short of a reprise of “Pore Jud is Daid” at the close, but the song’s grim presentiment is allowed to add some questioning to the show’s happy ending.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Comic performances in this production are stand-outs. As Ado Annie, the gal who “cain’t say no,” Gizel Jiménez is feisty and forthright, very nimble, and quite capable of stealing a scene. As peddler Ali Hakim, Matthew Curiano makes the most of a role that shows both a survivor’s wit and an outsider’s pathos. And as Will Parker, the most serious of Annie’s many suitors, Jake Swain gives the role lots of energy, and his rendering of “Kansas City” is one of the high-points as the first ensemble number in the early going.

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

A key reason to see this production is the big ballet number that comes before the first act curtain. Here, it’s a rendering of Laurey’s ambivalence about becoming any man’s wife, with the sexual side of that relation and its implied ownership rendered by women being roped and cavorting in show girls’ lingerie. At the heart of this Oklahoma! are not only the expressed rivalries between the ranchers and the farmers, and between respect for law and the town’s favoritism, but between women who want to live their own lives and the men who want them wedded. It’s a compelling lesson about revisionism that sometimes simply stressing the full nuances of a major work is all that is necessary to see it anew.

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Costumes, lighting, sets, arrangements—and the ensemble of limber and expressive dancers—all help to make this Oklahoma! an eye-catching and engaging triumph. Goodspeed again does a wonderful job of bringing the classics back in their best light. The cast keeps up the proper drawl and, for an added touch of authenticity, the ushers are costumed and accented as well.

If you want to get out of Connecticut for a few hours, why not go to Oklahoma!

 

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s
Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rogers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes de Mille

Directed by Jenn Thompson
Choreography by Katie Spelman
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Additional Dance Arrangements: David Chase; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Casting: Paul Hardt Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Kelly Berman, Samantha Bruce, Rebecca Brudner, Terry Burrell, Morgan Cowling, Aaron Patrick Craven, Lauren Csete, Matthew Curiano, Mark Deler, Matt Faucher, Tamrin Goldberg, Rhett Guter, Tripp Hampton, Olivia Nicole Hoffman, Gizel Jiménez, Kate Arrington Johnson, Howard Kaye, C. Mingo Long, Morgan McCann, Andrew Purcell, Alex Ringler, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alex Stewart, Jake Swain, Madison Turner

Goodspeed Musicals
July 14-September 17, 2017

Just Because

Review of Lear, Yale Summer Cabaret

In keeping with their practice of featuring revisions and revamps of canonical plays, Yale Summer Cabaret’s Canon Balle season ends with a bang and a ball. Young Jean Lee’s Lear is a fascinating and disarming take on Shakespeare’s King Lear poised, after a fashion, from the point of view of the younger generation.

People generally know that Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Regan (Danielle Chaves), and Cordelia (Amandla Jahava) are the daughters of King Lear in Shakespeare’s most demanding play. And they should know that Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) and Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) are the two sons, legitimate and illegitimate, respectively, of Lear’s chief counselor Gloucester. The other key plot point is that Goneril, Regan and Edmund abuse the older generation and that the two good children are disowned: Cordelia goes off to France after displeasing her father and Edgar takes on a disguise to try to help his father in the dire circumstances. What Young Jean Lee’s Lear shows you that you may not know about these characters is abundantly amusing, disconcerting, and, in the end, touching.

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Directed by this very successful Summer Cabaret season’s co-artistic director Shadi Ghaheri, Lear intrigues even before anyone comes on stage. Stephanie Osin Cohen's diagonal set is established against one wall of the Cabaret space like a storefront window display in which we see what look to be the wares of a baroque SoHo boutique: a vanity, a dais with throne, a chair in the shape of a hand, all illuminated in a purplish pink that suggests a decadent and modernistic Louis Quatorze era. There’s also a giant flatscreen TV.

Regan (Danielle Chaves), Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Regan (Danielle Chaves), Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Then the characters arrive, clad in Sophia Choi's trippy baroque garb—complete with wigs like towers of intricate confection and a day-glo palette—to dance a little gavotte. Edmund and Edgar, though still not on the same page, seem to have joined the court of the sisters Regan and Goneril, and together they prey upon each other’s insecurities while trying to justify their acts, their tastes, their selfishness, and the kinds of things that would be at home in an existential play about how to cope with the boredom of being. Meanwhile, the brothers battle each other in a video game and each character gets a soliloquy to apprise us of the general anomie. They speak in a heightened and absurdist manner that abounds in non sequitur, odd asides, wry guts-spilling, and, at one point, dolphin-talk.

