A Manic Panic

Review of How We Died of Disease-Related Illness at Yale Cabaret

In the talk-back after the Friday night early show of How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, by Miranda Rose Hall, actor Niall Powderly, who plays Neil, an infected social scientist, characterized the show as “Mel Brooks with a point.” I can’t do any better than that.

As that descriptive phrase should suggest, the show, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova, is wacky and zany, full of a cartoonish sense of human interaction that zigs and zags through antagonism, togetherness, arch absurdity, naked emotion, slapstick, song, and skits “in the manner of….” But the play is also disturbingly relevant. As the playbill notes from co-artistic director David Bruin point out, a new epidemic disease—Zika—is even now gaining a global profile. Hall wrote the play while suffering heebie-jeebies over the Ebola outbreak—which, one recalls, did seem to reach Yale Medical—and, while the suffering caused by infectious and often fatal disease is anything but amusing to those affected, the surrounding reactions, from our media and from “the general public” often look like sit-com material, sans laugh-track. Hall’s play feeds that kind of hysterical thinking—a parody paranoia—back to us on an endless loop: we stand ever-ready to be victimized by our fears and phobias. We push a button and summon a media to push our buttons.

Everyone in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness is working very hard on a very shallow set, with the action spilling out into the aisles, so to speak. There’s Jenelle Chu as Hannah, a seemingly unflappable nurse who spirals through a wide-range of mood swings, while all the time wearing a look of scientific neutrality, almost like a hysterical Spock. As the stricken researcher, Powderly hyperventilates so authentically you begin to hope a real medic is somewhere nearby, and his show-stopping “big production number” about disease—as, more or less, the life-changer we’ve all been waiting for—is hilariously over-the-top. As Bill, a medical assistant who arrives looking for a party and stays for the death sequences, Taylor Barfield maintains an upbeat focus while all hell is breaking loose. Then there’s Lisa (Rachel Shuey), a late-comer to the scene and an interesting wrinkle for the play’s ultimate aims. As a “martyr” and proselytizing rabble-rouser—particulary for CLITS (Cats Living In Tragic Situations)—Lisa brings to the mayhem a touch of media-ized mania. When she faces into the camera with flags waving behind her, she seems the culmination of the play’s many quiz-show inspired questions about the emblems of our nation’s state identities—the birds, mottos, dances, trees, and, yes, muffins. Why not a “state disease,” a “state malaise,” a “state cause”?

Too much can’t be said about Juliana Canfield as the mercurial Trisha. She opens the show as a fresh-faced janitor only too pleased at being paid to clean. Throughout the play she shows up repeatedly as a kind of Chorus—moving along to food prep or calisthenics or the intercom or HR or the clergy or a medical professional about to run for governor—and, in each guise, she adds an air of rational usefulness, the kind of thing we tend to expect from the medical profession. At the same time, however, Canfield’s Trisha retains a gleam in her eye that speaks of the kind of earnest pathology found in conspiracy theorists and reality-TV hosts. She’s us when our “first do no harm” helpfulness is no help at all, when our efforts to defeat fear seem to spawn only dumbed-down bromides and homilies of helplessness. And she also plays a one-eyed murderous cat.

Hall’s ear for the unique mixtures of American inanity are nowhere more evident than in Trisha’s monologues, but the hyper dialogues between Neil and Hannah have their share of odd twists and turns, and Lisa’s “vamping” during Bill’s effort to clean up the carnage takes aim at the saving grace supposedly found in creating unreal situations to comment upon reality, generally called “theater.”

Sound effects from Frederick Kennedy are real enough to make unsettled stomachs queasy, while other “special effects”—such as the excretion of guacamole—are ridiculously inept. At times the show feels like live television, aided by a camera whose projections are shown on screens strategically placed in the Cab space, including comical close-ups of the cast at their most wide-eyed.

Busy, brash and bold, How We Died of Disease-Related Illness is a panic.

 

How We Died of Disease-Related Illness
By Miranda Rose Hall
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Scenic Designer: Zoe Hurwitz; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Design and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Technical Director: Stephanie Waaser; Stage Manager: David Clauson; Producer: Ruoran Li (Kathy)

Cast: Taylor Barfield, Juliana Canfield, Jenelle Chu, Niall Powderly, Rachel Shuey

Yale Cabaret
February 4-6, 2016

A Sentimental Education

Review of Women Beware Women at Yale School of Drama

Howard Barker’s re-working of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy, Women Beware Women, directed by Leora Morris as her thesis show at the Yale School of Drama, makes considerable demands on viewers and players alike. The drama that Barker more or less maintains through the first half tends to feel like Shakespeare minus the poetic self-analysis but with a veneer of what could be called perverse charm. While the second act, penned by Barker, and given an inspired spin by Morris, kicks ass—simply put.

Baize Buzan, Paul Stillman Cooper, Sean Patrick Higgins, Annie Hagg

Baize Buzan, Paul Stillman Cooper, Sean Patrick Higgins, Annie Hagg

In the Middleton act, Morris and her cast play to the camp effects of the material—with, among other modernizing touches, a bawdy lyric from Sordido (Paul Stillman Cooper) delivered as a rap, complete with mouthed beats provided by Ward (Bradley James Tejeda), and a big dance number that serves to get all those very colorful costumes onstage at once. But such touches don’t manage to enliven what is fairly turgid going, in part because the tone feels like a bedroom farce played over a nasty tragedy.

Worse, the play is lacking a hero or heroine, which becomes a significant element in the play’s second act, but in the early going the plots we witness are busy but not compelling. In one plot, Leantio (Sean Patrick Higgins), a lowly man, loses his new wife Bianca (Baize Buzan) to rape or “seduction” by the ever lusty Duke (Galen Kane), while, in another, a ditzy aristocrat Fabritio (Dylan Frederick) tries to marry off his eligible daughter Isabella (Shaunette Renée Wilson) to an even ditzier brat (Tejeda), Ward of the scheming Guardiana (Jenelle Chu). Meanwhile, Isabella’s uncle Hippolito (Niall Powderly) has designs of his own on his niece, which his sister—the very busy bawd Livia (Annie Hägg)—helps along, much as she also helps the Duke to help himself to the charms of Bianca. What both Middleton and Barker have in mind, it seems, is the raging unpleasantness harbored in the hearts of well-born humanity, particularly the libidinal viciousness of women who are “past it.” Unable to enjoy the attentions of the like of the Duke, who boasts he’s never bedded a woman of thirty years, Livia and Guardiana get their jollies by corrupting the innocent.

But even the put-upon under-class, always vulnerable to predatory “masters,” don’t manage to engage sympathy since they seem as full of cupidity as everyone else. In the early going, Hägg and Powderly show off to best effect, since they carry well the decadent gravitas of seedy aristocrats. Wilson does fine as a proud innocent (though it’s not much of a part), and Buzan gets to display mercurial moods as a teen wife beguiled by a glimpse of her worth in a high-born’s bed. As the Count, Kane has a dour charm and as “the widow”—Leantio’s mother—Juliana Canfield keeps up the comic relief. And special mention to Brontë England-Nelson who is superlative as a self-righteous male Cardinal, brother of the Duke.

The second act opens with an eyeful as Leantio and Livia cavort about naked, congratulating each other on their sexual prowess and, with the youthful flesh on view, giving the lie to the notion that Livia is “aged.” No matter, Barker’s language is a feast and all of Middleton’s rather trivial characters come forward in more cunning configurations. For starters, Ward has surprising resources, played by Tejeda with a seething fury, and Sordido, who seemed a simple foil in the early going, becomes an amoral player in the malevolent plans of Leantio and Livia, who aim to enact vengeance upon Bianca, now vain as a Kardashian.

If we think we’re watching a comeuppance of the upper-class—with the dazed Duke losing his latest conquest when just about to marry her—that’s only part of the machinations here. We’re also, in Barker’s view, seeing the dark underside of a “woman’s world,” with Livia standing for the newly achieved (in the 1980s) political power of women “of a certain age,” able to wield boy toys in the cut-throat world of the moneyed. But the play without a hero alters surprisingly in Morris’ hands as Bianca comes forward, after her rape by Sordido, as a modern heroine, as if tried by a walk of shame to see the culpability of all, and the power play at the heart of male sexuality. Which leaves her free to woo the ingenue.

It’s an upbeat ending, complete with falling walls and doors that seem to free the actors from the roles—and deaths—Middleton wrote for them, and from the over-busy projections of the set. What’s particularly successful here is that we don’t seem to be simply witnessing a breaking down of social custom or a familiar hybrid aesthetic, but rather a revolutionary spirit that wants to overturn expectations with something more confounding. The confrontation may be a bit calculated, but if so, that argues for the value of the Middleton section, for we have to be reminded of how jaded entertainment can be before we can feel how jarring.

 

Women Beware Women
By Howard Barker and Thomas Middleton
Directed by Leora Morris

Choreographer: Gretchen Wright; Scenic Designer: Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Composer and Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Production Dramaturg: Nahuel Tellería; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel

Cast: Baize Buzan, Juliana Canfield, Jenelle Chu, Paul Stillman Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Annie Hägg, Rebecca Hampe, Sean Patrick Higgins, Galen Kane, Steven C. Koernig, Niall Powderly, Bradley James Tejeda, Katie Travers, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale School of Drama
January 23-29, 2016

Slouching toward Adulthood

Review of Slouch at Yale Cabaret

Room-mates. Living with people one is not related to but with whom one forms a kind of ad hoc intimacy is typical of life in college. And after college? What kind of relationships are established by living a perpetual “post-collegiate” experience? That’s the situation of B. Walker Sampson’s Slouch, staged at Yale Cabaret by co-directors Stella Baker and Matthew Fischer with a good sense of how to create movement and flow in this highly verbal play.

Three roommates, Fletcher (Jake Lozano), Skye (Emily Reeder), and Summer (Marié Botha) have in common an interest in their former college BMOC Gordon. But more than that, they have an almost preternatural ability to narrate each other’s actions and habits and obsessions and anxieties. The laughs in the show depend a lot on the hyper-critical tone the girls direct at the hapless slacker Fletcher—who loses his job basically for daydreaming—and the way in which they try to spin their less than stellar activities as efforts at self-discovery, such as Skye’s decision that, to learn the violin as she has always dreamed, she would have to buy a farm first.

Summer, who seems to have admired Gordon from afar, is certain his upcoming visit—to get back his copy of Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones LP from Fletcher—will entail dinner, which she is keen to prepare. And that sends her on a slapstick visit to the supermarket where the enacted cross-purposes of various narratives are hilarious. Botha plays Summer as kind of hyper-aware ditz, much more insightful about others than she is about herself.

Fletcher, who is lackadaisical about his roommates, as he is about much, tends to fret because Gordon has far exceeded Fletcher’s own meager accomplishments. Lozano’s Fletcher seems used to being none-too-swift, and is put upon by the girls for his mopey, dopey guyness. Eventually Summer seems to soften toward him, showing more sympathy than we would expect from her.

