Taking the Measure of Shakespeare

The Fiasco Theater’s Measure for Measure begins previews this week at the Long Wharf Theatre’s Clara Bow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theater. First performed by Fiasco in 2013, the Long Wharf production will be the company’s first revival of this play, often considered a bit of a slog in its tale of corruption, strict moral codes, and deus ex machina Duke. On the contrary, Fiasco’s version has been called “charming.”

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Noah Brody, one of the founding members of Fiasco, which formed in 2009 and launched its inaugural production of Cymbeline in 2010, is “honestly thrilled” to be able to remount Measure for Measure for the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust-style theater. When played previously, the show was done in a standard proscenium setting and that means the new version will have to adapt, a challenge that is part of the governing aesthetic of Fiasco. Brody sees this as an opportunity to “reach out” to the audience, stressing that both players and viewers “are in the same place, breathing the same air.”

A cast of six actors plays all the parts in Measure for Measure, with a set that mainly consists of six doors and some benches. It’s a minimalist approach, perhaps, but as Brody says, “when there’s not a lot of money, you concentrate on what you really need,” and that promotes inventiveness, to use everything at one’s disposal and to make the most of it.

As all the members of Fiasco were trained as actors in the MFA program at Brown/Trinity, a key term for their approach is “actor-driven” stagings. What this means, Brody says, is that every production is achieved by the ensemble, and every decision comes from the ensemble. Decision-making is “not hierarchical.” The director—for the Long Wharf production, Brody and Ben Steinfeld are co-directing—“is responsible for leading the conversation,” but does not dictate the approach. And that means the troupe gets to completely rethink their previous decisions about every aspect of Measure for Measure, not only for changes in design determined by the changed space, but also the differences due to the times and the situations that apply to the creative process. “We’ll say, ‘last time we did this: why did we do that? Do we still want to do it that way?’” The “this” could be anything from costumes to blocking to the delivery of a line to cuts and edits in the material.

Since “fun” is not always associated with Measure, often deemed Shakespeare’s darkest, least likable comedy, I had to ask why it was the play they chose. Brody cited the play’s language, its “great scenes” with “wonderful parts to play” for a “uni-generational cast.” Its content—which he characterized as “how to rule a just state”—is thoughtful, particularly in tensions “between the spiritual and secular life.” In his view, much of the darkness of the play comes from productions not seeing how “playful” the text is, whereas Fiasco highlights the “seriousness in the comic relief and the ironies in the serious parts.” “There’s great comedy and seriousness at all times in the same scene and in the same line,” Brody says. Bringing out those nuances, finding the fun in the whole, is one of the aims of the Fiasco approach.

Brody says the Fiasco team didn’t graduate from the acting program with intentions to form their own company. As actors, they’re used to being hired as “a small cog in a large machine.” “You hope to bring something to the vision of a play,” but are rarely in control of what parts you get or the style of the production. And most actors accept that they have “to sink or swim as an individual,” competing for the best parts available. To form a troupe of actors, able to devise and implement their own productions, is a “dream come true,” and moving the show to Long Wharf a “great opportunity” to revisit the production for a new audience, with possibilities for new, surprising events.

Fiasco is far enough along in their development to have learned that putting on new productions and devising new productions are hard to do simultaneously. After this season—which consists of an acclaimed Two Gentlemen of Verona last spring and now Measure in the fall—they will be at work on planning the brand new productions they will be offering in 2016 through 2018. The team’s “core passion,” Brody says, is in classical theater—so far, Shakespeare—and musicals, such as their production of Into the Woods, which won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival of 2015, so they are certainly looking at “more Shakespeare and more musicals” that fit their requirements, and “we’re also looking at Restoration plays,” and are planning their “first original piece” as well as considering stage adaptations of novels.

Whatever the new productions will be, they will be devised by a troupe of actors with no fixed theatrical abode, but driven by a commitment to making theater together, benefiting from the troupe’s familiarity with one another, and to finding their own unique way into a play, providing audiences with memorable productions full of a love of the challenge of discovery.

Measure for Measure, by the Fiasco Theater, begins in previews at the Long Wharf Theatre Wednesday, November 25, and opens Wednesday December 1.

Marital Malaise

Review of Trouble in Tahiti at Yale Cabaret

Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, an Opera in Seven Scenes, directed by Lynda Paul with a fine cast at Yale Cabaret, manages to treat the familiar world of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his immaculately coiffed and tailored wife in their happy paradise in 1950s suburbia with deft charm and surprising depth. Sam (Luke Scott) is all about “the law about men”—some are winners (like him) and some aren’t—while Dinah (Kelly Hill) looks for something that might matter, as when she recounts her thrilling dreams to her psychoanalyst, and instead only finds an insipid Hollywood musical melodrama, Trouble in Tahiti, to occupy her.

Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

We could easily say this is all pretty well-trodden ground: the gaps in trust and/or shared interests that don’t tear apart a happy couple so much as wear down the “happy” part. Both are mostly going through the motions and wondering if this is all they can expect from life. The stuff of quiet desperation, these lives, in Bernstein’s lyrics, are both mocked and imagined as the spiritual dead-end they are. Meanwhile a jazz trio of singers—Kate Berman, Adam Frank, Kate Marvin, in white face-paint, stylish pompadours, and lounge lizard jackets—emerge from time to time as a snappy, unnervingly serene Chorus serenading the couple.

the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

A tune name-dropping the bastions of suburban luxury—Ozone Park, Delaware Pines, Scarsdale—sets our scene, then recurs, blithely indifferent to the frowns and silences between the couple. We see Sam at work—a “marvelous man” in handling his boss, a “big-hearted man” in lending to a co-worker, and a tempted boss trying decently to avoid hitting on his flirtatious secretary. And we see the Mrs. getting caught up, with considerable musical and vocal lyricism, in a fantasy of a garden—an Eden of sorts—where the couple could find utopia.

Adding to the cardboard cut-out nature of these lives is a wonderfully cartoonish cut-out set by Rae Powell (who is, amazingly, working outside discipline), while the costumes by Haydee Antunano and Asa Benally are tasteful and apropos (an anachronistic use of Ralph Lauren for Sam’s sportswear might make us reflect that “the 50s” aren’t really over for some of us). Much visual interest is provided by an elaborate range of projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the planes of the backdrop into secondary characters, animation, Tahitian kitsch and, at one point, a stunning arrangement of expressionist fields of color.

The score, played with skill by Jill Brunelle (piano), Christopher Ross-Ewart (bass, cello—the sonority of the latter is used to great effect), and André Redwood (drums), never overwhelms the action but supports some brilliant changes in register—as for instance the ersatz “luau” vibe of “Island Magic,” Hill’s virtuoso mocking evocation of the allure of Hollywood’s version of Tahiti (she refers to the film as “twaddle”). Indeed, Hill’s expressive eyes and riveting voice do much to impress on us the heart of this piece. A small but telling scene features the couple meeting by accident on the street and lying to each other about their destinations, even as both actor-singers convey the sadness behind the pretense.

For all the jibes at mindless popular culture and the tensions of domestic life—“this coffee’s burnt,” he says; “make it yourself,” she says—and the all-too-real use of “the super silver screen” to provide collective fantasy as well as the glue to repair the cracks in romance, Bernstein is benign.  He knows that his ideal audience, even if happily ensconced a mere cab ride from the theater district and happy to laugh at the empty promises of suburbia, are just as likely to suffer from the same midlife crisis marital slump, and that makes Trouble in Tahiti compassionate toward those who have lost the passion.

Trouble in Tahiti, like last year’s The Medium, is a perfect match for the Cab’s space, letting this small gem shine with astute direction from Lynda Paul, also working outside discipline but clearly in full grasp of the show’s nuances.

Trouble in Tahiti
Music and Libretto by Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Lynda Paul

Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Scenic Designer: Rae Powell; Costume Designers: Haydee Antunano, Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Movement Consultant: Gretchen Wright; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Technical Director: Tannis Boyajian; Stage Managers: Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko; Producer: Steven Koernig; Build Crew: Kelly Fayton

Cast: Dinah: Kelly Hill; Sam: Luke Scott; Jazz Trio, Alto: Kate Berman; Jazz Trio, Tenor: Adam Frank; Jazz Trio, Soprano: Kate Marvin; Band: Jill Brunelle, piano; Christopher Ross-Ewart, bass, cello; André Redwood, drums

Yale Cabaret
November 19-21, 2016

Top of the World, Ma!

Review of Roberto Zucco at Yale Cabaret

Roberto Zucco, the eponymous hero of Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play, is a murderer, based on an actual twentysomething serial killer, Roberto Succo. Does a play about him glorify him? Not in itself, perhaps. We can watch plays like Macbeth or Richard III and accept that our hero will stop at nothing and has lost his moral compass. But in Koltès’ play, originally written in French and translated by Martin Crimp in the production at Yale Cabaret, there’s the further suggestion that, in modern society and perhaps in existence tout court, a moral compass is generally lacking. This makes a killer like Zucco, jarringly, an Everyman—a twisted, armed Everyman for whom violence is the solution to any situation.

Perhaps to apprise us of the distortion in such a view of humanity, the Cab production, directed by Christopher Ghaffari, places the action on a raised rectangular platform surrounded by a not quite transparent scrim suspended from the ceiling. The audience, situated on all sides of the platform, sees the action through this opaque curtain—until late in the play when it is ripped aside—and that creates a distancing effect. The sense, very immediate at the Cab, that viewers and actors occupy the same space is set at a remove, with the effect that the events portrayed are placed a bit beyond our reach, as in memory or dream. The story of Zucco, then, is happening in a blurry space where clarity itself is lacking.

Then there’s the play’s language, often quite poetic, and its prevailing mood. Before we even meet Zucco, we hear the voices of the guards (Paul Cooper, Dylan Frederick) who realize that Zucco, an inmate jailed for the murder of his father, has escaped. The tone is clownish, and the feeling throughout is that Zucco is indeed a murdering fool. His recourse to violence, as when he visits his home to reclaim his battle fatigues and kills his mother (Brontë England-Nelson), is not premeditated so much as predetermined. Zucco is a killer—by nature or by inclination or by fate—and a killer kills, the way an attack dog attacks.

Aubie Merrylees as Roberto Zucco (photo by Christopher Thompson)

Aubie Merrylees as Roberto Zucco (photo by Christopher Thompson)

As played by Aubie Merrylees, Zucco is a “worst full of passionate intensity” but he is also, as when wooing Girl, a virginal innocent played with vacuous charm by Alyssa Miller, your basic mixed-up kid, full of chaos, uncertain about his own motivations, trying to be cool and mysterious (he tells her he’s “a secret agent”). Could someone like Zucco actually fall in love? Why not? And the family he tries to lure his sweetheart away from is dysfunctional with a laughable ugliness. The drunken, bullying father (Paul Cooper), the hapless mother (England-Nelson), the meddling older sister (Juliana Canfield), the sleazy brother (Jacob Osbourne) make us almost pull for “the couple.” And if it crosses your mind that maybe doing away with dad might actually be a good thing, well . . . .

But it seems that murder for Zucco is a spontaneous act (existentialists take note) and since there’s no confrontation with the girl’s father, there’s no showdown. A haphazard meeting once Zucco’s on the run again leads to a murder more jarring. Accosting a Lady (England-Nelson) on a park bench, Zucco gets lured by another trope of eros and things turn a bit more “Bonnie and Clyde”-ish. We don’t have to look too far to find instances of a killer’s charisma and Zucco apparently exudes it. But things go awry and spontaneous violence, while not exactly shocking us, creates a more psychotic wrinkle.

