Man of Imagination

Review of Man of La Mancha, Ivoryton Playhouse

As musicals go, the reworking of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale of the adventures of Don Quixote, otherwise simply Alonso Quijana of La Mancha, is pretty powerful stuff. Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, Man of La Mancha is probably best known as the source of the rousing standard “The Impossible Dream” (which I remember being covered on variety shows often in my youth), but it also uses an intriguing play-within-a-play format to establish that Quixote is not only the fantasy life of Quijana but also the alter-ego of his author Cervantes.

Imprisoned by the Inquisition, Cervantes (David Pittsinger) is placed at the mercy of his fellow prisoners and pleads with them to hear his story about Quixote, which he then enacts for them while also pressing them into service as other characters in the tale. It’s a great theatrical idea and makes for involving storytelling as we move between the frame in the dungeon and the roadway and inn and other settings of Quixote’s story.

At Ivoryton, Daniel Nischan’s set places a huge platform in the center of the stage that makes for a somewhat shallow playing space stage front. While the higher space is used to good effect now and then, the area might have afforded more freedom of movement; at times Todd Underwood’s choreography feels a bit constrained and lacking in fluidity. But no matter, such is Cervantes’ imagination he could stage Quixote’s adventures anywhere. Props and costume changes here help greatly, as does Marcus Abbott’s lighting design.

Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), Don Quixote (David Pittsinger), Sancho Panza (Brian Michael Hoffman) (photo: Anne Hudson)

Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), Don Quixote (David Pittsinger), Sancho Panza (Brian Michael Hoffman) (photo: Anne Hudson)

As Cervantes/Quixote, Pittsinger has a rich baritone that is a pleasure to hear in songs like “Man of La Mancha,” “Dulcinea,” and, of course, the great crowd-pleaser “The Impossible Dream.” He’s quite adept at suggesting the failing strength of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, while also playing the thoughtful showman Cervantes who wants all his listeners to be touched by Quixote’s dream. As his manservant who doubles as Quixote’s faithful Sancho Panza, Brian Michael Hoffman has the requisite easygoing manner, with his rendition of “A Little Gossip” at his master’s sickbed his high point. Other fine support is provided by David Edwards as a skeptical prisoner and as scheming Dr. Carrasco, and by Matthew Krob’s fine singing voice in the Padre’s touching “To Each his Dulcinea.”

A match for Pittsinger’s pure, noble and dreamy Quixote is Talia Thiesfield’s sharp, direct, and earthy Aldonza, with lithe movements and a voice that thrills. Dulcinea’s status as fantasy figure for Quixote and Cervantes both makes her seem a kind of ideal damsel brought out by the musical itself, so that Aldonza seems to accept her status as Dulcinea both in the Quixote story and in the dungeon as well. The abduction/rape scene, which is an act of brutality that’s meant to give the lie to Quixote’s unworkable dream, is handled here more as suggestion than outright violence, but, even so, Quixote’s reprise of “The Impossible Dream” immediately after still feels a willful blindness to harsh reality.

The show ends ambiguously both for Quixote and Cervantes, and yet with the sense that Cervantes has redeemed himself by letting Quixote’s madness—almost “cured” by Dr. Carrasco as the Knight of the Mirrors—still reign on, as it must so long as audiences thrill to the notion of a hopeless quest for an unreachable star.

Bravo to Ivoryton for reviving this timeless tale of art’s triumph over sordid reality.

 

Man of La Mancha
By Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by David Edwards
Musical Director: Paul Feyer
Choreography by Todd Underwood

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Costume/Hair/Wig Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Production Stage Manager: James Joseph Clark; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeiser

Cast: Brian Binion, Amy Buckley, Ryan Cavanaugh, David Edwards, Brian Michael Hoffman, AJ Hunsucker, Matthew Krob, James Ludlum, Conor McGiffin, Melissa McLean, Stephen Mir, David Pittsinger, Talia Thiesfield, James Van Treuren

Ivoryton Playhouse
September 7-October 2, 2016

Rotten in the Corps

Review of Queens for a Year, Hartford Stage

Queens for a Year—the title comes from the scoffing phrase that male Marine recruits lob at female Marine recruits, with the idea that a woman in Boot Camp can always get away with less rigorous training than a man can—asks some tough questions about women in the military and about the ethos of the Marines specifically. T. D. Mitchell’s play, which is rather scatter-shot in its aims, mainly seems to want to pay tribute to women in the military—all the woman in the play who served or who are serving see their time in the military as definitive to their sense of worth—while also dramatizing the way that being female in the relentlessly masculinist world of the military means more hardship for female Marines rather than less. But the play also wants to take on the incidence of male assault on females, particularly in the Marines, and create a situation where the Marines’ “kill or be killed” ethos gets a dramatic staging. In other words, the play wants us to appreciate the military while also exposing its evils.

Charlotte Maier, Vanessa R. Butler, Heidi Armbruster in Queens for a Year (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Charlotte Maier, Vanessa R. Butler, Heidi Armbruster in Queens for a Year (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The play, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, is strongest in its support of women in the military. If we think that such a concern is fairly recent—say, since the invasion of Iraq or the invasion of Kuwait—Mitchell’s play lets us hear from four generations of women who served, going back to World War II. The play opens with Mae Walker (Mary Bacon) under intense questioning about a deliberately unclear incident that the play will dramatize. We then meet the Walker family when Mae’s daughter, 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas (Vanessa R. Butler), brings to her grandmother’s home in Virginia PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver). The harrowing circumstances under which the two met is brought out gradually through flashbacks.

Meanwhile, the present time of the play (2007) is taken up with lots of small-talk and military reminiscence and getting acquainted, as Molly and her guest visit with Molly’s grandmother, Gunny Molly Walker (Charlotte Maier), great-grandmother, “Grandma Lu” (Alice Cannon), and aunt Lucy (Heidi Armbruster), Molly’s mother’s sister, who lets us know, in passing, that she was persona non grata for a time in the military for being gay. Eventually they are joined by Mae, who never got the military bug and here represents the civilian world and its uneasy acceptance of a militaristic worldview.

Grandma Lu (Alice Cannon), Mae (Mary Bacon), Lucy (Heidi Armbruster) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Grandma Lu (Alice Cannon), Mae (Mary Bacon), Lucy (Heidi Armbruster) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The family matters are handled well and, since female soldiers are unusual in theater, that keeps our interest, particularly as it soon becomes clear that something happened on base and Molly and Amanda are on the run—or, more properly, Molly, as the only officer among them, has taken charge of Amanda and this is her way of coping with whatever is going on. The play’s second half, more dramatically but less satisfactorily, becomes a protracted stand-off; first, Mae introduces matters of family tension, and then a very real threat creates a siege situation, but, even then, the women make nice and burnish their family ties, with Alice Cannon enacting a favorite sentimental/comic cliché of the feisty old lady.

The flashbacks include Jamie Rezanour playing several parts—an Iraqi woman confronted by Lewis, an unsympathetic superior questioning Lt. Solinas, and a heartless military lawyer humiliating Lewis—and the show’s only male actor, Mat Hostetler, playing an unsympathetic and leering superior questioning Lewis; both actors also play nameless soldiers who stride about reciting “cadences,” mostly scurrilous sexist and racist shout-outs to keep time on march. Somewhat jarring to the bonhomie on view in the Walker home, these scenes suggest, and possibly belabor, how far removed a military life is from the comforts of home.

Jamie Rezanour, Sarah Nicole Deaver (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Jamie Rezanour, Sarah Nicole Deaver (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the heart of the play is the question that underlies all the drama surrounding Lewis’ plight and Lt. Solinas’ means of dealing with it: how can the corps drill into its members unflinching loyalty to the corps while at the same time being so abusive and dismissive toward some members of the corps? But then a sensitive grasp of the paradox of an individual within a collective might not be something we expect of the military. Mitchell tries to let action speak for itself, but, apart from the deliberately leading interrogations, there’s precious little occasion for anyone to explain what they think and why. And that might be one of the more telling qualities of the play: it shows us a group who tend to think they all think the same way, mostly, and then to have that consensus tested by enemies without and within is, one way or another, a moment of truth.

