Nicely Put

Review of Endgame, Long Wharf Theatre

Writing my review of this grayest of plays on this grayest of days is deliberate. To have Samuel Beckett’s Endgame onstage at this point in time was a commendable choice on the part of Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of the Long Wharf and director of this production. Beckett, famously, was against seeing “symbols where none intended,” and would not welcome allegorizing his play into a commentary on any situation too topical, and yet. The play’s grim sense of how adaptable humans are to what are sometimes called “unthinkable” conditions strikes a certain tonic chord for us now.

Endgame, originally written by Beckett in French then translated into English, dates from the late 1950s, drawing on a post-World War II world of scarcity, death, destruction, and, with the bombs dropped on Japan, a glimpse of what utter destitution might look like. But, more telling perhaps than that general context, the play originated from one of the most minimalist minds to ever emerge in English letters, and that as an Irishman writing in French. Beckett’s writing always keeps in mind the bare minimum of existence, while also imbuing its bleak and prickly situations with the humanity found in Shakespearean moments like Prince Hamlet talking to a skull, or blinded Gloucester recognizing “the trick of that voice,” or a Scots porter rambling on about drink and urine on the morning after a game-changing regicide.

In Endgame, Beckett creates a situation where Hamm (Brian Dennehy), a domineering but dependent, blind old man lords it over a kingdom reduced to a bare, gloomy room and a single factotum, Clov (Reg E. Cathy). Several paces away from Hamm’s chair upon casters and to his right, sit two trash-bins, one for Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and one for Nell (Lynn Cohen), Hamm’s straitened parents. On the wall behind Hamm’s chair are two windows high on the wall, and several paces away from Hamm, on his left, a door to a kitchen.

That set-up is all that Beckett’s play gives us, and the author was adamant about that, so one wonders what he would make of Eugene Lee’s busy set, which fascinates even before the actors appear. In columns towering on either side of the space are chairs upon chairs with books mixed in. They’re the kinds of chairs often found in libraries and seem to exude the weight of a lost, literate culture. On the stage, by the trashbins, is a clutter of detritus—more books, a computer, other bric-a-brac—and a grandly disemboweled and disintegrating chair. Then there’s that door: it’s not a bedroom door or the front door or even backdoor of a house. It’s a door, reinforced with a mesh of steel, such as might be found in a bunker or in a storage room abutting on a dark alley.

This Hamm and Clov exist amidst worthless crap in a final redoubt, and all they’ve got to get by on is their own frail wits and, for what it’s worth, routine. Routine, as in the rituals we each perform each day, of rising and taking stock—of the weather, our health, what we might undertake or not—but also routine as in theatrical routines, the expected shtick of telling stories, making speeches, moving about and using props.

Dennehy’s Hamm is a commanding presence, a great head with cheery white beard and dark glasses that make him seem cool and detached. His manner is rarely querulous or discomfited, as we might expect of the old and infirm, but rather bristles with the grandeur of a man of parts down to his last part. The attraction of the role is in its grasp of how even diminished resources can be milked for all their worth—an actor’s dream, one imagines—and Hamm is a showman very canny about what he’ll show and what he won’t. Impatience is his strongest response, but his enjoyment of a phrase or a reaction soon makes us share his aural space, so to speak. Hamm weighs everything that is said or occurs and wants constant reports on what he can’t see. He is omnivorous intelligence left with nothing to feed on but its own fading powers of discernment and elaboration. Dennehy’s Hamm is easily magisterial, and human and funny, and, in a very important way, utterly unknowable. I don’t think anyone will equal this bravura performance for quite some time.

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm’s story of the man who came to see him, on his belly, is, perhaps, the lurking origin story of Clov but is also a bit of theater to divert himself, by an imagined past, from the dark present. He coerces an audience from his father, Nagg, and earns the older man’s ire. Nagg’s memory of Hamm’s own childhood creates a sense of both reversed and perpetual dependencies. Much as the charmingly scattered exchanges between Nagg and Nell play with the dimmest recollections of courtship and the shared joys of a life together. Grifasi’s arch delivery of Nagg’s joke about the tailor easily breaks the fourth wall to enter our space, very tellingly.

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Beckett, of course, already allows for just such moments, as when Clov peers through a spyglass at the audience and professes to see “a multitude, in transports of joy.” While not quite the vaudevillian style of clown one associates with Beckett, Cathey, with his deep and convincing voice, brings an appealing dignity to the role. His manner adds a sly humor to many of Clov’s exchanges with Hamm that lets us see how the impatience of man with master and of grown child with parent become child again is a condition made bearable only by humor. The pair’s warmest exchange is an unscripted moment of contact that amplifies the strong bond between this antagonistic and mutually dependent duo. It’s indelible and evanescent, as the best theater moments are.

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The presence of sound in the play is also of interest: from the deafening fanfare, with a crescendo of heavy metal guitar and sirens and lord knows what else, that opens the play, to the loud blasts of Hamm’s whistle to summon Clov, to the huge clang of that slamming door. Edelstein and his team have conjured up an Endgame wonderfully cast, perfectly paced, and fraught with an edginess that asks us to think about the resources of theater in uneasy times, the way Beckett himself might imagine them for us.