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Eventually Cordelia returns to the fold, and shows herself to be steely enough to deal with her sisters. Meanwhile Edmund and Edgar battle each other in hilariously juvenile terms. Lee doesn’t seem to think much about the dignity and maturity of the generation she takes to task, but, oddly, the script doesn’t seem mean-spirited, which has much to do with the earnestness of the speakers. Each member of the cast adds to a spirited ensemble able to follow this mercurial play wherever it goes, whether to Cefalu’s nicely understated and deliberately awkward breaking of the play’s fiction for the reality of our viewing experience, or to Sesame Street and an appearance by a beloved TV personality, enacted with unironic panache by Lozano.

Cordelia (Amandla Jahava), Lear (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Cordelia (Amandla Jahava), Lear (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Particular mention as well of Francesca Fernandez McKenzie who plays up the mannequin-like perfection of the imperious Goneril in the early going, then transforms startlingly into a mimicry of her father at his most peremptory, and, after yet another transformation, undertakes the great final speech Shakespeare gave his more sinned against than sinning creation. It takes guts to drop towering pathos into a casual conversation and that’s what Lee’s text demands. Much as it demands a potentially mawkish scene late in the play and a final soliloquy from the actor playing Edmund—here Jake Ryan Lozano—that reads like a personal comment from the playwright herself.

And if all that isn’t enough to keep you laughing and wondering and guessing, and maybe even sniffling, there are Yaara Bar’s adventurous projections that feature holograms of the actresses’ faces, as well as appropriate footage, whether of computer-generated dolphins or race cars wiping out. Such touches—including garish lighting and a varied soundscape—constitute innovations on the part of this production, showing that Ghaheri and Canon Balle are not only in the business of revamping classics; they’re also quite willing to take liberties with contemporary works. The tech design is amazing but never overpowering.

Some might wonder how a play as powerfully achieved as King Lear benefits from passing through the eye of Ionesco, and if Lee were simply goofing on Shakespearean sublimity, I might wonder as well. Instead, she has the presence of mind to conflate a father agonizing that his child will never come again with a child learning that even people on TV die. The readiness is all.

 

Lear
Written by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Production Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Design: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Design: Sophia Choi; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Projections Design: Yaara Bar; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Associate Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Danielle Chaves, Amandla Jahava, Jake Ryan Lozano, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-13, 2017

On the Verge of an Enormous Breakthrough

Review of Mies Julie, Yale Summer Cabaret

August Strindberg’s nineteenth-century play Miss Julie is a gripping battle of the sexes situated as a class struggle as well. The possibilities of dominance by class—Miss Julie is the master’s daughter—come up against the social norm of male dominance—John is a very masculine groom who, by reason of his own knowledge of the world and of books, feels himself to be above his station. The play is a dynamic rendering of their struggle with their desires, their dissatisfaction with their roles, and their willingness to use, abuse, and maybe even—if it were possible—love one another. It has long been a staple of classic theater for its exploration of two people caught in an intense situation.

Yaël Farber has brilliantly adapted that situation to modern times, specifically South Africa on Freedom Day, almost a decade after apartheid’s end. The class division—Julie (Marié Botha) is still the master’s daughter grown up on a farm owned and run by her father, and John (James Udom) is still the master’s servant, who also grew up on the land—is now given further dimension by racial difference, and by the lingering, vexed question of reparations.

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The question of who actually owns the land the farm occupies is given a strong thematic element by the fact that John’s ancestors are buried beneath a tree whose roots are beneath the manor house’s kitchen, where all the action takes place. John’s mother, Christine (Kineta Kunutu) runs the kitchen and feels not only connected to the house she serves but also to the land where she wants to be buried with her forebears. As the play opens, John is clearly tired of his subservient role and believes the time is right to assert claims of independence and equality.

Julie becomes for John both a goad to overcoming any sense of social inferiority as well as a provocation to his manhood. And she plays to both urges, as well as exulting in the fact that he has had strong feelings for her ever since her mother—a distraught and neglectful woman who ultimately took her own life—brought the infant home. Julie sees Christine as a surrogate mother, so that the passion ignited between the boss’s daughter and the servant is further complicated by the fact that Christine, in essence, raised them both.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

A further dramatic element is the presence throughout the play of Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), an ancestor spirit who acts as a kind of silent Greek chorus. Her interactions with the action take many subtle forms, and her mere visual presence is enough to make us feel how haunted the relations between John and Julie will swiftly become. The sense of past injustice is significant, but there is also something perhaps mythic in the land as well (and Sophia Choi's costumes and Fufan Zhang's set create a compelling overlap of eras). Farber deliberately evokes a sense of ties that extend well beyond a particular historical eventuality.

