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

Down on the Farm

Review of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Playhouse on Park

Eugene O’Neill’s late play, A Moon for the Misbegotten features comedy, poetry, strong characters able to speak their minds as well as dissemble, and O’Neill’s characteristic effort to plumb the psychology of the defeated and despairing, or “misbegotten.” The play presents a wonderfully complex use of plots and feints and bluffs, of long-standing grievance and hard grief, of friendship and filial affection, and, through it all, an unerring sense of its characters’ truths. And, of course, booze.

While not a comedy, the play ends on an upbeat, with a resonant sense of forgiveness. The path to that moment is tangled and, at times, dark, but the Playhouse on Park production, directed by Joseph Discher, keeps us in the light, whether of the full moon two would-be lovers—Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) and James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble)—gaze into, or the rising dawn of a new day at the play’s close.

Set in Connecticut in 1923, the play offers Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), a down-at-heels farmer, a mini-tyrant whose sons leave him and the unforgiving tenant farm he works. Mike (Michael Hinton), the youngest of the three, is stealing away as the play opens, abetted by his bossy sister Josie. Mike has hopes of the priesthood and tries to reform Josie from her wayward ways. Their exchange establishes Josie as the woman in possession, the only member of the family able to handle their demanding father and so she remains behind. It also establishes her as a woman with no patience for the Church nor for virtuous modesty.

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogen and his daughter Josie make a lively pair. As played by Conan McCarty, Phil is a likeable lover of blarney, always ready to bemoan his lot or badger an enemy—which includes his, in his view, no-account sons. He spars with Josie constantly, but there’s no mistaking his admiration for her strong will and no-nonsense grasp of situations. Elise Hudson’s Josie, while not nearly as roughly favored as the part calls for, is tall and imposing and thoroughly believable as a daughter who could give her aging father a thrashing as well as a tongue-lashing. Her well-sustained brogue makes music of her every utterance.

The rough spot in the show is Anthony Marble’s James Tyrone, Jr. Certainly possessed of the kind of looks that make us believe Tyrone works on the stage, Marble captures Tyrone's hammy self-importance, but doesn’t quite conjure the haunted regions of Tyrone’s heart. His best part is the lengthy confession to Josie, in a Pietà-like configuration in Act Three, that makes us take the measure of his disgust with himself and his need for love. Marble registers Tyrone’s charm and his alcoholism, but, in this short run, hasn't yet found the resources of bitterness the part calls for.

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

It should be said that these are Irish Catholics and a definite sense of sin and redemption is fully woven by O’Neill into his characters. Josie, in this context, has to go from Magdalen to Madonna, and Hudson manages to do so without ever losing sight of the simple country girl trying to stand by her man—which includes, finally, the failings of her father. Phil Hogan’s schemes, while meaning well, have the potential to go far awry and that’s the tension that hangs over this long day’s journey from a September noon to the following dawn.

Emily Nichols’ scenic design provides a realized space for the action, with a porch that commands a dirty yard, complete with serviceable large boulder, and a makeshift bedroom for Josie on the side of the house. Lighting by Christopher Bell makes for a very bright moon during the nighttime hours, but with nice soft undertones that eventually give way to tentative dawn. Joel Abbott’s sound design adds touches of birdsong to the morning after and, since the real star of an O’Neill play is the language, ensures that voices, even at their most conversational, are clear. Joseph Discher’s direction uses the space well with movement and physicality, such as Josie and Phil’s manhandling of T. Stedman Harder (Thomas Royce Daniels), a smug rival for the land.

A Moon for the Misbegotten is alive with a family dynamic that makes the Hogans seem heroic in their staunch appeal, in the end, to their own better natures. The play’s fatalism, in avoiding a happier ending, keeps within the dimension of reality, as opposed to romance. And yet O’Neill is a major figure in the view that the stage is where the heart unburdens itself for the sake of fellow feeling, even if that ultimately changes nothing.

 

A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Collette Benoit; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Properties: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Thomas Royce Daniels, Michael Hinton, Elise Hudson, Anthony Marble, Conan McCarty

 

Playhouse on Park
February 15-March 5, 2017

Nice Life

Review of The Quonsets, Yale Cabaret

Often called “the heartland,” and also said to consist of “fly-over states,” the Midwest of the U.S. has been “red”—or Republican—in presidential elections since 1968. But what is life like there? In The Quonsets, comprised of two joined plays, first-year Yale School of Drama playwrights Majkin Holmquist and Alex Lubischer take us to their home states of Kansas and Nebraska, respectively. The title comes from the setting: temporary structures, used as sheds and shelters, in the farming communities of the Midwest. Inside the Quonsets, two one-acts take place as dramas among three different persons, with the fourth character in each provided by the same Custom Cutter (Rachel Kenney), a nomadic worker who provides special services to farms.