Molly (Vanessa R. Butler), and Mae (Mary Bacon) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Molly (Vanessa R. Butler), and Mae (Mary Bacon) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Butler and Deaver come off well in their bonding and in the differences that keep them wary, though Butler is the more convincing as a servicewoman. Daniel Conway’s scenic design is very effective in placing a homey farmhouse in the midst of outlying areas that can become Camp Lejeune or Iraq, as needed—the sand and sandbags on the perimeter and on the catwalk above help to keep us apprised of the fact that all our homey spaces are surrounded by the perimeters our military guards. And Greg Webster’s fight designs work at times with almost cinematic fluidity.

The disengage between peaceful lives and life at war we can expect to be brutal and decisive; Queens for a Year looks at the wars that go on in the midst of the struggle to form warriors, with all the bravura and mixed feelings and uneasiness that task elicits, and all the opportunities for courage and honor, and for behavior squalid and vicious. Sexism, like racism, the play implies, sees enemies in the midst of the collective, and that, from the point of view of corps solidarity, is a tremendous weakness.

 

Queens for a Year
By T.D. Mitchell
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien

Scenic Design: Daniel Conway; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Robert Perry; Sound Design: Victoria Deiorio; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Dialect Coach: Robert H. Davis; Casting: Binder Casting, Jack Bowdan, CSA

Cast: Mary Bacon, Vanessa R. Butler, Sarah Nicole Deaver, Charlotte Maier, Heidi Armbruster, Alice Cannon, Jamie Rezanour, Mat Hostetler

 

Hartford Stage
September 8-October 2, 2016

Mother Knows Best

Review of Gypsy, Music Theater of Connecticut

Gypsy, “A Musical Fable suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee,” is a popular musical that depends upon the quality of the actor playing Momma Rose—mother of Gypsy Rose Lee—to succeed. In MTC’s production, Kirsti Carnahan does the show proud, giving us a Rose who, though still as overbearing and relentless as the part calls for, is comical, touching and, ultimately winning. And that helps make this big show in a small space shine.

I don’t think Madame Rose is always played so appealingly. The part was long associated with Ethel Merman, who I can’t imagine anyone finding “touching,” and in the Hollywood film, which I watched recently, Rosalind Russell, besides being unable to sing with real feeling, is mostly insufferable. Carnahan’s Rose reminds me more than a little of the actress/mother Shirley MacLaine plays in Postcards from the Edge—which is to say, pushy and willing to use self-pity artfully, but also affecting and full of fun.

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

The big climactic number—“Rose’s Turn,” including the reprise of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”—finds Rose alone with her fantasies of fame and delivers plenty of sizzle, and Carnahan is also charming when Rose needs to be, as in “Small World,” her courtship of agent and beau Herbie (Paul Binotto). In the scenes when Rose goes ballistic over thwarted plans, director Kevin Conners lets us see how extreme Rose can be, but with a sense of her as a passionate woman with a mission, not as some kind of show-biz monster mom. And that’s all to the good.

June (Carissa Marisso) and Louise (Kate Simone) (photo: Joe Landry)

June (Carissa Marisso) and Louise (Kate Simone) (photo: Joe Landry)

As June and Louise, the hapless, grown daughters forced to play out mom’s insistent drive to make them stars, Carissa Massaro and Kate Simone put across “If Momma Was Married” with plenty of verve, Massaro strong on attitude, and in the transformation from tomboyish Louise to stylish Gypsy, Simone shows a gradual, no-nonsense grasp of practicalities that gives some shape to an easily overshadowed role. Thankfully, Becky Timms’ choreography lets us see Gypsy’s wit in her striptease numbers, with accent on the “tease.”

Young Tulsa (Charlie Pelletier), Rose (Kirsti Carnahan), Baby June (Abby Sara Dahan) (photo: Joe Landry)

Young Tulsa (Charlie Pelletier), Rose (Kirsti Carnahan), Baby June (Abby Sara Dahan) (photo: Joe Landry)

As the little wind-up toys that the sisters begin as, Abby Sara Dahan (as Baby June) and Natalie Steele (as Baby Louise) make Mama’s silly routines better than they might be—with Dahan’s comic presence making the most of Baby June’s bid for glory. As the supporting dancers, Joe Grandy (as Tulsa) gets a nice tap routine that almost steals away Louise’s heart. While, as the long-suffering Herbie, Binotto is likeable if not very forceful. Special kudos to Jodi Stevens, always a treat, as Mazeppa, the stripper with a way with a horn, while Marca Leigh and Jeri Kansas also provide colorful support, making “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” the crowd-pleaser it’s meant to be.

Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens), Electra (Marca Leigh) (photo: Joe Landry)

Tessie Tura (Jeri Kansas), Mazeppa (Jodi Stevens), Electra (Marca Leigh) (photo: Joe Landry)

In many ways, this small scale production of Gypsy might prove more satisfying than a larger production. The feel of the backstage world and the effort to create a plausible entertainment that are so important to the story are very much in evidence. The story’s subtext about how vaudeville permitted a certain kind of DIY professionalism to flourish, giving way—in these characters’ lifetimes—to few respectable outlets also feels germane to the world of regional theatrics. The irony of Gypsy’s story is that she achieved the stardom her mother dreamed of, but not in the desired format. But even there, the bias against burlesque can seem quaint to us now when so much show-biz is all about showing it all.

Gypsy is a gutsy take on making good of a downward spiral, and MTC’s Gypsy is a tasteful take on the ups-and-downs odyssey of Momma Rose and her daughter.

 

Gypsy, A Musical Fable
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Original Production by David Merrick & Leland Hayward, directed choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggi De La Cruz; Set Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Choreography: Becky Timms; Musical Direction: Thomas Martin Conroy; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Musicians: Piano/Conductor: Thomas Martin Conroy; Second keyboard: Luke McGuinness; Drums: Chris Johnson; Reeds: Gary Ruggiero

Cast: Paul Binotto, Kirsti Carnahan, Brittany Cattaruzza, Joe Grandy, Jeri Kansas, Marca Leigh, Carissa Massaro, Peter McClung, Chris McNiff, Abigial Root, Kate Simone, Jodi Stevens; and featuring: Abby Sara Dahan, Jonah Frimmer, Charlie Pelleteir, Natalie Steele

Music Theater of Connecticut, MTC Mainstage
September 9-25, 2016

Matters of Life and Death

Review of Styx Songs, Yale Cabaret

Most likely, you’re probably not too fond of death. But then, what does death think of you?

As played by Jeremy O. Harris, Charon, the ferrymen at the River Styx in Hades, is mostly bored with having to rule over a world of fools who, loving life, find themselves dead. His is a world of, at times, poetic justice, and at times of expressive detachment. In any case, he’s a fascinating and theatrical host.

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) (photo: Elli Green)

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) (photo: Elli Green)

Directed by Lucie Dawkins and written by Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson—with quotations and adaptations from a range of other writers, including Ovid, T.S. Eliot, and the Persian poet Ferdowsi—Styx Songs keeps our attention focused on the interplay of life and death. Charon, who speaks in a poetic language, wry and rhythmic, treats his visitors as exhibits in a display of how unpredictable and unforgiving death can be. Stories of ill-fated lives—from myth, folktales, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, and other sources—are mostly narrated in the first person by a host of actors in a variety of roles. It can all be a bit hard to keep track off, as newcomer after newcomer tries to interest us in tales that, to each, meant life and death but that, to us prosaic lifers, can begin to sound like lots of tough luck.

And that may be the point. The many voices of the dead here mostly try to get across to us the particulars of their deaths as though there should be some message or meaning for us. But what their various ends show is that death is as individual in its occurrence as it is unanimous in its reach. And yet the dead’s passion to communicate is palpable. And the cast is wonderful at impressing upon us both enforced muteness and, when Charon pulls the coin from now one mouth, now another, the breathless last chance each seizes to make their lives seem real.