And yet we know that Hamm, like Lear, is not a figure for what is wrong with the State. He’s a figure for what is never to be righted with the state of humanity. Hamm’s cry, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” is a reminder of how bleak being here can be. And yet Dennehy gets across the consolation that Beckett’s characters find in speech: nothing’s so bad that it can’t be made better or worse by speaking about it. That’s the only notable human contribution.

Endgame is the business of life reduced to the meanest of circumstances and the business of theater exulting in minimal riches. Mercy upon us, as my Irish ancestors would say.

 

Endgame
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Production Dramaturg: Christine Scarfuto; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Brian Dennehy; Reg E. Cathey; Joe Grifasi; Lynn Cohen

Long Wharf Theatre
January 5-February 5, 2017

Excruciating Times

Preview of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Yale School of Drama

Jesse Rasmussen likes to think of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 17th century play she will direct as her thesis production, as “the dirty little cousin of Romeo and Juliet.” As Rasmussen says, Ford “knows his Shakespeare” and would expect his audience to note the degree to which he is cribbing from the master: young “star-crossed lovers,” each with an adult confidante—a friar and a nurse, respectively. And a setting in Italy—though here it’s Parma, not Florence. And what might cause a bit more sensation—since baroque plays have a way of being rather provocative—than lovers who come from warring households? How about lovers who come from the same upper-middle-class household, who are, in fact, brother and sister?

The play was controversial in its day because of its sympathetic portrayal of incest—which might be one of the few romantic pairings that could be expected to inspire shock, even in our day. Rasmussen says the play “has a troubled production history” in modern times, with few commentators seeming to be pleased with what they’ve seen. Rasmussen saw one production in Australia, her native land, and read about two others. She found that the play “stuck in my craw” and if something sticks around like that, “you do it to get rid of it,” because that’s the only way.

Working through the text with her actors in rehearsal, Rasmussen has been considering two factors that have influenced her presentation of the play. On the one hand, the actors have found—to their surprise—how “juicy the language is to act. It’s cruder than Shakespeare, but it’s made to be played.” In other words, this is no closet drama text. The other factor Rasmussen has noted shares the view of Antonin Artaud who, is his famed manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty, mused that ‘Tis Pity might be staged without dialogue. What this means in practice is that Rasmussen has made many dramatic cuts to the script—which would otherwise play for upwards of three hours “at least”—in what she described as a choice of “bodies and physical action over text.” The show also adds music and the most fully developed use of projection design—including live feed—she has worked with thus far.

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

One of the aspects that made the play stay in Rasmussen’s mind, she said, is its “fascinating mystery,” as a provocation to audiences, and to players and directors. As director, her task is to “temper the experience” so that the audience does not feel itself “assaulted” by “the utterly brutal society” portrayed, which is “horrifyingly misogynist” and visits “excruciating trauma upon the women in the play.” In addition to Annabella, sister/lover of Giovanni, and the “whore” of the title, there is a revenge plot involving Hippolita’s hatred of her former lover Soranzo, the most likely candidate for Annabella’s hand.

The Church, which should be the absolute arbiter of vice and virtue, is shown as having no moral authority because it is corrupt, and “buyable.” The “loveliest thing in this culture,” according to Rasmussen, is the “beautiful poetry between Annabella and Giovanni” which is “gorgeous but poisonous.”

The play will be staged in contemporary clothing, though perhaps with baroque elements, and the audience will be seated on the stage of the University Theater. This variant, which I’ve seen done in two other thesis shows, adds a memorable intimacy to the production while also permitting the full use of the many stage-craft elements available at the UT.

In considering what it might mean to put her own stamp on the play, Rasmussen spoke of wanting to “flesh the text out into a fully inhabited, textured world.” She spoke of “chasing terror and violence to find beauty” and, while calling the play “ugly and dark,” Rasmussen, a “film buff,” likened its power to Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Raging Bull, which is both a harsh and violent film but also a beautiful one. Her task is to register the beauty and the violence of Ford’s play, while also creating “more focus” on the role of Annabella, who is “anything but a classical whore” and is in fact “a complex, fascinating heroine,” as a scapegoat (“lock her up!”) of this vicious society. Annabella hopes to find in love with her brother Giovanni a sort of narcissistic withdrawal from the dark and debased world they live in. Incest, in Rasmussen’s view, makes the insular nature of their love—and its flaunting of one of the few mores the play’s appalling world recognizes—all the more doomed.

Rasmussen, who staged very tellingly Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love at last year’s Summer Cabaret, seems drawn to incestuous dysfunction among ruling or upper-class families, and, certainly to violence and cruelty as elements of theater, elements that are perhaps alarmingly suitable to our time of histrionic hyperbole, wild invective, and shamefully debased public discourse. When the codes are broken, go for baroque.

 

'Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen
Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

A Quest for Joy

Review of In the Red and Brown Water, Yale Cabaret

The cycle of life as a journey under the influences of various gods is an idea common to many religions. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mythopoetic play, In the Red and Brown Water, directed by YSD playwright Tori Sampson at Yale Cabaret, puts on the stage orishas from the Yoruba religion to enact a drama centered on a young girl’s coming of age and arrival at a moment of sacrifice or surrender. The play’s grasp of the folkloric quality of these characters, dramatized by the engaging performances of the actors, holds viewers in a world that is both natural and mythic.