The Custom Cutter (Rachel Kenney)

The Custom Cutter (Rachel Kenney)

The Custom Cutter introduces the action and provides comments between the acts. Her story is she had a partner who was an artist, and lived for a time in Chicago, but chose to go back to her birthplace. She lays out the basic situation: she wants to farm but has no birthright claim to land. So she becomes a migrant worker, taking jobs where they can be found, as a kind of freelance farmhand. Kenney’s accent and manner take us into the CC’s world, and her playful designation of natural occurrences—cows in a field, for instance—as “installations” lets us know she has a certain irony toward both worlds: the plain folks of the farms and the sophisticates of the city.

In the first play, in Kansas, two hard-working siblings, Cassidy (Stella Baker) and Clay (Gian-Paul Bergeron) take a break from a 27-day stint of fieldwork due to rain. Sheltering in a Quonset, where the CC is trying to get some shuteye, the two banter about a visitor Cassidy is expecting. A rising sophomore at KU, she’s expecting a fellow student—“he’s not my boyfriend!”—to come calling. When Sylvester (Ben Anderson) does arrive, he’s clad in threads just a notch below a rhinestone cowboy. This, along with his name and his general condescending cluelessness about farm-life, immediately earns Clay’s mockery. Most of the play is simply the one-upmanship between Clay and Sylvester—or “Sly,” as the CC immediately dubs him—while Cassidy is placed in the unhappy position of trying to placate both.

Cassidy (Stella Baker), Sylvester (Ben Anderson)

Cassidy (Stella Baker), Sylvester (Ben Anderson)

The main point of the play seems to be making the “fish out of water” position apply to someone who considers himself more educated and sophisticated then his grudging host, Clay, who bristles at Sylvester’s ingratiating manner. What Cassidy experiences—in a nicely subtle performance by Baker—is the disjunction between life in college and life down on the farm. How she will resolve the two isn’t clear but only the CC—a much older character—takes pity on hapless Sylvester.

In the second play, Baker transforms herself into Barb, a mom and wife concerned that the business her husband, Dale (Bergeron), is running with his business partner/brother, John (Anderson), has been putting unfair financial burdens on the couple. A recent drought and its effect on the crop and their earnings has put them in a vulnerable position, which John solved by selling their combine. Which means hiring the CC, who is present again, waiting to get paid while the brothers and Barb try to sort things out.

Dale (Gian-Paul Bergeron), John (Ben Anderson)

Dale (Gian-Paul Bergeron), John (Ben Anderson)

The undercurrents in the family dynamic, as they slowly surface, are handled well, particularly when we learn of Barb’s fears about a recent violent act of her son. The tensions, mostly resolved by a heart-to-heart, show the strain of business on family, underscored by the difficult arrangements of living year to year.

Director Aneesha Kudtarkar keeps the pace steady in these conversational plays where interactions can veer from casual to tense in a heartbeat. The actors manifest, in the first play, the awkwardness of the outsider trying to break the ice not very successfully, and, in the second, the awkwardness of a family dynamic where Dale has to negotiate a certain gray area between the expectations of business partner and life partner. It’s a tough row to hoe.

As a peek into a rural world and farming as a difficult way of life, The Quonsets sticks to the basics of real lives. The Custom Cutter’s monologue in which she sees Barb as reminiscent of a figure in a painting at Chicago’s Art Institute hints at the poetry of the everyday, even as Barb’s musing reflection on her place in the humdrum scheme of things yearns for access to something else. Morals may hang in the air, but, in these parts, they are neither grim nor comforting. That’s just the way it is.