Skye, whose story includes a visit to Nantucket in the rain to meet with Gordon only to be stood up, ends up the eternal onlooker as Fletcher and Summer seem to bond over their need for something outside their own heads to be attentive to. And that’s the main take-away here: growth requires taking other people seriously, not simply as spectral reflections of one’s own agenda. Of the three, Summer seems maybe ready to make a move—if not for the sake of Gordon, then maybe for Fletcher, who could certainly benefit from someone finding him something more than a cipher.

Don Cogan’s scenic design creates lived-in-looking areas for the trio to bat around in, and Fischer’s lighting and Tye Hunt Fitzgerald’s sound design add many nice touches, while Brittany Bland’s projections provide atmospheric art on the window center stage, including raindrops and street scenes that become eloquent in helping create mood for this quickly shifting play.

The main effect of Slouch is of a kind of madcap pinball game of the mind, with words and phrases zinging around inside the heads of characters who occasionally are surprised to say aloud what they hear so insistently inside. It’s as if everyone lives with a constant logorrhea that can spill out into the audible almost involuntarily. Which makes actual dialogue seem like it is always in the middle of a stream of thought—a very apt demonstration of how conversation proceeds in the midst of a barrage of IMs, texting, and scrolling. In its ear for how the distracted generation live and love, Slouch is no slouch of a play.

 

Slouch
By B. Walker Sampson
Directed by Stella Baker and Matthew Fischer

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Designer: Dan Cogan; Costume Designer: Jamie Farkas; Lighting Designer: Matthew Fischer; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Producer: Melissa Rose

Yale Cabaret
January 21-23, 2016

Hold That Pose

Review of The Body of an American at Hartford Stage

Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American, directed with deft control by Jo Bonney at Hartford Stage, is great storytelling. With a cast of two both acting as narrators and a variety of characters, the telling of the story is a large part of the theatrics here.

Michael Crane (Dan)

Michael Crane (Dan)

Often, we’re not watching scenes occur between characters, but rather the recollection of scenes as Michael Crane, as the playwright Dan, tells us how he got interested in photojournalist Paul Watson (Michael Cumpsty) and then interacted with him—via email—and eventually met with him in the frozen wastes of Canada. And Paul is often recalling his adventures as well—assignments that took him to many hot spots of warfare, such Mogodishu, in 1994, where he took a photo of the desecrated body of U.S. serviceman Sgt. David Cleveland, which won Watson a Pulitzer. While all this collective recollection makes the play rather talky, O’Brien’s cut-up narrative technique gives the show a lot of energy, and Alex Basco Koch’s projections and Richard Hoover’s scenic design keep the visuals interesting.

Michael Crane, Michael Cumpsty

Michael Crane, Michael Cumpsty

The story unfolds primarily through recited emails between the two men, with Dan hoping to use Paul’s experiences as the basis of a play (with the play we’re watching the result), and Paul letting Dan have glimpses of his nomadic life with its risks and rewards. Key to the first half of the show—which runs for a swift 90 minutes with no intermission—is Paul’s story of how he took the photo of Cleveland, while hearing a voice in his head he felt was Cleveland’s say “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The sense of being haunted by the experience of taking the photo comes through strongly.

The fact that the photo made Watson’s name gives credence to the idea that Watson “owes” Cleveland forever. The basis of the owning and owing floats through the play like a plaintive ghost—bringing in all kinds of associations about what civilians owe the military and to what extent the military “owns” U.S. policy—but, while Watson is willing to be owned by the call of duty to be where the action is, the purposes behind such actions are only glanced at. Still, there’s a fascinating underlying theme of what it means to record real events via cameras and what it means to recount a life’s work via theater that makes The Body of an American worth thinking about.

Michael Cumpsty (Paul)

Michael Cumpsty (Paul)

In O’Brien’s hands, Watson emerges as a driven and ambitious professional who also maintains a somewhat romantic sense of his role in the world and that, Dan seems to think, makes him the stuff of drama. In a sense, it’s a miscalculation, this effort to use theater to reveal a) the personal dynamism and difficulties of one man, Paul Watson, and b) the personal difficulties of the playwright, Dan O'Brien, as filtered through his dealings with Watson. This becomes evident in the second half of the play when the two finally meet and spend time together in the Arctic. These scenes have the feel of the awkwardness and incidental boredom of real life, without any great sense of meaning coming from the meeting. That might not be so bad, except that the first half of the play dazzles us with the kinds of stories Paul can tell at a moment’s notice, having been in places and seen things few others have. The Arctic scenes make only too clear that, when not writing a play, a playwright isn’t very interesting and, while not taking hard-to-believe photos, a photojournalist is just killing time.

Yet the play does have one last ace up its sleeve: the phone call Paul placed to the family—particularly the mother—of Sgt. Cleveland. Paul doesn’t get to talk to her, but gets a brusque call from Cleveland’s brother that becomes increasingly riveting as we see both how much Paul needs to get some kind of response from those who know Cleveland and how much patience and sympathy the sergeant’s brother grudgingly expends in the face of Paul’s desperation. As played by Crane and Cumpsty, the scene finally lets us see the play’s dramatic situation reversed: normally it’s Crane, as Dan, trying to get some kind of concession of feelings from Cumpsty, as Paul. While the phone call may not come off as a great reveal about Paul, it does help to sustain Dan’s notion that his effort to get through Paul's flinty, ironic stance paid off.

The ensemble work between the actors is truly a tour de force, with Crane’s ability to morph into a variety of minor characters greatly entertaining. As Watson, Cumpsty has a craggy, world-weary cheer that helps us believe in the character's lack of illusions, while the clipped give-and-take of most of their exchanges embodies the way even “true stories” are staged, and framed, and suited to a purpose.

 

The Body of an American
By Dan O’Brien
Directed by Jo Bonney

Scenic Design: Richard Hoover; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch; Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht; Casting: Binder Casting; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp; Assistant Stage Manager: Alisa Zeljeznjak

Hartford Stage
January 7-31, 2016

Walking the Lion

Review of The Lion at Long Wharf Theatre

Though you might not think it to look at him, slim, blonde, and boyish singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer has suffered, and of that suffering he has made a song cycle, or cabaret-style musical, called The Lion, which debuted at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014, and earned him the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, and is now at the Long Wharf Theatre.

On stage, it’s just Scheuer, several guitars (one electric, the rest acoustic), some chairs, and a kind of distressed-looking backdrop that could pass for a room in a worn recording-studio or a low-key folk nightclub. The story he has to tell runs the gamut from childhood inspiration—his father, a mathematician, played guitar and made young Ben a toy banjo from a cookie tin, a necktie, and rubber bands—to familial dysfunction, loss, young love found and lost, a very scary and unpleasant disease—Hodgkin Lymphoma—and, ultimately, personal redemption via music, particularly the guitar.

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion


As such, the show is about the conditions of its own creation. All the songs and Scheuer’s between-song narrations contribute to the unfolding story of how Scheuer became the author and performer of The Lion. It’s a true story, but like all true stories, it has to be adapted to be made the stuff of art. We tend to believe there is some kind of real experience as the basis for the lyrics of most songs we hear—sometimes that connection between the singer and the song is made explicit, at other times there’s more detachment from what’s being told—but The Lion makes sense only as the story of Benjamin Scheuer, its narrator-protagonist. In that light, but for “Weather the Storm,” a song young Scheuer learns from his dad, and the only one here that could inspire a sing-along, it’s not filled with folk songs but rather the kind of first-person songs that tend to be sung by characters in musicals.

But these are also not the kind of catchy, hummable tunes one associates with musicals; the song of The Lion mostly have to have narrative force, and Scheuer is quite adept at finding a way to sing about upsetting experiences. The songs, though, are not just a bid for sympathy. Scheuer strives to make his personal experience exemplary of the kinds of things that can break up families, the kinds of things that go wrong with overly naïve love affairs, the kinds of things that can afflict our health with little warning, and, particularly, the guilt we feel about how we treated our parents and our ongoing resentment of how they treated us.

If that sounds like song-writing as therapy, it should, because at times that’s what listening to The Lion feels like. While listening, we can wonder where the story’s going—will “Ben” be cured of his illness, will he find true love, will his mom stop being so snippy, will he land a big recording contract and show everybody—but, as with any album of related songs you might care to think of, what we’re mainly doing is experiencing each song as its sung and played for us. The intimacy of a solo performer with a guitar has a certain inherent theatricality, and the songs—which are very well-structured—show the variety of Scheuer as singer/musician as well as the many shades of Ben, the guy who seems to keep groping at getting a handle on his life. Except that the songs are the handle the guy they’re about doesn’t quite get. Yet.

Ultimately, that’s what makes The Lion gripping: its candor. To quote a line from a Dylan song: “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” The slings and arrows of Ben’s life may be easily comparable to what many have endured, particularly those who write and sings the blues, to say nothing of those who favor tell-all memoirs, but what is unique is getting up night after night to sing that story for the edification of others. Particularly as the heart of the show has to stand in the uneasy space between the early warm and fuzzy evocation of Dad making that cookie-tin banjo and the effort to connect across time with “Dear Dad,” in a song that tries to assuage what can never really be laid to rest.

You have to respect Scheuer for trying, though, with what talents he has. He’s a better guitarist than singer and better singer than actor, but there’s dramatic interest in his ability to recall to mind versions of himself—or of Ben—that can seem quaint or touching or simply clueless. The line that The Lion walks is between the effort to make us share in the hurts and happiness felt by Ben, and, for Scheuer, to find some kind of transcendence by singing his heart out about himself, his dad, his siblings and mother, his old girlfriend, his illness, his music, each night. While not wise and witty about pop star life (and sexual identity) like a fictional musical memoir such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Lion, in its earnest bid for empathy, does approach hard-won insight about the long, strange trip that is life in general and the mystery of other people.

The show’s title comes from a song that asks “What makes a lion a lion?” One of those imponderables that can also be extended to the show itself. What makes The Lion The Lion? Is it the presence of Scheuer himself, or could his part be taken by someone else? If so, the songs transcend their maker; if not, then the show is really all about what it means to be Benjamin Scheuer.


The Lion
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer
Directed by Sean Daniels

Scenic Designer: Neil Patel; Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton; Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg; Costume Consultant: Jennifer Caprio; Production Designer: Dom Ruggiero; Technical Supervisor: Mind the Gap; General Management: Maximum Entertainment

Long Wharf Theatre
January 6-February 7, 2016

Food for Thought

Review of Salt Pepper Ketchup at Yale Cabaret

Cities change. With major American cities known for being sites of upward mobility, and for “renewals” and renovations, as well as new development and projects, it’s hard to maintain a sense of neighborhood in any given downtown. Philadelphia, however, has long had distinct neighborhoods surrounding its “Center City.” One such area is called Point Breeze, and that’s where Josh Wilder’s new play, a three-act work in progress called Salt Pepper Ketchup, is set. Wilder wants to examine the kinds of tensions that arise when a local business, run by someone not “local,” encounters new neighbors, coming in with gentrification, while trying to remain true to its current customer base. The fact that the business is a Chinese take-out, the existing neighborhood predominantly non-white, and the new residents mostly white lets Wilder use his setting as a microcosm of urban America. When certain areas become “newly desirable,” the developers win, and the locals lose.

