It's All in the Game

Review of Non-Player Character, Yale Cabaret

How do you get to know people, and how do you get rid of people you no longer want to know? Vexed questions, in any context, I imagine, but in the world of online video games, where people meet as avatars in digital worlds—as for instance the realm of Spearlight, “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game”—such social interactions become fraught with a new kind of peril.

Particularly when, as the playbill for Walt McGough’s Non-Player Character at Yale Cabaret says, the social is “a simultaneous hybrid of feeds from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, online news and basically anything that has a comment section.” In other words, the characters in this play are “themselves” (whatever that means), and they are player-characters in online games, and they mostly connect via “text” delivered digitally. And when one sunders ties to another, there’s not only a trail of electronic communications, there may also be viral online reprisals.

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For Katja (Rachel Kenney), online life is not only a way to meet virtually with old friends from high school, like Trent (Dario Ladani Sanchez), but also a potential livelihood. When we first meet her, she’s developing a digital environment in which players do things like interact with and contemplate a tree. Not as exciting as offing opponents with gleeful vengeance, but it could find its niche, she believes. Trent has been her dogged supporter and too-shy-to-make-his-feelings-known admirer for years. She is in Seattle, he’s in Lancaster (PA, I assume), stuck in a swamp of arrested development, and the twain shall meet regularly to do battle in various video terrains.

When they join a game that requires a team, Trent introduces a bro from one of those online sites best known for vigorous trolling and toxic masculinity. Feldrick the Barbarian (John Evans Reese), let’s say, is living out a role close to his Id. His pal is the salacious fire witch Morwyn (Alex Vermilion), a person of uncertain gender. What’s amusing here, even if you don’t sample role-play games, is how McGough’s characters are so conscious of their chosen roles in the video environment even as they try to be themselves and figure each other out. The characters, in director Logan Ellis’ production, are rigidly earnest in their purposes, apt to dispute strategy and the kinds of hierarchies the online environment dictates.

One of the repeatedly funny elements is provided by Anula Navlekar as an amorphous range of “non-player characters,” figures generated by the game to aid plot and provide motives. The most fun here is when we’re in the game because, without that focus, these people don’t have much of what used to be called “interiority.”

The love story aspects of the tale, we might say, are old as time, but the twist comes when Trent, given the big freeze out by Katja, takes a page from Feldrick’s playbook and trashes her with posts online. Soon she’s the victim of stalkers who circulate photos of where she lives and doctored images of her bloodied. It’s not just that she’s not interested in an actual, physical relationship with Trent (who dreamed of joining her in Seattle, where she works at a Starbucks), she also may be using her looks to advance her career, and that’s just not fair!

What seems to interest McGough is the battle of the sexes dynamic here, but not much gets delivered on that score. There’s a moment of female-female bonding between Katja and her boss, Naomi (Navlekar), a veritable “non-character” in the plot pretty much denuded of anything but “support-speak.” There’s also a potentially funny moment in which Katja meets the man (Jason Najjoum) behind Morwyn that just becomes an awkward scene in which outrage meets obtuseness.

The projections provided by Christopher Evans and Jack Wesson, the video game animator, are the life of the party, helped along by the Spearlight costuming by April Hickman with props by Alexander McCargar. Rachel Kenney, who took over at the last minute for Sohina Sidhu, who has been cast in the Yale Rep’s production of Kiss, keeps her script in hand but could play a role this straight-forward with both hands behind her back. The rest of the cast, in Cab debuts but for Vermilion, are game, if not quite characters.

 

Non-Player Character
By Walt McGough
Directed by Logan Ellis

Producer: Jason Najjoum; Scenic & Props Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: April Hickman; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama; Original Music: Roxy Jia; Video Game Animator: Jack Wesson; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dramaturg: Alex Vermillion

Cast: Rachel Kenney, Jason Najjoum, Anula Navlekar, John Evans Reese, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Sohina Sidhu, Alex Vermillion

Yale Cabaret
April 19-21, 2018

Maria's Choice

Review of The Revisionist, Playhouse on Park

By pairing David, a twenty-something author from New York, with Maria, a Holocaust survivor in contemporary Poland, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist guarantees itself a certain relevance. At a time when those who lived through the Holocaust are dying off and a younger generation is growing up largely ignorant of what actually happened, the play keeps alive what could be called a necessary historical sense. With its intergenerational dynamic, The Revisionist successfully dramatizes how difficult communicating can be between those born in the first half of the twentieth century and those, born in the second half, who have come of age in the twenty-first century.

 Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

For too much of its running time, that seems to be the play’s entire point, a comic mismatch of intentions that aren’t quite funny or disorienting enough to justify their belaboring. In the later scenes, the revelation we’ve been waiting for arrives to make a stronger point—about family and remembrance and debt—that gives the play an uneasy resolution. The play’s dramatic arc, while not always as well-developed as it might be, mostly works, and Sasha Bratt’s production at Playhouse on Park maintains a quizzical and bemused tone that keeps us interested.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett) is an elderly Polish woman living in an apartment she treats as a shrine to her family, many dead and gone, others—like David’s grandfather—relatives who escaped to America. David (Carl Powell), Maria’s second cousin, is the author of a reasonably successful Young Adult novel (a political allegory that got reviewed, though not favorably, in the New York Times), who is trying to revise his latest manuscript for publication. He has come to her apartment in Poland as a last ditch refuge from his distracting life in New York. He needs a writer’s retreat, and finds instead a lonely relative poised to smother him with attention and chatter.

As an actor, Eisenberg is best-known in movies for playing somewhat quirky young men, intense with intelligence and often misguided. In the initial production of The Revisionist, he played David himself, paired with Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that earned raves. The performances in the Playhouse on Park production are strong and well-matched. As neither character is entirely likeable, we expect some development that will firmly tip the scales one way or the other, or that will lead to a happy rapprochement. We may warm to either, both, or neither character, but we do come to understand them better, whether or not they ever really understand each other.

 David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

Cecelia Riddett’s Maria is the more readily likeable, but she isn’t someone easy to be with, if only because her expectations are so high. She lives a quiet life, mostly punctuated by watching CNN and answering the phone—it’s always a telemarketer. Her right-hand man is a taxi driver named Zenon, nicely played as both easy-going and scary by Sebastian Buczyk, who drives her, carries her groceries, and, in one scene, tends her in a more intimate manner. Maria lets David use her own bedroom, while assuming a connection that, she believes, family members should have even if they’ve barely met (she saw David when he was a child; he doesn’t remember it). Her effort to coddle him is the kind of thing that would drive away someone his age, even if they had more of a family backstory.

 Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

David, for his part, is the epitome of the guest who is only there to suit himself. Bratt and Powell wisely don’t make David an Eisenberg clone, but rather play him as a youthful and insecure success, in a tone that perfectly suits his demographic. He’s used to taking himself seriously and knowingly descends to Maria’s level when his curiosity gets the best of him. He’s a chronic pot-smoker but never shows the stoner’s typical bursts of hilarity and depth. David is more of a latter day Woody Allen character, apt to feel put-upon and unappreciated, expecting consideration simply for the difficulty of being himself. Scenes in which the play seems to call for broad situation comedy—as when David walks in on Zenon shaving Maria’s legs, or when David gets his jollies having Zenon misuse American expletives—tend to be low key, here, as if the production knows such moments fall flat without a laugh-track.

And that’s the weakest aspect of the play: it has only a scatter-shot idea of how to make the situation amusing, so that much of what we see is simply working its way toward the Big Reveal. That aspect, full of the backstory of Maria’s life under the Nazis and just after, makes sense of her assertive effort to claim kin, and, in its outcome, takes aim at the worst of David right about the time we’ve come to accept him. The way people often do with family.

A prickly comedy aiming at deeper themes, The Revisionist works best as a cautionary tale about the ways to abuse a host and mislead a guest, and how sharing confidences is not a heart-to-heart if the hearts concerned never quite align.

 Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

 

The Revisionist
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Sasha Bratt

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Dialect and Language Coach: Sebastian Buczyk; Properties and Set Dressing: Pamela Lang & Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Sebastian Buczyk, Carl Howell, Cecelia Riddett

Playhouse on Park
April 11-29, 2018

Orbiting the Cabaret

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

Sprawling over three nights from 8 p.m. to midnight, in seven locations, and comprised of 19 different offerings, including musical performances, theater, videos, and multimedia events, the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, now in its third year, makes for a varied experience. Attendees determine for themselves how much to see and which pieces. With admission times at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., from March 29th through March 31st, the schedule demanded a certain flexibility and a willingness to move around if one wished to see as much as possible. What follows are some impressions of the performance pieces I saw.

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The provocative title of Michael Costagliola’s Hey Secret Service—This is My Official & Genuine Threat to Assassinate Donald J. Trump: The Musical meant it was not to be missed. The show combined video graphics with a cabaret-style presentation of songs by Costagliola, a third-year sound designer.

The key historical referent of the show was the plan to assassinate Trump hatched by Michael Stephen Stanford, a British citizen, in June, 2016, while Trump the media-star was campaigning for the highest political office in the nation. Singing from Stanford’s perspective, Costagliola deftly scored points for the violent overthrow of the current president, the virtues of musical theater, and the dismaying number of murders that would be necessary before one might arrive at someone who, in the succession to the country’s chief executive office, might be ascribed basic decency. Strumming a guitar, accompanied by piano, with odd heckling from the guy at the soundboard, Costagliola, as Stanford, also interacted with his confused but supportive mother via the internet.

Stanford, presented as something of a well-meaning naïf, determines that violence is the key to taking back the government from someone manifestly incompetent, what’s more, he argues, U.S. law allows the government to kill anyone deemed a threat to the nation’s welfare. So, offing the individual who poses the biggest threat to our collective welfare would have to be seen as an act of patriotism. Clever, indeed. And even cleverer was the song in which—citing how incensed Trump became about the reception afforded Vice President Pence at his attendance of Hamilton—Costagliola asserts that we may need no greater weapon than musical theater to bedevil our fatuous First Citizen.

Whether or not one would endorse Sonny Perdue as president, the litany of unacceptable candidates in line between Trump and the Secretary of Agriculture leaves one with a grim sense of the sad state of affairs. Ironic, funny, tuneful, Hey Secret Service… is a creditable and very American act of theater as provocation.

Hey Secret Service—This is My Official & Genuine Threat to Assassinate Donald J. Trump: The Musical
By Michael Costagliola
Devised with Wlad Woyno Rodriguez
Dramaturgy: Molly FitzMaurice; Design: Wlad Woyno Rodriguez; Associate Sound Design: Emily Duncan Wilson; Music played by Joshua Chu & Emily Duncan Wilson
Yale Cabaret: 3/29, 11:30 p.m.; 3/30, 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8 p.m.

 

 Wolf/Alice by Lucie Dawkins

Wolf/Alice by Lucie Dawkins

In the studio space above the Cabaret, third-year director Lucie Dawkins presented a performance piece called Wolf/Alice through all three nights of the Festival. Based on a story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, an imaginative reworking of figures from folk or fantasy literature, such as vampires and werewolves, Wolf/Alice depicts the challenged life of a feral child.

Carter’s Alice combines the wolf and the little girl from Little Red Riding-Hood, where the threat and attraction of the bestial contributes to the story’s thrill, and, of course, Lewis Carroll’s ever-inquisitive Alice. The nuns who attempt to rehabilitate the beastly child—played by Anula Naklevar and by Rachel Kenney in an amazingly detailed oversized head-mask—are creepier, in their cyborg-like appearance, than the human-flesh-eating, elderly vampire that Alice eventually takes up with.