Not everything here works as well as it might. An interrogation scene with Girl feels a bit gratuitous and some of her wanderings take us into areas that seem hard to parse. The reigning logic by which a girl must remain virginal till marriage seems to hold here in its most virulent (no doubt Catholic) form, so that a girl who has been with a guy—not even a charismatic killer specifically—might as well become a prostitute forthwith. Which brings into the play prostitutes and pimps and at one point Zucco seems to be seeking some rough trade. Despite the effort to signal new characters via Asa Benally’s costume changes and Sam Suggs’ shifting musical cues, viewers, squinting through the curtain, might find themselves challenged in keeping different roles straight as most actors here play four—or in the case of Cooper five—roles. England-Nelson gets high marks for making each of her roles distinctly different and interesting, particularly a garrulous Old Gentleman, another of Zucco’s random encounters.

The randomness of much of this seems to be part of Koltès’ point, in as much as there’s no abiding logic to the course of events in the real world so why expect it in art. The finale comes—helped by floor-space projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that shift from newspaper headlines to graphic images from Succo’s actual killings to a vertigo-inducing shrinking cloudscape—with Zucco, surrounded by officers and onlookers, finding his apotheosis, or is he simply ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille?

The fact of terrorist massacres on the streets and in a well-known venue in Paris the very weekend of this production forcibly reminds us that there are killers among us, potentially, wherever we may be. Koltès’ play believes in evil and in innocence and wonders at collective contagions such as the thrill and release of violence, so ingrained into our pastimes and amusements and, yes, art, and the fawning fascination for the man with a gun or a bomb. While not directed at terrorism, per se, but rather at the case of the individual killer, the play suggests a world much like ours here in the States where random killings by lone gunmen proliferate virally. Sadly, Roberto Zucco remains a hero for our times.


Roberto Zucco
Written by Bernard-Marie
Translated by Martin Crimp
Directed by Christopher Ghaffari

Composer: Sam Suggs; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Andrew Griffin; Sound Designer: Ian Williams; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Associate Sound Designer: Matthew Fisher; Technical Director: Willam Hartley; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Producers: Tanmay Manohar, Gretchen Wright

Cast: Juliana Canfield, Paul Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Aubie Merrylees, Alyssa Miller, Jacob Osbourne

Yale Cabaret
November 12-14, 2015

And Baby Makes Three

Review of Smudge, New Haven Theater Company

Time was, “fear of becoming parents” would have been interpreted as either “fear of becoming like one’s own parents,” i.e., old and square, or “fear of becoming adults and responsible for children”—a desire to prolong one’s freedom from responsibility. Rachel Axler’s Smudge, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company, suggests a different take: “fear of what the child might be.” Mind you, it’s not a “fear of children” as demanding, unreasonable creatures, per se, but rather a fear of what might go wrong in childbirth itself. If Freud and psychoanalysis made us ultra-aware of the problems parenting can cause in children, modern medicine makes us ultra-aware of how our bodies can fail us in giving birth to them.

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

As the play opens, Colby (Katelyn Marie Marshall) and Nick (Christian Shaboo) are expecting, but they are a bit confused by their child’s ultrasound photo. They can’t seem to decide the kid’s sex, nor even if it’s a fetus, properly speaking. The photo looks “smudged.” When the child is born, they must come to grips with the fact that the baby, named Cassandra, isn’t formed like other children. The lines in the play that describe the infant leave much to our imaginations about what, in fact, Cassandra looks like. Her dad, initially, seems proud and waxes poetic about the color of her eyes, or, more properly, eye. It seems that only one is open. Mom, on the other hand, is distressed and maybe even a bit terrorized by the prospect of having to treat this “freak” as her own beloved offspring.

Fortunately for us, Axler’s script has a lightness that keeps us from brooding too much on what has gone wrong and how the young couple should cope with it. The structure of the play, as a series of black-outs, gives us glimpses rather than continuous scenes, and, while the timing of the show could go faster to keep us from over-thinking the situation, the play is paced very deliberately. We see Nick at work, where his older brother, Pete (Peter Chenot), is also his boss, and, while reluctant to provide photos of Cassandra for Pete and their impatient-for-news mother, Nick doesn’t seem unduly upset. An asset here is Chenot’s Pete, a guy who aims to amuse, mostly, and, with his odd asides and mannerisms reminiscent of Bill Murray goofing around, he does lighten things up considerably.

Back at home, though, Colby soliloquizes distractedly to a crib festooned with tubes. Demoralized that the child isn’t what she expected, she’s far from coping with what the child’s needs might be. Nick nags her to interact with Cassandra—as in waving a large plush carrot over the crib as he does—but Colby would rather sulk on the couch and eat vast quantities of cheesecake. Eventually, the play begins to pull its plot strains together—such as Nick’s upcoming presentation to a UN conference on behalf of the Census Bureau, and the fact that Colby begins to interact with a Cassandra who makes her tubes glow attractively and emits sci-fi sounds.

As Colby, Marshall has in many ways the toughest role. Her initial lack of sympathy with the child may make her seem a bit unsympathetic, but Marshall maintains a breezy irony that keeps us chuckling. There’s a certain no-nonsense tone to her musings that suits motherhood, and her remarks to the child let us glimpse what seems to be Axler’s point: that a mother’s relation to her child—whether the child is unique or “normal”—is always unique. Nick, like Pete (a father of three boys), simply wants to play doting father, as if that’s the only role he is capable of imagining.

Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby), Peter Chenot (Pete)

Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby), Peter Chenot (Pete)

The lights and sounds that create Colby’s sense of Cassandra give us a glimpse of her “alienness” for Colby, while also making us wonder what Cassandra is really like. Suitably, Nicol-Blifford and NHTC’s rendering of Rachel Axler’s enigmatic and entertaining play keeps us guessing about its intentions.

The main takeaways, for me, come from seeing cracks in Nick’s happy-at-all-costs façade, which Shaboo makes us feel sharply at Nick’s presentation, and from Colby’s shift away from disengagement, which happens after sharing cheesecake, among other things, with Pete. Parenting is trial and error, mostly, and, whether or not they have made errors, Nick and Colby have to get over feeling “on trial” for Cassandra, and must try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

After a two night run last week, NHTC’s Smudge plays Wednesday through Saturday this week.

By Rachel Axler
Directed by Deena Nicol-Blifford

Cast: Katelyn Marie Marshall; Christian Shaboo; Peter Chenot

Special Effects: Trevor Williams; Sound Design & Original Music: Megan Keith Chenot; Light & Sound Board Ops: Steve Scarpa & J. Kevin Smith

The New Haven Theater Company Stage
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven

November 5-6; 11-14, 2015







In Search of Time

Review of Refuse the Hour at Yale University Theater

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour offers an overwhelming array of riches. A kind of traveling video and stage accessory to Kentridge’s five-channel video installation The Refusal of Time, the show has been brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre season as part of the No Boundaries series and staged at the University Theater for two performances only. As theater, the piece involves narration from Kentridge, onstage throughout, fascinating movement from Dada Masilo, an array of artistically achieved and fun to watch videos by Kentridge and Catherine Meyburgh, a varied score—including operatic arias, African chants and beats, and, often, singing backwards—composed by Philip Miller, and a wealth of other technical contributions, including interesting machines that seem to play music as grand wind-up toys and/or automata. So much is going on at once, at times, one really needs to see the piece more than once, or, given the show’s themes, maybe from two different vantage points at the same time.

Time is the main theme and it’s evoked through a range of fertile sketches, beginning with Kentridge, who grew up in South Africa, telling us of traveling, when he was eight, on a train with his father who read to him the story of Perseus. It’s not the famed slaying of the Gorgon, Medusa, that captures the boy’s imagination, rather it’s the way—deemed “intolerable” by the young Kentridge—that Perseus’ grandfather, Acrisius, fulfills the prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. The confluence of Acrisius having to be, improbably, at the top of a viewing stand, in disguise, at the moment that Perseus flings a discus that will end his life becomes a symbol not only of the impossibility of fleeing one’s fate, but of the full implications of trying to determine consequences of a decision. Kentridge sums it up with the powerful line, “once thrown, the discus cannot be called back.”

from Refuse the Hour

from Refuse the Hour

One could say that the series of segments that comprise Refuse the Hour are forms of meditation on how we try to measure time and the effects we are having in time. At one point, giant metronomes are set in motion, at different rates. At another point, we see a video of Kentridge walking about his studio in an endless loop while animated objects and design elements interact at intervals with the main image. We see a video of a kind of African homecoming scene from which frames have been removed to create odd jumps and rhythmic effects. We see fluid dance movements from Masilo that make manifest the power and grace of the human body as matter alive in time.

Dada Masilo

Dada Masilo

To call the background of videos “background” is a misnomer as they provide much of the visual interest, though there are striking choreographed effects taking place onstage as well, sometimes with the video and live action interacting as though they shared time and place, which in a sense, but only in a sense, they do. And Kentridge’s animation process is itself a major artistic achievement, using both subtle technical effects and erasures and re-drawings that lend a wonderfully spontaneous handmade feel to the images. Indeed, the notion that works that are rehearsed and staged, arranged and taped, can be “spontaneous” plays into the show’s best conceits, which are about the effect of time and timing.

Kentridge and his dramatug Peter Galison have chosen to dramatize an array of temporal concepts—having to do with entropy, black holes, and the introduction of European clock-time into African colonies where the sun and not the clock had been the traditional arbiter of time. Throughout the show what we are seeing and hearing requires the utmost control of timing—particularly some wonderful effects of synchronous movement (involving numerous moving parts and sound-making people and instruments), and a vocal interplay between Joanna Dudley and Ann Masina, the one onstage, the other in the balcony, that is impressive not only for its artistry but also as an exemplary instance of music as the language of time.

As the show goes on, some elements and lines recur (such as variations on T.S. Eliot's line, “That is not what I meant at all”), and all seems to be in a flux that makes for almost trance-like viewing. Perhaps, in the end, the overall effect is of stretching time or inhabiting it in different ways, so that, at times, we feel part of a very busy but arrested movement, non-moving parts in a clockwork display. One of the ideas that Kentridge expounds at length—that every act we perform is “broadcast into space”—makes us aware that our time as audience is time spent at the mercy of the magicians on stage. It’s an hour and a half one should not refuse to grant.

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

Refuse the Hour
Conception and Libretto by William Kentridge
Music composed by Philip Miller

Choreography: Dada Masilo; Dramaturgy: Peter Galison; Video Design: Catherine Meyburgh, William Kentridge; Scenic Design: Sabine Theunissen; Movement: Luc de Wit; Costume Design: Greta Goiris; Machine Design: Jonas Lundquist, Louis Olivier, Christoff Wolmarans; Lighting Design: Felice Ross; Sound Design: Gavan Eckhart; Video Orchestration: Kim Gunning; Music Direction: Adam Howard; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations: Philip Miller, Adam Howard

Performers: William Kentridge; Dancer: Dada Masilo; Vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Ann Masina; Actor Thato Motlhaolwa; Trumpet and Flugel Horn: Adam Howard; Percussion: Tlale Makhene; Violin: Waldo Alexander; Trombone: Dan Selsick; Piano: Vincenzo Pasquariello; Tuba: Thobeka Thukane

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 6-7, 2015

Not the Weakest Link

Review of The Commencement of William Tan at Yale Cabaret

For some, high school sucks. It’s the time of life when you can learn some pretty disheartening things, like maybe the girl of your dreams really isn’t the girl of your dreams, like maybe your best friend is a racist, and maybe you’ve been in denial all along about a big part of your own identity. Those are the sort of coming-of-age struggles facing William Tan (Eston Fung) in this likable comedy-drama from Don X. Nguyen, directed by Lauren E. Banks.

You don’t have to be a high school alum from the Eighties to appreciate the familiar sit-com elements that create the reassuring aspects of the play, but, if you are, William Tan will certainly jar you back to the heyday of teased hair and shoulder pads, on girls, and bad dance moves on guys. It’s the era of Ferris Bueller’s famous day off, and William Tan, as played by Fung, wears a suitable air of Matthew Broderick cluelessness and earnestness—particularly when trying to parse a poem for his English teacher.