And, of course, the force of love and lust extend well beyond social forces. To see Julie and John come together is to see not only a celebration of the fact that interracial coupling is no longer an illegal immorality in South Africa, but a long-awaited release of tensions of attraction and resentment that have bedeviled both character’s lives. Director Rory Pelsue boldly lets sexuality play the part it must, and Botha and Udom bring off the scenes of coupling, so necessary to the physical dimension of their struggle, with great finesse.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The presence of Ukhokho—in Jahava’s very expressive and at times almost sprite-like incarnation—stacks the deck against Julie. Her blonde whiteness seems the anomaly it has always been, but even more so in this context. Botha’s Julie, while displaying some of the wild mood swings of the original, is more vulnerable than Miss Julie is generally considered to be, and she plays the part with an almost childlike wonder at the effect she is able to generate in her father’s smitten servant. Her efforts to humiliate him when he takes liberties have a charge that seems to chasten her in the same instant. And her insistence on the clarity of violence keeps a knife’s edge between them, but for one blissful moment.

As John, James Udom is fierce and strongly intelligent. He is able to convey John’s hopeless feelings as well as his sense of his own dignity. He won’t be Julie’s pawn, but he’s more concerned about being the pawn of his own passion and where that might lead. When his mother at one point slaps his face and cries “what have you done,” we feel the degree to which any act of his can destroy a delicate status quo, though John is never unaware. He simply chooses to ignore his mother and his duty when it suits him.

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

As Christine, Kunutu delivers her second very fine performance this summer at the Cabaret. In her own way, Christine is as fierce as her son, though in her case the power comes through as a “I shall not be moved” tenacity that no amount of importuning can weaken. Her “children” are playing with fire and out to destroy the status quo or themselves. Christine sees what there is to preserve—the land and the duty to the ancestors.

The force of the future colliding with the past shapes the choices these characters confront. In Strindberg, there’s nowhere the couple can go to live free of their past—such is the power of class relations that has poisoned their lives. In Farber’s contemporary world, the pair might go anywhere, almost, but what overrules them is the unfinished business of race relations in South Africa, a future that Farber’s play figures as a tide of blood.  

Enthralling and fascinating and disturbing, the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Mies Julie adds more heat to a hot summer.

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Mies Julie
Retributions of Body & Soul
since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913
and the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927
Written by Yaël Farber
Based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Production Dramaturg: Charles O’Malley; Scenic Design: Fufan Zhang; Costume Design: Sophia Choi; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha, Amandla Jahava, Kineta Kunutu, James Udom

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 14-23, 2017

Eye in the Sky

Review of Grounded, Westport Country Playhouse

Technology determines the quality of our lives. That truism may seem rather obvious, but the question is: what are its implications? We may not want to imagine, or remember, a life before cellphones, or before television, or before telephones, or cars, or refrigeration. We may believe the world is better with those things in it. How about drones?

Grounded, by George Brant, directed as a slow-burn tour de force by Liz Diamond at Westport Country Playhouse, makes us not only imagine, but also confront, the increasing prevalence in our world of drones—or unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—and what their presence entails. In sum: we’re all sitting ducks.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann, in a smashing Connecticut debut as a professional after a fine run as a student actor at the Yale School of Drama) is our confidante. She tells us intimate details about her life, her loves, her hopes. She makes us exult with her as she professes her undying love of “the blue”—the endless stretches of sky she regards as her natural habitat when seated at the commands of her “Tiger,” or beloved fighter-plane. She has run missions in combat, gleefully bombing those minarets sticking up from the sand back into sand.

She also makes us feel how a smug “lone wolf” sensibility can be cracked by the right guy. A guy turned on by her manliness, and by the flight suit she wears as a badge of honor and which becomes at times a rhetorical device and an aphrodisiac. The guy seems to weep often, but that might just be how it seems to her (or it’s Brant’s way of making sure we don’t miss his efforts to circumvent gender “norms”).

Grounded is told entirely from the pilot’s point of view. We neither see nor hear any other characters, and, unlike some one-person narrative shows, the pilot doesn’t try to imitate or take on the manner of others. It’s the kind of one-sided world that one might conjure in a confession. Others are always somehow external to the speaker’s plight.