 

The Quonsets
By Majkin Holmquist, Alex Lubischer
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Production dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Set Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan: Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Associate Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Alex Cadena; Producer: Armando Huipe

Cast: Ben Anderson, Stella Baker, Gian-Paul Bergeron, Rachel Kenney

 

Yale Cabaret
February 23-25, 2017

More Than Monkey Business

Preview of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

With their next offering, New Haven Theater Company switches gears yet again. Trevor, their winter play, is a “dark farce” by Nick Jones, best-known at the moment as a writer for Orange is the New Black. Drew Gray, who directs the play, which opens for three shows this weekend and plays for three more the following weekend, knew of Jones’ work when the playwright was an upperclassman at Bard. Gray saw the play in its New York debut and “adored it.” The script has been one that the NHTC has been considering for a few years. The main selling-point, Gray said, is that the play offers the kind of situation that is “key to what works” for NHTC: “a resonant center” and a play “with a lot of heart.” In this case, it’s also an opportunity for Gray to work again with NHTC member Peter Chenot, who plays the main character, Trevor, and is on stage the entire time. The last time the two worked together this closely was for Gray’s own play The Magician, at NHTC in 2014.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor, it should be said at the outset, is a pet chimpanzee. He’s the main focus of a play that takes us into his psyche and relies upon the steady miscommunications between humans and their pets for its “broad comedic stuff,” but also for themes a bit more profound. For Gray the always relevant question of “empathy for the other” suffuses the play. We see how Trevor is both a surrogate child to his owner, Sandra, and, in many ways, a teen who is trying to assert his impending adulthood. The inciting incident, Gray said, is that Trevor has driven Sandra’s car to a local Dunkin Donuts and then crashes it, drawing neighborhood complaints. If that doesn’t sound like a situation a parent might have with a boisterous teen, I don’t know what does.

But Jones has more on his mind than creating an offbeat analog for the dysfunction between parents and growing children. Trevor, you see, once had a life in the limelight. He was featured, in what Gray described as “his glory days,” in commercials with none less than Morgan Fairchild, a TV glamor star of the Eighties. Trevor, in what Gray called “the hopes and dreams of a chimp,” waits for show-biz to “come knocking” again, to relief him of his drab suburban existence.

Set in the domestic space Trevor and Sandra share, the play makes us privy to the internal monologue of a pet animal—an animal that is closest to human of any species. In fact, as Gray stressed, the “closer Trevor gets to being human, the bigger the void or chasm” between man and animal becomes. Like a baby everyone loves in its innocence, Trevor’s role as an indulged local tourist attraction is “starting to become untenable” as the play opens and, Gray believes, the audience will find itself “rooting for the chimp,” hoping he can reconcile with reality.

And that, Gray pointed out, is another theme of Trevor that he finds relevant: Trevor lives in his own world, in a situation that will seem absurd to many of us, but the play’s ability to normalize that situation shows us how “objective reality must be accepted.” And that aspect touches on the incident—known to most Connecticut residents—in which a woman’s pet chimpanzee, Trevis, attacked her best friend. That horrific incident, Gray said, was “the seed idea” for the situation of Jones’ play, but the attack itself plays no part in Trevor’s story. If one would like to place the play in that context, one would likely see Trevor as an effort to understand the simian protagonist of the situation.

That said, it’s easy to see that Trevor looks at how animals in some way reflect our feelings back at us—man’s best friend, and all that—and how they also are unknowable in ways we often don’t reflect upon in our zeal to dress them in human clothes and give them human names, and so on. But it’s also the case that, as with human children, people often misuse—and outright abuse—pets, constructing them as providers of companionship and amusement and protection and thrills of competition and filling a variety of roles, including in show business, that no animal ever chose or agreed to in writing. That special “unspoken” relationship we have with our animal alter-egos is explored by Jones in giving Trevor his own inner voice.

Gray, who previously has directed only his own plays with NHTC, has found working on Jones play to be an appealing experience. He is always “so versed” in his own plays and so certain of his characters’ motivations, whereas, with Trevor, it’s “been fun to find where an idea will pull through,” discovering with his actors how to make sense of Trevor’s world. “Is this world normal? What is under its broad ‘top’?” Gray likened the play’s initial tone as “a little like a sitcom” but one that’s willing to walk a bit in Ionesco’s shoes, making us see surprising connections and relevance in what seems a farcical situation.

In other words, the world of Trevor is not just monkey business.

