To Each According to Their Need

Review of Love & Money at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

A. R. Gurney’s new play Love & Money, now playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York after previews at Westport Playhouse, seems the kind of light comedy of manners that Gurney, now in his eighties, can probably write in his sleep. The usual Gurney elements are present: upper-class WASPs, Cole Porter songs, Buffalo, Irish housekeepers, a breezy grasp of the current idiom—with “whatever” and “google” wielded by an elderly woman—and, here, a moral center that seems earnest though not earned.

At best we might say the play, directed by Westport Artistic Directory Mark Lamos, tries to imagine, without taxing its audience too much, how to redistribute all that wealth stored by storied families on the upper East side. It also pays homage to other literary inspirations, dropping references to Hamlet, “Richard Corey,” The Dining Room (perhaps Gurney’s best-known play), and a tip of the hat to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which it recalls via a very affable African-American character who may be a con-man.

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

We enter upon Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous set representing the sumptuous in-home office of Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), "a woman of a certain age." It might take us a moment to realize that everything in the room—the leather-bound books, the art, the Empire desk and chairs and tables—bears a tag as for a White Elephant sale. Mrs. Cunningham, at long last, in the wake of the death of her stern, money-making, Big Game-hunting husband, is selling off everything to benefit charities and any project that aids underprivileged people or endangered species. As played by Anderman, Cornelia is a perky presence, firing ripostes at her skeptical new lawyer, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) who tries to intervene with judicious caution. He’s playing a weak hand because Cunningham’s progeny—a son and a daughter—have both been outlived by their indomitable mom, and her unloved grand-kids have been bought off comfortably enough, so who is there to resist the liquidation?

Enter our plot complication: a letter from a man named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) who presents himself as the unknown, illegitimate offspring of Cornelia’s daughter. Raised in Buffalo by his black father and mother, he carries as introduction a letter ostensibly written by his biological, well-to-do mother exhorting him to seek his fortune from his grandmother when “he’s ready.” What he wants is to be set up on Wall Street with the family funds. Harvey, of course, doesn’t buy any of it (he blames Williams’ scheme on a recent newspaper story about Cornelia’s intentions), but Cornelia, after the charming young man makes his way into her study, is willing to entertain the possibility of kin if only for a certain emotional frisson lacking in her life. That, one supposes, is where “love” comes into it. Cornelia has no reason to love Walker—who goes by “Scott” as in Fitzgerald and speaks accordingly—but he is certainly willing to be loved. And stranger things have happened.

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Walker’s ingratiating willingness to be appreciated comes up in a more unflattering light when he comes on to Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), a self-possessed Julliard student on hand to audition a player-piano Cornelia is donating to the school. That piano becomes the key prop in the play, helping to pan out its running time, inspiring graceful dance moves as “Scott” tries to sweep Cornelia off her feet, as well as conjuring a brisk rendition of Porter’s “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” by Kim, and a funny blast of Porter scorn from Harvey. But, despite class and racial differences, despite shadowy pasts and allusions to painful back story, not much gets sorted out here. Cornelia and her faithful maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap) give us and Williams the condensed tale of the Cunningham children—a drunken son, a gad-about daughter—whose respective demises their mother blames on the riches that kept them above the fray.

Gurney lets everyone keep it light, and the patter—Cornelia calls it “badinage”—aims to entertain. Lamos, if there might be awkwardness or awareness to bring to light, doesn’t delve. We end with the sense that everything unpleasant in life can be handled by a check in the right amount in the right hands (such as at a certain local drama school). Certainly no one in the play doubts this, though Cornelia, with easy conscience, inveighs against money as “a curse” that caused suffering in her family. No doubt it did, and her expiation via eradication feels justified; it’s just that her solution seems to play into a fairy-tale sense of how things might be if only the privileged would divest their privileges, smugly loving all those needy people out there. The rich need the needy, you see, in order to feel richly rewarded by gratitude.

Breezy, friendly, and short, Love & Money feels like a TV installment and makes us wonder what would be happening if we "tuned in next week."

Signature Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse present
Love & Money
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Maureen Anderman, Gabriel Brown, Pamela Dunlap, Kahyun Kim, Joe Paulik

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Associate Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker

The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

 

 

 

The Singing Detective . . . and Suspects

Review of Murder for Two at Long Wharf Theatre

The key insight underlying Murder for Two, now playing at Long Wharf Main Stage in a touring production, is that the characters in your typical whodunit are generally a cast of caricatures, only present to fill out the list of suspects. In this high energy musical production, imbued with the spirit of rapid-fire vaudevillian schtick, one actor (Kyle Branzel) plays all the suspects and the other (Ian Lowe) plays Marcus, a cop intent on crime scene protocol as a means to move up the ladder to detective. The murder of famous novelist Arthur Whitney, at a surprise birthday party in his home, is the occasion for Marcus to make the most of his nascent detective chops.

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

The suspects include Dahlia, Whitney’s wife, and Dr. Griff, the local psychiatrist, who, it turns out, was not only Whitney’s confidante but also saw, professionally, pretty much everyone at the party, not to mention Marcus himself, still haunted by an on-the-job romance that went awry. There’s also a ballet star who Whitney was sweet on, a bickering couple—the husband believes his wife is the culprit in every killing—Whitney’s niece Steph (a would-be criminology student), three members of a boy’s choir, and, rewardingly silly, an Irish fireman with his hose. The key plot point is that all the guests appeared as characters in Whitney’s books: the motive of any one of them might be the shame or anger his portrayal inspired. And what about All Them Bananas, the book Whitney was preparing for publication at the time of his death?

Some of the parts—signaled by Branzel mostly by body language and voice—come off better than others and the ones that don’t—the couple, for instance—bring down the fun a notch. Scott Schwartz’s direction aims for speed over clarity and the scripting of what each suspect adds to the mystery could be better worked-out, since not all are funny enough to justify their presence for the sake of comedy. Best in that light is Mrs. Whitney, a southern belle with wild mood swings, the imperious ballet dancer, Ms. Lewis—Branzel’s high split each time he turns into her is a nice grace note—and the endearing and inquisitive Steph, dotingly eager to become Marcus’s new partner. Meanwhile, the shrink demands to sing a song about friendship and Mrs. Whitney wants to regale us with her big number from back when she walked the boards. Which is where the music comes in.

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

A piano is the main prop here, as Branzel and Lowe keep up spirited musical patter to match the scripted shenanigans. Sometimes one accompanies the other’s vocal, sometimes they engage in comic oneupmanship at the keys. The songs tend to be music hall versions of Broadway numbers, which means they give us character notes—not always as clever as we might like—so we know something about the different suspects. Marcus’s ditty about crime scenes takes its tone from Gilbert and Sullivan, while Steph’s big number, “He Needs a Partner,” throbs with an ingenue’s musical pining. Both Branzel and Lowe are readily likeable and make the most of the best the show—written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair—has to offer. It helps greatly that Branzel is so good at playing ditzy females. He grabs the role as if he were born to play it, making the most of his long legs, lanky frame, and ability to contort Jerry Lewis-style and play dumbshow à la Harpo.

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

If you’re not the type to seek out Lewis and Martin or the Marx Brothers in re-runs on cable or in your Netflix cue, there’s still something to be said for watching physical and musical comedy performed live and, as it were, in your face. Murder for Two proffers a kind of mash-up that should have great audience appeal—and seems to, given the show's tours and awards—of the murder mystery and the musical, as well as the small cast/many characters turn of crowd-pleasers like The Mystery of Irma Vep and The 39 Steps.

The illusion of setting is pretty much dispensed with in Murder, given the piano, the proscenium with doors for other spaces, and the actors’ attention to the audience—to demand applause, scold for ringing phones, and entreat a volunteer to play a corpse. There’s a zany “anything for a laugh” quality to the show—including visual references to the board game Clue and the cartoon Scooby-Doo—that adds surprises to help distract from the show’s static elements. In the end, it’s all about performance, and with the irrepressibly manic Kyle Branzel as the suspects and Ian Lowe, an able abettor as straight man and ambitious if questionable sleuth, Murder for Two keeps the ball rolling, though sometimes giving us the feeling that we’ve been treated to a few too many parlor tricks.

 

Second Stage Theatre presents
Murder for Two, a New Musical Comedy
Book and Music by Joe Kinosian
Book and Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Starring Kyle Branzel and Ian Lowe

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Andrea Lauer; Lighting Design: Jason Lyons; Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff; Music Director: David Caldwell; Choreographer: Wendy Seyb; Casting: Calleri Casting; Production Stage Manager: Katrina Olson; Production Supervisor: Production Core; Associate Producer: Tom Casserly

Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage
August 19-30, 2015

Celebrity, Devised and Deconstructed

Last weekend, the Yale Summer Cabaret ended its 2015 season with a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando. Earlier this summer, in the season’s second slot, the Summer Cab offered a devised piece called love holds a lamp in this little room. At the time, the NHR site was going through an update and no review appeared. Here, for the record, is the review that didn’t get posted. The play’s director, Leora Morris, has begun her term as one of the co-artistic directors, with David Bruin and Julian Elijah Martinez, of the coming season’s Yale Cabaret. More about that later.—DB

Though it might wear inspiration from Branden Jacob-Jenkin’s entertaining and challenging play An Octoroon a bit too much on its sleeve, love holds a lamp in this little room, at Yale Summer Cabaret, directed by Leora Morris and conceived by the ensemble, is a richly associative work that makes much of its well-wrought visual sense and the inventive interplay of its cast.

The five actors—Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson—were set the task of devising vignettes to express or represent or comment on or allude to the varied self-conceptions, works, roles and autobiographical gestures—including a suicide note—of Adah Isaacs Menken, a curious celebrity of nineteenth-century American theater who was notorious for a role in which, playing a man, she allegedly rode nude upon a horse. She actually wore a body stocking, but that’s the kind of distortion and legend-managing that love holds a lamp comments on and, it may be, sustains.

Menken, who professed Judaism at some points and was most likely raised Catholic, also claimed kin with Creoles and, at times, voiced Confederate sympathies. We may assume that, as a person, she had her reasons, but the play isn’t out to explain her or to give her definitive tags. All five cast members “play” Menken, rendering her as a collective fantasy—ours, hers, and theirs.

Leland Fowler, Melanie Field, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann

Leland Fowler, Melanie Field, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The show opens with a group striptease, full of knowing smirks and suggestive play, with voice-overs that quote from Menken’s obituaries and notices. Revealing the unisex corsets and leotards worn by all, the playfulness of the opening extends to almost all aspects of the show. Especially served up for hilarity are operatic enactments of the kind of lurid dramas Menken starred in—particularly fun is Stahlmann as Menken as Lucretia Borgia.

But whereas An Octoroon used Boucicault’s play, The Octoroon, as the reference point for its re-imagining of racist motifs and sensationalist theater, love holds a lamp lacks a key structuring reference point. In an aggressively cut-and-paste manner, Morris and company let Menken surface through the words of her writings, of what is written about her, of roles she played. Just when we think we’re going to get a direct account we might get something else—an interlude of expressive coupling, a frenetic bit of vaudeville or clowning, a graveside monologue by a cowboy acquaintance (Ross-Ewart) speaking to a silent figure with a pantomime horse head.

Such descriptions make the play sound more bewildering than it is. Onstage, the routines are effective as a kind of fluidly gestural theater. Everything we see is happening in a pre-digested past that refuses to remain fixed, and the drama is in watching the cast tease out the various strands of Menken’s life. This they do with incredibly deft timing.

Much of the play’s success has to do with how it looks, presenting a pastiche of inventive costumes (Fabian Aguilar) on an oldtime playing space (Christopher Thompson) where the flicker of time itself seems present, thanks to a lighting palette from Joey Moro and projections from Rasean Davonte Johnson that effectively recreate the garish glare and expressionist shadows of gaslight footlights, as well as the shadowy dimness common to the era before electric lights. Here we’re treated to changeable acting styles, grandiloquent nineteenth-century phrasing, contemporary musical interludes, and even a clip from George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights with a staging of the horse ride of Mazeppa, featuring Sophia Loren in a blonde wig and a youngish Anthony Quinn scoring heavily in reaction shots.

