On With the Shaw

Review of Heartbreak House, Hartford Stage

Bravo, Darko Tresnjak! The Artistic Director of Hartford Stage ends the 2016-17 season by directing George Bernard Shaw’s magisterial Heartbreak House, a play that lets the audience take stock of its own situation by gazing at the foibles of the generation that saw the outbreak of the First World War. Shaw, who subtitled the play, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” had in mind Chekhov’s great elegy for a clueless upper-class, The Cherry Orchard. Around the time of our most recent election, Broadway theater-goers saw a revival of that play that, in its revamped concept, missed the opportunity to be a trenchant commentary on our times. Audiences at Hartford Stage have a better offering for gauging how little we learn from past generations’ catastrophes.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In his 1919 preface to the play, Shaw is scathing in his view of the self-delusions of the educated, the indifference of the intelligentsia, and the idiocy of the popular press in the run-up to the Great War, which had just ended. Heartbreak House, which was not produced until the 1920s, was written during the war but is set just before the outbreak of German aggression. The people who inhabit the play are still, as in most drawing-room comedies, primarily concerned with who will marry whom and who is available for a fling. Shaw, though, is never one to miss an opportunity to hector us with sagacity, and here he puts the wisest asides into the mouth of Captain Shotover, a somewhat daft—or crazy like a fox—patriarch suffering an English country-houseful of bohemians, stuffed-shirts, and social climbers. As played by Miles Anderson, in a finely calibrated performance, Shotover is a lot like Shaw—irascible, pointed, and full of curmudgeonly brio. About him flit a host of moths in search of the light.

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) has arrived, as a less well-to-do friend invited by the Captain’s artsy daughter Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Perry) who lives in her father’s house with her gad-about husband Hector (Stephen Barker Turner). Hesione’s well-married sister, Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), shows up as well, having been absent from the family home for twenty-some years. She is pursued there by her husband’s brother, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), a lackluster aristocrat. Also on site are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), a figure for political probity contrasted with his employer and sometime creditor, “Boss” Mangan (Andrew Long), a boorish capitalist, complete with Trumpian comb-over. The only attendant servant is the Shotover girls’ old nurse, Guinness (Mary VanArsdel) who is apt to call everyone “ducky,” regardless of age or rank.

Just about everyone makes mention of how peculiar the house is, with its eccentric inhabitants, and Colin McGurk’s wonderful multi-tiered set fully captures Shaw’s conceit that the house should look like a ship, helmed by the old skipper who is fond of nautical metaphors and sea-going reminiscence. The ship of state is sailing for some perilous seas and Shaw would have us know that the generation charged with its safe conduct is all at sixes and sevens. Appealing as they are, there’s a gnawing lack of gravitas in these characters who are without even the Chekhovian delusion that they are profound. And that’s very much the point.

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tresnjak’s production is anchored by four strong portrayals. Anderson, as Shotover, is everything he should be, while De Waal’s Ellie moves from sweet naivete to a sharply registered youthful confidence. Her strategic sense of her position is one of the more engaging aspects of the characters on view here. She is abetted by her friend, who presumes to be a mentor, and Charlotte Perry’s Hesione, quite fetching in a costume with more than a hint of Bloomsbury, put me in mind of Eileen Atkins, and there’s not much higher praise than that. Then there’s the comic relief: Andrew Long’s Mangan looks Trump and acts a bit Sydney Greenstreet, a mix that makes him a rather put-upon villain of sorts who, like our current President, is both out of his element and in over his head.

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Other key roles are handled well here but it’s hard to warm to the characters. Tessa Auberjonois hits all the right notes as the “siren” Lady Utterwood, but the lady’s a pointless embellishment, and her current would-be lapdog, Randall, is even less necessary. Similarly, Hector Hushabye, supposedly a suave ladies’ man, pales beside the more compelling male roles. Here Shaw’s keen eye for the vanities of this set doesn’t make for enduring characters. It takes a Wilde to put them on and take them off at once.

The other interesting role is Mazzini Dunn—named for the Italian revolutionary—who might be more forceful if there were more for him to do. Keith Reddin gives him an air of distracted pleasantry but rises to the occasion of a diverting flirtation with Hesione. At another point he characterizes his high class betters as “very charming, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people.” He means it as a compliment, but his author looks over his shoulder to nudge us that such fine qualities can’t save their bearers from perdition. At the play’s close, the abyss is close to home indeed, and these fine people feel little more than curiosity and the thrill of something unprecedented in their jaded lives.

Heartbreak House’s inhabitants can wear on one a bit in the stretch, but the play is well-worth the attention, if only because Shaw knows how to work dialogue and Tresnjak knows how to work the Hartford Stage space to give us a feel for these lightweight leaves about to be swept into a deluge. Along the way, everyone learns something about the subterfuges of class and wealth and the need for deft navigation in troubling times.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Colin McGurk; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Consultant: Greg Webster

Cast: Miles Anderson; Tessa Auberjonois; Dani De Waal; Grant Goodman; Andrew Long; Charlotte Parry; Keith Reddin; Stephen Barker Turner; Mary VanArsdel

Hartford Stage
May 11-June 11, 2017

Millie's Winning Makeover

Review of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Goodspeed Musicals

Once a campy and very dated romantic comedy musical film, released in 1967 but set in 1922, Richard Morris’s familiar story of a young girl come to the big city with a dream to marry smart (i.e., for money) has a new lease on life. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a vehicle for Julie Andrews once upon a time, has been revamped and re-imagined and mostly rewritten by Dick Scanlan—who wrote the lyrics for 4 songs in the original film—and Jeanine “Fun Home” Tesori, music—to become a jazzy, fizzy send-up of the clichés the original nurtured. The transformation proves that old standards can speak to new times when handled with wit and imagination.

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What hasn’t changed? The charm of the plucky though naïve and somewhat misguided heroine is very much key to how the show plays. Here, Taylor Quick, as Millie, looks great in her bobbed hairdo and period costumes and shows off the right mix of get-ahead smart cookie and hapless heroine. Millie gets most things wrong in the first act, but that’s part of the fun, and “Jimmy,” her stirring “I’m available” number right before the Act One curtain, bodes well for how much sharper she’ll be in Act Two as she knows who she really wants. This is a show with a learning curve and Act Two shifts into high gear to bring it all home, including a wonderful duet on a well-realized skyscraper ledge—“I Turned the Corner”—featuring Millie and Jimmy (Dan DeLuca, quite the able heart-throb). DeLuca plays well his self-possessed character’s joshing of the gal he can’t help falling for, and his “What Do I Need with Love?” is one of the high-points of Act One.

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The set, with lovely Art Deco features that look like they cost a bundle, is full of nimble changes—including a hotel corridor with elevator, a speakeasy, an upscale New York penthouse, the lobby and the laundryroom of the shady Hotel Priscilla, and, very efficiently effective, the offices of the Sincere Trust where Millie spends her day as a “stenog” and tries gamely to entrap her boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts), an obtuse banker. His falling for slumming heiress Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm) is another high-point in Act Two as Watts and Sturm have voices that can pull heartstrings and a way with a song—the comic “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life”—that earns laughs. And the part of stern office manager Miss Flannery is more than ably handled by Lucia Spina.

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What has changed? The show plays up the “perils of Pauline” sub-plot of a “white slavery ring” with great panache, and if the idea of lurking, nefarious Asians seems a bit retrograde to you, have no fear. First of all, Mrs. Meers, the mastermind of the kidnapping, is played with great comic grasp of evil-doing by the redoutable Loretta Ables Sayre (who seems out to steal the show in Act One); her delivery of the tagline “so sad to be all alone in the world” is a memorable sound-byte, and her playing up of the clichés of “the dragon lady” is full of good fun.

Mrs. Meers’ henchmen have evolved far beyond the lackluster jokes they are in the film and have become key to the plot. They are working for Meers because of her threats to them, and have hopes of making it on the Great White Way themselves—and have the song-and-dance capabilities to prove it. What’s more, James Seol, as Ching Ho, and Christopher Shin, as Bun Foo, get to sing in Chinese, with subtitles, thus further dignifying their viewpoints. It’s a great touch and lifts these secondary characters from slapstick to straightmen. In fact, Ching Ho has a passionate attachment for Dorothy that might inspire a rooting interest in his amours.

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

And that’s to the good, because, with the shifting romantic factors at work here, we’re not sure who will end up with whom by show’s end. The only “loss” from the film is the scene where James Fox, who plays Jimmy, dons drag to infiltrate Mrs. Meers’ establishment. Here, the task is assigned to Muzzy von Hossmere, to give Ramona Keller something more to do than the hot cabaret numbers she handles with such easy aplomb. Keller plays Muzzy very tongue-in-cheek, which is a welcome change from Carol Channing’s ditzy jazz baby in the original. And the new version means a treat of a scene between Sayre and Keller as dueling would-be wool-pullers.

All in all, with its fabulous costumes, fast-changing scenery, engaging cast, and new plot points, the show has been thoroughly re-modernized for an audience that still likes to see obstacles in the way of love and wants its musicals tuneful and snappy with plenty of spirit and sharp as a tack dance ensembles. Goodspeed’s revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie—directed and choreographed by Denis Jones—is the cat’s meow!

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

 

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
From the original story and screenplay by Richard Morris

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Directed & Choreographed by Denis Jones

Scenic Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Gregory Gale; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Darien Crago, Caley Crawford, Dan DeLuca, Patrick Graver, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Ramona Keller, Emily Kelly, Daniel May, Evan Mayer, Elise Mestichelli, P.J. Palmer, Amelia Jo Parish, Taylor Quick, Loretta Ables Sayre, James Seol, Christopher Shin, Lucia Spina, Sherisse Springer, Samantha Sturm, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Amy Van Norstrand, Edward Watts, Darius Wright

Orchestra: Keyboard I/Conductor: Michael O’Flaherty; Keyboard II: William J. Thomas; Reeds: Liz Baker Smith; Violin: Karin Fagerburg; Trumpet: Peter Roe; Trombone: David Kayser; Percussion: Salvatore Ranniello. Alternates: Keyboard I/Conductor: William J. Thomas; Keyboard II: David Kidwell, Molly Sturges, Anthony Pandolfe; Reeds: Michael Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Violin; Diane Orson; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Matt Russo, Ben Griffin; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed Musicals
From April 21-July 2, 2017

Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Right at Home

Review of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

Will Eno opens Middletown with a speech of welcome delivered by a “Public Speaker.” As played by Megan Chenot, the speaker presents an earnest hope that we will all feel we belong, but her litany of who “we” might be, as audience members or townies, in seeking to be all-inclusive, begins to feel vaguely unreal, a kind of labelling without a sense of precise meanings. Eventually, it starts to sound like double-talk. And that’s how language works in Middletown: it’s ho-hum average, and yet. There’s something a little unsettling about how easily what gets said doesn’t quite equate with what’s intended.

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Everyone here is a job or role rather than a character. Everyone, that is, except Mary Swanson (Chrissy Gardner), a pregnant woman new to the town, whose absentee husband seems never to arrive, and John Dodge (Steve Scarpa), a local jack-of-all-trades, who reads up on gravity—“the silent killer”—and fixes things, and contemplates ending it all; whether from boredom or frustration or some more insidious malaise is hard to say. Together, these two almost put the town on the map, as it were, seeming to create a possible connection outside of assigned roles.

A key visual device is John and Mary each behind a separate window in separate houses, spied upon by the Cop (George Kulp) on his beat as if making sure they never inhabit the same place. They do, briefly, when John comes to fix the sink and their exchange is the stuff of a suburban Woody Allen where mixed signals are missed signals, and vice versa. It’s one of Scarpa’s best performances, and the promise of romance keeps us hoping, as it may for these two lonely people who would never admit their attraction.

