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.

Holy Shite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Light as Air

Review of Air Play, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

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

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

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

Christina Gelsone, Seth Bloom

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

In the Name of the Father and of the Son

Review of The Total Bent, The Public Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Go Ask Alice

Review of Alice in Wonderland, Yale Summer Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

Alice (Sydney Lemmon)

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Summer Cabaret 2016: Seven Deadly Sins

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

June 2-19, 2016

The Land of Yesterday

Review of Anastasia, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures

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

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

Hartford Stage
May 12-June 19, 2016

The Sweets of Sin

Preview, Yale Summer Cabaret

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
Seven Deadly Sins

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

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

The Milieu Makes the Man

Review of My Paris, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mais oui—
vive Henri
au Paris!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Dance Captain: Timothy Hughes

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

Originally produced by Goodspeed Musicals

Long Wharf Theatre
May 4-29, 2016

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

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

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

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