Along the way, we get glimpses of “the Menken” as the kind of provocation she must have been to her contemporaries. Fowler walking about in white leggings and high-heeled boots, hanging up wardrobe, has a kind of grand resignation; Wilson, in man’s cutaway and top hat, gets shit-faced looking like a boorish carpetbagger, then later accompanies a sing-along on tambourine; Stahlmann, in a wedding dress, chews flowers and belts from a bottle concealed beneath her skirts, then sheds the array for a man’s coat-and-tails, vamping for Mr. Menken (Ross-Ewart), complete with prayer shawl, while the Menken’s views on marriage are heard in voice-over; “Answer Me,” a meditative poem by Menken, gets a lyrical rendering as a song sung by Ross-Ewart and Fowler; again and again the horsehead looms onto the stage, a recurrent reminder of the role Menken couldn’t live down.

The mix of motifs throughout the play—and the hovering question of race relations for a woman of mixed race who could pass as white—receives its most direct presentation in Melanie Field’s blackface enactment of Menken’s ambivalence about her racial identity. Field’s vignette includes partial nudity—part of the tease of Menken’s onstage persona—followed by dressing up in the trappings of stage stereotypes. Her self-aware miming manages to signal the extent to which, paradoxically, role-playing is necessitated by the very notion of stable identity. To Field also falls the delivery of a final speech written by Menken. Sounding like a somewhat skeptical Prospero trying to sum up her vexed relation to the theatricality of spectacle that made her name, Field makes us consider the pathos of the celebrity who becomes an appendage to her own reputation.

We might say that, at last, the show is a meditation on celebrity—the person behind a well-known aura can change, but how that person’s particulars are made to “mean” something audiences can bank on remains constant in the odd process of identification. Many people found “something” they wanted access to in Adah Isaacs Menken, during her life, and love holds a lamp in this little room is at its best in questioning what that might have been, all the while deconstructing its own processes of enactment and identification.

Love holds a lamp in this little room is one of the best devised pieces I’ve seen at the Cabaret and a fine follow-up to Midsummer, the summer season’s pastiche of Shakespearean romance that preceded it.

 

love holds a lamp in this little room
Based on the life and writings of Adah Isaacs Menken
Created and performed by the Company
Conceived and directed by Leora Morris

Scenic Design: Christopher Thompson; Costume Design: Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Joey Moro; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda

Ensemble: Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 9-July 18, 2015

On the Doorstep

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Admirers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves who pick up his enormous new volume will be surprised at how inviting it is—how linear in thrust, how accessible. Since the novel is intended as the first of twenty-seven volumes (the details can be found here), with Volume 2: “Into the Forest” scheduled for October publication, it seems natural to assume that The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” will prove a work of truly forbidding complexity.

Danielewski’s first novel, the immensely successful House of Leaves, consistently challenges its less than-than-committed readers:  Johnny Truant’s footnotes (the middle set of three) interrupt exciting passages, go on too long, and manage to punish (although in different ways) both those readers who have grown to care about Truant and those who could not manage to read the notes in their entirety. The immediate observation about “One Rainy Day in May”—and most observations, this early in Danielewski’s project, must needs be provisional—is that the new novel presents far fewer obstacles to a first reading than does House of Leaves. Not because the narratives of each of the nine major protagonists are color-coded on their pages’ upper-outside corners, nor that the first and last pages of each chapter are time- and place-stamped (these are merely convenient), but because each narrative sets into motion a story that is linear as a vector. When there are interruptions by third parties—and there are many—they come as brief comments amid the flow of action, as though spoken by a chorus whose identity will at some point become clearer, rather than, as in House of Leaves, long footnotes or orthogonal interpolations that compel the reader to uncouple from one sustained discourse and follow another.

This ease of entry is important, for Danielewski’s “story”—nine discrete narratives, plus other material not so easily categorized—is taking the form of something extremely complicated. All nine stories take place on the same mid-May day in 2014, all of them told in the third person, and limited to the perspective of a single individual. Each narrative—of a twelve-year-old girl, a young LA gang leader, an Armenian-born taxi driver, to name a few—is presented in its own layout and font to aid identification.

Although the schema does not privilege any one character over the others, the “center” of the novel is clearly the girl Xanther, whose parents’ stories constitute two of the other narratives, and whose five chapters give her more space than any other character. In an unlabeled section (its pages unnumbered) that stands at the novel’s center, an entity that has been commenting upon the text suddenly identifies itself and offers some information about what we are reading. The only character to get more than a passing mention is Xanther:

And Xanther is extraordinary. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Adorable too. Loves magic tricks, scary movies, scary video games, painting her fingernails, experimenting with C++, watching Speculative Fiction, or what her friend Che calls “Speculative Science.” We’ll meet him later. Unlike many of my subsets, Xanther remains captivated by the scurry of life around her, whether in the rustle of branches or how fog slips down a steep hill. Both starlight and LED light enchant her. She could chase fireflies for hours but would never cap the jar.

Fearless, inquisitive, loving, Xanther possesses every quality to catch the sympathy of a reader. Indeed, the just-adolescent girl—resourceful yet vulnerable, neither a child nor quite a woman and, Roger Zelazny once wrote, “at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic”—seems especially attractive to male writers. From Dickens’s Little Nell and Henry James’s Maisie to the young protagonists of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and recent novels by Geoff Ryman, Jonathan Lethem, and David Mitchell, the intellectually precocious but not yet sexually mature girl seems emotionally engaging and (perhaps crucially) comprehensible to men. The appearance of this familiar figure—as straightforward an incarnation as that in the new Pixar film Inside Out—is perhaps the most conventional element in Danielewski’s new novel.

As tangled as its structure is, one can descry the shape of House of Leaves: it comprises the professionally annotated edition of a manuscript discovered and “edited” by a troubled young man, a manuscript that purports to discuss a documentary film. While easier to read, the first volume of The Familiar offers us few hints as to the final work’s overall design. Four (by my count) sections precede the title page announcing Volume 1, and might be taken as prologues to the entire work. Their nature is unclear, although one appears to originate in the far future and another in the prehistoric past, suggesting enormous vistas whose relationship to each other will presumably become clear in succeeding volumes. The unnumbered central section offers a bit more clarification; an iteration (typographically distinct, as all such have been) that has been making unannounced appearances throughout the novel, abruptly introduces itself: “I’m a Narrative Construct. Narcon for short.” This Narcon—there are two others—is chatty and seems to explain much, though what it confides finally tantalizes more than it illuminates, and moreover seems subject to censorship from yet another entity, not otherwise known. When the Narcon declares that “There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all,” we perhaps get closer to Danielewski’s intent: to tell the story of everything. House of Leaves curls inward on itself, but The Familiar moves forward like a wavefront, its every section (however initially bewildering) comprising narrative, as in “story,” as in What Happens.

Before the novel and the day is out, all nine of the distinct characters encounter something extraordinary. Some have led hitherto mundane lives, while others have long dealt with wonder, which they now find kicked up to a higher level. 

There was real terror here. Beyond whatever obvious extensions Cas could easily foresee, whether at the hand of local police, federal agents, or even some abstract laws twisted enough to decry them as traitors, terrorists, seditious to the point of world toppling. Forget jail cells or street-corner executions. This was something else. To have put so much out there and watch it be swallowed without a trace.

Cas is owner and co-inventor of the Orb, a viewing device capable of bridging time and space that has driven its creators into hiding from a powerful and malevolent secret organization; her musings are presented in a prose that is vivid but concise and straightforward. But the left-hand margin of the paragraphs on this (right-hand) page all bulge inward, as do the right margins of the opposite page. To look at the open book is to see here an empty circle within the lines of print: a vacancy (or Orb) like the limb of the eclipsing Moon moving across the disk of the Sun. This typographical Orb first appears on the chapter’s first page; by chapter’s end it occupies dead center of the page.

This combination of normalized prose and pictoral typography is reversed in other sections, such as the one set in Singapore, about the young man JingJing and Tian Li, the older woman everyone calls “auntie”:

jingjing love the parks too. he and auntie same like that. botanical gardens abruthen, but also just sit in toa payoh, pearl’s hill, or emerald park. or cross over to sentosa to lay backs down in the sand, jingjing finding monster cards in the clouds, tian li swinging her arms around like repelling monkey. green both their thing. even if  , xanh lục, [ ], 綠色, зеленый,  , are still not enough to know what that means. Words so tua kang. Words need worlds in order to be words. Worlds though don’t need words in order to be words.

The brackets here designate a word printed in an alphabet that I cannot reproduce (I was lucky to manage the Cantonese). The Russian word, “zelenie,” means green, as does “xanh lục” (Vietnamese), as well as and 綠色 (a subtle distinction, a helpful website tells me), and presumably the other as well. There is a lot of this in the JingJing chapters, and often the reader can work the meaning out through context. If you can’t, and you find this annoying, you are certainly not alone.

And what “happens” in this 839-page tome?  The nine characters are all confronted with problems, some urgent, but the closest thing to a climax takes place when Xanther rescues a kitten and brings it home. Cats, and sounds perhaps made by a cat, have figured throughout the novel, though only fleetingly. Clearly there was something about the kitten (and Xanther’s role in saving it from drowning) that partakes of the supernatural; almost certainly it is the “familiar,” as in witch’s familiar, of the title. Every use of the word in the text is printed in a distinct color (as was “house” in House of Leaves), but these have all been as adjectives, not the noun. The familiar has appeared, perhaps repeatedly, but only by implication.

In Danielewski’s 2005 novella, The Fifty Year Sword, the words “Then what happened?” occupy the entirety of one page. It is the question that Danielewski wants us to ask at every moment, although “What just happened?” may sometimes occur to us as easily. The second volume will certainly tell us more, although “What just happened?” will likely remain a frequent refrain for some time to come. Popular press reviews are already describing “One Rainy Day in May” as a “doorstop,” but a better term might be doorstep—the threshold of a vast edifice whose dimensions we, standing on the verge, can only begin to discern.

 

The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May”
By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2015; 839 pages

 

Play or Poem?

Review of Orlando at Yale Summer Cabaret

Orlando, the final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret season, directed by artistic director Sara Holdren, presents the kind of frenetic, improvisatory work that has been a hallmark of the season. But this time, the only devised aspect is the staging. The script is by Sarah Ruhl, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, untampered with by the Rough Magic Company. Having seen the company have its way with Shakespeare and Marlowe, we might wonder if other takes on Woolf’s text might present themselves, which is a way of asking, I suppose: how successful is Orlando as a play? Prose stylists like Woolf might be said to be best in their own element: on the page.

Joey Moro’s set takes note of that thought by offering us a long scroll upon which the players cavort as though, literally or literarily, on the page. And that’s as it should be since, as the play goes on, we find ourselves wondering what is “real” and what is merely the fantasy of a would-be poet—Orlando (Elizabeth Stahlmann)—an Elizabethan nobleman seated in the garden of his great estate and dreaming the world and the life to come. A life in which, at age 30 (and the dawn of the 19th century), he becomes a woman.

Much of the brio of Woolf’s novel is in the rendering of a fantasy of the English past from the present (the 1920s), viewing the past with the prescience of the future. The conceit makes for an interesting hybrid interplay—between the past we invent and the past as it was—that Ruhl’s play maintains effectively. The difficulty comes from the fact that Woolf never set herself to write “characters” per se (all are “charactered in the brain” of Orlando); Ruhl gets around this by creating a chorus who can alter as necessary, through the scenes and through the ages.

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

That makes for much of the fun here as the staging and costume work is comical, inventive, breathless. My favorite moment features Orlando in a kind of Elizabethan fetish costume (the ruff, the rosettes, the pantaloons) twirling about on a hanging hoop (viewers of Holdren’s fascinating thesis show will recall her work with gymnast-actors) with Sasha (Chalia La Tour, one of the most chameleonic actors currently at the Drama School) in a graceful white cape and white fur cap. Sasha is the best secondary character in the play, if only because La Tour makes her as real as Orlando is. She could easily take over the play, since Orlando sees that she’s way more fascinating than he.