Perhaps the best examples come at the beginning and the end. The story of Narcissus and Echo, well-enacted by Josh Goulding and Stella Baker, is, of course, poetic and mythic, but it also has interactive elements, and even, with Charon’s interventions, humor. And at the close, a troupe of women who were slaves are more confrontational with Charon and the powers-that-be. These women did not live free lives and find Charon’s command over their afterlife to be a further affront. Indeed, their strength in union manages even to silence Charon’s asides.

 Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

 Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

The show’s vision of the afterlife—or at least its anteroom—is made striking by an impressive set. Murky and funereal, with diaphanous drapes and mood lighting, Ao Li’s set features, as its main scenic device, a fountain or pool such as can be found in some cemeteries. The entry into Charon’s realm is through the pool and the game cast spends a good deal of its time semi-immersed. The water as reflecting surface, sometimes lit with cool light, and as a prop—with splashes and action—makes the set a compelling presence, adding reality to the unreality of death. Sarah Woodham’s costumes—the white linens that drape the dead and the wonderful riot of effects in Charon’s get-up—are individualized elements of the overall display as well. The musical settings of a segment of Eliot’s poetry and of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”—functioning as prologue and epilogue respectively—provide solemnity; elsewhere the music from composer Sam Suggs is augmented by Gaven Whitehead’s live percussion to create a variety of effects.

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

Another segment that deserves special mention is the use of interactive animation; as two of the departed souls speak across a plane that acts as a table-top, drawings in light shift about on its surface, while early in the show a pattern of light on Ophelia’s dress adds to the eeriness of the Stygian world, which is rich indeed in artistic design.

If I have a criticism it would be that the show makes use of too much text—the instances of movement and the use of dumbshow create a language of their own that suggests a spirit prevailing beyond the particulars of earthly life. Which might just be a way of saying that if death doesn’t let us transcend the disappointments of life, what good is it?

 

Styx Songs
Written by Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson, including works from T.S. Eliot, Ferdowsi, Ted Hughes, Edgar Lee Masters, Louis MacNeice, Ovid, Rabindranath Tagore, Dylan Thomas
Directed and created by Lucie Dawkins

Composer: Sam Suggs; Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Dramaturg: Charlie O’Malley; Set Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Animation Designer: Erik Freer and Richard Green; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Associate Technical Director: Elena Tilli; Props Master: Michael Scherman; Wardrobe Supervisor: Rachel Gregory; Percussionist: Gavin Whitehead; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Producer: Trent Anderson

Cast: Stella Baker, Baize Buzan, Josh Goulding, Jeremy O. Harris, Kelly Hill, Olivia Klevorn, Alex Lubischer, Christopher Gabriel Nunez, Charlie O’Malley, Anita Norman, Alexis Payne, Jesse Rasmussen, Juliana Simms, Brittany Stollar, Lucas Van Lierop

Yale Cabaret
September 15-17, 2016

Hailing the Cab

Preview: Yale Cabaret 49 (the first three shows of the season)

“I’ve grown accustomed to her face,” the song goes. But sometimes, just when you’ve grown accustomed, things change. The change in itself becomes a custom.

Each year, the face of the Yale Cabaret changes as new leadership, drawn from current students at the Yale School of Drama, takes over the helm. This year, the Co-Artistic Directors for the 49th season of the venerable New Haven theater-in-a-basement are Ashley Chang, a 2016 MFA in dramaturgy now working on her doctorate, Kevin Hourigan, a third-year director, and Davina Moss, a third-year dramaturg. They are joined by Steven Koernig, a fourth-year working on a joint degree, MFA/MBA in theater management at the School of Drama and the School of Management, as the Managing Director.

Steven Koernig, Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, the leadership team of Cab 49

Steven Koernig, Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, the leadership team of Cab 49

In its 48 years (I’ve been a fan since its 42nd year), the Cab has made a virtue of its intimate, “nowhere to hide” size, its extremely limited runs (3 nights only), its convivial ambiance of food-and-drink followed by a show (Anna Belcher’s ever-changing menu is always intriguing), and its ability to showcase “passion projects”—the work that students do because they believe in it, and not just because it goes with earning the degree. In fact, many times at the Cab, the students are doing things that are not directly related to what they study at Yale.

That, the Cabsters say, is something they very much want to encourage. So much so that this year there are “ambassadors” or Cross-Disciplinary Consultants from the other Yale schools taking part as liaisons, as a means to find collaborators for YSDers in proposing and designing shows—the Schools of Architecture, Art, Arts and Sciences, Forestry and Environmental Science, Law, Medicine, Music, Public Health, all have input.

There are three key concepts, Moss says, that the team agreed on in eliciting proposals from the YSD community: “the line of inquiry”—it should be bold, it should be about something that needs to be explored or expressed; “the rigor of production”—though the Cab is open to all kinds of experimental approaches, the best shows give a lot of thought to how they will be staged; with such short rehearsal times and other limitations, this is not a place for making it up as you go; “formal diversity”—the Cab season never repeats itself, which means that the kinds of theater offered will be surprisingly different week after week.

The point, Moss says, is “not to emphasize the Cab’s limitations, but its opportunities.” What can be done there that wouldn’t work anywhere else?

Another key element, as suggested by the cross-disciplinary emphasis, is on collaboration. One of the team’s questions to proposers was “who do you want to collaborate with,” and there has been a lot of positive outcome from that question.

Styx Songs, September 15-17

Styx Songs, September 15-17

The first show of the season should give us all a good idea of what the team means by collaboration, as well as inquiry, rigor and formal diversity: Styx Songs, September 15-17, is, according to the team, a “bold experiment” with “high risk,” in the sense of great ambition that may or may not come off completely. The show, described as “drama that transgresses the assumed borders between centuries, civilizations, and disciplines,” presents a collaboration among members of the Schools of Art, Architecture, Drama, and Music. Directed by second-year director Lucie Dawkins with a cast of 15, Styx Songs—which references the mythical river Styx (not the rock band of the same name)—explores the relation between life and death, using texts “spanning two thousand years and four continents.” It also entails stop-motion animation and is conceived as an interactive piece that different audiences will experience differently. “It’s an exploratory, episodic, multimedia piece,” Hourigan says, with dislocations—and continuities—between cultures and temporal spaces, and—since the Styx is the river the dead cross into Hades—between one world and another.

Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. plays September 22-24. Responding to the proposition “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Birch wrote a play that, Chang says, is “funny and brutal,” looking at “the thorny question, how to define feminism” for our times, and “how contradictory” is the concept today. Using a cast of 15, none of whom are in the acting program, director Jessica Rizzo, a dramaturg who wrote and directed the memorable show Sister Sandman Please in Season 47, chose the cast members “for their honesty as people” and their professed struggles with the concept of feminism. The play—“a playful chaos”—seeks to “galvanize” its audience.

Caught, by Christopher Chen, October 6-8, incorporates the Cab’s interdisciplinary interests into the play itself. Journalism, visual art, theater, all are involved in this questioning of how medium/genre alters our perceptions and relays differing truths. A cast of five, including an art gallery curator, enact a play that makes a stage of an art gallery and an art gallery of a stage. There will be an actual art gallery, with captions, in this telling of the story of Lin Bo (Eston Fung), a “radical artist-activist,” whose subversive approach to art led to his incarceration. The play is directed by Lynda Paul, who directed last season’s very successful pop-opera Trouble in Tahiti.

I asked the four members of the new Cab team what attracts them to the Cab most, and what previous work they either viewed or participated in that cemented their sense of the Cab’s potential.

Davina called the Cab “the artistic heart of YSD” and spoke of its role in helping make their colleagues’ creative dreams come true, even if that means, as she remembered, scrubbing a white floor spotless after each ink-ridden show of Knives in Hens, her intro to what working on theater at the Cab can be like. As an audience member she praised The Untitled Project, a multi-media, mulitform work that threw down a challenge this year’s team would like to meet.

Stephen spoke of the “creative collision of artists and staff and audiences,” all “the most engaged you can find,” and spoke proudly of directing the take-off on the Batman TV show—Catfight—and, as audience member, his love of Mystery Boy, a rapid-fire play strong in the joy of storytelling. 

