Follow the Money

Review of The Invisible Hand, Westport Country Playhouse

An American banker held hostage by Muslim militants in Pakistan for $5 million in ransom becomes the fulcrum for Ayad Akhtar’s canny look at the clash of values in the modern world. On the one hand, the ubiquitous materialism of international finance capital; on the other hand, the political aspirations of insurgents and terrorists; and, “on the invisible hand,” so to speak, the uncertain value of what we think of as humanism, or perhaps “cultural capital”—the ability to claim kinship, even with our enemies, on the basis of common humanity. This tense and thoughtfully fraught play is a triumph of careful staging and interesting plot twists.

For economist Adam Smith, “the invisible hand” was the guiding force that, even in a conflict of interests, would maintain the world system against chaos. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and will have to take part in the system to achieve any material goals, thus acting toward the good of the system. Akhtar's The Invisible Hand demonstrates not only the human costs that the good of the system may entail, but also the tension between the individual and the collective and the problem of administering between the two, at the local level.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) cleverly makes a virtue of necessity when he decides to help his captors raise money by playing on futures in the international marketplace to buy his freedom, once it’s clear that no one will pay his ransom (there won’t be any negotiation after his captors have been designated as terrorists). Nick’s naked self-interest supports his reasons for giving a lesson—to a terrorist cell—in how to work the market strategically. Whatever his aid might mean to him or his country or the global market, the conflict between Nick’s values and his captors’ becomes explicit when Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) questions Nick about his beliefs. The point the Imam insists on is that money isn’t everything; it’s merely a means to bargain and negotiate. For Nick, money is simply the basic fact of life. But the wrong reasoning could cost him his.

In any conflict between the West’s capitalist system and Islam, there is a question of values at stake. Akhtar’s play becomes a crucible—quite gripping in its deft intelligence—for how monetary worth can both achieve goals and undermine value. Refreshingly, the play is for the most part free of ideological cant. There are moments when Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the England-born jailer assigned to oversee Nick’s efforts and aid him as best he can, denigrates the U.S. for its power and indifference, as the Imam does for its “fat people,” but there are also moments when Nick sticks up for the U.S. as the lesser of the other evils—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Red China—that, rather than the U.S., might have played international banker and power-broker since World War II.

The positions of the characters are always clear and their give-and-take, under David Kennedy’s very capable direction, feels immediate and created by the situation. That’s important, because a fair amount of the dialogue, in the middle of Act One, entails Nick trying to get Bashir to understand his economic strategies. So we too get a crash course in how to make the most of market volatility.

Thankfully, results help ease Bashir’s doubts about Nick’s intentions, but further tension comes into play when the Imam sees no reason not to use some of the capital for things his people need—like vaccines—while to Nick the only purpose of the capital is to increase it until he makes the agreed-on sum. The humor in the play comes from the fact that, to a certain extent, money makes stooges us of all, and to laugh at the captors dickering with their prisoner on how to increase their portfolio is very much to the play’s point. The big goals—survival or freedom—become collateral prizes of the big prize: the stockpiling of capital, to let money make money.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Along the way, the captors are humanized as we would expect: Dar (Jameal Ali), the low-level guard, puts us at ease early when we see how simpatico he and Nick have become, later we see how, in this system, his only identity is as a tool of power; Bashir, who is louder, scarier and more changeable, becomes a figure for the power of money to sway, and even to soften—up to a point; Imam Saleem, a former journalist who has become an Islamic leader, seems, at first, wisely detached, but he may insist on a system of value that puts Bashir and Nick’s work in jeopardy. Later, when Nick’s advice begins to lay bare the different goals and viewpoints of Bashir and Saleem, the play achieves a new configuration that demonstrates, in Act Two, how the exercise of power—generally called politics—can be dirtier and more dehumanizing than simple greed.

The cast is uniformly effective in adhering to the rigors of Akhtar’s script. As with his Pulitzer-prize-winning four-person play Disgraced (recently in a wonderfully tight production at Long Wharf Theatre with Bose in the main role), Akhtar keeps the interplay of the four characters our main focus. Here, Nick, like the put-upon Muslim-American lawyer in Disgraced, is a central figure whose know-how becomes a catalyst to entanglements he’d rather avoid, and Bryant is wonderfully vivid as a civilian prisoner trying hard not to become a political sacrifice. In Act Two his increasing befuddlement and desperation are dramatically realized. Bose registers the Imam’s decency and his fatuousness with deft aplomb; Ali’s Dar is generally glum or distraught, after his initial ill-advised enthusiasm; and Kaisi’s sense of nuance makes Bashir increasingly the focal point: we may be watching the growth of a true terrorist leader out of a lackadaisical globalized Everyman.

Adam Rigg’s scenic design deserves mention for its important credibility; we need to feel the oppression of the prison cell, a feeling aided by Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design with its rumble of U.S. drone flights and distant explosions. The War on Terrorism, which Pakistan abetted, is a costly venture, both in dollars and in damage, and The Invisible Hand reminds us that, when it comes to covert strategies, much remains “invisible.”

 

The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Adam Rigg; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Coach: Lous Colaianni; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Jameal Ali; Rajesh Bose; Eric Bryant; Fajer Kaisi

Westport Country Playhouse
July 19-August 6, 2016

Welcome a Special Geist

Preview of Adam Geist, Yale Summer Cabaret

Last Friday, continuing its theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Yale Summer Cabaret hosted Envy: the Concert Experience, curated by sound designers/musicians Frederick Kennedy and Christopher Ross-Ewart. This Thursday, the next play of the season, Dea Loher’s Adam Geist, translated from the German by David Tushingham, directed by Co-Artistic Director Elizabeth Dinkova, opens for its two week run till July 30th, a U.S. premiere.

A one-night only event, Envy: the Concert Experience offered, in its first half, readings, recitals and performance pieces accompanied by music, and in its second half a wonderfully bracing jazz concert featuring Zach Brock on violin, Frederick Kennedy on drums and percussion, and Matt Wigton on electric bass. The event was the best non-theater production at the Cab I’ve seen, and leads one to hope that future proprietors of the Summer Cab, or even the term-time Cab, will find a means to provide similar events that are more like traditional cabaret.

Adam Geist, for director Dinkova, is “the second installment” of her “outsider trilogy,” which began last spring with a studio production of Othello at the Yale School of Drama. Dinkova, who has been in the U.S. for seven years but was born and educated in Bulgaria, is drawn to works that explore those who are “not anchored, who don’t belong” in one particular culture. Adam, the hero of the play, is “uprooted” early in his life and “latches onto whoever can anchor him in some way.” He has, Dinkova says, “behavioral and mental problems” and has limited options, as is often the case with the mentally ill in our society. The play “may be a tragedy” but also takes a tone of comical absurdity, deriving its “humor from the paradoxes of the human condition.”

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

Dinkova feels that Loher’s play, which she first read while considering plays for her thesis production next year, “combines all the sins” that have been showcased this summer. The chosen sin—or theme—is “wrath,” but Adam, while in some ways an angry young man, is also “naïve, confused, and growing toward clarity and maturation” with perhaps “more hope at the end.” In fact, Dinkova recognizes that she may be trying to emphasize a more redemptive reading than her lead actor, Julian Elijah Martinez, who plays Adam, concurs with.

Martinez, who worked with Dinkova on Othello—he played Michael Cassio—and on Boris Yeltsin, as Orestes, in last year’s Cab season, sees the play’s redemptive elements tempered by realist and exisentialist qualities. Martinez understands Dinkova’s reasons for “pushing for empathy” in the fact that Adam, about 16 when the play begins, is “a product of his society that culture has failed.” And Martinez sees the play as “the best and safest choice for this project” of showing “how society fails the disenfranchised,” but, for him, the play is primarily “a poetic, expressionist look at an individual doing horrific things.” He likens Adam Geist to a Greek tragedy, where “the experience of the negative” qualities of humanity “leads us to catharsis.”

Julian Elijah Martinez

Julian Elijah Martinez

For Martinez, the challenge of the role is in “pursuing an objective” in each scene, without getting stuck in a “trap of general emotion.” Adam is a rigorous role, moving between very reactive scenes with a changing and colorful cast of interlocutors—skinheads, American Indian “hobbyists,” mercenaries, and other subcultures—to monologues that reveal Adam’s “disjointed thoughts.” Martinez, who was a Co-Artistic Director for Cab 48, has shown himself to be a charismatic, mercurial actor in his time at the School of Drama and seems perfectly cast for such a varied role.

Coming after a two-week run of Miranda Ross Hall’s Antarctica! Which is to Say Nowhere, which Dinkova also directed, Adam Geist, offers “the treat of moving into a different genre.” Loher’s play, Dinkova feels, is “more open” and ambiguous than the absurdist social satire of Antarctica. Dinkova is grateful to her collaborators at the Summer Cab for their willingness to “take chances” with a production that is “too big” for the Cabaret. As with Antarctica!, there are many role changes and the tone is both “serious and absurd.”

The key emotional difference seems to be maintaining both an attachment to Adam, as a deeply conflicted character who commits acts both terrible and heroic, and a detachment from the criminality of a setting Dinkova calls “a brutal landscape.” Set in Austria, Adam Geist touches on themes of ethnic cleansing and ultra-right politics, and odd facts like Germans who try to promote themselves as “American Indians” in a kind of retrograde “noble savage” manner. In its director’s view, Adam Geist presents a sense of sin as not evil so much as the result of exploitation and oppression. The play, she says, should make its audience “interrogate its beliefs” and find “hard-won hope” in human possibility.

Es ist Zeit für Geist!

 

Adam Geist
By Dea Loher
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 21-30, 2016

That Toddling Town

Review of Chicago, Ivoryton Playhouse

In New York, Chicago, the musical, has been enjoying a popular revival for quite some time. It’s a somewhat cynical show that might be just the thing for these times of political chicanery.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics for the songs, seem to be drawn to the demimondaine. They wrote the songs for Cabaret, a show famous for its evocation of seedy showmanship. Cabaret was choreographed by Bob Fosse, who wrote the book of Chicago with Ebb and choreographed the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, he was unable to direct the film version. Still, the late Fosse’s name is associated with Chicago since the revival in New York was mounted by Fosse protégé Ann Reinking, “in the style of Bob Fosse.” All of which is a way of saying that the pedigree of Chicago is strong, though it lacks the punch that Cabaret retains. The show, now playing in an original, not-touring production at Ivoryton Playhouse, directed by Todd L. Underwood, is never quite as entertaining as we hope it will be.

There are obvious similarities to Cabaret: the heroine, Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), like Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, would like to be a star of the stage. Instead of a stylish master-of-ceremonies presiding over a cabaret, we have Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton), a smooth lawyer who stages courtroom scenes and press coverage for maximum effect. Even the cross-dressing that is a feature of Cabaret comes into play, though I won’t say how so as not to spoil what may be, for some, a big reveal. Then too, the show opens with the tune “And All That Jazz,” sung by vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris), immediately calling to mind Fosse’s amazing film All That Jazz, and featuring a dance routine reminiscent of Reinking’s big number in that film. As the show-biz dictum reads, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and cribbing from successful works sustains many a later career.

Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Velma Kelly (Stacey Harris) (photo: Anne Hudson)

The source material for Chicago, a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins with script adaptation by David Thompson, was all about the showmanship behind the actual trials of two women accused of killing their husbands. One had been a performer and that detail is retained in the character of Velma in the play and musical; Roxie is hoping that the sensationalism around her own trial will propel her into fame as well. The thought that any of the women in the cell block are innocent is dispensed with when, in “Cell Block Tango,” each proudly tells how she killed a man who, each asserts, deserved to die. The cynicism comes in when we realize that sex appeal and sentimental sympathy are the only assets these women have.

The point is that Flynn is the kind of lawyer who knows how to work the system to achieve results. A problem with the show in Ivoryton is that Flynn, as played by Sutton, is never quite sharp and enthralling enough. He’s a bit too much TV game show host and not enough canny, Chicago shyster. In the show’s best number, “We Both Reach for the Gun,” his style of control comes off well, particularly as Philistine is a very convincing puppet. Indeed, Philistine, in the role Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon played in the original, is the best thing in the show. She looks the part of essentially sweet girl turned killer and puts across the vapid but vivacious Roxie with moxie. It helps too that she’s skilled in the broad comedy of the show as well as in the dance numbers, particularly her show-off number “Roxie.”

Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Roxie Hart (Lyn Philistine), Billy Flynn (Christopher Sutton) (photo: Anne Hudson)

As Velma, Harris has the bigger part as she opens both Acts and gets to work-out through an entertaining variety of dance routines in “I Can’t Do It Alone.” She’s the brassier of the two, but “When Velma Takes the Stand” seems to lack focus a bit, while her duet with Matron “Mama” Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman) is a nicely comic lyrical number to break up the somewhat static courtroom events of Act Two. Velma stands for the tried-and-true aspects of audience appeal—vaudeville style—and that’s what the show, as well as her defense, relies on.

At Ivoryton, the staging is stripped-down, the costumes are becoming—I particularly liked the look and moves of lithe Caroline Lellouche who plays “not guilty” Hunyak—the dance routines serviceable and the band tight. Kander’s score incorporates Twenties’ style melodies that, in Paul Feyer's hands, have zest and showiness aplenty. In supporting roles, Trotman shows off her finesse with Morton’s big number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” and Z. Spiegel’s upper-register for do-gooder Mary Sunshine’s “A Little Bit of Good” is quite convincing. And as “Mister Cellophane” Amos Hart, Ian Greer Shain mixes humor and pathos as a good stage clown should. Among the ensemble men, my eye most often followed Taavon Gamble, who also plays the Judge, and Danny McHugh, who also plays Sergeant Fogarty, and does a nice bit of soft-shoe early in the show.