The other characters that interact with Orlando seem more brainspun: Melanie Field has fun with a motorized Queen Elizabeth, a dowager who dotes on a fine leg in tights, and gives our hero a bawdy lesson in a courtier’s duties. Niall Powderly does all he can to make a cross-dressing Romanian count/countess as ridiculous as possible, including an outrageous accent that would do Tim Curry proud. Leland Fowler plays the Byronic Shelmerdine pretty much as written—which is to say that we begin to suspect that Woolf might be fantasizing life in an Emily Brontë novel or as Mary Shelley. Till then, the point has been made, it’s much more exciting—in Orlando’s view—to pursue a female than to be pursued as one. Unfortunately, Shelmerdine, though he receives the accolade of making Lady Orlando feel “a real woman,” might be any well-spoken, well-born hero of many a romance novel, though for Woolf, writing under the spell of Vita Sackville-West, the meeting of soul mates requires that both Orlando and Shelmerdine imagine they are in a same-sex relationship.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Ruhl and Woolf take delight in satirizing the ubiquity of marriage, a target that never seems to go out of date, though—in same sex, soulmate terms—it has taken on, in our time, more possibilities than it had for Woolf in the ‘20s. And that’s what helps make Orlando interesting as theater: even more than on the page, we feel the spin through the years (costumes by Fabian Aguilar and Haydee Zelideth are great aids in the fantasia), and we’re even more aware of how the all-important “present moment” infuses our viewing and our experience.

Ultimately, Ruhl’s Orlando “longs to be only one thing” while Holdren’s production, and the mutable Rough Magic company in general, suggests that playing only one character with one gender is a tired approach to theater. In Orlando, Holdren and company find an ideal text for the transformations they’ve played with all summer. And yet, Orlando strikes me as what used to be called “closet drama”—a play to be read and imagined. We become aware of how hard it is to playact Woolfian fictions. Nimble as the Rough Magic troupe is in bringing the play to life on stage, they can at best only approximate the unfettered flight of the poetical mind, as Ruhl’s Orlando only suggests Woolf’s.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Casting only one actor as Orlando brings home the fact that a story, no matter how variously conceived, must always be the story of someone. Stahlmann plays Orlando as if each moment is a new thought, full of fresh insight into what life can offer. She achieves the gusto of the Keatsean ideal of the poetical character (“it is not itself - it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character […] it lives in gusto”), but that makes for a passive hero always amazed at what is happening, much as we are in dreams.

Finally, though, to this production’s credit, Stahlmann makes us feel, more than fiction can, the cost of such flights from one’s time; her Orlando suffers before our eyes as only intensely imagined characters do. In the end, being one thing means being a thing that will end.

Orlando
By Virginia Woolf / Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Design: Joey Moro; Costume Design: Haydee Zelideth & Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Joey Moro; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Photographs: Andrea H. Berman

Ensemble: Orlando: Elizabeth Stahlmann; Chorus: Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 6-15, 2015

 

A Dance to the Music of Time

For Sara Holdren, artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2015, and director of its final show of the summer, opening tonight, Orlando, above all, requires fluidity. Adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Virginia Woolf’s novel, the play should feel like “a stopper was pulled and rushing waters are flowing like a river.” In thinking of the play during the course of the summer, Holdren says, she began “to really feel like the play is a dance.” In talks with her design team, she has come back again and again to a notion of how spare and simple the set and costuming should be. “Even the actors’ bodies should be like abstract elements.”

This summer’s Cabaret has been strong in physical theater, with varied and inventive improvisations worked upon Shakespeare’s plays, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, while the second show of the season, love holds a lamp in this little room, was entirely devised by its cast and director Leora Morris. Orlando is the only play this season with a pre-existing script, and, while that might suggest something a bit more straight-forward, Holdren insists that “physical storytelling” is very much the goal. For inspiration, she gave the cast of seven—Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson—“The Storyteller,” an essay by Walter Benjamin that stresses how the oral storytelling tradition, being lost in the era of print, was a matter of gesture, combining hand, eye, soul.

That view suits Ruhl’s play, Holdren says, because the script is all from Woolf’s novel, cut-up and arranged. For Holdren, “all along, a key attraction of the play is the fact that it is narrated.” While for some that very fact sins against the “show don’t tell” mantra that drives much storytelling, the challenge of dramatizing the telling is intrinsic to Holdren’s view of the play. It helps that Ruhl’s play is very unfixed in how it assigns text to character. That leads, in Holdren’s phrase, “to the strange and fortuitous assignment of parts,” based on what the actors do in rehearsal with the voices of the chorus. Much is a matter of gesture indeed.

“Rather than work with a facsimile of a depicted world, Orlando works with the world of telling,” Holdren says, and that world is one that moves from Elizabethan times to post-World War I as narrated by a seemingly ageless protagonist who also alters gender from male to female. The presence of the narrating Orlando, played by Stahlmann, might make the play seem like a tall tale, a story of magical changes and wonders that correspond to the character’s self-conceptions. Orlando is, after all, a poet, and his/her literary efforts are signified by a set shaped like a blank page. What Orlando is writing is, in a sense, both the novel and the play, but, at the same time, the events she experiences are shaping what will be written.

For Holdren and her Rough Magic company this summer, much wonderful theater has come from a similar approach: finding the play through enactment, where the experience of working on the play produces the play. As Holdren points out, even Stanislavski, best known in the U.S. as the theorist behind “the method” school of acting, valued improvisation and allowed that the work of theater could precede text. “Truth on stage,” Holdren says, needn’t be “character-based” in the sense of revealing a consistent psychological portrait. The shows at the Cabaret this summer have been strong in fluid characters changing before our eyes, and with that comes, in Holdren’s view, the possibility of transformation as key to the theatrical experience.

The season has looked at how magic and wonder can be expressed in the telling, in enacting—as with the bewitched actors in Midsummer, or the five enactments of “the Menken” in love holds a lamp in this little room, or the shifting roles of the tripartite Mephisto in Dr. Faustus—the multiplicity of identity. At the same time, all the plays this summer, even if not tragic like Faustus, have kept in touch with a darker side, what Holdren, in speaking of Orlando, calls “death moments.”

At the run-through rehearsal I attended, I could see what she meant. In the character of Woolf herself—as the author behind the narrator—there is a certain element of depression, of finding history and the rigors of either gender not to her liking. She is able to align that element of her own nature with the melancholy that has been fashionable for poetic souls at least since Elizabethan times, and Ruhl’s play and Holdren’s production pick up on that. But, as with all the plays this summer, there is also much fun with the “amorphous multiverse” of theatrical conceptions.

And yet, for all the playfulness of their theatrical conceits, the plays of the Rough Magic season have revealed—in dueling fairies casting spells in strife and in actors shocked by what their playacting reveals of themselves, in the subterfuges by which a consummate performer may divert her audience and deceive herself, in the quest for a kind of immortality that ends in a humbling of vanity—that the spell theater casts is not without its dangers and its discomforts. Orlando celebrates the wit required to endure through the ages, but at the cost, perhaps, of being equal to a particular age. Or as Orlando’s (initial) contemporary might say, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

Orlando
By Sarah Ruhl, adapted from the novel by Viriginia Woolf
Directed by Sara Holdren

Yale Summer Cabaret, August 6-15, 2015

Revels . . . and Revelations

Last weekend the Yale Summer Cabaret closed its first show, a most various Shakespearean pageant called Midsummer. Now, in the northern hemisphere, is the time of “midsummer,” and the Rough Magic Company will celebrate the season with Moonlight Revels. This Saturday, for one night only, the upstairs and downstairs of 217 Park Street will be transformed into a bower of bliss—or at least it will be the kind of party space where one may pursue one’s bliss. As a fundraiser/party Moonlight Revels asks that you pay what you will, at the door. What you’ll find inside is “music and merriment” in a “forest and fairy”-themed celebration of summer. Sprites galore, no doubt. And there will be “surprise performance pieces” that certainly sound intriguing—sort of Punch Drunk in an Arcadian setting. Beer and wine for sale, and solving a puzzle may win you a prize—and of course there will be door prizes as well.

It’s an excellent opportunity to party with the players and all those behind-the-scenes forces that make the magic—rough and otherwise—happen in that little room below. So whether you be fairy queen or rude mechanical, get in the spirit of the season—dance, drink, and beguile the time most festively.

Moonlight Revels Fundraiser – Party – Spectaculars
Saturday, June 27
8 p.m.-2 a.m. (dance party starts at 11 p.m.)
Open to the public; donation at the door requested
18 and over

Yale Summer Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven

The next play at the Summer Cab, love holds a lamp in this little room, is a show even more devised than Midsummer was. The play itself is a-making as the rehearsals continue.

“Amorphous” is a good word to describe Adah Isaacs Menken, the subject of the play, a heroine who, in her short life of thirty-three years, became a theatrical celebrity, notorious for riding a horse on stage “nude.” Adah, who was friends with literary celebrities like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, saw herself as a poet (the show’s title is a line in one of her poems), and yet was aware that some of her poetry might be too personal for publication. The practice of advance ticket sales was instituted due to the demand for her appearances. She was one of a kind and entirely sui generis.

Guest director Leora Morris is the main force behind the Summer Cab’s second show of the season. She was led to curiosity about Adah from a book called Women with Biceps, an exploration of how, throughout history, some women have re-drawn the borders between masculine and feminine appearance. Morris was struck by how “subversive” the idea of women with muscles could be, particularly in the time of Adah’s life, 1835-68.

Adah tended to reinvent herself as the situation required, and that fluidity—between genders, races, religions, ethnic background, as well as husbands and means of artistic expression—makes Adah a fascinating figure for Morris. Of Creole background, apparently, Adah was racially mixed and passed as white, so much so that she was willing to wear black-face in performance at times. She married a Jewish man (her second husband, though that wasn’t known at the time) and would sometimes speak as though she were raised Jewish—Judaism certainly interested her enough to study Kabbalah (traditionally, women can't)—while at other times referring to her actual antecedents in Christianity.

Morris is more concerned with how Adah dramatized and even fictionalized herself rather than with the literal particulars of her life. And that may be how Adah would prefer it. When writing autobiographically, including a farewell note for a suicide that didn’t succeed, Adah could be deliberately contradictory about her origins and her allegiances. For instance, while moved to distress by seeing lynched black men from a passing train, she could also go so far as to demand a Confederate flag be hung in her dressing room in Baltimore. Today, commentators would most likely see Adah as “conflicted” about her race, and would try to find the psychological and sociological factors that might contribute to her chameleonic personae. But Morris wants her collaborators to inhabit the theatrical possibilities of Adah’s contradictions and her willful sport with how people define themselves and others. The kind of uncertainties that might make a biographer despair are the very features that make Adah a great heroine for devised theater.

As Walt Whitman, another pal of Adah’s might say, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.” The theme of a poem like “Song of Myself,” however, is that the poetic soul—and we all have one—“contains multitudes” and can’t be bounded by other people’s assumptions. “America,” Whitman saw, is just a unifying concept floating above vast mutability and diversity. Now, when recent outcries against the Confederate flag are unscoring the question of how unified “America” ever was, Morris and company’s play may be alerting us, in one unique woman’s journey, to the kinds of contradictions we’ve never solved, as a nation. It may also suggest how creative—and outrageous—“contradiction” can be. Think of Rachel Dolezal and the effort to weigh in on what she is and isn’t.

Seeing Adah as “the first real celebrity,” which she defines as someone known to many, many people who feel connected to the private life of a public person, Morris felt herself drawn to Adah for personal reasons: Morris, a native of Toronto, was drawn to dance as a youngster, and studied acting after receiving a BS in biology, with a second major in theater, from McGill. And if that’s not eclectic enough, Morris has ancestors who worked in vaudeville, and the kind of shows Adah appeared in draw from that background. Adah, from all accounts, was a consummate showperson, but was often frustrated—as actresses still are today—with the kinds of roles for which she was cast. Once she achieved fame for her role (with the horse) in Mazeppa, her fans asked little more of her than recreations of that show. So Adah can become a figure not only for the problematics of “identify” and “identifying as” in the varied history of our nation, but also for the tensions between what the public accepts or “demands” and what the artist wants to achieve.