Kevin stressed the team’s job: “to empower our peers” and to tell the stories that aren’t being told; he draws upon his own experience last year with I’m With You in Rockland, a mix of art, poetry, music, film, history, narrative, with some of its tech elements right onstage, as formative to his grasp of the Cab’s possibilities—he wrote, directed, acted and provided elements of set design—and reacted positively to last season’s Dutch Masters “for the quality of the work and the conversation it provoked.”

Ashley said she’s interested in how the Cab can “frame questions and provide a platform” for theatrical inquiries that take risks and “resist the kind of structures” theater often assumes. She pointed to the performance piece Run, Bambi, Run, in Cab 48’s Satellite Festival, because it “made the air different” in bringing into play a “different set of assumptions” about performance.

Ashley Chang, Steven Koernig, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

Ashley Chang, Steven Koernig, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

All four are committed to work that pushes beyond the usual bounds of play-based theater, a view suggested on the Cab’s new website: “The Cab—A Basement Performance Venue.”

In days, it will be time to take in the start of Cab 49. See you there!

 

Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street
New Haven

For more information and tickets, menus, season passes, donations, go here.

Amazing Grace

Review of Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, Yale Repertory Theatre

Carrie Mae Weems’ Grace Notes, a multi-media theater piece playing for two shows at Yale Repertory as part of its No Boundaries series, explores what Weems calls—deliberately borrowing the phrase from a film starring “that fine-ass actor Viggo Mortensen”—“the history of violence” in the U.S., setting that often brutal and frightening history against a search for the meaning of grace. The piece was first performed at Spoleto Festival in Charleston in response to the racist-terrorist killings at Emmanuel Church there.

On stage, a wall with twin windows that look out upon video projections of floating clouds. In the foreground, a bare tree provides some vertical interest. High up on the wall, a simple clock, its hands stuck at 3 o’clock. The show begins with swelling music provided by a jazz orchestra, led by Craig Harris’ expressive trombone, at the foot of the stage, and two figures—the poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux—walking toward the stage as a silhouette figure on video walks into an exhibition space. On stage, Weems sits at a writing table with her back to the audience. Her part in the show is at times almost casual in its deliberative and meditative role, but her presence adds the level of personal access we find in poetry readings.

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

As an arrangement of exhibits, Grace Notes brings together readings of poetry; dance and movement routines, both balletic from Francesca Harper and more aggressively athletic from Step Teams Yale Steppin’ Out, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and Hillhouse High School’s Y.M.E.G.A.S.; and projections that run from artistic and contemplative tableaux to slow motion anonymous street scenes to footage of very specific events—such as the assassination of JFK, MLK at the March on Washington, and viral videos of police brutality as in the fatal overpowering of Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Diamond Reynolds’ amazingly lucid video subsequent to an act of wrenching violence in the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota.

As a kind of Master of Ceremonies, Weems, a photographer and video artist primarily, presides over a performance collage abetted by “The Three Graces,” Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri, who provide vocal coloratura, as for instance a striking jazz setting of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” At one point, a video of shadow puppets of elaborately coiffed ladies miming mirth plays as a series of racist jokes are delivered. That segment—together with Reynolds’ voice on the video, and even a phone recording of Weems’ mother attempting to define grace—add welcome outside voices to the mix. Too much of the verbal texture of the show is determined by Weems’ compressed narrative of twentieth-century and twenty-first century violence and by commentary on the process of the show. Carl Hancock Rux’s Democratic Vistas adds Whitmanesque touches of lyricism as well.

Several segments feature staged actions that set off symbolic and poetic possibilities for interpretation, such as Rux inside a large sphere, as what at first seems an exclusionary space becomes womb-like thanks to a maternal song and playful treatment by one of the Graces. Throughout, the use of music and movement enact the show's most enduring idea of grace—the precision unison movements and rhythms are striking, as are Francesca Harper’s fluid dance with a glowing blue sphere, in a flowing white expressive costume by Abby Lutz.

The show’s varied rhythms build toward an emotional climax as the names of the many African American citizens fallen in acts of violence and, particularly, misuse of deadly force in police actions, are read off. Indeed, the justification for Grace Notes comes from the difficult task, for an artist, of trying to make something affirmative and celebratory when faced with such affronts to communal feeling. Weems draws upon the rhythms and associations of preachers in her spoken segments, relying upon the tradition of faith, hope and charity that underscores the Christianity of the African American Church. Even so, she admits to struggling with the meaning of “grace” as, ultimately, the strength to go on and to not succumb to hatred.

It’s a telling and well-rendered moral. Orchestrating the many aspects of the show, including moments of great beauty and power with moments of horror and outrage, and incorporating the many talents of performers and musicians and dancers and technical artists of theater, while also making the audience feel as if the show were, in a sense, unfolding in its creator’s mind, takes rare grace indeed.

 

Yale Repertory Theatre presents
Grace Notes: Reflections for Now
Writer and Director: Carrie Mae Weems
Music Director and Composer: Craig Harris

Composer: James Newton; Dramaturg: Kyle Bass; Curator: Sarah Lewis; Set Designer: Matt Saunders; Lighting Designer: Jonathan Spencer; Costume Designer: Abby Lutz; Video Artists: Carrie Mae Weems, James Wang; Associate Director: Tanya Selvaratnam; Production Photographs: Willam Struhs

Performers: Carrie Mae Weems; Eisa Davis; Alicia Hall Moran; Imani Uzuri; Aja Monet: Carl Hancock Rux; Francesca Harper

Musicians: Craig Harris, trombone; Yayoi Ikawa, piano; Calvin Jones, bass; Curtis Nowosad, drums; Ahreum Kim, Jessica McJunkins, Juliette Jones, Chala Yancy, violin; Tia Allen, Andrew Griffin, Viola; Niles Luther, Gregory Wood, cello

Step Teams: Yale Steppin’ Out: Joel de Leon (choreographer), Sanoja Bhaumik, Imani Doyle, Hannah Greene, Keyanna Jackson, Alyssa Patterson, Adam Watson, Jamar Williams; Omega Psi Phi Fraternity: Olafemi Hunter (choregrapher), Cordell Bell, Austin Carter, Adham Conaway, Dana Griffin, Jr., David Nooks, Darrius Pritchett; Y.M.E.G.A.S., Hillhouse High School: Kevin Bell, Samuel Bowens, Tyrelle Douglas, Messiyah McDuffie, Timothy Peters

No Boundaries Series
September 9 & 10, 2016
Yale University Theater

New Plays Showcased Next Weekend

Preview of Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre

This week the Long Wharf Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with the Contemporary American Voices Festival, a two-day presentation of new plays. In its second year, the Festival seeks to introduce “adventurous and innovative” new work by emerging playwrights whose plays have not been seen in the area. This year the plays featured are Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi, on Friday, September 9th at 7 p.m., Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti, on Saturday, September 10th, at 5 p.m., and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, on Saturday, September 10th, at 8:30 p.m. The Friday and Saturday evening presentations will be preceded by a Happy Hour reception, featuring a cash bar with beer from Thimble Islands Brewery, and food for sale from Katalina’s Bakery and Stellato’s.

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In preparation for the Festival, Long Wharf’s Literary Director Christine Scarfuto read over 100 scripts, looking for the kind of plays that would add significantly to the Long Wharf season, then she and Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein chose the finalists. The staged readings have directors and involve actors, who will be at music stands giving dramatic readings of the script. The amount of staging, Scarfuto says, varies but “all three plays are narrative-driven and beautifully told.” All share an emphasis on stories worth telling and the power of the stories is what drew Scarfuto to them.

The featured plays are very different, but all involve young characters. Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi is a play of multiple generations within a family, set in the Deep South and spanning the 1960s to the 1990s so that we see characters at different ages, from teens to adults. Looking back on issues of Civil Rights through one family’s experiences and “descent into ruin,” the play explores, Scarfuto says, a subject very relevant to our contemporary times. Scarfuto describes the play as “heartfelt, with lots of emotion and life.” The play won the 2015 Leah Ryan Prize. Among Killebrew’s awards are two New York Innovative Theater Awards and two Fringe Excellence Awards. Miller, Mississippi is directed by Lee Sunday Evans.