In Yale Cabaret’s staging of the first act of the play, we meet embattled John Wu (Eston J. Fung) and his wife Linda (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), owners and operators of Super Star Chinese Take-Out, a cheap eatery that is also a hangout for Tommy (James Udom) and Boodah (Seta Wainiqolo). In walks newcomer Paul (Steven Lee Johnson) who is aggressively proselytizing for a new food co-op and meeting with, at best, annoyed hostility, from Wu, and amused hostility from Tommy. That is until Paul gets a more welcoming nod from Cece (Mia Antoinette), who seems willing to play ball if only to show she’s more broad-minded than the others. Key to all the give and take here is the contemporary view that food served by the typical “greasy spoon” or fast-food emporium really isn’t what people should be eating. The co-op’s effort to provide alternatives isn’t just a nod to diversity, it’s an attack on the status quo—at least that’s how Tommy interprets it for Wu, who is soon quite anxious about being run out of town or closed down by suddenly vigilant health inspectors.

Wilder and director Al Heartley mostly keep a handle on making the back-and-forth between these characters sound like real folks talking, though everything is delivered with a bit more goosed-up verve than we might expect to discover in an everyday interaction—which is to say that tensions seem to be riding high even before anything happens. Keeping it real is helped by interactions between Tommy and Wu that are full of a begrudging acceptance of one another: Wu’s famous “chicken grease” keeps the locals happy, and Tommy is able to speak with the kind of local authority that makes Wu listen. These two could easily be sparring regulars in a sit-com set in a take-out. The other characters are, in a sense, the extras to their ongoing odd couple routine, with Cece fulfilling the role of loose cannon: she joins the co-op, due in part to Paul’s charm, but when she sees those prices and gets too much attitude from a check-out girl, only to be talked-down-to by not-quite-apologetic-enough Paul, then look out!

To make us aware that this isn’t a sit-com, there will be criminal acts and belligerent police, guns drawn. The latter intrusion is a bit too rushed as executed and feels like an effort simply to clear the stage. As a first act ending, though, the violence re-configures Mr. and Mrs. Wu as the lynch-pins: at first they try to take action guided by Tommy, then begin to see the possibility of renovation via collusion with Paul and his co-opters. At this point, they’re really going to have to decide whose side they’re on.

Wilder gives the couple a good scene in which they argue for staying or leaving, showing that they too are trapped by socio-economic forces, which extend also to Paul as part of the newly graduated cohort, saddled with debt and working jobs that don’t pay them enough to live among their own kind. So we see how “downward mobility” and the desperation it inspires come into play too. Salt Pepper Ketchup keeps a sense of harsh realities in play while entertaining us with characters who are worth our time, and the Cab production makes us wonder what happens next.

 

Salt Pepper Ketchup
By Josh Wilder
Directed by Al Heartley

Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Michael Commendatore; Sound Designer: Ien DeNio; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Scenic Painter: Dan Cogan; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Fight Director: Julian Elijah Martinez; Producer: Trent Anderson

Cast: Mia Antoinette; Jason de Beer; Eston J. Fung; Sean Boyce Johnson; Steven Lee Johnson; Tanmay Manohar; Francesca Fernandez McKenzie; James Udom; Seta Wainiqolo

Yale Cabaret
January 14-16, 2016

Future Cab Rides

Preview of upcoming shows at Yale Cabaret

It’s a new year and the Yale Cabaret is ready to pick up where it left off, bringing to its beloved but basic basement space at 217 Park Street theatrical experiences that make up in enthusiasm what they lack in slickness. Which is a way of saying that the best thing about the Cabaret—what keeps it real and makes many its devotees—is the fact that it is student-run and the students who run it are driven by passion and dedication to theater, as none of this is for money or even for grades. It’s to bring people together and make something happen, and to try out things for the sake of doing them. And, of course, there’s food and drink too, with a changing menu from chef Anna Belcher.

The first four shows of the 2nd half of the season have been chosen—Cab 10 through 13—which will take us through the second week of February. The shows were described to me by co-artistic directors David Bruin and Elijah Martinez (the third of their number, Leora Morris, is deep in the process of her thesis show, Women Beware Women, which opens on Saturday, January 23rd, at the Iseman Theater, then plays through the Cab’s first dark week of the semester). With two shows in January and two in February, the shows selected strike a balance between new work—written by playwrights at the Yale School of Drama—and pre-existing works not often seen in these parts.

 

First up, this week, Thursday to Saturday, is Salt Pepper Ketchup, written by first-year playwright Josh Wilder and directed by first-year theater manager Al Heartley.  The cast is comprised of first-year actors—but for Eston Fung, who was showcased last semester in The Commencement of William Tan—so this is an excellent opportunity to have a look at some of the new faces in the program. Author Wilder hails from South Philly, an area long-known as Point Breeze that has recently become the site of much gentrification, to the extent of getting a new name: New Bold (which sounds like a coffee roast). In the context of the ramifications of four-story condos being erected where old two-story townhouses once stood and property taxes hiking sky-high overnight, the play looks at Mr. Wu’s humble Chinese take-out “joint” caught between the resentments of the local regulars and the efforts of the upscale newbies to “change things for the better.” Wilder’s script works evenhandedly with all concerned: the anxiety of long-standing businesses when trying to adapt to the tastes of the vegan generation; the good and bad of the co-op mentality that assumes a certain level of economic parity; the vandalism or other acts of violence that can come from people who feel their backs are against the wall, and, through it all, the kind of racial tensions that have become a mark of our distressed times. Described by Martinez as “The Wire meets Clybourne Park.” January 14-16.

Cab 11 is a play called Slouch. Written by B. Walker Sampson, a Brooklyn-based playwright, and co-directed by Matthew Fischer, a first-year sound intern, and Stella Baker. Described as an existential comedy and a “Waiting for Godot for the facebook generation,” the play offers a light, relaxed tone while also dealing with the kind of angst that emerges from people always comparing themselves with other people (as in ubiquitous social networks). Gordon, for whom three roommates—one male and two females—wait, is a high-rolling, good-looking friend who tends to make things happen. Through much physicality and movement and a fluid sense of time—as well as characters’ ability to “narrate” each other’s thoughts—we arrive at a portrait of youth trying to break out of the stasis of the present. The team for the show met at the School of Drama orientation and bonded on their love for this play. January 21-23.

Some of you may have seen Boris Yeltsin, the closing show of the first half of the Cab season, a sharply satirical re-working of the Oresteia by Mickaël de Oliveira, directed by second-year director Elizabeth Dinkova; or you may have seen last season’s postmodern puppet-show version of Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena, also directed by Dinkova; or you may have seen Best Lesbian Erotica of 1995, a studio production of a play by second-year playwright Miranda Ross Hall, directed by Dinkova, which was edgy, funny, ribald, and had a heart. Whether or not you saw any of that, you should come see Cab 13, How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, written by Hall and directed by Dinkova, who have formed a creative partnership out of a kind of like-minded comic urgency. When the ebola outbreak occurred, Hall found herself infected with the paranoia that spreads in a health crisis and began concocting this “zany comedy” to treat the various strains of hysteria that we collectively live with these days. In the play, a social scientist contracts a life-threatening disease in a foreign country, then spreads it at an American hospital. Laughs abound. February 4-6.

Cab 13 offers Cloud Tectonics, perhaps the best-known play by Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera, which debuted at the Humana Festival in 1995. The play has long been a common reference point for Yale School of Drama actors Sebastian Arboleda, Bradley Tejeda, and Bobby Guzman, as members of second-generation immigrant families living in L.A. The latter two are in the cast, joined by Stephanie Machado, while Arboleda—memorable from last year as the king in Leonce and Lena—directs. The team’s enthusiasm for this “dream-like love story” has spread to the Cab, convincing the artistic directors that now is the time for this show. It's not only a tale of immigrant assimilation—always a vexed story in our polymorphous nation—but of migrant experience, in terms of the “east coast” vs. “west coast” mentality. It’s also about the way “past, present and future pull at each other,” so that the tensions of one time speak to the tensions of another. February 11-13.

After these four shows hold the floor, make room for the annual extravaganza that is the Yale Cabaret Drag Show, but more about that later. For now, see you at the Cab!

Yale Cabaret
Season 48

For more info, go here.

 

One Effing Elf

Review of The SantaLand Diaries at Musical Theatre of Connecticut

Best-selling, Grammy-winning author David Sedaris has come a long way since his stint as an elf in a Macy’s SantaLand, and he’s also come a long way since the humorous essay he wrote about that experience, which has also been shared as a spoken word feature on NPR and This American Life. And yet the story as adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello has taken on a life of its own since its debut in 1996. It’s become a holiday staple for many a theater in the U.S., a one-man show that lets us laugh at the corny traditions that constitute “the Christmas spirit”—a glut of decorations, food consumption, familiar tunes, holiday reruns, and much buying, and sometimes giving, that happens without fail from late in November (or earlier) and runs till December 25th.

Ostensibly all the hoopla has something to do with the birth of Christ, but in fact, in the U.S., it mostly has to do with marketing, as every store in the land, almost, has its Christmas come-on. One of the best-known of all department stores, of course, is Macy’s and one of its ways of celebrating the season and getting people to come in and shop is providing a guy dressed in the traditional garb associated (at least since a very influential Coca-Cola ad campaign anyway) with old St. Nick to meet the kids and listen to Christmas wishes. And it was at Macy’s that Sedaris really did take the job of being one of the helpers of the store’s Santas. The SantaLand Diaries plays as the amusingly jaundiced view of a rather less than inspired elf enduring the fake cheer, the clueless “foreigners,” the pushy and obnoxious parents, the scared or sick or displeased children, and the on-the-job antics of his fellow not-so-bright elves and a variety of Santas.

Matt Densky (Crumpet)

Matt Densky (Crumpet)

Taking the name Crumpet, our narrator/hero is at his best in recounting the kind of behind-the-scenes stories that play to our curiosity about “show-biz,” even this far down the food chain. As Crumpet says, many of the people who apply for a job in SantaLand—in New York anyway—are unemployed actors looking for some easy money at Christmastime. It helps, in a job like this, to be willing and able to transform oneself to match one’s costume. Green velvet, with striped stockings, pointy shoes and hat. The works. Crumpet’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the job—and, it seems, to life in general—is his best defense against the simple-mindedness of the task, but he’s also not the kind to fool himself with visions of sugarplums. He sees through everyone and almost anyone can be an occasion for an unflattering anecdote or apothegm.

Much of this material, however, pulls its punches. Rarely is Sedaris’s text truly witty and often an anecdote will sort of fizzle without any real zinger. It’s not really something to fault Sedaris on, since he wrote an essay of observational humor, the sort of thing that plays best as a stand-up monologue, seeming to come off the top of one’s head in the moment of telling. Turned into a play, the monologue has to have more zing, requiring a performer up to the task of taking on the raconteur role while also able to act out other characters who get mimicked by Crumpet. Fortunately Matt Densky, directed by Kevin Connors, has the skills needed to make Crumpet vivid, fun, and a little unsettling.

One of Densky’s strengths in the role is his mimicking ability. He does a number of quick “sketches” of the people Crumpet interacts with, and each one is a spot on “take off,” via vocal mannerism, of an immediately recognizable type. You’ve got to be cheerful to be an elf, but you’ve got to be mercurial to make the story of Crumpet work. Denksy’s got it down. A high point is the rendition of “Away in the Manger” in the manner of Liza Minelli.