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

As a song-and-dance spectacle, Chicago keeps the show tunes coming, as a plot it’s pretty thin, and as a comedy about crass opportunism it doesn’t pack much of point. As a show, it’s supposed to wow us with the razzle dazzle while letting us know—with a nudge in the ribs—that “razzle dazzle” is all we want.

Well, not really.

 

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Script adaptation by David Thompson
Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood

Musical Director: Paul Feyer; Set Designer: Martin Scott Marchitto; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume and Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Production Stage Manager: William Vann Carlton; Assistant Stage Manager: Randy Lawson

Cast: Jose Amor Christensen, Sarah Mae Banning, Grant Benedict, Daniela Delahuerta, Taavon Gamble, Stacey Harris, Caroline Lellouche, Danny McHugh, Lyn Philistine, Jason Daniel Rath, Nick Raynor, Carolina Santos Read, Ian Greer Shain, Z. Spiegel, Christopher Sutton, Sheniqua Denise Trotman, Lauren Watkins, Sarah Mozelle Waxman

Orchestra: Paul Feyer, keyboard/conductor; Seth A. Bailey, trumpet; Michael Blancaflor, drums; Adam Clark, tuba/bass; Paul Gerst, trombone; Daniel Hartington, guitar; Benjamin Lostocco, trumpet; Alan Wasserman, reeds; Erin M. White, reeds

Ivoryton Playhouse
June 29-July 24, 2016  

May the Farce Be with You

Review of Antarctica! Which is to Say Nowhere, Yale Summer Cabaret

“Only the most oppressive seriousness can find a bond with lawless farce.”—Irving Howe

Howe’s comment about the relation of seriousness and farce might seem apropos while viewing Antarctica! Which is to Say Nowhere, Miranda Rose Hall’s new adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova at the Yale Summer Cabaret. The seriousness does indeed become a bit “oppressive” at times, but then the “lawless farce” of our times serves as excuse. Jarry’s chaotic and comic original was a successful effort to “épater les bourgeoisie” in turn-of-the-century Paris, and Hall’s incarnation aims to skewer not so much the things our day holds sacred as the things we should find shameful. Its targets—like climate change and our attachments to heated pools, central air, and personal computers—are apt to be matters that inspire liberal hand-wringing more than laughter, and to keep us at least chuckling is no small feat, in all seriousness.

Briefly (there are nearly 40 distinct scenes): the show introduces Roy (Marié Botha) and his wife Rena (Ricardo Dàvila) as bored but ambitious Americans who want to find new lands to conquer. Antarctica seems promising, so, accompanied by their newly hired “general” Linda (Emily Reeder), aka “General Electric,” they set off so Roy can become “middle management” for the royal family of Emperor Penguins (Yagil Eliraz, Rebecca Sherman Hampe, Steven Lee Johnson) that rule the creatures there. Roy, a blustering idiot with an insatiable appetite, is driven, Lady-Macbeth-style, by his power-mad wife, the brains of the outfit, who also entertains Linda’s desires to shut out Roy and take his place at Reena’s side.

A Penguin Leader (Patrick Foley) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

A Penguin Leader (Patrick Foley) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

The blood-thirsty betrayal of the benign Emperor Penguin King (played with oafish aplomb by Eliraz) establishes a coup, but the son, Freddy Prince (Johnson, given to anxious, Hamletian soliloquy), escapes, possibly to wield revenge at a later date. Once in power, the Roys are as insufferable as you would expect, setting up fights to the finish between animals and glutting themselves on whatever comes to hand. As a portrait of American foreign policy, the Roys have all the subtlety of the self-serving Invasion of Iraq; in other words, they have the greed and none of the generosity of textbook versions of American intervention that have been tainted by—take your pick—slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the war in the Philippines, the Bomb, the war in Vietnam, etc. And, as you’d expect with an American couple and a lifestyle of the rich and fatuous, soon enough there is the threat of civil war as Rena and Linda are imprisoned for insubordination. They escape and visit the North Pole—where an amusingly sleazy Santa (Eliraz) rules—and where Linda insists on enlisting an army of polar bears to overthrow Roy.

Roy (Marie Botha) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

Roy (Marie Botha) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

As “subjects” to the self-installed American royalty, the creatures of Antarctica are all hapless and charmingly innocent. A late song in which Roy, very much a feeble Macbeth, tries to enlist his army of snowmen (Eliraz, Hampe) against his wife is a case in point. The song’s martial frenzy is undermined by the timid snowmen’s fear of just about everything. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s songs are entertaining and in the hands of the capable hands of the cast play the role tunes do in Disney cartoons—as moments of lyrical commentary or soliloquy. Rena’s punk trio’s statement of intent upon reaching Antarctica is a high-point, as is his touching duet with Reeder, and Foley's penguin parade is like a demented Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins.

Roy (Marie Botha, seated) with walrus henchman (Yagil Eliraz, Patrick Foley, Rebecca Hampe) and silhouettes of Rena (Ricardo Davila) and Linda (Emily Reeder) (photo: Kristian Rasmussen)

Roy (Marie Botha, seated) with walrus henchman (Yagil Eliraz, Patrick Foley, Rebecca Hampe) and silhouettes of Rena (Ricardo Davila) and Linda (Emily Reeder) (photo: Kristian Rasmussen)

The show’s strength derives from the very capable clowning on view from an ensemble (Eliraz, Hampe, Foley) adept at silly voices and inhabiting cut-outs of creatures, and from Dávila’s remarkable Rena, played in non-campy drag, and somehow managing a rather heavy-handed treatise on the best way to abuse class divisions in the democratic process. Botha’s Roy is a fierce portrait of the kind of sociopath always capable of mirroring some portion of the American electorate. By way of characterization, Hall gives him a rambling discourse of disconnected white trash memories and a recurring dream—for him, too horrible to relate—of a french fry drowned in a tsunami of ketchup. As the driven Linda, Reeder seethes with a comic hostility that makes her appear, by the end, more power-mad than her unstable employers.

The transitions between the many, many short scenes—some a bit too similar in tone and pace—undermine the presentation at times, since simple blackouts can’t always suffice to get us from one scene to the next. The cast is game and nimble and to be commended for keeping so many creatures—penguins, seals, whales, etc.—distinct. And for making this varied visit through the unreclaimed id of our national psyche come alive with an oxymoronic sense of epic skit-comedy. Puppets and costumes by Sarah Nietfeld, including the penguin headgear used to surprisingly expressive effect, do much to set the tone, while set (An-Lin Dauber) and lighting (Andrew F. Griffin) work hard to establish—instantaneously—a variety of settings and events. The ending is a frantic case in point, as all levels of story and allegory converge in a moment that aims for the catharsis of being put on the spot.

Deceptively silly, Antarctica! Which is to Say Nowhere is angry as all true satire is, but, as theater, might benefit from a bit of Olympian laughter. But then, the show doesn’t make us laugh at ourselves so much as make us wonder why we’re able to laugh at all.

 

Antarctica! Which is to Say Nowhere
Based on Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry
By Miranda Rose Hall
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Costume and Puppet Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Set Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Sound Designer & Composer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Production Manager/Technical Director: William Hartley; Stage Manager: Cailin O’Rourke; Production Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Run Crew: Ece Alpergun; Tap Dance Consultant: Leora Morris

Cast: Marié Botha; Ricardo Dàvila; Yagil Eliraz; Patrick Foley; Rebecca Sherman Hampe; Steven Lee Johnson; Emily Reeder

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 30-July 10, 2016

Gotta Dance!

Review of A Chorus Line, Playhouse on Park

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1976, A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante, isn’t much of a play. More even than most musicals, it only works because of the songs—music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban—and the dance routines. That’s fitting, since the play is about the hopes and humiliations, the joys and defeats of trying to maintain a career as a chorus line dancer. I imagine its main claim to distinction, back in the Seventies, was in its humanizing of the usually faceless professionals whose precision forms the undeviating oneness of the quintessential Broadway chorus line. In pursuing that theme, rather relentlessly, the play puts real life on the stage while maintaining the romance with the stage that drives the show’s aspirants.

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

The play’s claim on our attention now, in a mostly non-professional production at Playhouse on Park, directed by co-artistic directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller, with choreography by Zoller, is the way it puts its dancers through paces that impress us with their facility in such an intimate space. We do feel like a fly on the wall of the rehearsal room as try-outs take place, governed by Zach (Eric S. Robertson), who is mostly humorless, detached, and unsympathetic. Even when confronted by a former lover, Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), who has had some star turns without becoming a star and wants to come back to the chorus line, though not back to him, Zach never becomes a character. Cassie fairs a bit better—she at least gets a great dance routine to express herself with—but the lack of real interest in their story is evident in the script itself. All the show’s interest lies in the tell-all autobiographies Zach manages to elicit from his auditioning group.

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

After first pruning a few from the opening routine, Zach has 17 to choose from for a cast of 8, four men and four women. That means a harsh principle of selection will apply, and his coercing of personal info from the dancers can seem awfully manipulative, given that most of them won’t be getting a job. The power play behind theater is always in evidence, and the degree to which the successful candidates here must both expose and efface themselves is what drives the drama.

As do the stories we hear: a few are amusing and upbeat, such as the stellar moves Mike (Alex Polzun) puts into “I Can Do That,” or Bobby (Peej Mele)’s dry take on growing up in Buffalo, or a charming tale of teen cluelessness from Mark (Jared Starkey); others are ironic, as in Val (Andree Buccheri)’s take on the part looks play in a successful stage career (“Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”), or Diana (Bobbi Barricella)’s tale of rejection by an early theater teacher (“Nothing”), or simply comic—Kristine (Mallory Cunninghams)’s song, abetted by her husband Al (Jeremy Seiner), in which she proves she can’t sing (“Sing”); then there’s Sheila (Tracey Mellon)’s tale of a rough home life juxtaposed with the enthrallment of performance (“At the Ballet”), or Paul (Tino Ardiente)’s tale of how his work in a drag review provoked his inadvertent coming-out to his parents. Because the stories keep close to what actual people might reveal of themselves, they manage to avoid outright cliché, though the influence of A Chorus Line is bound to make the stories feel familiar even if you haven’t seen the show before. But the reason to see it again is to see how a new battery of try-outs take to the parts.

Most are well-cast, and most acquit themselves well, though sometimes lyrics become a bit unintelligible, whether that’s due to the quality of the mics each performer wears or to the fact that it’s easy to get breathless when singing and dancing simultaneously. In the end, you may not agree with Zach’s selection of the final 8, but that will have to do with how you respond to the individual characters, and probably the individual actors, and that’s probably the point. Mellon’s Sheila, for instance, doesn’t make the cut, but she’s certainly an asset to this production, while other choices, such as Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), are no-brainers.

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

As a tribute to the trials of playing anonymous parts in big shows, the show draws in viewer sympathy and the rousing number “What We Do For Love,” led by Barricella’s lovely voice, moves beyond any sense of exploitation as we realize that the fictional cast’s participation is not about money or fame or even a secure career; it’s about love of the work and of performing. Without a show in which to show off their skills and talents, these performers have nothing but the mostly drab lives they narrate. The contrast between their humble origins and their talent is the point. The Playhouse production, in using students—several now or recently at the Hartt School—and non-professionals, underscores that the talent to perform is what drives theater. And the relative inexperience of the cast makes the characters’ roles as naive hopefuls all the more convincing, and their talented turns all the more impressive.

 

A Chorus Line
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller
Music Directors: Emmett Drake and Michael Morris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Assistant Choreographer: Spencer Pond; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
June 15—July 31, 2016

People Who Need People

Review of Buyer & Cellar, Westport Country Playhouse

A one-man play about a fictional lone employee in the perhaps real basement beneath a faux New England mill housing the shopping-mall, or storage shops, in which Barbra Streisand stores her various collections. What could be the attraction? Sure, some people are fascinated by “Babs” and her extravagant life and lifestyle, but, even if so, isn’t the show likely to undermine such adoration? And if you aren’t in the least interested in what Streisand hath wrought, how could you possibly endure the show?

OK, so I’ve expressed my trepidation. Buyer & Cellar, though, dismisses all those cavils with an urgent wave of Michael Urie’s gesticulating hand. As the narrator, Alex, who becomes that lone employee, Urie oozes show biz skill and mostly keeps the audience in the palm of his hand, entertaining us with what feels like an extended heart-to-heart from your most gleefully gossip-sharing gay friend. Alex has “the goods” on all Baba’s goods, and what’s more . . . what’s more . . . he becomes, for a bright shining series of encounters, practically her BGF!

Exclamation point, indeed. Urie delivers the goods with both irony and breathless enthusiasm. Whatever we think—or don’t think—about Streisand, his fascination is contagious. And playwright Jonathan Tolins wisely sets this all up with enough relevant plausibility to hook us in. Suspend disbelief, check. Alex presents himself as a struggling theater actor in LA who lost a job at the Magic Kingdom due to being testy with a bratty tot. Forced to subsist on the crumbs of the industry, he takes the Streisand basement shopping complex job because, well, it combines acting and retail—and he has experience in both.

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Simple projections keep us apprised of where we are in a story that manages to shift around a bit, particularly to the apartment Alex shares with his partner, Barry, who gets to voice all the catty thoughts about Streisand’s self-serving career and self-pitying bids for affection that some of us might be thinking. And Urie is not only great at shape-shifting into disbelieving Barry; he also does the woman who hires Alex with such amusing panache, I wanted more (what’s her story?). And, then, of course, he does Streisand herself in remarkable tête-à-têtes with himself. Much of the story centers on Alex learning to see Streisand’s vulnerable humanity, even as he knows she’s another order of being entirely.