Last Tiger in Haiti, by Jeff Augustin, is set on the final night of Kanaval in Haiti, when a group of restaveks—abandoned children living in servitude—share imaginative stories; the play then takes us to 15 years later and the way reality and fantasy interacts. Scarfuto describes the play as “wildy imaginative” and “a very important story to tell” that looks at the cultural value of storytelling. The play will be given several productions in the coming year and Augustin is the Skank Playwright-in-Residence at Playwrights Horizon; his work has been produced at Roundabout Underground and Humana and elsewhere. Last Tiger in Haiti is directed by Yale School of Drama alum and former Yale Cabaret Co-Artistic Director Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Dance Nation, by Clare Barron, centers on a pre-teen dance competition and looks at “ambition, competition, and growing up.” It’s a play, Scarfuto says, that looks at competition as an element of female empowerment but also at “unpopular truths” about teens in our day. While “not necessarily realism,” the play is contemporary and casts actors of all ages and races to play the young girls. Barron is a playwright and an actor, and Long Wharf theater-goers may remember Barron from her performance in Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant. Dance Nation co-won the inaugural Relentless Award, established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is directed by Lee Sunday Evans, an OBIE Award-winning director.

The Contemporary American Voices festival reflects Long Wharf’s commitment to new play development, a mission that, Scarfuto says, was difficult to pursue during the recession and its drop in arts funding. “New plays can be risky, commercially,” Scarfuto says, but, as the Long Wharf’s literary manager since March, with an MFA in Dramaturgy from the University of Iowa, she sees the Festival as the “first step in introducing new playwrights and plays and helping to build audience interest.” As Edelstein says, “receptivity to new writing represents the very best of remedies for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stagnation.”

Staged readings are excellent opportunities to become familiar with new playwrights and to experience a play in the early stages of its path to production. Each reading will be followed by a Talk Back that will include the playwright, giving audiences a rare chance to ask questions about a play’s themes and background and gestation. Suggested donation, $5.

For more information: Long Wharf Theatre

Contemporary American Voices Festival
September 9 and 10, 2016
Long Wharf Theatre

Psychiatric Shenanigans

Review of What the Butler Saw, Westport Country Playhouse

Revivals of ground-breaking work can be tricky business. Once the initial shock is gone, what does the work have to offer? Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is a ribald, witty, absurd farce and though, for our times, it’s hardly as daring as in 1969, when it debuted, it still puts its cast through its paces. Directed by John Tillinger with a feel for the play’s strengths, the comedy treats marriage, psychiatry, health care professionals, hotel service people, the police force, gender roles, sexual tastes and Winston Churchill to fast-paced, irreverent fun.

The mention of Churchill should tip you off to one main characteristic of Orton’s comedy. It’s British, in the way that Monty Python is British, or the Carry On series is. And that means its form of verbal humor can be a stretch for American ears. It’s not just the accents, it’s the entire grasp of how the language of polite society works. Orton’s characters are articulate to a fault. But most of what they say is potty, loony, off-its-chum. It’s not just the idiom either. The humor, to work, requires an earnest and serious manner among the players. For the most part, the cast is equal to the challenge, but even so. One can only imagine how much better this would play in Britain.

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Thankfully, the Westport production benefits from Paxton Whitehead, who specializes in playing the kind of fatuous ass who is not only a send-up of professionalism, psychiatric jargon, get-ahead ethics, and lack of imagination, but of a distinctly British sense of how the establishment works. Indeed, Orton’s zinginess comes from the fact that he’s trying to skewer established norms—particularly about sexuality—that keep the British unflappable, and Whitehead’s Dr. Rance is a walking textbook of self-satisfied credulity.

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

His foil is Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), the ne’er-do-well who gets the shenanigans off and running by piling silly pretense upon ludicrous lie. He begins by attempting to seduce, in smarmy predatory professional manner (in the days before “sexual harassment” had a name), a dim, accommodating would-be Gal Friday Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton, wonderfully manic). Stanton’s Prentice is not a villain so much as an erring human who can’t admit mistakes, so he becomes a kind of Jerry Lewis of escalating miscalculations. He’s married to a philandering female (Patricia Kalember, who enacts the estranged, liberated wife with brittle cool) and is trying to maintain his professional and sexual status in a world that delights in how easily anyone can lose all dignity. Not least Sergeant Match, a forthright constable (Julian Gamble) who ends up in his underwear and later a dress and wig, and Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), a game bell-hop who has to go about in drag and, eventually, the altogether.

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

In a sense, the play is much ado about nothing, with a vengeance. The notion that “deviant” behavior can be analyzed and “helped” is one of Orton’s targets, but that ship has sailed, more or less. The play works because it does what farce is supposed to do: undermine the layers of pretense that people cling to as a means of denying what is happening in front of them. Orton has a knack for the tableau of someone catching someone else in a compromising moment. The point of such take-offs and put-ons is that we’re all of us compromised by our appetites, desires, and petty indulgences. Along the way there is sport with the kind of well-made play that has to tie up all loose ends, with a fond nod to Oscar Wilde’s Earnest.

The detailed set (James Noone) and suitable costumes (Laurie Churba) help create the kind of rational world that will become topsy-turvy as the play goes on, including the various fates of a demure flowered dress and a racier leopard print. There are four doorways and they will all be used with expert timing, as well as a host of apropos props. The challenge here is in keeping up with the verbal and the physical comedy and, while it never achieves complete hysterics, Tillinger’s production at Westport does keep it all bouncing merrily.

 

What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Directed by John Tillinger

Scenic Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Laurie Churba; Lighting Design: John McKernon; Sound Design: Scott Killian; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Movement and Firearms Choreographer: Robert Westley; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Julian Gamble, Chris Ghaffari, Patricia Kalember, Sarah Manton, Robert Stanton, Paxton Whitehead

Westport Country Playhouse
August 23-September 10, 2016

All's Fair in Love and War

Review of Troilus and Cressida, The Public, Free Shakespeare in the Park

There’s testosterone aplenty in The Public’s very successful Troilus and Cressida, directed by Daniel Sullivan with a keen sense of how to make the play timely while keeping its tone, rather quizzical and scurrilous for a tragedy, intact.

Mind you, you’d expect much manliness in a play about the siege of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, as Shakespeare revisits the ground so well developed by Homer. Here, it’s not about taking sides and we’re very much aware—how could we not be?—how self-serving reasons for invading another country or kingdom might be, and how ill-conceived. From the outset, war is for the purpose of vanquishing one’s enemies; any other settlement means giving up on the collective fantasy of victory. More to the point, and the play brings this out abundantly, none of the combatants are fighting precisely for the same thing or with the same will. And much of the drama here concerns things soldiers get up to when not engaged in battle, and plotting and partying and looking for an advantage in status is very much the business at hand.

We all know the basic set-up, but where the Iliad centers on Achilles and Agamemnon’s stand-off over a slave-girl, Shakespeare’s play takes up a love affair on the Trojan side fated to fare badly due to war and its obligations. In other words, a love interest and, importantly, jealousy, infuses all the talk of valor and honor and kills and conquests. Troilus (Andrew Burnap), a Trojan, is emphatically his own man, and that’s important since he’s apt to be further down on a list of famed heroes that includes his brothers Hector (Bill Heck) and Paris (Maurice Jones), and warrior Aeneas (Sanjit de Silva), and, on the Greek side, Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Nestor (Edward James Hyland) and Menelaus (Forrest Malloy). Burnap has romantic-lead good-looks, can play passion well, and makes Troilus’s story—which isn’t so central as you might expect—matter to us. He’s a human hero among a bunch of guys who seem to believe their own Homeric PR.

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

All the many characters here are in supporting roles, which means ensemble play is key, and also that the show is an embarrassment of riches in actors playing somewhat minor important roles, such as John Douglas Thompson as Agamemnon, a part that mainly requires being stuffy and, eventually, a bit drunk. As Ulysses, who is key to much of the plot, Corey Stoll plays it shrewd and aloof, except when the commander’s will to power gets the better of him and he gets worked up. He stalks about in a civilian suit with combat boots and makes us generally uneasy the way any sighting of Dick Cheney always did, back in the lamented reign of W. et al. He’s not above any skullduggery to get things to go as he would like. Along the way, nobler souls will fall—the play might be considered more properly the tragedy of the duty-bound Trojan hero Hector, but for the fact that we feel his fate is so—well—fated.