Alas, there’s not enough of that sort of thing. You soon find yourself thinking that this material needs to be further adapted—enlarged to make room for Densky’s talent. He exults in the snide manner so much so that you don’t for a minute believe that you’re hearing the really juicy stuff. Most of Sedaris’s observations are pretty anodyne, never really going for the jugular. I know, it’s Christmas and all that and we’re supposed to be looking for the good in everyone, but that’s not Crumpet’s approach. He tends to see the worst in people. Not because he’s vicious but because people tend to live up to his worst expectations. And I can’t help thinking there are naughtier and nastier characterizations that were left out of Sedaris’s text in favor of gentler laughs.

Even so, caricaturing others can seem mean, but Crumpet doesn’t come across that way, primarily because the tone Sedaris, Mantello and Densky create is of someone who wants us on his side. We have to see he’s better than “this,” this job of being an elf, as his giddy glimpses of the training sessions and of the less than inspiring Santas shows. And so we’re eager to hear how he managed it—took on this thankless job and maintained his dignity and his sense of humor. By aiming his humor at others, of course, and the laughter we share with him is laughter at how daft the Christmas season is. It’s supposed to be jolly and merry, like Santa, but often it’s a downer or at least disappointing. So, why not liven it up with Crumpet, a refreshingly honest elf, as eager as many of us are to exit the enforced euphoria come December 25th, and get on with business as usual.

 

The SantaLand Diaries
By David Sedaris
Adapted by Joe Mantello
Directed by Kevin Connors
With Matt Densky

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Scenic Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 11-20, 2015

Living Myth

Review of The Oresteia at Yale School of Drama

Combining three plays—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides—into the running time of a single play may be a daunting task, but third-year director Yagil Eliraz’s adaptation of Ted Hughes’ translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia presents a cohesive account of the vexed history of the cursed house of Atreus in ancient Argos. The design and staging for the show is nothing short of brilliant, with sets by Fufan Zhang that alternate between a textured wasteland and streamlined modernist spaces and costumes by An-Lin Dauber that display strong classical associations. The only detractions are the oddly off-key comic accouterments for Aegisthus (Sebastian Arboleda) and Apollo (Jonathan Higginbotham), and some of Michael Commendatore’s projections; whereas they generally are superb backdrops, occasionally they take on the quality generally associated with “trip sequences” in films from the Sixties.

Touches such as comedy—such as the clowning in the voting scene during the trial of Orestes (Ricardo Dávila) from Jonathan Majors and Annelise Lawson, who also vamps superbly as Clytemnestra—and cinematic visuals serve to make more contemporary what is otherwise a rather timeless portrayal of an epic play full of fraught drama. Indeed, the show’s dominant tone can be praised for not seeming like a YSD show at all—and that’s said by one who greatly enjoys viewing the trio of thesis shows each season.

In general, thesis shows are showcases for inventive elements in all aspects of the production—the actors, the technical support—and as such can suffer a bit in terms of a comprehensive manner or overall theatrical point. From that standpoint, Eliraz’s directing of his cast—most of whom play in the Chorus as well as taking specific roles—is truly masterful. From the stark opening with Andrew Burnap a lone narrating voice who intones upon a plaintive flute, to the group reactions to the offstage murder of Agememnon (Majors), to the Chorus’s highly effective—and creepy—vocal effects and miming as Furies masked with cow-skull heads, The Oresteia makes pointed use of its cast, making their voices and movements expressive devices that convey a variety of emotions and moods, almost always reacting rather than taking action. And Matthew Suttor’s compositions, worked out with the company, often make the Chorus’s interactions more powerful than the speeches assigned to the named roles.

The Chorus

The Chorus

One of the most striking dramatic moments occurs early in the play. The killing of Iphigenia (Remsen Welsh) as she hangs upside down creates a tableaux of the sacrifice of vulnerable innocence that should be more than enough to condemn Agamemnon who wields the sword for the sake of the war he would wage at Troy. Even so, it’s hard to side entirely with his enraged wife Clytemnestra, who mourns Iphigenia and plots revenge, if only because she’s so clearly marked as a villain. In Aeschylus, the Chorus voices our inability to arrive at ethical clarity in these cases. Which may be a way of saying that, if you really believe a deity involves itself in the acts of mankind, then it may be hard for earthly laws to make a difference to you.

And that’s what Eliraz’s thesis seems to be aiming for: a consideration of a world where the gods can show up on stage and still not get things to go their way. Agamemnon’s trust in the sacrifice of Iphigenia as expiation to Artemis is of no use in saving his life; likewise Orestes’s trust in Apollo’s oracle doesn’t spare him from human justice. And even Athena’s decree that civic law should replace the lex talionis doesn’t seem, in this version’s more chilling conclusion, to carry any weight. Humanity’s butchery of humanity always has its justifications, and sometimes those are “god-given,” but what tribunal can truly adjudicate in matters like war or the violent retaliation of violence?

Though in some ways a Chorus’s show, there is also fine work throughout in the named roles: Sydney Lemmon’s regally detached Athene, with a grand entrance and a white helmet; Jonathan Higginbotham’s decadently detached Apollo, with a bored manner and a towering white wig; Andrew Burnap’s haunted Atreus; Anna Crivelli’s beleaguered Cassandra; Jonathan Majors’ surprisingly sympathetic Agamemnon; Annelise Lawson’s haughty Clytemnestra, and her harrowing scream; Ricardo Dávila’s conflicted Orestes; and Elizabeth Stahlmann’s distraught Elektra as a sorrowing Goth girl—an example of excellent costuming and casting. And special mention for young Remsen Welsh as Iphigenia, who, after her summary execution, returns to haunt the stage in key moments. And for Doug Perry, the percussionist stage right who punctuates and accompanies the action throughout, giving the whole a ritualistic feel that is never lost sight of.

Characters in Greek drama are not “roles” in the usual sense of character parts. One of the best aspects of this version of The Oresteia is that it makes us experience some of the mystery of myth, even as we realize that the great myths are meaningful because their interrogation of necessity, justice, obligation and mercy is both ancient and contemporary and never merely academic.

Aeschylus
The Oresteia
Translated by Ted Hughes
Directed by Yagil Eliraz

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller; Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Andrew Burnap; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Edmund Donovan; Melanie Field; Jonathan Higginbotham; Annelise Lawson; Sydney Lemmon; Jonathan Majors; Elizabeth Stahlmann; Remsen Welsh

Percussionist: Doug Perry

Yale School of Drama
December 12-18, 2015

Finding the Real

Review of Passing Strange at Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park’s production of Passing Strange, by musical and performance artist Stew, directed by Sean Harris, makes full use of the theater’s intimate thrust stage, as the cast move all through the space, accompanied by a four-piece band led by a dynamic narrator/singer/master of ceremonies, Darryl Jovan Williams. With “Narrator” as our guide, we follow the story of  “the Youth” (Eric R. Williams), a young black man from a middle-class suburb of L.A., coming of age in the late Seventies, much like Stew himself. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time telling this story and the ensemble’s joy—in the music, in movement, in singing, and in acting a variety of characters—will put a smile on your face.

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

One of the more refreshing aspects of the Youth’s story is his self-conscious realization that, in cultural terms, he’s “passing for black.” Sure, he’s black to the white folks he hangs out with—in his hometown, and then in Amsterdam and then in Berlin—but he knows that trying to be “ghetto” so as to gain street cred among the radical “nowhaus” group he hangs with in Germany is a bit absurd, and finally a woman (Karissa Harris) he’s trying to woo calls him on it. The Youth is not quite a playa—only because he was too well brought up by his well-meaning mother (Famecia Ward)—but he’s not above trading on stereotypical notions when it serves his purpose, and some of the best humor of the show comes from our awareness of his awareness of how jive he allows himself to be, at times. A real strength of this production is that Eric R. Williams plays Youth’s self-conscious cool so well; Williams gives the part a likable earnestness that should have wide appeal—to any current or former youths bent on self-discovery, or, as he puts it, “finding the real.”

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

Stew’s story gets right certain very real elements of Seventies life. First, there’s the widespread social acceptance of drugs: the Youth gets turned on to grass by the closeted gay leader of the church choir (Garrett Turner has fun with the more flamboyant roles in the show), then later has an anxiety-provoking acid trip. Then there’s the fact that many of the victories of the civil rights era seem like second nature. The Youth is already bored about having to genuflect to black cultural leaders—his first act of rebellion, after dropping out of the choir (which he joined because gospel music seemed to him like rock), is to form a punk band that sounds pretty authentic indeed. Elsewhere there’s fun with European art-house cinema, but one suspects that neither cast nor director has spent a lot of time with the genre since that segment feels more like Hollywood melodrama than Godard-inflected disaffect.

Watching the very busy and energetic ensemble transform before our eyes from L.A. kids to hip Dutch to molotov-cocktail-hurling German radicals is one of the delights of the show. There’s also a captivating lyrical moment when the lovely Marianna (Skyler Volpe), an Amsterdam squatter, makes a gift to our vagabond hero of the keys to her flat. Stew and his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald know how to bring out the lyricism of fleeting romance and Williams and Volpe, et al., do the song full justice. Later, the irony that Berlin radicals, bent upon remaking society, go home for the holidays leaves Youth high and dry, since he’s trying hard to avoid returning to a mother who can’t understand his flight to freedom.

Though he leaves her behind and has to insist, to her importuning phone call before Christmas, that his home is Berlin, not L.A., the bond between mother and son accounts for the emotional uplift the show ends on, though it’s not quite enough. All along we’ve been enjoying the candid depiction of a self-centered, self-serving “talent” who manipulates situations to his ends. In realizing his younger self has been unfairly neglectful of his mother, the Narrator, as Youth grown-up, or Stew, offers Passing Strange as a kind of confession for the sake of atonement. How moving that effort is depends on how much we want our hero to learn a lesson about family ties.

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

As the story is not big on surprises—its main tensions are of the “I gotta be me” variety typical of stories of artists in popular genres—the change of gear near the close amounts to growth and moral improvement. Soulful enough in the more emotional tunes, like “Work the Wound,” the production really cooks when the cast and band are making the most of the full-throttle raves. While a heartfelt comeuppance to the callowness of Youth—and youth—is inspiring enough, the real passion of the show is in the celebration of music as a form of art that can make up for failures in life. It’s “passing strange”—in a phrase Stew borrows from Othello—how Youth passes through cultural identities and from youth to maturity, but the pay-off is in how well his work lives up to that journey. Passing Strange does—and so does Playhouse on Park’s production.

Passing Strange
Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Sean Harris
Choreography by Darlene Zoller

Cast: Karissa Harris; Garrett Turner; Skyler Volpe; J’Royce; Famecia Ward; Darryl Jovan Williams; Eric R. Williams

Playhouse on Park
December 2-20, 2015

It's a Family Affair

Review of Boris Yeltsin at Yale Cabaret

The first semester of the Yale Cabaret’s 2015-16 season closes this weekend with the world premiere English translation of Mickaël de Oliveira’s Boris Yeltsin, translated from the Portuguese by Maria Inês Marques, and directed by Elizabeth Dinkova. Funny and unsettling, the play is a take-off on the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their son Orestes—the main figures in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon—though this Orestes boasts a pronounced Oedipus complex.