The combination of music and puppet-handling made the sequences with the vampire completely involving. The entire enactment, with eerie lighting, haunting music, expressive puppeteering and liberal amounts of blood, was a moody and macabre theatrical work. The vocals by Sylvia D’Eramo, of the Yale School of Music, as the Moon, sometimes in counterpoint to a looped track of her own voice, were particularly effective (even with the incessant din provided by the very loud show occurring simultaneously in the Cabaret below on Friday night).

Wolf/Alice
By Lucie Dawkins
Collaborators: Daphne Agosin, Stephanie Bahniuk, Sylvia D’Eramo, Emma Deane, Roxy Jia, Rachel Kenney, Zoe Mann, Anula Naklevar, Emona Stoykova, Adrienne Wells
Cab Studio: March 29-31, 11 p.m.

 

On Saturday in the upstairs studio, Yale College junior sculpture major Victoria Blume’s projections of symmetrical, abstract digital art pieces, me, myself, and iPhone, was combined with the solo violin performance by Matthew Woodward (Yale School of Music) of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII. According to Woodward, one of the significant aspects of Berio’s composition is that it is both abstract and absurdist. And, for Blume, the phone is a conduit for creativity, allowing her to manipulate apps in ways not intended.

The loop of Blume’s images and the hypnotic, repetitious nature of Sequenza VIII complemented each other well, even if each was fully self-involved and indifferent to the other. Woodward played clad only in a tight swimsuit-like garment and moved while playing as though he were wandering within the music itself. Blume’s images looked a bit like Rorschach blots become video game backgrounds.

Here were works that, in their non-narrative rigor, let each viewer/listener find their own way. It can be so agreeable to be relieved of the need for interpretation.

me, myself, and iPhone
By Victoria Blume
Cab Studio: 3/29, 8 p.m.; 3/30, 8 & 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8:30 p.m.

Sequenza VIII
By Luciano Berio
Performed by Matthew Woodward
Cab Studio: 3/29, 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8:30 & 10:30 p.m.

 

 Brittany Bland's Sea Witch

Brittany Bland's Sea Witch

Perhaps that lack of interpretive edge went with me into Sea Witch, a shadow puppet show by second-year designer Brittany Bland, inspired and adapted from a play by Genne Murphy, a third-year playwright. Here, there was a narrative relayed in pictures only. The effects achieved by the overlay of the shadow-puppets on background cels were poetic at times, at other times more dramatic.

The story of the Sea Witch, an old fisherwoman, and her interaction with Lia, a “card shark,” and Ozzy, a casino boss, was, to me, murky at best. Suffice to say there was a traumatic backstory. The images, some beautiful, some more disturbing, accompanied by music and live Foley by Kathy Ruvuna, created a trance-like experience. Like a dream, meaning seemed subordinated to intangible effects such as the play of light and color in the background of the black foreground images.

Sea Witch
Proposed by Brittany Bland
Inspired by and adapted from a play by Genne Murphy
Adaptor, proposer, puppeteer: Brittany Bland; Puppeteers: Wlad Woyno Rodriguez, Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Live Foley: Kathy Ruvuna
Annex: 3/30, 9 p.m.; 3/31: 9:30 & 10:30 p.m.

 

All three nights, the African-American Cultural Center at Yale featured third-year director Shadi Ghaheri’s Post Scream and Terror. “A theatrical experiment about Love, Sex and Beauty,” the show brought female performers together to enact a series of entitled segments, some solo, some relational, some songs, some mostly interpretive movement. The sequence of the segments was determined by audience members pulling cards from a hat, with the proviso that the evening ends with the segment called “Crave,” after Sarah Kane’s play. The program lists Kane’s name among a number of “known and unknown female artists” that inspired the various pieces. Between segments, at times, one of the performers might comment or reminisce, the seeming informality drawing attention to the way the entire work moved through all four women—Ghaheri, Patricia Fa’asua, Kineta Kunutu, Juliana Aiden Martinez—in succession and at once.

At times there was a deliberate playfulness or childishness to the performance, as when Ghaheri introduced the show while rocking on a rocking horse or when Martinez rode around on an oversize tricycle. Some titles were simply the name of the performer, as for instance “Tricia” for Fa’asua’s stirring a cappella vocal, or “Ilia” for Ilia Paulino’s song, accompanying herself on guitar. Others, such as “Rope,” named the main prop, a long rope that both divided and united Ghaheri and Kunutu.

The purpose of most of the pieces, it seemed, was the effort to express female experience in both its joyous and oppressive aspects. At one point, in a piece called “Fashion,” three women entered and donned fanciful accessories as a mockery of the catwalk of fashion shows; in another, called “Stephanie,” Stephanie Machado presided over a table of objets before selecting a bracelet and exiting, babbling happily.

The show’s title could be taken to indicate that the lives being depicted have moved past “scream and terror,” so that most of the segments seemed to indicate strength, resilience, and a sense of supportive belonging. The final segment, which began with Fa’asua walking in wide circles reading a long speech from Sarah Kane’s Crave while the others moved about in freeform dance, ended with a delightful valedictory. Moving as one entity, processing out of the playing space on their butts, the women sang and chanted fervently, “fuck that life!”

Post Scream and Terror
By Shadi Ghaheri
Devised and created by Patricia Fa’asua, Shadi Ghaheri, Kineta Kinutu, Juliana Aiden Martinez, Stephanie Cohen, Mika Eubanks, Kathy Ruvuna; with Louisa Gummer, Stephanie Machado, Ilia Paulino, Sohina Sidhu
AfAm House: March 29-31, 11 p.m.

 

Diverse in its aims and inspiration, the Satellite Festival is a hard event to summarize, its main strength is letting audiences have access to short works, works in development, tech-based and multimedia works, and works that eschew the traditional methods of storytelling for means more expressive and intuitive. Keeping audiences on the move throughout the weekend brings an air of festival to theater, a welcome break from the rhythm of shows with which audiences have become perhaps too comfortable by this point in the season. Made even more ambitious this year by the intention of its curators, Jeremy O. Harris and Amauta Marston-Firmino, to encompass the Cabaret’s history, the Satellite Festival demonstrates again the range of talents and the unexpected collaborations that Yale Cabaret has fostered in its first 50 years.

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Yale Cabaret’s 50th Season
Satellite Festival

 

Curators: Jeremy O. Harris, Amauta Marston-Firmino; Producer: Carl Holvick; Associate Producer: Zak Rosen; Producing Stage Manager: Zachry Bailey; Producing Technical Director: Matt Davis; Producing Sound Director: Roxy Jia; Producing Props Director: Madeleine Winward; Basement Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Sound Engineer: Noah Gershenson; Stage Manager for Wolf/Alice: Mert Dilek; Stage Manager for CCAM: Joelle Besch

Yale Cabaret and environs
March 29-31, 2018

Who Wears the Heels

Review of The Legend of Georgia McBride, TheaterWorks

Boy meets his inner girl—more or less—and performs happily ever after. That’s the essential gist of Matthew Lopez’s cheerily entertaining The Legend of Georgia McBride, a funny and breezy look at the showpersonship of drag performance now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

Casey (Austin Thomas) is a would-be Elvis Impersonator whose act is dying, though he refuses to see that. His put-upon wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), has to give him a wake-up call when his buying a Papa John’s pizza puts them in the red and they might face eviction. The chemistry between the two is earnest in a sit-com manner where we don’t really believe the direness of the situation or see any reason not to assume that Casey will come up with something.

 Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

“Something” arrives in the form of Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) and his sidekick Rexy (Nik Alexander), two drag queens from out of town who have come to the bar run by Tracy’s cousin Eddie (J. Tucker Smith) to bring in the customers with their stylish show. One imagines we have RuPaul to thank for the fact that folks in a nondescript Florida beach town will flock to see drag queens flaunt their stuff. In any case, flock they do and then, one night, Rexy is too tanked to go on for her big Edith Piaf number. Tracy, with Eddie’s backing, threatens and cajoles Casey, long since demoted to bartender, into taking over, which he does with a charmingly inept lip-synch to a song that, in time, he almost manages to make his own.

All well and good, except Casey hasn’t leveled with Jo about where the money’s coming from. That, such as it is, is the main plot complication, along with the possible return to form of Rexy, which would be a shame once Casey has re-upped his sequin-studded Elvis-jumpsuit into feisty “Redneck Woman” duds. Casey likes his new persona—Georgia McBride—and much of the middle section of the show has Casey and Tracy strutting their stuff in lively fashion.

Matthew Lopez’s script is very funny, with many sharp asides, mostly in the mouth of Tracy, the drag queen as backstage den mother, who Jamison Stern plays with wit, warmth and a tight grip on making the most of the seedy dregs of Eddie’s bar. Most of the show’s sparks come from Tracy’s deft humor while dispensing tough love to her acolyte, Casey, and her flighty collaborator, Rexy, and from Stern’s drag numbers, performed in classic diva couture. One number, in which he lip-synchs memorable movie quotations, convinces us that Tracy’s show would keep 'em coming back for more.

 Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

With Casey/Georgia’s show, I’m less certain. Speaking personally, the prospect of Country-diva drag doesn’t push the same show-biz buttons, and Thomas’ Georgia, while convincing as a Country-diva, infuses his stage persona with none of the bristly charm or femme fatale naturalism that can make drag so fascinating. Casey was more beguiling as Piaf.

Much of the visual comedy comes from stuffing a straight man into woman’s clothing, with drag presented as, for some, a more authentic way of life, and, for such as Casey, a way to make a buck in a costume. It’s all about performance, sort of Tootsie meets La Cage aux Folles. The play never ventures into the murky waters of gender identity or sexual ambivalence. Casey loves his wife. End of story. The Legend of Georgia McBride isn’t about gay performativity but rather a valentine to hetero men who like to dress as women.

 Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

The problem of a wife who might not warm to a hubby as a bubbly babe gets its moment but mostly any real contentions disappear like last night’s sequins. A key argument between Jo and Casey is ably diffused by landlord/friend Jason (Nik Alexander as well) who leavens the “heavy” moment with apt comments. Alexander’s Rexy is also an asset, and the actor adds a welcome dose of cattiness to Rexy’s effort to enlighten Casey—who never seems to lose his naivete, no matter how seasoned he becomes as Georgia—about the true nature of drag. The speech may feel a bit of an editorial but it helps to let audiences register why Rexy and Casey will never be on the same page even if they’re on the same stage. Another welcome scene, with a bit more depth, lets Stern show us Tracy when she’s a he, and Stern makes the implications of the distance between Tracy’s drag persona and his offstage persona register subtly.

 Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are numerous and eye-catching. I was having a great time noting the range of Hawaiian shirts Eddie wore over his concert T-shirt, even before he started dressing up for national holidays. Rexy and Tracy and Georgia are always a sight to behold, and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design provides a tell-tale backstage that switches gracefully into the couple’s modest living room. John Lasiter’s lighting moves between public-space and private-space with élan, while Ed Chapman’s sound design and Ralph Perkins’ choreography make the musical numbers cook.

The Legend of Georgia McBride aims to be a crowd-pleaser and succeeds by giving everyone a good time and letting its hero have his wife and his high-heels too.

 Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

 

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography: Ralph Perkins; Set Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Casting: McCorkle Casting; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Nik Alexander, Samaria Nixon-Fleming, J. Tucker Smith, Jamison Stern, Austin Thomas

TheaterWorks
March 16-April 22, 2018

Casus Belli

Review of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, Yale Repertory Theatre

The ancient Greek stories that surround the siege of Troy are many and varied. Some are stories of fierce battle, some are stories of defection from battle, of leave-taking and of homecoming, often to violence or betrayal. Some are stories of clever subterfuge, and one of the all-time greatest a scene in which a king in mourning kisses the hands of and shares a meal with the man who killed the king’s beloved son. These stories have resonated for centuries throughout the literature originating in or derived from Europe.

 The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 keeps that literary tradition in mind in a trilogy of plays situated at the time of the American Civil War. The idea of creating theater equal to a mythological sense of the battle over slavery in the States—in plays focusing primarily on the enslaved—is dauntingly brilliant. Significantly, the rhythms of Parks’ poetic language invite epic considerations and give her characters a stylized naturalism that gestures to more symbolic possibilities, allowing her characters to become figures for heroism, fate, and freedom. The trilogy offers a resonant and folkloric depiction of personal confrontations the war brings to light, as though, as with the war at Troy, the Civil War makes everyone heroic, no matter how flawed they might be.

That the situations in these three plays only obliquely invoke the body politic testifies to Parks’ canny sense of how to keep matters in scale. The stories she tells us are about determining one’s self-worth, and for the key figures here—Hero (James Udom), his lover Penny (Eboni Flowers), and possible rival Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)—that struggle is bound by social restrictions, with slavery, like racism more generally, acting as a critical affront to liberty. But within those bounds there is also the question of one’s place in the cosmos and one’s place in one’s own skin, and Parks makes her characters equal to the question of what kinds of freedom there are—anywhere, at any time.

 Hero (James Udom)

Hero (James Udom)

In the first play, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero wars within himself about whether to stay and work the field among the other slaves, or to ride into battle for the Confederacy with his “Master-Boss-Master,” the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), who has promised him his freedom if he serves and survives. On the one hand, there is Penny, who wants Hero to stay, and on the other, The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones), Hero’s adoptive father, who fluctuates but sees the value of going to war. Homer, who we might assume to be a detached onlooker like his namesake the blind Greek bard, provides a third consideration. He has some crucial history with Hero, and that adds an element of possible expiation to Hero’s decision. An entertaining chorus of field-hands (Chivas Michael, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Erron Crawford) debates and takes bets on Hero’s ultimate decision; there’s also a singer with a guitar (Martin Luther McCoy) who frames the action. Hero, played with a worried thoughtfulness by James Udom, emerges as a heroic figure who takes upon himself the contention that freedom can be earned.

 Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” there are three characters: the Colonel, who likes to sing little ditties about coming out on top, Hero, still servile, but now, near the war, more clearly equal or even superior to the old white man when it comes to survival, and Smith (Tom Pecinka), a wounded Union captain (allegedly) who, bleeding and encaged, is lower than Hero in this hierarchy. The struggle here is again for Hero’s soul, as we wait to see who he will side with—his “boss-master” whose side he is supposedly on, as a Southerner, or the Northerner, who is an “enemy” captive, and a stranger. In terms of racial difference, the Colonel has one of the most telling pair of speeches in the play, at first imagining his mourning when Hero, freed, leaves him, and then asserting his certainty that, no matter how bad things get, he can thank God he’s white. Later, the story of the Colonel’s fall will be played for comic effect, though its consequences are serious enough to Hero.

 Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

In Part 3, the potential rivalry between Homer and Hero—returned from the war, having taken the name Ulysses—over Penny takes us into more straight-forward domestic territory, while a group of runaway slaves hang about as a new chorus, waiting “to jet.” There’s much more comedy here, provided by Hero’s garrulous dog, “Oddsee” (whose absence in Part 1 was seen as a bad omen), played with a nonchalant dignity by Gregory Wallace, particularly in a protracted exchange in which Penny and Homer wait on tenterhooks to hear the tale of Hero’s end. The resolution, such as it is, leaves us with Hero/Ulysses back where he started—but with a few key differences.

In each of the plays, Parks introduces what could be called a discordant note, and, in each case, its effect varies. In the first, it’s a story that comes to light about Hero and Homer, and the Colonel, in the past. The story undermines Hero, though we might also say it makes him more complex. In Part 2, the true nature of Smith makes that play’s triangulation even more emphatic, though perhaps too determined. And in Part 3, when Hero/Ulysses pulls a new fact from his pocket, we might question the merits of what seems a plot device more than a character flaw.

 The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

There aren’t any flaws in Liz Diamond’s handsome and sure-footed production. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is starkly simple but effective, with iron girders in the place of trees and an open playing space that Yi Zhao’s lighting makes dramatic use of, in particular the silhouettes in Part 1. The showmanship of Martin Luther McCoy is a great asset to the production, and Gregory Wallace as Hero’s dog pretty much steals the show in Part 3.

 Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Udom shows us how Hero’s vacillations and justifications mark his struggle. Hero’s sense of his servitude to the Colonel as in some key way defining offers us a sense of how personal worth can be tied to accepting one’s fate. Freedom can be a shock to such certainties. As Penny, Eboni Flowers commands sympathy without tipping into anachronistic attitudes toward her role in the triangle. As Homer, Julian Elijah Martinez gives a nicely understated performance, creating a knowing tone for an enigmatic character. The moodiness of Dan Hiatt’s Colonel helps to make Part Two dramatically compelling, aided by Tom Pecinka’s finely nuanced take on Smith, a role that could be called more a device than a character.

 Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Epic and almost impossibly ambitious in concept, Suzan-Lori Parks’ defining trilogy receives a masterful production at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 7, then moves to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater from April 25 to May 20.

 

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Liz Diamond
With songs and additional music by Suzan-Lori Parks

Choreography: Randy Duncan; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design and Musical Direction: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine María Rodríguez, Catherine Sheehy; Technical Director: Latiana (LT) Gourzong; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Chantal Jean-Pierre; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Wig Designer: Cookie Jordan; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Erron Crawford, Eboni Flowers, Safiya Fredericks, Dan Hiatt, Steven Anthony Jones, Julian Elijah Martinez, Martin Luther McCoy, Chivas Michael, Tom Pecinka, James Udom, Gregory Wallace

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 16-April 7, 2018

Noah's Art

Review of The Guadalupes, Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s 50th season has featured more than a few new works with a decidedly autobiographical focus. In Arturo Soria’s Ni Mi Madre, Soria, a second-year actor, played his mother. In This American Wife, third-year actor Patrick Foley and second-year dramaturg Michael Breslin played some version of themselves, speaking, at times on video, about their passion for Real Housewives of New Jersey. And in second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ play the feels (kms) the characters spoke at times as some version of the playwright. In the show currently at the Cab, first-year playwright Noah Diaz acts in and comments on his own play, The Guadalupes, with first-year actor JJ McGlone playing Noah and sometimes acting as an onstage videographer of the show. The play’s focus is on Diaz’s relationship to his late grandmother, Guadalupe, who died this past summer, and Diaz’s way of sharing some of the burden of that event.

 Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

What all these works share, one could say, is a similar concern with the areas where theater—as contrived event—and actual life confound and expound one another. Since all these young artists are in the Yale School of Drama, theater is a constant concern, and we can see how that plays out depends, in part, on their focus. As a playwright, Diaz puts the actual mechanics of writing on the stage at key moments, as for instance typing lines on his laptop that now become part of the play and also having McGlone scroll through notes for earlier drafts of the play. As a performer, he also puts himself forward as a kind of unassuming narrator figure, claiming he didn’t intend to be in the play—which may be true, even though it’s hard to imagine how the play would play without him.

Much is made of the playwright’s problem of making a play out of an experience that is elusive in its meaning. Most of us experience the deaths of our grandparents and eventually the deaths of our parents, and how those events change us is something we might not fully comprehend for quite some time. Diaz, with the experience still fresh, is trying to see what difference such a loss makes. The most powerful part of the show is when Diaz, as his grandmother, sits in an armchair while McGlone asks him a series of yes or no questions while videoing his face in close-up. Certainly an actor could sit in that chair and pretend to be someone’s grandmother, but what the camera finds in Diaz’s face are traces of his own, very individual sense of his own, very individual grandmother. In her short answers, we see “her” (through him) remember the memories he has of her. It’s very moving.

 Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

The play makes a virtue of naiveté, with McGlone at one point asking audience members for any photos of their grandmothers they might have on their phones. The off-hand tone plays against the enormity of death, in a sense, but it also treats grand-parental mortality as the common event it is. The relation that bedevils Diaz is the one between the beloved figure who helped to provide an early sense of familial identity and the failing person who meets her end while the grandson has just got his start in life. That dovetailing is part of the text as well, as Diaz makes it clear that his grandmother died while he was writing a play his first summer after acceptance at the Drama School. It’s such a neat interplay of contrived drama (the theater) and actual drama (a loved one’s death) as to be almost irresistible as a subject for a first-person play.

There could be many ways that might go (and Diaz’s notes let us see some ideas), but what The Guadalupes does with the “material” is to make it both a form of wake that evokes with feeling a departed life, and a form of personal and artistic critique—we never doubt that Diaz is struggling with what he can dramatize about his grandmother and how, and that struggle is retained in the drama we watch. There are some interesting moments that play with how we assume the process takes place, as when Diaz objects to a segment he says was cut and McGlone insists on it. The segment has Diaz reading Spanish phrases, as his grandmother, with nothing like a native speaker’s fluency as McGlone, as Noah, replies.

The play takes its name from the stated fact that both Diaz’s grandmother and grandfather were named Guadalupe. This interesting tidbit sets up the name as common in the family and might have been Noah’s name. Early on, McGlone puts cut-out photos of Diaz’s parents on camera to recreate fantasized dialogues from their early romance which leads to their son’s birth. Such bits of autobiographical detail are sprinkled through the play but none land with quite the dramatic power as the close-up video of Diaz as the grandmother in the chair, nor the comic zest of a swift re-enactment of a favorite scene from the disaster film Twister (viewing it together was a shared reference point for grandmother and grandson).

 Noah (JJ McGlone)

Noah (JJ McGlone)

Often, as McGlone busies himself at the laptop desk with video and microphone, Diaz paints a wall to signal his grandmother’s regular repainting of her rooms. The act becomes a figure for the many different colors certain figures add to our lives but also the problem of coloring-in the gaps in memories—Diaz, both as himself and his grandmother, claims more than once that his “memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Great artistry has gone into this seemingly artless and improvised production, directed by Emma Weinstein. While The Guadalupes shares some themes and approaches with other Cabaret shows this season, it has a stronger sense than most of the workshop/studio ambiance that the Cabaret space sustains so well. And that might be the best possible lead-in to the upcoming Satellite Festival, March 29th-31st, which will feature a variety of short works, many highlighting experimental and technical features of theater.