Not that the couple, soon joined by a baby girl called Sam, don’t have a real shared affection. But when, after giving birth, the pilot tries to resume her former chariot in the blue, she finds that, in the interim, technology has intervened. Manned flights to destroy what she likes to call “the guilty” (as opposed to “the enemy”) are passé. Warfare is now safer for our side and more lethal for the other side. The drones only risk their $11 million price-tag, not U.S. casualties.

The pilot wonders, rightfully, if assignment to the “chair-force” is her punishment for being so unmanly as to give birth to a child. Not so, she’s assured. This is the assignment that will show her to be upper echelon. And she tries to take it in that spirit, though not for a moment believing it to be true.

The vicissitudes of her, at first, useful acclimation to the reality of conducting armed combat in a safe trailer a short drive from her home, near Las Vegas, and then the alarming disconnect between those two spheres of her life, is the drama of the story. A drama that the pilot lives for us in a forthright, can-do, oh my god not this, manner.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

To work, the play needs a sympathetic and earnest teller for the tale. Director Liz Diamond is working with a godsend. Elizabeth Stahlmann, trim, angular, pretty but also what used to be called “boyish,” is the perfect type for the role. And her command of Brant’s language is mostly flawless. What’s more, she’s able to communicate with great presence the non-verbal “ah ha” moments, those moments when—whether posing for a photo with pregnant belly in an open flightsuit, or reacting to something she can see but we can’t, or turning on a dime from mom-face to air force major-face—the pilot becomes personality, not simply function.

And her performance makes manifest the real drama here: The human cost of our technological advances. Brant wants us to consider how the drone technology of surveillance impacts our collective lives (can anyone watch—projected as screens behind Stahlmann—the maneuvers of the car containing her target, the Prophet, and not think of all that footage of the white Bronco on the LA freeways, from way back in the 1990s?), and, in the strong if somewhat stagey climax, to see that “the enemy is us,” but what really comes across is how service to the machine makes us “drones” in the old sense: the expendable worker bee that has no life other than its task in the hive.

Against that unprepossessing life, and her nagging sense that this isn’t what she signed on for, the pilot has only a child and husband whose lives seem remote from her if only because not summed-up by military protocol. At least she has, maybe, the glory of a confirmed kill, until even that becomes personal to a fraught degree. There’s a deep reversal here of the once radical call to “bring the war back home” that Brant didn’t invent and doesn’t belabor. It’s simply there in the material and asks us to think about modern warfare as closer to our day-to-day lives than ever. It must make us uneasy.

The human story here will no doubt disappear in time: robots will drive drones. The other theme—that death from above is available at any moment—reminds me of an epitaph Thomas Pynchon engraves on a nineteenth-century tombstone in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): "Mark, reader, my cry / Keep thy thoughts on the sky / And in the midst of prosperity / Know’st thou may die."

We need no drone come from afar to tell us this.

 

Grounded
By George Brant
Directed by Liz Diamond

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Props Master: Karin White; Voice Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA

Westport Country Playhouse
July 11-29, 2017

Teen Tragedy

Review of West Side Story, Ivoryton Playhouse

As a musical, West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents from a conception by Jerome Robbins, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, has much to recommend it. Inspired in its plot by Romeo and Juliet, it’s got young love, tragedy, comic relief, numerous dance numbers and some lovely and lively songs. It’s about urban tensions between sparring gangs of different races, and, even at this remove from the “daddy-O”s of the 1950s, is able to express something of that perennial motivator, teen angst.

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The production at Ivoryton this summer, directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, with musical direction by Michael Morris, with many young performers yet to break into Equity, offers a passable version of the show. What it does best is showcase Stephen Mir as Tony, whose voice has a purity that helps to render the character’s sincere idealism, and Mia Pinero as Maria, a soprano able to make Maria seem angelic. Their best scene, and one of the high-points of the show, is the “balcony” number, “Tonight,” and they do well with “One Hand, One Heart” in the bridal shop, though their chemistry as lovers isn’t all it might be.

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

And that’s the main criticism I have for Underwood’s take on what should be a show of drama leavened by delight: the chemistry doesn’t quite jell. It’s missing in the comic number of Act One, “America,” and shines best in the ensemble reprise of “Tonight” just before the Act One close. The comic number of Act Two, “Gee, Officer Krupke” follows awkwardly on the lovely rendition of “Somewhere”—which features good vocals from Annelise Cepero as Francisca and Hillary Ekwall as Anybodys. The show’s flow seems impeded by the difficulty of making so many big dance numbers fit in a small space. The dancers, for the most part, keep the pace, with nice costumes to showcase their movements, but the success of each number seems to be based more on its logistics than on the performances per se.