Like royalty, celebrities can’t really be our friends. Though the show is very light in tone and pace, it does touch on themes significant enough for our times. Friendship, the relation of employer to employee, relation to fame and its exploitation, and, most tellingly, the cult of celebrity that feeds the fortunes of someone like Streisand but also makes her a victim of her own creation. It’s also a show about gay culture, Jews—especially but not only from Brooklyn—and fan subcultures. Tolins gives us many funny and touching glimpses into these areas without belaboring any because Alex as written, and as charmingly and engagingly enacted by Urie, is anything but a bore. The show is a joyful re-enactment of Urie’s multiple award-winning turn in the part, and with great hair this time.

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

The pace slows a bit when the interactions between Alex and his employer begin to seem too much a wish-fulfillment fantasy (with Alex coaching Barbra in the lead of Gypsy), but just about when our interest might flag a bit, Urie, like any capable raconteur, switches gears and begins to narrate—and his narrative voice provides some of the most entertaining aspects of the show. Or else he brings on Barry to do a deadly spot-on reading of The Mirror Has Two Faces.

There are fun set-pieces throughout, with the best being the first encounter with Streisand as she “shops” for a bubble-blowing doll for which Alex, a consummate salesman, concocts a backstory of heart-warming hardship. The two dicker in studied bartering fashion over a price that must be agreed upon. It’s a canny glimpse into a very canny customer.

My other favorite part was Urie enacting James Brolin—“Jim”—who was Streisand’s beau at the time. His visit below stairs for frozen yogurt (where else would you keep your machine but in your mall?) has a very tongue-in-cheek man-to-man quality that glimpses the therapeutic value of Alex’s role. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from having a personal store presided over by one’s own personal waitstaff?

Finally, a warning. The show might have side-effects. After seeing it I rented and watched not one but two Streisand movies. I’ve . . . never done this before.

 

Michael Urie in
Buyer & Cellar
By Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Stephen Brackett

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: Stowe Nelson; Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch; Musical Staging: Sam Pinkleton; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Westport Country Playhouse
June 14-July 3, 2016

Antarctica Starts Here

Preview of Antarctica!, Which is to Say Nowhere, Yale Summer Cabaret

With the close of the Arts & Ideas festival in New Haven last weekend, locals may be pining for new theatrical experiences. Fear not, here comes Antarctica!, opening this Thursday at the Yale Summer Cabaret. An adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s still-prescient Ubu Roi by rising third-year playwright Miranda Rose Hall, and directed by her recurring collaborator, Summer Cab Co-Artistic Director Elizabeth Dinkova, Antarctica! follows the adventures of Roy and his wife, altered to become the quintessential ugly Americans as they cut a colonizing swath through the ultimate land down under.

Ubu Roi, it turns out, is required reading in the Yale School of Drama, even if it might not be that well-known to general theater-goers. Hall found herself “captivated by it” as it jells so well with her penchant for surrealist, absurdist comedy. Her writing had already been compared to Jarry, so when she got around to reading him, it was love at first exposure. She found a “creative ancestor.” (Hall’s work? Did you see The Best Lesbian Erotica, 1995, or How We Died of Disease-Related Illness? No? Too bad. Yes? OK, expect more of the same. Which is to say, pointed absurdity, incredible energy, unsettling themes.) Hall insists that she does have plays in quite different modes and genres, it’s just that, in working with co-conspirator Dinkova, the work they do tends to the satirical, abetted by disruptive gear-switching.

For this adaptation, Hall, who describes herself as obsessively nerdy at times, spent a lot of time with Jarry’s play, “charting scenes, tracking characters,” while at the same time letting her in-depth knowledge of the show’s structure and style unleash her own freewheeling imagination. Dinkova, for her part, was attracted to the play by the fact that “there are no good guys, and everyone is bad in an entertaining way.”

More to the point, they’re bad in a way all-too familiar in our day. The characters are “bawdy, absurd, presumptuous and stupid.” Sounds like contemporary times, alright. Indeed, Hall and Dinkova wanted a play that would reflect on “the current American situation,” taking inspiration from Naomi Klein’s urgent message in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, to portray our era’s “grappling with denial in implementing adequate change” for our global condition. Which might be a way of saying, if Antarctica goes, we’re done.

The key to adapting a work that was aimed to upset audiences in fin de siècle Paris (it caused a riot and was closed), Hall says, is “to put it in your own medium.” In process, that means “making it make sense together in your own terms.” Ubu Roi, which is certainly intended to challenge the “making sense” of exposition, becomes then a perfect pretext for the wild world this production creates, with seven actors playing 23 roles, and including a variety of songs, with a sketch-comedy swiftness of transformation. In times of Brexit and of “the Donald” trumping the Republican party, controlled chaos, in the theater, may actually be a bit soothing.

And the cast? Three appeared in this Summer Cab’s first production, Alice in Wonderland: Marié Botha played the quizzical Caterpillar; Ricardo Dàvila was the testy Hatter; Patrick Foley was the unsteady Humpty Dumpty; two are not studying acting at the School of Drama: Yagil Eliraz recently received his MFA in Directing (his thesis show was a very creative take on the Oresteia), and Emily Reeder studies theater management, is Producing Director at the Summer Cab, and has acted in Cab shows, most recently Slouch; Rebecca Hampe is not in the School of Drama but is married to George Hampe, who is, and Rebecca appeared in Lake Kelsey at the close of Cab 48; Steven Johnson is a rising second-year actor, and appeared in Salt Pepper Ketchup in Cab 48.

Working with Dinkova for the third time, Hall says she “can’t imagine any other director”—which is good since they will also be working together for Dinkova’s thesis project next spring, a first-time production of a new play by Hall. The duo are particularly happy to be working together in the Summer Cabaret because this has been “the freest of the three” so far, and the least supervised and the best supported by resources. The longer rehearsal process of 2 1/2 to 3 weeks means a lot for a show that has so much going on. And both feel stimulated by being able to “limit the number of inputs” into the show. One such input is dramaturg Gavin Whitehead, also a previous collaborator—he translated and adapted Büchner’s Leonce and Lena at the Cab two years ago—and co-directed with Dinkova in their Cab debut.

Dinkova and Hall have developed “a shorthand in how we talk,” that lets them be both “honest and supportive.” Can they get Summer Cab audiences on their mutual wavelength? Neither wants to be prescriptive about how the show should be received. It’s unlikely it will cause a riot, but it may well be a riot. In any case, determining “the weirdness of the humor” and its associations falls on the audience. Summer Cab audiences tend to be receptive to the flights of imagination necessary to creating theater in a basement, and, for some, the more unhinged, the better.

The theme of the Summer Cab this year is “seven deadly sins.” We’ve been through sloth, gluttony, and pride. Now it’s time for greed, possibly the most besetting sin of our day, and possibly of the human condition generally. So expect a bit of no-holds-barred comedy aimed at our acquisitiveness, our need to feel powerful by taking things away from others, and our almost infinite capacity to exploit whatever we come in contact with. And just be happy if, at the end of the evening, you don’t have to say, “Ubu roi, c’est moi!”

 

Antarctica!, Which is to Say Nowhere
Adapted from Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry
By Miranda Rose Hall
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

 Yale Summer Cabaret
June 30-July 10, 2016

Multiplied by Itself

Review of The Square Root of Three Sisters, at International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven ended on Saturday, and I closed out the events with a viewing of The Square Root of Three Sisters, conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov and created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab and the Yale School of Drama. It was not only the end of the show’s run, and of the festival, but a last hurrah—and first post-graduation assignment—for a number of fine actors who graduated this May from the Yale School of Drama.

To begin with: Square Root is not a play in any conventional sense. It’s theater, conceived as an event that takes place with, as Krymov says, “the seams showing.” Before the show even begins, the cast is on hand, organizing cardboard rectangles to create the playing space, all while the Iseman theater’s workroom, with arrays of tools and implements, is on display.

The performers play actors as well as characters in the piece, which uses props and costumes sparingly. The purpose of the approach, it seems to me, is to let us—and that “us” includes actors, director, crew, the Lab, and viewers—look at Chekov’s landmark classic Three Sisters from a variety of perspectives, never forgetting that the process of theater alters and adapts whatever the playwright creates.

So it’s key to the vision of this work that a playwright be present. Krymov imports Kolya Trigorin, the sensitive and avant-garde playwright from Chekov’s The Seagull, to open the show. Aubie Merrylees, who has brilliant comic timing, is well-chosen to play the nervy, breathless Trigorin, eager to get everything just right—including paper rolls to be adorned by the cast with strips of black tape to create white birches. As he literally sets the scene—with cardboard boxes suggesting different places referred to in Three Sisters—and bosses his fellow cast-members, a minor error gets corrected by a painfully loud, distorted and autocratic voice. In that moment, Krymov references the power play of theater. The director calls the shots. The actors—and Chekov himself, to the extent that Trigorin is a figure for him—must submit.

With that said, there’s a further aspect that comes to light as Trigorin, and later, the actors themselves, narrate the backstory of Chekov’s characters. Three Sisters and its world come to seem a real world where fiction has created not characters, but actual people. To deviate from which sister—Olga, the spinster/teacher; Masha, the unhappily married wife; Irina, the youngest who might yet marry—is which, or who the suitors are, would be to alter the unalterable. The characters in Three Sisters seem folkloric in so indelibly stamping the imaginations of generations of theater-goers, especially but not only in Russia.

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

What can we still learn about them? What will Krymov’s approach show us? Many things, indeed. It’s a breath-taking show in its variety and imaginative flights, in its use of technical features—such as the beautiful moment when the cast discovers inside boxes lit from within the military overcoats that are their costumes, each with a character-determining tag—and even “YouTube” videos. And so much depends on the routines each actor performs in turn, routines that establish for us not only a particular Chekovian character but also, to some extent, the actor’s relation to that character.

All begin seated around a large wooden work table, and that table becomes a center, a stage upon the stage, where the incredibly ripe passions of the work display themselves. Early on, in a dialogue both charming and freaky, a teapot moves about in space between would-be lovers, the relentlessly intense Vershinin (Niall Powderly) and dour in black Masha (Annelise Lawson), suggesting not only the force of their attraction but the gentility that keeps such passions at bay. Later, in stalwart Olga’s turn, Shaunette Renée Wilson’s insistent iteration “I don’t need to be loved” alternates with a distracted insistence on the mundane: “this is a fork, this is a cup,” and so on, while constantly shifting the props about on the table with increasing violence. The seething resentment at the heart of Olga, controlled by all the force of her personality, couldn’t be more powerfully rendered. Then there’s Irina (Melanie Field). Hiding beneath the table, she’s lured out by her comically timid suitor Tuzenbach (Bradley James Tejeda) and hen-pecked brother Andrey (Kevin Hourigan) with a promise to sing the songs her mother loved. Soon music begins to play and Irina, like a cat to catnip, emerges to belt out “Someone to Watch Over Me,” with Field evoking the sheer joy of a child in performance.

Every character gets a turn—including Julian Elijah Martinez’s dance like a constricted flame to evince the self-love and self-loathing of Solyony “who thinks he looks like” the poet Lermontov, and Annie Hägg’s table-top flouncing as Natasha, the preening and pathetically insecure wife of Andrey. At times the routines feel like improv, at other times like a physical manifestation of all that words will never convey, and even a bit like an audition for the pleasure of that ultimate watcher.

Late in the show, as a brigade of soldiers cart off all the possessions the Prozorov sisters hold dear, the table becomes a life-raft the sisters cling to and the base for the automaton they become. Along the way, the autocratic voice—which by now has begun to feel like a call to emergency evacuation or of military invasion—demands “give me a new Masha.” There follows a comical scene, nonplussing enough for anyone who hasn’t made the cut, in which Hägg, formerly Natasha, now shrugs her way into the role of the most dramatic of the Prozorov sisters while Lawson, stricken, pouts. Vershinin, however, won’t make the switch and still pines for Lawson as Masha. At this point, it’s not simply a question of how a character is conveyed by a performer, but how a performer takes over a character.

Shaunette Renée Wilson

Shaunette Renée Wilson

So, when Wilson is replaced—by “that writer”—as Olga, she resists on the basis of her stature and commitment. Both of which, we sense, is her downfall. The very commitment of actor to character must be undermined. This isn’t about personalities, it’s about art aligning with the mailed fist of history. All are expendable, all are replaceable. And anyone can inhabit our treasured myths of tradition, or join the plaintive voices of the Three Sisters figurine on perpetual exhibit upon its pedestal.

A show for those who love their theater freewheeling and speculative, The Square Root of Three Sisters makes us wonder why we feel the need to have people dress up and pretend to be other, non-existent people—in other words, it makes you wonder a lot about theater and performance. In putting onstage the interplay of concepts of character, of actors as characters, and of actors as individuals, Square Root kicks against the text while scripting dissent and suppression, and manifesting an abundance of some intangible thing we lamely call “theater magic.”