Other characters align in ways that suggest parallel purposes. A librarian (Margaret Mann) is also a kind of welcomer, as is a tour guide (Alynne Miller), characters who have a sense of belonging and an elusive sense of what makes the place itself. A tourist couple (Chaz Carmon and Erich Greene) are played for laughs as the kind of people who are content so long as there’s something to take a picture of, but they're also a version of the unhappy couple, John and Mary. More problematic is Mechanic (Trevor Williams), a ne’er-do-well who loiters on park benches—to the Cop’s irritation—and sulks in the library where his non sequitur are amusing asides, and vice versa. He’s also, sort of, our bridge to the one “famous” person from Middletown, Greg “Something,” who, as an astronaut in space, muses about his hometown and the time he had to tell some kid—the Mechanic, as a child—that his coveted rock was not a meteorite. The dashed hopes of Mechanic are, as it were, the thorn in the side of this complacent town, an indication that beneath the tepid bonhomie there might lurk harsher realities. Or at least nagging disappointment.

Just before the break, we get shown a row of folks watching the play, musing about what things mean and where they may be heading, while also making small talk. A child, Sweetheart (Alynne Miller), repeats words she’s heard, verbatim, which suggests that little insight will be gained by, as more than one character puts it, “moving your mouth and making different sounds.”

In the second half, Middletown becomes less fanciful and the effects of the encounters seem more scattershot. The parallel between John and Mary continues, in a different register, and trees and rocks still remind us that nature is more than us; the Mechanic can be surprisingly soulful, while birth and death are shown to be just stuff that happens. The general tone becomes more quizzical than whimsical, but still holds back from big emotions.

Throughout, director Peter Chenot lets the laughs fall where they may, and the cast does great with the show’s off-beat humor. There are fewer laughs in the second half, and my sense is that Middletown’s first act runs like a dream, but the second act requires more effort. Punching one event or another might help overcome the show’s even, musing tone.

The best thing here is the way the regulars of New Haven Theater Company fit so easily into their roles in Middletown. Maybe too easily.

 

Middletown
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Megan Chenot, Chrissy Gardner, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Alynne Miller, Steven Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams

Sound Design and Original Score: Megan Chenot; Choreography: Jenny Schuck; Props Master: Trevor Williams; Light Board Operator: David Stagg

New Haven Theater Company
April 27-29; May 4-6, 2017

Re-Cap of Cab 49

The farewell party for Cab 49, and its Artistic Directors Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, Ashley Chang, and Managing Director Steven Koernig, has been held; and the team for Cab 50 has been named: Artistic Directors Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, a rising third-year actor, and Josh Wilder, a rising third-year playwright, with Associate Artistic Director Rory Pelsue, a rising third-year director (and co-artistic director of this year’s Summer Cabaret), and Managing Director Rachel Shuey.

 

And now, before we start talking about the summer and next year, it’s time for the annual re-cap of the past season, in which I pick my favorites in a host of categories, saving my top choice for last. The idea of picking or naming a “best” is highly suspect, to me; but one can pick what one liked best, where the criteria may be as idiosyncratic as some of the work we’re talking about. And with that caveat, let’s go:

New plays: Works, in some cases never seen before, by YSD students that deserve recognition: Styx Songs, a collage of texts and original words all having to do with negotiating death, led by Jeremy O. Harris as a testy Hades; written by playwrights Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson; Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, playwright Jeremy O. Harris’s merging of music, porn, Greek myths, and themes of sexual becoming; The Other World, dramaturg Charlie O’Malley’s tribute to the stylistic and soul-searching writings of artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Circling the Drain, costume designer Cole McCarty’s exploration of three women on the verge of confessional clarity, from short stories by Amanda Davis, and … Mrs. Galveston, playwright Sarah B. Mantell’s engaging and charming depiction of the delusions of age and the anxieties of youth and the bond of family.

Plays: Picking just five from this group is not easy, as the plays were many and varied; my choices are determined by what I found most provocative: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Alice Birch’s absurdist, anarchic vignettes on the possibilities of gender solidarity; Caught, Christopher Chen’s sharp and clever commentary on the role of the artist in our culture and across cultures; The Slow Sound of Snow, Jabeer Ramezani and Payam Saeedi’s play, translated by Shadi Ghaheri, a beautiful, almost mythic treatment of life under conditions of compelling threat; In The Red and Brown Water, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s involving play of a woman coming of age, in tune with the ageless Orishas of the Yoruban religion, and … Débâcles, by Marion Aubert, translated by Erik Butler and Kimberly Jannarone, an almost slapstick farce of atrocity and brutality during the Nazi occupation of France, kind of like goosing history and giving it the finger at the same time.

Set: The ones I remember best are the ones that included some architectural marvel or unbelievable transformation of that little basement space: for Styx Songs, Ao Li built a graveyard fountain that wasn’t just for show; for In The Red and Brown Water, Annie Dauber constructed a cabin and porch with the cast flanking it; for The Quonsets, Sarah Nietfeld’s constructions created the sense of functional, intimate spaces in the great outdoors; for The Red Tent, Annie Dauber reimagined the Cab as a special space of decorative drapes and personal transformation; and … for Mrs. Galveston, Claire Marie DeLiso built a house as setting and expressive device and work of art.

Sound: Perhaps the most intangible part of production, so choices here tend to those that made sound stand out: In The Slow Sound of Snow (Tye Hunt Fitzgerald), every sound counted, and modulation between loud and soft was crucial; in Débâcles (Frederick Kennedy), the action was all over the place and couldn’t get lost in the spaces; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1 (Michael Costagliola), the contrast between miked song and intimate chat at tables and in bedrooms was striking; in Circling the Drain (Frederick Kennedy), the sound effects of horses and trains were subtle abettors of the tales; and … in Collisions (Christopher Ross-Ewart, Frederick Kennedy) the dazzling soundscape was a part of the whole, a mix of jazz music and speaking voice and song and other effects.

Lighting: A way of controlling our access to what is happening, lighting is most striking as a feature when it helps create the world of the play or adds special effects: In Collisions (Elizabeth Green, Krista Smith), lighting was an essential part of the whole effect of sound and sight; in In The Red and Brown Water (Carolina Ortiz), lighting was a subtle aid to our visualization of the different levels of the characters’ interactions; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1 (Erin Earle Fleming), there were different palettes of light for the different worlds—including virtual—of the action; in Circling the Drain (Krista Smith), the use of the spotlights made for dramatic and deliberate effects; and … in Styx Songs (Krista Smith) lighting was both mood and essential to story, an other-worldly presence.

Costumes: Help us understand characters but can also be delightful in their own right, here are some I especially liked: in Styx Songs, Sarah Woodham dressed Hades and a host of spirits with great panache; in The Slow Sound of Snow, Sophia Choi created a vocabulary of dress; in Thunder Above, Deeps Below, Cole McCarty’s color sense was eye-catching and dynamic; in Débâcles, Annie Dauber & Matthew Malone had a field day with a range of identifiable types, and … In the Red and Brown Water, Mika Eubanks kept it all plausible but also fictive.

Projections: Not a key part of every production, but when present they can be much more than decorative: in Styx Songs, Erik Freer and Richard Green created an animation that was a major effect; in Collisions, Yana Birÿukova and Michael Commendatore made the action swim in projections to startling effect; in The Red Tent, Yaara Bar’s projections commented and provided context; in The Other World, Yana Birÿkova and Michael Commendatore shaped the background of the story; and … in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Yaara Bar pulled out all the stops in making a virtual environment more fulfilling than the everyday.

Music: Not just an effect, music is intrinsic to some productions; here are some where its presence was a major part of the show: in Styx Songs, Sam Suggs’s compositions were essential to making this a show of songs; in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Jiyeon Kim’s compositions provided subtle shifts in mood; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Isabella Summers, and Jeremy O. Harris with Stevan Cablayan created songs that reveal feeling and character; in The Red Tent, songs and dance music made a participatory texture; and … in Collisions, Frederick Kennedy and his musicians made involving, improvised music that interacted with visuals and action to create an event.

The next three categories deal with acting, the element of theater that, when all’s said and done, is still the most charismatic, helping to create “stars” and all kinds of audience identifications. Using the increasingly retrograde division according to the “gender” of the role, I’ve come up with five each, divided by the traditional binary.  And, perhaps more importantly for Cab 49, five for “ensemble.” This year’s Cab was particularly strong in shows where “everyone” was in on the act, making for plays where the whole was more than the individual parts. Be that as it may, I’ve always got my eye out for the particular within the general.

Actors: James Udom as an anxious husband who might kill by procreating in The Slow Sound of Snow; Josh Goulding’s astounding one-man show as a foundling bedeviled by language in Kaspar; George Hampe’s comically beleaguered son and care-giver in Mrs. Galveston; José Espinosa as a maverick artist, at risk and on a quest in The Other World; and … Arturo Soria as a comical emotional contortionist and erring man-child in the world he never made of Débâcles.

Actresses: Moses Ingram as a young woman of spirit and skill facing a world of hurdles in In the Red and Brown Water; Danielle Chaves as a sister and daughter coming to grips with a painful past in North of Providence; Louisa Jacobson as an agent and confidante trying to be a friend in The Other World; Stephanie Machado as a young woman working through the affronts and assaults of a male-dominated world in Circling the Drain; and … Sydney Lemmon as an old woman alive with a compelling sense of what matters and what it means to get things right in Mrs. Galveston.

Ensemble: Ashley Chang, Anna Crivelli, Eston Fung, Elizabeth Harnett, Steven Lee Johnson bringing to life the slippery provocations of a situationist artist in Caught; Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, as acting instruments; Frederick Kennedy, Kevin Patton, Evan Smith, Matt Wigton, as musical instruments in the vibrant interactive environment of Collisions; Moses Ingram, Erron Crawford, Leland Fowler, Kineta Kunutu, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Amandla Jahava, Courtney Jamison, Jonathan Higginbotham, Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell as a village’s worth of varied characters and archetypes in In the Red and Brown Water; José Espinosa, Rachel Kenney, Jake Lozano, Arturo Soria enacting the stringency of cannibalism as erotics, commodity, and ideology in The Meal; and … Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Courtney Jamison, Stefani Kuo, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo as unforgettable sufferers of existential dread, at war with and for their souls, in The Slow Sound of Snow.

Directors: In directing, I single-out the work that seemed to me to meet a challenge beyond the already considerable challenge of making compelling theater in a basement/restaurant: Lynda Paul for getting the tone of satire and seriousness with a varied cast, including non-actors, in Caught; Kevin Hourigan, with Frederick Kennedy for keeping the interplay of music and scene and speech so immediate and wonderful in Collisions; Tori Sampson for getting some of their best from everyone involved in In the Red and Brown Water, and for bringing a Folks production into the Cab; Elizabeth Dinkova for managing a wild ride of a play with more segments and themes than is conducive to mental health in Débâcles; and … Shadi Ghaheri for the incredible composure, pacing, and dramatic pay-offs of the haunting drama of The Slow Sound of Snow.