In the supporting cast, Conor Robert Fallon as Riff is an asset whose loss for Act Two can only be mourned, and Natalie Madlon’s Anita helps carry the latter act with “A Boy Like That.” As Doc, George Lombardo adds a suitable maturity, and, among the Jets, Max Weinstein’s A-Rab and Colin Lee’s Action help maintain the intensity.

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The staging of the rumbles is impressive, and the quick changes of set props—such as Doc’s store—are efficient. The set itself, comprised of tall, tenement-like backdrops, helps to create a sense of the oppressive inner-city aspects of the story, though the space is a bit lacking in real urban feel—but for that fire escape for the “balcony” scene. Indeed, a curtained doorway for quick on-and-offs of the dancers seems oddly out of place in a back alley.

West Side Story is a great musical and it is important to give young performers a chance to work with its demands—which are considerable. Ivoryton should be commended for giving it a try on their stage. And, while the story of gangs at each other’s throats may have dated for a time, the policing of ethnicities and the bad rap for immigrants continues as a part of the darker side of the American Dream. West Side Story—as a tragedy—plays upon the way that good intentions can go awry, and offers a sobering look at how loyalty to one group often entails vicious hostility toward another group. That’s key to the drama of this musical and needs a strong presentation for the show to register its full effect. At Ivoryton, the show seems to be searching for its dominant tone.

 

West Side Story
Based on a Conception by Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins

Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Stage Manager: Laura Lynne Knowles; Costume Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Wilcox

Cast: Christian Álvarez, Victor Borjas, Annelise Cepero, Tom DiFeo, Hillary Ekwall, Conor Robert Fallon, Michael Hotkowski, Colin Lee, Taylor Lloyd, George Lombardo, Joey Lucherini, Amanda Lupacchino, Natalie Madlon, Rick Malone, Pierre Marais, Arianne Meneses, Daniel Miller, Stephen Mir, Mia Pinero, Alexa Racioppi, Jason Daniel Rath, Carolina Santos Read, Max Weinstein

Ivoryton Playhouse
July 5-July 30, 2017

Woman's Woe

Review of The Trojan Women, Yale Summer Cabaret

Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, originally aimed as a response to the Balkans war in the mid-nineties, is now given a riveting production at Yale Summer Cabaret, directed by co-artistic director Shadi Ghaheri. In Ghaheri’s version, we’re meant to think of the atrocities currently being perpetrated in Syria, with the production’s research into the war there and the situation of refugees and women sold into slavery acting as a catalyst to the passions and sorrows on view here. The set, by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, is an eloquent vision of a devastated domestic space, covered in rubble and the dust of destroyed buildings.

The situation: the great city of Troy has fallen, thanks to the ruse of the infamous Trojan horse. The heroes of the Greek army are dividing the captive Trojan women amongst themselves along with any other spoils before destroying the city forever. Onstage, we see only the women. In Euripides, Meneleus, Helen’s estranged husband, gets a scene, but is absent here, and the few male roles—Poseidon (Evelyn Giovine) and Talthybius (Rachel Kenney), a Greek envoy, are played by women. The cast is excellent, and Ghaheri’s direction lets the pacing of movement, speech, emotive song, and several striking tableaux involve us in a world where, with the war ended, time seems to have stopped in a limbo of grief and apprehensive horror.

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Indeed, even in Euripides day, nearly 2500 years ago, the play was a response to wartime atrocities and a call for the need to treat the vanquished humanely. The perspective of the women of Troy, once proud aristocrats now become “chattel” in the hands of the killers of their husbands, fathers, and sons, is presented by the Greek text in full tragic register. McLaughlin’s version amplifies the psychology of the women and creates a stunning scene between Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), widow of Priam, king of Troy, and Helen (Sohina Sidhu), the Argive captive whose status as concubine to Hecuba’s son Paris was the cause of the siege.

The primary women here are differentiated by their view of what comes next, and McLaughlin places much dramatic consequence on how the individual women view themselves as they look upon their fates. In her showdown with Hecuba, Helen says she will return to her husband’s kingdom as his recovered queen. And yet, she claims, she feels grief for Troy as, all along, she was divided in her allegiance. It’s a statement that goes a long way to humanizing Helen—generally vilified as a whore or praised as a paragon, with neither view accurate to her condition. Hers is a unique position, and Sidhu’s increasingly agitated rendering of her fall lends force to her claim: she was fated to be who she is by none of her doing. For the Trojan women to blame her—as Hecuba would like—is perversely to give agency to a woman where she in fact has none. In Euripides, the scene plays out as quibbling about Helen’s veracity, but McLaughlin gives her a speech worthy of a modern heroine, one who can see only a tragic view of her beauty.