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
The Square Root of 3 Sisters
World Premiere
Conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov, based on plays by Anton Chekov
Created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab & Yale School of Drama

Creative Team: Choreographer: Emily Coates; Performance Coach: Maria Smolnikova; Production Designer: Valentina Ostankovich; Sound Designer: Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Projection Designer: Yana Birÿukova; Production Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Performers: Melanie Field; Annie Hägg; Kevin Hourigan; Annelise Lawson; Julian Elijah Martinez; Aubie Merrylees; Niall Powderly; Bradley James Tejeda; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Video Performers: Lucy Gardner; Mary Winter Szarabajka; Remsen Welsh

Artistic Staff: Assistant Director: Luke Harlan; Associate Production Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Associate Production Designer: Claire DeLiso; Puppet Designer: Matt Acheson; Fight Director and Dance Captain: Julian Elijah Martinez; Videographer: Lisa Keshisheva; Senior Interpreter to Dmitry Krymov and the Production: Tatyana Khaikin

Iseman Theater
June 21-25, 8 p.m.

Holy Shite!

Review of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The featured theatrical event of this year’s Arts & Ideas is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre, New Castle. Lee Hall, who turned Billy Elliott into a successful musical, adapts Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos—about a group of Scots Catholic school girls run amok in the capitol—for the stage as Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, directed by Vicky Featherstone, veteran director of many NTS productions.

Lewd, crude, and rude, Our Ladies follows the exploits of six teen girls as they let loose within the confines of their day and age. Which is to say, in the words of Pulp’s song “Common People,” “You can dance, and drink, and screw / Because there’s nothing else to do.” The show energetically, and relentlessly, showcases the time of life when that was enough. To say, as the Pulp song does outright, that such are the only opportunities for fun and self-expression among the “common people,” or working class, as all these ladies are (only one, Kay, is college-bound), is to recognize the subtext to these high spirits. They’ve got to get their rocks off young because it’s all downhill from here.

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r.: Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Joanne McGuiness, Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Karen Fishwick (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The salty language, slang, and dense Scots accents of these gurls (think Maggie’s Smith’s pronunciation in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie whilst touting the crème de la crème) keeps it all very ribald and just comprehensible enough. Don’t worry, when some narrative business is important, such as Orla (Joan McGuiness)’s account of how she tries to shag a fellow patient in a hospital with unfortunate results, you’ll follow it just fine. Orla has cancer and so her efforts to “dew et” while still able are understandable, though trying to get off a guy with a urine bag is not only a bit daft, it’s pathetic. And that’s the tone of much of the show—its hi-jinx are high times with an undertone of pathos.

The best dramatic situation along those lines comes from Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) deciding she might like girls better than boys and trying out her newfound emotions on Kay (Karen Fishwick), who’s been in bed with both at the same time. Efforts to suggest the bittersweetness of the girls’ tender age helps give some depth to a show which otherwise might simply seem the Scots female version of bro-mance films of frat boys trying to do the dirty. And it does seem like that often enough.

And there’s music too, played live onstage with conviction, though if the notion of teens rocking out to ELO tunes seems a bit contradictory, you’re not alone. Still, Jeff Lynne provides some decent songs like “Long Black Road,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” (a very spirited performance), and “Wild West Hero” (used very effectively). Then there are the hits from the classical canon that the girls sing with lovely, angelic voices, making clear why the nuns who teach them might be fooled into thinking they can be trusted on their own. Some—like Handel’s “My Heart is Inditing” and Williams’ “O Taste and See”—get a nice little spin when heard from the girls’ perspective.

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

l to r: Frances Mayli McCann, Dawn Sievewright, Caroline Deyga, Kirsty MacLaren, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuiness (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The music adds distraction but it also draws out the show’s length, which begins to feel interminable. By the time the girls are writhing about, getting their trip on with Magic Mushroom Lager, I had hopes their odyssey was near its end, but they still have to get back to Oban in time for that last dance at the Mantrap. You might be feeling up to a pub-crawl of your own by that point.

As Kay, Karen Fishwick is a cut above—she can do querulous old man, earnest young boy, and melancholy dude, and gives Kay nuances of conflict. Some of the others, when called upon to enact males, seem not much different than they are as girls, which I don’t think is deliberate, though maybe. Frances Mayli McCann and Caroline Deyga are compelling musical performers with a good sense of rhythm that enlivens the musical parts. As somewhat sad Orla, McGuinness gets a touching scene with Kirsty MacLaren whose nerdy boy character is memorable. And Sievewright handles well the role of Fionnula, the girl with something other than boys on her mind.

Plotwise, the fact that girls do go boy crazy at a certain age is certainly not new, and that Catholic girls are anything but chaste is not much by way of comic contrast. Full disclosure: I was in a Catholic school among Catholic schoolgirls up to age 13 and I remember many as far more mature than this lot. What’s more, I didn’t think, until seeing Our Ladies, that anything would make me sympathetic to the nuns overseeing teens and attempting to impose standards of conduct. Guess I’ll have to rethink that. As Eugene O’Neill says, “If you can’t be good, you can at least be careful.” Maybe our ladies will catch on before too much damage is done.

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Based on The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Adapted by Lee Hall
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Music Sourced, Arranged and Supervised by Martin Lowe

Designer: Chloe Lamford; Lighting Designer: Imogen Knight; Sound Designer: Lizzie Powell; Associate Director: Debbie Hannan; Associate Music Supervisor: Stuart Morley; Co-Casting Directors: Amy Ball, Laura Donnelly

The Band: Laura Bangay, band leader/keyboard; Becky Brass, percussion; Emily Linden, guitar

Cast: Caroline Deyga; Kirsty Findlay; Karen Fishwick; Joanne McGuiness; Kirsty MacLaren; Frances Mayli McGann; Dawn Sievewright

June 10-25, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Yale Repertory Theater

Light as Air

Review of Air Play, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Yellow and red fabrics that float like flames, undulating in fascinating patterns as they move on the eddies of air blowing from a circle of fans. That’s how Air Play, a two-person show featuring a mix of aerodynamics and clowning begins. Unlike some recent years at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the aerodynamics here are not about humans flying through the air, but rather a more gentle and charming use of materials that float. Air Play reminds us that air is a substance and makes us feel how expressive that substance can be, under certain conditions.

Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone—she in yellow, he in red, both with blue hair—are a couple of clowns adept at dumbshow, mime, and interaction with the audience. Their skits tend to revolve around props that can float—feathers, balloons, very thin umbrellas—and those that can’t: suitcases, clothes, shoes. The ongoing tone of their interaction is of like-minded individuals who might be rivals, might become friends, maybe even lovers (there’s a suggestive breaking of an “egg” to release tens of balloons swirling like spermatozoa at the show’s close), but whose major bond is their fascination with sending things aloft.

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

Bloom goes into the audience to follow errant balloons, and calls up participants from the audience. When I saw the show, the volunteers where a small girl and a full-grown adult. The contrast in their size was a nice visual jolt, but the childlike wonder inspired by how things can float or soar or drop makes us all kids to some extent. And the show is best at working its magic when the laughter and surprise of children in the audience is audible. There’s something about the vulnerability of a balloon that inspires identification in small fry, and the show maintains a certain pathos simply by keeping us a little worried about how fragile some of the props and effects are.

Apart from the superb air sculptures and tableaux, there’s also some notable clowning when Bloom and Gelsone insert themselves into huge balloons and then turn into heads protruding from spheres. It’s not every day that kids can see adults transform themselves into cartoons and it’s a notable effect, with Gelsone eventually shrinking in a comically disconcerting manner. And there are some wonderful effects that, in an era of CGI-dominated entertainments, are reassuring in their manipulation of physical properties to achieve moments of enthralling beauty. Everything here is on a very human scale that capitalizes on our capacity to control inanimate objects in surprising and graceful ways. In a time when so much entertainment comes via screens, the show offers the spectacle of poetry and humor happening in real time.

Air Play makes for a relaxing and visually interesting hour, and should delight the young, no matter how old.

 

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas
presents
Air Play
Conceived and created by Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone
Performed by Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone
Air Sculptures in collaboration with Daniel Wurtzel
Directed by West Hyler

Technical Director: Todd Alan Little; Stage Manager: Flora Vassar; Lighting Design: Jeanne Koenig; Costumes: Ashley Dunn Gatterdam; Sound Design: Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone; Additional Sound Design: Phil Ingle; Props: Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone

June 21-22 at 12 p.m. and 7 p.m.
June 23-25 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
University Theatre

In the Name of the Father and of the Son

Review of The Total Bent, The Public Theater

I happened to see The Total Bent, the energetic musical playing for a final extended week at The Public Theater, on Father’s Day. It was fitting, in a way. All over my facebook feed were fond tributes to great dads. Rarely did one hear a breath about the overbearing father, the belittler, the bully, or of the agon with one’s parental generation that, once upon a time, was de rigueur for any coming-of-age spirit, artists especially.

The Total Bent, text by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, directed by Joanna Settle, keeps alive the generational struggle. The stakes are high because Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a charismatic gospel star who relies upon his talented son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), to provide him with lyrics and melodies he can use to get his message across. When we meet them—during the bus boycotts in Alabama (here the town is “Bluntgomery”)—Marty is dissatisfied with his role. Dad is too square to embrace the Civil Rights movement the son is hot to address. The funny, and catchy, song that delivers Roy’s critical take on the protest movement exhorts blacks gladly to take seats in the back of the bus. His view of black distinction, he feels, will be lost by becoming just like whites.

Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The racial themes in the play would be enough to make this an interesting show—particularly as Stew is quite adept at registering what the older generation feared about “equal rights,” and Curtis Hall is expert at getting across the smug high-mindedness of the preachers who told Martin Luther King, Jr., he should “wait.” But Stew has even more on his mind, and that can make for some fairly symbolic axes to grind: in particular, the problem of gospel music’s credo of an afterlife with a benign God who will soothe the racist indignities—and the lynchings and beatings and police actions—with heavenly balm. As one of Marty’s songs pertinently asks: “Why should black people, of all people, still believe in God?”

At the heart of this musical is a struggle that Stew conceives of in mythopoeic terms: the Father vs. the Son for the Holy Ghost. Joe Roy, who seems to have God on his side, is the patriarchal and paternalistic form of religion. He goes so far as to bless slavery for having brought Christ to blacks. It’s a view that infuriates Marty, but Joe’s line is not a self-serving come-on from a snake oil salesman. Curtis Hall’s portrayal is remarkably subtle in giving us both the willful coddler of the uneducated masses, and a sincere man who wants to promote the “turn the other cheek” humility that, Marty’s generation feels, goes cheek by jowl with oppression.

Early on, we see that Marty has his own path to follow, and Stew is at some pains to give his trajectory enough coherence for the theater-going audience. The show feels like a concept album on stage in the way that songs, more than story, control our access to what is happening. Unlike most musicals, the songs don’t simply replace speeches for characters: the songs are thematic expressions.

Abee (Curtis Wiley), Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Abee (Curtis Wiley), Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Key to the power of the concept’s enactment is the unflinching talent of Ato Blankson-Wood as Marty. Each time we think he’s finally pulling out all the stops to deliver Marty’s latest take on what the times demand of a black musical artist, Blankson-Wood goes yet further. The transformation is breath-taking. We see Marty go from a cynical assistant of his preening father to a driven, hungry, angry, sexy, and super bad musical artist in his own right. The music and costuming (Gabriel Berry) and hair (Cookie Jordan) put Blankson-Wood through some serious changes, and it’s great fun trying to catch all the cats he conjures up—Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Sly Stone, Lou Rawls, and, of course, Michael. At times, Marty seems to be courting the intricacy of the studio geniuses—the way Stevie Wonder met the challenges of The Beatles—while at other times he ignites a performative frenzy that his old man can only aspire to. Stew and Rodewald’s imaginative score takes gospel to places it ain’t been before.

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood) and back-up singers (photo: Joan Marcus)

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood) and back-up singers (photo: Joan Marcus)

And the songs, as they both comment on Marty’s progress and express his condition, become engaged with the spiritual struggle at the heart of Stew’s vision of black music: the force of gospel, as an affirmation of the beauty and worth of suffering, vs. the great need to find a way to voice political and social and racial dissent. Marty’s ideal—which may be Stew’s, though it would be wrong to see Marty as his spokesman—seems to be a religious bond with the suffering black body, as Marty urges his listeners to drink his blood and eat his body, not as a delusion of himself as Christ but as a radical vision of blacks as Christ.

While this might sound incredibly heavy, it should be said that the show lets the music do the talking, and the band—led by Music Director Marty Beller on drums, with Stew on guitar and keyboard, and Rodewald on bass—is great, the songs pithy and impassioned, and the dialogue, which sometimes rhymes, only quasi-naturalistic. An added element, for entertainment’s sake, is the character of the British producer, Byron Blackwell (beaky David Cale, looking a bit like the aged Keith Richards), a lover of blues and authentic R&B, who has to choose between father—a blues legend before he went gospel—and the son, an up-and-coming genius. Cale delivers a few comic songs with a touch of Anthony Newleyesque showmanship to keep us apprised of the fact that—whichever Roy God is speaking through—show-biz is this man’s idol.

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), center, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), foreground (photo: Joan Marcus)

Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), center, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), foreground (photo: Joan Marcus)

There are no female parts in the play and the conceit of Marty’s mother Mary—Joe Roy thinks of her as a saint, Marty as a Magdalen—drifts into oedipal cliché, but needn’t. If the show goes forward, it could do with a flashback or two to let Mom add her pipes to the proceedings, letting us see how much those two views of femininity—the gospel choir and the street-corner mamas—fed the life’s blood of the musical journey Stew and Rodewald’s lively and inventive show takes us on.

Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design gives us a homey recording studio that transforms swiftly into a concert venue with catwalk. Some scenes, like a visit to the dark studio by awed Abee (Curtis Wiley) and Andrew (Jahi Kearse) (think Amos and Andy) don’t make much narrative sense, and sometimes we flip a bit quickly in period, but the songs make it all work. Not to be missed for the performances by Curtis Hall and Blankson-Wood, The Total Bent is totally mind-bending in its ambitions and delivery.