Jesse Rasmussen (Clytemnestra), George Hampe (Agamemnon)

Jesse Rasmussen (Clytemnestra), George Hampe (Agamemnon)

Dad/Agamemnon (George Hampe) looks like a Hefner-inspired playboy, sporting a turtleneck, sport coat, and goatee, and acts like a preening narcissist, exuding presumptuous entitlement, creepy parenting, crude seductions, and a welter of brash pronouncements. Hampe is inspired in this obnoxious role. As his wife Clytemnestra, Jesse Rasmussen is self-possessed and elegant, maintaining a fixed stare at her mate’s more rakish advances and calling him Boris from time to time. Eventually, they get around to a truth-and-drink game that amusingly bares their marital tensions. Meanwhile, Cassandra (Shadi Ghaheri), Agamemnon’s recent acquisition from the fall of Troy, stalks about in a diaphanous wrap, writing the titles of the parts of the play on the wall (my favorite, “Catherine Zeta-Jones”), and often pounding on the door.

Julian Elijah Martinez (Orestes)

Julian Elijah Martinez (Orestes)

Then there’s Orestes. Julian Elijah Martinez manifests the classic mix of softness and toughness that marks the rebellious man-child. He broods and mopes and from time to time flicks a little wry half-smile that makes his parents uneasy. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy—and Mom’s not above inspecting his genitals up close to see how near manhood he is—and his relationship with his father is, in Dad’s words, “a chip off the old cock.” We may be surprised that Dad and Son climb naked into a bath together, but even so, their dialog continues to respect the relationship of father and child, with Agamemnon worried what kind of heir apparent he’s stuck with. In its joking way, Boris Yeltsin flirts with the possibility of hysterical sexuality, but, as with “the revolution,” much of the threat is just a manner of talking.

Until, of course, things get deadly. Is it all about wanting what Fathers’ have—whether that be Mother or a hot concubine—or is it all about becoming what Father is? Or doing it all for oneself? De Oliveira’s Orestes doesn’t have it all figured out, and he’s not the heroic type, but he’s also not the kind to play “mother may I?” forever. But is he any better than his war-mongering tyrant father?

The staging—with three main playing spaces and an area for two musicians (Lynda Paul, bassoon; André Redwood, percussion)—puts everyone in the audience close to at least part of the action, and Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting and Haydee Zelideth’s costumes and Claire DeLiso’s sets create plenty of aura to set the actors apart in a kind of mythic realm. At one point Orestes writes “FUCK THE MYTH YEAH” in chalk on the wall above the tub, but which myth he means—and there are plenty circling about the House of Atreus—is left for us to ponder, as is the meaning of the birthday cake the musicians offer Clytemnestra at the close. Cassandra, gifted with the ability to “futurize,” never says a word in the play, but one has the sense that the play, set in the 1990s but dating from 2010, is “predicting” that the days of the economic oligarchy are numbered.

As the gutsiest and most baleful comedy the Cab has assayed this term, Boris Yeltsin ends the rather distraught 2015 memorably and makes us eager for the season’s resumption in 2016.

Boris Yeltsin
By Mickaël de Oliveira
Translated by Maria Inês Marques
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Composer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Scenic Designer: Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Technical Director: Mitch Massaro; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Producer: Charles O’Malley

Cast: Shadi Ghaheri; George Hampe; Julian Elijah Martinez; Jesse Rasmussen

Band: Lynda Paul, bassoon; André Redwood, percussion

Yale Cabaret
December 3-5, 2015

 

 

Taking the Measure of Shakespeare

The Fiasco Theater’s Measure for Measure begins previews this week at the Long Wharf Theatre’s Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theater. First performed by Fiasco in 2013, the Long Wharf production will be the company’s first revival of this play, often considered a bit of a slog in its tale of corruption, strict moral codes, and deus ex machina Duke. On the contrary, Fiasco’s version has been called “charming.”

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Noah Brody, one of the founding members of Fiasco, which formed in 2009 and launched its inaugural production of Cymbeline in 2010, is “honestly thrilled” to be able to remount Measure for Measure for the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust-style theater. When played previously, the show was done in a standard proscenium setting and that means the new version will have to adapt, a challenge that is part of the governing aesthetic of Fiasco. Brody sees this as an opportunity to “reach out” to the audience, stressing that both players and viewers “are in the same place, breathing the same air.”

A cast of six actors plays all the parts in Measure for Measure, with a set that mainly consists of six doors and some benches. It’s a minimalist approach, perhaps, but as Brody says, “when there’s not a lot of money, you concentrate on what you really need,” and that promotes inventiveness, to use everything at one’s disposal and to make the most of it.

As all the members of Fiasco were trained as actors in the MFA program at Brown/Trinity, a key term for their approach is “actor-driven” stagings. What this means, Brody says, is that every production is achieved by the ensemble, and every decision comes from the ensemble. Decision-making is “not hierarchical.” The director—for the Long Wharf production, Brody and Ben Steinfeld are co-directing—“is responsible for leading the conversation,” but does not dictate the approach. And that means the troupe gets to completely rethink their previous decisions about every aspect of Measure for Measure, not only for changes in design determined by the changed space, but also the differences due to the times and the situations that apply to the creative process. “We’ll say, ‘last time we did this: why did we do that? Do we still want to do it that way?’” The “this” could be anything from costumes to blocking to the delivery of a line to cuts and edits in the material.

Since “fun” is not always associated with Measure, often deemed Shakespeare’s darkest, least likable comedy, I had to ask why it was the play they chose. Brody cited the play’s language, its “great scenes” with “wonderful parts to play” for a “uni-generational cast.” Its content—which he characterized as “how to rule a just state”—is thoughtful, particularly in tensions “between the spiritual and secular life.” In his view, much of the darkness of the play comes from productions not seeing how “playful” the text is, whereas Fiasco highlights the “seriousness in the comic relief and the ironies in the serious parts.” “There’s great comedy and seriousness at all times in the same scene and in the same line,” Brody says. Bringing out those nuances, finding the fun in the whole, is one of the aims of the Fiasco approach.

Brody says the Fiasco team didn’t graduate from the acting program with intentions to form their own company. As actors, they’re used to being hired as “a small cog in a large machine.” “You hope to bring something to the vision of a play,” but are rarely in control of what parts you get or the style of the production. And most actors accept that they have “to sink or swim as an individual,” competing for the best parts available. To form a troupe of actors, able to devise and implement their own productions, is a “dream come true,” and moving the show to Long Wharf a “great opportunity” to revisit the production for a new audience, with possibilities for new, surprising events.

Fiasco is far enough along in their development to have learned that putting on new productions and devising new productions are hard to do simultaneously. After this season—which consists of an acclaimed Two Gentlemen of Verona last spring and now Measure in the fall—they will be at work on planning the brand new productions they will be offering in 2016 through 2018. The team’s “core passion,” Brody says, is in classical theater—so far, Shakespeare—and musicals, such as their production of Into the Woods, which won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival of 2015, so they are certainly looking at “more Shakespeare and more musicals” that fit their requirements, and “we’re also looking at Restoration plays,” and are planning their “first original piece” as well as considering stage adaptations of novels.

Whatever the new productions will be, they will be devised by a troupe of actors with no fixed theatrical abode, but driven by a commitment to making theater together, benefiting from the troupe’s familiarity with one another, and to finding their own unique way into a play, providing audiences with memorable productions full of a love of the challenge of discovery.

Measure for Measure, by the Fiasco Theater, begins in previews at the Long Wharf Theatre Wednesday, November 25, and opens Wednesday December 1.

Marital Malaise

Review of Trouble in Tahiti at Yale Cabaret

Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, an Opera in Seven Scenes, directed by Lynda Paul with a fine cast at Yale Cabaret, manages to treat the familiar world of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his immaculately coiffed and tailored wife in their happy paradise in 1950s suburbia with deft charm and surprising depth. Sam (Luke Scott) is all about “the law about men”—some are winners (like him) and some aren’t—while Dinah (Kelly Hill) looks for something that might matter, as when she recounts her thrilling dreams to her psychoanalyst, and instead only finds an insipid Hollywood musical melodrama, Trouble in Tahiti, to occupy her.

Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

We could easily say this is all pretty well-trodden ground: the gaps in trust and/or shared interests that don’t tear apart a happy couple so much as wear down the “happy” part. Both are mostly going through the motions and wondering if this is all they can expect from life. The stuff of quiet desperation, these lives, in Bernstein’s lyrics, are both mocked and imagined as the spiritual dead-end they are. Meanwhile a jazz trio of singers—Kate Berman, Adam Frank, Kate Marvin, in white face-paint, stylish pompadours, and lounge lizard jackets—emerge from time to time as a snappy, unnervingly serene Chorus serenading the couple.

the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

A tune name-dropping the bastions of suburban luxury—Ozone Park, Delaware Pines, Scarsdale—sets our scene, then recurs, blithely indifferent to the frowns and silences between the couple. We see Sam at work—a “marvelous man” in handling his boss, a “big-hearted man” in lending to a co-worker, and a tempted boss trying decently to avoid hitting on his flirtatious secretary. And we see the Mrs. getting caught up, with considerable musical and vocal lyricism, in a fantasy of a garden—an Eden of sorts—where the couple could find utopia.

Adding to the cardboard cut-out nature of these lives is a wonderfully cartoonish cut-out set by Rae Powell (who is, amazingly, working outside discipline), while the costumes by Haydee Antunano and Asa Benally are tasteful and apropos (an anachronistic use of Ralph Lauren for Sam’s sportswear might make us reflect that “the 50s” aren’t really over for some of us). Much visual interest is provided by an elaborate range of projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the planes of the backdrop into secondary characters, animation, Tahitian kitsch and, at one point, a stunning arrangement of expressionist fields of color.

The score, played with skill by Jill Brunelle (piano), Christopher Ross-Ewart (bass, cello—the sonority of the latter is used to great effect), and André Redwood (drums), never overwhelms the action but supports some brilliant changes in register—as for instance the ersatz “luau” vibe of “Island Magic,” Hill’s virtuoso mocking evocation of the allure of Hollywood’s version of Tahiti (she refers to the film as “twaddle”). Indeed, Hill’s expressive eyes and riveting voice do much to impress on us the heart of this piece. A small but telling scene features the couple meeting by accident on the street and lying to each other about their destinations, even as both actor-singers convey the sadness behind the pretense.

For all the jibes at mindless popular culture and the tensions of domestic life—“this coffee’s burnt,” he says; “make it yourself,” she says—and the all-too-real use of “the super silver screen” to provide collective fantasy as well as the glue to repair the cracks in romance, Bernstein is benign.  He knows that his ideal audience, even if happily ensconced a mere cab ride from the theater district and happy to laugh at the empty promises of suburbia, are just as likely to suffer from the same midlife crisis marital slump, and that makes Trouble in Tahiti compassionate toward those who have lost the passion.