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

McLaughlin’s speech for Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra (Danielle Chaves), deemed mad but actually a prophetess, becomes a revelation of grief, spite, and a deranged glee that Chaves delivers with fine-tuned force. The widow of the great hero Hector, Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), at first puts all her faith in the fortune of her infant son, Astyanax. She even wonders if, somehow, she could find a way to love a man who had destroyed her home and husband. She represents a kind of survivalist hope that finds in life a reason to live. The blow the Greeks aim at her is wrenching and cruel, but the scene is handled with great tact by Kenney as the bringer of bad news and is made a tour de force for Kunutu to bare the raw nerves of the powerless facing the unbearable.

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

These days, it seems, theater may be entering an era of going for the jugular. The Public’s recent staging of Julius Caesar had protesters rushing on the stage to interfere with the action, and the new stage production of 1984, now in previews in New York, enacts scenes of torture with such fidelity that audience members, during the London run, asked actors to stop. Ghaheri’s production of The Trojan Women is in the spirit of such theatrical confrontation. Here, the misery of these women is made manifest with little in the way of mitigation or uplift. And yet the quality of McLaughlin’s text and its extremely effective staging—with praise for Elizabeth Green’s lighting, and Frederick Kennedy’s sound design and musical accompaniment, and Cole McCarty’s spare but lovely costumes—give us at last a vision of the strength of humanity in even the worst duress.

Much of the play’s ultimate effect lies with the majestic figure of Hecuba as played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Hers is a bearing of great regal hauteur that, when it cracks into sorrow and lament, is all the more powerful. Her eyes seem always to be on something else—the greatness of the past, the favor of the gods—and even when she must ponder the disgrace of her likely condition in the home of Odysseus, she sees and speaks with a force of knowing that is anything but broken. Crowe-Legacy’s Hecuba makes us glimpse not a fallen monarch no longer a master of her fate, but a powerful presence still able to master herself.

The Trojan Women is a play for these days of hostility and hatred, showing that, even in the most vicious defeat, there is reason to live, and that war is always an affront to common humanity. In Ghaheri’s production, which has to be one of the best renderings of McLaughlin’s adaptation (judging by comments on other productions online), viewers will find what I feel sure is one of the most harrowing theatrical experiences in New Haven in some time and for some time.

 

The Trojan Women
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
From the play by Euripides
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Design: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Frederick C. Kennedy; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

Cast: Danielle Chaves, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Evelyn Giovine, Rachel Kenney, Kineta Kunutu, Sohina Sidhu

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 23-July 2, 2017

Which Way Is Up

Review of LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The show LEO, developed by director Daniel Brière and performer William Bonnet from the idea and original performance by Tobias Wegner, shows us twin rooms on stage. One is an actual space inhabited by Bonnet, in a stylish pants, vest and shirt ensemble; the other is a projection of Bonnet in the space. The actual Bonnet spends his time on his back with his feet against a wall painted to look like a floor, so that he appears to be leaning against a wall. The “ceiling” is an actual wall of the space while the open space above the performer seems to create an imaginary third wall where the back wall and the fake floor meet. The “fourth wall,” of course, is the empty space through which we look into the room.

To our left of this space is a screen showing Bonnet in the room, but turned so that the actual floor, upon which Bonnet lies, now appears to be an actual vertical wall, with the supposed floor of the other room now at the bottom, as a floor would be.

The cleverness of this illusion is that, no matter how long one watches, it’s hard to convince oneself that Bonnet is lying on the floor in either space, though he is, in both. We see him, on the screen, seem to levitate at times, so much so that you might be convinced, by visual evidence, that some kind of magnet or hoist is holding him aloft. Meanwhile, on the performer’s side, Bonnet’s unflagging ability to lean upon his arms with his legs lifted against the apparent floor that is an actual wall makes it seem that he is standing on a vertical upright when he is in fact standing or leaning on his hands.

The speed with which he moves about in the space is truly remarkable. There is never a missed beat. The transitions are fluid to the point of defying any sense of strain or wobble that would indicate the real direction of gravity. We feel at times we are truly watching weightless stunts because movement—often to music that emanates from a suitcase, the only actual prop on the set—appears to be governed by the dynamics of animation rather than actual physics.