 

The Total Bent
Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Joanna Settle

Scenic Design: Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design: Gabriel Berry; Lighting Design: Thom Weaver; Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson; Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan; Music Director: Marty Beller; Music Contractor: Dean Sharenow; Choreography: David Neumann; Production Stage Manager: Chris DeCamillis; Stage Manager: Elizabeth Ann Goodman; Dance Captain: Curtis Wiley

Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood; Kenny Brawner; David Cale; Vondie Curtis Hall; Damian Lemar Hudson; Jahi Kearse; Curtis Wiley

Musicians: Marty Beller, drums; John Blevins, trumpet; Kenny Brawner, organ, keyboard; Damian Lemar Hudson, keyboards, guitar, harmonica; Brad Mulholland, woodwinds; Heidi Rodewald, bass, keyboard; Stew, guitar, piano.

 

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY
May 10-June 26, 2016

Go Ask Alice

Review of Alice in Wonderland, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s summer of Seven Deadly Sins has begun with a two-week run of Alice in Wonderland based on a energetic adaptation by the Manhattan Project.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were always about coping with childhood. Charles Dodgson composed the tales to amuse a young girl with take-offs on “grown-up” behavior and the kinds of inspired nonsense that delights because it doesn’t try to instruct. As does this show, most adaptations combine elements of both stories—in the first, Alice goes down the rabbit hole after the White Rabbit, in the second, she goes through a mirror. In both, she encounters figures from common nursery rhymes and other characters less explicable. A later age might seek neurosis in Alice’s adventures, but Carroll’s text wreaks havoc with efforts to explicate the whimsy of the imagination.

As re-conceived by theater director Andre Gregory with the Manhattan Project, Alice takes on the tone of the old “the inmates run the asylum” trope, so that anyone supposedly rational, such as Alice, will be bedeviled by the willful inanity of her interlocutors. As adapted for the Yale Summer Cabaret by Co-Artistic Director Jesse Rasmussen, Gregory’s script gets revamped as an Alice facing gleefully playful playground theater. The show is deeply suggestive of the creativity—and the misgivings—that are part and parcel of childhood.

Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

Alice (Sydney Lemmon) and cast members of Alice in Wonderland

As played by willowy Sydney Lemmon, Alice is full of a youthful curiosity and an engaging willingness to be engaged. She wants her oddball playmates to make sense and to be amusing and informative. And most of them—a companionable Rabbit (Paul Cooper), an acerbic Hatter (Ricardo Dávila), a haughty Caterpillar (Marié Botha), an eerie Cheshire Cat (Brontë England-Nelson), a vaporish Humpty Dumpty (Patrick Foley)—try to be. But the further Alice goes into what seems to be a dream-logic version of something she might have read, the less likely it is that anything will make sense to her satisfaction. Her mind plays tricks on her, seeming to make her a younger child again, sometimes tall, sometimes small, and often incapable of reciting rhymes the way she learned them. And some of the other characters might be leading her away from her studied innocence. By show’s end she may be done with make-believe altogether.

Staged with Haydee Antunano’s elegantly simple white costumes and Zoe Hurwitz’s backdrop of books painted white, Rasmussen’s vision of the show incorporates imaginary props—the way children playing often do—and devised moments, such as the Red Queen (Brontë England-Nelson) giving an arch rendering of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” There’s inventiveness aplenty, and the figures who might have wisdom to impart—such as Botha’s stern (and stoned) Caterpillar, or Foley’s insecure Humpty Dumpty—turn out to be more in need of help than helpful. And that goes double for figures who might be expected to be authoritative, such as the White Queen (England-Nelson, in her most winning role) and the White Knight (Cooper). Led by Dávila’s slippery performance, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as it should be, plays as the centerpiece with its lesson in how polite norms can be subverted, and how the art of conversation might be nothing more than a gift for entertaining non sequitur.

The show’s pace could pick up in some places and Rasmussen allows or encourages a few too many accents, where a more distinctive and less regional voice would do, but the real delight here is in the physicality of the show. Lemmon bends like a sapling and becomes acrobatic at times in her movement through a space peopled by the other cast members in a balletic frenzy of attitudes that is remarkably changeable.

Paul Cooper keeps his eye on the gravitas in the proceedings. He begins the show as Carroll narrating Alice's initial confusion, then takes part as the White Rabbit and others, to finally end up as the White Knight who tries to interest Alice in his inventions. With a somewhat Shakespearean song that pits odd activities against utterly absurd flights of fancy, the Knight draws from Alice her most emotive response. It’s as if she suddenly sees through the refusal to make sense and discovers how debilitating prolonged childhood can be.

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Gregory’s text ends with something like a coda, a cascade of words à la James Joyce (the last word in the coda is “and,” famously the last word of the Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s dream book, and that’s no coincidence I’m sure) that covers here the transition from the rabbit hole world to the book Alice reads. “Wonderland” may be the resources of her own imagination or the inspiration reading brings. In any case, the bizarre journey seems to take Alice to the cusp of young adulthood.

At the Criterion Cinema, Disney’s new version of Through the Looking Glass is playing. A sequel to the travesty of Alice in Wonderland already perpetrated by the world-wide hit the studio unleashed in 2010, the film, I have no doubt, is vastly inferior to the low budget, live action, basement staging at the Summer Cabaret. In this Alice, the special effects are all in our minds—and that’s fitting, for that’s ultimately where Alice lives.

 

Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s classic as adapted by The Manhattan Projection under Andre Gregory
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Costume Designer: Haydee Antunano; Set Designer: Zoe Hurwitz; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Production/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha; Paul Cooper; Ricardo Dávila; Brontë England-Nelson; Patrick Foley; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Summer Cabaret 2016: Seven Deadly Sins

Jesse Rasmussen, Artistic Director; Elizabeth Dinkova, Artistic Director; Emily Reeder, Producing Director; Sam Linden, General Manager; Jordan Graf, Management Associate; Anna Belcher, Chef; Aaron Wegner, Design Associate

June 2-19, 2016

The Land of Yesterday

Review of Anastasia, Hartford Stage

Back in 1997, Don Bluth et al. created Anastasia, a musical cartoon feature film (adapted from a 1950s movie that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar). The cartoon musical, from Twentieth Century Fox, gave Disney a run for its money. The latter studio had come back from the dead in the 1980s and discovered box office gold by incorporating the methods of Broadway musicals into animated films with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994). All three were later adapted to the stage—such is the interchangeability of show biz—with different levels of success. Now, Hartford Stage bring us Anastasia, A New Musical, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak with choreography by Peggy Hickey, another Broadway-bound show adapted from a popular animated film.

The story of Anastasia Romanov takes its cue from the many imposters who claimed to be her, keeping alive the story that she had survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Russian revolution of 1917. Bluth and company clearly saw the usefulness for an animated feature of any story involving a princess, and Disneyfied the story with anthropomorphic animals and an evil mystical villain—Rasputin!—to give some humor and thrills to the tale. Composers Stephen Flaherty, music, and Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, created for the film several big numbers, notably “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past,” “Learn to Do It,” and “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart).” For the stage show, Flaherty and Ahrens have expanded their supplementary songs from the animated film into a full scale musical that tells its tale through song more than dialogue.

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The task facing Terrence McNally, who wrote the Book of Anastasia, A New Musical, is to create yet another story based on the spurious legend of Anastasia’s survival that lets viewers have their fairy tale—she is a princess!—while doubting it too. McNally replaces the evil mad monk with dastardly Communist apparatchiks who must lay to rest the dangerous notion that a Russian princess might yet live. This alteration in favor of something a bit more historically accurate helps in some ways, even as it flattens the fairy tale aspects considerably. For one thing, there are nearly no comic roles and what passes for jokes are basically quips—cue Gertrude Stein (Rayanne Gonzales). And Communists make for rather colorless villains. The story has little dramatic interest, most of the songs serve only narrative purpose and are uninspiring as vehicles for feeling, and the performances, for the most part, are adequate rather than stellar.

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of the kudos in the show go to the technical features. Anastasia is a spectacle and in that sense it’s spectacular. The movable set decorations of Alexander Dodge’s brilliantly conceived scenic design make us look forward to each scene change—which is to say, each new song—and video & projection design by Aaron Rhyne makes the background more fascinating than the foreground action more than once. Peggy Hickey’s choreography gives this huge troupe of dancers—there are 14 in unnamed but multiply-costumed roles including a segment from Swan Lake—much to do and it is all brought off flawlessly. Linda Cho’s costumes will no doubt spawn facsimiles for figurines, or should. The Dowager Empress’ get-ups are gorgeous at a level that only the regal can wear, and Mary Beth Peil looks every inch a queen in her outfits. And getting to put on stage peasant garb, military wear, bohemian chic, and haut bourgeois splendor makes Cho’s contribution very much a high point. The projections and scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting design make the stage able to compete with animated action, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design gives the actors’ voices that ever-bright note that makes cartoon sound so distinctive.

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

With such a spectacle on offer, I wish I could say more in favor of the show tunes. It helps that “Once Upon a December”—which we hear three times—is a pretty song. It has to carry the emotional freight of the show, but is never more moving than it is at the start when Peil, as Anastasia’s Nana, the Empress, sings it with Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca). Which is to say the real Anastasia—at the last time the two actually see each other. The reunion and reprise, for McNally’s purposes, is real too, in the sense that everyone comes to believe that Anya (Christy Altomare), an amnesiac, Cinderella-like menial taken under-wing by two opportunists, Vlad (John Bolton, amusing) and Dmitry (Derek Klena, mostly still a cartoon), is the actual Anastasia. But there’s really not much suspense or satisfaction in whether or not the aging Empress will accept Anya as kin.

The flight from the dogged Kremlin agent Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and his minions provides some excitement here and there—a train sequence gets things moving near the end of Act I—but most of the high-points on stage are incidental to the actual story. Two such are the moody song of the exiled Russians, “Land of Yesterday,” and “The Countess and the Common Man,” a comical duet by Vlad and his onetime flame, Countess Lily (the Empress’s companion, coincidentally). Both those numbers feature Caroline O’Connor as Lily and, performance-wise, she’s the best thing in the show, which helps Act II, set in Paris where she and the Empress reside.

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The other key bit from the film that holds its own here is “Learn to Do It,” the Eliza Doolittle-like number wherein Vlad and Dmitry try to get Anya to become sufficiently aristocratic. At that point, halfway through Act I, I still had hopes that the show had lots more such tunes up its sleeve. Alas, no. “Journey to the Past,” the big rousing number before the curtain, gives Altomare a chance to show off her range and puts the show’s purpose into song.

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a journey into the past, the notion that every little girl wants to be a princess—which Disney has done much to perpetuate—returns to the point in history at which aristocracy became a dirty word, for the sake of an ideology that, in Anastasia’s view, is pernicious because it’s against grandeur and beautiful accessories. If the show has a point, it’s achieved when the three renegades from Soviet Russia, one of them allegedly nobility, hit Paris and find themselves outsiders to the capitalist fat cats as well. One needn’t really be a princess, simply able to dress like one. Better go see Grandma.

Tresnjak, who began the season trying to adapt film noir to the stage with Rear Window, again with much better tech than story, gets closer here to what seems his desiderata: stage productions that are interchangeable with movies in their attention to visuals over script. The point made by the top-notch animated features produced by Disney in the late 1980s, early 1990s (named above) was that the Broadway musical’s tendency to employ caricatures rather than characters could suit cartoon characters perfectly. That Broadway should then make caricatures of cartoon characters might reasonably nonplus a few, while for those who like that sort of thing that’s the sort of thing they like. Anastasia, if you’re willing to forego laughs, excitement, complex motivation, and are happy with great visuals and a handful of winning numbers, should not disappoint.

 

Anastasia, A New Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Video & Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. Lapointe; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Doug Besterman; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Music Preparation: Joann Kane Music, Russell Bartmus & Mark Graham; Fight Choreographer: Jeff Barry; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Vocal Arranger: Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arranger: David Chase; Associate Music Director: Steven Malone; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson; Stage Manager: Trey Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast (in order of appearance): Nicole Scimeca; Mary Beth Peil; Lauren Blackman; Constantine Germanacos; Molly Rushing; Alida Michal; Samantha Sturm; Shina Ann Morris; Manoel Felciano; Derek Klena; John Bolton; Christy Altomare; Ken Krugman; Kevin Ligon; Johnny Stellard; Rayanne Gonzales; Janet Dickinson; Caroline O’Connor; Kevin Munhall; Max Clayton; James Brown III

Hartford Stage
May 12-June 19, 2016

The Sweets of Sin

Preview, Yale Summer Cabaret

Sin. The fascination with sin goes way back, so much so that seven particular sins have traditional status as the “deadly sins” or cardinal sins. Which is to say “fundamental,” because these are sins that originate as thoughts or desires. In other words, you may be guilty of them even if you don’t commit them. And they lead to all kinds of naughtiness and a level of indulgence that . . . well, let’s just say you’ve been warned.

The Seven Deadly Sins, based on the list that Pope Gregory determined in the period often called “the Dark Ages,” are comprised of Sloth, Gluttony, Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, and Lust. The Seven Deadly Sins are also the thematic link for the Yale Summer Cabaret’s 2016 season.