 

The Guadalupes
By Noah Diaz
Directed by Emma Weinstein

Co-Producers: Sylvia Xiaomeng Zhang, Kathy Li; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Erin Sullivan; Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Stage Manager: Samantha Tirrell

Cast: Noah Diaz, JJ McGlone

Yale Cabaret
March 8-10, 2018

 

Gags Galore

Review of The 39 Steps, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Enter the wacky world of spies in England and Scotland between the two great wars of last century. Adapted by Patrick Barlow for the stage, from John Buchan’s 1915 novel by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps, directed by Pamela Hill at Music Theatre of Connecticut, keeps up a steady pace of escapes and oddball encounters, with the tone of an espionage story jettisoned in favor of skit comedy and slapstick. With all characters played by four actors, and the artifice of theater exposed right on the stage, props get put through their paces and the audience is made to indulge its imagination.

 Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

MTC likes such stripped down staging, as it has shown with its staged radio shows, and much of the charm of the show comes from a willingness to make theater a frenetic game of make-believe. That starts with Gary Lindemann’s Richard Hanny, a posh Brit who lounges about narrating his ennui before being catapulted into a series of dangerous predicaments by way of an encounter with Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German woman played with hilarious creepiness by Laura Cable. Lindemann’s Hanny is a kind of unflappable Everyman, even if there’s nothing at all everyday about his adventures.

 Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

The acting here is turned up a few notches from the kind of overplaying you’d find—played for real—in B movies, or on radio programs. The situations also smack of radio shows, with visualization a key part of the effect—except, of course, for the sight gags. My favorite features Lindemann and Cable—as Pamela, a skeptical woman pressed into aiding Hannay—handcuffed together and trying to get over a stile. And the bit when she removed her stockings while handcuffed makes comedy of discomfort.

 Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

The play is designed to let such tomfoolery go on as long as it can, particularly the many bits furnished by the two clowns, Matt Densky and Jim Schilling. It helps that Schilling bears a resemblance to that great veteran of televised skit comedy, Tim Conway. When Schilling mutters and putters around, setting up chairs for a speech, or has to carry several chairs offstage at once, the gags are vintage Conway. As the other Clown, Matt Densky tends to specialize in outrageous voices—I don’t think I’ll ever forget how his diabolical German says “Mr. Hannay!”

 Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

The presence of diabolical Germans and slow-witted Scots (without quite as funny an accent as you’d expect) and bland society types and traveling lingerie salesmen, to say nothing of the many caps Schilling juggles as cop, train conductor, and passenger, lets us experience a parade of characters as matters of costume and voice and mannerism.

 The cast of The 39 Steps

The cast of The 39 Steps

The entire cast is having so much fun you might find yourself forgetting what is going on with the story. It doesn’t really matter, and the plot’s flights of fancy are abetted by a number of references to Hitchcock films for the attentive. I have to say though that the production I saw in London’s West End in 2015 seemed more verbally inventive, but that might be the effect of familiarity.

MTC’s version of this screwball caper comedy brings together two of its top comic actors—Schilling, who has played many roles, and Densky, last seen as the irritable department store elf in The Santaland Diaries—with Lindemann and Cable, two other comic talents who work very well together, to provide an evening of inspired silliness with pretty much a gag a minute. Seeing these quick-timed switches in such close proximity to an audience makes for a certain awe at what they get away with.

 

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggy de la Cruz; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Laura Cable, Matt Densky, Gary Lindemann, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 2-18, 2018

The Game's Aboard

Review of Murder on the Orient Express, Hartford Stage

Murder on the Orient Express, I suspect, is one of the more intriguing murder mysteries in Agatha Christie’s perennially popular oeuvre. Set on a world-famous train that breathes old-world charm, with an international hodgepodge of passengers that includes cosmopolitan aristocrats, their attendant servant class, and various persons of interest, the murder of an American businessman, Mr. Ratchett, alias Cassetti, sets off a whodunit that sweeps up the entire clientele of the Calais coach in its investigation.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Helmed by the redoubtable detective Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), the sleuthing entails red herrings and aliases, some more questionable than others. First published in 1934, Christie’s original novel, adapted for the screen in high style in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, boasts a canny sense of how a complex killing could be carried off on a snow-bound train in close quarters. Ken Ludwig’s adaptation for the stage, directed by Emily Mann, includes a few nods to the beloved Lumet film, and boasts its own canny sense of how to fit a couple elaborate railway cars, housing a cast of 11 actors in 13 roles, on the stage at Hartford Stage.

 The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

In this sumptuous production, first staged at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, the main artistic features are the stylistic brio of William Ivey Long’s costumes, the detail of Beowulf Boritt’s sets—including the use of curtains to suggest framing as in a film and even a sense of panning—and mood-creating lighting, sound, and music for a richly achieved world. The main entertainment is provided by the character-actor turns, as Ludwig’s heterogeneous characters, most adapted mostly faithfully from Christie, some by way of the film, try to convince Poirot they are not other than they seem. The levels of deceit vary, and we soon begin to wonder if anyone is telling the truth and what each is trying to hide. A key clue early on lets us know (if we don’t already) the identity of Ratchett (played as an uneasy tough guy by Ian Bedford), and, from then on, it’s a matter of determining who fits into the backstory and how.

That backstory involves dire unpleasantness involving an unfortunate little girl named Daisy Armstrong (Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt), her rich parents and their staff. That crime’s distance from the present action lets the murder on the train be allowed its comic elements as its victim is someone no one would mourn. Still, the solution of the murder, which makes for a great set-piece in Act Two, complete with spotlighted flashbacks, creates an ethical quandary for Poirot (though one not nearly so tiresomely tendentious as in the recent film adaptation, directed with but scant grasp of the material by Kenneth Branagh).

 Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

The big question here is whether the elaborate revenge on Ratchett is the perfect crime.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Doubtless it would have been, if only Poirot, played with self-involved panache and a wry sense of human foibles by Pittu, hadn’t been given a berth on the train last-minute by M. Bouc, Poirot’s dear friend and the manager of the line (played by Evan Zes as a florid and anxious Watson). Poirot’s presence brings out a parade of striking attitudes by those whose mere presence in the coach makes them suspects.

 Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Among the best are Julie Halston as Mrs. Hubbard, a brassy, oft-married (as in the film) American with a love of Broadway; Veanne Cox as the gruff Princess Dragomiroff, a relic of another time full of captious commentary on her fellow travelers, particularly Mrs. Hubbard; Leigh Ann Larkin as an elegantly gowned and lovely former doctor (Ludwig’s touch) now married to an absent Hungarian count, who helps Poirot with medical know-how and nearly turns his head; and Ian Bedford as blustery Scotsman Colonel Arbuthnot and the unprepossessing Ratchett.

 Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Samantha Steinmetz plays Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary accompanying the Princess, with the meekness Ingrid Bergman earned an Oscar for giving her in the film, but with an accent that would doubtless make Poirot question her bona fides in real life. Rounding out the cast are Juha Sorola as Hector McQueen, a prickly assistant to Ratchett, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Michel, the conductor with a secret, and Susannah Hoffman as Mary Debenham, a young governess in a romantic intrigue with Arbuthnot. A surprising act of violence against her comes as a distraction for Poirot and a somewhat gratuitous Act One climax.

 The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

Christie’s is a world in which murder, however alarming to the innocent and unfortunate for the deceased, has its set target and its deliberate—and recoverable—enactment. The enactment is everything, we might say, and this Murder on the Orient Express steams along with a sure pace and enough visual and verbal variety to maintain interest—even if you already know the culprit.

Ludwig, well-known for comic works such as Lend Me a Tenor, The Game’s Afoot, and Baskerville, was commissioned by the Christie estate to adapt the novel for the stage. The playwright does a fine job of trimming excess and keeping the interactions coming, and his script is at its best as a banter of jibes and jabs among a group of people we would be surprised to see in the same restaurant. Mann’s direction doesn’t go too far into campiness—though I wouldn’t complain if it did—and there’s no effort to give Christie’s characters a deeper psychology. With murder mysteries, everyone is only as complex as their motives, and here the motive is a mighty vehicle indeed.

As a glimpse of a bygone age, Murder on the Orient Express offers welcome romance and its plot’s stodginess is also its charm. Ludwig’s best touch is letting Poirot open and close the show by addressing the audience, so that the entire play is framed as the memory of a brilliant but also fallible man looking back on a troublesome case. Pittu’s Poirot orients us toward the question he would like to express: is a deliberate killing ever justifiable?  The play is light-hearted enough not to take its doubts too seriously, but the question remains.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

 

 

Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Emily Mann
A McCarter Theatre Center Production

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Ken Billington; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Thom Jones

Cast: Ian Bedford, Veanne Cox, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; Julie Halston, Susannah Hoffman, Leigh Ann Larkin, Charles Paul Mihaliak, David Pittu, Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt, Juha Sorola, Samantha Steinmetz, Evan Zes

Hartford Stage
February 15-March 16, 2018; extended to March 25

Primordial Struggle

Review of Mud, Yale Cabaret

María Irene Fornés’ Mud, now at the Yale Cabaret, directed by third-year actor Patrick Madden, has the compression of a parable, with scenic shifts reminiscent of Beckett’s knife-edge comedies. The play charts a progress of debility, with, in this production, a mix of wryness and weirdness. It’s haunting theater and that’s in part due to a careful creation of atmosphere, with scenic design by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, lighting by Emma Deane, sound design and music by Frederick Kennedy and Liam Bellman-Sharpe, and spare but well-designed costumes by Sarah Woodham. The play takes place in a space of intense confrontation and supplication, with key freezes that seem hieratic.

Much hinges on Danielle Chaves’ performance as Mae, a woman of no means whose job is pressing clothes—on the kitchen table, the main prop of the set—while tending to Lloyd (Devin White), a slouch of man who has taken sick. Though there’s enough realism to suggest depths of rural poverty and ignorance, the prevailing tone has nothing to do with social reform and everything to do with whatever, we imagine, separates the human from the animal.

 Lloyd (Devin White), Mae (Danielle Chaves)

Lloyd (Devin White), Mae (Danielle Chaves)

And that’s why Mae is so key. If she’s played as a naïf or a struggling woman seeking to better herself, we move into a different realm. Chaves plays her with a steely self-possession, letting us see that, regardless of her circumstances, her will drives the play. Her trajectory takes her from care-giver to desirer to object of desire to—well, I don’t want to give it away. Suffice to say, she leads us to the heart of what Fornés shows to be the basic stuff of life. And it is to this production’s credit that the final image is debased, brutal, sad, and quite beautiful.

The play begins with Mae cajoling Lloyd to seek out a doctor, as they discuss his impotence as one of his disease’s symptoms. We might suspect that the disease is a symptom of a greater dysfunction between the sexes, particularly when Lloyd insists he is able to ejaculate on his own. It’s an exchange that is both funny in its directness and appalling in its unvarnished crudity. The exchange recalls Godot’s joke about death by hanging being worth it for the ejaculation, but in terms of a general condition. Lloyd is a “poor, forked creature,” reduced to sexual mechanism.

When Lloyd does at last get a pamphlet describing his condition, Mae can’t understand it and brings in a more educated man, Henry (Brandon E. Burton) to read it to them, with what becomes an echo of Lucky pontificating for the benefit of Vladimir and Estragon. It all falls on deaf ears, but Mae falls in love with Henry’s brain and so he is invited to stay. The new configuration reduces Lloyd to the role of a family pet as he sleeps beneath the table with Henry enjoying his bed.