A key role well-cast is John Glover as Pandarus, the character here who, somewhat comparable to Shylock in Merchant, is both a figure of fun and a figure of surprising pathos. His every effort is to bring together Troilus and his niece, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), and they do get a wonderfully entertaining courtship scene that Mendes plays with beguiling grace in a very self-aware and contemporary manner. But Pandarus’ thanks is to see it all go to hell because such satisfactions mean nothing in the time of war. Leaning heavily on a cane in his white flannels, Glover’s Pandarus lights up the stage with the tones of a jaded bon vivante, a man entirely out of step with the times. He gets the first and last lines of a play he frames, his hopes turned to rancor.

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

Other very capable turns include Edward James Hyland’s diplomatic Nestor, Nneka Okafor’s distraught Cassandra, and Zach Appelman strutting his fit form as Diomedes, Troilus’s Greek rival. The scene where Cressida sort of cleaves to Diomedes is fraught with a prowling alley cat ambience that makes the level of arousal very high indeed. It’s a key moment where feminine agency within the stories men tell is seen for what it is: a strategy. Tactics are very much the lesson of the day in this play, and this seduction scene, witnessed by Troilus and Ulysses, is among the best touches Sullivan sets up for us, along with Ulysses as an assassin, and those assault rifles and explosions realistically loud and jarring.

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

As Paris and Helen, the other couple we might expect to offer some interest, Maurice Jones plays Paris as princely and rather lacking in soldierly demeanor, while Tala Ashe’s Helen, wineglass in hand, is a treat in her brief scene. Never was the status of trophy mistress more apt to a heroine’s condition, and Helen seems bored by the fatal hullabaloo these heroes are sustaining in her name. It’s as if a personification of “freedom” had to step onto the stage during the Iraq invasion.

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

As Ajax, the proud dullard who wants to prove himself, Alex Breaux gets some of the best laughs, at least those that don’t come by way of Max Casella’s Thersites, who seems to have dropped in from one of the boroughs to add a jaundiced touch of hero-puncturing. His irritation at his betters is the perfect foil for Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles, a shrewd sort of lout who knows his worth and cares little for what others think or say; his playfellow Patroclus—Tom Pecinka, a feckless boy-toy—gets some flak for distracting the Greek hero from the battlefield, but at the end of the day it’s Achilles’ lack of interest in the cause that makes him mope. His eventual showdown with Hector undermines the Greeks’ hero to such an extent it’s as if viewed through the eyes of a Trojan news report.

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

David Zinn‘s inventive and intriguing set serves well, adapting to the very different spaces quickly, and opening up for action sequences, but also containing enclosed spaces for Achilles’ barracks and for Cressida’s residence among the Greeks. There’s furniture to fling about and manly props and fight sequences, and interesting choices—again by Zinn—of modern costuming.

Sullivan’s cast does justice to the play’s changing focus without letting any segment overstay its welcome. Most importantly, this Troilus and Cressida reveals the play to be Shakespeare at his most proto-modern in eschewing grand tragedy for situations in which characters stick to the roles expected of them and how things turn out has to do with the shifts in emphasis among a collective. There’s no “all for one, one for all,” in this war, and yet the dedication to carnage and the acceptance of wasted life seems to be the price of admission for the kinds of heroics Shakespeare and Sullivan are subtly skewering. So seldom done and here done so well, The Public's Troilus and Cressida should be seen and celebrated.

 

Troilus and Cressida
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Mark Menard; Hair and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan; Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier; Co-Fight Directors: Micheal Rossmy and Rick Sordelet; Voice Coach: Alithea Phillips; Production Stage Manager: James Latus; Photos: Joan Marcus

Cast: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit de Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrel Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson

The Public Theater
Free Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater

July 19-August 14, 2016

A Royal Pain

Review of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cab Co-Artistic Directors Jesse Rasmussen and Elizabeth Dinkova seem to have a thing for sensationalist modern reworkings of classical sources. In last year’s Cab season, Dinkova directed Rasmussen, among others, in Boris Yeltsin, Mickaël de Oliveira’s Portuguese revamp of Agamemnon, featuring a bored latter-day aristocracy ripe for overthrow; now Rasmussen directs, with Dinkova on hand in a small but important role, Sarah Kane’s slash-and-burn satire on royalty, class, faith, and, mostly, sex, Phaedra’s Love. In both, a mother figure is rather unhealthily concerned with her grown son’s or stepson’s sexuality. In Boris Yeltsin, the infatuation stops short of sexual contact. Not so in Phaedra’s Love.

Phaedra, whether at the hands of Euripides, Seneca, Racine, or Kane, is a woman driven to distraction by her lust for Hippolytus, only son of her husband, King Theseus. Her pursuit of Hippolytus generally leads to her being rejected by him and to the accusation that he raped her, which generally brings about his death through the outrage of Theseus, providentially returned from his mission to the underworld. With larger-than-life heroic figures involved, it’s hard to say where the moral force of the story should be, but the situation of a queenly woman doing bad things for love makes the tale a popular one to revisit. To say nothing of the older woman/younger man mythos.

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

Kane’s Phaedra features a certain manic comic flair which, in Rasmussen’s rendering, mostly seethes below the surface. The Summer Cab version feels more tragic than one might expect, in part because camp, which could be a key factor in a contemporary tale this lurid, is relegated to a few minor touches. That leaves us with the indelible power of the key performances from Niall Powderly as Hippolytus and Elizabeth Stahlmann as Phaedra. The work they do is sizzling.

Powderly delivers Hippolytus, a masturbating, TV-watching, toy-car manipulating schlub in a tub, as every bit a tragic hero worthy of Shakespeare. Hippolytus is repulsively slovenly, but his detachment—from man, God, and woman—becomes at last a matter of moral heroism. It’s possible to see him that way when he accepts, scapegoat fashion, the charge of the rape and his grisly fate at the hands of a blood-thirsty populace, remarking “If there could have been more moments like this.” It’s a wonderful last line and feeds back into the place’s notion—which is what makes Hippolytus and Phaedra, oddly, soul mates—that living means feeling something unexpected, even out-of-bounds. No guts, no glory—which might mean, as here, pretty gory glory. With dead bodies enough to satisfy Shakespearean tragedy.

Kane is rather unsparing of Phaedra, a woman who forces herself upon her stepson and then feels outraged by her treatment at his coldly indifferent hands. Stahlmann, who I’ve seen in a variety of roles in her time at YSD, is revelatory, again. Here, her look speaks volumes as she walks the tightrope of Kane’s truncated lines. Phaedra is a stylish, self-possessed woman gradually becoming a basket-case, and her sense of her own worth is what she seems most eager to dispense with. Some might call her position masochistic, but that would be too extreme for a role that, one senses, we’re meant to see as endemic to the part sexuality reserves for women.

Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

If we doubt that, we’ve only to look at Phaedra’s daughter, Strophe (Brontë England-Nelson, who wins the trifecta for performances this summer with another impressive turn in her third play of the season). Strophe initially seems to be more firmly wrapped than Phaedra until we realize the extent to which she is already wounded. A key reason to see this play is to see the excellent actors on hand—which includes Paul Cooper as a bemused doctor, a pondering priest, and a rather bloodless Theseus.

Kane is a shrewd playwright who knows how comic the bathetic can be, which means that the emotional hi-jinx on display make it seem risky to laugh, or it might even hurt to laugh, and that’s the point. Her heroines are serving themselves up on a spit, but that’s nothing to what their disaffected object of desire will get up to. Attentive viewers will catch the chuckle of naming Phaedra’s daughter Strophe and will notice how things shift to “Antistrophe” and “Catastrophe” as the play moves on—suffice to say, the shift is structured by certain oral acts, the last from a source that might be unexpected enough to satisfy even Hippolytus. Our hero, after all, mainly identifies himself with his guts and his cock, so we can say his end has all kinds of poetic justice.