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

New Haven Theater Company
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street

Le Refus Absurde

Review of Débâcles, Yale Cabaret

Third-year Yale School of Drama director Elizabeth Dinkova has a penchant for wildly dark comedy and she may have found her most suitable match yet directing Marion Aubert’s Débâcles, now in its first-ever English language staging, as translated by Erik Butler and Kimberly Jannarone, at Yale Cabaret. The play sends up the French Resistance with the kind of no-holds-barred approach to comedy that might recall Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick’s caustic satire of prospective world annihilation, Dr. Strangelove. And since Aubert writes in French, the play’s corrosive sense of humanity’s horrendous ability to live with the most appalling circumstances might well recall amusing misanthropes like Céline. It is humor not for the easily offended, and, since it takes to task the situation of occupied France in which, Aubert’s note tells us, only 2% of the population openly resisted the Nazis, it’s a timely enough tale of how folks will get along with anything, so long as there’s food and sex available. Trading one for the other is fairly standard wartime procedure and Aubert is relentless in depicting how dysfunctional all aspects of the world become during wartime.

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

The play aims to affront and to entertain. It’s a neat trick when it does both at the same time. Begin with its hapless hero, Simon (Arturo Soria), a precocious teen who lends considerable credence to the view that only the French truly appreciate Jerry Lewis. Soria hits many of the notes of forthright naïveté that fueled many a Lewis comedic man-child, and almost everything he says is in excruciating—and thus ridiculous (or vice versa)—bad taste. Unlike Lewis’s characters though, Simon is not mawkish but rather a walking attack of hormonal urges. He lusts after everyone. In this he’s not alone, as we also have a matronly woman, Madame Lisa (Rory Pelsue), who is pretty much up for anything, a father, Paul (Matthew Conway), who has had sex with his daughter Camille (Anna Crivelli), and a casually rapacious Nazi SS officer Martynas (Josh Goulding) who rapes a waif Itto (Amandla Jahava) and pursues all he can get from Remy (Jakeem Powell), the father of Camille’s baby. Their homoerotic dalliance is a set-piece designed to signal the loathings and lusts that seem to fire the popular imagination's view of fascism.

Indeed, male sexuality, as more or less a constant state of rut, is figured somewhat talismanically by a photo of Remy’s “crown jewels,” and by an elusive figure called Handsome Blond (Jeremy O. Harris), a British airman who seems to be the ne plus ultra of desirability. Meanwhile, Simon, who, despite his teenage tendency to hyperventilate about everything that passes through his bedeviled brain, may have a heart, is harboring two Jews—or, as the play likes to stress, Jewesses—in his closet: the adventurous and probably romantically smitten Clara (Catherine Rodriguez) and her great-aunt Marie-Ange (Caitlin Crombleholme), who has had her tongue cut out by Nazis. There’s also Martin (Michael Costagliola), brother of Camille, who wants to ingratiate himself with Martynas, and Aurélie (Emily Reeder), mother of Camille and Martin, who opens the play in a state of hyper-hysteria that does much to set the tone. Later she sacrifices her hair for no very clear reason.

Marie-Ange (Caitlin Crumbleholme), Clara (Catherine Rodriguez) (photo: Elli Green)

Marie-Ange (Caitlin Crumbleholme), Clara (Catherine Rodriguez) (photo: Elli Green)

Annie Dauber’s set makes use of five different playing spaces: Paul and Aurélie’s livingroom; Simon’s bedroom and closet; Madame Lisa’s kitchen; the meeting place of Remy and Martynas; and a raised stage area that is most often used as the banks of a river. There’s much turning this way and that to follow the action and also lively use of the Cab's open space, with much running about and, at one point, Simon crawling surreptitiously through the audience. Projections and subtitles flash to set up the different scenes. And don’t forget the inestimable Gavin Whitehead, dramaturg and percussionist, who adds many wonderful and important touches of apropos sound to the proceedings and who sits at the back of the playing space like a detached but responsive presence.

Madame Lisa (Rory Pelsue), Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

Madame Lisa (Rory Pelsue), Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

Highlights in performance, in addition to Arturo Soria’s overwhelming energy as Simon, are Josh Goulding’s charismatic nastiness as Martynas, Caitlin Crombleholme’s comically grotesque dumbshow as Marie-Ange, Amandla Jahava’s bouncy victim Itto, Rory Pelsue’s tense delivery of Madame Lisa’s erratic stream-of-consciousness (Pelsue notably delivers the masculine French names of characters correctly), and Jeremy O. Harris’ lampoon of a French accent.