Morris hopes her cast will be “free from the responsibility to depict the facts” of Adah’s notoriously ambiguous life, and “give impressions” rather than actual events. Part of the challenge—for cast and audience alike—is to conceive the constrictions of the time for a woman like Adah, and to realize how creative, and in some senses tragic, was her struggle to fulfill what she saw as her own artistic potential. On the day I visited a rehearsal, the cast was involved with two texts that may find their way into the show, to some degree. One was Adah’s rather rhetorically inflated account of her ancestors—including a mother who seemed to double as the Blessed Mother—and the other was a play about Lucretia Borgia in which Adah had acted. Both gave a sense of the florid theatrics of the time in which Adah thrived, and of the possibilities of imagining the kind of self-referential performance piece Adah might fashion around her various personae were she alive today.

As director, Morris says her role is to be a witness to what the piece becomes. Going into the room with her own sense of Adah and the important aspects of her story, Morris has to be attentive to how her cast—Chris Ross-Ewart, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Shaunette Renée Wilson—find ways to enact and express the poetry, passion and conflicts of this fascinating figure. The first reaction to Morris’s project, for most, is disbelief. “People can’t understand why they never heard of [Adah].” Love holds a lamp in this little room may be an important step in changing that.

love holds a lamp in this little room
Based on the life and writings of Adah Isaacs Menken
Created and performed by the Company
Conceived and directed by Leora Morris
July 9-18, 2015
Yale Summer Cabaret

Future Past in the Present

Review of Employee of the Year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

What are the limits of storytelling? How minimal can a story be and still be a story? How temporally episodic is memory?

Brought to you by 600 Highwaymen, a husband and wife team based in Brooklyn, Employee of the Year, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, is an unusual theater piece. Using young girls under the age of 10 as the show’s only actors would seem to indicate that the action takes place from the point of view of a minor. And, indeed, the method of the show is at its best while that is the case. It opens with J. (initially played by Rachel Dostal with forthright confidence) recalling disconnected scenes of early childhood that involve her mother. The point seems to be that, even for a nine year old, memories of early life have an unusual clarity and mystery.

Yet the story moves inexorably through time and soon our underage narrator is telling of a date, at age 17, with a boyfriend. Arriving home, she finds that her house has burned down and her mother has died. A couple, friends of her mother, take her in and eventually, in cat-out-of-the-bag fashion, they let her know that she was “adopted” (but not officially adopted) by the woman she thought was her mother, because her birth mother couldn’t keep her. Seeing a picture of a girl who looks like her in the couple’s home and discovering the inscription “Lynn, Boulder, CO” and overhearing the couple’s discussion, J. steals money and takes a bus to Boulder. But things don’t go as planned.

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

Thereafter the story, as it passes from one childish voice to the next, takes on a rhythm reminiscent of the children’s story Are You My Mother? as J. journeys about, sporadically, over the course of the next 63 years, trying to find her mother. She almost gets close once or twice, perhaps. Along the way she gets taken in by another surrogate mother, her actual mother’s sister. Bits of information about the missing Lynn make us begin to think that her story is probably more interesting than the one we’re hearing about. And that seems to be the point. Though J. has people who love her and has a child of her own—who grows into an adult understandably tired of the “missing mother” syndrome—she only sees fit to tell us about her occasional search for the woman who gave birth to her, and that doesn’t make for much of a life.

The method of storytelling truncates continuity, oddly. Told in an eternal present, everything our young narrators tell us is happening “now,” though the movements of the four girls who take on the role of J. suggest “action” in only the most minimal manner. As a study in rote, affectless presentation, the show is compelling and all due praise to these youngsters, who also sing in crystalline voices a capella songs by David Cale that add lyrical interest to the proceedings. In particular, a song with the lines “I wished I loved you more” is quite lovely, as is the final song, sung by Candela Cubria in her own name as a reflection on the fact that, much as J.—in her 80s at the end of the show—can only recall bits and pieces of the story she’s trying to tell, so Candela may or may not remember being in this play, and will we recall, years from now, her face as she sang the song?

Intriguing as such questions about memory are, Employee of the Year seems contrived as a memory play, one in which anything that we might consider surface or anecdotal interest in a person’s life has been stripped away for a single idée fixe. And as a story of obsession about an undiscoverable past, it would benefit from some rooting interest in J.’s developing persona. For the sake of the purity of its prepubescent muses, the show’s method eschews “acting” in any sense of the term, so that, while we may find one girl more personable than another, we can only accept J. on her own limited terms. In closing, she tells us there “was a lot of blindness” in her life. One could say that putting the burden of such blindness on the audience is the show’s main feature: we only “see” what J. tells us, and that’s not much.

At first, one might assume that the young age of the cast of Employee of the Year has to do with the ultimate age J. reached before she learned the truth about her adoption, but she’s older than the cast is when she learns this. Had she been 8 or 9, we might find a motivation for her arrested development, but Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, aka 600 Highwaymen, seem to want to do away with any such realist conceits. And yet a certain reality does come through: Choices are arbitrary, events are random, a life—even a full, long life—may in fact be missing the one element, in this case the certainty of origin, that would make it meaningful or happy.

The show takes its title from one of the few things J. learns about her mother: that for a time she was “Employee of the Month” in a restaurant. J’s mother had wanted to be an actress and pursued a painter the way J. pursues her, though perhaps with more success. In any case, the specificity of the phrase—one particular employee, one particular month—is subsumed by its generic qualities, and its ephemerality. There will always be another month, another employee. But, J.’s relentless obsession seems to assume, there can be only one mother for one person, in a once upon a time that forever eludes discovery in the future because it already happened.

The cast of Employee of the Year

The cast of Employee of the Year

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Employee of the Year
600 Highwaymen

Songs by David Cale Design by Jessica Pabst and Eric Southern

With: Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Levy, Violet Newman, Candela Cubria

Long Wharf Theatre: June 20 & 27, 2015, 3 p.m.; June 21 & 26, 8 p.m.

The Once and Future King

Review of Rodney King in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

For the moment, the racist slaying of black church members in Charleston, SC, by a young white man has eclipsed, in news cycles, the wealth of stories of the racist law enforcement tactics of police—some leading to death—in a number of states in the past year. While the events in SC are a horrendous blow, joining the many acts of social and often political violence perpetrated by “lone gunmen” in our national psychosis, the violence against citizens of color, some of them committing criminal acts, some of them not, by our public defenders points up the persistence of what used to be called “institutional racism.” And whenever you invoke the names of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, you might as well begin with Rodney King.

King was, in the words of Roger Guenveur Smith, “the first hero of reality TV” whose bludgeoning by the clubs of the LAPD in 1991 “went viral before viral was invented.” That’s worth saying because the status of King, in U.S. racial history, is due to hand-held personal video equipment and media dissemination. His treatment was not unusual, for uncooperative blacks facing the law in the U.S.; what was unusual was that the beating was filmed, shared, and seen.

Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith

Smith’s words are part of his solo performance piece Rodney King, which closed today at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Smith says he began working on the show when he heard the news of King’s death in 2012, a “second-generation death by drowning drunk” in King’s family (King drowned in his swimming pool; King’s father had drowned drunk in the bathtub). Smith wanted to reflect on why King’s death made him feel, though he had never met the man, like he had lost a brother.

Rodney King presents a dramatic apostrophe to King, addressing him familiarly and knowledgeably, often implicitly questioning King’s decisions and lifestyle—he had been convicted in the past of robbery and assault and battery—while working-in details recounted in his subject’s autobiography. Smith’s almost musical, partially improvised script creates an echo chamber of voices talking about and around and through King’s beating and its aftermath, the LA riots of 1992. In shorthand fashion we hear of the trial of his assailants (acquitted of use of excessive force), and of the destruction and slayings—at least 50 deaths—in the riots afterward, and of the lead-up to and content of King’s famous public statement during the riots, “can we all get along?”

We watch Smith’s emotive performance with fascination, never quite sure which buttons he will push, which taglines from our nation’s hysteria about racial difference and its unease about its racist assumptions will suddenly take on swift new resonance. Gripping as Rodney King is, Smith occasionally over-reaches, his delivery seeming to circle around events as on a loop and making more of some than they merit (such as King’s “incog-negro” visit to the scene where rioters killed someone); at other times he mimics more emotion than he inspires.

Smith’s King is an unassuming, Everyman hero, the kind of person who would never achieve a spotlight through his own efforts. He’s simply a not-so-hard-working guy, enthrall to “the four horsemen,” pot, PCP, coke, and booze. King, it seems, managed to attain his “modest house with swimming pool” by virtue of having survived the “most famous ass-kicking of all time.” Smith is fully aware of the irony of singing King’s praises in this light, and that fact lends a certain jocular affection toward King, and, lest we think that the offense to King was too slight (after all, such logic runs, he lived to tell of it and became famous and was paid millions in damages), Smith includes the story of Latasha Harlins, a minor gunned down after an altercation with a convenience-store owner who believed she was shoplifting a bottle of OJ. Thus, as Smith says emphatically more than once, “it’s not just about you, Rodney.”

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Which is to say that the riots weren’t “just about” King’s treatment, which occurred less than two weeks before Harlins’ killing, or about the outcomes of the trials of King’s assailants and of Harlins’ killer, but about generations who have endured violence due to race, from the inception of slavery through lynchings and beatings to acts of racist terrorism from the Civil Rights marches to today, nor is Rodney King just about one man and his story. Smith sticks to that story, but makes us feel the history that informs it and the timeliness of its presentation here. King, like some of the family members of those slain in South Carolina last week, seemed inclined to forgive—a Christlike gesture that earns from Smith the phrase “the gospel according to Rodney King”—a stance that met with derision in certain circles, where the incitement to arm and avenge in strong. Whether outraged rapper who wants “to fuck Rodney King in the ass” or shrewd lawyer who wants to make Smith’s appeal to America “huxtable,” Smith lets the voices pass through him, leaving us with a glimpse of King as a man who drowns in a pool, dreaming of surfing and, as he allegedly did before his arrest, giving the finger to the eyes above.

Given the persistence of racial violence in our country, and the widespread, “viral” outbreak of officers caught in the act of killing black persons—Smith gives Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” to King while drowning—Rodney King is searchingly timely. Our era can’t claim any moral high-ground that would let us look back at the events surrounding King from some alleged “post-racial” society. In fact, we might even look back in something like nostalgia for a time when white lawmen descended after a highspeed chase upon a car containing three black men and let them all get out of the car. They beat King senseless, true, but today, in some localities anyway, they would most likely have opened fire the minute the car stopped.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Rodney King
Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith

Sound Design: Marc Anthony Thompson; Lighting Design: José López; Production Management: Kirk Wilson

June 18-20, 2015, 8 pm June 21, 2 pm

Long Wharf Theatre

An Aesthetic Festival

Review of Acis and Galatea at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

George Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a light opera and, in Mozart’s arrangement of the piece, full of serene pizazz. It’s hummable and bright, with only a handful of roles: Galatea, a nymph who wants to find love because, y’know, it’s spring; Acis, a shepherd in pursuit of her because of the force of nature; and Damon, Acis’ friend who suspects things may not go well. Mortals seeking immortals for permanent relations is not a good prospect. Then, in the second half, there’s Polyphemus, a lecherous monster who seems to expect all comers to yield to his pleasure, and who takes a shine to Galatea, with tragic results. Thereafter comes an apotheosis.

As a musical piece, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra and Yale Choral Artists, Handel’s short opera is diverting enough, lacking the grandeur and comic touches of Italian opera, but full of charm. As staged by Mark Morris and his dance troupe, Acis and Galatea is a pageant of color, movement, spirit, wit and wonder. A total of 18 dancers cavort about the stage, interpreting the action, reacting to it, creating quick riffs and flings and flourishes, as though musical phrases had taken human shape. As they say, there’s never a dull moment.