To celebrate Sloth—which is a tendency to do nothing or to want to do nothing to a sinful extent—the Yale Summer Cabaret, led by “the Sin Sisters,” Co-Artistic Directors Elizabeth Dinkova and Jesse Rasmussen and Producing Director Emily Reeder, is kicking off this Friday, the 27th, with a party at the Cab space, 217 Park Street, 8 p.m. There will be actors and costumes and activities almost certainly but we might say that the main idea is it’s summer and time to relax and take it easy. Which includes taking in the rest of the season.

 

The season proper starts off on Thursday, June 2nd, with the opening of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Rasmussen and featuring Sydney Lemmon as Alice, abetted by a cast of actors—Marie Botha, Paul Cooper, Ricardo Davila, Brontë England-Nelson, Patrick Foley—who get to populate the mind-bending world Lewis Carroll created to delight little Alice Liddell ages ago. He wrote the two-part tale as a fabric of brain-teasers, drawing on puns and parodies as well as chess strategies and mathematical formulas. Some of the figures—the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter—and sayings—“Off with their heads!” “Jabberwocky”—have become overly familiar, the stuff of kiddie classics. The basics of the story have served Disney well, both as cartoon and live-action animation, and some version of Carroll’s whimsical, verbal, and at times surreal work has been given who knows how many live and filmed treatments over the decades.

The version Rasmussen and company are mounting comes via Andre Gregory—a maverick theater personage, of My Dinner with Andre fame—and dates from a time when “counter-culture” was all the rage (much like the rage for Bernie now). That’s not to say that Gregory politicized the story (which some believe was fairly politicized already), but rather that a story set in a “Wonderland” sets off allegorical possibilities.

How will the Summer Cab transform this most transformational of tales? You have till June 19th to find out. The sin to be explored: Gluttony—or, Look what happens when you listen to voices saying “eat me, drink me.” The notion that appetite can stand for a capacity to experience much at once, as we say “a glutton for punishment,” helps fill out this particular sin’s applicability to our Alice, the girl who finds things “curiouser and curiouser,” and whose curiosity seems insatiable.

A brief spot of Pride occurs on June 24th when the Summer Cabaret will hold a staged reading of a new play by rising third-year YSD playwright Tori Sampson. The play Cadillac Crew is set in Virginia during the Civil Rights movement, with an all-female cast. Sampson, in plays like This Land Was Made—about the period in which Black Panther Huey Newton was accosted by the cops, with fatalities—and Some Bodies Travel, her collaboration with Jiréh Breon Holder at this year’s Carlotta Festival, has a knack for exploring historical situations with a very contemporary sensitivity to the way the past inflects the issues of our present. One night only, June 24, 8 p.m.

The rest of the summer consists of Antartica! Which Is To Say Nowhere, Miranda Rose Hall's new adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s bizarre Ubu Roi, set in the land way down under now being colonized by greedy Americans, directed by Dinkova, June 30-July 10; Adam Geist, by German playwright Dea Loher, an odyssey of redemption for a young man prone to wrath and yet in some ways an innocent, directed by Dinkova, July 21-30; Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, directed by Rasmussen, in an update of the classical tale of a stepmother lusting after her women-spurning stepson, August 4-14. And, for an added event, don’t forget the face-off of sound designers/musicians Frederick Kennedy and Christopher Ross-Ewart on July 15 for “Envy: The Concert.”

More on the individual shows as we get closer to their production. In the meantime, take it easy, eat, drink, and be proud of yourself. The team at the Summer Cab is aiming to “shock our audience out of complacency” (which sounds like it might be the biggest sin of all in this fraught US election year). Just remember, pride goeth before destruction . . .

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
Seven Deadly Sins

Co-Artistic Directors: Elizabeth Dinkova, Jesse Rasmussen
Producing Director: Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street
May 27- August 14, 2016

The Milieu Makes the Man

Review of My Paris, Long Wharf Theatre

Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec certainly led a colorful life. As an aristocrat slumming in Montmartre, painting and drawing the denizens of the demimonde and the performers at Mirliton, a seedy cabaret his work publicized, Toulouse-Lautrec practically defined “bohemian.” What’s more, his health was poor and a disabling congenital defect left him with a man’s body on a boy’s legs. He was under 5 foot tall and had difficulty walking. Thus, in true romantic fashion, art was a way for him to overcome adversity—including a disapproving father. The heroism of Lautrec’s lonely, passionate, and talented life, lived in the milieu of entertainers with a lust for life, makes him an interesting choice as a subject for Charles Aznavour’s vibrant My Paris, with Book by Alfred Uhry, in an English adaptation by Jason Robert Brown. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall the show, after workshop productions last year at Goodspeed, is playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 29.

If we can forget how transformative Baz Luhrmann’s incandescent film Moulin Rouge! was back in 2001 (more or less destroying the tired mannerisms of movie musicals), we can find fun in this more direct and studious approach to the era. But even so, My Paris takes a little while to get into the good stuff. The decision to stress Toulouse-Lautrec’s relation with his family leads to a few scenes in the early going—“Father and Mother,” “Where Are You Going?”—that begin to make us wonder if we’ll ever get to Paris.

It’s well known that Toulouse-Lautrec hung out with the some of the premier artists of his day, but there’s no sign of them here. No doubt, the emphasis on family is meant to underscore Toulouse-Lautrec’s aristocratic origins and, given that his malady was in part due to in-breeding between cousins, milk the sorrows of the family drama element of his life story. And while performers like Tom Hewitt as Papa and Donna English as Maman are certainly worth our time, scenes about the manliness of hunting or a mother’s fears for her weak boy don’t make for interesting characterizations.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The songs set in the Moulin Rouge are the winners that make this show worth seeing, led up to by Henri and his cronies singing “We Drink!”, a kind of “Off to See the Wizard” number that draws us in with its effortless brio, followed by “Vive La Vie,” a full-tilt company number that introduces the likes of charismatic Aristide Bruant (Jamie Jackson), and local sensations such as La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Le Chocolat (Darius Barnes), and Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), and “Au Mirliton,” which ends Act One breathlessly, but still in “introductory” mode. Unfortunately, those named stars of Toulouse-Lautrec’s scene won’t be anything more than figures on stage matching figures in his work, as none but Bruant, a cheeky master of ceremonies with a brilliant red scarf, get to assert themselves as characters.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I was hoping, for awhile, that Sweany would get a number in her role as The Green Fairy—aka, absinthe, one of the stealers of Henri’s heart—but no such luck. Mara Davi as Suzanne Valadon, the other stealer of Henri’s heart, does get several expressive numbers such as the heart-stabbing “What I Meant to Say.” As Henri, Bobby Steggert carries himself with a fascinating blend of nonchalance and melancholy, or sangfroid and mauvais sang, in songs like “To Paint,” a call-to-arms; “The Honor of the Family,” a jaunty little knock-down of parental values; “Bonjour, Suzanne,” a celebration of his lady love, and, with Maman, “The Life I Lead,” a stunning bit of pop dialogue that works as the emotional center of Act Two.

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

The songs, with their easy rhymes and rhythms short-handing complex emotions, recall some of Jacques Brel’s tunes in spirit. Unlike some musicals one could name, where the setting or situations don’t immediately suggest song and dance, My Paris capitalizes on the fact that Henri haunts a world that is inherently theatrical, and Aznaour et al. find in his predicament pathos enough to sustain any amount of lyricism. While not strong on dramatic conflict—there’s no real villain other than overbearing Papa and Henri’s malady and alcoholism—the story has a satisfying arc of “misfit makes good,” and “urge to art finds success with unlikely subjects,” as well as plot points about unrequited love and the ills of dissolution.

The technical aspects of the show are all superb. The tiers of Derek McLane’s set manage to create a subtle sense of Henri’s small stature when necessary, and the distinct areas for tableaux backed with luminous projections of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work keep up a high level of visual interest throughout. The knock-out costumes are wonderful period recreations, including the Japonisme-influenced kimono the artist once posed in. The ensemble work of the dancers/singers is first-rate, having the kind of naturalness of expression that suits characters given to a showy sense of life. The variety of movements and the precision of it all is particularly impressive on Long Wharf’s relatively small amphitheater stage.

Where is it going? The Impressionists, as an artistic style and a style of being artistic, have never gone out of fashion in the public consciousness, and musicals this lively make for an agreeable evening out, giving viewers a vivid sense of art as a communal affair that suits theater more than most painter’s lives would.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mais oui—
vive Henri
au Paris!

 

My Paris
Music & Lyrics by Charles Aznavour
Book by Alfred Uhry
English Lyric Adaptation & Musical Adaptation by Jason Robert Brown
Directed & Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Associate Director/Associate Choreographer by David Eggers; Music Supervisor & Orchestrator by David Chase; Musical Direction by David Gardos

Set Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky; Hair and Wig Design: Leah Loukas; Production Stage Manager: Chris Zaccardi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Telsey + Company/Craig Burns, CSA

Costume Construction: Roberta Hamelin; Jennifer Love Costumes; Long Wharf Theatre Costume Shop; Millinery: Stephanie Taff; Wig Supervisor: Samantha Abbott; Costume Crafts: Ann Marie Donnelly; Stitcher: Alexandra Nattrass

Cast: Darius Barnes; Mara Davi; Donna English; John Grisetti; Tom Hewitt; Anne Horak; Timothy Hughes; Jamie Jackson; Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Tiffany Mann; Kate Marilley; Andrew Mueller; John Riddle; Bobby Steggert; Erica Sweany

Dance Captain: Timothy Hughes

Musicians: David Gardos, conductor, piano, accordion; Sean Rubin, bass; Jeffrey Carlson, guitar, mandolin; Andrew Smith, violin

Originally produced by Goodspeed Musicals

Long Wharf Theatre
May 4-29, 2016

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

With David Auburn’s four character play, Proof, New Haven Theater Company once again proves that what they do best are plays driven by natural dialogue in a static location. In focusing on Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), the daughter of Robert (George Kulp), a ground-breaking mathematician, who is trying to cope with her father’s loss, while fielding intrusions from her dad’s one-time grad student, Hal (Christian Shaboo), and her take-charge sister, Claire (Deena Nicol-Blifford), Proof departs from most NHTC offerings by presenting a female main character. And that’s to the good as Chenot is one of the troupe’s most versatile actors. Here, she gets to be prickly and melancholic, romantic and distracted, all while keeping us in tune with what’s going on in Cathy’s interesting head.

Turning 25 as the play opens, Cathy is a young woman who has inherited some of her dad’s math genius, but hasn’t really applied herself, it seems. Worried that mathematical minds tend to peak around 28, she opens the play in a funk, chatting with her already deceased father. It’s a nifty opening because it gets the relationship between Robert and Cathy on the table fast: he doted on her, but, in his last decade or so, he needed her as his companion and attendant because he was, as he puts it, “in the bug house.” From beyond the grave, as it were, Robert’s voice can be encouraging and consoling, but his very presence may suggest perhaps that Cathy might share both the capacity for mental breakthrough and breakdown.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Into the situation comes a possible love interest, Hal, who is dedicated to his mentor’s past greatness and hopes against hope that something worth publishing can be found in the reams and reams of notebooks Robert left behind. Robert, suffering from hypergraphia, tended to write gibberish as though straight from the Burning Bush, and so there’s a lot to slog through. Cathy is both dismissive of Hal’s efforts and a little bit conciliatory, though he may be trying too hard to draw her out. Shaboo seems always to play sympathetic guys, so we probably aren’t as distrustful of Hal’s intentions as Cathy is.

The one to be distrustful about is Claire who is not nearly so star-struck about the old man as Cathy is, and who believes the sisters erred in not turning him over to professional help. Claire has a much more practical mind than either her sister or father so tends to be the wet-blanket to their enthusiasms. It’s important that she be a not-so-sympathetic voice of reason and Nicol-Blifford gets her across as likable and even-tempered, if pushy.

Directed by Steven Scarpa with a good sense of pacing, the NHTC production is strengthened by its ability to make somewhat prosaic situations—bickering well-intentioned sisters, ingratiating but nerdy guy, overbearing has-been paterfamilias—come alive with forthright charm. The flashbacks to Robert while alive let us see both the manic side of his condition and his mellow months of remission. Kulp handles both with a sincerity that shows us Robert from Cathy’s point of view, as someone who was once something extraordinary and then, sadly, could only hope for being normal.

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

As a play, Proof works by short scenes of two or three characters and keeps its dialogue focused on the back and forth of exchange. Some of the best moments are in the timing between Chenot and Nicol-Blifford as Cathy is apt to verbally undercut her sister’s views, and vice versa. The hot and cold approach to romance between Cathy and Hal feels contemporary enough, though tinged with a romantic comedy tone.

The play’s main issue is whether or not a woman can be a math genius—a plot point that works both for the theme of what we inherit from our forebears and for the theme of the incalculable equation of love. There's also a neat play on proof, as mathematical solution and evidence. In the end, we see that the burden of proof can be too easily assumed by those who don’t know as much as they think they do, and that love is something that has to be proven again and again.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Margaret Mann and Erich Greene

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot; George Kulp; Deena Nicol-Blifford; Christian Shaboo;

New Haven Theater Company Stage
at English Markets Building
839 Chapel Street
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

For Art's Sake

Review of Red and ‘Art’ at Westport Country Playhouse

“…all of art is a portrait of an idea”—Mark Rothko

Two Tony-winning plays are playing in repertory at Westport Country Playhouse, both directed by Mark Lamos. Red, by John Logan, which opened Saturday night, and ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza, which opened on Sunday, both treat fraught relations with fine art. The first, from the point of view of the maker, specifically the great mid-twentieth-century painter Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and a fictional assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews); the second, from the point of view of the buyer, Serge (John Skelley), and his bemused buddies, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan).