Finally, the play’s conclusion features a powerful turn by Anna Crivelli as Camille, pushing baby Charlotte in a stroller, and moving through the ruins of the town while projections of bombs flank their path. Camille sings “The Partisan,” the song Aurélie sang to rock the baby (both Crivelli and Reeder have lovely voices), and the comic bathos of Camille’s asides join with the lyrical heroism of the song to create a telling mix of emotions that ends the play quite powerfully.

Débâcle, or what the author’s notes call “regrettable change,” is a word, in English, for an almost catastrophic failure, usually with piquant notes of good intentions gone awry. It’s the perfect word for what a wartime world puts its people through, and it becomes particularly relevant when they try to think of a future beyond the horrors of their present. We are that future, Aubert knows, mired in our own débâcles.

Débâcles
By Marion Aubert
Translated by Erik Butler, Kimberly Jannarone
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Dramaturg, percussionist: Gavin Whitehead; Set & Costume Designer: Annie Dauber; Assistant Set & Costume Designer: Matthew Malone; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Technical Director: Lydia Pustell; Associate Technical Director: Rae Powell; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena; Producer: Flo Low

Cast: Matthew Conway; Michael Costagliola; Anna Crivelli; Caitlin Crumbleholme; Josh Goulding; Jeremy O. Harris; Amandla Jahava; Rory Pelsue; Jakeem Powell; Catherine Rodriguez; Emily Reeder; Arturo Soria

Yale Cabaret
February 16-18, 2017

Satellite of Love

Review of The Satellite Series Festival, Yale Cabaret

Last weekend, the Yale Cabaret hosted the second ever Satellite Series Festival over three nights and, from what I saw on Saturday, it was a raging success with crowds at every performance. Of course, with my viewing limited to one night, I didn’t get to see all the work on show, but I did manage to see everything that was designated as theater, as well as a few other pieces.

My evening began with The Dating Game, a participatory event created and hosted by Molly FitzMaurice that featured volunteers trying to match up as in the old TV show Dating Game, where contestants are asked questions about their dates and have to know or intuit the correct answer. The hostess of the event was accompanied by a hand puppet with an obstreperous voice that added a certain tension to the proceedings. All was going well for all four couples—two same-sex, male and female, and two hetero—until some tie-breaking questions came forward, such as: how does your date like his/her eggs? The questioning was all surprisingly domestic, very TV-friendly. The final round involved the two hetero couples (the other two couples had missed answers) attempting the final New Year’s scene in When Harry Met Sally when Harry (Billy Crystal) finally wins the heart of Sally (Meg Ryan). The main trope of the game, that intimacy means knowing things about someone, keeps alive our culture’s ongoing romance with its enduring fetishes. How do you like yours?

Next, I jumped over to the Afro-American Cultural Center to catch some of the Story Slam, hosted by Flo Low and Gwyneth Muller, wherein a selection of regular folk told anecdotes from their own lives. The stories could be of any variety—amusing, unsettling, moving—and sometimes veered from one affect to another. While not strictly ‘theater,’ the program functioned like an open mic for real people telling real stories, and was a good way to learn a little something about the people who frequent the Cabaret. Monologue, we all know, can be risky business, making us wonder what first-person narrative reveals and conceals. Not quite a “slam” in the sense of a poetry slam, where there is generally a very competitive element, this story slam was dignified and its tellers well-received.

Patrick Foley (This American Wife) (photo: Elli Green)

Patrick Foley (This American Wife) (photo: Elli Green)

Back at the Cab, to finish off the reality phase of the evening, was This American Wife, with Patrick Foley and Michael Breslin enacting and commenting on and generally wallowing in the thrill that is Real Housewives. The lure of the TV show is lost on me, but Foley and Breslin played with viewer expectations, being at times catty toward the show, at other times seeming to be wanna-be clones of the show. I guess, in the end, it has to do with how much Reality TV informs your reality. Given Trump, it’s easy enough to see our present as living in a reality-TV regime. I confess I left early in favor of the reality of interacting with folks on the stairs waiting for the next event in the studio above.