The dancers’ costumes, by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, consist of a unisex floral skirt of incredibly billowy fabric that creates wonderful undulations in Michael Chybowski’s lighting design, and, for the women, matching sleeveless tops. The males dancers are bare from the waist up. The costuming underscores the fact that both males and females are performing the exact same dance movements, though maybe the women do get lifted up a bit more. Still, Morris has cunningly devised dances that let male and female merge in the spirit of corporeal celebration. These are bodies that float like bubbles.

In the second half, when things get a bit more sinister, what with Polyphemus (Alexander Dobson) groping male and female dancers indiscriminately and lusting after Galatea, there’s a fascinating solo routine danced first by a female then a male dancer. Both have great suppleness and grace, and the female dancer’s angular proportions put me in mind of a Puvis de Chauvannes figure, which seemed a modernist touch quite at home against the huge painted backdrops by Adrienne Lobel, some of which seem to echo landscapes by the Fauves, albeit with toned-down color. Which is a way of saying that this Acis and Galatea is an aesthetic feast from first to last.

Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left
Yulia Van Doren (Galatea), second from left

The singers get into the act as well. This is no “stand there and sing it” performance. When’s the last time you saw an opera singer run on or off stage? Or lie down while singing? There is plenty of movement and interaction with the dancers, and the costumes for the shepherds Acis (Thomas Cooley) and Damon (Isaiah Bell) suit contemporary working guys looking to dude it up casual, while Galatea (Yulia Van Doren) is gowned to do a night on the town with a skirt that’s made to swirl. Polyphemus looks a dapper, Mephistophelean gent, with his long hair, beard, and a suit that seems cut from a painting. The acting and singing are often played for laughs, as in breath-catching pauses in the midst of Cooley’s and Bell’s arpeggios. As randy Polyphemus, Dobson is a crowd-pleaser, getting surprising profundity from his slight frame. Dobson’s Galatea is a delight—light on her feet, and soulful and endearing in her solos.

Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)
Thomas Cooley (Acis), Yulia Van Doren (Galatea)

Mark Morris knows how to play to audiences who want their high culture fun, and Acis and Galatea is an appealing show. Its pastoral aspects celebrate the turn to full summer and, without overdoing it, set true love against mere lustful thrills. The opera’s lyrics, by John Gay with help from Alexander Pope and John Hughes, flaunt the pastoral’s romance of nature with classical appreciation. With Morris, we're never in the wilds or even in Arcadia, but rather a zesty world of comic lust, everyday love pangs, and celebratory pageantry, tricked out with consummate artistry.

Acis and Galatea suits well the festival atmosphere of Arts & Ideas. It’s swift and sure and passes like a dream.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Acis and Galatea
Mark Morris Dance Group

Music by George Frideric Handel, arr. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by John Gay, with Alexander Pope and John Hughes

Nicholas McGegan: Conductor
Mark Morris: Director and choreographer

Set Design: Adrianne Lobel; Isaac Mizrahi: Costume Design; Michael Chybowski: Lighting Design

Cast: Yulia Van Doren (Galatea); Thomas Cooley (Acis); Isaiah Bell (Damon); Alexander Dobson (Polyphemus)

Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Max Cappelli-King, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel, Michelle Yard

International Festival of Arts & Ideas Chamber Orchestra
Jacob Ashworth, director

Yale Choral Artists
Jeffrey Douma, director

Shubert Theater, June 18 & 19, 2015

The Losin' Louisiana Blues

Review of Cry You One at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, 2015

Cry You One, an outdoors theatrical experience at Arts & Ideas, provided by a collaboration of Mondo Bizarro and Artspot Productions, runs for three hours and, by its end, one has been somewhere. As “a play” it is episodic and participatory, and as “a tour” it aims to be transformational, and for those open to theater as event more than spectacle it could well be.

Divided into groups by stickers adorned with an image—Boar, Coyote, Gator, Snake, Spider—the audience members become identified with a creature to be found in the Louisiana bayou country where the show originated. Indeed, Cry You One’s urgency comes in reaction to the encroaching sea that has—as was said in a telling image—nibbled away the toes and much of the sole of the “boot” that is Louisiana. This bodes not well for those who live there, and much of the early going—with staged annoyances among the troupe about who gets to hog the telling for our benefit—is about the ravages to the unique land and culture of Louisiana. The ensemble is a mix of natives and non-natives of the area and their staged group dynamic illustrates how, even among those who want to help Louisiana, there are different agendas and allegiances. Eventually, each group follows its leader, which means attending a presentation specific to each group and (I assume, based on the one I joined) confidences and oneupmanship concerning the other guides.

Transplanted to Maltby Lakes in West Haven, the show does not feel out of place, though I can only imagine how much more moving it is in its natural habitat. To help keep the Cajun flavor, the show boasts much use of music derived from bayou country by music director Sean Larocca, and features Zohar Israel as a Griot poet and musician who speaks for people who have already been driven off the land. One affecting moment comes on the banks of a lake where Zohar tells how there’s a day reserved for the ritual of swimming a lake in Louisiana where the homes of ancestors lie at the bottom—except now, after hurricanes this century, the young are swimming over their own homes.

The communal parts of the production involve dances, singalongs, trooping together through the picturesque landscape of the Lakes, and visiting spaces turned into encircled stages or devised museums—the artifacts and artworks collected in the latter have the rough beauty of the salvaged detritus of lost homes and lives. For all its beauty and camaraderie, there is a certain gloom that hangs over the show—the gloom of time and tide. The walk to the museum space is accompanied by an eerie song that says “the waves come in, the waves go out, sinking, sinking.” The people of the bayou country have long been acquainted with the blues, and no wonder.

The dramatic tension at the heart of the show’s themes is between what is “natural” and what is determined by humankind. So while there is fear and loathing for the depredations of gas companies, and hand-wringing over what has become of the Mississippi for the benefit of business, and gestures toward the kind of projects needed to re-sediment its banks, there are also nagging issues of how some solutions create new problems. There is also a strong sense of how ephemeral human intervention is. Those in it for greed take their money and run, those in it for the sake of the land try to stay in places become uninhabitable. Through it all, Cry You One is crying for those displaced, for those who loved the place and want to preserve its traditions. But it also implies how mysterious and difficult is “man’s place” anywhere on this globe, and how important it is to respect the environment we identify with.

Since any individual experience of the play depends largely on what group you get selected for, I can only speak about the segments of the show from the perspective of “a spider.” Our leader, “Dr. Dr.” Carol Karl (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), is an overly self-conscious scientist who proffered her diplomas for our edification and became upset that her comrades had added a piece of “hate mail” from a former coworker; the innocuous-seeming card served to remind her of a disgrace she endured due to alleged lack of empathy for the people who live where a needed waste station was set to be built. Much later, this theme gets worked out in an alarming and almost schizophrenic fashion to let us know that poor Dr. Karl is bedeviled by charges of racism and a haunting experience of having to flee her own home as a child. Dr. Karl is an oddly likeable, forlorn character, her spider persona a chilling creation, and the space set up for their struggle one of the most memorable in the show I saw.

The talents behind Cry You One—including director Kathy Randels, writers Raymond “Moose”Jackson and Joanna Russo—clearly have a shrewd sense of group dynamics as well as a varied grasp of theatrical presentation. Three hours may seem long, but it’s key to the feeling of having stepped away from one’s own life to become “settled” in another environment with other people. The experience is apt to set off all kinds of associations, from tours of historical sites to enactments at amusement parks to classroom protocols on class trips to awkward gatherings of strangers to pay tribute to some common cause. What it feels nothing like is the passive viewing of a play in a theater.

Interaction is key to one’s experience, while observation, for a critic, is key to commentary. Cry You One offers much opportunity for both. Conceived as “a grand procession for the land that is disappearing, “ by its originator Nick Slie, Cry You One asks you to think about what you’d take if you had to leave where you live. When it was over, I walked out alone, thinking about where I’d been, and feeling like I’d left some friends behind.

International Festival of Arts and Ideas presents
Cry You One
Mondo Bizarro & Artspot Productions

Directed by Kathy Randels

Ensemble: Jon Greene; Zohar Israel; Hannah Pepper-Cunningham; Rebecca Mwase; Lisa Moraschi Shattuck; Nick Slie

Additional performers: Kathy Randels and Sean Larocca; Designers: Jeff Becker and Melisa Cardona; Writers: Raymond “Moose” Jackson and Joanna Russo; Music Director: Sean Larocca; Choreographer: Millicent Johnnie; Costume Design: Bear Hebert and Laura Sirkin-Brown; Banner Photographs: Monique Verdin; Stage Manager: Nick Moser; Associate Producer: Tracy Boyles; Line Producer: Bear Hebert; Set Construction: Zachary Grace; Scenic Painting: Alexandria Bozeman

June 13, 14, 16, 20, 21 at 2 pm; June 17, 18, 19 at 4 pm

Maltby Lakes, West Haven

A Dream's Midsummer Night

Review of Midsummer at Yale Summer Cabaret

One of the plot points of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a “changeling boy” that the fairy realm’s rulers—Oberon and Titania—battle over. The myth of the “changeling” refers, generally, to a fairy child substituted for a human child, so that parents find themselves raising a bizarre being not of their own. What the fairies do with the child they “adopt” is another matter. Doubtless, it becomes something wholly other, a strange hybrid of human and fairy.

Midsummer, the adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by director Sara Holdren and dramaturg Rachel Carpman, now playing at the Yale Summer Cabaret, is itself a hybrid, a strange change upon MND that might be seen as what would happen to the play if the fairies get a hold of it.

Midsummer often seems very much like the familiar play—one of the most oft-performed of Shakespeare’s comedies—and sometimes feels like a fever dream comprised of Shakespearean taglines on a ground of shifting unrealities. And that’s because Midsummer makes free use of Shakespeare’s oeuvre to match the word to the deed. (There’s even a drinking game advertised on the audience’s tables that recommends size of sips in response to recognized lines from various plays.) In short, it’s a trip.

Puck (Shaunette Renee Wilson)
Puck (Shaunette Renee Wilson)

This “Midsummer” begins with Puck (Shaunette Renée Wilson) brooding on how things used to be—the world was a much more enchanted place, once upon a time. A sprite more in sorrow than in spite, she soon decides to amuse herself and us by devising ways to bedevil a troupe of hapless actors gathered in the wood to rehearse a play. That play, it soon develops, will not be Pyramus and Thisbe (as in MND) but the story of the lovers of MND: the erotic travails of Lysander (Christopher Ross-Ewart), Hermia (Josephine Stewart), Demetrius (Leland Fowler), and Helena (Elizabeth Stahlmann). The transition from the hamfisted actors bumbling through their lines to the full enactment of their MND roles is only the first of many magical transformations the night offers.

The usual plot development—that the rivals for Hermia become instead rivals for Helena, while the once simpatico women become bitter enemies—plays out here with more asperity than it often does. And that’s in part because Holdren and Carpman get to cherry-pick Shakespeare to provide dialogue for these fools for love. While the changeableness of male affection is the theme Shakespeare’s text treats of with a certain arch candor, the handling of it here is full of surprisingly distraught energy—in Stewart and Stahlmann—and outrageous wooing and rejecting from Fowler and Ross-Ewart. It’s funny and physical, and lets us know that love hurts. Lurking in the wings, as it were, is every heartbroken teen who loved and missed, and Holdren gets her young cast to milk that for all its worth.

Titania (Melanie Field), Bottom (Andrej Visky)
Titania (Melanie Field), Bottom (Andrej Visky)

Meanwhile, there’s the centerpiece event: the enchantment of Bottom—who traditionally is given an ass’s head—and the passion for him created in Titania by “love-in-idleness,” a magical flower. That part of the story feels more allegorical than the rest, in MND, and here it’s almost beside the point. We’re much more beguiled by Titania (Melanie Field) and Oberon (Niall Powderly) facing off with magical bolts and scary voices like wizards in Harry Potter, so that the sport with Titania that Will seems to delight in gets upstaged by a parental stand-off over a child that feels more revealing.