Production: They’re the shows that impress on many levels: technical realization, acting, directing, and, of course, what they express: Styx Songs, the season’s opener, an unforgettable dramatic experience that showed what the Cab is capable of (Producer: Trent Anderson; Dramaturg: Charlie O’Malley; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson); The Slow Sound of Snow, profound theater that showed what the Cab can demand of its audience (Producer: Trent Anderson and Armando Huipe; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Stage Manager: Michael Schermann); Collisions, an event, like a concert, but also more, as theater and multi-media exploration, different each night (Producer: Rachel Shuey; Dramaturgy: Ashley Chang, Jeremy O. Harris; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson); Débâcles, a challenging comedy, a dark night of the collective soul delivered with incredible brio (Producer: Flo Low; Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena); and … In the Red and Brown Water, a bravura production, almost a Rep show in a basement, full of heart, a strong cast, and memorable dramatic features (Co-Producers: Lauren E. Banks, Al Heartley; Dramaturg: Lisa D. Richardson; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath)

Cab 49 has ended. All best to those who participated—many, week after week. For those who are graduating, go in peace. Everyone else: Get ready for Cab 50!

Yale Cabaret 49
Artistic Directors: Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

Managing Director: Steven Koernig
2016-17

The Singing Cure

Review of Next to Normal, TheaterWorks

A family—mother, father, son, daughter—going through the motions of their suburban, middle-class existence and singing about it. At first, the low-key comedy of this family, all centered on the stay-at-home mom, might seem a gentle send-up of patriarchy. Then we notice something’s not quite right with mom—about the time she starts making sandwiches assembly-style on the floor—and realize this isn’t an installment of “desperate housewives.” There’s a shadow lurking from the past, and it has managed to eclipse real, day-to-day life for Diana (Christiane Noll), so much so that she lives her life heavily medicated.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

The toll this takes on her family—husband Dan (David Harris), daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher)—is the story here, as Diana has to live with the loss of the son (John Cardoza) she never knew, though in her mind he’s a teen capable of being more real than her long-suffering husband and sulky daughter. Sure, it’s the kind of situation that a Freudian might have a field-day with, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey have different fish to fry. We’re in the era of medications, and even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, which someone thinks sounds better then “electroshock,” apparently) is prescribed for suicidal housewives who go off their meds. It all would be grimmer than it is but for the fact that Diana, for all her unresolved issues, is an entertaining sufferer of bipolar disorder. As played by Christiane Noll, she’s a strong woman who just can’t deal with certain facts, such as how her own mind and spirit can betray her despite her best efforts. Her saving grace is the forthright self she pours out in song, and Noll's performance is indeed electrifying. The other great saving grace, for the show, is that her daughter, who has more than enough of her own to kvetch about, is played with tons of charm by newcomer Maya Keleher.

I shouldn’t neglect mentioning the males, even if they seem rather ancillary to the wild mood swings of their female counterparts. As Dan, David Harris does a lot with a role that mainly comes down to being patient and understanding, until, perhaps, his façade of repression also begins to crack. As the son who won’t say die, John Cardoza is a dreamboat with a big voice, though it wouldn’t hurt for him to unstiffen a little while insisting “I’m Alive”—though his dance with mom on the verge of a major breakdown is as fluid and magical as is called for. Henry, a sort of hipster kid who woos Natalie, is fine, if overly self-effacing. While the Drs. Fine—the drug pusher—and Madden, the hot-shot ECT salesman—are both assayed by J. D. Daw with the kind of professional obtuseness that, if not part of the problem, doesn’t do much to get at the problem’s root.

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Director Rob Ruggerio has done a wonderful job making this domestic and medical musical, with its requisite and recurring blasts of bathos, work at TheaterWorks where the intimacy of the staging makes the action feel all the more personal. We’re looking on at a family trying to cope and the fact that they can make a first-rate show of their suffering is all to the good. The set, complete with a turntable for moving things about in place swiftly, upper-level wings, and a backdrop that looks like a store-display of lamps and knickknacks, is never obtrusive and, with a range of color and lighting effects, a part of the quick-switching moods of the music by Tom Kitt. And a very tight band, invisible and just loud enough but not too loud—particularly effective are the drums—make the most of the score, under Adam Souza’s able direction, and Ed Chapman’s Sound Design is incredibly precise. Everyone sounds great and the casting has arrived at six voices that harmonize well and make the vocals—almost everything is sung—the show’s best feature.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

In the end, I find myself, for all the talent and skill on display here, somewhat unmoved by this Pulitzer-winning musical. Time was, I suppose, it showed the way in clueing us in, not only about the lives of quiet desperation in many a dream-home, but about the resources of the musical for making music from the everyday. There are many effective numbers that lay out the levels of trauma here—“He’s Not Here,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, “Song of Forgetting,” “Why Stay?”, “A Promise”—but much of it serves to remind that we have seen this movie, or some version of it. Melodrama in the service of mourning and melancholia seems to be a big staple of tear-jerk show-biz.

What puts Next to Normal a cut above what the screens might provide is that its Tony-winning score sets us in a pop-rock universe and won’t let us stray into the weepy strings that many a soundtrack would bathe us in. The musical numbers stay sharp and focused, for the most part, and that’s to be appreciated. Still, who knew that what all the characters most deeply desire is a non-traumatized version of the perfect little family paradise that, it seemed for a minute, the show was seeking to send up. Living “next to normal”—for theater—can also be next-door to boring.

 

Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music direction by Adam Souza

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Casting: McCorkle Casting, Ltd., Associate Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, David Harris, Maya Keleher, Christiane Noll, Nick Sacks

TheaterWorks
March 24-April 30, extended to May 14

The Carlotta is Coming Soon

Preview of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, Yale School of Drama

A West African folktale with a Brechtian treatment; a story of inter-generational intimacy set in the great wide open of Alaska; a revisiting of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice from the view of Shylock’s daughter—these are the new offerings to be seen at the 12th annual Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a theatrical tradition of presenting new work from Yale School of Drama students at the end of their three-year stint in the playwriting program. The three playwrights—Tori Sampson, Miranda Rose Hall, Sarah B. Mantell—are paired with graduating directors—Elizabeth Dinkova, Kevin Hourigan, Jesse Rasmussen, respectively—to bring their plays to the stage at the Iseman Theater, featuring casts drawn primarily from first and second-year actors in the program.

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson’s play, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, subtitled “an understanding of a West African folktale,” draws on a story Sampson was first told as a child by an uncle, “The Beautiful Girl and Her Seven Jealous Friends.” The story treats beauty as a determining factor of social standing. Sampson, who was a student of sociology before becoming a playwright, sees the story as a way to speak to women today when some standards may have changed, to some extent, but not for all.

The play could be said to come out of a frustration with double-standards, not only about who can be beautiful in a racist world, but also about what stories get told by the dominant culture. Sampson said she was “frustrated early on” in her studies at the School of Drama because the canonical playwrights were all white and male. One such writer was Bertolt Brecht and Sampson gradually decided to “investigate what I was not drawn to,” finding a certain common currency in the way Brecht’s work incorporated folk tales and what he found useful in other sources. For Sampson, the task of recreating other’s material “leads to a shared knowledge” and a way of interrogating what is known. As artists, Sampson said, drama students have “to allow ourselves to criticize what we study.”

The setting of Sampson’s play is a fictional place, Affreakah-Amirrorkah, a name that suggests a “freaky mirror” of Africa-America, and uses what might be called an Americanized dialect. It’s a poetic language relying on rhythm and sound more than everyday speech does. Last year, Sampson co-authored a Carlotta play with Jiréh Breon Holder, Some Bodies Travel, a very entertaining challenge to black cultural stereotypes, and in the Yale Cabaret season she directed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s reworking of Yoruba folk material, In the Red and Brown Water.

Plays, Sampson said, “are not about solving issues.” The issue of beauty, which our culture treats so seriously, she said “intrigued” her and she sees her play as “adding to the conversation” about what our standards say about us as a culture.

In choosing a play for this year’s Carlotta, Sampson was asked: “What is going to make you most happy?” One thing that gives her joy is making people laugh, and hers is a comic play, with jokes that may be “in your face,” but which should connect with a contemporary audience. Laughter and meaningful themes go hand-in-hand, for Sampson, and working with dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodriguez and director Elizabeth Dinkova, whose work has been marked by both, has been a positive experience for all.

Miranda Rose Hall

Miranda Rose Hall

The plays by Miranda Rose Hall that have been seen at YSD have tended to be comic, with decidedly satiric elements. But there’s another side to her work—more than two, in fact. Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy allows her to move into domestic drama, in this case set in remote, rural Alaska, and to examine a key theme for her: “the nature and limits of love”

The play is based on a setting where Hall lived for a time, working in a care-giving facility she was assigned to through “a kind of domestic Peace Corps.” Her task was providing company and solace to people near the end of their lives. Her play allows Hall to look back at a place that, she said, is with her always, with its mix of “sublime environment and human dysfunction,” a combination she just had to write about. Hall’s play creates a situation to examine questions that loom large at the end of life, like “forgiveness, and the ways in which we love each other and suffer with another’s suffering.”

The story occurs five years after a tragic event in the community of Bethlehem, Alaska, where Ed, a Jesuit priest in late middle-age, returns to reconcile with his estranged brother and finds himself falling in love unexpectedly in the isolated wastes. For Hall, the play is “irreducibly Alaskan” because her time there, in which she drank up many stories from the locals, most having to do with “a wild cast of characters in spartan conditions,” caused her to reflect on questions of “survival and the ethos of mortality.” The landscape, she said, made her feel “in the presence of something greater” that was “impossible to ignore.”

Choosing a Jesuit as hero for her play is a testament to the Jesuits who ran the volunteer corps Hall joined, and it also was a way to work with Catholic themes. Though raised Presbyterian, Hall is descended from Italian immigrants, and said she feels “culturally Catholic.” Georgetown, where she received her undergraduate degree, was founded by Jesuits and their stated values of “service, education, and justice” are important to Hall. It’s also important that the play be set during the papacy of a former Jesuit priest: Pope Benedict, who denounced gay marriage.

Though ultimately fictional, the play draws on Hall’s real love for Alaska and the people she met there. Though no one who knew her could quite understand why she was going with a small team of total strangers into one of the remotest and wildest states in the nation, her experience has made her more confident about her ability to find the themes she wants to explore in her art. The characters in The Hour of Great Mercy are not Alaskan natives but have lived there a long time, and reflect for Hall “the heart, humor, and tough defiance” of the people she came to know there. Kevin Hourigan and Gavin Whitehead, Hall’s director and dramaturg, were her first collaborators in her first year project at YSD, so, in a way, she’s come full circle.

Sarah B. Mantell

Sarah B. Mantell

Kevin Hourigan’s second-year studio show, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, figures as a major catalyst for the third Carlotta play. In viewing that production, Sarah B. Mantell finally saw a play she had always avoided, not wanting to experience a Jewish villain given canonical weight by the greatest writer in the English language. Mantell began writing Everything That Never Happened last summer, making this “the shortest possible process” in bringing a play to the stage. The play, she said, “could only be born at the Yale School of Drama” because she would not have encountered Merchant anywhere else. What’s more, Hourigan’s production, which featured Elizabeth Stahlmann in the key role of Shylock, staged the humiliating conversion scene that the Jewish merchant is condemned to undergo.

And yet Merchant is considered a comedy and Mantell sees the relation of humor to tragedy in the play as “very Jewish,” and that has motivated her to write with Jewish speaking voices, to create, in fact, “everything that never happened” in The Merchant of Venice. Particularly, Mantell’s play dramatizes the story of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, in love with Lorenzo, who realizes she must run away. A key plot point is that she is ethnically ambiguous and can pass as something she’s not—a gentile.