And what about his mind? Kane gives Hippolytus a skeptic’s jailhouse colloquy with a priest that lets him vent about a life with no beliefs, and he cleverly turns the notion of forgiveness on its head, so that even the priest must concede the clarity of his moral code. That’s when we begin to see that Hippolytus isn’t simply sickened by being royal or by his dysfunctional family or by the depths those who desire him are willing to stoop to, but that, for him, there’s a needling fear of pointlessness forever in sight. And Powderly’s unflinching stare, with all this actor’s froideur and finesse, keeps that big empty elephant in the room, so to speak. Which, come to think of it, may be what makes him so irresistible to his step-mom. She wants to see him feel something. Too bad she’s not there for the end.

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

At a bit over an hour in length, Phaedra’s Love is the quickest of the shows this summer, and the scenes between Hippolytus and Phaedra are over too soon. The look of Phaedra and Strophe as high-toned dames is ably caught by killer dresses and accessories by Sarah Woodham, while the cobweb behind the lurid red curtain, the psychotic graphic swirls adorning walls, and that tub in baleful light center stage  combine for the feel of funhouse horror that Fufan Zhang’s set and Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting conjures, much as Christopher Ross-Ewart’s soundstage of music and transmissions does, all vaguely unsettling.

Long ago, Villiers de L'isle Adam summed up the jaded aristocrat’s view with the line, “Living? Our servants can do that for us.” In Phaedra’s Love, the aristocracy are seen living out a kind of trailer trash version of a life even their servants might despise. And yet, for all the leveling of our crassly democratic age, it’s still rather cathartic to wallow with our betters in their gilded cesspool. And nothing makes that happen like theater. The Summer Cabaret ends its 2016 season with one fucked-up royal family hoist with its own petard.

 

Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer and Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Set Designer: Fufan Zhang; Production Dramaturg: David Bruin; Movement and Violence Consultant: Emily Lutin; Production Manager/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Cast: Paul Cooper; Brontë England-Nelson; Niall Powderly; Elizabeth Stahlmann; Ensemble: Elizabeth Dinkova; Sean Boyce Johnson; Kevin Hourigan

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016

Raising Kane

Preview of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret prepares to open its final show of the 2016 season, this Thursday. Co-artistic Jesse Rasmussen, who opened the season with a highly physical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in June, will close out the season directing renowned playwright Sarah Kane’s “brutal comedy,” Phaedra's Love.

Kane’s plays are known for their uncompromising approach to a world in which humanity is prone to violence and, in her more reflective works, suffers from the anxieties of its condition. The “darker facets” of theater attract Rasmussen, who feels Phaedra's Love is a suitable follow-up to Alice, where “the gently dark elements invited” the “playfulness”—with an edge of psychosis—that marked the Summer Cab’s opener. Rasmussen, who will direct the Jacobean tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis project next spring, says “an interest in violence”  links modern writers like Kane and Edward Bond, whose work she also considered as a summer project, with the Jacobean sense of the dramatic use of extreme violence on stage.

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

 

Asked why violence should be a necessary element of the plays she directs, Rasmussen said “turn on the news,” and spoke eloquently about how it’s “irresponsible to not connect” theater to the stories of random violence and assault that have made 2016 so stressful. Rasmussen, whose background includes extensive avant-garde work with Four Larks, a theater group that “creates contemporary performance at the intersection of theatre, music, visual art, and dance,” is drawn to work that takes chances and creates a unique theatrical experience.

That said, Kane—whose most divisive work was Blasted—called Phaedra's Love “my comedy,” and, indeed, Rasmussen says, it is the playwright’s most accessible and classical work, having been commissioned as a reworking of Seneca’s Phaedra. So there are familiar elements right off—first, “an intimate family drama that eventually explodes,” and the Greek "myth Kane is riffing on.”  The myth concerns the story of how a curse on Phaedra, wife of King Theseus and step-mother to Hippolytus, causes her to lust after her step-son, bringing about his death and, in some versions, her own suicide. What Kane brings to this situation, in a play originally staged in the 1990s, is her “deep repulsion” at her countrymen’s obsession which the British royal family which, at the time, included Princess Diana.

Part of the challenge Rasmussen sees is in rendering the play’s corrosive sense of monarchy “in a way that will be legible here” in the U.S. Certainly, celebrity worship and what Rasmussen calls “the sort of useless leaders paid to be photographed” are not unfamiliar to us, nor is the gap between rich and poor that, if bad enough in the ‘90s, is likely worse now. What’s more, the recent fulminations for Brexit by those who demand a more insular Britain should give Kane’s attack on privileged crassness plenty of bite.

Rasmussen sees the play as “formally exciting,” in part because the violence, which happens offstage in the Greek play, is “in our faces” in Kane’s version, since the playwright’s aesthetic intent is to make the audience “witnesses to violence.” Thus, another challenge of the play is the logistics of staging violence. Rasmussen and her team have had many conversations about violence and witnessing as aspects of the play, which, Rasmussen says “pulls no punches.” Beginning with “the internal domestic space” of this particular family, Kane includes the populace, so that there is a enlarged sense of representation in the play’s conclusion. As Rasmussen says, “there are lots of ways blood can come out on stage,” and part of the task she has undertaken is “do violence well and real” within the limited, and extremely intimate, Yale Cabaret space. To that end, Rasmussen is again working with choreographer Emily Lutin, who she worked with on her studio project, Macbeth, to incorporate with precision and sensitivity the physical process of violence her cast will enact.

The play’s formal challenges are supported by Kane’s poetic use of language. For Rasmussen, the playwright is “a master of economy” who uses truncated syntax to “cut the fat” from dialogue, which makes her play rich and exciting for actors. Kane’s style, Rasmussen has found, promotes attention to detail so that the difference in pause between a comma and a period can be highly expressive. The play’s protagonist, Hippolytus “is a horrible person,” but ends up being “the most honest.” Played by Niall Powderly—who played the title role in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus last summer—Hippolytus, in the director’s view, emerges as the “moral compass of the play, unexpectedly.”

In fact, one reason Rasmussen picked this play over others was because she likes “plays with some type of love story” in them. She found herself fascinated by Phaedra: “how could this woman be in the horrifying position” of such inappropriate desire? Phaedra, played by Elizabeth Stahlmann, who played the title role in Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando last summer, harbors a love for her stepson that makes her “lead with her loins.” “Stepmothers aren’t generally liked” in literature, Rasmussen points out, and so the notion of Phaedra as a sympathetic character may well have been what drew Kane to the myth. Our culture is “still terrified at the idea of a transgressive woman,” so that Phaedra’s sexuality, for Rasmussen, can be seen as heroic in its honesty, and “a transforming element” that “lights a fire that burns down the palace, so to speak.” Theseus, played by Paul Cooper, who played the White Knight and White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, is the proverbial absentee husband, setting up a situation where Phaedra decides she “won’t deny herself and live quietly.”

phaedra poster.jpg

The play, considered Kane’s wittiest, benefits from the detachment that mythic characters possess for contemporary audiences, even if tellingly modernized. And it’s no accident that Rasmussen’s three principles—Powderly, Stahlmann and Cooper—are the three actors who worked with her in David Harrower’s poetic and unsettling play of triangular passion, Knives in Hens, in the Cabaret last fall. “I would only work on this play with actors who I’ve worked with and who I know trust me,” Rasmussen says, “before essentially pushing them off a cliff.”

It’s been a season of sin at the Yale Summer Cabaret, and—after sloth, gluttony, greed, wrath and envy, it’s time for lust—able, here, to “mutine in a matron’s bones,” to borrow Hamlet’s line—to inspire what may be the most challenging play of the four presented this summer. While not a large ensemble of many parts, Phaedra's Love will challenge in a different way: most of the scenes are “two-handers” so that we will be spending time with characters who develop over the course of the evening through specific dramatic pairings.

Sex, violence . . . lust, murder . . . a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society. And, yes, laughs.