Eston Fung as William Tan

Eston Fung as William Tan

Because he’s an ambitious gymnast for the Lincoln High Links in Nebraska, William hangs out with the jocks at the school, particularly Dutch (Jason de Beer), the BMOC who, it will emerge, has issues with the Vietnamese guys, not from Lincoln, who hang out at the convenience store near the school. Thanks to a bit of relevant historical context from Guidance Counselor Ms. Chadda (Libby Peterson), we’re reminded of the mid-Seventies, when U.S. racists could be virulent about Vietnamese-Americans, whom they saw as virtually indistinguishable from Viet Cong, the “enemy.” Those days are long gone c. 1989, we might think, but they remain personally relevant for Dutch, who lost his dad in Nam, and seethes with the put-upon gripes of those who feel affronted by other ethnic groups.

What’s this got to do with William? He’s Chinese, so by the murky logic of white racism, whereby all Asians are related, he should be, in Ms. Chadda’s view, the guy to step in when Dutch and his cronies scrawl hate speech in the locker room. Meanwhile, William just wants to concentrate on his parallel bars and figure out how to talk to Gretchen (Tori Keenan-Zelt), the cheerleader (or Pom-a-Link) who has caught his fancy. Of course, he’s got a female confidante, the plain-Jane Betsy (not Bette) Davis (Baize Buzan), his chum who could be so much more. Buzan nearly runs away with the show since Betsy is more aware, clever and concerned than William, but making slow guys think fast is something the long-suffering sex has been saddled with since time immemorial, and she’s willing to call William out to wake him up to reality.

Nguyen’s play gets the high school dynamic right—in part because the story is based on events from the playwright’s past—especially how insular students can be. In minding his own business, William is typical. But the racial dynamic at his school and the expectations of well-meaning females such as Ms. Chadda and Betsy force him to reconsider his friendship with Dutch and the extent to which he is implicated in slurs against Asians. There’s also a nicely laconic confrontation between William and Vinh (Jae Shin), the leader of the Vietnamese kids, where reminiscences of smoking weed in middle school, together with Dutch, are interlaced with threats of a fight armed with knives and guns.

Helping to sell the comedy are occasional timely references and routines by the Pom-a-Links (Keenan-Zelt, Rebecca Hampe, and Cat Rodriguez) that feature radio hits of the day. How satisfied you are with the resolution of the drama may hinge on whether or not it seems fitting that William should have to make himself something of a sacrificial victim and how convincing his motivations are. Nguyen wisely stops short of a major soul-searching epiphany of racial consciousness on William’s part, but there’s a suitable moral in the fact that our hero does shed his assimilationist blinders and might even take an interest in China when he visits with his family after graduation. And that makes for enough of a commendable commencement.


The Commencement of William Tan
By Don X. Nguyen
Directed by Lauren E. Banks

Dramaturgs: Ashley Chang, Kee-Yoon Nahm; Scenic Designers: Dan Cogan, Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Edmund Donovan; Lighting Designer: Alex Zinovenko; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Technical Directors: Dan Cogan, Rae Powell; Choreographer: Matia Johnson; Fight Choreographer: Sean Patrick Higgins; Stage Manager: Steven Koernig; Producers: Sooyoung Hwang, Steven Koernig

Cast: Eston Fung; Baize Buzan; Libby Peterson; Jason de Beer; Jae Shin; Rebecca Hampe; Tori Keenan-Zelt; Cat Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
November 5-7, 2015


Window Watcher

Review of Rear Window at Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak’s production of Rear Window, adapted by Keith Reddin from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired the famous Hitchcock film, creates, on the one hand, a visually interesting “stage noir” take on the story, and, on the other, adds levels of complication that make for a confused approach to characters and content.

Some of the problem, of course, may be in the eye of the beholder. If you come to the show informed by the film, you may be expecting the play’s big-draw film star, Kevin Bacon, to be playing Jeffries as a take on the affable Everyman made so indelible by James Stewart. The Jeffries in Reddin’s script, based a bit on Woolrich himself, is deliberately not that. Jeffries is an alcoholic newsman brooding over at least two major issues: one is the loss of his wife, Gloria, in a vague backstory, the other is a certain disillusion caused by the conviction and execution of an innocent black youth in South Carolina, a story he covered. Typically, Jeffries likes to write about homicide, and to purloin the murder weapon when possible, but the racist handling of the case of George Stinney (which actually occurred) has given him pause, professionally speaking.

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

He’s also on pause because, like the main character in both story and film, he has a cast on his leg, and crutches, and a wheelchair. All of which gives Bacon something to do, physically, in moving about the stage and making the most of a world-weary, hang-dog manner. But if you’re hoping for a good, middle-aged female nurse role such as Stella, brought to life by Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s film (scripted by John Michael Hayes), forget it. The helper for Jeffries is a young black kid, Sam (McKinley Belcher III) who shows up saying Jeffries, one drunken night, invited him over. He also has nothing but wide-eyed praise for Jeffries the writer; Jeffries looks askance at the flattery but takes a liking to the kid anyway. All well and good, except that Sam, a cipher of a character, also has to take on the role of getting Jeffries evidence—in the film, that task is left to his swanky girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and in the story to Sam, a servant of long-standing. Here, the strongest character reading of these two is as a folie à deux between newsman turned sleuth and adoring fan turned factotum; there are also a few hints of Jeffries being in the closet, but those aren’t developed any more than that wan recollection of a former wife.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

And the lack of development on the level of Jeffries’ emotional life nags at the play and isn’t really compensated for by Jeffries’ activity. What Jeffries does, of course, is spy on his neighbors. Though they aren’t up to much other than offering window-dressing, there is an ensemble up there in a tenement-like set, complete with fire escape, able to turn when necessary to let us into the modest apartment of the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton), a couple at loggerheads that Jeffries becomes obsessed with. There’s a glimpse of where this might have gone, were we still living in the Freudian days that fueled elements in film noir and Hitchcock, when we see that the couple might be living out some version of Jeffries’ own marital woe (particularly as Hamilton plays both the former Mrs. Jeffries and the current Mrs. Thorwald, that is, until the latter disappears mysteriously). The psychological battle Jeffries might undergo in confronting why he believes Thorwald—a meek-enough-looking guy, seeming like the quintessential hen-pecked husband complete with effeminate apron when we first meet him—killed Mrs. Thorwald could be the lurid stuff of a melodrama of the 1950s or 1960s (cue Nicholas Ray).

But that’s not what we have here, seemingly. Or that’s at least—without giving it away—what we’re led to believe by the rather rushed and unconvincing denouement that comes about, complete with loud gunplay, before the fuzzy conclusion. Along the way, there’s John Bedford Lloyd as Boyne, a surly detective that Jeffries himself calls into action, as he does in the story, though in Woolrich sans the racism that seems present here to remind us that cops, in New York (not just down South), have been known to mistreat African-Americans. It’s a point that serves little purpose in this story of a house-bound, would-be sleuth going bonkers, but one must allow that it’s a point, at least. Nothing much else here has one.

Except, that is, for the manifest technical point that seems to be exercising director Tresnjak: can the stage take on the mood and feel of film noir and deliver similar entertainment? In terms of the use of Alexander Dodge’s amazing set, with York Kennedy’s rich lighting scheme, Jane Shaw’s powerhouse sound, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections—including opening titles straight from a movie matinee and a pair of filmed eyes that Hitch, always a friend to kitschy effects, might use—Tresnjak creates a world that should be inhabited by characters from James M. Cain and the like, where murder will out and flawed heroes take their lumps. But this is no campy celebration of beloved effects of a bygone cinematic era. And as a dark night of the soul, the play is oddly soul-less, while the theme of murder, so dear to the noirish heart, is here a vague sub-plot among sub-plots, made all the more will-o’-the-wisp by the fact that the tenement set, as the Thorwalds’ container, leaps into view only when, as it were, Jeffries bothers “to turn on the set.”

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

And that might be the final irony of the staging of Rear Window. The film made the case that we all live, to some degree, in glass houses, created by our voyeuristic love of cinema and television. We look at one another as characters in a drama we’re trying to watch. The richly detailed set in the film recalled a stage set, but “off-stage” and “off-camera” are two different worlds, the one simply doesn’t exist, the other appeals to a range of imaginative possibilities. Staging the cinematic is a complicated business and Tresnjak’s Rear Window demonstrates the problems more than it solves them.


Rear Window
Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin
Based on the story by Cornell Woolrich

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: James Harker; Assistant Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Kevin Bacon; McKinley Belcher III; Melinda Page Hamilton; John Bedford Lloyd; Robert Stanton; Erik Bloomquist; Caitlin Harrity; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly; William Squier; Barbara Gallow; Ashley Croce; Jon Garrity; Quinn Warren; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly

Hartford Stage
October 22-November 15, 2015

Sugar and Spite

Review of The Secretaries at Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s production of The Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries, directed by Melanie Field, is a romp through the tropes of female exploitation—or rather “sexploitation,” the term coined to cover certain sexually charged films of the 1960s; a particular sub-genre appealed to the lurid fascination with situations where women dominate women: prison, nurse-training, convents and all-girls schools, and here, a secretarial pool at a lumber camp in Cooney, Oregon. The never-seen male boss maintains nominal control over his female employees, whereas, in reality, at the helm is middle-management mastermind Susan Curtis, played by Chalia La Tour with steely élan and a fanatical gleam in her eye that is the scariest part of this fever dream of female bonding.

The girls in the pool are easily recognizable—and exploited—types, played with campy brio by the four other female actors (with Field and La Tour) of the Yale School of Drama’s class of 2016: Jenelle Chu, as Patty (the new girl who just wants to be liked), Annelise Lawson, as Peaches (the masochist who needs to diet and pines for food), Annie Hägg, as Ashley (the vicious reigning Secretary of the Month), and Shaunette Renée Wilson, as Dawn (the resident lesbian). Doubtless, you’ve known these types since high school, but did you ever wonder what they might get up to if left entirely to their own devices?

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

What’s most fun about the production—which features mood-inducing sound effects and music by Kate Marvin, a battery of trippy projections by Yana Biryukova, and dance sequences and fight sequences and bikinied women drenched in blood at its close—is its gleeful misogyny. Women here are the sum total of their obsessions: losing weight, being liked, making out, looking good, and, mostly, pleasing Big Sister, the den mother who rules them with rules and gives them one night a month to run amok on. That night is Kill Night and each month a male lumberjack—with an array of names like Buzz, Woody, Chip—bites the dust. One girl or another gets his plaid jacket as trophy and all is well.

The women are almost the reverse of The Stepford Wives fantasy—robotic perfect mates for successful males—except these women don’t antagonize men nearly as much as they bedevil each other. What the authors of the play satirize is the way that women struggle most with an ideal of Perfect Woman (which includes being the perfect employee and role model) that women foist upon themselves and each other, and then undermine each other in trying to live up to. The play also makes manifest certain psychological impasses that make this kind of group mentality work: simultaneously hating and loving one’s tormentor/master/rival, identifying with the success of others and resenting it, needing to be “one” with the others but also oneself. The many wrinkles and seams—to say nothing of tears and stains—in the quilt of feminist togetherness are exposed here with tightly coiled comedy.

The actors are well-matched to their roles: Chu plays Patty with that mix of fecklessness and guile that is, well, kinda irresistible; Lawson’s Peaches is self-effacing, seemingly, but also a ticking time-bomb, who clearly needs the release of Kill Night; Hägg’s Ashley wears a look of perpetual frustration and alternately snarls and soaks up reassurances on her beauty; Wilson’s Dawn wears pants to work (as does the boss) and plays up her predatory role—while, as Buzz, Wilson is a likeable guy eager to date the eager-to-date Patty; La Tour’s Susan exposes her layers of manipulation with ruthless efficiency. Altogether, it’s a hoot.

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Audience members will no doubt find their favorite moment in terms of resonance or distortion: perhaps when Susan collects all the girls’ used tampons (of course, they’re all on the same cycle)? Or maybe the frenzy of Kill Night? Or perhaps Susan's seduction of Dawn? Or an awkward “break the ice” game of Twister? For me, it had to be Susan’s goading of Patty at the wheel of a car, a scene that goes from 20 mph to over-the-top in minutes, and is followed by the memorable “Run, Patty, Run” sequence, complete with “headlights.”