 Mae (Danielle Chaves), Lloyd (Devin White), Henry (Brandon E. Burton)

Mae (Danielle Chaves), Lloyd (Devin White), Henry (Brandon E. Burton)

Mae’s pitch to Henry shows her as sexual mechanism dressed in an appeal to Henry’s pride in himself. There are many such moments—another is when Mae’s reading from a textbook about starfish angers Lloyd, and another is when Henry queries Mae about her relation to Lloyd and receives a tale about her father, a foundling, and a relation between Mae and Lloyd that is almost incestuous but which she likens to animals mating.

Lloyd gets his own back when Henry suffers a fall that mostly paralyzes him, leading to two other scenes both comic and wrenching: Lloyd tries feeding Henry who drools and spits out a glop that puts us in mind of ejaculate, and, in another sexual mechanism scene, Henry insists he is still virile and drags his failing body to Mae as if pulled forward by sheer lust. In their Cab debuts, White and Burton acquit themselves well, playing the shifts in Lloyd and Henry as two challenged by fate and coping by means of a maleness that proves indomitable no matter how debilitated. White renders well Lloyd's fierce neediness and scary mood swings, and Burton makes Henry a sympathetic man with an eye to his own status who remains remarkably dignified throughout. Important scenes involving money take us into additional areas of rivalry and payback.

In the end, this triangle seems poised to assume any number of allegorical readings, but, as is the case with the best theater, bearing witness to its presentation is a form of participation, requiring contemplative attention and a certain primordial identification that is richly rewarding.

 

Mud
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Patrick Madden

Producer: Leandro Zaneti; Scenic Design: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Design: Emma Deane; Sound Design & Original Music: Frederick Kennedy, Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Production Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: David Phelps

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Devin White

Yale Cabaret
February 22-24, 2018

If the Corset Fits

Review of Intimate Apparel, Playhouse on Park

Intimate Apparel, by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a well-meaning play that's a bit unsatisfyingly stodgy. It plays to soap opera expectations about the tricky course of love, even as it strives to make more of the familiar types that inhabit its world. Its humor is low-key and its evocation of behaviors that might be deemed taboo rather tame. Nottage restricts her tone to the borderline gentility of a working African-American woman just after the turn of the century in lower Manhattan. The drama plays close to plausible reality, even as Nottage’s situations gesture, here and there, to more contemporary views of romance and empowerment.

 Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther, played by Darlene Hope with winning simplicity, is plain-spoken and plain-looking, with talented hands as a seamstress and designer of clothes, and a vision of herself as the future owner of a beauty parlor. Her tribulations stem from loneliness and the dream of a man to share her life. George Armstrong (Beethovan Oden) is a wild card from out of nowhere. A worker on the Panama Canal who hears of Esther through a fellow worker who had been a congregant at Esther’s church, George addresses himself to Esther through letters for the entire first Act. He seems a steady man looking for a church-going woman stateside, but is he sincere?

As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro at Playhouse on Park, the play’s episodic structure—the two Acts are comprised of scenes each named after an article of clothing—becomes more problematic due to the production’s drawn-out pacing. There’s a lot of putting on and off of clothes and that tends to slow things down, as does the spread-out staging. We follow Esther through a series of interactions with a small-town’s worth of acquaintances, moving from one setting to another: the room in the boarding-house that she rents from Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray); the boudoir of the upper-class white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who buys stylish corsets Esther custom-makes; the piano lounge of a prostitute, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), who also buys lingerie Esther designs; and the fabric shop of an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin). Esther, played with a shy savvy that makes her an interesting and interested interlocutor, brings a certain level of pining to each space and meets with persons who are generally more experienced, or refined, or opinionated, or established.

As with a Chekhov play, there’s a lot of time spent establishing the tone and outlook of each character, if only so that there can be a plot development on each front in Act Two, after George in the flesh ceases to be a romantic fantasy and Esther must cope with a role that gives her more grief than status or satisfaction. The play is better in Act Two if only because Esther starts to have misgivings and regrets and even finds herself to be a romantic interest on more than one front and in a triangle on another.

 Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Nottage plays with the plotting of sentimental fiction, where any character introduced is either a romantic interest or a rival to the heroine, and there’s a certain amount of wry awareness to make that work. Yet Esther’s reactions tend to be all-too predictable, even if we share her viewpoint enough to accept them as—to use a word with a certain relevance, both as dated expression and thematic pun—“fitting.” We might find ourselves wishing that Esther would expressly not don a corset in an effort to spark the lukewarm ardor of her husband, or that she might step across lines of class, race, and hetero-normativity to fire it up with Mrs. Van Buren, but such acts would be even more unlikely than some of the things that do happen here. The facet of the play that must maintain our engagement is the meandering arc of Esther’s sentimental education.

We might like to imagine what a high caliber cast would do with these roles—which all call for a kind of consummate character-acting that isn’t so easily achieved. At Playhouse, certain key elements seem lacking. As Mr. Marks, Ben MacLaughlin seems more like a fond shop assistant rather than a man who might be of interest to Esther. There’s little to make us feel the gravitas of an attraction to or from Esther. Her interest in him seems to stem from the fact that Marks, who has a prospective arranged bride he has never seen, is the only sympathetic man in Esther’s environs (Manhattan is a rather sparsely populated area, apparently). As the other lonely character who might find a soul-mate in Esther, Mrs. Van Buren is a typical desperate housewife, wineglass in hand, and it’s unlikely anyone will find her very sympathetic.

 Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray has a certain cheery, if nosy, wisdom, but her disbelief in the dream version of George falls, of course, on deaf ears. As the prostitute who could’ve been a pianist or at least a showgirl, Zuri Eshun plays well to type: she’s forthright, unromantic, genuinely fond of Esther and able to toss out lines about not being on speaking terms with God. Through no fault of her own—other than her beauty and availability—she comes between Esther and George.

 Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

In having to run a gamut from fantasy figure, to awkward reality, to surly heel, Beethovan Oden underplays the unpleasantness of George, which helps us accept one of the more subtle ambiguities of Nottage’s script. George might be a mean-spirited opportunist, but he might also simply be the kind of man of his time who sees a woman as a means to an end. It’s to the play’s credit that George’s failings, immense from Esther’s view, are not such a big deal in his view of his self-interest. And the tension between his world and our contemporary sensibility helps us find in Esther an inspiring resilience, even if the compromises and dreams and temptations she foregoes seem, as drama, a bit pro forma.

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Marcus Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang, Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Zuri Eshun, Xenia Gray, Darlene Hope, Ben MacLaughlin, Beethovan Oden, Anna Laura Strider

Playhouse on Park
February 14-March 4, 2018

Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.

All for Love

Review of Passion, Yale School of Drama

Third-year director Rory Pelsue’s thesis production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is an extraordinary success. The musical, which has been called “the ugly duckling” of the famed composer’s career, is Romantic to a fault, perhaps, but that’s actually a key strength of the show at the Yale School of Drama. Passion, with its deep commitment to love as an overmastering condition lovers suffer, would be a pointless exercise without sufficient depth of emotion. Pelsue’s three principals—Ben Anderson as the soldier, Giorigo Bachetti; Courtney Jamison as Clara, his lover; and Stephanie Machado as Fosca Ricci, a terminally ill woman who falls in love with Giorgio—are equal to their roles to an impressive degree.

The show belongs to the main trio, supported by a group of soldiers who are generally diverting, especially in their well-choreographed movements, if a little generic. There’s also a set-piece to dramatize some of Fosca’s troubled past, involving a bogus Austrian (Steven Lee Johnson) and Fosca’s naively trusting parents (Lynda Paul, Solon Snider). While in some ways a welcome change of pace, that segment is the least convincing part of the tale. Fosca, beleaguered by bad health, bad skin and a difficult temperament, doesn’t really need a story of being suckered by an evil rake (played by Johnson with sociopathic panache) to elicit our sympathy. And the parents! Less said the better (but for the effects Paul’s voice adds to the finale).

Of the supporting cast, Hudson Oznowicz does a creditable job as meddlesome Dr. Tambourri, a well-meaning dotard who plays unwitting match-maker between Giorgio and Fosca. As Fosca’s doting cousin, Patrick Foley shows conscience enough to pity Fosca, and anger with Giorgio when forced to suspect his favorite’s motives, but generally seems too kind to be a threat. Abubakr Ali distinguishes himself as Lt. Tasso, the most boisterous of the officers, while Patrick Madden and Stephen Cefalu, Jr., add welcome character turns as Private Augenti and Lt. Barri, respectively. John R. Colley is the put-upon cook, Sgt. Lombardi, a minor comic element, and Erron Crawford, as Major Rizzoli, gets a nice solo vocal moment, full of feeling.

Riw Rakkulchon's versatile set consists mostly of a large table, for the dinners that are the main social event of the garrison, that doubles as a bed, for trysts, and triples as a mountain a hiking party scales at one point, and is also a billiard table when needs be. The visuals are stripped down but for Clara’s rich wardrobe, a key expressive element of her character’s arc (Matthew R. Malone, costumes). We see her go from nude in silk sheets with her lover Giorgio, to beguiling undergarments and nightwear to increasingly prim get-ups, some of which boast hoop-skirts able to suggest an unattainable distance in the latter parts of the show. Without resorting to coy behavior or coquetry, Jamison puts across a married woman’s sense of the possibilities a dashing lover offers and of the proprieties by which she might lose him. Jamison’s singing voice is lovely and expressive, full of the sensual world Giorgio is losing as he draws closer to the romantic ruin that is Fosca.

 Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Ben Anderson gives the strongest performance of his student career, fully evincing Giorgio’s deep uncertainty as to where his heart lies. Anderson is able to play up some of the comic awkwardness of Giorgio’s position, but when his newfound convictions are on the line, we see a man driven by a force he himself doesn’t fully understand. There are a few moments where we may feel sorry for Giorgio, so fully controlled by feminine influences. Particularly when the trio are singing “Happiness” in Scene 5, we catch a sense of the burden of being someone’s “happiness.” What is remarkable is how equal Anderson’s Giorgio is to the task, realizing that Fosca’s towering passion, for all its weight, is unprecedented and must be honored. He believes and we believe him.

Stephanie Machado, coming fully into her own, makes Fosca a haunting figure, full of bitterness. The fragile lyricism in her labile eyes, we see, captivates Giorgio, despite her lack of the more comely virtues he found with Clara. We might see Fosca as an arch manipulator who uses pity to snare a lover—and there is a wonderfully testy scene between the two when that seems to be the way Giorgio reads her as well—but we keep coming back to what Fosca finds in Giorgio. He has no choice—such is the tug of the ultimate Romance—but to become the hero she sees in him.

 Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Sondheim’s score makes that happen for us as well, in its lush but restrained evocation by musical director Jill Brunelle. The use of dialogue in the midst of rhapsody ably heightens these characters, lifting them out of whatever mundane trappings would impede them. When Giorgio hears the “reasonable” love of Clara in a late letter from her, he is driven all the more to the vision Fosca offers: herself transfigured by love.

It is to Machado’s great credit that she is able to manifest the beauty of this dark-hearted heroine and express Fosca’s sad and fierce attachment to life. The role requires Machado to scream, writhe on the floor, burst out in invective and play up to love with a timid insistence. Fosca’s acceptance of death and love in one breath (“to die loved is to have lived”) recalls about two hundred years’ worth of Romantic longing for a gesture that answers the need to make of love a heroic achievement. And it’s still sentimental enough for a Broadway musical! For Giorgio, her love changes the nature of life and death, and that makes Sondheim and Lapine’s Fosca a heroine for the books.