Trouble in Tahiti, like last year’s The Medium, is a perfect match for the Cab’s space, letting this small gem shine with astute direction from Lynda Paul, also working outside discipline but clearly in full grasp of the show’s nuances.

Trouble in Tahiti
Music and Libretto by Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Lynda Paul

Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Scenic Designer: Rae Powell; Costume Designers: Haydee Antunano, Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Movement Consultant: Gretchen Wright; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Technical Director: Tannis Boyajian; Stage Managers: Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko; Producer: Steven Koernig; Build Crew: Kelly Fayton

Cast: Dinah: Kelly Hill; Sam: Luke Scott; Jazz Trio, Alto: Kate Berman; Jazz Trio, Tenor: Adam Frank; Jazz Trio, Soprano: Kate Marvin; Band: Jill Brunelle, piano; Christopher Ross-Ewart, bass, cello; André Redwood, drums

Yale Cabaret
November 19-21, 2016

Top of the World, Ma!

Review of Roberto Zucco at Yale Cabaret

Roberto Zucco, the eponymous hero of Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play, is a murderer, based on an actual twentysomething serial killer, Roberto Succo. Does a play about him glorify him? Not in itself, perhaps. We can watch plays like Macbeth or Richard III and accept that our hero will stop at nothing and has lost his moral compass. But in Koltès’ play, originally written in French and translated by Martin Crimp in the production at Yale Cabaret, there’s the further suggestion that, in modern society and perhaps in existence tout court, a moral compass is generally lacking. This makes a killer like Zucco, jarringly, an Everyman—a twisted, armed Everyman for whom violence is the solution to any situation.

Perhaps to apprise us of the distortion in such a view of humanity, the Cab production, directed by Christopher Ghaffari, places the action on a raised rectangular platform surrounded by a not quite transparent scrim suspended from the ceiling. The audience, situated on all sides of the platform, sees the action through this opaque curtain—until late in the play when it is ripped aside—and that creates a distancing effect. The sense, very immediate at the Cab, that viewers and actors occupy the same space is set at a remove, with the effect that the events portrayed are placed a bit beyond our reach, as in memory or dream. The story of Zucco, then, is happening in a blurry space where clarity itself is lacking.

Then there’s the play’s language, often quite poetic, and its prevailing mood. Before we even meet Zucco, we hear the voices of the guards (Paul Cooper, Dylan Frederick) who realize that Zucco, an inmate jailed for the murder of his father, has escaped. The tone is clownish, and the feeling throughout is that Zucco is indeed a murdering fool. His recourse to violence, as when he visits his home to reclaim his battle fatigues and kills his mother (Brontë England-Nelson), is not premeditated so much as predetermined. Zucco is a killer—by nature or by inclination or by fate—and a killer kills, the way an attack dog attacks.

Aubie Merrylees as Roberto Zucco (photo by Christopher Thompson)

Aubie Merrylees as Roberto Zucco (photo by Christopher Thompson)

As played by Aubie Merrylees, Zucco is a “worst full of passionate intensity” but he is also, as when wooing Girl, a virginal innocent played with vacuous charm by Alyssa Miller, your basic mixed-up kid, full of chaos, uncertain about his own motivations, trying to be cool and mysterious (he tells her he’s “a secret agent”). Could someone like Zucco actually fall in love? Why not? And the family he tries to lure his sweetheart away from is dysfunctional with a laughable ugliness. The drunken, bullying father (Paul Cooper), the hapless mother (England-Nelson), the meddling older sister (Juliana Canfield), the sleazy brother (Jacob Osbourne) make us almost pull for “the couple.” And if it crosses your mind that maybe doing away with dad might actually be a good thing, well . . . .

But it seems that murder for Zucco is a spontaneous act (existentialists take note) and since there’s no confrontation with the girl’s father, there’s no showdown. A haphazard meeting once Zucco’s on the run again leads to a murder more jarring. Accosting a Lady (England-Nelson) on a park bench, Zucco gets lured by another trope of eros and things turn a bit more “Bonnie and Clyde”-ish. We don’t have to look too far to find instances of a killer’s charisma and Zucco apparently exudes it. But things go awry and spontaneous violence, while not exactly shocking us, creates a more psychotic wrinkle.

Not everything here works as well as it might. An interrogation scene with Girl feels a bit gratuitous and some of her wanderings take us into areas that seem hard to parse. The reigning logic by which a girl must remain virginal till marriage seems to hold here in its most virulent (no doubt Catholic) form, so that a girl who has been with a guy—not even a charismatic killer specifically—might as well become a prostitute forthwith. Which brings into the play prostitutes and pimps and at one point Zucco seems to be seeking some rough trade. Despite the effort to signal new characters via Asa Benally’s costume changes and Sam Suggs’ shifting musical cues, viewers, squinting through the curtain, might find themselves challenged in keeping different roles straight as most actors here play four—or in the case of Cooper five—roles. England-Nelson gets high marks for making each of her roles distinctly different and interesting, particularly a garrulous Old Gentleman, another of Zucco’s random encounters.

The randomness of much of this seems to be part of Koltès’ point, in as much as there’s no abiding logic to the course of events in the real world so why expect it in art. The finale comes—helped by floor-space projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that shift from newspaper headlines to graphic images from Succo’s actual killings to a vertigo-inducing shrinking cloudscape—with Zucco, surrounded by officers and onlookers, finding his apotheosis, or is he simply ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille?

The fact of terrorist massacres on the streets and in a well-known venue in Paris the very weekend of this production forcibly reminds us that there are killers among us, potentially, wherever we may be. Koltès’ play believes in evil and in innocence and wonders at collective contagions such as the thrill and release of violence, so ingrained into our pastimes and amusements and, yes, art, and the fawning fascination for the man with a gun or a bomb. While not directed at terrorism, per se, but rather at the case of the individual killer, the play suggests a world much like ours here in the States where random killings by lone gunmen proliferate virally. Sadly, Roberto Zucco remains a hero for our times.

 

Roberto Zucco
Written by Bernard-Marie
Koltès
Translated by Martin Crimp
Directed by Christopher Ghaffari

Composer: Sam Suggs; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Andrew Griffin; Sound Designer: Ian Williams; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Associate Sound Designer: Matthew Fisher; Technical Director: Willam Hartley; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Producers: Tanmay Manohar, Gretchen Wright

Cast: Juliana Canfield, Paul Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Aubie Merrylees, Alyssa Miller, Jacob Osbourne

Yale Cabaret
November 12-14, 2015

And Baby Makes Three

Review of Smudge, New Haven Theater Company

Time was, “fear of becoming parents” would have been interpreted as either “fear of becoming like one’s own parents,” i.e., old and square, or “fear of becoming adults and responsible for children”—a desire to prolong one’s freedom from responsibility. Rachel Axler’s Smudge, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company, suggests a different take: “fear of what the child might be.” Mind you, it’s not a “fear of children” as demanding, unreasonable creatures, per se, but rather a fear of what might go wrong in childbirth itself. If Freud and psychoanalysis made us ultra-aware of the problems parenting can cause in children, modern medicine makes us ultra-aware of how our bodies can fail us in giving birth to them.

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

As the play opens, Colby (Katelyn Marie Marshall) and Nick (Christian Shaboo) are expecting, but they are a bit confused by their child’s ultrasound photo. They can’t seem to decide the kid’s sex, nor even if it’s a fetus, properly speaking. The photo looks “smudged.” When the child is born, they must come to grips with the fact that the baby, named Cassandra, isn’t formed like other children. The lines in the play that describe the infant leave much to our imaginations about what, in fact, Cassandra looks like. Her dad, initially, seems proud and waxes poetic about the color of her eyes, or, more properly, eye. It seems that only one is open. Mom, on the other hand, is distressed and maybe even a bit terrorized by the prospect of having to treat this “freak” as her own beloved offspring.

Fortunately for us, Axler’s script has a lightness that keeps us from brooding too much on what has gone wrong and how the young couple should cope with it. The structure of the play, as a series of black-outs, gives us glimpses rather than continuous scenes, and, while the timing of the show could go faster to keep us from over-thinking the situation, the play is paced very deliberately. We see Nick at work, where his older brother, Pete (Peter Chenot), is also his boss, and, while reluctant to provide photos of Cassandra for Pete and their impatient-for-news mother, Nick doesn’t seem unduly upset. An asset here is Chenot’s Pete, a guy who aims to amuse, mostly, and, with his odd asides and mannerisms reminiscent of Bill Murray goofing around, he does lighten things up considerably.

Back at home, though, Colby soliloquizes distractedly to a crib festooned with tubes. Demoralized that the child isn’t what she expected, she’s far from coping with what the child’s needs might be. Nick nags her to interact with Cassandra—as in waving a large plush carrot over the crib as he does—but Colby would rather sulk on the couch and eat vast quantities of cheesecake. Eventually, the play begins to pull its plot strains together—such as Nick’s upcoming presentation to a UN conference on behalf of the Census Bureau, and the fact that Colby begins to interact with a Cassandra who makes her tubes glow attractively and emits sci-fi sounds.

As Colby, Marshall has in many ways the toughest role. Her initial lack of sympathy with the child may make her seem a bit unsympathetic, but Marshall maintains a breezy irony that keeps us chuckling. There’s a certain no-nonsense tone to her musings that suits motherhood, and her remarks to the child let us glimpse what seems to be Axler’s point: that a mother’s relation to her child—whether the child is unique or “normal”—is always unique. Nick, like Pete (a father of three boys), simply wants to play doting father, as if that’s the only role he is capable of imagining.

Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby), Peter Chenot (Pete)

Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby), Peter Chenot (Pete)

The lights and sounds that create Colby’s sense of Cassandra give us a glimpse of her “alienness” for Colby, while also making us wonder what Cassandra is really like. Suitably, Nicol-Blifford and NHTC’s rendering of Rachel Axler’s enigmatic and entertaining play keeps us guessing about its intentions.

The main takeaways, for me, come from seeing cracks in Nick’s happy-at-all-costs façade, which Shaboo makes us feel sharply at Nick’s presentation, and from Colby’s shift away from disengagement, which happens after sharing cheesecake, among other things, with Pete. Parenting is trial and error, mostly, and, whether or not they have made errors, Nick and Colby have to get over feeling “on trial” for Cassandra, and must try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

Christian Shaboo (Nick), Katelyn Marie Marshall (Colby)

After a two night run last week, NHTC’s Smudge plays Wednesday through Saturday this week.

Smudge
By Rachel Axler
Directed by Deena Nicol-Blifford

Cast: Katelyn Marie Marshall; Christian Shaboo; Peter Chenot

Special Effects: Trevor Williams; Sound Design & Original Music: Megan Keith Chenot; Light & Sound Board Ops: Steve Scarpa & J. Kevin Smith

The New Haven Theater Company Stage
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven

November 5-6; 11-14, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Search of Time

Review of Refuse the Hour at Yale University Theater

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour offers an overwhelming array of riches. A kind of traveling video and stage accessory to Kentridge’s five-channel video installation The Refusal of Time, the show has been brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre season as part of the No Boundaries series and staged at the University Theater for two performances only. As theater, the piece involves narration from Kentridge, onstage throughout, fascinating movement from Dada Masilo, an array of artistically achieved and fun to watch videos by Kentridge and Catherine Meyburgh, a varied score—including operatic arias, African chants and beats, and, often, singing backwards—composed by Philip Miller, and a wealth of other technical contributions, including interesting machines that seem to play music as grand wind-up toys and/or automata. So much is going on at once, at times, one really needs to see the piece more than once, or, given the show’s themes, maybe from two different vantage points at the same time.