Annie Dauber’s impressive set—a porch of a rustic dwelling—imposes a sense of place but also, with the actors seated along the sides of the stage, creates an arena-like space where ritual might be enacted. Sampson’s direction communicates the feel of a folktale enacted by a troupe of actors who play the show for the sake of its communal meaning. McCraney’s device of having actors include stage narrative in their lines adds an element of story-telling that further deepens the air of time-honored actions, as in a myth where events follow a set pattern.

Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

As both archetypes of elemental qualities, like thunder or air, and personal attributes, like “tireless loyalty,” the orishas are personified in characters in a specific milieu surrounding a Louisianan family. Oya (Moses Ingram), an orisha of the air, is here a teen girl who might become a great track athlete. Her Mamma Moja (Kineta Kunutu), a maternal orisha, hinders her dreams in a traditional way: she expects her daughter to find a man and be fertile. And there are interested local males—boys at first who become men in the course of the tale: Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham) is a kind of walking representation of masculinity, while Ogun (Leland Fowler), a more intellectual version of the masculine, has a stutter and is therefore timid in showing his passion.

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya’s own passion—as a runner—gets sidetracked despite a place for her at the state college. That, and the loss of Mamma Moja, precipitates most of the play’s drama, its succession of scenes playing out as the signposts of Oya’s journey. Tied up closely with her story is that of Elegba (Erron Crawford), who we see first as a whining child too fond of candy and watch become something like a wise and androgynous father figure. Comedy in the tale comes from Aunt Elegua, Ogun’s aunt and Oya’s god-mother, played with a campy liveliness by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who gives Elegua a knowingness that escapes caricature. Also on hand to be teasing goads to Oya are overtly slinky local females Nia (Amandla Jahava) and Shun (Courtney Jamison), the latter a temptation to Shango while still Oya’s lover. The Egunegun (Jakeem Powell) is a party-loving mixer and O Li Roon (Kevin Hourigan) a ridiculous curmudgeon as store owner.

In the Red and Brown Water resonates as a story about determining the proper course in life to pursue, in hopes of attaining a pure joy. Oya’s strengths make her an engaging heroine, but her passivity opens up possibilities with others in her life as we watch to see who will dominate the tale. The highly sexual dance sequence might lead us to think of the play as a fertility rite in which the struggle to escape biological—and perhaps elemental and spiritual—determinants must be both dramatized and exorcised. In the end, orishas, no doubt, must be true to their essential natures, but humans, as imperfect enactments of divine intentions, suffer from having more than one nature.

 

In the Red and Brown Water
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tori Sampson

Assistant Director: Leland Fowler; Dramaturg: Lisa D. Richardson; Set Designer: Annie Dauber; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Technical Director: LT Guorzong; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Co-Producers: Lauren E. Banks, Al Heartley

Cast: Erron Crawford, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Jonathan Higginbotham, Kevin Hourigan, Moses Ingram, Amandla Jahava, Courtney Jamison, Kineta Kunutu

 

Yale Cabaret
January 12-14, 2017

Radio Wonderment

Review of It’s a Wonderful Life, Music Theatre of Connecticut

It’s a Wonderful Life, the story of American Everyman George Bailey, has become, in the 70 years since its release, a holiday favorite, a Christmas classic. It wasn’t always so, but that hardly matters now. The tale of how a struggling Building and Loan manager in Bedford Falls manages to best Old Man Potter, the grasping Scrooge of the community, and survive a Christmas Eve’s dark night of the soul worthy of Dickens’ infamous hero, feels like the stuff of American folklore. It weaves its spell even without the fine cast of character actors, beginning with James Stewart and including Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, and Henry Travers, that grace Frank Capra’s film of 1946. As a kind of welcome back to small-town America for all those returning G.I.s, the script has its heart in the right place.

Transformed by Joe Landry into a “live radio play” set in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life at MTC, directed by Kevin Connors, adds the charm of old-time entertainment to the well-known script. The melodramatic aspects of the story are gently winked at by such devices as using commercial breaks and voice-over announcers. We enter not only the bygone era of the story itself but also the way in which such a story would have been framed for its listeners in the golden age of radio. And since the audience is present for the dramatization—though you might be forgiven if you close your eyes and let images from the film play through your head in response to the lively voices of the cast—we get to watch the performance of sound effects and the delightful business of how five actors at microphone stands become the inhabitants of a small town with over a dozen named roles.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

The pleasures of the enactment come from how the familiar types of the original become comic turns in the hands of five radio actors, Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Jim Schilling). Each has a certain kind of showbiz attitude that plays into the parts they bring to life “on the air” (the audience at the show gets to double as the studio audience, with an Applause sign that lights up to let us know when we should be heard).