A ghoulish play, in its way (and thus perfect for Halloween weekend), The Secretaries delves into the unease of being working girls by means of slapstick and caricature, provoking catharsis through laughter at situations which might, even now, be too true to type.


The Secretaries
By The Five Lesbian Brothers
Directed by Melanie Field

Scenic Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Technical Directors: Kelly Fayton; Kat Wepler; Producer: Emika Abe

Yale Cabaret
October 29-31, 2015



She is Risen

Review of Evita at Music Theatre of Connecticut

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita pulls off an interesting feat: a rock opera about a political celebrity. What’s more, it cleverly echoes some of the signature characterization from the duo’s most famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, what with Che, a figure a bit like Judas and a bit like the Zealot, acting as our narrator. And, in its portrayal of the show's heroine, Argentina's First Lady Eva Perón, the opera gestures toward sainthood, in song (“Santa Evita”), and makes due mention of Eva’s body missing from its grave. Will she come again in glory?

Katerina Papacostas as Eva

Katerina Papacostas as Eva

Staged by Artistic Director Kevin Connors on the small thrust stage at MTC, Evita sports a commanding presentation—intimate, energetic, involving. So confined, there’s no way for the show to get lost in big Broadway-style glitz. The score is sharply streamlined, without guitars but an array of keyboard settings. It’s the kind of show where you can see the dancers sweat and catch their breath, but where you can also see how precise Becky Timms’ choreography is, using every bit of the multi-level stage. The big dance numbers, “A New Argentina,” and “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” are taut, and after intermission the show gets even stronger, as we follow Eva’s super-charged career, especially the Rainbow Tour of Europe.

Donald E. Birely as Juan

Donald E. Birely as Juan

As Eva, Katerina Papacostas brings to the role her earnest, appealing eyes, a clear voice that tends to stress the sweet and lyrical side of Eva, without overdoing the pathos, and great legs. As her husband, Juan, Donald E. Birely has a commanding presence, put to good effect in the political game of musical chairs, “The Art of the Possible,” and seems generally inscrutable like many a political figure who wants appearance to mask substance. As our commentator, Che, Daniel C. Levine owns the thing. His stage presence, as reactor and critic, keeps our focus on the fact that what we’re seeing is Eva as legendary figure. And he’s got the kind of voice that belongs in Rice/Webber, able to belt and coo and rock it, as needed.

Daniel C. Levine as Che (foreground)

Daniel C. Levine as Che (foreground)

The rest of the cast work hard in a variety of guises, notably Christopher DeRosa as a smooth tango singer and Carissa Massaro as the forlorn mistress Juan dumps to make room for Eva—the song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” with guitar wielded onstage by Christopher Hudson Myers, is the kind of melancholy “life goes on” song that would be at home in almost any musical, an affecting bit of Rice/Webber, who have a knack for lyrical monologues—“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” “High Flying, Adored”—and songs that assert the perspective of the crowd or aristocrats or generals (Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes create an interesting combo of the latter two roles).

Carissa Massaro, Corinne C. Broadbent, Rachel MacIsaac, Matt Greenberg

Carissa Massaro, Corinne C. Broadbent, Rachel MacIsaac, Matt Greenberg

Other than entertainment—and there’s plenty of that—it’s hard to say what one gets out of the show. Papacostas portrays an Eva who grows from a sly get-ahead “chorus girl” to an icon with gravitas, but the testing that occurs during the Rainbow Tour and her brave attempt to live up to her country’s need for her makes us aware that she’s not equal in power to the influence she wields among the people. Rice and Webber seem to want to have it both ways: creating in us sympathy for Eva as a Golden Girl a bit out of her element but also striving to be better, and keeping us in sympathy with Che and his jaundiced view of how the Peróns manipulate their followers. “You Must Love Me,” Eva sings—“adore me / Dior me”—and we do, with reservations.

In the end, director Connors seems most inclined to show us the tension between the appearance and the reality and that’s as it should be, giving us an Eva as a grand stage diva, dying to impress us.

Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: David Heuvelman; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling; Choreography: Becky Timms; Musical Direction: Thomas Martin Conroy; Photographs: Joe Landry

Cast: Donald E. Birely; Corinne C. Broadbent; Christopher DeRosa; Matt Greenberg; Tyler Keller; Daniel C. Levine; Rachel MacIsaac; Carissa Massaro; Christopher Hudson Myers; Katerina Papacostas

Children: Rica Monaghan; Raquel Paige; Madeleine Tansley (Oct. 10-18); Ariana Brodows; Jonah Frimmer; Jolie Shey (Oct. 23-25); Jonah Frimmer; Cessa Lewis; Rica Monaghan; Hannah Pressman (Oct. 30-Nov. 1)

Musicians: Thomas Martin Conroy (keyboard); Mike L’Altrella (second keyboard); Jim Andrews (bass); Chris Johnson (drums)

Music Theatre of Connecticut
October 16-November 1, 2015

Back to the Cab

This week the Yale Cabaret comes roaring back for four straight weeks before ending the first semester with Cab 9 the first weekend in December.  So what’s in store for the cooler nights ahead?

First up, this weekend, is The Secretaries, written by The Five Lesbian Brothers and directed by third-year actor Melanie Field, fresh from her mercurial turn as Lily Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. The Yale Cabaret co-artistic directors David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, and Leora Morris describe the play as “funny, poignant, violent, scary, and wild,” and it’s been called “hilarious and horrifying.” The team say they were unable to resist the proposal for the play which was presented eloquently by Field as a way of reflecting on the status of female actors in the profession. The five other female actors in Field’s year—Jenelle Chu, Annie Hägg, Chalia La Tour, Annelise Lawson, Shaunette Renée Wilson—are featured in this story of secretaries who form a kind of secret society with its own rituals. Morris likens the play to Euripedes’ Bacchae with the wildness the women, once they get worked up, are able to get up to, but the play should also make us think about the genre of women in the workplace stories. It’s open season on lumberjacks when these ladies get together. October 29-31.

The first full weekend of November brings The Commencement of William Tan by Don X. Nguyen, directed by second-year actor Lauren E. Banks in this world premiere. Proposed by second-year actor Eston Fung who stars as the title character, with Ashley Chang, a frequent Cab performer, as dramaturg, the play features second-year actor Baize Buzan, recently seen as Maggie Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth. William is a happily assimilated Chinese-American kid starting his senior year in high school when racial tensions escalate between fellow athletes and recent Asian immigrants in the school, causing William to have to determine what identity really defines him. Martinez says the play begins like a 90s’ sitcom, say “Saved by the Bell set in a racially tense midwestern town,” and “then the floor falls out” as the play journeys into “dark territory” about race and growing up in America. November 5-7.

Next up is Roberto Zucco, described by Bruin as “a thriller about a serial killer with a philosophical bent.” The play, by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès (whose play Battle of Black and Dogs was directed at Yale Rep by Robert Woodruff back in 2010), fictionalizes the story of Roberto Succo, who, as an Italian teen, killed his parents and later, after escaping from a psychiatric hospital, went on a crime and killing spree in the mid-Eighties. The play, with its large cast of 8, will be the directorial debut at Yale of Christopher Ghaffari, a second-year actor who worked as a director while a Princeton undergrad. The play, the Cab team says, is not so much about Zucco's crimes as about our social perception of criminals, the coverage of the man-hunt, and the reactions to the character of Zucco by the community he terrorizes. November 12-14.

Opera, which was featured last season with the excellent rendering of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, returns to the Cab with Trouble in Tahiti, directed by Lynda Paul, who played the daughter in The Medium. The one-act “jazz-opera,” by Leonard Bernstein, recalls, in its title, the saying “trouble in paradise,” where “paradise” is a 1950s upper-class suburb inhabited by a troubled married couple, Sam and Dinah, who see a film with the show's title. A seven-scene work with a baritone and mezzo-soprano in the main roles, the score is fleshed out by a jazz vocal trio—two males and a female—who represent a kind of Greek chorus, conceived as the voice of radio advertising, forever prescribing commercial palliatives to the emotional ennui the couple endures. Dating from 1952, the piece was a dark look at the false promises of suburban bliss, but, the Cab team points out, many of the same views of status—career, possessions and property—are just as goading to the young of today. The score is played by a three-piece jazz band, including Jill Brunelle who so ably adapted Menotti’s score for piano and played the piece in performance last spring. November 19-21.

The final show before the winter break, following Thanksgiving break, is the English-language premiere of Boris Yeltsin, a play by Mickaël de Oliveira, translated from the Portuguese by Maria Inês Marques, and directed by second-year director Elizabeth Dinkova, co-director of last season’s foray into puppets and Büchner, Leonce and LenaBoris Yeltsin, which is not about the former president of the Russian Federation, is described by Morris as “a dark and grotesque tragi-comedy” that is also a protracted riff on the Oresteia. De Oliveira looks at the situation of the familiar Greek tragedy, about fate and family, revenge and Furies, and proposes an Orestes with no motive for vengeance. Though, in this case, the play is set within the context of postcolonial Portugal, and political and economic life in the shadow of “super-powers.” December 3-5.

And so there you have it: sexism, racism, our fascination with figures of violence in our midst, the death-in-life of white suburbia, and the world as seen from Portugal. So, till we hit that period long ago dubbed “the pre-Christmas vagaries,” see you at the Cab!



Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street, New Haven

For tickets and info, go here.

Long in the Tooth

Review of The Skin of Our Teeth, Yale School of Drama

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, like his better-known Pulitzer-winning Our Town, has its way with the conventions of theater, and both do so in the name of what Wilder views as a focus on the human condition sub specie aeternitatis. To help us understand our condition, it’s important that we get a handle on the many ways we let “play-acting,” at all levels, define us. Like Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth winks at us throughout. Suitable for a tale of life, marriage, death in Everytown, America, perhaps, the twinkle gets more than a bit long in the tooth in a tale that’s supposed to be taking on less “natural” matters such as human extinction, political chicanery, war, and global apocalypse.

In the Yale School of Drama thesis show directed by Luke Harlan, The Skin becomes a factory of creative approaches to theater and a showcase for how malleable and enduring certain conventions remain, perhaps eternally so.

The play begins, as many family-centered dramas do, in sit-com mode. Wilder’s writing style throughout the play recalls burlesque—the characters don’t speak to each other so much as proclaim at each other—and the tone easily adapts to a topsy-turvy “typical” middle-class home during the Ice Age, with dinosaurs as pets (cf. The Flintstones). Harlan’s cast keeps it cartoonish, with Andrew Burnap manic as pater familias George Antrobus, a kid-slapping, bossy caricature of the man-of-the-house c. 1940; he’s also inventing the alphabet and the wheel (though there’s a bicycle onstage at one point). His wife, Maggie (Baize Buzan, perfectly cast), is a can-do homemaker with more resources than we might expect; they have two children: Henry, aka Cain, (Aubie Merrylees) is the potentially violent psycho-in-the-bud with which we have become all-too-familiar in recent years, and Gladys (Juliana Canfield), a daddy’s girl, with all that might suggest, appropriate and otherwise. They had another child, but, thanks to Cain, there’s only the two now.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

In the midst of the family dynamic is the maid Lily Sabina (as in “rape of the Sabine women”), played by Melanie Field with permutations that deserve their own paragraph. She starts as a kind of “everywoman scullery maid” and swiftly becomes a working-girl voice of protest against the play (her soliloquy, ad-libbed into the text, as she smokes a theater cigarette at the Exit door, venting against YSD and New Haven, is the funniest speech in the whole play). Later, she’s a Betty-Booped caricature of a man-eating bombshell, and a Ethel Mermaning Statue of Liberty for the big Atlantic City production number. In the final act, she becomes a female soldier who helps the family pull through. Throughout she remains some version of Lily Sabina, intrepid underling, which is to say that Wilder knows the stage requires stereotypes the way the Unconscious requires archetypes. So reJoyce, for the Twain do meet.