Of the two, ‘Art’, well-known as a play performed all over the world and generally a hit with audiences, is easily the more entertaining and likable play. Red, boasting a great set and Rowe’s intense rendering of Rothko, has no sense of humor—like Rothko himself seemingly—and only a weakly realized “agon” between mentor and assistant to recommend it as drama.

It’s not that Red sells Rothko’s ideas short—though hearing someone in a position of authority behave in so surly and dismissive a manner certainly won’t win over non-admirers—but rather that it makes Rothko’s modus operandi seem inflated, vain, misguided, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. Or, if one wants to be kinder, it suggests—scarcely a new idea—that each new generation of significant artists “kills” the previous generation. So, as those considered Abstract Expressionists—like Rothko—killed off the Cubists, so the Pop artists killed off the Abstract Expressionists. That’s true enough if we treat art as fashion, but as an assessment of the art of the twentieth century it’s extremely facile. And yet when Ken, considerably beside himself after taking as much abuse from Rothko as he can stand, offers this as an insight, it’s meant to feel telling.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The best thing about Red is seeing Rowe make Rothko in his studio come alive for us, a studio so well-rendered in Allen Moyer’s set you almost believe New York city is right outside its papered-over windows. Rothko, by all accounts, could indeed be difficult and had an uncompromising approach to his work—elements of his personality that come out here but without much sense of what he is trying to achieve with his work (viewers who think that the slapdash “paintings” hung on the stage have anything to do with Rothko’s work will be sadly mislead). The disconnect between Rothko’s work and the play, however, seems to be the point, as its story (such as it is) is told from the point of view of Ken. If only Ken had a point of view.

We learn he is an artist, though we never see evidence of it, nor do we ever get a sense that he, like Rothko, is bent upon achieving something that goes beyond himself. He tells the painter, after taking a job as his assistant, that his favorite artists are Pollock and Picasso, and eventually he defends Pop art because it’s fun. It might be more interesting if Ken defended figurative work or advocated that Rothko dispense with shapes altogether, but as it is he’s a cipher not given enough depth to be a character. It’s not even correct to say that he is skeptical of Rothko’s work since his reactions are to the man, primarily.

As a man, Rowe makes Rothko memorable by attitude more than by statement. He babbles about Nietzsche and puts down other painters, critics, and the general public in a manner that comes from an essentially depressive view of the modern world. Rothko actually had an interesting personal history but none of that matters here. What we get is, thanks to Rowe’s portrayal, a believable Rothko in, thanks to Logan’s script, an unrewarding situation.

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps the most obvious point of transition between Red and ‘Art’ is when Rothko, bemused, speaks of how buyers want “a Rothko” or to collect “Rothkos,” so that he has become an object, synonymous with the objects he creates. In ‘Art’, a dermatologist named Serge buys “an Antrios,” for 200,000 euros. The assumption is that, like many dilettantes who bought Rothkos when his name became synonymous with modern art, Serge is buying the reputation more than the object. His friend Marc is aghast. The painting, which looks to be solid white, though allegedly possessing some white stripes on a white ground, or perhaps even some other muted colors, is deemed by Marc to be “shit.” The two eventually bring into their disagreement a mutual friend Yvan, who is in the midst of preparing to get married and who tries to be fair to each man’s point of view, a strategy that only fuels the fire when it fails.

What makes the play rewarding is the command of dialogue. Reza, as translated from French by Christopher Hampton, writes a stylized form of speech that can range from direct appeals to the audience, to rapid-fire ripostes and undercutting between characters, to a somewhat middlebrow version of highbrow discourse, to a hilarious monologue to his friends in which Yvan vents on the difficulty of getting all the women implicated in the wedding—his fiancée and her stepmother, and his own mother and stepmother—to agree. In fact, it is that monologue, which lets Dugan begin to run away with the play, that happily shifts us from the somewhat antiseptic discussion of the painting.

Which is fine, as the idea that this play is about art does it a disservice. All along we suspect that the difference in tastes about art is simply an easy notational device to characterize the three men. Serge, the others well know, is a would-be modernist; Marc likes landscapes; Yvan has a sentimental attachment to a canvas his father painted. What makes for the drama here is that Serge’s willingness to pay so much for such a work puts him into a different category. He’s attempting to rise above Marc’s conception of him by aligning himself with intellectuals (who use novel words like “deconstruction”—the play dates from the late 1990s, after all). And the sense of how our friends don’t remain fixed in the niches to which we assign them is what galls Marc and makes the play come alive as each airs his griefs with the others.

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The comic pay-off of the play helps to undercut its own pretensions, though it also risks aligning itself with the tactics of the easy word-of-mouth consensus that is more relevant to theater than to the art world. Riza is never in danger of deconstructing the comedy of manners—and tastes—that is ‘Art’’s biggest selling point, but one can’t help feeling that, in French, she might get closer to something more pointed. The play, to me, seems underwritten by the sociological treatment of bourgeois “cultural capital” in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (hence, the specifics of each man’s occupation), and so is a way of showing how each man’s taste fulfills a certain function. The best moment, as theater, is when the three men share a small plate of almonds, for then their similarity is inescapable.

Mark Lamos’ productions of the two plays is best when it lets us dwell on such non-verbal moments—such as the covering of a canvas with a red undercoat that Rothko and Ken undertake simultaneously. In bringing the two plays together in repertory, Lamos underscores a telling moment in each: Ken’s defense of Pop art against Abstract Expressionism is replayed in ‘Art’ when Marc draws a cartoon figure upon Serge’s minimalist “masterpiece.” In both cases, the notion that art should amuse or please is for a moment lifted above its ability to confound or be profound. And yet, even then, both plays keep alive the sense of art as an irritant and a confrontation, and each play is deepened by its relation to the other.

And that, we may say, is the idea.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

Red
By John Logan
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Patrick Andrews; Stephen Rowe

‘Art’
By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Sean Dugan; Benton Greene; John Skelley

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Rachel Kenner; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
May 3-29, 2016

As Good As It Gets

Review of Happy Days, Yale Repertory Theatre

In the course of seven years of reviewing plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen some interesting productions of new plays, but I’ve been waiting for a revival or a staging of a classic play that might be considered definitive and simply not to be missed. Now I have: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director James Bundy and starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest as the irrepressible Winnie, not only does full justice to Beckett’s most feminine play, it brings to light elements of characterization that couldn’t be more trenchant.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of Beckett’s best-known plays are fairly masculine affairs, as are his most famous narrative works. The typical consciousness in Beckett is not only male, it’s one that primarily sees women as ill-understood maternal functions or via procreative urges to which his characters are sometimes hostile but are mostly indifferent. Happy Days, essentially a monologue by a middle-aged woman sinking into a barren mound, lets us hear the other side of the coin. Do I even have to say why that might be socially and politically relevant in 2016?

We might say that, more than ever, we have to listen to Winnie not simply as a symbol of something, but as a particular quality of mind.

While mostly a monologue, Happy Days is not a soliloquy, and that’s very important. Winnie speaks sometimes to herself and sometimes simply for the benefit of some imagined onlookers, but for the most part she speaks to Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who is not visible to us for most of the show’s two hour running time, but who can be heard sometimes, and seen by Winnie if she turns her head.

That she is able to do in the first half of the show while we see her, from waist up, in a corset, with arms bare. She can rummage in her bag, brush her teeth, consult a mirror, interact with a revolver, don a hat, and, quite memorably, hoist a parasol above her head. When the curtain rises on Act 2, the earth is up to her chin. With nothing to do but talk, she remains cheery if weary, almost but not quite ready to relinquish her consciousness.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a discussion question, the meaning of her condition could no doubt float many a literary seminar, but, as a physical state to find someone in, it is, for an audience, profoundly uncomfortable, and therefore humorous so as not to be appalling. In other words: in real life we’d rush to her aid; in theater we simply have to accept it, as does Winnie herself. And, the play suggests, as we will have to, in our own cases, sooner or later. Hamlet tells a skull to remind “my lady” that she’ll become one herself, cosmetics notwithstanding. Beckett makes an entire play of that insight, so that we can’t ignore the baleful significance of the little Winnie retains, nearing the end. Though she can still laugh and hope for something.

In fact, Winnie’s primary effort is to look relentlessly on the bright side. Hence the show’s title, as she finds reasons to consider herself—like Camus would have us imagine Sisyphus—happy. And making of this existential tableau something “lighthearted” takes every bit of Beckett’s incredibly detailed sense of the minutia of human life. Much of Winnie’s talk is trivial, but focused with deliberate endearment on the everyday, with occasional flights of fancy.

Wiest and Bundy have found a tone and a tempo that makes Winnie seem, rather than dotty or in denial, a fully lucid commentator upon her fate. The moods the actress is able to convey with slight facial alterations, with a voice that moves from consoling cooing to spikes of excitement to lamentation and resignation make this a vivid enactment of a vital presence.

It helps considerably that Wiest has a very sensual voice. She can sound sexy when pleased with herself or Willie, gruff when she’s not, and like a musing schoolmarm when trying to remember apropos quotations or appropriate usage, or, at times, like a whimsical child, as when trying to see how much of her own face she can see. She uses dramatized voices to recall a couple who looked upon her plight once and made rude comments. That couple—named Shower or Cooker, Winnie seems to recall—is us: looking on, thinking our thoughts about what she’s wearing or why she’s there or what she means.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Throughout, with his rags on his head, his newspaper, his “straw” (a boater), and, finally, his dress suit (which might be worn equally appropriately to come a-courting or to a graveside), Willie enacts a kind of attenuated autonomy that intrudes itself from time to time on Winnie, if only to increase her sense of immobility. “What a curse—mobility!” she clucks sympathetically at one point.

Essential to the tableau, Willie is a presence of which Winnie is solicitous and which she requires not simply as foil but as the sharer in her sense of her own presence: “Something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself.” There are few plays comparably as deft at suggesting the uncountable days of a long, uninterrupted marriage and the toll such a union takes as well as the enduring sense of identity it confers. If you’re anywhere near middle-age yourself, you’ve probably seen your parents go through it; or you may be, at this point, able to see yourself in the same boat. This play will accelerate that recognition.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

The set, by Izmir Ickbal, with its lifelike mound and painted sky befits a diorama into which we peer at a captive for a sign of how life might be conducted under such conditions, while Stephen Strawbridge’s requisite relentless lighting creates a desert atmosphere. The props and costumes, particularly Winnie’s charming little hat and igniting parasol, maintain an air of what Winnie is fond of referring to as “the old style.”  There’s a sense that once upon a time life was normal but that it has long since ceased to be so, thus Winnie becomes a figure for the lightness of the mind when faced with the encroaching uselessness of the body. At one point she wonders if gravity might cease to be what it once was and if she could be—like the Madonna herself—“sucked up” into the sky.

Fans of Wiest and admirers of Beckett should not miss this show, even if they’ve seen the play before. I profess myself to be both, and largely because of the sly sense of comedy both author and actress possess. And I’m glad this memorable version of Happy Days represents my first viewing of the play. As Winnie might say, “Oh the happy memories!”

 

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by James Bundy

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Cast: Dianne Wiest; Jarlath Conroy

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 29-May 21, 2016

King of Comedy

Review of Spamalot at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and of Monty Python in general. I saw the film on its first U.S. run, several times, and had, in my teens, committed to memory many Python routines, including most of the dialogue of the film. I resisted going to see the Broadway run of Spamalot because, frankly, the idea of actors trying to take on the variety of roles and voices that the Pythons themselves—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and sometimes Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland—originated struck me as a kind of sacrilege. But time goes on and we’ve got to get over that.

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Particularly as Spamalot has managed to bring to the stage the inspired inanity of the film, but with the advantage that the actors can actually hear the audience laughing. Where the film spoofed certain genres of film-making, not least the documentary and the arthouse film, Spamalot spoofs the stage and, particularly, Broadway musicals. Both film and musical, of course, spoof the august tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, and the mix of the fabulous and the folksy that comprises the world of legend. Idle, who had to go it alone without his former colleagues in converting their best-known work into a stage show, is clever in how he “lovingly rip[s]-off” (to use the official terminology) the film and adapts it to the stage.

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Tremendously popular, Spamalot has played all over the world—which is fitting as the good old British empire got about a bit. As staged at University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Richard Ruiz, with a few professional parts and the rest student actors, Spamalot comes across as a wacky romp trying to “find its legs.” The notion that Arthur has to put on a Broadway show, as charged by the Knights Who Until Recently Said Ni, feels like a quest indeed. Though production values may have been a bit different on Broadway, the show sends up professional theater while remaining true to what Idle conceived: taking aim at Broadway while aiming for Broadway. That means there are plenty of cheesy visuals that are remarkable for how serviceable they are—such as the castles for the outrageous French taunters and the plaintive plight of Herbert. There’s even catapulted cows and a hilarious plush, fanged rabbit. And a great variety of costuming by Heather Lesieur.

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The pros in the cast—Richard Kline as Arthur and Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake—together with choreographer Tom Kosis give this show its Broadway shine. The stagework throughout is lively and inventive (and special credit to Voice and Accent Coach David Alan Stern for keeping an ear to the original). Kline’s Arthur has the right straight-man tone—diffident and generally perplexed—but he can also soft-shoe and sing and break the fourth wall—“there goes my career”—all while seeming like an aging CEO trying to find out what makes his business go. And Torres, besides looking great in her various get-ups, from Disneyish princess to outlandish Vegas-style hoofer, handles the vocals given to the Lady—who is mainly only there to provide musical commentary—with joyous comic aplomb.