 

Passion
Book by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on the film, Passione d’Amore, directed by Ettore Scola
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo; Stage Manager: Abigail Gandy

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Erika Anclade, Ben Anderson, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., John R. Colley, Erron Crawford, Patrick Foley, Courtney Jamison, Steven Lee Johnson, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Hudson Oznowicz, Lynda Paul, Solon Snider

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, piano, celeste; Kari Hustad, trumpet; Márta Hortobágyi Lambert, viola; Kay Nakazawa, violin; Jordan L. Ross, percussion; Jennifer Schmidt, cello; Noah Stevens-Stein, bass; Emily Duncan Wilson, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Leonardo Ziporyn, oboe, English horn

Yale School of Drama
February 3-9, 2018

Time-Tossed Lovers

Review of Constellations, TheaterWorks

What can be less remarkable than a love story as a two-hander play? The premise that, after a meeting in some context or other, two people will create a satisfying narrative arc as we follow the fortunes of their romance is on pretty solid ground. Mostly, the comedy and/or drama comes from the context, which might provide obstacles, or other incentives. “The course of true love never did run smooth” and therein lies the two-hours or less traffic of our stage. The trick, of course, is in making us care about the two, both separately and as a couple. And that can be easier said than done, sometimes.

 Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

In Constellations, Nick Payne does something very clever with the context, yet not so clever as to be a mere gimmick. His lovers, Marianne (Allison Pistorius) and Roland (M. Scott McLean), live not only in the world, governed by linear temporality, of all biological beings, they also live (as do we all, somehow) in the world of subatomic particles where time is not linear and where the unity we find in the notion of “universe” becomes the multiplicity of the “multiverse.” “The game is the same it’s just up on a different level,” as our nation’s most recent Nobel laureate puts it.

But what a difference that makes! As depicted in Constellations, Marianne and Roland’s lives are patterned with non sequitur, where that necessary first meeting—guests at a rainy barbecue—could go any number of ways, and does. Each time, we jump back to the “medias res” of the same conversation. The start, stop, start again rhythm is something we’re all familiar with from instant replay. Here, the fun is seeing how easy it is to bollocks the badinage. One wrong word or a fake laugh or a dropped detail and either person might be on to the next appealing stranger. There is one path at least that will lead to a satisfying night together, but how soon, and on what terms? And, once that happens, there are various paths that fork from that event, including a cute re-meet at a ballroom dance class.

 Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

How momentous intimacy can be in certain lives, and how casual are most interactions is certainly the main social context here. Both Marianne and Roland are kind of “nerdy”—a word which has gone from a complete put-down (like “dork”) to denoting, in the age of technology über alles, a kind of sexy regard for things once thought abstruse. Here, it’s Roland’s status as a bee-keeper, and Marianne’s as a researcher in theoretical cosmology. It’s a cute meet, alright: biology and quantum physics. The man—biology—is the more romantic and takes his bearings from—and even proposes in the terms of—creatures that serve a “queen.” The woman—physics—is more elusive because too brainy for the tedium of linearity. Grand irony (and spoiler) alert: she will come to suffer from biology, soon enough.

Stated like that, it may seem a bit pat, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And Pistorius and McLean, directed—with a sure hand that trusts the audience and doesn’t overplay anything—by Rob Ruggiero, are a treat indeed. They play as Brits and that gives a breeziness to their interactions that helps greatly, particularly as their backgrounds don’t quite jell. It’s a romance that works—in the versions of it that do—because Roland likes being a bit out of his depth and because Marianne is always pleasantly surprised by his efforts. We see how easily either or both might go astray—each gets a jealous scene—and how hard it is to remain together for the long haul.

 Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

The popularity of the play, one suspects, derives from its swiftly delineated scenes and for letting us enjoy the sensation of “let’s try that again” or “Take 2.” And the TheaterWorks production, held over to the 22nd, is handsomely mounted by Jean Kim in a surrounded stage that looks more than a little like a planetarium. In its circle, these two orbit while, in an alcove nearby, Billy Bivona plays live the music of the spheres, so to speak, and the lights overhead work within the rhythms the duo provide. It’s subtle and very satisfying, even when the play has to go for big emotion over romantic comedy.

 Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

One of the things quantum physics tells us, of course, is that time is an illusion and, therefore, there is no real beginning or end. Nice to know, and yet the parts of us that become used to certain relatively stable, long-term molecular arrangements aren’t apt to be so nimble as equations would have us be. Marianne, played with glowing charm and a very deft grasp of several realities by Allison Pistorius, eventually must come to grips with a difficult condition, while Roland is always confronted with having to convince Marianne with his low-key but heartfelt attraction to her. M. Scott McClean makes the most of an average guy-ness that is anything but average. They are well-met as characters and support each other quite well as actors.

In the end, Constellations is a great “date play.” To see it, there’s no time like the present, illusory or not.

 

Constellations
By Nick Payne
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Jean Kim; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting: Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Sign Language Coach: Laurel Whitsett

Composer/Musician: Billy Bivona

Cast: M. Scott McLean, Allison Pistorius

 

TheaterWorks
January 18-February 18, 2018, extended to February 22

Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

Meet Gus (Erich Greene) and Ben (Trevor Williams), two guys hanging out in a basement room, bare but for two cots, that looks like a holding tank. There is a door to a kitchen, and sometimes Gus meanders down the hall to confront the not-quite-adequate range and the task of making tea. Meanwhile, Ben, rather truculent, reads the newspaper, his eye caught by any gory story he can share as an outrage to all good sense. They are waiting for their orders sort of the way that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Eventually we catch on: they are flunky hit-men and their next target should be arriving any time now.

Harold Pinter’s early career abounded in testy confrontations that are funny, in a deadpan, absurdist, almost realist way. Remember the chitchat of the hit-men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the kinds of critical praise it earned? That kind of thing is a page out of Pinter’s playbook. Except that, in The Dumb Waiter, directed by New Haven Theater Company’s John Watson, we’re not in a work of “pulp,” per se. Nor Pop. We’re in a theatrical tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the English music hall, pitting feckless Anymen, somewhat down but not out, against the affronts to dignity that every clown who ever trod the boards has had to endure (think: Laurel and Hardy). But Ben and Gus also inhabit a recent tradition—Godot was only two years old, in English, when The Dumb Waiter appeared—of dark absurdism and the sense that any system—even one that is violent and pointless and tedious and dumb—is better than nothing. Gus and Ben aren’t exactly “stiff upper lip” material, though they do take pride in their efficiency, and that’s something.

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With a playing time of under an hour, Pinter’s script lets its cast take its time. The pacing by Watson and company has a respect for the calculated pauses, drops, and musing boredom that comprises most of this duo’s time on the job. The junior partner though he appears older, Gus is played by Erich Greene as a kind of annoying little brother. Having him on hand means putting up with a ponderous case of the fidgets, emblematized by his first actions: putting on his shoes, laboriously, only to find, repeatedly, that something has gotten into one or the other and must be removed. The sequence sets the tone. These two aren’t too swift, but, after their fashion, they are thorough.

This becomes more and more oddly the case as we see them wrack their brains to deal with a series of messages—orders for food—that get delivered by the play’s titular device. The dumb waiter’s presence makes Ben—who likes to speak with authority whether or not he knows what he’s talking about—assert that this locale was once some sort of café and someone upstairs still thinks it is active. The range of foods requested—Greek dishes, noodles and water chestnuts, Scampi—could almost be seen as cryptic messages, but the pair simply offer what Gus has got in his sack. Their servile aim to please is endearing, and yet there’s a keen menace behind it all—at least, we’re not sure there’s not, and so tension mixes with the silliness.

And that’s the key note of the show. Laughs are always a little uneasy when there are guns on hand. Both Gus and Ben, we see early on, have revolvers and stand ready to use them. Meanwhile there’s the question of how to kill time and what to do with the food orders and, in a mysterious segment, how to react to an envelope of matches that gets slid under the door. The obvious meaning in the packet’s arrival is that it has been supplied by their unseen boss, Wilson, and that the matches are for lighting the range to make tea, but the fact that the gas isn’t working makes the gesture pointless if not a deliberate joke on the hapless duo.

The jokes we’re sure of here are like that, basking in a rich sense of how “things in general” play tricks on us, sometimes quite awful ones, like the newspaper story of a gent who took shelter under a lorry only to have it run over him. We might suspect that there’s a lurking lorry here somewhere, ready to take our heroes unawares—whether in the form of the target, or the boss, or the gas range, or, maybe, Ben’s temper as he berates Gus about the aptness of the expressions “light the gas” and “light the kettle.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Gus says at one point.

In any case, here is a nice kettle of fish to be pickled in. In Gus, Greene has a character that lets him exploit a sad-sack resilience; ill-kempt and beleaguered, his Gus might be more sympathetic if he weren’t so dim. Meanwhile, Williams’ Ben maintains a slow-burn testiness that always threatens to explode, like Abbott at Costello. It's good to see NHTC tackle something dialogue-driven but without the manic tempo of Mamet. The best thing about Pinter’s dialogue is how artfully artless it is, and Greene and Williams deliver it in an invented accent that fluctuates but keeps up the necessary estrangement. These two mates seem mated, for better or worse, and till death do they part.

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Margaret Mann; Lights: Peter Chenot; Sound: Drew Gray; Board Op: Ian Dunn

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street
February 1-3 & 8-10, 2018

 

 

Those Crazy Karamazovs

Review of Field Guide, Yale Repertory Theatre

Are you tired of plays that purport to enact a slice-of-life—a family gathering, two twenty-somethings finding love or not, the hi-jinx that ensue when a mix-matched foursome get together? If “yes,” treat yourself to a viewing of Field Guide by the Austin-based exploratory theater troupe Rude Mechs (short for “rude mechanicals”’—you know, Puck’s epithet for the crew that tries to put on a play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Rude Mechs, in their world premiere show at Yale Repertory Theatre, live up to their name: they deliberately eschew polish for the sake of provocation, creating their own theatrical world with its own rules and its own rewards.

 Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

And if you’re of a mind to see plays that purport to revisit classics with a contemporary sensibility, you might find Field Guide just your thing or a step beyond. Consider the entertaining hash that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” made of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and you’ll be prepared—somewhat—for what the Rude Mechs do to Dostoevsky’s duly celebrated quintessential Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov.

A classic page turner involving patricide, a father-son rivalry over a much admired coquette, a brother-brother rivalry over a rich, prim bourgeois woman, the jaundiced view of a bastard son, and the “spiritual yearning” of a son become religious acolyte, together with a troubled atheist’s parable about how a returned Jesus would be bad for the Church, The Brothers K. is a tour de force of existential quandaries before the “e word” was invented. Rude Mechs keep the unease of Dostoevsky’s work and contribute an off-hand humor by which most elements of the story become excuses for theatrical asides. We’re sort of in the story but also waiting for the story to start even if—as is always the case with novels—it already happened and never happened.

 Lowell Bartholomee

Lowell Bartholomee

The show starts when the troupe—clad in snow parkas—walk into the theater through an exit door. As the Mechs get into preparations behind a curtain, Hannah Kenah, as Hannah, entertains us with the first of several stand-up routines—a later one featured Lowell Bartholomee in a hell of a bear costume. The use of the device not only keeps us at a remove from the “action,” it also creates a loosely confessional atmosphere as the person at the mic indulges in those little moments of truth/fiction that drive the form: “I get my possessiveness and my lack of generosity from my mother. I have my father’s calves.” The themes of family, inheritance, and, particularly, fathers runs through the show.

 Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

The main lines of the book are there, snipped up to become routines in a general questioning of life. The sensualist, the intellectual, the religious, the resentful one, the unlovable father, all offer a perspective, and all, like Grushenka, hope they’re not as bad as they seem to be. As with a Chekhov play, everyone has something to add to the picture of dysfunction, though here the characters are apt to be very aware of their theatrical effects.

 Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

This is a Brothers K. in which Alyosha (Mari Akita), the would-be monk, levitates and does an interpretive dance that is spellbinding. This is a Brothers K., in which Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), the bastard, fondles a cat and offers his half-brother Ivan a glass of water, repeatedly. This is a Brothers K. where Ivan (Thomas Graves) hangs out in a hot tub and pontificates about humanity. A Brothers K. in which Dmitri (Lana Lesley), as the voice of Dostoevsky’s belief in the moral value of suffering, attains a surly conscience, and in which Katya (Kenah) is a joke and Grushenka (Kenah) too slight, in which the father, Fyodor (Bartholomee), lacks debauched grandeur and is more testy than overbearing. This is a Brothers K. in which a horned goat-man (Bartholomee) craps on the stage and an ironic bounce castle is an epic fulfillment of impossible longing.

 Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Hannah, back again at the mic late in the play, remarks, “the premise of this joke is that nobody is watching,” and proceeds to elicit the sense of how readers participate in the scenes of the novel in an intrinsic way. It’s an interesting moment that asks us to ask what our watching contributes. What “coming out tonight” to see the show means. In part, it means being witness to much lovely stage business, including choreographed boxes and a quietly evocative lighting design by Brian H. Scott, with rich costumes by Sarah Woodham, and striking tableaux.

 Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

But it also means joining the team for a kind of chastened comedy that at times felt a bit low energy, and musing about what we get from our parents and what we don’t get, and what we owe them and ourselves—keeping in mind that, for some, “our father” might be God. The play takes the condition of those crazy Karamazovs and makes it general, like how frightening the existential dread of the human condition would be if we couldn’t say stupid things about it. And sometimes, as in Hannah Kenah’s text, we get to say quite beautiful and poetic things about it. The universe may not care, but at least we got out of the house.

Dmitri: Maybe life is a long search for meaning that ends in a joke.
Grushenka: And we fall for it every time.

 

Field Guide
Created by Rude Mechs
Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Text: Hannah Kenah; Direction: Shawn Sides; Scenic Design: Eric Dyer: Sound Design: Robert S. Fisher; Original Music: Graham Reynolds; Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturgy: Amy Boratko; Stage Management: Bianca A. Hooi; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet; Technical Direction: Steph Waaser

Cast: Mari Akita, Lowell Barholomee, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 26-February 17, 2018

Teacher's Threat

Review of Office Hour, Long Wharf Theatre

With every new mass shooting in the U.S., the media explodes with rhetoric aimed at the problem: gun control, mental health initiatives, the anomie of the modern world, the glorification of violence and the fixation on “the lone gunman,” the purview of hatred toward certain groups or toward “the public” in general, the loss of some basic human decency that formerly kept all but the most psychotic under wraps. Clearly, there’s no single solution to apply in each case—and law works on a case-by-case basis—and legislation, whatever it may achieve as deterrent, can’t address the underlying sickness that, it seems, our culture is unable to cure.

In her brave and provocative play Office Hour, Julia Cho aims to put her audience in the crucible. We will spend an hour, or so, with a well-meaning writing adjunct Gina (Jackie Chung) and a troubled student, Dennis (Daniel Chung), who may be at a crisis point. Time was, we might assume little enough drama happens when a teacher calls a student in for a conference,  now, we may fear the worst.

 Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

In the Long Wharf production, directed by Lisa Peterson, the play’s initial tone—as a trio of adjuncts, Genevieve (Kerry Warren), David (Jeremy Kahn), and Gina, discuss Dennis—establishes a certain sympathy toward the student, if only because we hear two of the three ganging up on him. What’s more, one of the lines Dennis wrote in a poem, quoted by Genevieve, is a scurrilous parody of an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, far too often used in writing classes. We might suspect that Dennis is a darkly humored misfit his professors don’t appreciate. That view becomes a bit more problematic when David, who teaches screenwriting and is used to violent movie scenarios and who has worked with convicts in writing groups, insists that Dennis is scarier and less engaging than any prisoner he has ever met.

Thereafter comes our—and Gina’s—meeting with Dennis, a second-generation Asian-American in a hoodie with a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, and a stoical silence. Gina, appalled by the screeds of bitterness, violence, rape, and death that Dennis seems to pump out with little concern for his readers in the classes he takes, tries to fling verbal coins into the silence, hoping for an echo.

 David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

After some dead-ends she finds a path, and we start off on what seems to be a journey through a minefield in search of rapprochement. Almost. Cho employs a theatrical device that keeps us from getting comfortable, maintaining the tension that any loaded firearm in a room should manifest. Here, the gun is in Dennis’ backpack, and that fact might mean the adjuncts’ worse fears could come true.

One of the strengths of this production is the lightning-fast nature of the blackouts and tableaux that escalate later in the play. We glimpse, with each new flash, the differing climaxes, all violent, of various scenarios, each a kind of remix of the ingredients in the crucible, but each tending to that moment when firearms become “the answer.” As theater, the brief “clips” demonstrate a tremendous shift to action and staging over dialogue. Elsewhere in the play, dialogue is all we get, and, it should be clear enough, it’s all we have to delay or deter the moment when swift and destructive action holds sway.

Another strength of this production is Jackie Chung’s Gina. She uses the full arsenal a teacher has at her disposal: empathy, imagination, challenge, sharing to elicit sharing, command, threat, and even an unforced vulnerability that Chung is able to display without seeming at all premeditated or manipulative. On the other side of spectrum, she tries to face her fears and the kind of knee-jerk biases that—displayed amply by David—only derail any hope of conversation with recalcitrant students.

 Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

As Dennis, Daniel Chung has a gripping slouch and pout. For quite a while Dennis maintains the terse tone of someone who is wary of any and all efforts to break his shell. Whether or not he’s a threat to himself or others, he has worked hard to create an antisocial persona, and Cho’s script is equal to the task of making the chip on Dennis’ shoulder feel tangible. Dennis is too smart to wallow in his misery, and, whether talented or not, he uses writing to “take it out” on the world. The gun, which he claims is for protection against the racists he fears (not without reason), speaks of his acceptance of scenarios of violence with which we are all-too-familiar. At times, Chung’s passionate outbursts feel a bit out of character, but it seems that Peterson and company want us to see Dennis as the type of person—an outsider through the happenstance of birth—set at white heat in our social crucible.

Office Hour treats with seriousness the kinds of topics that might come up in any writing course—the issues of racial and gender identity, the problems immigrant populations face, the conditions for which violence and depression and anger are the fraught symptoms, and of course the questions of how to reach an audience and what kind of language and depictions are appropriate or questionable. We might say that the faith implicit in American talk—in no matter what venue—is that seeing and hearing someone who sees it and says it like we would is the thread that keeps the social fabric together. Letting a democracy air its griefs in public is what makes the public forum worthwhile.

Perhaps we used to assume that homicidal sociopaths don’t sign up for writing courses or maintain a GPA in college. These days, there are no such certainties, but what Gina and Dennis also face in Julia Cho’s aware play is the great uncertainties that have always faced the writer: is anyone listening, does anyone care, and does anyone see things the way I do?

 

Office Hour
By Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Peterson

Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Maggie Morgan; Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski; Original Music and Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Production Stage Manager: Chris Waters; Fight Director: Thomas Schall

Cast: Daniel Chung, Jackie Chung, Jeremy Kahn, Kerry Warren

A Co-Production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre
January 17-February 11, 2018

By One's Lights

Review of the light is…, Yale Cabaret

Movement pieces often present a conundrum. We see bodies in a variety of choreographed routines, we hear music that finds itself embodied in those movements, with costumes, lighting and set contributing to our immersion in the event. How we interpret what we see is where the uncertainty lies.

In the case of the light is…, conceived and directed by third-year Yale School of Drama actor Jake Ryan Lozano, there are also words—words of unusual lyrical polish spoken with a trippy delight by Curtis Williams—that shape our attention more than they provide definite context.

26904266_10156114552499626_3906609687605881920_n.jpg

An atmospheric tree of lights stands at one end of the playing space, and the actors/dancers clad in black, with eyes ringed black, move like a group of bodies controlled by a shared impulse. To find the light? To overcome the darkness? Williams, in a boss coat, is a kind of controlling presence, a commentator, a poetic voice above the proceedings. His vocal rhythms and rhyming diction add to the aura.

The five figures—Seta Wainiqolo, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom—move sometimes robotically, sometimes with a kind of desperate yearning or pantomimed fear. It’s fascinating because there’s a distinct feel of a kind of limbo space and we’re wondering what will break them out of the trance. Meanwhile, the trance becomes contagious.

At some point, I have to admit, I stopped trying to piece together a prevailing direction for the show. I started to zone out and think about how great it was to see these six working together. Udom and Wainiqolo worked together in the hypnotic drama The Slow Sound of Snow and in the highly stylized Death of Yadzgerd, which also featured Williams, two shows directed by Ghaheri; Botha and Udom were paired as lovers/antagonists in last year’s Summer Cabaret in a scorching Mies Julie; Jacobson was recently seen as a loose bourgeois in Native Son at the Yale Rep, and a daughter with a mission in Re:Union at the Cab, and Wainiqolo as a stalwart captain in An Enemy of the People, at Yale Rep. The vagaries of the season at the Rep and YSD determines, often, who is available for shows at the Cab, and here six impressive performers (Ghaheri, a third-year director, has appeared in several challenging Cab shows, including Boris Yeltsin, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., and Adam Geist) work within arms’ reach, far gone in the throes of a shared crisis condition.

The willingness to explore areas that expand one’s repertoire is what keeps the Cabaret alive, and it’s also a key opportunity for YSDers to take on work that stretches our sense of their capabilities. Lozano, as an actor, has developed a unique command of movement—as seen notably in Titus Andronicus, directed by Ghaheri, and memorably featuring Wainiqolo, as Titus, and Botha, as Tamora. With the light is…, Lozano shows his unique command of poetic language, with touches of Shakespeare, rap, and a musing free association merging to form a mythic invocation of light and our desire for the clarity of paradise.

Moments that stand out to me, in recollection: Udom standing right before my face with a look of deep, permeating sadness, during a sequence when the five, in a ring, seemed to have lost all hope; Wainiqolo leading the five into the ring, all in slow motion, and pantomiming being dragged against their will, his face a mask of fear; the five entering one by one the ring another time with each displaying a comical facial expression and a mechanical tremor as they cross the border; the five reaching up for the source of light, with Jacobsen’s face, in a mute longing, the best illuminated.

And through it all, there’s Williams, in his Cab debut, making us take in the spectacle as an allegory of a world in desperate need of illumination.

 

the light is…
By Jake Ryan Lozano

Set Design: Alex McNamara; Costume Design: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Design: Dakota Stipp; Projection Design: Erin Sullivan; Stage Manager: Zachary Rosen; Technical Director: Elsa Gibson Braden, Lily Guerin; Producer: Armando Huipe

Ensemble: Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Yale Cabaret
January 25-27, 2018

Yale Cabaret goes dark for the next two weekends, then returns February 15th-17th with its annual, not-to-be-missed Drag Show extravaganza.