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

From anxious sit-com we go to Broadway glitz and the show-biz of politics, as Antrobus seeks public office—with the ever-recurring leer at marital infidelity the thorn in the side of the upstanding leader—to the bombed-out aftermath of war that recalls Beckett and Brecht and the theater of scarcity, kept light by an intrusion, early in Act III, by the Theater Manager (Harlan) as he tries to deal with cast members fallen ill due to food poisoning (extra credit to Harlan for playing “himself” as distracted director).

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Whatever you make of the play, the production values here are top notch. There’s a big musical number via Christopher Ross-Ewart that plays well after the intermission, while we’re still being entertained, and a haunting song sung by the refugees. Harlan and Scenic Designer Choul Lee use below-stage at the Rep to create an Atlantic City boardwalk effect, and the bombed-out house of Act III has, oddly, more reality than the homey house of Act I. There are numerous cast members that barely get a moment to register in roles as refugees and chair-pushers; it’s as if Wilder wants bodies onstage but doesn’t want to bother with them as characters. At least Harlan and choreographer Gretchen Wright give some—Anna Crivelli, Annelise Lawson, Dylan Frederick, Ricardo Dávila—as dancers something to do, and that helps. An exception to the under-scripting is Paul Stillman Cooper, almost unrecognizable as the prognosticating coin-operated psychic in a box, once a staple on boardwalks on the Eastern shore. Cooper makes an interesting speech about not being able to predict the past that gets under the skin of The Skin of Our Teeth.

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Still more profound is the final showdown between George and Henry or the eternal battle between Father and Son. Before anyone had coined the term “generation gap,” the Oedipal drama had become archetypal by way of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Freud, to name a few; Harlan’s production lets us see the struggle—as I read it anyway—as very much a part of the post WW2 world so many things we know date from—like the Bomb, rock’n’roll, and the TV ads Rasean Davonte Johnson’s wonderful wartime ad projections remind us of. Merrylees’s Henry, who is supposed to sound evil and nihilistic (in Wilder’s conception), like Cain, a blow against all the good Wilder, in the midst of the war, wants to believe in, sounds to me like a frantic child born into the Atomic Age and given a gun to play with, like all those daddies had in the war. In other words, Wilder wants us to consider personal resentments and the existential battle against God’s big plan, but times change, even for a play that plays forever, and the YSD show lets us consider Wilder in his time, foretelling our past.

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

With references to extinction via a flood, the senseless killing of a black worker, and the needs of refugees at the door of our collective comfortable domicile, The Skin of Our Teeth could bite harder at our current state of the world,  but Wilder wants us to find succor, as George does, in Spinoza, Plato and Genesis, and that, in our era, feels quaint. Rather than the light of humanism shining on, George seems a fuddy-dud who will never get around to reading Maggie’s missive in a bottle.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)



Yale School of Drama presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Luke Harlan

Choreographer: Gretchen Wright; Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz-Herrera; Sound Designer/Original Music: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: David Clauson; Stage Manager: Paula Renee Clarkson

Cast: Andrew Burnap; Baize Buzan; Alex Cadena; Juliana Canfield; Paul Stillman Cooper; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Melanie Field; Dylan Fredercick; Rebecca Hampe; Luke Harlan; Annelise Lawson; Jonathan Majors; Aubie Merrylees; Jennifer Schmidt; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 20-24, 2015

Guilt by Association

Review of Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

In the U.S., everyone’s people came from somewhere else. Somewhere back there, whether recently or many generations ago, there lies a place where outsiders were treated as “others”: a “they” who don’t dress, eat, speak, worship, or behave as “we” do. In the U.S., for some, strong identification continues with those in the “old country”; some even bring to this country many of the same customs and they flourish here, putting down “hyphenated American” roots, and celebrating an identity that isn’t simply, generically, “American.” For others, their background is an embarrassment or an association they have tried hard to leave behind, in an effort to “americanize” and assimilate. Sometimes, the civil nature of our generalized American identity suffers major shocks from what most Americans consider “them” “out there”: those other countries and cultures some of us still identify with and that are still an “us.” Then look out.

Ayad Akhtar’s sharply written Disgraced, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sureness of pacing and staging by Gordon Edelstein, very cunningly makes contentious drama out of the inevitable, American clash between “us” and “them.” Here, the clash isn’t on a battlefield; it occurs in that staple of American drama, the living room, and it’s amongst people who work together, are very articulate and quick-witted, and generally capable of putting differences aside for the sake of a convivial evening. Before we get to that Götterdammerung of a dinner party, there is an important prelude.

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

We meet successful New York lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) and his wife Emily (Nicole Lawrence), a visual artist, as she sketches him standing in an expensive shirt and jacket and his skivvies in their swanky apartment. She’s been inspired to do his portrait in the manner of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, a former slave. That should raise eyebrows right there, but the possible domestic issues in that comparison are smoothed over by the couple’s obvious chemistry. She’s doing it, you see, because Amir was “profiled” in a certain way at a restaurant and impressed her with how he handled it. The doorbell rings and before you can say “Allah,” Amir is being profiled by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam)—formerly Hussein—as someone who should help an imam, imprisoned for allegedly raising funds for the Taliban, because they are both Muslim.

And here’s where Amir—who changed his name to Kapoor (it was Abdullah) and makes the most of the fact that his father was born in India before that region became Pakistan—tries to disavow his background while his wife, who has commenced a series of paintings based on the art of Islam, tries to assert, with the secular detachment of intellectuals, that he should value Islam as she does, as a culture that, like Greece and Rome, can be added to the grab-bag of Western influences. Amir sees it differently, but ultimately, in the interest of family ties or domestic tranquility, does attend the imam’s hearing, though not as counsel. Still, he is quoted in support of the imam in the New York Times, no doubt because he alone, of the battery of attorneys present, “looks like” the imam. His support thus quoted, Amir fears, might raise hackles with the Jewish partners of the firm where he has worked for twenty years and hopes to make partner.

All this is played out with the natural rhythm of a give-and-take where all that seems to be at issue is the right to say “no.” As audience, we tend to sympathize with the put-upon and profiled Amir, and that identification will be tested by what follows.

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Without going into plot points and revelations that come about during a dinner that almost comes to blows on an evening that ends in violence, it is clear that Amir’s conviction that he is not one of “them”—a Muslim, much less an anti-American terrorist or “Islamo-fascist”—becomes harder to sustain in the light of his attempt to protest to his wife and guests—Jory (Shirine Babb), a colleague at the firm, and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster), a curator at the Whitney Museum who has taken on Emily’s work—that the Koran and its teachings are inimical to the cultural smorgasbord they believe in. What begins, on Amir’s part, as an effort to disabuse their naïveté with a hectoring lecture becomes a calling-out, particularly when author Akhtar piles up the indiginities Amir must suffer, coming from both workplace and home (Bose’s balanced performance makes Amir not always likeable but at least understandable).

While some of the blows to Amir’s sense of worth seem, in retrospect, a bit contrived, it’s important to stress how effectively it all works in the moment. And that’s because plot developments come to light though characters playing their respective hands with perfectly structured timing, and because reactions are quick and definite. The play might feel talky but rarely does; instead, it feels like we’re spectators of a verbal sporting event that suddenly gets far too personal. Sooner or later, you’re going to take sides.

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

The cast is uniformly excellent in carrying off Akhtar’s dialogue, with its very sharp transitions from friendly chatter to spousal joshing to personal slurs with a great feel for how to make clear the stakes and to keep it entertaining. Disgraced joins other recent top-notch Long Wharf productions of successful plays—Clybourne Park, Bad Jews—that specialize in uncomfortable confrontations that can arise when people, here with the aid of much alcohol, begin to say what they really think, or try to make distinctions or demand agreement on ethical or ethnic grounds. Akhtar’s play gets at the underside of America’s lip-service to accepting everyone and at the particular tensions that might surface in mixed race gatherings (Isaac is Jewish; Jory, black; Emily, white and blonde) whenever an issue raises its ugly head.

With its handsome set and costumes and its rigorous grasp of how to use every minute of its under 90-minute running time, Disgraced is a gripping night of theater that has much on its mind. Ultimately the play is about how one decides which “us” to remain true to. To be an American is to be a mutt, and the world is dog eat dog.

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: David Van Tieghem; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Hair & Wig Design: Charles LePointe; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato; Assistant Stage Managers: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Tuite; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Rajesh Bose; Nicole Lawrence; Mohit Gautam; Benim Foster; Shirine Babb

Long Wharf Theatre
October 14-November 8, 2015

A Play for All Periods

Preview of The Skin of Our Teeth at Yale School of Drama

The first of this season’s thesis shows at the Yale School of Drama opens tonight. Third-year director Luke Harlan directs Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, an unconventional play that caused some dismay with audiences when it opened, at the Shubert in New Haven, during World War 2. A view of the ages through the centering experience of an American family called the Antrobuses, the play, in good modernist fashion, toys with the conventions of theater while at the same time aiming for a theatrical experience that can be, in Harlan’s view, truly epic. It’s theme is no less than the survival of mankind on this distracted globe.

But, importantly for Harlan, it’s also very funny. Harlan cites some lines from Wilder that he came across in the Beinecke Library, which houses Wilder’s papers.

It is hard to imagine a man who occasionally does not suddenly see himself as both All men and The First Man. The two points of view are expressed for us by myths: at his marriage he may be reminded of Adam; when he goes about his house shutting windows against a rainstorm he is Noah; when he goes hunting, he calls himself Nimrod. The play tries to put this idea in dramatic form; and since it deals with both the individual Man and the Type Man, and deals with them in great trouble, isn’t it right that it should be fulll of anachronisms, indifferent to the smaller credibilities, be in all periods, and that it should be full of interruptions and accidents; and since Man is brave and enduring, isn’t it right that every now and then it should be gay?

From that brief summary, it’s clear that Wilder is thinking of biblical stories as the basis for our understanding of ourselves. In the sense of a palimpsest of personalities occurring throughout time, Wilder, who was a Yalelie, lived in Hamden, and hung out at the old Anchor bar across from the Shubert on College Street, was inspired by James Joyce’s “Work in Progress,” published in 1939 as Finnegans Wake. Wilder, like his master, takes a comic view of life, seeing mankind’s life as a human comedy in which Man plays many parts.

Luke Harlan

Luke Harlan

Harlan shares his playwright’s view of the value of comedy. He cites a contemporary entertainment like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show as an instance of how he sees the confluence of laughter and important issues. “We have to laugh at things to talk about them,” he says. Wilder’s play was written in a time of crisis when the outcome of the war was anything but certain, and before Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the conflict. Then, In the post-war world, after the dropping of the two atomic bombs against Japan, Wilder’s play, with its post-apocalyptic Act III, seemed prescient.

For Harlan, who was looking for a thesis project that would be “epic” and “allow comment on current issues,” and “engage with discourse right now in the world,” one of the “anachronisms” that Wilder mentions could well be the issue of global warning. Even though Wilder is recalling the biblical flood, Harlan says, “it’s impossible for us not to think of” our threatened environment.

Asked what has changed in his conception of the play since he began working on it, Harlan says he’s become more aware of the importance of the family unit as represented in the play. The “70 year gap between Wilder and us” means that much has changed “in the gender dynamic.” The play is obviously focused on the father, as head of the family of 1940, but Harlan has come to realize the degree to which Mrs. Antrobus is the “rock of the family.” He believes that the amorphous quality of the play can allow for the differing family dynamics of 2015 without appearing too dated.  Harlan does allow that “some of the language” and the reliance on “an early 20th-century framework” makes the play a bit quaint but insists that that effect is deliberate in Act I as Wilder seeks to establish “the old days.” By Act III and what Harlan calls “the postmodern world,” the language “doesn’t feel dated at all.”