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Begin with earnest George (Jon-Michael Miller), a well-meaning type whose life we trace from moments of past presence of mind to present despair to bewilderment and eventual redemption. Miller’s Laurents plays George as a bit of a would-be matinee idol, not quite what Jimmy Stewart aimed for. He’s abetted by DeMaria’s Lana Sherwood who also aims to get as much sex appeal into her portrayal of the somewhat wayward Violet Bick as she can. As George’s ever loyal wife Mary, Sally Applewhite looks a bit more elegant than she would on film, and Donnelly gets some mileage out of the remove between a Manhattan radio celebrity and the can-do smalltown girl. As grasping Potter, Zeller’s Freddie Filmore brings to bear the kind of overbearing style he uses to lord it over the airwaves as one of those inescapable announcer voices. And Jim Schilling’s “Jazzbo” Heywood, complete with bowtie, is the kind of easy-going, laidback entertainer just perfect for the gently ditzy angel Clarence and for the gee-whiz voices of little kids.

Landry’s adapted script plays it close to the original, with a host of other familiar voices—the druggist Gower, Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Uncle Billy, Mrs. Bailey, Mr. Martini—to let the actors show off their range of voices and, sometimes, a single actor enacts a conversation between two roles. The folks at home with their ears attending the box would never know. What we see that they don’t is part of the fun of this form of presentation.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

The original film runs for over two hours. Landry’s script makes some judicious cuts, so as not to bog down the set-up that gets us to George’s time of trial, and the show also doesn’t have to draw out scenes for the sake of “screen time,” and that makes for a swifter if less expansive telling.

It’s a Wonderful Life, in any format, does its moral of the importance of friends and community proud. Maybe a more telling moral now than for many a year.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life
A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the stage by Joe Landry
Based on the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Kevin Connors

Music: Kevin Connors; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Manager: PJ Letersky

Cast: Elisa DeMaria, Elizabeth Donnelly, Jon-Michael Miller; Jim Schilling; Allan Zeller

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
December 9-18, 2016

A Tale of Two Uprisings

Review of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the wildly imaginative thesis show by third-year Yale School of Drama director Elizabeth Dinkova and her co-creator, third-year playwright Miranda Rose Hall, parody might seem the dominant mode. Parody of the traditional musical, certainly, but also of the more avant-garde versions that have come along at various times, including the Brechtian, and, in that vein, parody of the committed political drama. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps us amused by a tale that traverses some unsavory aspects of 20th century history. In creating a musical that clearly favors the underdog—here the committed leftist poet Geo Milev, a casualty of a fascist regime, and his wife the actress Mila—Dinkova and Hall see clearly how difficult it would be to play the story with a straight face. Ours is a time best suited to burlesque.

And yet, it would be wrong to see the show as entirely parodic. Rather, Dinkova and Hall, with their composer and sound designer, Michael Costagliola, have concocted a musical that sustains its dramatic intentions while keeping its ironies in play. And that makes for a rather mercurial evening of theater, full of surprising turns and tones. The show incorporates the political history of Bulgaria, a deal with the devil, and the shameful working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing district in the 1920s. Ambitious? Yes, but that’s just another word for having a lot on its mind.

Ostensibly set in the 1920s, the story begins with its rather mild-mannered hero, the poet Geo (Leland Fowler), who is beside himself at the fact that his poem, September, about a recent brutally-suppressed peasant uprising, may cost him his life. His wife Mila (Juliana Canfield) sticks up for his poem’s value, but Geo wishes he could undo it. And, presto!, there to take advantage of his moment of weakness is the devil herself (Elizabeth Stahlmann), who casts them in her own version of a morality tale: As the poet Yanko, Geo will have the chance to undermine his own poem, meanwhile, as Miroslava, Mila will play the very soul of insurrection among the people.

The target of their revolt is now The Butcher (Dylan Frederick), a gleefully dissolute character who has his eye on Miroslava while imposing his whims on a gaggle of workers who seem as if they’ve stepped out of a Marx Brothers version of an Eisenstein classic: the Drunk (Ben Anderson), the Farmer (Sebastian Arboleda), an Old Witch (Marié Botha), the Historian (Anna Crivelli), an Old Priest (Jonathan Higginbotham), a Milkmaid (Courtney Jamison), the Tobacco Lady (Stephanie Machado), and a School Boy (Patrick Madden). Each is amusing in his or her own right while being forged into a collective by Miroslava’s spirited rebellion.

Canfield shines in her song of insurrection, like a rabble-rousing force of nature, and she’s matched by Crivelli’s dance of the many suppressions as the Historian reels off a chronology mind-boggling in its catalog of the many times hope for democratic freedoms has been beaten down in Bulgaria. And those are just some of the strengths of Act 1, which includes Frederick’s big number “The Butcher,” the comic highpoint. He’s attended by Stahlmann, who shape-shifts between brash devil and Toma, a fawning elder.

Yanko, shaken by the forces of violence aimed at The Butcher, takes the devil’s bait and decides to decamp for the U.S. Seemingly a victory for the devil, Act 1 ends with Mila insisting on another round, this time in Chicago, where everyone will be recast in a tale of her recounting.

The notion of America as the land of the free is swiftly given the lie when we’re introduced to a host of immigrants from various lands—Poland, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, Mexico, to name a few—who toil under distressing conditions in the meat factory of Frank’s Famous Franks. Frank (Frederick) is, of course, “The Butcher” under new auspices, aided by his assistant Patty (Stahlmann, as the moral equivalent of a concentration camp commandant). A harrowing situation in Act 2 almost strips aside all the comic burlesque in favor of the most abject horror, and it’s a great tribute to Dinkova’s resources as a director that the show can shift toward the bathetic and recover its humor. In fact, the situation Dinkova and Hall create is a sharp commentary on the dehumanization of capitalist production at its most callous. And the cast—particularly Madden and Arboleda—are emotionally convincing in their grisly discovery.