Shadi Ghaheri's Butterfly's Terror (photo: Elli Green)

Shadi Ghaheri's Butterfly's Terror (photo: Elli Green)

The heart of my evening was Shadi Ghaheri’s expressive piece, Butterfly’s Terror. Using sound design by Megumi Katayama, movement, shadows, and projections by Yaara Bar, Butterfly’s Terror enacted a comment on the figuration of women and the terror of bodies forever on display. The audience was divided into men, on one side of a length of stretched paper, and women, on the other side. The actors—all women—were located on the female side so that the men saw the actors’ distorted shadows upon the paper, which were also graced with projections, mostly of panoramas of land and sky and water. The movements of the actors was a kind of contained violence that finally exploded when they tore down the paper screen and proceeded to dance with and destroy its remnants. The set-up invited thoughts of Plato’s cave, with the male audience seeing but shadows and shapes, the female audience the actual women, until the breakthrough moment dramatically revealed the segregated audiences to each other.

Edward Allen Baker’s plays are full of the kind of real lives that might recall the “angry young men” era of British drama. His North of Providence, directed by Patrick Madden (who told about his special medical relation to his own feces in the Story Slam, which is about as real as it gets), takes us into the lives of a brother and sister as their father lies dying. It’s a drama about the distance and the intimacy that plague family life. The crescendo of the one-act, well played by Bobby Guzman and Danielle Chaves, is the brother’s confession of facts his sister didn’t know that provide background to a rape she endured years before. Baker manages his effects with a naturalism that doesn’t over-dramatize the difficulty of finding words for traumatic matters. And his sense of his characters grasps the nuances of a world devoid of romanticizing, almost as if Hollywood and TV don’t exist.

Bobbie (Bobby Guzman), Carol (Danielle Chaves) in North of Providence (photo: Elli Green)

Bobbie (Bobby Guzman), Carol (Danielle Chaves) in North of Providence (photo: Elli Green)

Finally, Jenny Schmidt’s The Silent Sex is a very curious work, asking us to take women as represented types, at their word. All the women who speak in its monologues—which derive from a number of texts, mostly female monologues for the stage—make us privy to a relentless policing of the self that is mostly comical—as in Stella Baker as a concert-attendee distracted by a head full of nervous tics, or Caitlin Crumbleholme as a poise-class professional who instructs her “ladies” in how to “hold the lily and lead the lamb.” And yet there’s a tightrope walk as well as each of the speakers seems to vacillate between a strength of purpose and a wary or wry sense of how she sounds or looks, sometimes quite consciously. The pinnacle of it all, for me, was Elizabeth Stahlmann as a preening belle of the ball with her gown stuck in a door in Beatrice Herford’s “The Tale of the Train.” The mix of feigned helplessness and erstwhile assertiveness was remarkably well-played, with neither a door nor a train visible.

The Satellite Series Festival once again presented a wealth and variety of approaches to performance, including musical sets and virtual reality technology. The movement between shows in the three venues wasn’t always seamless, producing more “downtime” than one might like, but given the audience volume and the numbers of shows—12 in all—the Cab team is to be commended for bringing off this lively and adventurous event so well, and during the worst weather of the year so far. There was something for everyone and if you saw it all, you certainly got your money’s worth.

 

The Satellite Series Festival of Performance

Featuring work created by:

Yaara Bar, Micheal Breslin, Drew Busmire, Anna Crivelli, Fjola Evans, Anteo Fabris, Molly FitzMaurice, Patrick Foley, Matthias Freer, Shadi Ghaheri, Barbaro Guzman, Molly Joyce, LINÜ, Flo Low, Patrick Madden, Gwyneth Muller, Jenny Schmidt

Yale Cabaret
February 9-11, 2017

Take Heart

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

A play where the most sympathetic figures—Giovanni (Edmund Donovan) and Annabella (Brontë England-Nelson), a brother and sister—are incestuous lovers is taking risks against strong identifications. John Ford’s 17th century drama ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a Yale School of Drama thesis show for director Jesse Rasmussen, presents a world of battling wills where betrayal and bullying are the order of the day. There are also acts of sensational violence for which the Jacobean period is well known. There are poisonings, duels, eyes put out and throats slit, and a heart impaled on a sword. At the end of the evening the point of it all may have escaped you but the sheer power of it will stay with you for a while.

The set by Ao Li comes by way of unusual decisions, such as the audience seated on the stage in the University Theater arranged at a height that makes the majority of the seats balcony level. Down on the stage is an open playing space where most of the action takes place. But the unadorned stage is augmented by a bridge-like structure above the playing space. And stretched the length of that level is a large screen behind a clear curtain on which show projections of what happens below stage—in the intimacy of Annabella’s bed chamber. The different levels suggest a private, privileged space below the area of public skirmish and struggle on the main stage, and, above, a level where, often, characters look down on the encounters below. It all makes for a very lively staging. Indeed, the swiftness of the first part little prepares us for how much things will go awfully awry in the second part.