In fact, he found, as he rehearsed and worked with his actors—a large cast of 13, including himself—that Wilder, as evidenced in his immensely popular play Our Town, is capable of “a simplicity that’s universal” with a use of language that “gets to the essential.”

And the thought of Our Town is apropos. One of Harlan’s best successes while a student at the Drama School was in directing Will Eno’s Middletown for the Yale Summer Cabaret 2014, for which he was co-Artistic Director. That play took a very contemporary tone toward the small-town virtues of our mythic American life, with both humor and poignancy. He also directed, in the Shakespeare studio projects, A Winter’s Tale with a shifting and vivid palette of humor and pathos. The Skin of Our Teeth—the title is from the Book of Job—sounds like a timely project with the right ingredients for something wilder.



The Yale School of Drama presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Luke Harlan

Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: David Clauson; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Andrew Burnap; Baize Buzan; Juliana Canfield; Paul Stillman Cooper; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Melanie Field; Dylan Frederick; Luke Harlan; Annelise Lawson; Jonathan Majors; Aubie Merrylees; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 20-24, 2015

Keeping It Together

Review of MoonSong at Yale Cabaret

MoonSong, written by Sean Patrick Higgins, an actor in the Yale Drama School, and co-directed by Higgins and Libby Peterson, a theater manager, could be considered a play about illness, though what it’s really about is one woman’s unbreakable spirit. “Mom” is based on Higgins’ own mother and is  played by her daughter Mary Higgins, and what she manifests, from her opening, ice-breaking pre-song patter as an entertainer, to her struggles with the well-meaning adult son who is trying to break her of bad, health-deteriorating and money-wasting habits, is centered self-awareness and an offbeat sense of humor. Indeed, Higgins’ play shows how humor, as much as love and good intentions, is key to weathering difficult circumstances.

Mom faces many trials in this very compressed play: her condition of multiple sclerosis, a first husband jailed, a second husband who dies well before she would have expected, and children who, like the free spirits she has taught them to be, tend to prefer make believe to unpleasant realities.

Mom is a singer, and from time to time breaks into song. She also prays the Act of Contrition with a believer’s sense that the trials she endures, like her blessings—eyesight!—have come from God. Higgins and his collaborators are to be commended for creating such a direct and charming character, letting her address us in her own voice. In fact, her monologue—interrupted at times by Son (Jonathan Higginbotham) and his games or his tantrums or his tattling on his brothers or sister—is, for most of the play, the show’s main virtue. Interaction with other characters doesn’t fully come into its own until Son is off to college. Particularly effective is her vigil at the dying bedside of her husband Phil while speaking to Son on the phone. We see there, and again and again, how her basic mode is to think of others. Though she tells us, the audience, about her fears and frailty, she hides it from her children as much as she can, and stays “in character” as the mother they need. She keeps it light.

Late in the play, that role starts to fray. We see how hard it has become to maintain her even tone of kind affability. Her son takes her to task for smoking, for giving away money, for buying snacks for a neighbor’s dog. We might think her mind is starting to go, but in the give and take between Son and Mom, Higgins gets at the tension—call it pride, call it independence—that keeps a mother, in her 50s, from willingly and easily becoming her child’s child. Mom has her reasons, she has her wants and needs, most of which she has ignored and let go in her long, hard life. There’s a little bit of Lear’s “O reason not the need!” in her defiance, and our sense of her character grows as a result.

Though there could be more interest provided by the enactment, with more actors, of the other characters in this family of five, and while Son seems not to develop much, there are other assets to the evening: Mary Higgins’ clear and simple singing voice, and her effective way of acting out physical impairment without dwelling on it; moments of dance or rhythmic movement that, at the show’s opening, set a tone of “interpretation.” We know we aren’t getting a play with conventional scenic development. There are huge leaps in time, gaps in what is happening, and the bursts of choreography tell us things in a non-narrative manner. There are also projected backdrops in Izmir Ickbal's moonlike set, and sound effects: the image of rain patterning a giant moon works into the play almost as a sign from God, letting us for a moment glimpse the benign universe that, for all her Job-like troubles, Mom still lives in.

Beyond the question of what keeps this woman’s spirits up and makes her such a loving and dedicated mother to her “pups”—at one point she claims “I’m a lioness and these are my cubs”—there’s the question of how we, as a culture, treat and judge the ill. In Mom’s view, God’s plan is present even in suffering, but, socially, we tend to see the ill as victims of bad judgments or tough luck. In MoonSong, hearing and seeing how those afflicted cope with a life that, for many, is already hard enough, is certainly inspiring, but it should also be a goad to look for ways to help those who need the help.

A sensitive portrait of a rare spirit, MoonSong makes a strong case for the bonds of family and the heroism of living for each day’s blessing.


By Sean Patrick Higgins
Co-directed by Sean Patrick Higgins and Libby Peterson

Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Set Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Designer: Erin E. Fleming; Sound Designer: Ian Williams; Associate Sound Designer: Matthew Fischer; Projections Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Choreographer: Dan Higgins; Technical Director: Kelly Fayton; Dramaturg: Catherine Maria Rodriguez; Producer: Chiara Klein

Yale Cabaret
October 15-17, 2015

Life Lessons

Review of Tuesdays with Morrie at Playhouse on Park

A play about friendship and dying is bound to be affecting, but for such a play to give viewers a renewed sense of vitality takes some doing. And that’s what Tuesdays with Morrie, directed by Sasha Brätt at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park achieves, and that effect is mostly the result of excellent acting and the show’s well-paced presentation.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Mitch Ablom, the celebrated sportswriter, Tuesdays with Morrie could easily retread the simplistic “wisdom literature” the memoir aims for. But Brätt’s approach to the theater adaptation, by Ablom and Jeffrey Hatcher, makes some decisions that help bring the friendship between Mitch and his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz to life. First of all, as portrayed by Chris Richards, Mitch isn’t particularly likeable. As a student, he’s just an average guy whom, in part because of his piano playing, his teacher has taken a shine to. That makes for a nice parting upon graduation but with no sense, on Mitch’s part, that anything deeper will be forthcoming between them. Secondly, there’s Gannon McHale as Morrie, played with a winning sense of how to finesse fatality that never becomes maudlin.

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

As a successful sports columnist in Detroit, Mitch is the kind of guy who knows his stuff, is consumed by his career, and quite content with himself. He stresses that he cut-off any memory of Brandeis, where he went to college, and ignored anything that would call that time back to his mind. That is until he happens to see an interview with Schwartz on Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Schwartz has been diagnosed with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (aka, Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which is fatal, and reflects about his life on the air. Mitch travels east to Massachusetts to pay his respects. And there he finds himself once again under the spell of his old mentor.

Morrie Schwartz is a canny character, the type who knows how to ingratiate himself, and also how to be needy and giving at the same time. It’s a wonderful role and McHale does it full justice. His Morrie is clearly the kind of person who feels useless alone, who lives and shines for others. And to have Mitch back in his life—after the younger man suggests, almost in spite of himself, visiting Morrie weekly, as he did during the professor's office hours in college—is to have again a purpose for living, even as he’s dying. In promising to be there to the end, Mitch gives Morrie a weekly reason to rally.

Chris Richards (Mitch), Gannon McHale (Morrie)

Chris Richards (Mitch), Gannon McHale (Morrie)

Because the weekly encounters between the two, which Mitch tapes, sometimes take the form of question and answer, the nature of their relationship remains structured by their roles in each other’s lives: teacher and student. Mitch’s success in his chosen field says nothing about how well he thinks or how much he feels. And that’s what his old professor is testing him on.

The tensions between them have to do, first, with the unpleasant facts of Morrie’s condition and Mitch’s effort to treat them as less pressing than they are (along those lines is his weekly delivery of a bag of food to Morrie, as though bringing him care packages that should sustain him, regardless of how advanced the disease is). Then there’s the tension of Mitch’s defensiveness when Morrie’s reflections on life begin to make Mitch see how shallow his own successful life is. It’s not a question of thinking he should have done something else with his life so much as a question of how he should be. Like any good humanist philosopher, Morrie’s lesson is not about having more or doing something better (Mitch has plenty and does quite well), it’s about being more human, not flinching from the “touchy-feely” aspects of life that make Mitch cringe.

The interplay between the two, because of these tensions—to which is added Morrie’s manner of winning a visit from Mitch’s wife—makes for involving theater defined by dialogue and narration. We’re privy to what Mitch wants us to see and he wants us to see how valuable knowing Morrie has been for him. And to see its value for ourselves.

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

And in that, Tuesdays with Morrie is a lesson to us all. If we have interacted with the infirm and the dying, we can still be reminded of what that experience meant; and if we haven’t, the play makes the reality of such vigils very palpable. The play, in the end, almost inevitably evokes tears if only because we have come to know and love Morrie. McHale lets us view the full humanity of this man in a way that we may not find so easily matched in reality. And Richards, surprisingly, is not overshadowed. Much as we might favor the elder role, there’s a certain sensibleness wielded by a person in the midst of life that Mitch retains, and Richards is quite adept at confiding in his audience, knowing that we will share at least some of his squeamishness or embarrassment or selfishness.

Richly rewarding in its grasp of the fleeting connections in our busy lives and of the deep presence of persons, Tuesdays with Morrie at Playhouse on Park offers a great way to pass some time in good company.


Tuesdays with Morrie
By Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Ablom
Based on the book by Mitch Ablom
Directed by Sasha Brätt

Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott

Playhouse on Park
September 30-October 18, 2015

Do We Not Bleed?

Review of Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of famed playwright Arthur Miller, Westport Country Playhouse has staged a late Miller play. Broken Glass, which was nominated for a Tony for 1994, debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre. The revival at Westport, directed by Artistic Director Mark Lamos, does the play proud, with some of the finest acting to have graced Connecticut stages this year. The entire cast is excellent and match their roles perfectly, while two actors familiar to Connecticut audiences—Steven Skybell and Felicity Jones—do some of their best work to date.

The play, like most of Miller’s best-known plays, is very intense and doesn’t offer much in the way of lighter moments. Set in the U.S. in 1938, the period of the play is historically significant as the time of “Kristallnacht,” or the night of broken glass, as Nazis came to power in Germany and took Austria, destroying Jewish shops, burning synagogues, beating-up Jews, and perpetrating other acts of thuggishness in their fascistic zeal. At this time, a Jewish couple in America, Phillip and Sylvia Gellberg, played by Skybell and Jones, are experiencing a mysterious kind of trauma. Sylvia suddenly finds herself unable to walk. As the play opens, Phillip is receiving word from cautious and thoughtful Dr. Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer) that the doctors can find nothing physically wrong with Sylvia. He believes the problem is psychosomatic, and that means delving below the surface in the Gellbergs’ marriage.

Steven Skybell (Phillip Gellburg), Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman)

Steven Skybell (Phillip Gellburg), Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman)

In that first scene, Skybell lets us learn much about Phillip: his reticence, his deep concern for his wife, his difficulties with her and with the marriage that has shaped him, his pride in his role as the only Jew employed by a Brooklyn trust company (he works in foreclosures) and in his son as a Jew rising in the armed forces, and his deep ambivalence toward other Jews and to “what is happening in Germany.” He’s mainly concerned that outright antisemitism there may inspire more aggressive forms of antisemitism here. Phillip is not really a sympathetic character and yet Skybell makes us care about him even though there’s a real threat here. He may crack up, he may become violent. Before the evening ends, we will see him weep, plead, suffer, accuse and attack, and drop to the floor with a heart attack. And through it all Skybell makes us consider what happens to a man when he is out of his depth, when the delicate détente of his marriage begins to fray in such a way that professional help becomes imperative.

It’s hard to believe the play was written in the Nineties, so steadfastly does it feel like a vision from an earlier time: the Thirties as seen by the Fifties, perhaps. Which is a way of saying that the writing feels like it must precede the Sixties and the Seventies with their greater laxity of locution. Dialogue in this play may feel prosy, on the page, but as delivered by this stellar cast, directed by Lamos, who has worked directly with Miller in the latter’s long career, the dialogue’s precision and nuance of character is exemplary. Even relatively minor roles, such as Phillip’s ultra-WASPy boss Stanton Case (John Hillner) and Harriet (Merrritt Janson), Sylvia’s sister, come across as actual people with actual lives.