Stories of Home

Review of Feeding the Dragon, Hartford Stage

Sharon Washington’s charming memoir, Feeding the Dragon, now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Maria Mileaf, features Washington, an actress, recounting stories of her upbringing. The truly distinctive element of her childhood, Washington tells us, is that her family lived inside a library, literally. Her father’s job was tending the furnace in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, and so the family—father, mother, Sharon, her grandmother, and their dog—lived in a custodial apartment within the library.

That fact might open upon a vista of imaginative possibility. For some, it would be like living in a castle, or in an infinite storyland, and Washington does play to the romance element, as her childhood might make the basis of a great children’s story or the setting for a tale as perennially interesting as books or movies about hiding out in museums or other places of childhood fascination. That shared thrill at access beyond the norm is our entrée into Washington’s tale, as she stands on a handsome set comprised of stairs that double as bookshelves, buttressed by card catalogs, and backed by an array of glass panes that change color magically.

 Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

And the books aren’t only for décor, as Washington now and then plucks one up and reads a passage—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin—like an enthralling English teacher or a library’s “story lady.” And yet the power of books isn’t really the driving passion of Feeding the Dragon, whose title flirts with the kind of fable that a child’s mind makes of the beast in the basement her hardworking father must feed. The real passion here is a grown woman’s love for her family, now mostly gone.

Washington does well by the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Both appear in her account—as she changes into convincing portraits of both, along with several other characters, by altering her voice and manner—as vividly quirky. Her father, from South Carolina, liked to enact the ‘quitting-time’ scene from Gone with the Wind; her mother, a born New Yorker, speaks like one and has the kind of savvy generally associated with the type. The alterations in accent and manner—particularly when father and Sharon take a trip to the south to meet his folks—help tell the story, as Washington lets characterization aid our imagination.

 Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

There are difficulties—like the father’s alcoholism, another kind of “dragon” to feed—and other interesting characters, such as a rather reclusive uncle who paints for his own sake, and there are glimpses of the times, such as the uneasy race relations of the 1970s, the neighborhood feel of a bygone Manhattan, and, in one of the more detailed sequences, an account of her grandmother’s “good hair,” and the ubiquitous claim among African Americans of having Native American blood.

Washington is a consummate story-teller, engaging, lively, warm and confiding. Her story, however, doesn’t always feel distinctive enough for a full-scale theatrical treatment, nor quite funny or dramatic enough as anecdote. Feeding the Dragon opens up the question of what we want from memoir—revelations or simply a compelling command of the teller’s story. Washington has all the command one could wish for, what’s less certain is if she has much to say.

As theater, the show becomes weakest as it searches for a note to end on. As Washington stands before us, there is clearly no “end” to her story yet, but one senses that how the story of a girl living in a library became a solo performance piece might be as interesting as the story of what the woman telling her life story remembers fondly of her forebears. Were Feeding the Dragon a book, we might simply call for another chapter, in which “the dragon” becomes the theater, and meeting its demands became this actress’s and playwright’s job.

 Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

 

Feeding the Dragon
By Sharon Washington
Directed by Maria Mileaf

Scenic Designer: Tony Ferrieri; Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer: Ann G. Wrightson; Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones; Production Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn Zalewski

Cast: Sharon Washington

Hartford Stage
January 11-Feburary 4, 2018

When P.K. Met Glory

Review of Enter Your Sleep, Yale Cabaret

Some friendships are amorphous. In Christina Quintana’s Enter Your Sleep, directed by Rachel Shuey at Yale Cabaret, two friends play out configurations of their relationship within a dream-world, where coping with being apart becomes tinged with wish-fulfillment fantasy and brooding nightmare.

 P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone), Glory "Z" Zico (Ciara McMillian) (photos: Brittany Bland)

P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone), Glory "Z" Zico (Ciara McMillian) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s well-known “getting to know you” film When Harry Met Sally… gets deliberately invoked when we hear the famous clip in which Billy Crystal, as Harry, opines that men and women can never be “just friends” because sexual desire inevitably makes itself felt. In the play, P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone) is a man and Glory “Z” Zico (Ciara McMillian) is a woman who identifies as a lesbian. Does that change the dynamic of Harry’s truism? It’s hard to say for sure, and that’s the point of us seeing “what dreams may come” as the two negotiate a separation that may spell the end of their friendship.

 P.K. (JJ McGlone), "Z" (Ciara McMillian)

P.K. (JJ McGlone), "Z" (Ciara McMillian)

Z. has made the break with Tulsa, the duo’s hometown, and gone off to seek a path to selfhood in New York. P.K. stays behind, but eventually moves to Austin. That signals that he’s not the homebody Z. took him for, and his decision not to go to New York with her is either a rejection of the Big Apple, or of her, or of both. In the mix of her present anxieties we see how the question of what the two actually are to each other (once they no longer need each other to endure Tulsa) plays out. Protagonists and antagonists in dreams are not fixed and that leads to sequences in which P.K. acts Z.’s mother or Z. plays a gruff father to P.K. Other episodes show how dreams embellish reality with fabulistic colorings, as for instance when P.K. becomes a rather sympathetic version of the gingerbread-housed witch of the Hansel and Gretel story, or when Z. interacts with a P.K. become alarmingly robotic.

For McMillian and McGlone, the play becomes a wonderland of character-actor turns, as they assume differing demeanors and voices and accents. At one point, in another Harry met Sally moment, they reminisce as an aging Jewish couple. The extent to which the play’s dream world is influenced by the film might be a little over-determined, except that one accepts that much of what our unconscious gets up to derives from roles we yearn for or wish would suit us. P.K. and Z. are a contemporary “odd couple,” with a level of co-dependent interaction that seems to fuel their fantasies of being a couple, which they are in a way that they have still to understand.

Much of the dialogue is sweetly childlike, such as recreating story-time in kindergarten or what seems to be the pair’s first playground encounter, but there is also a fun sequence where—again like the archetypal Harry and Sally—they “do it” against their better judgment. Director Shuey has the two actors run in place with a mounting fervor that speaks volumes about the nature of underage sex—all physical exertion with little emotional resonance.

 "Z" (Ciara McMillian), P.K. (JJ McGlone)

"Z" (Ciara McMillian), P.K. (JJ McGlone)

In as much as they are supposedly in their mid-twenties, the characters’ self-conceptions seem at times anachronistically adolescent, but that also helps to sustain the Harry and Sally parallel. In the film, the couple know each other for years before they—ill-advisedly, seemingly—become lovers. For Z. and P.K., a similar stretch of time finds them each beginning an infatuated curiosity with one another as children. Thus the events of later years can be seen through the perspective of childhood, and vice versa. There’s also a convincing sense of how aping one another’s parents is a way of trying on the guise of maturity without committing to being “grown up.”

Two-handers can sometimes be a little too static, but that's not the case here. Quick-change artists throughout, McGlone and McMillian, both in Cab debuts, tour this actor’s dream of a show, letting us follow the twists and turns of coming-of-age for two characters who desperately want a certain someone along for the ride.

 

 

Enter Your Sleep
By Christina Quintana
Directed by Rachel Shuey

Dramaturg: Leandro A. Zaneti; Producer: Melissa Rose; Set Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano Batista; Technical Director: Jessica Hernandez

Cast: JJ McGlone, Ciara McMillian

Yale Cabaret
January 18-20, 2018

Town Talk

Review of Steel Magnolias, Playhouse on Park

Bonds form between people, sometimes, because of where they’re from, who they know, what they do for a living. And, of course, where they hang out. In Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Susan Haefner, Truvy Jones’ beauty shop brings together several women who treat the place almost as a social club, a getaway space where their husbands and families and the town’s demands can be kept at a distance. Camaraderie in a public space able to keep the world at bay sustains the play’s light comedy, while the shock of unpleasant reality, when it intrudes, is met with the ties of friendship. Because it doesn’t change, the beauty shop acts effectively as the stage upon which the day-to-day ups and downs of these women get aired and discussed and dealt with.

The play consists of four discrete scenes that take place over a span of just over two and a half years. In that time, much stays the same, but major changes take place for several characters, and minor but telling changes for others. The play’s dramatic arc follows the fortunes of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Susan Slotoroff), beginning on her wedding day, and introducing, early, the diabetic condition from which she suffers.

 Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

We meet all the characters in medias res, fully involved in their individual interests. A new-comer, Annelle (Lisa Couser), a recent hire to the shop, is an excuse for introductions as the women arrive one by one. First, there’s Trudy (Jill Taylor Anthony), a nurturing, down-to-earth figure who tends to wear updated—it’s the 1980s—hippie-threads; then there’s Annelle, a teenaged girl who, the older women are surprised to learn, already has a bit of “a past,” and who evolves in different directions as the play goes on, finding a home among these women while also remaining a little separate; Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is the closest the town has to a grande dame—she was married to the late mayor—and she tends to enjoy getting up the bristles of her foil, Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the town’s prickly “character.” The mother-daughter duo, M’Lynn Eatenton (Jeannie Hines) and Shelby are distinctive if only because they represent two generations in the town.

 Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

The action of the play aims for a verisimilitude toward work-place friendships. Truvy and Annelle are often engaged in hair-styling, while the real action is what the women choose to talk about. There are offstage events that are comic—such as M’Lynn’s husband firing guns to scare away birds—and others that are more tense, such as relations with other townies or Annelle’s marital status. Jill Taylor Anthony handles Truvy with the requisite self-effacing, accommodating manner, though her charm is more southern folksy than southern genteel. All the other women have more issues, or more pride, or more definite intentions. Truvy just keeps things rolling along.

As the sparring elders, Peggy Cosgrave and Dorothy Stanley add a few sparks, but many of the one-liners are just smart-alecky without much behind them. The cast has a lot of space to work with and the best parts are when all are present and moving about almost independently, creating rhythms in which some comments are more overheard than directed. Not all the southern accents are as flawless as a good permanent, and even when inflections are right, the diction can sometimes suffer, making lines fall by the wayside. Steel Magnolias could be called dialogue-driven but it’s more like chat-friendly. We get the main issues even when some of the asides get lost.

The main dramatic issue—the fate of Shelby—doesn’t hit as hard as it might, but Act II, in which revelations come to light somewhat casually, plays much better than the at-times discursive Act I. Harling has a knack for how people who know each other well can intrude humor or drama into a conversation with very little fuss, and that helps to keep things buzzing.

 M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

As M’Lynn, Jeannie Hines is convincing as a worrying mother learning to back-off and, in her big outburst, she comes across as someone who can’t leave her feelings unsaid any longer. Watching her is often the most rewarding aspect of the show. As her daughter, Susan Slotoroff lets us see Shelby’s cheerful strength but we don’t ever seem to get at her heart, as niceness tends to be her only note.

As a play about inter-generational friendship, with enough nods to prayer and gay rights to make everyone feel welcome, Steel Magnolias is only as winning as its cast. At Playhouse on Park, the ladies are at their best after they’ve warmed to our presence a little.

 

Steel Magnolias
By Robert Harling
Directed by Susan Haefner

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Cosgrave, Liza Couser, Jeannie Hines, Susan Slotoroff, Dorothy Stanley

Playhouse on Park
January 10-28, 2018