 

Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016

Be Our Geist

Review of Adam Geist, Yale Summer Cabaret

In dramatizing the struggle of its eponymous hero, Adam Geist—in its U.S. premiere, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova from David Tushingham’s translation of Dea Loher’s play—covers a lot of ground. Located mainly in late twentieth-century Austria, Adam, played with impressive range by Julian Elijah Martinez, moves through the modern world as if on a picaresque odyssey. Adam’s restless energy drives the play as he seems to be perpetually in flight from his most recent encounter. Inventive staging, colorful projections, and a varying ensemble put the play across as a series of events that keeps us questioning at every turn.

In his travails, beginning with the loss of his mother and his break with his uneasy and belittling relatives, Adam encounters drug-sellers, druggy Turks, a forthright waif (Shadi Ghaheri), firefighters—including Karl (Kevin Hourigan), who identifies as Sioux—the French Foreign Legion, ultra-right populists, engages in war, and tries to find redemption with cultists of the Virgin. With action that includes a shocking rape, brutal murders, violent attacks, humiliation of prisoners, and questionable choices and rationales, Adam Geist is not a study in its hero’s character so much as a study of the character of modern times, particularly the prevalence of dehumanizing brutality at the bottom of society.

Adam Geist (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Adam Geist (Julian Elijah Martinez)

With a name like Adam Geist, we can expect allegory right off. Adam, of course, is the “first man,” God-created in a terrestrial paradise; Adam Geist never knew his father, and his mother—who seems to have indulged in a little molestation of pre-adolescent Adam—is dead of skin cancer as the play opens. Rather than a paradise, Adam's life projects him through what may seem circles of Hell, or perhaps Purgatory. Not an afterlife, this hell comes from other people, right enough, and any saving graces generally wind up dead. “Geist” is German for “spirit” or “mind,” the latter written with a capital M when it becomes a matter of the “world-spirit” that Hegel considered the noumenal force driving things in our phenomenal world (that’s “world of phenomena,” not “really great” world). Adam Geist, then, could easily be the requisite “concrete universal” who might reveal the tendency of history, or take away or take on, scapegoat fashion, the sins of the world, or maybe become a violent, victimized, mentally unstable upstart from a “special school,” just trying to get by. In any case, this pilgrim’s progress does arrive at a certain clarity about himself, and it is left to the viewer how much slack you want to give him, or how touching you find his plight, or repellent his nature.

The Summer Cab’s staging wisely lets Sarah Woodham’s careful costuming give us different locations and interlocutors, rather than cumbersome set changes. All the action could easily be imagined to be happening in some timeless past—as it might look from Adam’s viewpoint. What he remembers are the people who make an impression, like Girl (Ghaheri), who he meets in the graveyard where their respective mothers are buried—his encounter with her is at first endearing, then very unsettling, and finally haunting. Similarly, the kindest person he meets, Karl the Native American enthusiast, played with childlike open heart by Hourigan, seems to provide some personal hope for Adam, before that possibility too is wrenched away.

Mourners in Adam Geist: Julian Elijah Martinez, Sean Boyce Johnson, Sebastian Arboleda, Steven Lee Johnson, Kevin Hourigan

Mourners in Adam Geist: Julian Elijah Martinez, Sean Boyce Johnson, Sebastian Arboleda, Steven Lee Johnson, Kevin Hourigan

And so it goes. Elsewhere there are heroic acts, usually with Adam taking the part of someone more powerless than he, and also acts of murderous rage that he barely acknowledges. Martinez shows us an Adam driven mostly by immediate feeling, whose intellect is a few steps behind his more forceful drives. There’s a wild Id on the loose feel about much of what Adam does and his nature seems primarily reactive.

So it’s important that the cast gives him some colorful figures to react to. Stellar in that regard is Brontë England-Nelson who does much of the heavy lifting in ensemble scenes, convincing us that she’s a nervy aunt, a butch fireman, a rapt stoner, a skinhead ideologue, before stepping forward as the creepy small-hood kingpin Reinberger. Sebastian Arboleda gets to engage in a comic monologue as Sergeant Major, a recruiter proud of outfoxing the wily prairie dog; Steven Lee Johnson gets the more unsavory parts, such as a heckling cousin, an autistic skinhead obsessed with cleanliness, and Erich, a belligerent, Muslim-bating mercenary, while Sean Boyce Johnson gives us glimpses of characters—Adam’s uncle, a drug-using buddy, an old man assaulted by Erich—who might provide some learning experience for Adam. Not all the many characters come across as clearly as they might, but the methods that permit these young actors to focus scenes and mannerisms with such quick changes are truly impressive. A high-point is the firefighters’ speech, one of the few merely comic bits in the show. Tonally, it’s a bit at odds, but it is welcome.

Adam's kin (Sean Boyce Johnson, Bronte England-Nelson, Sebastian Arboleda)

Adam's kin (Sean Boyce Johnson, Bronte England-Nelson, Sebastian Arboleda)

In An-Lin Dauber’s set design, a brilliant use of a large section of chain-link fence acts as prop, symbol and set device, while Johnny Moreno’s projections—with becoming graphic-novel-style colors and images, and evocative use of video—add visual interest and imagery. The use of the Cab’s courtyard, while slightly disruptive in terms of logistics, makes for a very dramatic final scene as the open heavens above provide a suitable background to Adam’s acts and speech.

And now, an editorial thought: On the tables at the Cab are questions probing the audience about their expectations in viewing theater. Some questions address “color blind” casting—the notion that the race of an actor is immaterial to the part being played—which is seen as a progressive move allowing more non-white actors to get major roles. But casting actors to play an ethnicity different from their own can open a firestorm over who gets to play whom. In casting Martinez, a non-white actor, as a product of the Austrian underclass, the Cab’s show adds an allegorical level that’s important, it seems to me, in this first U.S. production of the play. When, in his final speech, Adam makes a selfie video addressed to “Mr. President” most viewers aren’t going to be thinking about the president of Austria; they’re going to see a young African-American male trying to put his case before our president, another African-American male, so that when Adam says “perhaps I’m no longer your concern” those lines resonate beyond Loher’s initial setting to take in the current atmosphere of blacklivesmatter. And Adam’s reflection upon some extraterrestrial hope for justice reaches, as intended, beyond international and even human bounds, but also points damningly at the slim chances for justice here and now.

Adam Geist is not a feel-good play, but it is a powerful play that mirrors a time when criminality and heroism, predators and protectors, are as tellingly intertwined in our weekly news reports as ever. Without distorting the original text, the Cab team—Elizabeth Dinkova and dramaturg Gavin Whitehead, with their lead Julian Elijah Martinez—make Adam Geist a tale for our times.

 

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

Set Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Projection Designer: Johnny Moreno; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Production Manager/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Movement & Violence Consultant: Emily Lutin; Production Assistant: Ece Alpergun

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Brontë England-Nelson; Shadi Ghaheri; Kevin Hourigan; Sean Boyce Johnson; Steven Lee Johnson; Julian Elijah Martinez

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 21-30, 2016

Follow the Money

Review of The Invisible Hand, Westport Country Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy

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

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

Westport Country Playhouse
July 19-August 6, 2016

Welcome a Special Geist

Preview of Adam Geist, Yale Summer Cabaret

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

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

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

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

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

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

Julian Elijah Martinez

Julian Elijah Martinez

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

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

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

Es ist Zeit für Geist!

 

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

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 21-30, 2016

That Toddling Town

Review of Chicago, Ivoryton Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheniqua Denise Trotman)

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

Well, not really.

 

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

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

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

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

Ivoryton Playhouse
June 29-July 24, 2016  

May the Farce Be with You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roy (Marie Botha) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

Roy (Marie Botha) (photo: Christopher Thompson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 30-July 10, 2016

Gotta Dance!

Review of A Chorus Line, Playhouse on Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Playhouse on Park
June 15—July 31, 2016

People Who Need People

Review of Buyer & Cellar, Westport Country Playhouse

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

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

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

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Alex More (Michael Urie)

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

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

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Westport Country Playhouse
June 14-July 3, 2016

Antarctica Starts Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 Yale Summer Cabaret
June 30-July 10, 2016

Multiplied by Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

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

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

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

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

Shaunette Renée Wilson

Shaunette Renée Wilson

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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