Harriet, in particular, speaks with authority about her sister’s life in a way that seems informed by decades of observation and gossip. And Dr. Hyman’s wife, Margaret (Angela Reed), provides useful shading to the good doctor; her sense of how easily he becomes infatuated with his female patients makes us wary of his interest in the psychology of Sylvia’s case. Miller lets his minor characters play their parts and get out of the way; their contributions help us grasp the levels of the situation and add a deeper sense of the play’s “no man is an island” context. The Skybells, the Hymans, are in many ways unremarkable, and yet, once we begin to remark them, we will see subterfuge and shame and other issues, some long-buried, some still close to the surface, that must be confronted.

Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman), Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman), Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

The use of paralysis and impotence as figures for U.S. Jewry’s inability to do anything for their German counterparts is a bit too obvious as metaphor, we might say. But to treat ironically Miller’s figures for an international incapacity to help the persecuted (quite relevant to the moment with the question of Syrian refugees) would be to spoil the play horribly. Sylvia Gellburg’s reaction to such suffering is physical, and, in her marriage long ago, the failure of the physical, bodily aspect of love became the occasion for violence. Miller’s text seems true to the Thirties where Freud’s “Jewish cure” of talking about the past to find psychological truth comes up against the “Jewish question”—both are aspects of life not often talked about in polite society then. And so the drama of sadly unhappy people coming to grips with both resonates as catharsis-seeking theater.

Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Much of that level of feeling comes from Felicity Jones’ subtle enactment of Sylvia Gellburg. There are so many ways one might react to her predicament: aging woman’s last hope of attracting sensitive male attention; unhappy wife finding a way to pay back her husband, who doesn’t dominate so much as demand acceptance, for his treatment of her; sensitive woman driven to distraction and illness by the methodical brutality of the times; confused and lonely soul needing compassion, and finding, in Kristallnacht, a figure for mankind’s lack of compassion. Jones makes us see all this in Sylvia’s strength and weakness, her passion and her pathos. Even her tears come to us through a veil of attribution: is it self-pity, a play for sympathy, or a dawning grasp of a tragic sense of life? Key to Miller’s play is the notion that, if people can only find a way to speak of what ails them, much that is dark and disturbing to ourselves about ourselves might become less grievous and appalling. We might have to accept how much we need the views of others to see ourselves aright.

Michael Yeargan’s scenic design—including artfully manipulated bed and chairs and a reflective backdrop that, before the play begins, shows the audience to itself and later lets us see bedridden Sylvia from above—and the lighting by the impeccable Stephen Strawbridge, together with Candice Donelly’s costumes and David Budries’ sound design, add to the impressiveness of this fully realized production of a challenging and rewarding play.  


Arthur Miller’s
Broken Glass
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: David Budries; Props Master: Karin White; Movement Consultant: Michael Rossmy; Dialect Coach: Louis Colaianni; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Photographs: T. Charles Erikson

Cast: John Hillner; Merritt Janson; Felicity Jones; Angela Reed; Stephen Schnetzer; Steven Skybell

Westport Country Playhouse
October 6-24, 2015



Mom's Song

A new play based on personal, family experience comes to Yale Cabaret.

It began as “Mom and Son.” Now it’s called MoonSong. Sean Patrick Higgins, a third-year actor in the Yale School of Drama, has been contemplating how to bring his story to the stage at least since he encountered Jackson Moran’s one-man show, All This Noise, at the Yale Cabaret while visiting as a prospective student. Moran’s play tackled the problem of how a family deals with mental illness. Higgins, whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis, responded to the theme of Moran’s play, but he’s taking a different approach. Rather than a play focusing on “Son” or himself, Higgins’ play focuses on his mother. And his mother will be played by Higgins’ sister, Mary Higgins, a professional actress. Dan, the Higgins’ youngest sibling, is also involved as the show’s choreographer. That makes for a family dynamic that is not only unusual but potentially very rich and significant in this drama based on their shared family experience.

The presence of a choreographer should indicate the play isn’t going to be comprised of monologues and dialogues. Higgins’ mother, Sharon E. Wagner-Higgins, who was diagnosed with MS in her late twenties, is a singer, and Higgins and his co-director Libby Peterson, a third-year theater manager, use dance in MoonSong to suggest “the freedom of expression of the mind” and spirit, those aspects of ourselves we like to think are not “shackled to the body.” “There is a physical world of limitations,” Peterson says, but the play should create “a space to show the free spirit of women, their independence.”

Higgins and Peterson want the play to be not only a dramatic presentation of the kinds of trials that can occur when children go from being taken care of by parents to being caretakers of ailing or aging parents, but also to “show the role of family at the heart” of that experience. The role reversal is key to Higgins’ conception of the play, and the title MoonSong—which refers to a lullaby the mother sings to her son as a child—derives from its similarity to the words “Mom,” “Son,” as well as to the role of the song as a bond through the years. “And the mother identifies with the moon,” Higgins says, particularly as her condition, in its flareups and remissions, puts both mother and son in mind of lunar cycles.

Getting his sister to play his mother doesn’t seem to have caused Sean Higgins any extra anxiety, though one could imagine there might be considerable tension there. Mary, Higgins says, bears a strong resemblance to their mother, but, as an actor her role is not simply to impersonate their mother but to find a way to illuminate this woman’s importance in the play and to do justice to her struggles, as with any well-written, naturalistic character. It’s not about “mom” so much as “mothers.”

Though he considered trying to take on the triple threat of writing, acting, and directing, Higgins will not be playing himself. Jonathan Higginbotham, a second-year actor in the program recently seen in the Cab’s season-opening show We Are All Here, will play “Son.” Higgins is full of a praise for how his chief actor is coming into his own.  And he also has praise for Peterson, one of his closest friends in the program, who took on the task of co-directing so that there would always be a presence in the room not so close to the family and its experience. Peterson shares with Higgins the fact of having to face, early in their lives, long-term illness in the family, and she has also spent time with Higgins’ family members before getting involved in MoonSong. Asked about their working relationship, both say they are able “to challenge each other and call each other on stuff,” forcing themselves to “keep it honest.”

“There’s the potential for the play to become very sentimental,” Higgins admits, particularly as the family has had to deal with the recent loss of their stepfather, and speaks of the effort to maintain a focus that “keeps the play from wallowing” in personal problems. Part of that is achieved, Peterson says, by “the triumph of the ordinary.” The play shows how, for parents, the successes of their children as they grow can feel like a major accomplishment; when the tables are turned and children, as adults, must tend the aged or infirm, the importance of routine, and all the shared experiences of the mundane, helps them get through.

For Higgins, theater is “a conscious dream” that brings people together to share an experience that can affect and change them. Peterson and Higgins both speak of how our art and entertainment tend to shy away from the elderly and the ill. They want MoonSong to raise awareness of the issues of long-term illness in our society, in the way that so many shows YSDers undertake focus attention on persons facing challenges of discrimination or marginalization. For Higgins, the play, if it were to stretch beyond the short running time of a Cabaret show, would take on issues with health care and Medicare in this country and get into the political issues that make care-giving not only a personal, familial theme but a societal concern.

Peterson says that one of the strengths of the Cab for the show’s first run is that the small playing space is great for the intimacy such a show demands while also making viewers “walk in our shoes,” even if that makes them uncomfortable. And both Higgins and Peterson stress the “joy and play amongst the sorrow.” An illness like multiple sclerosis should be seen as a fact of life and, like all facts of life, should become “a building block of the play,” able to be translated into theater, and an occasion for further reflection on what it means to live and to be human.

MoonSong runs at the Yale Cabaret this coming weekend, October 15th-17th. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For tickets and info about the Yale Cabaret, go here.

Vot Ken You Mach?

Review of Indecent at Yale Repertory Theatre

Indecent, the first of three world premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre this season, presents two striking tableaux: first, a group of players arrayed before us, introduced by the stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), drip sawdust from their cuffs. And, near the close, a cascade of rain that brings to life the oft-mentioned rain scene in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, the early twentieth-century Yiddish play that acts as the occasion for Indecent’s revisiting of theater history.

Between those two poetic theatrical moments, Paula Vogel’s new play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, presents the fortunes of Asch’s play, a play that, in 1923 when it finally reached Broadway in a truncated version, was prosecuted as “obscene, indecent.” Sure, the play features a brothel and a lesbian love affair and, maybe, sacrilege, but the real reason for suppression, someone in Vogel’s play suggests, was “Jews on Broadway.”

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Though presented with quick scene changes, moving from 1907 to 1952, by a cast of 7 actors and 3 musicians with scant use of props and with many minor roles to keep track of, Indecent is oddly static. Vogel employs the vignette approach familiar from her regional staple A Civil War Christmas and tries to work in as much historical detail as possible in a wealth of brief scenes, most supported by subtitles telling us when and what.

Along the way we get the first awkward reading of The God of Vengeance by a group of uncomfortable men; Asch’s play’s dramatic close in a swift “onstage” montage in a number of major European cities; the offstage romance between, first, Ruth (Adina Verson) and Dorothee (Katrina Lenk), then between Virigina (Verson) and Dorothee, shaped by the onstage romance of the characters they play; the troupe’s arrival in the U.S. via Ellis Island; and the fortunes of European Jewry, most particularly and movingly when Lemml, who remains a staunch champion of the play from that first reading onward, stages the play in the Lodz ghetto created by Nazi occupation. Asch’s play, for Lemml, is one of the greatest ever written and, since Lemml is such a sympathetic character, we want to believe him.

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Still, Indecent’s handling of The God of Vengeance makes the earlier play seem at times rather quaint and at other times an incendiary text. It’s hard to say, given what we’re shown of it, how we would respond to it if we were to sit through it, but it’s also hard to say whose attitude toward the play—Asch himself doesn’t seem to think it’s sacrosanct and approves cuts the way anyone who wants to get his play on Broadway might—we should accept. Vogel and Taichman mainly approach the play through its sexual politics, so that a lesbian love—which is enough to cause Asch’s patriarch Yekel to condemn his daughter Rifkele to “a whorehouse”—emerges as the theme to be duly noted and celebrated. Thus the key scene between Rifkele (Verson), the virgin, and Manke (Lenk), the prostitute, is mediated through various enactments and distortions before the final rain scene evokes the highly romantic alignment at the heart of Indecent.

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Working against whatever dramatic gold might be found in all this retrospective prospecting is Indecent’s somewhat clunky staging. It’s not simply that the characters tend to be caricatures—the big name actor, the vain and clueless name actress, the intense author, the earnest ingenue, the self-conscious lesbian—but that the acting doesn’t help. Playing all the senior male roles, Tom Nelis seems anything but a Yiddish patriarch, while Max Gordon Moore, usually an asset, never seems to inhabit Asch. The female roles fare somewhat better, particularly Lenk’s bit of German cabaret, and the eros-through-acting between Verson’s Virginia and Lenk’s Dorothee. As Lemml, Topol’s focused performance adds the strongest note of advocacy for theater as identity.

Plotwise, movement between scenes is more didactic than intriguing or entertaining. Time marches on and things happen. Eventually, (we know) the play will be resurrected from the dustbin of history by a well-intentioned contemporary playwright. We’re not privy to any scenes from the rehearsals of Indecent, but we do get a final, fairly egregious scene that name-drops Yale as a goyisch bastion from which Mr. Rosen (Moore) travels to do homage to Asch (Ellis) just as McCarthyism is getting underway. It’s as if Vogel’s fertile mind has been tasked with working-in every possible historical connection that might make Asch’s play worthwhile and memorable, though without getting “meta” and commenting on her own appropriation. But by keeping Yiddish culture at arms’ length—we see the language in subtitles but hear precious little onstage—Indecent doesn’t recreate a bygone culture as much as it might, and by rushing through every era with the same even tone, the play’s texture becomes a bit diffuse.