Time is the main theme and it’s evoked through a range of fertile sketches, beginning with Kentridge, who grew up in South Africa, telling us of traveling, when he was eight, on a train with his father who read to him the story of Perseus. It’s not the famed slaying of the Gorgon, Medusa, that captures the boy’s imagination, rather it’s the way—deemed “intolerable” by the young Kentridge—that Perseus’ grandfather, Acrisius, fulfills the prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. The confluence of Acrisius having to be, improbably, at the top of a viewing stand, in disguise, at the moment that Perseus flings a discus that will end his life becomes a symbol not only of the impossibility of fleeing one’s fate, but of the full implications of trying to determine consequences of a decision. Kentridge sums it up with the powerful line, “once thrown, the discus cannot be called back.”

from Refuse the Hour

from Refuse the Hour

One could say that the series of segments that comprise Refuse the Hour are forms of meditation on how we try to measure time and the effects we are having in time. At one point, giant metronomes are set in motion, at different rates. At another point, we see a video of Kentridge walking about his studio in an endless loop while animated objects and design elements interact at intervals with the main image. We see a video of a kind of African homecoming scene from which frames have been removed to create odd jumps and rhythmic effects. We see fluid dance movements from Masilo that make manifest the power and grace of the human body as matter alive in time.

Dada Masilo

Dada Masilo

To call the background of videos “background” is a misnomer as they provide much of the visual interest, though there are striking choreographed effects taking place onstage as well, sometimes with the video and live action interacting as though they shared time and place, which in a sense, but only in a sense, they do. And Kentridge’s animation process is itself a major artistic achievement, using both subtle technical effects and erasures and re-drawings that lend a wonderfully spontaneous handmade feel to the images. Indeed, the notion that works that are rehearsed and staged, arranged and taped, can be “spontaneous” plays into the show’s best conceits, which are about the effect of time and timing.

Kentridge and his dramatug Peter Galison have chosen to dramatize an array of temporal concepts—having to do with entropy, black holes, and the introduction of European clock-time into African colonies where the sun and not the clock had been the traditional arbiter of time. Throughout the show what we are seeing and hearing requires the utmost control of timing—particularly some wonderful effects of synchronous movement (involving numerous moving parts and sound-making people and instruments), and a vocal interplay between Joanna Dudley and Ann Masina, the one onstage, the other in the balcony, that is impressive not only for its artistry but also as an exemplary instance of music as the language of time.

As the show goes on, some elements and lines recur (such as variations on T.S. Eliot's line, “That is not what I meant at all”), and all seems to be in a flux that makes for almost trance-like viewing. Perhaps, in the end, the overall effect is of stretching time or inhabiting it in different ways, so that, at times, we feel part of a very busy but arrested movement, non-moving parts in a clockwork display. One of the ideas that Kentridge expounds at length—that every act we perform is “broadcast into space”—makes us aware that our time as audience is time spent at the mercy of the magicians on stage. It’s an hour and a half one should not refuse to grant.

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

Refuse the Hour
Conception and Libretto by William Kentridge
Music composed by Philip Miller

Choreography: Dada Masilo; Dramaturgy: Peter Galison; Video Design: Catherine Meyburgh, William Kentridge; Scenic Design: Sabine Theunissen; Movement: Luc de Wit; Costume Design: Greta Goiris; Machine Design: Jonas Lundquist, Louis Olivier, Christoff Wolmarans; Lighting Design: Felice Ross; Sound Design: Gavan Eckhart; Video Orchestration: Kim Gunning; Music Direction: Adam Howard; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations: Philip Miller, Adam Howard

Performers: William Kentridge; Dancer: Dada Masilo; Vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Ann Masina; Actor Thato Motlhaolwa; Trumpet and Flugel Horn: Adam Howard; Percussion: Tlale Makhene; Violin: Waldo Alexander; Trombone: Dan Selsick; Piano: Vincenzo Pasquariello; Tuba: Thobeka Thukane

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 6-7, 2015

Not the Weakest Link

Review of The Commencement of William Tan at Yale Cabaret

For some, high school sucks. It’s the time of life when you can learn some pretty disheartening things, like maybe the girl of your dreams really isn’t the girl of your dreams, like maybe your best friend is a racist, and maybe you’ve been in denial all along about a big part of your own identity. Those are the sort of coming-of-age struggles facing William Tan (Eston Fung) in this likable comedy-drama from Don X. Nguyen, directed by Lauren E. Banks.

You don’t have to be a high school alum from the Eighties to appreciate the familiar sit-com elements that create the reassuring aspects of the play, but, if you are, William Tan will certainly jar you back to the heyday of teased hair and shoulder pads, on girls, and bad dance moves on guys. It’s the era of Ferris Bueller’s famous day off, and William Tan, as played by Fung, wears a suitable air of Matthew Broderick cluelessness and earnestness—particularly when trying to parse a poem for his English teacher.

Eston Fung as William Tan

Eston Fung as William Tan

Because he’s an ambitious gymnast for the Lincoln High Links in Nebraska, William hangs out with the jocks at the school, particularly Dutch (Jason de Beer), the BMOC who, it will emerge, has issues with the Vietnamese guys, not from Lincoln, who hang out at the convenience store near the school. Thanks to a bit of relevant historical context from Guidance Counselor Ms. Chadda (Libby Peterson), we’re reminded of the mid-Seventies, when U.S. racists could be virulent about Vietnamese-Americans, whom they saw as virtually indistinguishable from Viet Cong, the “enemy.” Those days are long gone c. 1989, we might think, but they remain personally relevant for Dutch, who lost his dad in Nam, and seethes with the put-upon gripes of those who feel affronted by other ethnic groups.

What’s this got to do with William? He’s Chinese, so by the murky logic of white racism, whereby all Asians are related, he should be, in Ms. Chadda’s view, the guy to step in when Dutch and his cronies scrawl hate speech in the locker room. Meanwhile, William just wants to concentrate on his parallel bars and figure out how to talk to Gretchen (Tori Keenan-Zelt), the cheerleader (or Pom-a-Link) who has caught his fancy. Of course, he’s got a female confidante, the plain-Jane Betsy (not Bette) Davis (Baize Buzan), his chum who could be so much more. Buzan nearly runs away with the show since Betsy is more aware, clever and concerned than William, but making slow guys think fast is something the long-suffering sex has been saddled with since time immemorial, and she’s willing to call William out to wake him up to reality.

Nguyen’s play gets the high school dynamic right—in part because the story is based on events from the playwright’s past—especially how insular students can be. In minding his own business, William is typical. But the racial dynamic at his school and the expectations of well-meaning females such as Ms. Chadda and Betsy force him to reconsider his friendship with Dutch and the extent to which he is implicated in slurs against Asians. There’s also a nicely laconic confrontation between William and Vinh (Jae Shin), the leader of the Vietnamese kids, where reminiscences of smoking weed in middle school, together with Dutch, are interlaced with threats of a fight armed with knives and guns.

Helping to sell the comedy are occasional timely references and routines by the Pom-a-Links (Keenan-Zelt, Rebecca Hampe, and Cat Rodriguez) that feature radio hits of the day. How satisfied you are with the resolution of the drama may hinge on whether or not it seems fitting that William should have to make himself something of a sacrificial victim and how convincing his motivations are. Nguyen wisely stops short of a major soul-searching epiphany of racial consciousness on William’s part, but there’s a suitable moral in the fact that our hero does shed his assimilationist blinders and might even take an interest in China when he visits with his family after graduation. And that makes for enough of a commendable commencement.

 

The Commencement of William Tan
By Don X. Nguyen
Directed by Lauren E. Banks

Dramaturgs: Ashley Chang, Kee-Yoon Nahm; Scenic Designers: Dan Cogan, Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Edmund Donovan; Lighting Designer: Alex Zinovenko; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Technical Directors: Dan Cogan, Rae Powell; Choreographer: Matia Johnson; Fight Choreographer: Sean Patrick Higgins; Stage Manager: Steven Koernig; Producers: Sooyoung Hwang, Steven Koernig

Cast: Eston Fung; Baize Buzan; Libby Peterson; Jason de Beer; Jae Shin; Rebecca Hampe; Tori Keenan-Zelt; Cat Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
November 5-7, 2015

 

Window Watcher

Review of Rear Window at Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak’s production of Rear Window, adapted by Keith Reddin from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired the famous Hitchcock film, creates, on the one hand, a visually interesting “stage noir” take on the story, and, on the other, adds levels of complication that make for a confused approach to characters and content.

Some of the problem, of course, may be in the eye of the beholder. If you come to the show informed by the film, you may be expecting the play’s big-draw film star, Kevin Bacon, to be playing Jeffries as a take on the affable Everyman made so indelible by James Stewart. The Jeffries in Reddin’s script, based a bit on Woolrich himself, is deliberately not that. Jeffries is an alcoholic newsman brooding over at least two major issues: one is the loss of his wife, Gloria, in a vague backstory, the other is a certain disillusion caused by the conviction and execution of an innocent black youth in South Carolina, a story he covered. Typically, Jeffries likes to write about homicide, and to purloin the murder weapon when possible, but the racist handling of the case of George Stinney (which actually occurred) has given him pause, professionally speaking.

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

He’s also on pause because, like the main character in both story and film, he has a cast on his leg, and crutches, and a wheelchair. All of which gives Bacon something to do, physically, in moving about the stage and making the most of a world-weary, hang-dog manner. But if you’re hoping for a good, middle-aged female nurse role such as Stella, brought to life by Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s film (scripted by John Michael Hayes), forget it. The helper for Jeffries is a young black kid, Sam (McKinley Belcher III) who shows up saying Jeffries, one drunken night, invited him over. He also has nothing but wide-eyed praise for Jeffries the writer; Jeffries looks askance at the flattery but takes a liking to the kid anyway. All well and good, except that Sam, a cipher of a character, also has to take on the role of getting Jeffries evidence—in the film, that task is left to his swanky girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and in the story to Sam, a servant of long-standing. Here, the strongest character reading of these two is as a folie à deux between newsman turned sleuth and adoring fan turned factotum; there are also a few hints of Jeffries being in the closet, but those aren’t developed any more than that wan recollection of a former wife.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

And the lack of development on the level of Jeffries’ emotional life nags at the play and isn’t really compensated for by Jeffries’ activity. What Jeffries does, of course, is spy on his neighbors. Though they aren’t up to much other than offering window-dressing, there is an ensemble up there in a tenement-like set, complete with fire escape, able to turn when necessary to let us into the modest apartment of the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton), a couple at loggerheads that Jeffries becomes obsessed with. There’s a glimpse of where this might have gone, were we still living in the Freudian days that fueled elements in film noir and Hitchcock, when we see that the couple might be living out some version of Jeffries’ own marital woe (particularly as Hamilton plays both the former Mrs. Jeffries and the current Mrs. Thorwald, that is, until the latter disappears mysteriously). The psychological battle Jeffries might undergo in confronting why he believes Thorwald—a meek-enough-looking guy, seeming like the quintessential hen-pecked husband complete with effeminate apron when we first meet him—killed Mrs. Thorwald could be the lurid stuff of a melodrama of the 1950s or 1960s (cue Nicholas Ray).