Act 2 also boasts the most lyrical moment as Geo/Yanko and Mila/Sally sing a touching duet to their love, despite all. Indeed, Act 2 serves to vindicate Mila enough to rally the show into something like an upbeat register.

The scenic design by Emona Stoykova places the show on a platform surrounded by seats, making the action accessible in many directions, with, at one end, a hard-working pickup band being put through its paces and, at the other, an incredibly imposing portal. Lights and costumes and wonderfully involved projections—at times surveillance-style taping of the proceedings—add many lively effects, including childlike paintings that capture the folkloric quality of this varied tale.

Standouts in the show are Fowler’s pleasant singing voice, Canfield’s inspired ardor, Frederick’s zany villain, Crivelli’s rhapsody of history, and Stahlmann’s striking shifts among three characters, but it’s also a great ensemble show, and I’d be remiss not to mention Higginbotham’s brief-exposing pratfalls as the Old Priest and Machado’s Tobacco Lady saddled with a bevy of babies in slings. It’s the sort of show that has so much going on you’re bound to miss some of it in a single viewing.

It's unusual for a thesis show at YSD to be an original work, though it sometimes happens. Michael McQuilken’s Jib, an original musical from 2011 I remember fondly, is currently onstage in Philadelphia. May Bulgaria! Revolt! also find legs for future productions.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Created by Elizabeth Dinkova and Miranda Rose Hall
Books and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Costagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Choreographer: Christian Probst; Music Director: Scott Etan Feiner; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Technical Director: Kelly Pursley; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Ben Anderson, Sebastian Arboleda, Marié Botha, Juliana Canfield, Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Dylan Frederick, Jonathan Higginbotham, Courtney Jamison, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The Band: Alexander Casimiro, percussion; Allen Chang, clarinet; Ginna Doyle, violin; Scott Etan Feiner, piano; Jiji Kim, guitar; Adam Matlock, accordian; Ian Scot, bass

“Three Chains a Slave” performed by the Yale Slavic Chorus

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016

It's Not Too Late

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This year, Hartford Stage’s beloved Scrooge will take his final bow and make his final “Bah, humbug!” Bill Raymond has been experiencing Charles Dickens’ seasonal reclamation project for 17 years, and if you haven’t caught his act, there’s no time like Christmas present. It’s a propitious time to see the annual favorite even if you already have, for this year the show is directed by Broken Umbrella’s own Rachel Alderman, which makes for a nice New Haven-Hartford bridge.

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the show I attended, Raymond was pulling out the stops, having a grand old time. His has always been a slyly comic take on Scrooge and now the old boy is getting a bit zany. Scrooge has often been played by actors who were better at the grasping “old screw” than the “giddy as a schoolboy” convert to Christmas cheer, but Raymond’s Scrooge is more curmudgeon than scourge. When he encounters the creditors who will later become the Christmas ghosts who haunt his uneasy sleep, he seems almost to be winking at them, since he knows—and we all know—what’s going to happen.

This Ebenezer is really in his element as the unseen guest and enthusiastic reveler at his nephew’s party, and when he has to face the final reckoning presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it’s easy to feel sorry for the old gent. Other than being irritable and not forgiving debts or forking over charity, the old skinflint doesn’t seem so bad. There are worse examples running around these days in dire need of some Christmas comeuppance. As the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds us, the worst ill besetting mankind is ignorance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The open stage at Hartford keeps everything nipping along smartly, so we move easily from Scrooge’s ponderous four-poster to Fezziwig’s premises, from the Cratchits’ frugal feast to the nephew’s sumptuous spread. The various levels of the stage add visual interest and each ghost gets a big entrance.

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

An endearing draw of the show are the child actors who fill out many scenes, reminding us that Christmas is for the kids, and also letting the youngsters in the audience exalt in seeing their own generation on the stage. And then there are the ghosts.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Hartford Stage version never lets us forget that A Christmas Carol is one of the most venerable ghost stories there is. The parade of skull-topped figures who open the show, some of whom fly about, make for a dramatic charge. Not only is Scrooge guided by spirits representing the Christmas season in the past, the present, and the future, but he also is haunted by people already gone—beginning with Marley, but including his sister Fanny, his old boss, and, eventually, himself, to say nothing of the sad possibility of Tiny Tim’s untimely end. A Christmas Carol isn’t about tying one on and feeling good about yourself; it’s about realizing that time is short and that you should do more for others while you have the chance. To that end, the Hartford Stage is hosting “Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive”* to benefit Hands on Hartford’s MANNA program.

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

My favorite version of Ebenezer’s journey to beneficence is the old British version from 1951 starring Alistair Sims. The Hartford Stage version retains the use of the lovely tune “Barbara Allen” used so effectively in the film as well as here. In the Hartford’s version, the songs and comedy—such as Scrooge knocking about with a huge dummy turkey, and Noble Shropshire as the irrepressible Mrs. Dilworth—and the handsome production values help to make the show bright.