Bottom the weaver, played with mercurial flair by Andrej Visky, is from the first the character most fully infused with the kind of wonderment that theatrical experience can provide. He’s ready to enact every part—including speeches from Hamlet spoken by the players and the prince. To give a sense of the range of this Bottom, I’ll mention that, as he wanders spooked in the woods, he breaks into “My Way,” and when he first discovers the sleeping Titania he says “she’s warm!” echoing Lear holding the recently deceased Cordelia.

The upshot of all this is that Midsummer creates a rich tapestry of Shakespearean verbiage as an overlay on a story of amateur theatricals, befuddled lovers, and spatting fairies. It’s not simply a re-imagining of MND, but a reassigning of Shakespearean lines and moments to create a lively variety that never ceases to surprise and delight. And those not so versed in their Bard needn’t feel left out, as there is a remarkable seamlessness to most of the juggling, except when it’s meant to be noticeable.

Christopher Ross-Ewart, Josephine Stewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Niall Powderly
Christopher Ross-Ewart, Josephine Stewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Niall Powderly

In the midst of the sheer love of Shakespeare’s words—as, as it were, non-character-specific poetry—Midsummer manages to make us aware of the varying levels of acting as entertainment. If Shakespeare’s comedies tend to be much ado about nothing, Midsummer insists that what Hamlet calls “the purpose of playing” is not so much holding a mirror up to nature but rather to play Prospero with what reality provides—and all actors are changelings. The strong suggestion is that we have at last gotten the play of Bottom’s dream, which hath no bottom. At evening’s end the players within the play troop off, considering what to call their play, riffing on Shakespeare, O’Neill, and others.

Finally, a mention of a remarkable set comprised of trees of twisted fabric and of seemingly real stone, wonderful projections that create worlds within the world, sound effects and special effects to give reality to the magical duels and spells, and costumes that let the cast move from clownish workers to lightly garbed youths and painted and fleshy fairies—to say nothing of Puck’s hybrid habiliments that seem more Caliban than Ariel. And Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting design is a poem in itself.

Midsummer plays through Sunday night. If you’ve already seen it, go again, and if you haven’t, do.

Midsummer
Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays of William Shakespeare

Adapted by Rachel Carpman and Sara Holdren
Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Design: Christopher Thompson, Claire De Liso; Costume Design: Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Sinan Refik Zafar; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager: Victoria Whooper

Ensemble: Al the Upholsterer/Titania: Melanie Field; Snout the Tinker/Demetrius: Leland Fowler; Peter Quince/Oberon: Niall Powderly; Flute the Bellows Mender/Lysander: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Snug the Joiner/Helena: Elizabeth Stahlmann; Starveling the Tailor/Hermia: Josephine Stewart; Bottom: Andrej Visky; Puck: Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret

217 Park Street

June 4-June 21, 2015

An Old Sweet Song

Review of And a Nightingale Sang at Westport Country Playhouse

C.P. Taylor’s memory play And a Nightingale Sang, running through June 27 at Westport Country Playhouse, gives us Helen Stott (an incandescent Brenda Meaney), looking back at life in Newcastle, England, during WWII and at her family’s experience of day-to-day existence under the Blitz. From her first words, Meaney establishes a presence of such frankness, poignancy, and strength that we are willing to follow her wherever she might lead. Meaney's acting belongs in the highest ranks. For her performance alone, And a Nightingale Sang is worth seeing.

Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)
Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)

The device of Helen’s direct address adds a pleasingly modern dimension to Taylor’s well-made drama. As the narrator, one moment Helen is introducing characters, the next she is explaining the subtext, and then for a time she melts into the action. Leisurely-paced and short on surprises, Nightingale is most powerful when Helen—whose limp has kept her (in her view) a spinster—tells her own coming-of-age story, which took place in her early middle years. David Kennedy’s direction, however, falls short of conveying the terrors of war, and thus this production slants a bit too far towards the comfortable and the bittersweet.

The opening scene serves mainly to establish characters and introduce the working-class Stott family. Pretty younger daughter Joyce (Jenny Leona) is trying to decide whether to accept the marriage proposal of Eric (John Skelley), a soldier who is about to ship off to France; Joyce’s mother, Peggy (Deirdre Madigan), is desperately trying to get out of the house to visit one of the priests who, she fears, is having a war-related crisis of faith. Meanwhile Peggy’s father, Andie (Richard Kline), has just lost his beloved dog (whose dead body he has brought into the house in a cloth sack) and is trying to round up funeral goers. In the background, George (Sean Cullen), the father of the family, plays merrily on the piano and provides a humorous commentary on the cacophonous events. We immediately see that everyone in the family depends upon Helen for her good sense, kindness, and alacrity with a cup of tea. The war first intervenes at this point, in the form of sirens signaling a possible attack.

Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline
Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline

Because Helen’s memory drives the plot, the strongest storyline revolves around her love affair with Eric’s soldier friend Norman (Matthew Greer), the only man who has ever looked at her, much less declared his attraction and affection. Some of the sweetest moments occur here, as well as some of the play’s few genuine revelations. Greer is appealing, touching, and appropriately mysterious, while Helen’s emotional and sexual awakening brings to mind a more emotionally stable Laura, of The Glass Menagerie, if the Gentleman Caller had fallen for her and in doing so, changed her life.

Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)
Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)

In the Stott household, humor, whether intentional or not, often pierces the darkness of the war, and Kennedy and his cast play up this element with crisp expertise. Indeed, these remarkable actors lift the script beyond its own limitations. Every performance shines. Sean Cullen brings a boyish twinkle to George Stott and sings and plays the piano as if he were born at the keyboard. As Peggy, Deirdre Madigan captures the conventionality of a staunch Catholic of her time and then layers this with unexpected nuance. Jenny Leona brings both fragility and fire to the role of Joyce. And Richard Kline, as Andie, delivers his fatalistic pronouncements, honed on the battle fields of WWI, with dry wit, while also conveying the vulnerability of a man who has come to love his pets as much as his family: Tibby the cat reminds him that he is still needed.

As the soldier, Eric, John Skelley keeps us on his side even when his behavior is at its most churlish. Eric—one minute a fun-loving guy, the next minute a lout— is a tricky role, but Skelley, under Kennedy’s guidance, helps us to see a youth made by war to act the adult before he is ready.

Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)
Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)

The scenic design, by Kristen Robinson, and the lighting design, by Matthew Richards, are to be commended too. The set is a large brick open space that serves most often as the Stott’s home, but that also remains abstract—like memory—so that two chairs brought downstage can become a park bench or a front parlor, and the characters can move through the central open space and enter a dance hall or a hotel or a homely flat. Richards’ lighting serves to create the effect of memory: when the spotlight isolates and illuminates Helen, we know we are in her mind, and when the light broadens, we know we are back in the scenes of the past.

With such a strong design team—including sound design by Fitz Patton—one only wishes that Kennedy had chosen to make the moments when war breaks into the Stotts’ domestic concerns more jolting, terrifying, and real. Sirens should be louder, bombs should shake the theater walls, and flashing lights should blind. However, the terrific cast nearly makes up for this missing dramatic element: they bring to the stage their own brilliance, in all senses of the word.

And a Nightingale Sang
By C.P Taylor

Directed by David Kennedy

Cast: George: Sean Cullen; Norman: Matthew Greer; Andie: Richard Kline; Joyce: Jenny Leona; Peggy: Deirdre Madigan; Helen: Brenda Meaney; Eric: John Skelley

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Michael Krass; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Props Master: Karin White; Choreographers: Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Marcie A. Friedman; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Flint

Westport Country Playhouse
June 9-27, 2015

A Play with Class

Review of Good People at TheaterWorks, Hartford

David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, opens with Margie (Erika Rolfsrud), a Dollar Store employee, losing her job. She has been late one too many times over the past eight years. As she tries, first humorously and then with rising rage and desperation, to negotiate with her boss, the young Stevie (Buddy Haardt), we come to understand quite a bit about Margie and about Lindsay-Abaire’s aims in writing this play.

Set before gentrification comes to the Irish-American working class neighborhood of South Boston (“Southie”), the playwright’s hometown, Good People explores the complicated role that luck plays in a person’s ability to escape impoverished circumstances. America’s increasingly shaky belief in a classless society is based on the notion that hard work and determination are all one needs for success. Margie is here to tell us otherwise.

Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne
Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne

In the following scene, set in Margie’s kitchen, we meet her brassy friend Jean (Megan Byrne) and her landlady, aptly named Dottie (Audrie Neenan). The talk centers on jobs: who has one, who hasn’t got a chance of finding one, how Margie can get herself another one, fast. Here we learn why Margie has lost numerous minimum-wage positions: her adult daughter, severely disabled due to a premature birth, requires constant supervision. When Jean remembers that at a catering gig she met one of their high school friends, Mikey Dillon (R. Ward Duffy), who got out of Southie and became a doctor, she’s certain that he’s Margie’s ticket to solvency: after all, Margie and Mike were an item for awhile in high school, and surely he’ll help someone from the neighborhood.

Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas
Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas

What unfolds between Margie and Mike—when she visits his office to test the limits of his loyalty to old friends; when Jean and Dottie react to this meeting during one of two funny and telling scenes set in a bingo hall; and during a searing scene in Act Two—dramatizes the play’s themes and provides an evening of thought-provoking, high-tension, nearly brilliant theater. I say “nearly” only because some of Lindsay-Abaire’s scenes go on a bit too long. While one could listen all night to these uniformly terrific actors speak his sharp, gritty, and at times hilarious dialogue, the plot, to its credit, creates a momentum that can’t afford to sag.

Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)
Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)

Lindsay-Abaire couldn’t hope for a better rendering of Good People than Rob Ruggiero’s terrific production. As Margie, Erika Rolfsrud gives a stunningly strong and nuanced performance. Margie is tough, but she must also convey anxiety without coming across as a victim (an epithet she would despise). She is brilliant and at the same time unapologetically uneducated. She has a mean streak and knows how to use it: watch her deploy the phrase “lace-curtain Irish” when talking about Mike’s rise in the world, and see her satisfaction when her words hit their target. Yet if the actress doesn’t also display warmth and humor, she loses the audience and the production falls apart. Rolfsrud nails every note.

The rest of the cast is no less remarkable. As Mike, R. Ward Duffy is coiled as tightly as a camouflaged snake. Mike knows how Margie can needle, shame, and possibly destroy him. He’s plenty arrogant, but he is also persuasive in his belief that hard work leads to success and, conversely, that the lack of success proves inadequacy. Mike is Margie’s natural enemy, yet Duffy and Rolfsrud’s arguments have a sexual spark that makes us believe in their intense youthful affair, and in Mike’s uneasy kinship with his background.

Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)
Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)

As Dottie, Audrie Neenan provides more than comic relief: her character’s comments on the surrounding events bring to mind one of Shakespeare’s fools. Her foolishness is real enough, and a riot, but her wacky utterances unwittingly convey the resignation of a life defined by Southie. Megan Byrne, as Jean, carries some of Lindsay-Abaire’s sharpest and most humorous dialogue, and her timing is perfection: she can deliver a zinger with one raise of an eyebrow or dart of an eye.

Buddy Haardt, as Stevie, who quietly endures Jean’s scornful certainty that he is gay because he plays bingo, gives us an understated, gentle performance that adds moments of rest amidst the women’s sharp repartee. And Chandra Thomas, as Mike’s wife—the least well-written role in the script—finds moments of subtle humor and genuine pain without overplaying.

Of special note in this production is the use of film-like, photographed projections (by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella) to create distinctively different neighborhoods, and to simulate, also, the movement between them: our movement along with Margie’s. We watch the Dollar Store and run-down strip malls roll by, and later the appearance of trees and large houses tell us we are in another world.

Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan
Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan

Beautifully rendered, too, is the sound design by Mike Miceli, especially in the bingo scenes. Of course, much of the credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire for writing these scenes as he has, but Ruggiero and Miceli—along with these terrific actors—have brought out the script’s sharp music. As the characters talk about Margie’s mounting difficulties, the marking of cards echoes the characters’ larger hopes, and the bingo caller’s voice drives the tension.