But for the music, all is quiet. Bonnet is a silent clown, a figure much like a cartoon who seems to be trying to understand the space he finds himself in. He uses his hat and tie as bellwethers for gravitation, but it doesn’t work. He pours water into his mouth as if to convince us that he can’t possibly be lying on his back. There are many fun “tests” to convince us that what we know to be true isn’t.

And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, LEO moves in a new direction, whether via a very mood-changing soundtrack—including African drums, Beethoven, jaunty Italian music, and a swanky Sinatra tune—or via Bonnet’s chalk drawings on the back wall so as to create a chair and table and seemingly interactive radio. At a certain point, the animations on the screen start to overwhelm the projected space in sequences that distract from the point-by-point replication between room and screen. The animated objects and animals—and water—are “real” on the screen but invisible to the actual Bonnet in the playing space. It creates a further disjunction between right and left, as though one were no longer getting the same information from the eyes and ears on either side of one’s head.

The ending is charming and mysterious, and it’s very much to the show’s credit that it rarely lets any sequence of stunts or tricks go on too long. And, while it would be hard to say there is a compelling forward movement, we are aware that our growing impatience or unease is mirrored in Bonnet’s exploration of possibility, and vice versa. Neither he nor we want to be stuck in that room forever. So, eventually, we have to wonder: how will this end? Can he escape?

The Arts & Ideas Festival generally has at least one show a season that involves acrobatics, clowning, and surprising uses of props that seem to defy physics. LEO continues that tradition with the most poetic and concentrated program yet. It both fulfills a wish to defy gravity and at the same time makes us happy to return to the norms we’re used to observing.

 

LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show

Director: Daniel Brière; Perfomer: William Bonnet; Creative Producer: Gregg Parks; Original Performer/Idea: Tobias Wegner; Set and Lighting Designer: Flavia Hevia; Video Designer: Heiko Kalmbach; Animator: Ingo Panke

University Theatre
June 23, 8 p.m.; June 24, 12 p.m. & 3 p.m.

Participatory Theater

Review of We Are Citizens, Theatre of the Oppressed New York, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once said that systems of justice “embody systems of … oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanely valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy”—values which, he added, “I think are real.”

Theater of the Oppressed, New York, brings to performance spaces an effort to see how real such concepts or values are. With a residency in a location, the “Jokers” of TONYC work with volunteer residents to find a way to dramatize situations from their daily lives. The residents—or as the show at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas insists, citizens—have faced some type of the oppression that Chomsky seems to have in mind. Generally, in the show I saw on June 21st at the Bregamos theater space in Erector Square, the oppression comes at the hands of institutions—medical, government agency, law enforcement—that are intended to help but can also harm, mainly by ignoring the humane elements of interaction that Chomsky names.

After an enactment of situations of friction, tension, and dysfunction caused by indifferent or incompetent professionals—acted out by non-actors with largely improvised dialogue—a segment called “Forum Theatre” is held. In that segment, it’s up to the audience—also citizens—to get involved and suggest ways to improve the situations presented. Then, to put money where their mouths are, so to speak, members of the audience are invited to try to enact their version of how things could or should go.

In the show I saw, not only were the Forum Theatre segments better at working with the problem than the original scenarios, they were also more lively and entertaining. The initial segment, set in an out-patient medical facility—a banner on stage read “Yale”—three patients who needed help with meds or with being admitted or with “hearing voices and seeing clowns” faced unhelpful staff and lots of double-talk, to say nothing of long wait times. The oppressed—already distressed by the condition that drove them to the facility in the first place—were in no condition to negotiate for what they needed. In the Forum Theatre segment, an audience member with a plan immediately pressed for a Patient Advocate and that brought at least some decency and dignity to the proceedings, even allowing the disgruntled patients to acknowledge the pressures under which the staff were working.

A problem between two women in a shelter—one using a blow-dryer to prepare for an important interview in the morning, the other trying to sleep—shouldn’t be that big a deal (haven’t we all had to deal with roommates?), but when an authority gets involved that can penalize one over the other, things can escalate. The audience member found a way to keep it between the women, overcoming the would-be sleeper’s excessive hostility.

Misgivings about giving a PIN number to a halfway house for ex-cons trying to make their way back into normal life are understandable. The staff member gave the uneasy man little concession and tried to make him the problem. The audience member invented a “cousin who’s a lawyer” to reach out to for advice—which may seem a special case—but the important point was that some king of shout-out was necessary, to find out if what was being asked was on the up-and-up.