-- A final talkback with Bill Raymond will take place after the 7:30 show on Wednesday, December 14, and, if you can’t make that but want to express your appreciation of his long tenure in the role as a part your Christmases past, postcards are provided in the lower lobby for “Letters to Bill.”--

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Staiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Music Director: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast (in order of appearance): Bill Raymond, Buzz Roddy, Noble Shropshire, Nate Healey, Robert Hannon Davis, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Flor De Liz Perez, Charlie Tirrell, Joey Heimbach, Daniel Shea, Johanna Morrison, Hannah Dalessio, Alan Rust, Michael Preston, Cara Rashkin, Vanessa R. Butler, Billy Saunders, Jr., Troyer Coultas, Spencer S. Lawson, Margaret Anne Murphy, Jillian Frankel, Madeleine Stevens, Greg Seage, Eve Rosenthal

The Children: Charlize Calcagno, Hunter Cruz, Emma Kindl, Julia Weston, Luciana Calcagno, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilley Harris, Timothy McGuire, Addison Pancoast, Tilden Wilder, Miguel Cardona, Jr., Ankit Roy, Ella Rain Bernaducci, Sophia Rose Tomko, Sophia Friedman, Lily Girard, Celine Cardona, Ava Lynn Vercellone, Atticus Burello, Jack Wenz, Fred Faulkner, Max McGowan, Norah Girard, Andrew Michaels, Ethan Pancoast, Fred Thornley IV, Aiden McMillan, Dermot McMillan

Hartford Stage
November 25-December 30, 2016

*Founded in 1969 as Center City Churches, Hands On Hartford’s programs focus on food, housing, economic security, engaging volunteers and connecting communities. MANNA provides direct relief to thousands of Hartford neighbors each month. Patrons may drop off non-perishable goods at Guest Services in the Geo & Laura Estes Lobby on performance days for A Christmas Carol or at the box office during regular business hours. Suggested food items include:

  • Boxed cereal
  • Canned fruit and vegetables
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, 100% juice)
  • White or brown rice
  • Pasta and sauce
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned soup
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Backpack-friendly snacks

For more information about Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive, contact tmacnaughton@hartfordstage.org or call 860-520-7114.

There Was an Old Woman Who...

Review of Mrs. Galveston, Yale Cabaret

The final play of the first half of Yale Cabaret’s 49th season is an entertaining look at the at- times fraught world of elder care. Mrs. Galveston, by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Sarah B. Mantell, enjoys some easy laughs at misunderstandings between an old woman and the young people assigned to impose some kind of regimen on her stubborn existence, then develops more interesting narrative devices. These include a big white pop-up book that Mrs. Galveston treats like a precious heirloom and an array of Post-It Notes that a young man’s grandmother berates him with.

An interesting conflict in the play comes from a somewhat surprising correspondence. Jim (George Hampe) visits the elderly Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon) because a Mr. Sanford has requested she be looked after (though she doesn’t welcome the intrusion), while, at home, Jim is not doing such a good job of taking care of his grandmother, though also refusing any care-givers from the organization both he and his cousin Liz (Aneesha Kudtarkar) work for. The highest-rated caregiver is Mark (Edmund Donovan), but neither Mrs. Galveston nor Jim have any interest in accepting his services. The frustrations Mark faces are expressed comically, and that helps to keep things light. And the irony of Jim’s situation—he’s failing with his own grandmother but succeeding with Mrs. Galveston—opens up the implied theme that, sometimes, families do need professionals, that the familiarity of blood ties can cause more tensions than they ease. While Mrs. Galveston is never quite comfortable with having a stranger in the house, she eventually is pacified by Jim’s ability to concoct a story that goes with the pop-up images in her big white book.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The book, and the scenic design by Claire Marie DeLiso, add elements of charm and visual cohesion to the story. The living room Mrs. Galveston resides in is situated in a charming little house that echoes the paper house in her book. A step down and across a connecting space of paneled floor sits the table festooned with Post-Its where Jim attempts to meet his grandmother’s demands. Both spaces are united with framing posts that situate the action within a homey interior that expands to join both houses.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

The play, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, is particularly nimble in its transitions and in dialogues that find characters mostly having to feel their way. Mantell’s script registers the caregiver’s ups and downs and confusions, the good intentions that go awry, and, in its sweetly realized conclusion, the comfort of the familiar. Along the way, there are the tensions of dealing with elders as though they were children, of trying to anticipate concerns, of trying to make time in one’s prime of life for a life past its prime, and, in a speech Liz directs at Jim, the fact that, in most families, the care of parents is left to female family members. Mrs. Galveston provides a touching corrective to that perception when we finally meet the mysterious Mr. Sanford (Edmund Donovan).

The neat doubling of the situations means there’s potential for confusion about who Jim really cares for. Playing the role with a kind of nervous distraction, Hampe’s Jim wants all to go well but seems to wish he could be doing something else. Donovan’s Mark is a bit unctuous and we don’t really fault Mrs. Galveston for preferring Jim. Kudtarkar’s Liz seems mostly at a loss—her scene with Mrs. Galveston is the funniest of the attempts to fathom the big white book because the least patient. And, as the chair-hugging Mrs. Galveston, Lemmon plays the title role as a mistress of her detachment, a woman defiantly herself and with a child’s sense of entitlement in deciding what works and what doesn’t.