But that’s not what we have here, seemingly. Or that’s at least—without giving it away—what we’re led to believe by the rather rushed and unconvincing denouement that comes about, complete with loud gunplay, before the fuzzy conclusion. Along the way, there’s John Bedford Lloyd as Boyne, a surly detective that Jeffries himself calls into action, as he does in the story, though in Woolrich sans the racism that seems present here to remind us that cops, in New York (not just down South), have been known to mistreat African-Americans. It’s a point that serves little purpose in this story of a house-bound, would-be sleuth going bonkers, but one must allow that it’s a point, at least. Nothing much else here has one.

Except, that is, for the manifest technical point that seems to be exercising director Tresnjak: can the stage take on the mood and feel of film noir and deliver similar entertainment? In terms of the use of Alexander Dodge’s amazing set, with York Kennedy’s rich lighting scheme, Jane Shaw’s powerhouse sound, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections—including opening titles straight from a movie matinee and a pair of filmed eyes that Hitch, always a friend to kitschy effects, might use—Tresnjak creates a world that should be inhabited by characters from James M. Cain and the like, where murder will out and flawed heroes take their lumps. But this is no campy celebration of beloved effects of a bygone cinematic era. And as a dark night of the soul, the play is oddly soul-less, while the theme of murder, so dear to the noirish heart, is here a vague sub-plot among sub-plots, made all the more will-o’-the-wisp by the fact that the tenement set, as the Thorwalds’ container, leaps into view only when, as it were, Jeffries bothers “to turn on the set.”

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

And that might be the final irony of the staging of Rear Window. The film made the case that we all live, to some degree, in glass houses, created by our voyeuristic love of cinema and television. We look at one another as characters in a drama we’re trying to watch. The richly detailed set in the film recalled a stage set, but “off-stage” and “off-camera” are two different worlds, the one simply doesn’t exist, the other appeals to a range of imaginative possibilities. Staging the cinematic is a complicated business and Tresnjak’s Rear Window demonstrates the problems more than it solves them.

 

Rear Window
Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin
Based on the story by Cornell Woolrich

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: James Harker; Assistant Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Kevin Bacon; McKinley Belcher III; Melinda Page Hamilton; John Bedford Lloyd; Robert Stanton; Erik Bloomquist; Caitlin Harrity; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly; William Squier; Barbara Gallow; Ashley Croce; Jon Garrity; Quinn Warren; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly

Hartford Stage
October 22-November 15, 2015

Sugar and Spite

Review of The Secretaries at Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s production of The Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries, directed by Melanie Field, is a romp through the tropes of female exploitation—or rather “sexploitation,” the term coined to cover certain sexually charged films of the 1960s; a particular sub-genre appealed to the lurid fascination with situations where women dominate women: prison, nurse-training, convents and all-girls schools, and here, a secretarial pool at a lumber camp in Cooney, Oregon. The never-seen male boss maintains nominal control over his female employees, whereas, in reality, at the helm is middle-management mastermind Susan Curtis, played by Chalia La Tour with steely élan and a fanatical gleam in her eye that is the scariest part of this fever dream of female bonding.

The girls in the pool are easily recognizable—and exploited—types, played with campy brio by the four other female actors (with Field and La Tour) of the Yale School of Drama’s class of 2016: Jenelle Chu, as Patty (the new girl who just wants to be liked), Annelise Lawson, as Peaches (the masochist who needs to diet and pines for food), Annie Hägg, as Ashley (the vicious reigning Secretary of the Month), and Shaunette Renée Wilson, as Dawn (the resident lesbian). Doubtless, you’ve known these types since high school, but did you ever wonder what they might get up to if left entirely to their own devices?

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

What’s most fun about the production—which features mood-inducing sound effects and music by Kate Marvin, a battery of trippy projections by Yana Biryukova, and dance sequences and fight sequences and bikinied women drenched in blood at its close—is its gleeful misogyny. Women here are the sum total of their obsessions: losing weight, being liked, making out, looking good, and, mostly, pleasing Big Sister, the den mother who rules them with rules and gives them one night a month to run amok on. That night is Kill Night and each month a male lumberjack—with an array of names like Buzz, Woody, Chip—bites the dust. One girl or another gets his plaid jacket as trophy and all is well.

The women are almost the reverse of The Stepford Wives fantasy—robotic perfect mates for successful males—except these women don’t antagonize men nearly as much as they bedevil each other. What the authors of the play satirize is the way that women struggle most with an ideal of Perfect Woman (which includes being the perfect employee and role model) that women foist upon themselves and each other, and then undermine each other in trying to live up to. The play also makes manifest certain psychological impasses that make this kind of group mentality work: simultaneously hating and loving one’s tormentor/master/rival, identifying with the success of others and resenting it, needing to be “one” with the others but also oneself. The many wrinkles and seams—to say nothing of tears and stains—in the quilt of feminist togetherness are exposed here with tightly coiled comedy.

The actors are well-matched to their roles: Chu plays Patty with that mix of fecklessness and guile that is, well, kinda irresistible; Lawson’s Peaches is self-effacing, seemingly, but also a ticking time-bomb, who clearly needs the release of Kill Night; Hägg’s Ashley wears a look of perpetual frustration and alternately snarls and soaks up reassurances on her beauty; Wilson’s Dawn wears pants to work (as does the boss) and plays up her predatory role—while, as Buzz, Wilson is a likeable guy eager to date the eager-to-date Patty; La Tour’s Susan exposes her layers of manipulation with ruthless efficiency. Altogether, it’s a hoot.

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Audience members will no doubt find their favorite moment in terms of resonance or distortion: perhaps when Susan collects all the girls’ used tampons (of course, they’re all on the same cycle)? Or maybe the frenzy of Kill Night? Or perhaps Susan's seduction of Dawn? Or an awkward “break the ice” game of Twister? For me, it had to be Susan’s goading of Patty at the wheel of a car, a scene that goes from 20 mph to over-the-top in minutes, and is followed by the memorable “Run, Patty, Run” sequence, complete with “headlights.”

A ghoulish play, in its way (and thus perfect for Halloween weekend), The Secretaries delves into the unease of being working girls by means of slapstick and caricature, provoking catharsis through laughter at situations which might, even now, be too true to type.

 

The Secretaries
By The Five Lesbian Brothers
Directed by Melanie Field

Scenic Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Technical Directors: Kelly Fayton; Kat Wepler; Producer: Emika Abe

Yale Cabaret
October 29-31, 2015

 

 

She is Risen

Review of Evita at Music Theatre of Connecticut

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita pulls off an interesting feat: a rock opera about a political celebrity. What’s more, it cleverly echoes some of the signature characterization from the duo’s most famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, what with Che, a figure a bit like Judas and a bit like the Zealot, acting as our narrator. And, in its portrayal of the show's heroine, Argentina's First Lady Eva Perón, the opera gestures toward sainthood, in song (“Santa Evita”), and makes due mention of Eva’s body missing from its grave. Will she come again in glory?

Katerina Papacostas as Eva

Katerina Papacostas as Eva

Staged by Artistic Director Kevin Connors on the small thrust stage at MTC, Evita sports a commanding presentation—intimate, energetic, involving. So confined, there’s no way for the show to get lost in big Broadway-style glitz. The score is sharply streamlined, without guitars but an array of keyboard settings. It’s the kind of show where you can see the dancers sweat and catch their breath, but where you can also see how precise Becky Timms’ choreography is, using every bit of the multi-level stage. The big dance numbers, “A New Argentina,” and “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” are taut, and after intermission the show gets even stronger, as we follow Eva’s super-charged career, especially the Rainbow Tour of Europe.

Donald E. Birely as Juan

Donald E. Birely as Juan

As Eva, Katerina Papacostas brings to the role her earnest, appealing eyes, a clear voice that tends to stress the sweet and lyrical side of Eva, without overdoing the pathos, and great legs. As her husband, Juan, Donald E. Birely has a commanding presence, put to good effect in the political game of musical chairs, “The Art of the Possible,” and seems generally inscrutable like many a political figure who wants appearance to mask substance. As our commentator, Che, Daniel C. Levine owns the thing. His stage presence, as reactor and critic, keeps our focus on the fact that what we’re seeing is Eva as legendary figure. And he’s got the kind of voice that belongs in Rice/Webber, able to belt and coo and rock it, as needed.

Daniel C. Levine as Che (foreground)

Daniel C. Levine as Che (foreground)

The rest of the cast work hard in a variety of guises, notably Christopher DeRosa as a smooth tango singer and Carissa Massaro as the forlorn mistress Juan dumps to make room for Eva—the song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” with guitar wielded onstage by Christopher Hudson Myers, is the kind of melancholy “life goes on” song that would be at home in almost any musical, an affecting bit of Rice/Webber, who have a knack for lyrical monologues—“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” “High Flying, Adored”—and songs that assert the perspective of the crowd or aristocrats or generals (Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes create an interesting combo of the latter two roles).

Carissa Massaro, Corinne C. Broadbent, Rachel MacIsaac, Matt Greenberg

Carissa Massaro, Corinne C. Broadbent, Rachel MacIsaac, Matt Greenberg

Other than entertainment—and there’s plenty of that—it’s hard to say what one gets out of the show. Papacostas portrays an Eva who grows from a sly get-ahead “chorus girl” to an icon with gravitas, but the testing that occurs during the Rainbow Tour and her brave attempt to live up to her country’s need for her makes us aware that she’s not equal in power to the influence she wields among the people. Rice and Webber seem to want to have it both ways: creating in us sympathy for Eva as a Golden Girl a bit out of her element but also striving to be better, and keeping us in sympathy with Che and his jaundiced view of how the Peróns manipulate their followers. “You Must Love Me,” Eva sings—“adore me / Dior me”—and we do, with reservations.

In the end, director Connors seems most inclined to show us the tension between the appearance and the reality and that’s as it should be, giving us an Eva as a grand stage diva, dying to impress us.

Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Kevin Connors

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: David Heuvelman; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling; Choreography: Becky Timms; Musical Direction: Thomas Martin Conroy; Photographs: Joe Landry

Cast: Donald E. Birely; Corinne C. Broadbent; Christopher DeRosa; Matt Greenberg; Tyler Keller; Daniel C. Levine; Rachel MacIsaac; Carissa Massaro; Christopher Hudson Myers; Katerina Papacostas

Children: Rica Monaghan; Raquel Paige; Madeleine Tansley (Oct. 10-18); Ariana Brodows; Jonah Frimmer; Jolie Shey (Oct. 23-25); Jonah Frimmer; Cessa Lewis; Rica Monaghan; Hannah Pressman (Oct. 30-Nov. 1)

Musicians: Thomas Martin Conroy (keyboard); Mike L’Altrella (second keyboard); Jim Andrews (bass); Chris Johnson (drums)

Music Theatre of Connecticut
October 16-November 1, 2015