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

But about that part: since most of the Python’s works were “boys only” affairs, with an occasional actual female cameo, mostly in the T&A category, there’s not much for a female star to do in Spamalot. Idle’s solution is to make that lack thematic, having the Lady gripe—in full-throated song—about being underused. It’s funny, yes, but misses taking advantage of the Zoot/Dingo dichotomy from the film, as the stage play—disappointingly—drops the entire Castle Anthrax scene. It should’ve been expanded rather than excised and then there would be some actual female “peril” and possibly a song or two for a female character that isn’t simply meta-commentary.

The show is well cast, particularly in key roles: Gavin McNicoll is perfect as Pasty, Arthur’s overlooked Cockney assistant, who gets a major song, and Nick Nudler is rather Idle-esque as the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin, who gets to lead the droll “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”—very Gilbert & Sullivan—while, as Sir Lancelot, Bryce Wood does full justice to the delightful “His Name is Lancelot.” Both songs develop facts about the American stage—the prevalence of Jews and gays—in a breezy, poking-fun way. Like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “Twice in Every Show,” the song routines laugh at the convenience of conventions even while benefiting from them, for the sake of a laugh.

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

And that’s pretty much the only take away from the show, as stated in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which Idle, who wrote it, cleverly steals from the Python’s other successful film, The Life of Brian): “They say it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go / Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” The laugh, initially, was that a show that spoofs successful Broadway musicals became a successful Broadway musical, winning three Tony awards. Here, the “last laugh” is that the show is also a delightful big production event for university theater with its infectious sense that it’s best not to take anything too seriously.

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

 

 

Richard Kline in
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Featuring Mariand Torres
Directed by Richard Ruiz

Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland; Lighting Designer: Adam Lobelson; Musical Director: John Pike; Costume Designer: Heather Lesieur; Voice & Accent Coach: David Alan Stern; Technical Director: Gregory Maine; Dramaturg: Benjamin McSheehy; Video/Projection Designer: Josh Winiarski; Choreographer: Tom Kosis; Sound Designers: Justin Graziani, Joel Abbott

Cast: Mikaila Baca-Dorion; Valerie Badjan; Juliana Bearse; Olivia Benson; Kent Coleman; Jeff DeSisto; Zack Dictakis; Tabatha Gayle; Derrick Holmes; Sarah Jensen; Richard Kline*; Kirsten Keating Liniger; Curist Longfellow; Gavin McNicoll; Chester Martin; Nick Nudler; Joon Ho Oh; Scott Redmond; Susannah Resnikoff; Ryan Rudewicz; Meredith Saran; Ben Senkowski; Ryan Shea; Brian Patrick Sullivan; Mariand Torres*; Bryce Wood; Jacob Harris Wright

*AEA member

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts
April 21-May 1, 2016

Yale Cab 48 Recap

“There’s no accounting for taste,” the saying goes. Here, at the end of another season at the Yale Cabaret—Season 48, but the 7th I’ve been a witness to—it’s time for my annual recap, which might be described as a way of accounting for my own tastes.

It’s not a competitive environment, the Cab. So many names recur again and again in these lists because there’s very much a “get it done as best you can with who’s available” mode at work much of the time. So, I’ll start off with paying tribute to everyone who took the time to take part in Season 48 at what remains my favorite place for theater in New Haven. Season 48—2015-16—was a tough year for many reasons and it was good to have that little life-raft down the steps at 217 Park Street, maintained by Co-Artistic Directors David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, and Managing Director Annie Middleton.

David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

Here are, in chronological order, my four best-remembered and, in final position, most treasured contributions to the season in the following categories: New Plays; Existing Plays; Set Design; Costume Design; Lighting Design; Sound Design; Music; Projections and Effects; Ensemble Acting; Actor (male), Actor (female) in supporting role; Actor (male), Actor (female) in main role; Directing; Production.

Here goes.

There weren’t that many New Plays in the season, which began with an adaptation of a preexisting play, and the other eligibles are here as well: We Are All Here, an adaptation of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime by David Bruin and Jiréh Breon Holder: a large cast enacting complex relationships with a great frenetic use of the Cab space; MoonSong by Sean Patrick Higgins: a touching and gently comic look at a talented family struck by illness; Salt Pepper Ketchup by Josh Wilder: the first part of a topical tale about the tensions surrounding gentrification in food service in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood; Lake Kelsey by Dylan Frederick: a contemporary coming of age musical in which the kids are not so alright; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Miranda Rose Hall:, my favorite because I grew up on Monty Python and sketch comedy and this zany, rapid-fire take on current anxieties (don’t get me started on the medical profession) scored with me all the way.

For Existing Plays, there are more to choose from, and my selection is based on the kinds of things I find most fascinating in works I haven’t seen before: Boris Yeltsin by Mickaël de Oliveira, translated by Maria Inês Marques: an update of the story of Agamemnon and Orestes, sharply scripted and sharply acted, with a definite ax to grind; Cloud Tectonics by José Rivera: a lyrical love story exploring archetypal relations in a convincing way; Dutch Masters by Greg Keller: a class-and-race clash, forcing us to delve into the vulnerabilities behind the issues; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder: an intimate glimpse of a diva at home experiencing life-changing love, touched with both cynicism and romanticism; and . . . Knives in Hens by David Harrower: my favorite because of its truly striking ear for the English language, and its cast and setting perfectly captured a world both elemental and deeply suggestive.

For Set Design: The Secretaries (Jean Kim), a finely worked up space able to accommodate very different settings, from bedroom to work place to lumber camp; Trouble in Tahiti (Rae Powell), an amazing cartoon cut-out look that suited the show perfectly; Cloud Tectonics (Izmir Ickbal), a surprisingly real space for this rather unreal tale; And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens (Lucie Dawkins; Sarah Nietfeld), a room can reveal and conceal, and this space did both with more origami cranes than could be counted; and . . . The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Christopher Thompson; Claire DeLiso), you can’t put a functioning turntable in a set and not get my attention, and this set was not only worthy of Fassbinder it made me want to visit.

For Costumes, the first thing I noticed was that the same person—with different nominal designations on the programs—was responsible for much of the stuff I was most impressed with: The Secretaries (Asa Benally): matching look to type is always helpful in comedy and the various takes—and take-offs—of these ladies had work to do; Boris Yeltsin (Haydee Zelideth): costuming can include use of nudity and how that played into this tale of a bizarre family romance was casual and crafty; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Sarah Nietfeld): if only for the transformations of Trisha, and the other quick changes before our eyes; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Haydee Zelideth Antunano): clothes make the lady in this tale of a fashion designer, which just wouldn’t work without the semiotics of appearances; and . . .  Trouble in Tahiti (Haydee Antunano; Asa Benally): my favorite because of the look of the vocal trio and the elegant bourgeoisity of the principals.

For Lighting: Knives in Hens (Andrew F. Griffin): the look of this show stayed with me for a long time; The Secretaries (Elizabeth Green): lighting was at times a special effect in the varied moods of this wildly funny show; Trouble in Tahiti (Carolina Oritz): a show with a visual style that fully complemented its music; Cloud Tectonics (Elizabeth Mak): lighting and other subtle effects helped in this play of stopped time; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Andrew F. Griffin): with much of the action occurring behind scrims, the play of light in the show was an expressive and striking element.

For Sound: Knives in Hens (Tom Starkey): many nice aural touches to create a surround of tension; I’m With You in Rockland (Nok Kanchanabanca): balancing jazz, spoken word, and videos into a coherent whole; The Secretaries (Kate Marvin): the range of soundscape added to the exaggerated reality of this sharp satire; Cloud Tectonics (Tye Hunt Fitzgerald): the sound of the storm felt palpable and impressive; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Frederick Kennedy): important use of unsettling sound effects and live and recorded voices made this the most memorable to me.

For Music: I’m With You in Rockland (Ian Gottlieb; Dylan Mattingly): percussion and piano were the stars of the show; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Frederick Kennedy; Christopher Ross-Ewart): composed music and songs on the stereo added extra levels of emotion; Someone to Watch Over Me (Andrew Burnap): fine renditions of the voice and trumpet of the great Chet Baker; Lake Kelsey (Dylan Frederick): catchy and incisive exposition through song; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein; Music Director: Jill Brunelle): a beautiful arrangement of a score with classical lyricism and ethnic inflections,  somewhere between opera and musical theater.

For Projections and Artistic Effects: Roberto Zucco (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): a barrage of effects for the finale of a killer’s bad end; Slouch (Brittany Bland, projection design): moody, collage-like effects added much visual interest to this tale of groping interiorities; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Brittany Bland, projection design): video intrusions added to the spectacle of medical chaos; Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? (Aylin Tekiner, Conceptual Artist; Kemal Gökhan Gürses, Illustrator Artist; Brittany Bland, projection design): a wonderfully involved use of video, shadow puppets, animation to tell a child’s eye view of violence and death; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): the visuals brilliantly created commentary and expanded on the dramatic situations presented.

For Ensemble acting: We Are All Here (Jenelle Chu, Claire DeLiso, Edmund Donovan, Brontë England-Nelson, Christopher Ghaffari, Jonathan Higginbotham, Sean Patrick Higgins, Maria Inês Marques, Victoria Whooper, Ian Williams): a rough and tumble ensemble with everyone adding to the comic tensions; The Secretaries (Jenelle Chu, Annie Hägg, Chalia La Tour, Annelise Lawson, Shaunette Renée Wilson): a ladies only night—and it was irresistible to see five of the six actresses of the class of 2016 tearing it up together; Salt Pepper Ketchup (Mia Antoinette, Jason de Beer, Eston J. Fung, Sean Boyce Johnson, Steven Lee Johnson, Tanmay Manohar, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo): a sustained sense of community with delicate detentes and violent intrusions; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Baize Buzan, Anna Crivelli, Sydney Lemmon, Annelise Lawson, Leyla Levi, Shaunette Renée Wilson): another ladies only play that lets us into an inner circle being destroyed from within; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Juliana Canfield, Paul Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Aubie Merrylees, Alyssa Miller, Jacob Osborne): though there’s clearly a central character, there were many mini-cameos of a variety of types in this darkly comic tale.

Even in the midst of great ensemble work, there were roles that lit up with memorable intensity: Actor (female), in supporting role(s): Baize Buzan as the mercurial love object in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; Chalia La Tour as the sadistic supervisor in The Secretaries; Brontë England-Nelson as several roles, including an enthralled woman and an old man in Roberto Zucco; Marié Botha for her comic shopping spree in Slouch; and . . . for a hilarious range of commentators, amazingly lucid in each incarnation, Juliana Canfield in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness.

Actor (male), in supporting role(s): Sean Patrick Higgins as the dad with wife, male lover, and nubile daughter troubles in We Are All Here; Paul Cooper as the fascinatingly dark and introspective Miller in Knives in Hens; Julian Elijah Martinez as a boyish Orestes learning to man up in Boris Yeltsin; Eston J. Fung as the harried and scheming fast food joint owner in Salt Pepper Ketchup; and . . . for two roles, equally memorable: the unnervingly patriarchal husband in Knives in Hens, and the wacky sick scientist with a song to sing in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, Niall Powderly.

For “main role,” I’ve chosen parts that dominate the action or share center stage together: Actor (male): Aubie Merrylees, the killing fool and homicidal lover in Roberto Zucco; Edmund Donovan, the wary white boy getting in too deep in Dutch Masters; Leland Fowler, the seductive, deceiving, amusing and sympathetic black kid in Dutch Masters; Patrick Madden, the accommodating queen of her own fantasy heading for a fall in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens; and . . . a thoughtful lover missing the cues for a full life but achieving a poetic end, Bradley James Tejeda in Cloud Tectonics.

Actor (female): Mary Higgins, as the mom with a song in her heart and a wry sense of her own frailty in MoonSong; Kelly Hill, as a wife looking for the romantic magic she never knew in Trouble in Tahiti; Stephanie Machado, as the mysterious time-stopping archetypal pregnant madonna in Cloud Tectonics; Sydney Lemmon, as a vital, successful woman with a void in her heart in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . as Woman, on her way to knowledge and, through stylized encounters with male figures, finding her own voice, Elizabeth Stahlmann in Knives in Hens.

For Direction, thanks to everyone who takes on this task, but to single-out productions where the grasp of complex material was very telling: Jesse Rasmussen, for the mysterious, portentous world of Knives in Hens; Christopher Ghaffari, for finding a way to stage at the Cab a truncated Bernard-Marie Koltès play with a sprawling cast of characters, Roberto Zucco; Lynda Paul, for the incorporation of music, voice, acting, visuals, comedy, romance into a Gesamtkunstwerk in Trouble in Tahiti; Leora Morris, with Jesse Rasmussen, for a pacing and tone that revitalizes Fassbinder in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . for going over the top, to the edge of chaos and back in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, and for a slowburn control of barbed material in Boris Yeltsin, Elizabeth Dinkova.

And for overall Production: Knives in Hens: Adam J. Frank, Producer; Davina Moss, Dramaturg; Rebekah Heusel, Stage Manager; Roberto Zucco: Tanmay Manohar, Gretchen Wright, Producers; Ariel Sibert, Dramaturg; Emely Zepeda, Stage Manager; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness: Kathy Ruoran Li, Producer; David Clauson, Stage Manager; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: Maria Inês Marques, Producer & Dramaturg; Avery Trunko, Stage Manager; and . . . (call me sentimental, but I was born at the end of the 1950s) Trouble in Tahiti: Steven Koernig, Producer; Taylor Barfield, Dramaturg; Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko, Co-Stage Managers.

Farewell, Cab 48. Howdy, Cab 49.