The main mood of the first part is of misgivings surrounding a taboo love affair between lyrical and like-minded siblings. Donovan and England-Nelson look enough alike to lend some actuality to their kinship and both play well the seriousness of the incestuous passion. Their scenes together are strong in shared feeling, particularly the scene of avowed love. And Putana (Patricia Fa’asua), Annabella’s servant, seems to take the news of the love affair in stride, suggesting that a lady may avail herself of any gentleman—father, brother, whomsoever—whenever a hot mood strikes. Her rather lusty presence adds a lightheartedness to the early going. Even the Friar (Patrick Foley) in whom Giovanni confides could be called tempered in his displeasure at the youth’s chosen object of desire. There are also somewhat comically hopeless suitors for Annabella’s hand, such as Grimaldi (Ben Anderson), though Soranzo (George Hampe), the one favored by Annabella’s father Florio (Sean Boyce Johnson), has a preening, wheedling quality that could prove troublesome.

Soranzo has troubles of his own though. Hippolita (Lauren E. Banks), whom he has jilted, vows revenge and enlists Vasques (Setareki Wainiqolo), Soranzo’s serving-man, to help her achieve her goal, in return for sexual favors. The character of Vasques is key to both plots as he foils Hippolita’s plan, causing her death instead of Soranzo’s, and also learns, by cozening Putana, of the affair between Giovanni and Annabella and the latter’s pregnancy. Played with steely, scene-stealing charm by Setareki Wainiqolo, Vasques is almost an Iago-figure; though not nearly so malevolent—for malevolence’s sake—he is the most aware of how to gain advantage from the weaknesses of others.

The other malevolent character, Hippolita, is given convincing vicious authority by Lauren E. Banks and her death scene is the most dramatically rendered. Patricia Fa’asua’s Putana, a simple pawn ultimately, gets a memorable scene of degradation that is almost the final judgment of the play: Putana’s complicity could be said to be innocent of any selfishness and her penalty a final outrage. Which is then surpassed by a grandly telling final tableau of Annabella.

As our hero, Giovanni, Edmund Donovan can work up his passions well, and the love scene between him and Annabella, like her death scene, is made almost cinematic by the means that relay these scenes to us. George Hampe’s Soranzo is a mass of nervous energy, a privileged dastard who, as in some ways the main figure linking both fatal plots, is deplorable and fun. Sean Boyce Johnson, Patrick Foley, and Ben Anderson—as a grandly pompous Cardinal—all fill their roles with aplomb. As Annabella, Brontë England-Nelson shines the brighter for how brief is her joy and how inevitable her death—“Love me or kill me, brother,” she tells Giovanni, so of course he does both. Her most poignant moment is a song of heartfelt misery that describes the pathos of any true love in this wickedly cruel society. There are also beautiful songs of high-minded clerical detachment, rendered by the Cardinal’s Man (Christian Probst) in angelic tones.

The music and sound design from Frederick Kennedy are key to the emotional tone here, which, like Sarah Woodham’s costumes, is somewhat subdued, even solemn. Erin Earle Fleming’s lighting design gives all an even tone, but glare on the sheet covering the screen showing John Michael Moreno’s projections creates a distancing effect to frustrate our voyeurism in viewing Annabella’s chamber, which contains as well a pet bird. When not fronting projections, the sheet seems a gore-spattered curtain suitable to Ford’s theatrical world.

Though Rasmussen and dramaturg Davina Moss have arrived at a very playable text, cutting characters and subplots to keep our focus on the sibling lovers, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore still comes across as more sensational than satisfying. Its provocations lack a sense of the savagery of our era, so that it seems a deliberate jolt for the jaded tastes of another day. “All are punished!” the Prince exclaims at the close of Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play to which Ford’s play is most akin, and here that is certainly true as well, though with something more of the scorecard of blood-letting one finds in slasher films.