As a family dramedy, Mrs. Galveston seems well positioned in the season as a reminder of the bonds of home and the allegiance owed the elderly as the holiday visits begin.

 

Mrs. Galveston
By Sarah B. Mantell
Directed by Rachel Carpman

Co-Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Co-Dramaturg: Molly Fitzmaurice; Set Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi; Sound Designer: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Production Manager: Scott Keith; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Calling Stage Manager: Paula Clarkson; Co-Producer: Jaime Totti; Co-Producer: Adam J. Frank

Cast: Edmund Donovan; George Hampe; Aneesha Kudtarkar; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Cabaret
December 8-10, 2016

That's Shoe Biz!

Review of Kinky Boots, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Harvey Fierstein’s and Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleasing tale of how difference saves the day. Or, rather, how difference-driven niche markets do. In any case, its message is progressive and its songs full of the moxie for which Lauper is well-known. The best thing about the show, though, are the drag queens—or “angels”—led by Lola, played with a winning understatement by J. Harrison Ghee who seems born to be charismatic and show-stopping.

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

The story concerns Charlie (Adam Kaplan), the heir to his father’s show factory in Northampton, England, who has plans to live the life of a Yuppie in London with his svelte and fashion-shoe-struck fiancée Nicola (Charissa Hoagland). But, like a latter-day George Bailey, Charlie can’t give up on the little folks at home. If he doesn’t step in and find a workable solution to get the ailing factory—which has been eating its unsold inventory—solvent, then it’s the dole for all the workers so loyal to his late Da. A chance encounter in the street—where Charlie tries to come to the aid of Lola, a drag-damsel in distress otherwise known as Simon—leads to the idea to save the day by developing the glitzy thigh-high boots beloved of queens, thus inaugurating Lola’s career as a designer of kinky boots.

A strong suit in this tale of working lads and lasses putting their collective noses to the grindstone, for higher than high heels able to support a cross-dressing male, is how well-oiled the machinery is. The big production numbers have many moving bodies and moving parts—including conveyor belts on “Everybody Say Yeah”—and it all works wonderfully well on the Palace Theater’s old school stage. Many a Broadway house looks tawdry compared to the Palace’s well-kept sumptuousness, and Kinky Boots fills it with Broadway-style pizzazz. The orchestra is tight, and many songs have a familiar Eighties feel that really starts to work after a while.

The action bits—such as the boxing bout between Simon and Don (Aaron Walpole), the manly bloke distressed about working for a cross-dresser—are well-staged and add some drama to a second act that otherwise doesn’t have much to do, except create some faux suspense over whether or not the boots will be ready for Milan. It’s Act One that really cooks, with standouts like the aforementioned “Everybody Say Yeah”—its big finish—“Sex is in the Heel,” a manifesto for the libidinal charge of accessories, “Not My Father’s Son,” a touching duet between Simon and Charlie, and “The History of Wrong Guys,” a snappy comic relief tune in which Lauren (Tiffany Engen), a factory worker with a crush on Charlie, puts out there a love-struck feminine view as only Lauper could, and which Engen puts across with show-stealing brio.

As the lead male dressed as a male, Kaplan’s Charlie is a little too timid to be interesting and a bit too earnest to be amusing. He’s got looks and a voice, but could open a bit more in his movement, particularly on his big Act 2 number “Soul of a Man.” As his intended, Nicola, Hoagland looks great in a thankless role that feels a tad unfair, as if it’s fine for the “angels” to be all about couture but we should see Nicola as shallow for harboring similar tastes. Meanwhile, no one seems to wonder why men and women alike, at the factory, are content with a rather unisex look of dungarees and pull-overs. Glamor, it seems, is for those who pursue it as an identity, though, in the end, everyone gets to sport a pair of kinky boots.

As a progressive tale about having the courage to be yourself in a hostile world, Kinky Boots still rings true and is a welcome reach-out to soften the heart of the glowering Dons of the world. Though it could also be said that the threat of violence or ostracization is rather anodyne here, and, by the same token, the kinkiness is rather mild. A plot in which Charlie ends by giving Lola/Simon a go would make for a kinkier show and a more surprising case of “the girl” getting the guy.

In any case, if—as the saying goes—you can’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, that goes double for taking a few steps in their kinky boots. Kinky Boots is at its best bringing home the camaraderie of people stirred by a common purpose, so that the design, production and marketing of Lola’s creations feel as rewarding as the creation of Lola herself, or of a show about her. In each case, it’s worth our time to see how it’s done and why that should matter to our general self-esteem.

 

Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus

Starring: J. Harrison Ghee, Adam Kaplan, Tiffany Engen, with Aaron Walpole, Charissa Hoagland, Jim J. Bullock

Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner: Sound Design: John Shivers; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Make-Up Design: Randy Houston Mercer; Associate Choreographer: Rusty Mowery; Associate Director: D. B. Bonds; Music Director: Roberto Sinha; Music Conductor: Michael Keller

The Angels: Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, Sam Rohloff

Cast: Meryn Beckett, E. Clayton Cornelious, Tami Dahbura, Alfred Dalpino, Madge Dietrich, Alex Dreschke, Annie Edgerton, Jhazz Fleming, Collin Jeffery, David Jennings, Ellen Marlow, Ciarán McCarthy, Ashley Moniz, Sebastian Maynard-Palmer, Casi Riegle, Andrew Scanlon, Tom Souhrada, Harrison Wright, Sam Zeller

The Palace Theater, Waterbury
December 6-11, 2016

A Dream Deferred

Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.