In pursuing her process of “taking Shakespeare’s characters and making them my own,” Mantell had conversations with playwright Sara Ruhl who has adapted classic texts, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in her work. Mantell cites as well Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a reworking of Othello with a very different emphasis. Mantell has also been working on a play called “Fight Call”—the term for working through all of a play’s fights in sequence for rehearsal—that would be a walk-through of the deaths of many of Shakespeare’s female characters. The key element uniting such reinventions of Shakespeare is considering how the sexist assumptions of his plays can be overturned or dramatized.

Everything That Never Happened wants to take such revisionism a step further. Not only is Jessica a female hero for this reworking of Merchant, but she is also ethnically other than the dominant culture. Working with Jesse Rasmussen, who staged the violent misogyny of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis show, has “been tremendous” for Mantell, as “Jesse can do a lot with little,” and her dramaturg, Chad Kinsman, and others she consulted have been incredibly helpful in keeping straight details of the time period and other factors relevant to the adaptation.

Mantell, whose early play, Mrs. Galveston, was one of the most engaging plays at this season’s Yale Cabaret, may find at last the heart of Shakespeare’s always somewhat problematic Merchant.

Three graduating playwrights, three new plays with heart, humor, and new perspectives.

 

The Carlotta Festival of New Plays
Yale School of Drama

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka: an understanding of a West African folktale
By Tori Sampson, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
May 5, 8 pm; May 9, 8 pm; May 11, 2 pm; May 12, 8 pm

The Hour of Great Mercy
By Miranda Rose Hall, directed by Kevin Hourigan
May 6, 8 pm; May 10, 2 pm; May 11, 8 pm; May 13, 2 pm

Everything That Never Happened
By Sarah B. Mantell, directed by Jesse Rasmussen
May 7, 8 pm; May 10, 8 pm; May 12, 2 pm; May 13, 8 pm

Personal Herstories

Review of Circling the Drain, Yale Cabaret

Amanda Davis’s stories, as portrayed in Circling the Drain, a new play by Cole McCarty adapted from Davis’s collection of the same name, feature female protagonists who suffer from bad relations with others. Three characters—Ellen (Rachel Kenney), Lily (Patricia Fa’asua), and Faith (Stephanie Machado)—bare their tales in an overlapping round-robin of increasingly harrowing misadventures. A fourth—The Fat Girl (Marié Botha)—inhabits Faith’s consciousness as an element of her past she still lives with. The deftly paced transitions in McCarty’s script create mini-cliffhanger effects as one woman or another holds the floor and then surrenders it to another speaker.

As interleaved monologues, the play works well, creating something of that circling sensation alluded to in the title. It also helps that the stories chosen have very different settings. Ellen’s takes place in Brooklyn, Lily’s out west, and Faith’s in a suburban high school. As with any drama where the characters confide to the audience, the feeling of immediacy is palpable, and all four actresses convey well the shifting sympathies of these characters’ commitment to their stories. It’s not that they are necessarily trying to convince us of something, but only want us to witness what they did or was done to them. In a sense, taking possession of the story is the whole point.

Ellen (Rachel Kenney), Faith (Stephanie Machado), Lily (Patricia Fa'asua)

Ellen (Rachel Kenney), Faith (Stephanie Machado), Lily (Patricia Fa'asua)

Interestingly, the show, as the last in Cabaret 49’s season, takes us back to the beginning. Styx Songs, the first show of the season, featured an ensemble of characters sharing with us the means of their deaths, wanting to impress upon us what cost them their lives. Circling the Drain, less metaphysical, looks at the vulnerabilities that unite these women’s stories, costing them, if not their lives, then their peace of mind. The show’s subtitle “all that vacant possibility” would seem to suggest that, in each case, the story might have gone differently, that we aren’t dealing with fatalism, but rather with something more painfully contingent. And yet that’s not how the tales seem to play out. With no male characters or actors on view, there is no way to contrast an actual guy with the force of fascination, or fatal attraction, these women feel.

Ellen’s story is perhaps the most oblique, as presented. There’s a man in it—“not from around here”— and she eventually finds him in their bed with another guy. Her solution to the situation is to jump off a bridge. Because of how she presents it—in a rather poetic, fatalistic way—the situation feels fraught with peril but we don’t really get why that is. Kenney keeps us on Ellen’s side but the story of what happened to her, in her view, is a foregone conclusion as she tells it. There’s no other possibility because she seems never to entertain one.

With Lily’s story, a similar fatalism comes from the fact that she never doubts what she must do to make her object of desire—a cowboy with an almost symbiotic attachment to a horse—hers. This tale, in part because Fa’asua maintains an almost rapturous cadence in her telling, feels the most mythopoeic, as if there’s more to the story than simply a man and a woman, a blue shirt she knits him, and his beloved horse. The possibility here, if we accept it, might be in an exchange of symbols—the shirt for the horse, or the quest for a new horse to become the couple’s shared raison d’être. In any case, the story arrests us because, as with its descriptions of trains and plains, it has a strong symbolic beauty.

Faith’s story is the most graphically violent and the most realistic, if impressionistic. Its events illustrate the hazards of bullying, sexual predators, low self-esteem, and the desperate need to be loved that fuel many teen tragedies. Here, the interplay between Faith and the Fat Girl delivers some comedy, if in a somewhat caustic register, and that of course lulls us into a hope of Faith overcoming her demons. A brutal rape at the hands of a group of guys whose attention at first is gratifying makes Faith potentially the most damaged woman here, though her resilience is what might mystify us as much as Ellen’s fatalism and Lily’s symbolism.

All of which is a way of saying that these stories of women “circling the drain” probe for response, particularly when the characters are so alive before us. Machado, in particular, makes Faith—name noted—a woman who may prove to be more than her own story about herself. And that, we might say, is where the possibility lies: the power of not only articulating one’s story, but also overcoming it.

The set—a spare bleachers—and dramatic use of lighting and sound effects, for galloping horses and rushing subway trains, create a very malleable space, aided by simple touches like writing in chalk on the playing-space floor. Theater often provides a spectacle at which we stare, Circling the Drain takes us inside the heads of these women and leaves us there.

 

Circling the Drain or, all that vacant possibility
Directed & written by Cole McCarty
Adapted from stories by Amanda Davis

Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Cohen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Fred Kennedy; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Producer: Lisa D. Richardson

Cast: Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Rachel Kenney, Stephanie Machado

Yale Cabaret
April 20-22, 2017

Canon Redux

Sneak Peak at Yale Summer Cabaret 2017

The upcoming season at the Yale Summer Cabaret will be announced today. Co-Artistic Directors Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri have planned four plays, “adaptations of four pre-20th century European works, updated and directed by living women, queer artists, and artists of color as a radical and provocative response to the theatrical ‘canon.’”  Called “Canon Balle,” the 43rd season of the Summer Cabaret looks to be a provocative interrogation of canonical works, reconfigured by the pressures and interests of contemporary theater-makers and theater-goers.

First up, June 2-11, is Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, adapted by Rory Pelsue. Pelsue, a rising third-year director at the Yale School of Drama, presented a staging of Othello as his second-year Shakespeare project that was a dramatic enactment of passions held to a knife’s edge, exploring the sexual tension between Othello and Iago, as well as Othello and Desdemona. While it is well-known that all parts in Shakespeare’s theater were enacted by men, Pelsue’s all-male Antony + Cleopatra will bring a decidedly drag element to the play, described as “playful and anarchic,” with a “butch” Antony having to face his feelings for a seductively femme Cleopatra.

Next, Shadi Ghaheri, also a rising third-year director at YSD, whose presentation of Titus Andronicus this spring was a take-no-prisoners assault of political vengeance and victimization, undertakes Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play about the fate of women in Troy after the death of the hero Hector and the fall of the city in the famed war against the invading Greeks. This all-female production of a 1995 translation by Ellen McLaughlin takes its cue from the war in Bosnia, but addresses the role of women in war from 400 BC to the present day. June 23-July 2

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a classic, late nineteenth-century play of the conflict between class and gender. As adapted by South-African playwright Yaël Farber, Mies Julie, set on a remote farm in post-Apartheid South Africa, ratchets up the drama with interracial and colonialist tensions not present in the original. Directed by Pelsue, July 14-23

Young Jean Lee is an experimental artist known for provocative approaches to theater. The final show of the season is her take on the story of King Lear. In Lear, directed by Ghaheri, the focus is on the twenty-something children of raging and abused parents, Lear and Gloucester. Will the change in perspective humanize the younger generation or show them to be as mad as their suffering parents? August 4-13

Stay tuned for previews and reviews of the individual plays as the summer gets closer. For information about tickets, including 4-ticket passes at $100 or 8-ticket passes for $192, check out the Summer Cabaret’s website, beginning May 8.

In summer in New Haven, the Yale Summer Cabaret is the hottest show in town.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Season 43
Canon Balle

Artistic Directors: Rory Pelsue, Shadi Ghaheri
Managing Director: Leandro Zaneti

June 2-August 13, 2017

Regular Townies

Preview of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company tends to thrive on dialogue-driven plays with small casts, but, once a year or so, they go for something bigger and busier. Coming up for two weekends—the last weekend of April, the first weekend of May—is just such a project, third in the unofficial “town trilogy” that the NHTC probably weren’t even thinking about: Urinetown (in 2012), Our Town (in 2013), and now, Middletown.

Written by Will Eno, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining writers in theater today, Middletown, which was first produced in New York in 2010, has been called a “modern Our Town,” which is to say that its setting—a kind of “Anytown, USA”—recalls Thornton Wilder’s evocation of the perennial attractions of Grover’s Corner, while its view of what makes America tick is infused by a self-conscious irony toward the normative. Then again, in the Our Town at Long Wharf a few years back, the town onstage extended to the audience and vice versa; in Eno’s Middletown, an “audience” is present onstage between acts to let us know we’re right in the middle of the world it portrays. A world that includes an astronaut in outer space and a local n’er-do-well having to serve time portraying a Native American. Both Wilder and Eno have a sense of America as a place older than the United States and with an ethos always somewhat futuristic.

What attracts the Company to “townie” plays we can only surmise, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that NHTC is specific to our town—New Haven—and has a feel for plays with a strong sense of regular folks in a place. This time Peter Chenot directs; he starred in Urinetown, and had a part in Our Town, directed by Steve Scarpa. Now he turns the tables and directs Scarpa, as John, the lead male character, in Middletown. Chenot was also at the helm of one of the non-town-based big productions the troupe has staged: Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! in 2014, which was very fluid in its execution of space.

In reading the play for consideration—it was Steve Scarpa who originally proposed Middletown to the Company—Chenot said he saw it as “a challenge, for sure,” as the play calls for various locations and will require reusing the pieces of the set in different configurations. There are “scenes inside houses, outside houses, at a monument, in separate rooms in a hospital and on its loading dock, and in outer space.” It will take some ingenuity to render “so many places in the NHTC’s shallow space, but the challenge is part of the fun.”

From the start, Chenot was attracted by the fact that the play calls for much of the cast to play more than one part, and the play’s deliberate evocation of Our Town struck a chord as well. “We all know that play,” he said, and, like Wilder’s best-known work, Middletown’s “main selling point is that it left me moved and uplifted though I don’t get it yet. There’s always more to know about the best plays where you don’t grasp all the subtleties at once.” Chenot likened working on the play to doing a jigsaw puzzle, getting more of the picture the more pieces fit.

Chenot called the play “human, quirky, and intriguing.” The people in the play are “normal, and speak in a matter-of-fact way that is not lofty” but conveys “what it means to be alive right now. It’s so smart and tackles big mysteries” about the human condition. The play also keeps the audience aware of the provisional aspect of theater as there are deliberate “moments of glitch in the play,” something of an Eno trademark.