Indecent’s themes, which are important and varied, deserve better. In the end, Indecent is little more than decent.

Written by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: David Dorfman; Composers: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva; Music Director: Aaron Halva; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs; Projection Designer: Tal Yarden; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Yiddish Consultant: Joel Berkowitz; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner

Cast: Richard Topol; Katrina Lenk; Mimi Lieber; Max Gordon Moore; Tom Nelis; Steven Rattazzi; Adina Verson; Musicians: Lisa Gutkin; Aaron Halva; Travis W. Hendrix

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 2-24, 2015

If You Had a Vision

Review of I’m With You in Rockland, Yale Cabaret

Allen Ginsberg, an influential American poet who died in 1997, is best-known for his poem "Howl" (1957), which includes the repeated phrase “I’m With You in Rockland.” Taking that as the title for a theater-piece “inspired by the life and work of Allen Ginsberg,” Kevin Hourigan and Company have mounted at Yale Cabaret a somewhat antagonistic tribute to the Beat poet who wrote “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . .”

Dylan Mattingly, Ian Gottlieb, Fred Kennedy

Dylan Mattingly, Ian Gottlieb, Fred Kennedy

One could say there are actually three tributes, or, more properly, reactions to Ginsberg going on here. Representing the Yale School of Art, Alteronce Gumby makes art on stage; representing the Yale School of Music, three musicians, Ian Gottlieb, cello, Fred Kennedy, percussion, and Dylan Mattingly, piano, create sound textures that, especially with Kennedy’s inventive percussive effects and Mattingly’s frenetic playing, are the high point of the evening. Representing the Yale School of Drama, six performers, aided by a cascade of videos on several TVs, grapple with the task of raising a “Howl” of their own.

standing: Alteronce Gumby; seated: Nahuel Telleria, Helen Jaksch, Lynda Paul, Kevin Hourigan

standing: Alteronce Gumby; seated: Nahuel Telleria, Helen Jaksch, Lynda Paul, Kevin Hourigan

Somewhere behind all this busyness is the notion of what “the Beats” as a very hip, very small but eventually very influential subculture of the late Fifties were all about. The “coolness” and "saintliness" of the Beat posture is best served, in this show, by Gumby as he takes the stage and flicks liquid from a styrofoam cup, then pulls a flower out of his mouth. The jazzier offerings by the musicians—at times cool, at times a bit more frenzied—also evince the movement. The performers’ have their work cut out for them.

Josh Goulding as Ginsberg

Josh Goulding as Ginsberg

It doesn’t help that, before the show starts, we’re treated to loops of video from James Franco’s film Howl, and that Josh Goulding, who enacts Ginsberg at his trusty typewriter, looks more like Franco as Ginsberg than like Ginsberg. Sure, it could be the point that, for the artists behind this show, cultural history comes packaged by the powers that be (and who could be more empowered than celebrity art charlatan Franco?)—Ginsberg, who, in his heyday during the Sixties, was always part shaman, part showman, might dig it. Still, there are two things for which Ginsberg was the reigning “go to” guy in the subculture: being a Jew and being a queer (the latter his chosen term before “gay” became the accepted term). Neither aspect of Ginsberg’s persona gets coverage here, so, yeah, he might as well be Franco’d. (An exception is Lynda Paul’s amusing evocation of the male crotch, particularly asshole and balls—Ginsberg did more than anyone in U.S. letters to poeticize and eroticize the male body, in all its funkiness.)

Ginsberg and the Beats were talkers but, oddly, the show works best when no one’s talking. The performers—Kevin Hourigan, Helen Jaksch, Lynda Paul, Nahuel Telleria—berate Goulding/Ginsberg a bit tediously for his lame attempts to come up with that famous opening sentence of “Howl,” as though judges on an American Icon Game Show, all wearing what AG called “pubic beards” and seeming to be a Beats-meets-Marx Brothers array of zanies. But there is, thankfully, a bit of bite to some of the proceedings. This is today’s generation talking to hoary old Allen across a gulf of time in which, well, writing a poem doesn’t cut it any more. The performers ask Goulding/Ginsberg if he tried to intervene or do anything when he saw the sufferers he catalogs in his poem. “I saw, I wrote a poem,” he says, to sardonic applause.

Turning the tables, the troupe eventually get around to voicing their own “I saw . . .”  litany of challenges, atrocities, and niceties of our day, but not before a little audience participation game that asks us to vote—with applause—which listed things we consider “a work of art.” By the time we get to war and acts of terrorism we can see where this is going. “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all,” surrealist capo André Breton said, a long time ago, and what could be more “convulsive” as “performance art” than crashing airliners into skyscrapers—at least that’s how avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, in voice-over, sees it. How we got from gay, Jewish Ginsberg to goy, Germanic Stockhausen might wig us out a little, but, it seems, the troupe wants to know where to draw the line, artwise. (Poetry—which “makes nothing happen” in Auden’s formulation—never really comes up.)

Ginsberg, who was nothing if not a fully functioning human, with a broad and deep conception of humanity, might well look askance at the notion that a feat of engineering—particularly one with costly casualties—could be art. “Howl,” constructed “like a brick shithouse” in Ginsberg’s phrase, is. I’m With You in Rockland flirts with the edginess that made the Beats work, when they did, but it ends up feeling more like art school than art.


I’m With You in Rockland
Inspired by the life and work of Allen Ginsberg
Created by Kevin Hourigan with the Company

Creative Team: Kevin Hourigan, director and production designer; Jason Najjoum and Rachel Shuey, co-producers; Elizabeth Mak, lighting designer; Nok Kanchanabanca, sound designer; Michael Commendatore, projections designer; Avery Trunko, stage manager; Rae Powell, technical director; Ian Gottlieb, Dylan Mattingly, composers; Baize Buzan, Ricardo Dávila, Lucie Dawkins, Tori Sampson, additional contributing writers

Performers: Josh Goulding, Alteronce Gumby, Kevin Hourigan, Helen Jaksch, Lynda Paul, Nahuel Telleria, Avery Trunko; Musicians: Ian Gottlieb, Fred Kennedy, Dylan Mattingly

Yale Cabaret
October 8-10, 2015



Hometown Blues

Review of An Opening in Time at Hartford Stage

“The purpose of playing,” Hamlet says, “is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” A statement that might lend itself to a support of realism in theater, so that what happens onstage should be very much like what happens in real life. That argument works as a rationale for mimetic works that are based on real people, real places.

In Christopher Shinn’s An Opening in Time, the intention to portray his hometown—Wethersfield, Connecticut—as it was in his youth creates a play that will certainly resonate with local audiences who will recognize place-names and appreciate how deliberately the dialogue recreates the tentative, non-emphatic speech of people accustomed to a certain pace of life. There is a pervasive small town feel to the play—which includes scenes in a local diner and in a Denny's and in a homey farmhouse kitchen—and that helps to sell the small talk that sometimes sounds exactly like real life, which is to say, not really very interesting.

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), a middle-aged woman recently widowed, returns to Wethersfield after selling off the farm to which she, her husband, and their young son had moved about thirty years before. Nothing much has changed in the riverside town, “Ye Most Auncient Towne in Connecticut,” according to its website. We meet Anne first when the boy next door, George (Brandon Smalls), hits her door with a baseball which sets up her neighborly attempt to get to know him. Anne is a retired schoolteacher so that justifies her somewhat needy interest in the young man. Later, we learn she is having problems with her own adult son, due in part to his status as a sex offender (also a teacher, he had an affair with one of his underage students).

George, it turns out, is living with foster parents and there are odd tensions surfacing as Kim (Molly Camp), the mother, at first reaches out to Anne and then seems to avoid her. Or at least that’s how Anne sees it. Meanwhile, Ron (Patrick Clear), who spends most mornings and evenings at the same diner in the same chair at the counter, often trading familiar jibes with Frank (Bill Christ), notices on his friend’s iPad that Anne, with whom he obviously has history, has bought a house in town. Not much more occurs in the first act except someone unknown—George? Anne’s son?—is breaking Anne's kitchen windows when she’s not at home. Ron and Anne take very tentative steps toward one another, sharing one of her pies, meeting for lunch and then . . . nothing.

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

Shinn seems to have learned from Chekhov the technique of using an entire act to establish the main narrative lines, that will then alter through significant changes in the later acts. But that’s where the comparison ends. The subplots that drift through the story of Anne and Ron don’t have any urgency, not even the fact that George is on his way to being transgendered. And whatever’s up with Kim plays out in a few scenes of awkward forced neighborliness. Meanwhile, the story of Sam (Karl Miller), Anne’s son, becomes little more than an occasion for Anne to try to get back to some kind of emotional balance.

What Shinn gets convincingly right occurs in the second act when Ron and Anne finally have it out about who remembers what about the time, right before she left town with her family, when he came to her house to let her know how he felt about her. It was an intense evening, full of feeling that, in memory, has become a failed turning point for each, something they both blame the other for. The scene, with its grasp of how people with grudges who cared for each other and would like to continue doing so can spar, catches fire and shows us how, beneath all that simple, everyday chatter, there are real passions and regrets and resentments. And the focus of the interplay between Hedwall and Clear, as they let us into what’s really going on inside these average, unassuming types, has real impact, making the other currents in the story seem force-fed into the tale.

Directed by Oliver Butler, who has shown great facility with Will Eno’s precise and hilariously gnomic version of dysfunctional family life in Open House, as well as a grasp of the scurrilous barbs of a family in each other’s faces in Bad Jews (at the Long Wharf last season), shows a softer, more easygoing side here. The heat between Hedwall and Clear certainly shows his touch, but that’s not enough to make Hedwall’s scenes with Camp and Smalls work.

Antje Ellerman’s wonderful set, showing the classic lines of Connecticut homes adorned with bare trees and artful lighting from Russell H. Champa, urges us to feel the autumnal air that surrounds these characters, but doesn’t do so well when it has to switch to a diner or a Denny’s. With booths and counters rising up from below through trapdoors, only to sink again when not needed, the briskness of the transitions distracts from the dialogue’s deliberate pacing and seems almost a joke at its expense. Or maybe that’s a way of saying that, hoping for something that will interest or amuse, one finds it as one can.

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Shinn gets intentional laughs from jibes at Rent—Ron is a semi-retired schoolteacher who puts on the school’s big musical each year and grumbles about Rent as the show the kids want and he doesn’t. Whether Shinn shares any of Ron’s feelings about the popular pseudo-gritty musical, An Opening in Time does allow that, for someone like George, Rent might be a glimpse of a world he needs to know more than he needs a book of Hemingway stories or mollycoddling from Anne.

As Anne, Deborah Hedwall has a wavery voice that cracks with feeling; she speaks like a woman who has made her living talking and is trying to find a way, now, to speak about herself and her feelings. Patrick Clear’s Ron is likeable and very natural, a good neighbor type whom no one would accuse of being an exciting catch. As Frank, Bill Christ adds some male camaraderie where it’s needed. The other parts—a policeman (Mike Keller), a surly Polish waitress (Kati Brazda), George and his mother—come and go without becoming more than sidelights. As Anne’s uneasily guilty thirtysomething son, Karl Miller’s Sam seems bemused at his mother’s attempt to stay connected to him, while the actual logistics of their previous life are hard to fathom from their scene together.

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

A play of bits and pieces, An Opening in Time needs perhaps more time to find its opening toward a more fully resonant and rewarding slice of Connecticut life.


An Opening in Time
By Christopher Shinn
Directed by Oliver Butler

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Original Music & Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Casting: Binder Casting; Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger; Assistant Stage Manager: Arielle Goldstein; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Deborah Hedwall; Brandon Smalls; Patrick Clear; Kati Brazda; Bill Christ; Molly Camp; Mike Keller; Karl Miller

Hartford Stage
September 25-October 11, 2015