For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.

Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.

It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.

Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.

Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.

 

August Wilson’s
Seven Guitars
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller

Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016

Insurrection Songs

Preview of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

Bulgarian native and third-year director in the Yale School of Drama, Elizabeth Dinkova has long dreamed of dramatizing poet Geo Milev’s epic poem, September, about the suppression of a peasant uprising in her homeland in 1923, and this week her dream will be fulfilled. This semester, Dinkova and her collaborators Miranda Rose Hall, a third-year playwright, and Michael Constagliola, a second-year sound designer, have developed an original “tragicomic musical,” Bulgaria! Revolt!  that revisits the situation in which Milev wrote his most famous work, and also extends his vision to the U.S.

The play debuts this Friday at the Iseman Theater as the second thesis show of the season at the School of Drama, and runs through December 15.

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

Bulgaria! Revolt! derives from the story of Milev, a poet who wrote a poem about an armed insurgency against a new government, formed by a military coup, that deposed an Agrarian leader and placed a fascist, Alexander Tsankov, in power. The uprising was brutally suppressed, the Communist Party was outlawed, and, after a terrorist act at a military funeral stirred up further reprisals, Milev was killed along with 400-500 others and buried in a mass grave in 1925.

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the poet is tried and convicted as an enemy of the State and is forced to rescind his poem. His faith in art’s political use shaken, the poet makes a deal with the devil to have his poem “disappeared,” so that no memory of it will exist. The poet’s wife, Mila, protests, and the devil accepts her challenge to prove that poetry can still inspire revolutionary ideals, though this time, Mila insists, it will do so in the meat-packing district of 1920s Chicago, which is where Act II is set.

Chicago, Dinkova points out, has the highest population of Bulgarians in the U.S. due to a popular Bulgarian travel novel, To Chicago and Back, that painted conditions in the country around the time of the 1890 World’s Fair for would-be emigrants back home. As an immigrant, Dinkova wanted to work on a project that could bring together both her home country and her current one, with continuity between the two settings provided by the question of the artist’s responsibility to the public, and to the political forces of a given time and place.

Adapting Milev’s poem required a collaborator and in that Dinkova has been blessed by her close working relationship with Miranda Rose Hall. The two worked together last year on Hall’s second-year play The Best Lesbian Erotica, 1995, and on a wildly satiric Yale Cabaret show about a viral health crisis, and, this past summer, on the lampoon Antarctica! at the Yale Summer Cabaret where Dinkova was Co-Artistic Director. Each of the works featured a decidedly satiric element, at least in part, and the latter was also an adaptation—of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. This time, the duo say, they felt the show had to be a musical, and that brought in the talents of Michael Constagliola to compose the score.

Why a musical? Hall speaks enthusiastically of a class on the musical that impressed upon her how the “genre has a lot of requirements,” and with so much in their play requiring imaginative leaps, she “took refuge in the given structures” of the form. It also helps that their plot fits well the requirements of standard musicals, such as “two opposing worlds,” a main character “with a counterpart,” and songs that provide exposition and also big “I am, I want” solos of motivation. The American musical “feels larger than life,” and that’s a quality the play is decidedly going for. Both Dinkova and Hall look to collaborators in musical theater like Brecht/Weill who “recognized the power of music to ask questions and change minds.” And, of course, most popular movements have their songs to inspire and to “galvanize the masses.”

The poem, September, is “romantic and epic,” Dinkova says, filled “with a naïve, idealistic vision,” trying to imagine “a world where earth will be a paradise with no lord or master.” It may have been a stretch for Milev, a modernist and expressionist, to encompass such themes, but the times demanded it. Even so, she says, “the protagonists are not ideological heroes but tragic figures.” For Hall and Dinkova, the effort has been to capture the tone while letting artistic freedom guide the choice of events and scenes. Hall says their earlier collaboration on Antarctica! was a “fertile proving ground” for learning how to adapt works of another time to our contemporary occasions. As with that play, Hall’s participation in Bulgaria! isn’t part of her own degree requirements at YSD, so there is a similar freedom, though, she says, with the budget and prep time of a thesis show, this production “is like the Cab on steroids.”

Dinkova and Hall say they have taken their inspiration this time out from the working relationship between playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, the co-creators of the Yale Rep’s Broadway-bound play Indecent. A bit like the latter work, Bulgaria! Revolt! seeks to find a contemporary meaning in an older text and to find poetic and dramatic significance in historical events. There the similarity probably ends, since Hall, when working with Dinkova, seems to be drawn to the absurd and to irreverent satire.

And why not? I spoke to the co-creators days after the election of 2016, and Dinkova spoke of how rehearsals had become a kind of “refuge” and a “fire pit” where one could burn up the energy of dismay and foreboding inspire