Middletown comes along now because, while the company has been considering it for almost two years, the schedules of the NHTCers aligned sufficiently to make it possible. Only three current NHTCers are not appearing in Middletown: Christian Shaboo and Deena Nichol-Blifford, who both appeared in last spring’s production of Proof, and playwright Drew Gray, who directed Trevor, the most recent NHTC project. Otherwise, who you’ll see onstage is everybody who calls NHTC home—Megan Chenot, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams, enhanced by a few key non-NHTCers: Chaz Carmon, who played the animal care professional in Trevor; Chrissy Gardner, a composer and player in Broken Umbrella Theatre who plays Mary to Scarpa’s John; and Aly Miller, a child actor who plays “Sweetheart,” a girl in the audience.

Reading through the play convinced Chenot at once that it was a perfect fit for NHTC, as he could imagine a role for everyone. And “since directing is 75% casting, my work is done,” he joked. Part of the fun for regular attendees of NHTC productions is seeing what parts the familiar members take on in each new show, and it’s always a special treat when a play allows almost everyone to find something to do. Plays about towns instill a sense of community, as does the camaraderie of the New Haven Theater Company.

 

Middletown
By Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot
New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street, the English Building Markets

April 27-29; May 4-6

SILENCE = DEATH

Review of The Other World, Yale Cabaret

The Other World, written by Yale School of Drama playwright Charles O’Malley, returns us to the heart of the Aids crisis. A slice of the life of 1980s’ New York artist David Wojnarowicz, adapted from his memoir Close to the Knives, the play dramatizes key events in Wojnarowicz’s artistic life to reanimate the past in episodic scenes presented with a sure hand by first-time director Baize Buzan. Less is more in the spare set, complete with particle-board flooring, a sheet draped casually to serve as a screen for the artist’s overhead projections—a bit of authentic technology that does a Proustian madeleine number on aging memories—and a general feel of the open spaces of those unrenovated SoHo warehouses. In other words, the play is something of a time machine and I, for one, was glad to see a contemporary brought to life so well.

David (José Espinosa) (photo:; Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa) (photo:; Elli Green)

The play’s David (José Espinosa) is an introspective figure whose musings have both great immediacy and fascinating detachment. The loss of David’s lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, to Aids is narrated rather than presented, with further details furnished by Marion (Louisa Jacobson), David’s friend and agent. It’s to the credit of all involved that Peter’s demise comes across with both poignancy and inevitability. Comments on a dying-man’s wish of a visit to the shore lets us intuit the frayed nerves, the sensitive psyches, and, more than anything, the unspeakable specter of death coming to the young and talented. By letting us hear how David copes, O’Malley keeps our focus both on the events and an artist’s access to them. Wojnarowicz, who worked in various media, took pictures and video of his lover’s corpse, an act very much in accord with their shared aesthetic. As David, Espinosa presents a serious artist whose art is very much a confrontation with existence, a battle for personal worth in a damaged world.

Friend (Michael Breslin), David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

Friend (Michael Breslin), David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

A visit from a Friend (played with uneasy panache by Michael Breslin) lets us see how out of touch David can be, even while trying to get in touch with his own feelings. The chain-smoking, while a minor detail, speaks volumes for the era these street-based artists inhabit. The Friend’s grasp of his own doomed chances prefigures Wojnarowicz’s fate, but also re-enacts, in miniature, the risky collectivity of gays at the time. The “who can know and who can’t” aspect of their exchange is spot-on. Eventually we see David overcome his morose withdrawal and begin to take steps toward activism, his anger and heartbreak overtaking even his “must-get-away from New York” trip through the Southwest.

David (José Espinosa), Marion (Louisa Jacobson) (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa), Marion (Louisa Jacobson) (photo: Elli Green)

That trip—in a segment called “on the road”—gives the play some of its best scenes, as David breaks out of his silence to confide an early sexual exploit in a movie theater and then to rail at Marion for being a confidante who doesn’t confide enough herself. As played with canny conviction by Louisa Jacobsen, Marion is an interesting character with her own conflicts. Her faith in David, after working with him for five years, is being tried by his state of mourning and his growing interest in the politics of the plague. Their exchanges do much to give us a sense of how they see themselves and each other, and provide a context of youth and exploration that, if not dated, is at least a reminder of how Aids changed so much and cost so many.

Without making heavy-handed parallels with the present, O’Malley’s play reanimates a specific era of repression to remind us of how hard-won rights were and admission to the status quo has been, and to indicate that getting a hearing in government is no easy matter. It’s not that a trip back in time is going to make Trump look better, but it does serve to highlight how shitty conservative governments can be to anyone outside their ideology. Marches and protest might make for good political theater but, as Marion exhorts David, an artist can make larger and perhaps more telling statements. And so is born an artist-activist, aghast at the horrors made normative by American indifference.

Born 100 years after his sometime artistic alter-ego Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz, like Rimbaud, died at 37. Both continue to live on because both have something to say to the “accursed” on the outside or margins of the mainstream. If “silence = death,” one of the slogans of Aids activism popularized by ACT UP, it’s also the case that death, for visionary artists like Wojnarowicz, doesn’t equal silence.

David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

 

The Other World
By Charles O’Malley
Adapted from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Directed by Baize Buzan

Production Dramaturg: Kari Olmon; Scenic Designer: Paul Rasmussen; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projections Designers: Yana Birÿkova, Michael Commendatore; Scenic Advisor: Ashley Flowers; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme

Cast: Michael Breslin, José Espinosa, Louisa Jacobson

 

Yale Cabaret
April 6-8, 2017

Shine On

Review of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Hartford Stage

A tragic tale centered on the bullying of an effervescent teen, James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a play with its heart in the right place. In a series of brief encounters with locals who knew Leonard, Chuck DeSantis, a detective called in to investigate a missing person by the boy’s guardian, pieces together both the unique contribution Leonard made to the small town in New Jersey where he lives, and, more vaguely, what exactly happened to him. The show is an entertaining feast of character studies by James Lecesne, who wrote the young adult novel the play is based on, adapted it as a play, and performs all the characters.

Close your eyes at one point and you will believe a teen-age girl, Phoebe, is onstage talking about her control-freak mom—Ellen, a no-nonsense woman who took Leonard in when he had nowhere else to go, and who runs, suitably enough, a beauty salon. Lecesne’s voice manipulation and mannerisms are wonderfully precise: there’s DeSantis’ Jersey charm, Ellen’s aggressive comments, and a host of vivid characterizations, from the long drag on an imaginary cigarette and the tobacco-ravaged voice of Marion, a client of Ellen’s who tried to counsel Leonard to be a little less flamboyant, to the imaginary binoculars in the hands of Gloria, widow of a former mob boss, who keeps her eye on the lake by her house and spots an important clue, to the natty brio of a Brit enduring the thankless task of teaching dance and drama to suburban brats, and who has some misgivings about the wings Leonard wants to wear as Ariel in an upcoming production of the Tempest.

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The upshot is that Leonard, with, for instance, his insistence that every woman needs to own a little black dress, did wonders for the style and panache of the town. His Converse platforms (sneakers enhanced by a stack of multi-colored flip-flops affixed to the soles) might be the kind of thing to get him in trouble with those who patrol the borders of conformity, but the shoes are also a badge of the kind of style Leonard exults in. As he told Marion: if he were to give in, the terrorists would win.

Quick projections, some animated, give us visuals of the story’s details—such as an example of those sneakers or a blurry photo of Leonard himself and the way to tie certain knots that are also clues—but most of the time this show is carried only by Lecesne’s way with a story and with his enactment of the people who knew and loved Leonard. That they are all “characters,” as in notably theatrical, plays into the detective plot that keeps the play moving forward. While not really a whodunit mystery, there is the nagging question of what happened to Leonard. The people who have something to say, for the most part, are not treated as suspects, but as fonts of information and of odd speculations, as in Gloria wondering what will happen if the Church does away with hell. One gem is Leonard’s insight that every woman continues to wear the hairdo from the high point of her life. Leonard advocates change.

And that’s one of the main themes of Lecesne’s show: change, as in trying to change the attitudes of adults and kids about the trans or gay or lesbian or “questioning” teens among us. The effort to be oneself shouldn’t be hemmed in by the threat of violence and ostracism. Leonard knows this, and the women around him get it, but the bullies that DeSantis interviews simply accept that someone like Leonard is asking for abuse, and they provide it, almost as a duty. That element of the teen years is a given, and DeSantis is up-front in his realization that someone like Leonard couldn’t even have existed in the time of the detective’s own childhood. In those days, he says quite realistically, fathers were the bullies who beat any kind of gender-exploration out of their kids.

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Despite the sensitivity of such issues, Lecesne’s play doesn’t get heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. The play’s effect relies on a clever theatrical device: the absence of Leonard speaks for what is missing without him there. The contribution of difference—often very flamboyantly conceived—to the fabric of society is what we ask from our exceptional and gifted individuals, while also knowing what a struggle their talents and self-conceptions will be faced with in our less than enlightened culture. The play’s title comes from the astronomical concept of a star’s “absolute brightness” (the measurable intensity of a star’s radiance, regardless of where viewed from) and Lecesne’s characters, while not privy to that idea, attest, from their different perspectives, to Leonard’s brightness. They can only measure the effects of that light, its presence and absence.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey makes its points deftly, with a capable storyteller’s grasp of how personality, vividly rendered, lights up the stage and illuminates some of the dark places in our society.

 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Written & performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale

Scenic Design: Jo Winiarksi; Lighting Design: Matt Richards; Sound Design: Christian Frederickson; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Original Music: Duncan Sheik; Original Animation & Photography: Matthew Sandager; Clothing: Paul Marlow; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Hartford Stage
March 29-April 23, 2017

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in early March, conjectured that many in the so-called blue states have been “having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November,” specifically, fantasies about the president’s death, “natural or otherwise.” Without coming right out and saying it, Shatz was entertaining the notion that many otherwise law-abiding and non-violent Americans are fantasizing about political assassination. “These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over the imagination,” Shatz writes, but if we shift away from our specific moment to a more general view of our country’s history, we could substitute “the president” for “Trump” in that statement. We might wonder how it is that killing one man—a man not born to power nor claiming it as a birthright but simply holding an office, in essence, doing a job for a limited time—can come to seem the end-all of political action. Killing him, removing him violently from office, becomes, in such a view, a victory for the cause of freedom. Or at least a liberation of one’s burning resentment.

Because, as Shatz avers, such ideas are in the air, James Bundy’s revival of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, couldn’t be more timely. Proposed for the season over a year ago, the show was slated to open after the first 100 days of whoever won in November, and a very real strength of Assassins is that it is ambivalent enough to be relevant to any sitting president. Though, in 2016, one could assume that the hatred or the embrace of any winner of that year’s presidential race would be, in 2017, unprecedentedly—or unpresidentedly—passionate. Such is the case, and Assassins is a fanciful, tuneful, and entertaining look at one of the many dark sides of U.S. exceptionalism.

As Bundy notes in the playbill, “no fewer than thirteen of our misguided countrymen and women have taken it upon themselves to strike at presidents. This show reckons with nine of them….” As portrayed here, the question of what guides their misguided steps is different in every case, and the outcomes vary as well—from killing to wounding to failing utterly—but, in each case, the would-be assassin gets written into history, paired with the fortunes of the respective target.