Ruggiero’s Good People is one of the most gripping, layered, and provocative productions seen at TheaterWorks in the past eight years, which is a high compliment indeed. The performances invigorate and inspire, and the play’s complex ideas resonate long after the evening ends.

Good People
By David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design: Harry Nadal; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Mike Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting LTD.; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia

TheaterWorks
May 22-June 28, 2015

For Cult's Sake

Review of The Cult by New Haven Theater Company

Drew Gray’s The Cult, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company at their home in The English Building Markets, is a play about making connections and the effects such connections can have. Anyone might want a wider circle of friends or maybe different friends, but few of us form or join a cult for the sake of company. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the play is that it makes doing so seem not so bizarre or absurd as one might have thought.

When the play starts, many of the characters in The Cult have already found belonging in a group—the members don’t call it “a cult” themselves—formed by Tyler (Christian Shaboo), an earnest young man who seems to believe he hears the words of an entity called “Albean.” As with any religious ritual, the reasons for what the members believe and the purposes of the acts they perform can be a bit vague—or even silly—to outsiders. While at times Gray, who also directs and designed the show, wants to explore the comic possibilities of the cult situation, most of the attempts at humor seem like pandering to a dumbed-down sit-com. The story, as it develops in Act Two, is stronger than that.

The uneven mix of comedy and drama keeps the tone of the initial going a bit undecided. We don’t laugh at sad or pathetic people, and that’s what the cult members seem to be. Jared (Rick Beebe) is an introvert, Sally (Lauren Young) is an airhead, Alan (Erich Greene) is after sex, and so forth. The new business is that Tyler’s co-worker, Roger (a fidgety J. Kevin Smith), whose get-ahead wife (a fun cameo from Mallory Pellegrino) just dumped him, is curious about what Tyler’s into. Rather than laugh it off as too weird, Roger is intrigued, and wants to wear a robe and join “the cult.” The other development for potential drama is that Tyler manages to score a date with Rachel (Katelyn Marie Marshall), a shy co-worker who stays at home with her cats while he’s home changing the lives of his followers. Then there’s the issue of the farm.

A cult must have a goal, one supposes, and the goal here is not to await the Rapture or a Second Coming of Albean, but to live together in peace and harmony on the farm Tyler lived on as a boy. It was there he first heard the voice of Albean and, he believes, a return there will be like a return to Mecca. But first they must raise the money to buy what isn’t for sale. The various plot points get furthered when Tyler takes Rachel on a drive to the farm, and we meet Will (Trevor Williams), the man in possession of the place who, it turns out, is Tyler’s brother. Meanwhile, Jared has some distressing news.

Once Jared’s medical condition comes to light, the play, for the most part, drops its half-hearted attempts to be funny. The other thing that happens is that the longer we’re in their company, the more we begin to believe in these people who believe in Albean. And that shift in perspective is worth sticking around for.

In addition to our growing acceptance of the cult members, the play’s pay-off comes in how the other people in Tyler’s life—Will and Rachel—react to his followers. The stress that memberships can cause one’s relationship with non-members plays out in well-acted scenes. What’s more, the fact that neither Will nor Rachel can stomach the implications of Tyler as a “prophet of Albean,” preferring to see him as emotionally disturbed (Will) or some kind of snake-oil salesman (Rachel), ratchets up the tensions of belonging and believing in the face of naysayers.

The Cult is at its best in one-on-one moments where characters can be revealed, such as the awkward dating between Tyler and Rachel, Tyler’s patient appraisal of Jared’s anxious revelations, or—a scene that suggests interesting back-story—the sibling rivalry of Tyler and his fed-up brother. The cult members themselves are at their best when reacting to Tyler—played by Shaboo without an ounce of guile or irony—though a surer hand with comic pacing and timing could have us laughing at them before we start taking them seriously.

 

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written, directed, and designed by Drew Gray

Produced by Peter Chenot; Original Music by Drew Gray; Stage Managed by Drew Gray; Audio Supervision by Ray Stephens; Props by Drew Gray, Margaret Mann, Trevor Williams

Cast: Rick Beebe (Jared); Erich Greene (Alan); Katelyn Marie Marshall (Rachel); Deena Nicol-Blifford (Jane); Mallory Pellegrino (Veronica/Samantha/Ellen); Sandra Rodriguez (Charlie); Christian Shaboo (Tyler), J. Kevin Smith (Roger); Tim Smith (Tommy); Trevor Williams (Will); Lauren Young (Sally)

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

May 28, 29, 30 and June 3, 4, 5, 6, 2015

Devising Shakespeare

The Yale Summer Cabaret prepares to launch Midsummer

In the basement of 217 Park Street, home of the Yale Summer Cabaret, transformation is afoot. First, there is the yearly conversion of the space from what it once was to what it will be. That transformation, so far, involves a load of red paint and a lot of elbow grease to eradicate the décor of last season’s Cab.

Then there’s the transformation that is taking place upstairs in the studio space where this summer’s first show has rehearsed for two weeks. That transformation involves remaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s best-known and oft-produced comedies, into something surprising and never-before-seen. A sea-change into something rich and strange?

That’s the intent of Artistic Director Sara Holdren and Co-Artistic Director Rachel Carpman who have adapted the play into a show, called simply Midsummer, that draws upon virtually every play in the Shakespeare corpus. Holdren, who directs the show, is out to “turn the play inside out,” and “stand it on its head.” MND, if anyone doesn't know, is the play with the court of Athens, represented by Theseus, and the woods, to which the lovers flee and where they get mixed up, and where the fairies frolic whilst their King Oberon and Queen Titania fight over a changeling child, and where “the mechanicals” (workers) rehearse their hamfisted attempt to adapt, for the court’s pleasure, the love story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In far too many handlings of the play, one or another of these realms gets short-shrift, but Midsummer aims to recast the emphasis of the play, finding the mix that will manifest as much Shakespearean magic as possible.

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

To create the transformative landscape she has in mind for her Rough Magic Company, Holdren has asked two scenic designers, Chris Thompson and Claire Deliso, to collaborate. While this is a new endeavor for both, the old “two heads are better than one” adage seems to be true. Thompson and Deliso find that, at the points where either might be stumped at making a choice, having the other’s input gets them through the impasse more quickly and agreeably. And, with the show opening next Thursday for a three-week run, time is of the essence.

Though, it should be said, not as much as is usual for the Cab, which, in term-time, puts up 18 new shows weekly. In summer, things slow closer to the prep time for the Yale School of Drama shows (all but one cast member are either current YSDers or just graduated). For actors in Summer Cab such as Melanie Field and Shaunette Renée Wilson, the extended rehearsal time seems like an almost embarrassing luxury. Over three weeks for rehearsal while not working, as Wilson says, on “at least five other things?” Magical indeed.

What’s more, Holdren professes the ideal of a theatrical troupe—an ad hoc body that forms and maintains itself over time, treating all its productions to a collaborative spirit. That working ethos attracted Field and Wilson from the very first try-outs. Auditioning actors were asked, unusually, to collaborate in group scenes, and the exercise, Field says, provided the actors with a “sense of the generosity to devise and play and to listen and get in tune,” and that in turn promotes the adventures outside the box that the company is after all summer long.

For Andrew Griffin, lighting designer, part of the incentive to create theater in a basement is his working relationship with the team Holdren has gathered. He and Thompson and sound designer Sinan Zafar all did truly magical work last fall for Holdren’s thesis show, The Master and Margarita. Their task is to make lightning strike twice, and to create some of the same artistry at probably a fraction of the cost. Magic, yes, but “rough magic,” don’t forget. Cabaret shows take place in a basement that is also a restaurant, and audiences have to be willing to enter into the spirit of imaginative make-believe that is key to all theater but particularly true of the Cab.

The Rough Magic Company

The Rough Magic Company

One of the aspects of the show that came out of the team’s initial efforts was a decision to focus a bit more on the “changeling” child that Titania and Oberon are dueling over, another was the idea of making the play the mechanicals enact relevant to the story of the lovers lost in the woods. Improve upon the Bard? Purists will object! Such cautions tend to make Holdren a bit truculent.

“Shakespeare, as a living canon that will last long after we’re gone, can certainly hold his own, no matter what is done with him,” she says. Her approach seeks to avoid two pitfalls: not making the dramatic world clear, as though we should all know it already; and treating as necessary what might be only provisional. The important point is whether one sees Shakespeare as contemporary theater able to be transformed by deliberate re-invention, or as a classic text that must be adhered to.

Carpman calls their process “devising Shakespeare,” and Holdren talks of “an exquisite corpse” approach, like the surrealist method of group composition wherein each participant writes a line of a poem without knowing what precedes it or what will follow. In the end, what might seem a chaos of individual lines and voices becomes “a poem” by means of the magic of formal intention. Everyone intended the poem and the collective spirit guides the result. What might A Midsummer Night’s Dream be if our Will felt able to crib freely from himself throughout? And don’t we, as viewers of so many Shakespeare plays, cross-reference and confuse them all anyway?

In Midsummer, it’s not only Bottom—or perhaps not even Bottom—who will be “translated,” but Shakespeare’s text itself will undergo metamorphosis, with an emphasis on the “meta.” The Rough Magic Company are in pursuit of what Holdren calls “the magical heart of the text,” and that can’t be found without surgical intervention.

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Rough Magic season opens next Thursday, June 4, with Midsummer, an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing through June 21.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Midsummer
Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays of William Shakespeare

Adapted by Rachel Carpman and Sara Holdren
Directed by Sara Holdren

June 4-21, 2015

That Old Shakespearean Rag

Review of Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage

Granted, Kiss Me, Kate is, as a play, more silly than shrewd. But then this 1940s’ musical isn’t noted for its Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, but for its music and lyrics by Cole Porter. The vitality and wit of songs like “Too Darn Hot,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” remain undimmed by time, much as does the blank verse of the Bard. Combining both in one show is about as classy as you can get. And that’s what we get: a silly tale of backstage romance and its relation to, onstage, a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—on its opening night in Baltimore—with Porter’s songs to keep things witty.

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

As a musical about putting on a musical, and as a show about sparring leads—Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan)—who were once a couple, now playing the shrew Katharine and her roguish suitor Petruchio, Kiss Me, Kate has fun with actors’ egos, theater, musicals, Shakespeare, and the amorous ways of men and women. In this staging it also has director Darko Tresnjak, who scored a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, showing again his sure hand with flamboyantly fluffy stuff, reunited with members of the Gentleman team, Peggy Hickey, choreographer, Alexander Dodge, scenic designer, and Philip Rosenberg, lighting designer, and with Fabio Toblini, who did such an eye-pleasing job with the costumes for Tresnjak’s production of Bell, Book & Candle. And that means the show is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The somewhat clever conceit of the story is seeing an estranged acting couple patch things up in a comic arc that parallels the story of how Petruchio “tames” the shrew Katharine; meanwhile, the co-star Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), a source of jealousy for Lilli, has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), who signed Fred’s name for his gambling debts, and that brings into the story two comical hoodlums (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) who, in order to keep an eye on Lilli, get onstage in Shakespearean get-ups. No need to follow the plot too closely, the glory of the story is in the song and dance routines, and Tresnjak and company just keep ‘em coming.

James T. Lane and company

James T. Lane and company

To keep the various playing areas in play—with backstage, and onstage, and paired dressing-rooms—Dodge’s way with the staging is delightful, and Toblini’s Shakespearean costumes wow in blazing Technicolor. The well-known Porter songs, such as those mentioned above, grace the backstage action, where, sometimes, they’re just added delights with no plot points—such as James T. Lane’s frothy work-up of “Too Darn Hot,” the second act opener that threatens to make us forget all about Shakespearean shenanigans.

But there are some great comic tunes within Taming to divert us, particularly two numbers flaunting naughty fun: Petruchio’s “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” makes the most of Porter’s tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, and the flirty Bianca (Sikora), with Gremio (Barrett Martin), Hortensio (Giovanni Bonaventura), and Lucentio (Tyler Hanes), gives “Tom, Dick or Harry” laughs and memorable moves a-plenty. Another comic highpoint finds the hoods lecturing the guys on the Bard’s seductive use with the girls (“Brush Up on Your Shakespeare). Averett and Blum make the most of the music-hall style comedy of heavies in leotards.