The situations were not really life-threatening—except, perhaps, for the guy who felt he had to admit to suicidal tendencies just to be admitted and have his meds administered—but they did show how a little kindness and putting oneself into the other person’s position can go a long way in defusing potentially abusive situations where the antipathy isn’t personal, just routine. Putting oneself into the place of actors also makes for a kind of DIY theater experience that is unusual, not only showing—judging from audience response—how seeing a scenario enacted can make one think through a situation but also how acting things out makes the malleability of situations visible, as the role of oppressor or victim gets shifted around.

The main difficulty with amateur staging of situations for dramatic effect is projection. The average person doesn’t know how to speak to be heard by a roomful of people without shouting, so that the cries of “louder!” from the audience became more than a little distracting.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC
We Are Citizens

John Leo, Liz Morgan, with: Vernette Bond, Kevin Creech, Robert (Bob Forlano), Alfred Gamble, Mark Griffin, Tammy Imre, Deborah Jackson, Joe Jackson, Diana Martinez, Mona Lisa Massallo, Robert Saunders, Shannon Smith, Betty Williams, Richard Youins (aka El Toro)

5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 21, 2017
Bregamos Theater

* * * * *

Review of Never Stand Still, Onnie Chan, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Yale-China Association fellow Onnie Chan’s Never Stand Still, an immersive theater project based on a game, tries to keep its participants moving, and that’s all to the good, and it also seems to fracture any coherence to the event as best it can. Then again: if you’re playing a game you understand, then you have some idea why you’re playing, and what the stakes are. You generally have some idea of your opponent(s) and some idea of your own skill. When you go to see theater you’re not naturally in a competitive frame of mind and, as in this case, may have little idea of what the Game-Master is asking of you. The game gets confusing and stays that way.

Audience participants are divided into four groups—North, South, East, West—and they are in competition, supposedly, in a game called "Battlejong." The goal has something to do with triples and doubles, which has to do with Mahjong, and the methodology has something to do with Battleship (i.e., call out coordinates and get a “hit” or a “miss”). The particulars, it seems, are more of a distraction than anything, giving us activities as we gradually become aware that Jason, the figure behind all this who speaks and sings in voice-over, sometimes in Cantonese, is working through some issues, having to do with the death of his beloved grandma who was helping him keep it together. Jason may now be on a course of suicide or maybe even engaging in some kind of staged mass-event—like, for instance, creating a theater-game and making something awful or amazing happen to its participants. Or not.

The real world intrudes into the game as well. On the home-base for each group is an iPad on which one of four friends of Jason in Hong Kong is skyping live. They seem to function as touchstones for Jason, recalling moments from his past to help him stay focused. The friends don’t play much part in helping the teams, though I suppose they might if a team took the time to consult them.

Time for teams to do anything strategic seems to be a key thing to disrupt. So there is plenty to distract from the game we’re ostensibly playing. Like a SARS outbreak that will quarantine some of the audience. Like something having to do with air-guns (I missed this part because I was quarantined. I’m fine now.). And some kind of mounting drama about Jason’s precarious mental state.

In the end, which seemed to arrive abruptly and arbitrarily in the version I attended, you are free to choose one of three methods of egress: dead end, happy ending, or “something else.” I went for something else (of course). I won’t tell you what I learned but I will say you’re all a part of it. (I can’t fathom why someone would choose “dead end”—simply to negate a “happy ending?”) In any case, I heard from others what those choices led to, on June 22, but I don’t know if those are fixed or change.

In the playbill, Onnie Chan states that theater-goers don’t want simply to sit and watch a story performed; they want to be participants. Arguable, at best. In my experience with participatory theater, the quality of the event has often to do with the quality of the audience. This is partly true of all theater, but not to the same extent.

And there’s an interesting risk participatory theater runs: the audience members may seem more compelling than the theatrical event being staged and of which they are—tangentially—a part. You might find yourself wanting to duck out of any theater event, if you’re bored or distracted. But when the distraction is part of the event, then it’s possible you may become more interested in the group dynamics than in any assigned task or dramatic development.

Never Stand Still never quite managed to make either its staged drama or its participant activities clear and forceful enough to keep me in the game or the story. If that was the intention—to make one dissatisfied with entertainment—then it succeeded.

 

Never Stand Still (Immersive Game Theatre)
Directed and written by Onnie Chan

Producer: Steven Koernig; Set Designer: John Bondi; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Video Designer: William Wheeler; Graphic Designer: Dustin Tong; Stage Manager: Margaret Gleberman

Performers: Evan Gambardella, Xiaoqing Guo, King Wong, Lk Lo, Jenny Yip, Isabella Leung

The Iseman Theater
June 22-24, 2017