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That pairing begins at once, with the Proprietor (Austin Durant), a boardwalk carny, offering a ragtag bunch of possible customers the chance to shoot a president. As Durant, in a sexier version of an Uncle Sam outfit, takes Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith) or John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) under his wing, huge projected images of that assassin’s target appear. Soon, eight—all but Oswald—have gathered, as a kind of ad hoc assassins convention, where nobodies will become somebodies. Of course, the biggest somebody of them all is also the last of the eight to arrive. John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) was a minor somebody, as an actor, and his bid for glory, as portrayed in “The Ballad of Booth” with Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, offers both an ironic commentary but also a surprisingly dignified account of his reasons from Booth. It helps greatly that Lenzi and Frederick are both well-cast in their roles, with Lenzi looking very much the part and singing with great authority.

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Assassins keeps right on cooking, with lively moments—“How I Saved Roosevelt” (about the failed attempt by Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek) to kill FDR)—and brooding moments, “The Gun Song,” a thoughtful ditty that takes off from the old “it takes a village” line to consider how much work goes into a gun and just how easy it is to move your little finger and change the world. For the most part, the would-be assassins are zanies and crazies, with some, like the two women who targeted President Ford, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina) and Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), played for laughs. Fromme’s duet with Reagan’s would-be assassin Hinckley, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a plaintive cry for significance, showing Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and Fromme’s with Charles Manson. The irony of such an earnest big number in service to these two—and Molina and Dixon are both very good as and look very much like their respective characters—points up what makes Assassins work so well: there’s a daytime soaps element to the self-conceptions of these killers, as if the purpose of life is to be immortal in the media.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That view is nowhere more apparent than in the show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau,” wherein Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), the assassin of President Garfield, gets to sell his particular brand. Guiteau is a jack of all delusions and DeRosa makes him an unforgettable presence, soft-shoeing up and down an impressive gallows, and inveighing lines from Guiteau’s odd paean to his own death, “I’m Going to the Lordy.” If you want to see a more striking, entertaining enactment of one of the true oddities of American history, you’re going to have to do some searching.

Indeed, the three successful assassins get their own ballads, and each is a high point. “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” like the one for Booth, gives Czolgosz the benefit of the doubt in suggesting the political nature of his despair—as an oppressed worker he sought out Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan) for inspiration and wanted to strike a blow for anarchy. Perhaps most plaintive—and unnerving of all—is Richard R. Henry’s inspired enactment of Samuel Byck, the man who—in the era of many a hijacked plane—decided he could get airplane pilots to crash a commercial flight into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Byck, who was killed before the plane got off the ground, is seen here venting his “mad as hell” musings on cassette tapes addressing Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Byck’s monologues let us hear an authentic voice of frustration coupled with a deranged view of how one man can make a difference.

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The one disappointment in the show comes from the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), the assassin of Kennedy. He doesn’t get a ballad, unfortunately, but gets instead a dialogue with Booth that largely falls flat because of Weidman’s inability to convey either the pathos of Oswald or his delusions (both of which figure so well in the case of Byck). Instead we get from the Bystanders (Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan), “Something Just Broke,” which trades on the old “where were you when it happened” motif of the JFK assassination (complete with a huge projection of the Zapruder film). The latter image, more than the song, does much to set up the harrowing sense of the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right”—“no one can be put in jail for their dreams”—that gives a voice to the assassin in us all that Adam Shatz has in mind.

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Yale Repertory Theatre revival of Assassins gives us a valuable musical with bite, a major entertainment about a very unentertaining aspect of American political life. Andrea Grody's orchestrations are tasteful and bright; the staging, but for somewhat pointless live camera feeds, is effective by being all to the service of the show, keeping our attention on the very good cast. Part cautionary tale, part ironic tribute to the little guy in history, Sondheim and Weidman’s show aims at the show-biz side of American history and kills it.

 

Assassins
Book by John Weidman
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy

Music Director: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Director: Daniel Schlosberg; Musical Staging: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designers: Charles Coes, Nathan A. Roberts; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturgs: Matthew Conway, Lynda A. H. Paul; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Stanley Bahorek, Stephen DeRosa, Lucas Dixon, Austin Durant, Dylan Frederick, P. J. Griffith, Richard R. Henry, Stephen Humes, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Robert Lenzi, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

The Goddess Within

Review of The Red Tent, Yale Cabaret

If you want to see theater in New Haven that isn’t simply a play, you’ve got to go to shows brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre as part of No Boundaries, or you’ve got to go to the Yale Cabaret. The Red Tent, conceived and directed by Sohina Sidhu and playing at the Cab for two more shows tonight, explores certain bodily themes with minimal dialogue and much movement. More pointedly, one could say: The Red Tent returns theater to ritual.

Theater, it’s mostly agreed, began as ritual, even in the West. The Red Tent keeps open lines of communication to cultures where ritual and performance mingle. And ritual here manages to invoke the presence of “the Goddess” without propelling us to thoughts of New Agey ashrams in California. Maybe one or two of the voice-overs does, but the space created by Annie Dauber, with its enfolding red drapes, the moody lighting by Nic Vincent, and the spacey projections by Yaara Bar put us in a receptive state for a ritualized process choreographed by the company. The show presents an enactment of how women create community in celebrating one of the most elemental aspects of being female: menarche and the recurrent bodily rhythm of fertility it announces.

Some aspects of the body, polite society would have us think, should be kept private, but The Red Tent arrives fully informed by the view that the private is political, if only because women, in becoming equals with men before the law, still have to find a way to make the specific condition of being female not a special, lesser status. The “affliction”—as it is often called—of menstruation, to say nothing of the demands of child-birth, are simply some of the facts of life, and yet, tampon commercials notwithstanding, menstruation still seems an unacknowledged truth in most stories about women in film and television and fiction. While no one who is a woman or has ever lived intimately with one can have any doubts about the significance of the monthly event, our culture generally ignores it as if it never happens (though, of course, it’s big news if it doesn’t).

The Red Tent kicks off dramatically with a young woman (Amandla Jahava) beside herself at having her first period and being sent to a tent so as to be isolated in her “unclean” state. She’s freaking out, and into her abject state arrive emissaries of a more benign tradition, women who initiate her into a shared condition of being.

Air (Amandla Jahava) (photo: Elli Green)

Air (Amandla Jahava) (photo: Elli Green)

As an unascribed quotation in the production’s playbill has it: “Then she had an epiphany: ‘Menstruation is not a taboo, but a power for women.’” The power, in The Red Tent, comes from the mother goddess, and slide projections alert us to stages in the process by which a woman becomes a goddess. It’s not a question of divinity so much as a matter of aligning oneself with the forces of the natural world. In a world—ours—in which the natural forces are increasingly out of whack, the notion that there might be a more geocentric way to understand our place in it is welcome. Such won’t be achieved, Sidhu’s play helps us see, by women proving they can be “just like” men, but perhaps by understanding better what being a woman means.

The five women in the piece are given elemental roles: Water (Alex Cadena), Earth (Danielle Chaves), Air (Amandla Jahava), Fire (Kineta Kunutu), Cosmic (Sohina Sidhu). I confess that the distinctions were a bit lost on me, but that’s perhaps because I wasn’t looking for them. Or that might be due to the fact that the women, all gowned very suitably in white robes with tasteful accessories, are not differentiated in an overtly archetypal manner. As portrayed, the women did have distinct attitudes, with Air the acolyte and Water with a suitable mutability, and Fire seeming the warmest. At one point, two of the elements war with knives—a segment handled well by Fight Coordinator Jonathan Higginbotham—and at another point, all the goddesses sat about articulating the nature of their goddessness in a scene both comic and poetic.

The notion of the three phases of the goddess (which I remember from my Robert Graves)—youth, maturity, and senescence—are invoked by the phases of the show, with the latter stage evoked very memorably by a song, begun suitably enough by Earth, about “the weight of me” breaking a rocking chair. The song is a lament that becomes, as all the women join in, the kind of strong identification with the inevitable and the elemental that one finds too seldom in our secular and commercial culture.

The Red Tent presents theater as something that happens to an audience, not simply as something we watch. With carefully modulated musical and visual accompaniment, the show is technically accomplished and, with the mutable physicality of its performers, fascinating to see. The final procession of the five achieves the emphatic grace and uplift that many a religious ceremony would be glad of inspiring.

 

 

The Red Tent
Conceived and directed by Sohina Sidhu

Choreography: the Company; Sound: Megumi Katayama, Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting: Nic Vincent; Costumes: Rachel Gregory; Scenic Design: Annie Dauber; Projections: Yaara Bar; Technical Direction: LT Gourzong; Dramaturgs: Michael Breslin, Ashley Chang; Fight Director: Jonathan Higginbotham; Stage Manager: Laura Cornwall; Producer: Lisa D. Richardson

The company: Alex Cadena; Danielle Chaves; Amandla Jahava; Kineta Kunutu; Sohina Sidhu

 

Yale Cabaret
March 23-25, 2017

Poems of Wry Reflection

Review of Houses, New and Selected Poems by Don Barkin

 

Are there consolations of aging in place? For New Haven poet Don Barkin, poetry lends a kind of formal ascendancy over the quotidian feelings and everyday events that make up a life. In his earlier volume, That Dark Lake, Barkin earned respect as a patient observer able to make music of the unspectacular, as he does here with the “flaking stucco wall of Magruder’s Service Station.” There are poems that find their apt subject in a ruined swimming pool or getting stuck in the snow; others that let a gentle symbolism creep into a deft image, as in “The Persistent”’s description of a swimmer who disappears “for a frightening while” only to reappear on a rock “so far away / he seems almost to be standing on air.”

In Houses, his new and selected poems published by Antrim House with a handsome cover painting by Peter Van Dyck, Barkin’s eye for the detail that inspires a poetic reflection remains, but his concerns have expanded somewhat. There are several poems that make gestures to that old poetic procedure of justifying the ways of God to man; poems such as “He Plays No Favorites” and “Erratum to an Elegy for a Doomed Youth” take a certain satisfaction in deeming the almighty to be rather indifferent and only looking for amusement: “slowly you start to realize / that God must surprise himself, or no dice.”  I like the way that often a key line in Barkin’s poems, always close to the matter at hand, can expand to complete a thought we didn’t know he was thinking. As, for instance, how the question of God’s surprise at how things turn out mirrors our own, and, perhaps, suggests why one bothers to write poems.

Then, there are the poems, in Part II, where Barkin the rhymester gains ascendancy, a tendency that lets Barkin’s often wry humor turn toward the act of poetry itself, letting us take some of his grimmer insights with a smile: “Still if you find such pining thick, / you’re right. And love’s a dirty trick.” With rhyme, Barkin is willing to jingle if that helps us acknowledge how cloying the commonplace can be, where a moon may appear “round as a baby’s naked bottom / yet yellow as a leaf in autumn” (in a poem about the girls that got away), or where a poetic teen, getting dropped by a girl, can long to “see the late light glaze / the rock-face of her gaze.”

I tend to like the unrhymed poems better, though there is sometimes an air of Housman in some of the rhymes, with occasionally a deliberate cadence of Yeats. Then there are times when rhyme sets up a pattern that pays off with off-rhyme in apposition:

Now it’s a ski-loud lake,
words crumble like stale cake.
To a mind that’s walked the plank
itself is what it’s like.
And the sky above it blank,
and beneath that sky, your bank.

While “the plank” may primarily be there for the rhyme — though there may be a plank over the lake — the key line “itself is what it’s like” lands with more force for sticking out — like a plank — from the fluid supports of the rhyme. The natural scene suggests the rhymes, but the mind detached even from its own versifying effort to, as in the previous verse, say what something is “like,” maintains an unrhymed diffidence.