 

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Choreographer: Emily Lutin; Scenic Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Projection and Video Designer: John Michael Moreno; Production Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Technical Director: Tannis Boyajian; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson

Cast: Ben Anderson; Lauren E. Banks; Edmund Donovan; Brontë England-Nelson; Patricia Fa’asua; Patrick Foley; Isabella Giovanni; George Hampe; Sean Boyce Johnson; Christian Probst; Setareki Wainiqolo

Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

Have a Bite

Review of The Meal, Yale Cabaret

James Joyce once described “eating a thing” as “the apple pie essence of knowing a thing”—an idea that has some relevance to Brazilian playwright Newton Moreno’s The Meal, translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques at Yale Cabaret. The three-part play is subtitled, with thoughts of Montaigne, as “Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism.” Montaigne, in his famous sixteenth-century essay “Of Cannibals,” considers that the act of eating someone after death is not nearly so barbaric as the kinds of tortures his own people visit upon their enemies while alive. The point—and the relevant passage from Montaigne is provided as a handout by production dramaturg Nahuel Telleria—is that barbarity is relative, and the reasons for cannibalism may have something more to do with Joyce’s idea: what we ingest and digest becomes a part of us, and that may be a fitting end for a relative’s corpse or for a portion of one’s beloved.

Moreno’s play does not shy away from the grisly aspects of such a practice, but it doesn’t dwell on them either. What it aims at instead is what might be called—and Montaigne would concur—the humanistic aspects of such practices. The first scene, “Hospital Room,” is between lovers (Arturo Soria, Rachel Kenney). Here, the cannibalistic impulse is seen as part of the giving and taking that fuel any passionate attachment: possessing and knowing find expression in availing oneself of the beloved’s actual flesh. In a Christian culture that retains the ancient Greek religious sense of sparagmos (or dismemberment and, often, eating of a god or a god’s stand-in) in Communion, as eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, the metaphorical sense of consuming flesh—as “becoming one”—is apt to feel powerfully motivated. We sometimes say one has a “consuming” or “devouring” passion: a feeling that “eats one alive,” but that also might be expressed as wanting to eat someone else alive. Machado and Marques let the actors play with the erotics of such matters in an adroit, questioning manner.

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

In the second segment, “The Gutter,” the more exploitative aspects of anthropophagy are displayed when a rather jaded libertine-type played by José Espinosa goes slumming amongst those who will sell whatever it takes to survive. Which might include satisfying a predilection for human flesh. In a capitalist world where we are proud to be consumers and commodities—what other purpose do we serve?—the “naked lunch” style of this segment is pointed, and pulled-off well by Espinosa. It’s the point at which the notion of cannibalism—as the richer or more powerful abusing and taking advantage of the lesser—becomes, indeed, unpalatable. And yet we might take our cue from Montaigne and wonder about the less visible eviscerations that are taking place all the time, to satisfy the jaded appetites of our moneyed class. Moreno’s script plays the scene as mostly a monologue, and yet the exploited figure (Soria), however degraded, invites sympathy. But Espinosa’s character does as well, as any drug addict, at the mercy of his vices, might.

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

In “Jungle,” Kenney plays an anthropologist or maybe just a journalist—someone investigating the ways of a people who retain a tradition of cannibalism. As a dying remnant of that culture, Jake Lozano lounges in a hammock and tries to impart the views of his culture, even if he feels the context into which he is speaking to be somewhat false. History, we know, is a way of making other people—in the past or in other places—meaningful (and often exploitable) to ourselves. Lozano does a great job of making his character cryptic and self-absorbed but also concerned with what the record—particularly a recording of him singing—will show. And what of Kenney’s observer? Can she accept her interlocutor’s world view far enough to offer him the tribute of consuming some part of him?

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

Moreno’s play is strong in the virtue of dialogue and monologue: that speech is a means to enact difference and deliberation. The play, for all its provocative material, feels static—in keeping with the notion of these scenes as “dramatic essays.” Here, all interaction is subservient to theme. There is little relief in the further possibilities of character. The most tendentious presentation is that of “Jungle,” saved by Lozano’s nuanced rendering; the most entertaining is “Hospital,” if only because twists in love stories tends to be the stuff of comedy; “Gutter” is, for obvious reasons, the most unsettling, and cast and directors keep the tone suitably arch.

Not a light night of theater, The Meal feels contemporary both in its opening of questions of taboos and as an uneasy repast in the context of liberal capitalism’s effort to incorporate everything it touches.

 

The Meal: Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism
By Newton Moreno
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques

Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Elli Green; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena; Producer: Leandro Zaneti

Cast: José Espinosa; Rachel Kenney; Jake Lozano; Arturo Soria

Yale Cabaret
February 2-4, 2017