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Most of the best stuff comes in the second act, with those first three numbers, “Too Darn Hot,” “Where is the Life” and Sikora’s wonderfully fluid rendering of “Always True to You in My Fashion,” whereas the first act is a bit heavy with plot. Still, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” kicks the show off in grand fashion, and Petruchio and Katharine get to make their comical claims with “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Hate Men,” respectively. Indeed, the latter is Barzee’s finest moment, finding ways to work a nude male statue to keep viewers’ transfixed. And for those who like ballads, there’s the lovely lilt of “So In Love,” delivered by both Barzee and McGowan separately in each act. Especially good at what they do: McGowan’s ultra-masculine strut and sonorous voice as Fred/Petruchio, Sikora’s vivacious sexiness as Lois/Bianca, some rousing tap-dancing from Hanes and Lane, and vocals from Charity Angél Dawson as Hattie in the opening.

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

All in all, it’s a musical comedy of riches, featuring a judicious use of lines from The Taming of the Shrew to keep in play what T.S. Eliot called “that old Shakespeherian rag—It’s so elegant. So intelligent.” Words that might easily be used to describe the songs of Cole Porter. Together they make a fizzy cocktail of screwball fun.

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Music Director: Kris Kukul; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Binder Casting; Associate Music Director: Max Mamon; Production Stage Manager: Anjee Nero; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Salmons; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage
May 14-June 14, 2015

Join The Cult

The Cult, the new play by Drew Gray, the resident playwright in the New Haven Theater Company, debuts next week at the troupe’s home theater at the back of the English Building Markets. Gray’s last play for NHTC was The Magician, a two-hander about a veteran magician and his manager. The Cult is much more ambitious with a cast of 11 playing 13 characters. What Gray calls “a comedy with serious elements” (he avoids using the term “dramedy”), The Cult began life as a prospective web series, which means it was conceived as taking place over 3 seasons of 6 episodes each. In creating a stand-alone play from the material, Gray wrote a new ending but follows the arc of the first series of episodes. The element of the play that perhaps owes most to its genesis as a web series is the fact that, as Gray says, “this is the most realistic, narrative-driven play” he’s written. Part of that comes from trying to “make it tangible” for the TV-viewing public, and also from the fact that the “sitcom format of 10-15 minute episodes” helped Gray to focus on “the structure of well-made scenes.”

The play concerns a young man working an office day-job who finds his real identity as the leader of a cult called Albean. Played by Christian Shaboo, who starred in Shipwrecked!, one of the other large-scale undertakings by NHTC, Tyler is a figure for the effort to find human connection apart from employment and family. Tyler’s job is “not expressly mentioned,” Gray says, but conceives of it as something suitably nondescript, such as head of a regional office for some national corporation.

A range of lonely souls from mid-twenties to mid-forties looking for a sense of connection is the focus of the play. While not questioning religious groups per se, Gray is interested in how “people find community in weird ways” and in the sort of grassroots organizations and spiritual possibilities that seem to have been much more common before everyone started living online. In fact, Gray says, there’s a very lo-tech aspect to the cult, which communicates with posted flyers and the like.

As is often his working method, Gray researched the play after he had already written a good portion of it, looking into the kinds of do-it-yourself cults there are in the world. Much of the fun in writing the play was in devising the rules and guidelines the members would follow and in determining the cult’s system of beliefs. “Basically,” Gray says, “the cult is a narrative device for creating this big, ridiculous family” of off-beat characters, and for inspiring “real laughs with goofy cultural humor.” Even the name “Albean” can have various interpretations: “all-being,” “I’ll-be-an . . .” or, to my mind, the name of a late night coffee shop for the worship of caffeine, “the All Bean.”

But The Cult doesn’t play the cult entirely for laughs, as the show, though “laughter-driven, is never a straight-up comedy.” Gray, who also directs, is interested in “the intricacy of relationships,” and some of the back-stories of the characters, as developed by the cast in rehearsals, are complex and not very upbeat. For some cult-members, there may be romantic possibilities, and for some, the overcoming of certain issues from their regular lives. And there are ceremonial aspects to the cult, involving ritual objects and regalia, which means there is a “bigger costume component” than in most NHTC shows.

In hearing Gray describe this latest project and the sense of belonging that, many attest, comes from meeting regularly to perform certain comforting rituals, I couldn’t help thinking of theater itself. NHTC, comprised of thespians with day-jobs, might be seen, without too big a stretch, as a cult. Gray laughed at the notion, but allowed that anything that brings people together might function as an analogy.

What is the cult trying to achieve? What is the purpose of their practices? Attend “a meeting” at the English Markets and find out.

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written and directed by Drew Gray

May 28-30 and June 3-6, 2015
English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

A League of Their Own

Review of The Second Mrs. Wilson at Long Wharf Theatre

A play about loyalty, love, and deception should strike a few nerves, and when the story unfolds in what are often called “the corridors of power,” we have not just a story about how a couple weathers a storm, but about the fraught relation between public and private worlds. Joe DiPietro’s involving The Second Mrs. Wilson, directed by Gordon Edelstein at the Long Wharf, with a sumptuous set by Alexander Dodge and a stellar cast, lets us contemplate both a powerful romance and a unique historical situation.

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

When President Woodrow Wilson (John Glover), a widower, becomes sweet on Mrs. Edith Galt (Margaret Colin), a widowed lady of his acquaintance, the tongues of his advisers begin to wag and their visages to frown. Kept onstage throughout the play as a kind of an Old Boys’ Club version of a Greek chorus, Colonel Edward House (Harry Groener), Secretary Joe Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Dr. Cary Grayson (Stephen Baker Turner) look on and trade misgivings about the lively romance we see unfolding between Glover’s Wilson, lathe-thin and boyish, and Colin’s Mrs. Galt, an engaging matron sincerely flattered at this new flame. DiPietro’s script keeps the flirtation within the bounds of propriety while flaunting the charms of a second chance for the middle-aged.

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Early on, one of the best scenes features Mrs. Galt and House facing off on how a new bride could affect the president’s bid for a second term. In The Second Mrs. Wilson, dialogue is at its best when, as here, a game is afoot: who will best whom in the give and take of looking after Wilson’s interests and maintaining an interest in Wilson?

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

That note, once sounded, becomes the key note of the second act when Wilson, struck down by a crippling stroke at the end of Act One while hawking his League of Nations legislation across the country, comes fully under his wife and his doctor’s care—much to the consternation of his advisers, his Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman) and his staunchest opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman). The deception by which press and public and political interests are kept at bay seems rather astounding to our heavily surveyed times. As the weeks stretch into months, the brave front of Mrs. Wilson comes to seem as cut-off from political reality as her husband’s adamant upholding of “God’s will,” i.e., his plan for the League.

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

And that’s where The Second Mrs. Wilson becomes a starker and braver play than might be expected from what seems at first a romantic-historical melodrama with comic overtones. The first act gives us a play about the importance of a wife for Wilson and makes us see that, despite what her detractors think, Mrs. Wilson is equal to the task of being First Lady, a strong historical point.

But, once the president is incapacitated, the romantic elements move from the couple’s love to a romance with Wilson’s ideals as Mrs. Wilson struggles to keep her husband in power. For those who are not of Wilson’s party or, like his VP, are simply disliked by the president and his wife, exclusion from the inner circle becomes a study in frustration. Eventually we find ourselves looking on at the playing out of a folie à deux, one that, depending what one makes of a missive from House never opened, had considerable historical consequences.

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

The staging of the play at Long Wharf is exemplary. The thrust stage has been decorated with handsome wings where the “chorus” take a seat in comfort. A pool table adds the feeling of male camaraderie among the background players, while the striking touch of an ornate convex mirror seems to show us history in a glass.

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

Center stage is Colin’s Mrs. Wilson, by turns girlish, steely, clever, and never anything but loving toward her fallen hero. Glover’s Wilson is a defining role as well, played with winning brio—a labored delivery of a satirical limerick while partially paralyzed pretty much sums up the man’s character under duress. The president’s bonhomie is fully registered here, countering any sense of him as severe and stiff, and his almost fanatical pursuit of his grand ideal of the League, spurred by the horror of the Great War, becomes increasingly plaintive the more doomed.

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

As Cabot Lodge, Wyman has a brooding tenacity and the measured cadences of an old school politician, making hay while the sun shines. Applegate is steadfast as the pragmatic Tumulty, and Turner, as Dr. Grayson, suitably torn between the recovery he hopes for and the deterioration he fears. Two other standout roles: Routman as the wary VP who wants what’s best so long as he doesn’t have to run things and who bristles like any man kept waiting too long for an audience, and Groener as House; seen as a Judas by “the saint” Wilson feels on his way to becoming, House is conflicted by his great admiration for Wilson and by his sense of the political situation they are caught in. His admonition about Mrs. Galt, that it is political novices who take personal affront at matters of policy, becomes something of a hoist on his own petard, as his personal affront to Wilson’s policy-making loses him both friend and position.

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Full of fine performances that unroll with well-paced precision, The Second Mrs. Wilson shows that the person closest to the one in power may also be said to be in power. A fact about First Ladies that has not been often enough acknowledged, perhaps. DiPietro and Edelstein should also be commended for not dressing the situation up in a post-feminist view of woman’s obvious equality, but hewing to the era’s sense of the personal prestige “a lady” could manipulate as, simply, not a man. Mrs. Wilson, we see, knows how to make the most of forbearance and how to turn her opponent’s skepticism into respect. Her great fault, in the end, may be her protective effort to keep her ailing husband from playing politics with the boys.

The Second Mrs. Wilson
By Joe DiPietro

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Cast: Edith Wilson: Margaret Colin; President Woodrow Wilson: John Glover; Colonel Edward House: Harry Groener; Dr. Cary Grayson: Stephen Barker Turner; Secretary Joe Tumulty: Fred Applegate; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: Nick Wyman; Vice President Thomas Marshall: Steve Routman; Attendants: Harvey Martin & Mark Heinisch

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sund Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Wig & Makeup Design: Leah Lucas; Production Stage Manager: Peter Van Dyke; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Long Wharf Theatre
May 6-31, 2015

The Art of Lying

Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

The name David Ives conjures memories of his first huge hit, All in the Timing, which was, but for Shakespeare’s plays, the most produced play in the country in 1995-96. Likewise, in the 2013-14 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare. And speaking of Shakespeare, Ives has created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or—and he says this himself—respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course).

So it should come as no surprise that Ives’ play The Liar is an adaptation of a classic comedy from 1643 by Pierre Corneille (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity). For the most part, we come to Ives seeking hilarity. The Liar, a French farce beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, does not disappoint. Ives retains Corneille’s verse form and provides laughter in every line. Far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun—especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to notice it.

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Whenever he’s in a tight spot, or when simply making conversation, the most elaborate, overblown fictions spring from his imagination. For instance, when wishing to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, Dorante describes his night with a certain lady with outrageous and delightful double entendres. Amidst the verbal riches we all—except Alcippe—may forget that the latter is engaged to the lady.

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that Dorante’s extravagant stories keep us from growing weary with the plot of unmasking a truth we already know. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

As Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty Clarice, Monique Barbee has arguably the more difficult role and plays Lucrece with sensitivity and grace. As Clarice, Kate MacCluggage’s charisma derives from her palpable joy in acting and her expert fun with the language (MacCluggage was marvelous as a witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle in 2012).

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in the Yale Repertory Theatre's Arcadia this past fall. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids: Isabelle, sensual, and Sabine, sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant (Rusty Ross), as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings—black and white, spare and elegant—make for precisely choreographed set changes performed by the cast to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes—as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women—complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in their acts of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions the play elicits make it a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth, and so very French.

Dorante (read Ives via Corneille) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of our social selves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

The Liar
By David Ives

Adapted from Le menteur by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos

Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
Westport, May 5-23, 2015