Indeed, Barkin’s verse has a tendency to let diffidence keep the upper hand, sometimes to good effect, as for instance in what seems, with its easy rhymes, a little parody of what might be a Frostian scene that ends: “I’ll sit here till I hear the front door close. / A man must fight the devil that he knows.” We watch a scene play out and let the final line take us beyond the everyday situation — a wife yelling at a husband who is burning up his motor trying to get out of the snow — to Barkin’s greater purpose. Here one finds a suitable proverb in the moment, but sometimes, more tellingly, we might see the poet finding out what lurks in his own heart.

There are such glimpses, but the lyric for Barkin seems less an occasion for self-exploration than for keeping the self at bay. A teacher, Barkin, in “Schooled,” when asked “did you always want to teach?” says “I never did. I’m not sure why I’m here. / When you start out, you do things on a dare— / to test your strength, and then to pay the rent / as you guys go to school because you’re sent.” The poem’s conclusion — which takes us back to the text being studied (Wordsworth) — gestures toward the poetic imagination, in which earth and moon “praise the sun while trading doubtful looks,” but lets the “doubtful look” control the entire enterprise: both the speaker as a teacher and as a poet. Too much paying the rent? Too much going where one is sent?

The consolations of age are that one is no longer doing things on a dare or to test one’s strength; one can look back on the ones that got away and take stock: “You knew / way back when you held love at bay / you’d flourish in your own way / like wildflowers in their dark array.” It’s a nice thought — that “dark array” for a poet fond of keeping in mind “that dark lake” to which we tend — but the poem’s rhyme scheme, with its terza rima, skims across the important central verse of five, with verbs as rhymes: “show, know, go.” The “love at bay” looked back on, in other words, scarce causes a pause for thought, in the poem; all effort is to make the lesson of wildflowers the departed lover left become manifest — “the darkest gold, the deepest blue.” Do we trust the terms, the image, the lesson? Form and rhyme, after all, can be a manner, a way to dodge all those notions of life that don’t opt to be apt.

Don Barkin

Don Barkin

 

Don Barkin reads today from his verse at Mitchell Library in Westville, New Haven, 3 p.m.

Houses, New and Selected Poems
By Don Barkin
Antrim House, 2017; 88 pages

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

Caryl Churchill’s wildly irreverent and comic play Cloud 9 addresses sexual politics, and how mores change with the times. It also shows how the past—here, the British past, specifically—is always being re-imagined. Act One’s lively burlesque of Victorian erotic relations in the 1870s is paralleled with a rather more naturalistic rendering set in 1979 in Act Two. The play dates from 1979, so Act Two, originally, was very contemporary indeed. The main difficulty now is that we’ve almost gotten to the point at which “the 1970s” may inspire a burlesque spirit similar to what Churchill makes of the 1870s. If played more for laughs—such as its invocation of a New Agey “goddess”—Act Two might have more bite. In any case, its effort to imagine a sort of social utopia of sexual relations and child-rearing may strike some as quaint, others as progressive—even now. Or especially now?

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Which is a way of saying that the past’s social progress can still present a challenge in times of virulent conservatism. In any case, Cloud 9 remains a challenging and amorphous play that provides equal parts entertainment and food for thought. Launched initially as Margaret Thatcher came to power, Cloud 9 may make us oddly nostalgic for the hopes of earlier eras.

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Casting is key to the success of the production at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, in her directorial debut. Because the cast of seven actors must play the 15 characters of both acts—in some cases cross-gender and contrary to age—and because who doubles as whom is established by Churchill, the overall effect depends upon actors who can manage the considerable disparity in roles. Here, Mark H. Dold enacts the most striking transformation, setting the tone for both acts. In Act One, he plays the repressive patriarch Clive, looking and sounding very Victorian indeed, then plays a preening little girl, Cathy, in Act Two; in both cases, Dold’s character lords it over the others. That shift is the most telling in this play of shifting orientations, and Dold carries it off splendidly.

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act One takes us to a colonial outpost in South Africa where Clive resides with his family: demure wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), adolescent son Edward (Mia Dillon), who has a penchant for playing with dolls, baby Vickie (who is a doll), and mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas); there’s also a manservant Joshua (William John Austin), who has renounced his people through his attachment to Clive; a maid, Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is very affectionate toward Betty; Mrs. Saunders (Lemp again), a very independent widow; and a very manly explorer, Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams). The amusement is in seeing how a surface “normality” is constantly undermined by the kinds of subversive urges that, time was, would’ve been the subject of considerable repression. Comic moments, such as Ellen’s attempt to seduce Betty, and Harry misreading signals from Clive, are set against bits that are almost poignant, such as Joshua’s song at Christmas, a plaintive love note to his oppressors. Mia Dillon, a veteran actress, is quite remarkable as little Edward, and Tom Pecinka languishes quite ladylike as doleful Betty.

In Act Two, Cathy’s winsome childishness is the best feature, as the play’s treatment of the problem of parenting, as an ongoing chore without nursemaids to take up the slack, hits a contemporary note. Cathy’s mother is Lin (Sarah Lemp), a lesbian with eyes for Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), the doll grown up, we’re to imagine, who has a son we never see and whom she is attempting to raise with help from her novelist husband, Martin (Chandler Williams). Martin is a nice send-up of the "enlightened" male of the period, no less overbearing than Clive, but in a more sensitive way, trying to be supportive and to share parenting duties and the like. His hair and clothes recall aspects of the 1970s most of us would rather forget. Gunyou Halaas, in contrast, wears her retro threads quite well and portrays Victoria as a woman on the verge of change.

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Such is also the case with Betty (Mia Dillon, now playing her own age), who has a deliberate look of Thatcher about her, but is much more liberal. She takes us into her confidence about achieving orgasm manually, fully in the spirit of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Meanwhile, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is a gardener in the local park—where all bring their children to tire themselves out—who is trying to be a “wife” to Gerry (William John Austin), a rather feckless young man who prefers to enjoy a liberated gay lifestyle.

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The aspect of Act Two that never completely jells is the effort to find some common ground for all these inter-relations. Certain moments, such as the song the entire cast sings, seem almost a parody of togetherness, though Williamson is unwilling to satirize progressiveness the way Act One easily satirizes patriarchy. And yet there’s no escaping the fact that seeing same-sex couples as boring—as couples—as hetero couples often are, while it may help support what must once have been a striking notion—that couples are much the same, regardless of what sort of pairing constitutes them—doesn’t make for intriguing theater. It doesn’t help that in Act Two only Dold is still playing against type. The other actors are in roles they might be cast for in conventional casting. Perhaps it’s time to shake-up casting a bit further.

The reappearance of certain figures from Act One in the play’s conclusion makes for a surprisingly fond return. Without being sentimental in effect, the final note arrives as a kind of détente with previous generations: while no doubt at a loss about how the world would change, they may at least be allowed the dignity of their historical situation. It helps, of course, that Dold’s Clive and Pecinka’s Betty are so charismatic they seem almost archetypal. Or is that just a way of saying that some things never change?

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design & Original Composition: Andre Pluess; Wig & Hair Design: Cookie Jordan; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli; Assistant Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg; Casting: Jack Bowden, CSA, Binder Casting

Cast: William John Austin; Mark H. Dold; Mia Dillon; Emily Gunyou Halaas; Sarah Lemp; Tom Pecinka; Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Race

Preview of Smart People, Long Wharf Theatre

So far this season, the Long Wharf Theatre has presented a somewhat surreal couples comedy (Meteors by Steve Martin); a re-vamp of an Eighties comedy-drama that was surprisingly relevant around election time (Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner); a strong revival of a great achievement in twentieth-century drama (Samuel Beckett’s Endgame); a brand-new play with a fresh voice about Italian immigrants (Napoli, Brooklyn by Meghan Kennedy), and now, next up, a newish play that takes us back to a moment in the recent past that’s seeming more “historic” every day: Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond is set uring the campaign and election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in 2008. The play purports to follow up recent Long Wharf successes in presenting abrasive plays that feature people in polite situations having to handle ugly truths.

Ka-Ling Cheung, who plays Ginny Yang in the play, saw the production at Second Stage a year ago in New York, and found it “a sexy play about race” that caused her and the friend she saw it with to talk about it afterwards. It’s a play that “asks important questions” about the puzzle of race relations and the problem of status, and she found she had some questions herself after seeing it. In working on the play with her fellow cast members and director Desdemona Chiang, some of those questions are being answered, and some “will be left to the audience.”

Cheung, who has been working mostly in “classical stuff” since her MFA days at the American Conservatory Theater, welcomes a change to “the fun of contemporary language” with a small cast of four who are all playing characters around the same age. All four characters work in Boston with some connection to Harvard, a setting that one imagines will transfer easily to New Haven and that other big Ivy in our midst. The play focuses on highly educated professionals who, we might imagine, are less tainted with racist ideas than people more regionally based and less educated. But that comfortable assumption is precisely what Diamond’s play wants to question, with humor and with added romance elements.

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

Ginny is “an Asian-American professor who has worked hard to be tenured.” She is a psychologist who mainly does research and a little teaching. Cheung sees her as somewhat “hard and brittle” because, as a woman of color, she’s had to prove herself where a white man would get the benefit of the doubt. Though this is academia, Ginny’s situation extends to almost any profession where women are denied the same status and compensation that men receive. Ginny adds comedy to the plot—deliberately acting-out a stereotype at one point—and Cheung likes the challenge of comedy, which is “harder” than serious roles. She’s also intrigued by the way the ensemble cast will also “play crew” during the set changes, which, she says, creates a level of participation by all that adds to the closeness of the characters’ interactions.

“All the characters are provocative and have strong opinions about racism,” and the play handles the “hot topic” as an aspect of both the personal and professional aspect of the characters. When she first saw Smart People, Cheung was excited, as a young Asian-American woman, that the play “had a part for me”; now, she’s excited by how timely the play seems and by the fact that it should give audiences, as it did for Cheung and her friend, “a lot to talk about.”

Smart People opens this Wednesday, March 15, in previews, at Long Wharf Theatre; the official opening is next week, Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.

 

Smart People
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

It's Complicated

Review of Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Yale Cabaret

In Jeremy O. Harris’ Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, directed by Jesse Rasmussen at Yale Cabaret, Xander (Kevin Hourigan) is an online celebrity, more particularly, he’s a porn star. People sign onto his website and get to watch videos of Xander’s sexual trysts. In this play we simply accept that such access and self-exploitation is something that would earn one a following—and I guess it would. A further question seems implied: what kind of person will shape his life to be known by random access through an online window? That question could probe into much of what passes for life—as virtual life—in our day. But Harris pretty much sticks with Xander’s dilemma: to be a sex hero online or just a dude on a date. Which would you rather be?

Xander (Kevin Hourigan), Michael (Josh Goulding)

Xander (Kevin Hourigan), Michael (Josh Goulding)

The date is what’s taking place as we watch, and it’s awkward and arch the way depictions of people on dates tend to be, with the fun in the mix provided by Josh Goulding’s breezy seducer, Michael. Xander, in his videos, is hetero, and he remarks to Michael that in his imagination the date would be “more gay.” We might wonder what’s driving Xander to explore. It might just be something to do, or it might have something to do with his relation to his younger brother, Matt (Abubakr Ali).

Lena (Sydney Lemmon), Matt (Abubakr Ali)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon), Matt (Abubakr Ali)

Matt, a singer/musician/composer, is also on a date, sort of. Ostensibly, he’s trying to find a female singer to collaborate with, and Lena (Sydney Lemmon), in hot pants, form-fitting T, and one helluva wig, shows up to try out. But Matt is the kind of guy who seems rather “closeted” about the fact that he’d like to get laid, and his interactions with Lena have an awkwardness that seems endemic to these brothers. Lena, learning that Matt’s brother is a digital stud, is agog with interest, leading to jumps back and forth between the brothers’ simultaneous encounters, and to very busy projections—including porn footage—of Xander’s website. A live chorus, the Internetz (Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell, Ivan Kirwan-Taylor), tends to praise Xander in the hyperbolic terms of his own imagination, or of his most fervid fans, or both.

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

The “dragon” imagery comes from something the boys shared, a fantasy in which, perhaps, sexual molestation is figured, or maybe it’s just the kind of quest fantasy that occupies the imagination of many at that age. There’s also an overlay of Greek god imagery, to suggest, I suppose, that we’ve always been keen on virtual beings.

 In any case, the brothers have some confronting to do, particularly after Matt stops just short of raping Lena and Xander may have done something much worse to his date—worse even than dismissing him with the ringing line: “Your insignificance has been made manifest.” That may be the put-down of all put-downs when “being known” and being glorified for being known is the height of narcissistic self-enjoyment.

Matt (Abubakr Ali), the Internetz (Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell), Xander (Kevin Hourigan)

Matt (Abubakr Ali), the Internetz (Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell), Xander (Kevin Hourigan)

Both brothers, together with Lena, are good singers, so that helps keep us interested in their self-projections. As performers they tend to be of the self-involved type that doesn’t exactly reach out to the audience. And maybe that’s the kick of the one-way camera of online performing: you know the audience is out there, but you never have to see them. They’re just in your head and you, the performer, are in their personal space—or at least on their personal device. It’s personal, yes, but decidedly detached.

The flesh-and-blood performance elements of the show are carried best by Lemmon’s Lena, who emerges as a supporting character able to redirect the drama away from the principals. “What’s her story?,” we might find ourselves asking, or “I wonder what she’s up to now,” while Xander and Matt pursue their efforts to gaze into one another’s navels. It may be that the main drama is too static in its presentation, or too detached in its characterization, but it brought to mind lines by Leonard Cohen, from “Death of a Lady’s Man”: “So the great affair is over / And whoever would’ve guessed / It would leave us all so vacant / And so deeply unimpressed.”

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

The projections and the music add considerable elements to the show as an event, making us privy to worlds and possibly feelings that are of our cultural moment. Though deliberate, the staging of the date between Xander and Michael leaves a bit to be desired as it’s rather like trying to watch what’s happening at a table on the far side of the Cab space—unless you happen to be sitting right next to that table—which, I suppose, makes us all eavesdropping voyeurs. How you feel in that space may have a lot to do with how you feel about Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1.

 

Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1
By Jeremy O. Harris
Directed Jesse Rasmussen

Original Music: Isabella Summers, Jeremy O. Harris, Steven Cablayan; Production Dramaturg: Amauta Marston-Firmino; Set Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designer & Additional Music Production: Michael Costagliola; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: LT Gourzong; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Producer: Adam J. Frank

Cast: Abubakr Ali; Josh Goulding; Kevin Hourigan; Amandla Jahava; Ivan Kirwan-Taylor; Sydney Lemmon; Jakeem Powell

Yale Cabaret
March 2-4, 2017

Twinkle, Twinkle

Review of I’ll Eat You Last, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Sue Mengers, the subject of John Logan’s entertaining and saucy monologue I’ll Eat You Last, A Chat with Sue Mengers, was a groundbreaking Hollywood agent, often called the first “super agent.” She made her mark, a pioneering woman in a man’s world, under what was called at the time “the New Hollywood,” to differentiate the hip up-and-comers of the 1960s and 1970s from the old guard that had been sustained by the studio system. Most of the big stars that Mengers helped make household names—often with Oscars garnered—are already facing something less than instant recognition with contemporary audiences. And therein lies the ever-encroaching subtext of this vibrant but oddly vulnerable play.

Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen, once a hot couple, have long since gone the way of all flesh, as even Brad and Angelina will one day spark the quizzical look that “Jack and Anjelica” most likely earns today from anyone under thirty. Celebrity is not a constant and those who rule the tabloids for a time will one day be eclipsed in the popular imagination. Mengers knew well how to play the game that the Pink Floyd song “Have a Cigar” called “riding the gravy train.” The question nibbling at the edges of Mengers’ reminiscences in this breezy one woman play concerns what happens when the gravy’s gone.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Mengers, given larger-than-life presence by Jodi Stevens, directed by Kevin Connors at Music Theatre of Connecticut, reclines on a couch in her swanky Beverly Hills home, regaling us with tales of how she came to lead the life she always dreamed of. A Jewish family from Germany, fleeing Nazism and speaking little English, the Mengers settled in Utica, NY, but, after the suicide of the traveling salesman father, they headed to the Big Apple, or rather Brooklyn, birthplace of one of Mengers first clients, the ever-twinkling star Barbra Streisand (this was, as Mengers lets us know, so early Streisand was still “Barbara”). Mengers, we suspect, has the goods on many a lifestyle of the rich and famous, but what she wants to impart are the tricks of the trade, as in: how to become a great agent and make careers.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

That might entail camping outside the home of film director William—or “Billy”—Friedkin, to wheedle a consideration of her client Gene Hackman for the part—Popeye Doyle in The French Connection—that would earn Oscars for both director and lead and make Hackman a star, despite his lack of leading man qualities. Events like that add credence to Mengers’ canny sense of what works—all the other actors being considered would’ve made for a much weaker film—but it’s not all success stories in Mengers’ dossier. The way Ali McGraw threw over a film career to be a wife and mother, married to brutish and misogynistic McQueen still burns up Mengers, even though McGraw might well have sussed that she wasn’t much of an actress and landing a real leading man might be better than making movies with his peers. Still, this is the world according to Mengers—who rather exults in not knowing or caring about political causes or places other than Hollywood. Any movie person who wants to talk about something other than the movie business and its “twinklies”—stars and only stars—won’t be getting an invite to her stellar soirées.

The set-up of the play is that Mengers is entertaining us—the hoi polloi—before entertaining her A-list guests later in the evening. In flowing, glittering loungewear that recalls the muu muu, Mengers lazes about, drawing languidly on a joint and cigarette in either hand—she even compares herself to the famed hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (the one that asked, rather peremptorily, “who are you?”). The point of her career is getting her clients “to the watering-hole,” and, when possible, poaching other clients from other agents, and she’s at her best when enacting the moxie she employs to those ends, as when Sissy Spacek calls and Mengers dispenses off-the-cuff advice, even though Sissy is not a client, or when she re-enacts for us the gamesmanship by which she got Faye Dunaway a career-making role in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown over, allegedly, Jane Fonda. As with most gossip—and Mengers is very convincing about gossip as the lubricant of choice in Hollywood—it’s impossible to know if what she says is true or not. What she thrives on is the entertaining anecdote.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Jodi Stevens is so compellingly charming and so natural a hostess that we, the audience, might well feel we’re in a tête à tête with her, or on a date, or on an audition. Stevens keeps the tone bouncing through a range of crowd-pleasing intimacies, but there are deliberate drops that give us insight into how someone like Mengers plays the game with herself in private, keeping score of her triumphs, her gaffs, and trying to work out the “secret” to her—or any rival’s—success. Behind the façade—and Stevens lets us glimpse its cracks—there’s the harrowing drive to know what others are saying and thinking and to try to control it. This is a world where friends are contacts and social occasions are work, where business and pleasure mix because, for Mengers it seems, business is the only pleasure (other than something to smoke or drink). Even sex seems to be valued primarily as an accomplishment rated by whom you did it with. Marriage—and Mengers has an off-stage husband who writes and directs and produces—comes across as the behind-the-scenes that Mengers won’t let us see.

Like the “smoke and mirrors” of show-biz, Logan’s play is a protracted tease. Will Mengers receive the call she’s awaiting, from Streisand? What will we learn about them if we see Mengers huddled up with her favorite famous alter-ego? We’ll never know, as I’ll Eat You Last saves that tasty morsel for the end, off-stage. Whatever happens, we’re on Sue’s side, and that in itself is a victory.

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

 

I’ll Eat You Last. A Chat with Sue Mengers
A play by John Logan
Starring Jodi Stevens
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Managing: Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
February 24-March 5, 2017

Me & the Chimp

Review of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

Nick Jones’ Trevor, playing tonight for one more show at New Haven Theater Company, directed by Drew Gray, is a rollicking comedy that gets progressively darker. It’s not a bait and switch so much as it’s an absurdist situation that gets real, with potentially unpleasant consequences.

Sandy (Sandra Rodriguez) lives in an apartment that looks as if she shares it with a hyperactive child, filled with toys and activities and stuff not picked up. But her “child” is actually a chimpanzee named Trevor (Peter Chenot) who is getting perilously close to full grown. Like any protective and attached mother, Sandy wants to minimize any problems with her growing “boy.” But as the play opens he has just driven her car to a Dunkin Donuts and back, depositing the auto on the lawn of neighbor Ashley (Melissa Smith). All of which is handled comically as Jones—by giving us access to Trevor’s inner thoughts—keeps us entertained with the monkey business of how a reasonably intelligent chimp might interpret the intentions of humans upset with him. Trevor’s a walking comic aside on everything going on around him, so that the stress we see in Sandy and Melissa, also a mom, becomes a kind of satire of clashing versions of parenting. Water off the duck’s back of Trevor’s self-obsessed charm.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

The comedy is further given a sizeable shot in the arm by the fact that Trevor isn’t just any chimp. In his glory days he was on TV with no less a star than Morgan Fairchild (played in Trevor’s memories and daydreams by Susan Kulp) and he’s convinced that Hollywood will come calling any minute. He also experiences fantasy interactions with Oliver (Trevor Williams), a success story of a chimp who gets to wear a white tux and claims to have a human wife and half-human kids. The interactions between Oliver and Trevor about the monkeyshines of show biz let Trevor take aim at more than domestic dysfunction. The heartache of out-growing home-life is set beside the heartbreak of any minor talent trying to become “somebody.” All this is handled with a light touch by director Gray and company, and in a wonderful manic-slacker manner by Chenot.

How real living with Trevor will become is a question that starts to rear its head when a visit by a police officer (Erich Greene) to Sandy’s home, provoked by Melissa among others, opens up the question of whether Trevor has become a public safety issue (clearly he has, but Trevor is a kind of “local color” celebrity who has been given plenty of leeway, until now). This intervention leads to a visit by Jerry (Chaz Carmon), from an animal protection agency, to evaluate the situation. Carmon gets a lot of mileage out of looking both agreeable and frightened out of his wits at the same time, while Rodriguez begins to let us see the desperation at the heart of Sandy’s plea to be left in peace with her child-pet. The end result is not likely to be what anyone really wants, and that’s real life alright.

Along the way there’s lots of fun with Trevor’s delusions of grandeur, including a glimpse of Morgan Fairchild aping a chimp and, later, surrendering to Trevor’s charms, and with Trevor’s bag of tricks, such as rollerblading and playing toy guitar. Pathos comes from the well-meaning monkey’s efforts to control a situation he doesn’t understand. The scenes without Trevor tend to be a bit flat, lacking the comic intrusion of his point of view, as if Jones couldn’t be bothered to make them either believable or funny, though a breezier overall comic tone might help to sell them. When Trevor is present, the comedy of human behavior, from a chimp’s perspective, keeps the ball bouncing.

In the end, the play, while a fun time in its portrayal of a chimp a lot like us, provokes with the question of whether being humane—and what that means—defines being human. Otherwise, we’re all just a bunch of dumb animals.

 

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, Sandra Rodriguez, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

Board Ops: George Kulp, J. Kevin Smith

New Haven Theater Company
February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017