Poems of Wry Reflection

Review of Houses, New and Selected Poems by Don Barkin

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Barkin

Don Barkin

 

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

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

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

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

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

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Race

Preview of Smart People, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Smart People
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

It's Complicated

Review of Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Yale Cabaret

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

Xander (Kevin Hourigan), Michael (Josh Goulding)

Xander (Kevin Hourigan), Michael (Josh Goulding)

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

Lena (Sydney Lemmon), Matt (Abubakr Ali)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon), Matt (Abubakr Ali)

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

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

Lena (Sydney Lemmon)

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
March 2-4, 2017

Twinkle, Twinkle

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

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

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

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

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

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

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

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

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

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

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

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

Sue Mengers (Jodi Stevens)

 

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

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

Music Theatre of Connecticut
February 24-March 5, 2017

Me & the Chimp

Review of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

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

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

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

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

 

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

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

Board Ops: George Kulp, J. Kevin Smith

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

Down on the Farm

Review of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Playhouse on Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Playhouse on Park
February 15-March 5, 2017

Nice Life

Review of The Quonsets, Yale Cabaret

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

The Custom Cutter (Rachel Kenney)

The Custom Cutter (Rachel Kenney)

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

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

Cassidy (Stella Baker), Sylvester (Ben Anderson)

Cassidy (Stella Baker), Sylvester (Ben Anderson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Yale Cabaret
February 23-25, 2017

More Than Monkey Business

Preview of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

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

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

New Haven Theater Company
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street

Le Refus Absurde

Review of Débâcles, Yale Cabaret

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

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
February 16-18, 2017

Satellite of Love

Review of The Satellite Series Festival, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Satellite Series Festival of Performance

Featuring work created by:

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

Yale Cabaret
February 9-11, 2017

Take Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

Have a Bite

Review of The Meal, Yale Cabaret

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

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

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

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

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

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

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
February 2-4, 2017

Grin and Bear It

Review of Imogen Says Nothing, Yale Repertory Theatre

Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new play is an unpredictable provocation, a serious comedy about theater and oppression, about identity and creativity, about the “tether” that binds us together and keeps us shackled. In trying to imagine a revisionist Elizabethan world, which includes William Shakespeare as a minor character, Imogen Says Nothing, in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, presents theater as a spirited and challenged collectivity threatened not only by more vicious entertainments—like bear-baiting—but also by new technologies, such as ink and printing. Actors, like priests confronted by the Lutheran Bible, fear what will happen if folks can just read it for themselves.

The cast of Imogen Says Nothing (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Imogen Says Nothing (photo: Joan Marcus)

To point up the problems with textual evidence and to take us to a time when a playwright might well distrust the written word, Kapil uses a minor variant in the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s popular comedy Much Ado About Nothing. In one version of the play, the wife of Leonato is named as Imogen or Innogen and, though the character has no lines, she seems to be present and silent while being talked about. This minor wrinkle becomes the stuff of a kind of wish fulfillment. Imogen, a large woman newly come to London, happens upon the troupe Shakespeare is part of and, after she performs a service for the company, gets written into the play as a gesture of her bond with them, which made her an historical anomaly as the only actual woman to trod the stage of the time. Imogen’s first act makes much of the staging of Much Ado and Imogen’s starry-eyed embrace of acting as being “transported.” Imogen’s highly amusing interactions with the colorful troupe—especially Hubert Point-Du Jour as the thoughtful Henry Condell and Christopher Ryan Grant as the generally drunken John Heminges—and a wonderful scene of the actors, now homeless, carrying the boards of the theater to a new location at Bankside, help to make the first act a lively valentine to the theater and its illusions and omissions.

Burbage (Thom Sesma), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson), John (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Alex (Christopher Geary), Nicholas (Ricardo Davila) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Burbage (Thom Sesma), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson), John (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Alex (Christopher Geary), Nicholas (Ricardo Davila) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The developments in Act 2, after intermission, take off from a chilling encounter on the way to Bankside: an escaped bear (Zenzi Williams) confronts the company and is dissuaded from attacking by Imogen who is apparently an escaped bear now in human form. While one must take that as one will, the main problem is that it hangs uneasily with Imogen’s charming reason for coming to London, in Act 1: her town—North Burcombe—has appeared on an influential map as “Quaere” (a query) which has made the town become all but invisible. “To be absent is a terrible thing,” Imogen says, and proceeds to be present in text and on stage as an extra character who will then be excised in some texts. That theme of the play—the question of textual authority over actual identity—sort of goes missing itself once the new theme of human vs. bear is sounded.

Now it’s a question of who dances on whose tether, with now and then a sally about the illusion of acting versus the reality of bears putting on shows. The part of the Crier, indelibly enacted by Ben Horner looking like a dandified barbarian, puts showmanship into the bear’s plight. The bears themselves are feelingly enacted by the actors Thom Sesma, who doubles as Richard Burbage, Christopher Ryan Grant, as the acclaimed bear Ned Whiting, and Christopher Geary and Ricardo Dávila who double as “the Fluffies” (or captious young bears) and as the actors—Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Tooley respectively—who play ladies on stage. The bear and actor doubling creates a neat overlay in which humanism animates both actors as bears and actors as actors. The most telling doubling may be that of Daisuke Tsuji, who plays a rather diffident Shakespeare and a threatened Warden of the bears.

Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), Burbage (Thom Sesma), Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), Burbage (Thom Sesma), Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The threats in Act 2 achieve enacted violence and it is then up to Act 3 to put us back on comic footing. This it does rather more wryly than well. We move from the late 1590s in Act 1 and 2 to 1613 and then to 1623 (after Shakespeare’s death) in Act 3. In 1613, the troupe is presented with the fait accompli of a printed version of Much Ado, wielded by Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), censorious and rather literal-minded ladies’ maid to the Queen, who has commanded a royal performance of that play together with the romance The Winter’s Tale, which of course famously features a bear. The dovetailing of these themes, together with Henry confronting a copy of the map Imogen spoke of, and bearing Will’s posthumous manuscript to the printer’s, and encountering Imogen redux takes us somewhere, for a conclusion, that might well be called “Quaere.”

John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry Cordell (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson) (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry Cordell (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson) (photo: Joan Marcus)

As Imogen, Ashlie Atkinson is strikingly full of a matter-of-factness that gives the actors pause. As a bear passing as a woman, she can be both fearsome and oddly demur. She does seem indeed otherworldly in this world both arcane and familiar. Geary’s comic touches as the bitchy Alex enliven the company and Dávila is endearing as Nick, who is new to the company in Act 1. As Burbage, Sesma shows authority but he really shines as Harry Hunks, the blind and irascible veteran bear. Horner makes the most of the Crier but the role is more device than character. Tsuji’s Shakespeare is deliberately low key, as though Kapil wants to assert that a man who writes so well must have nothing interesting to say in person. Williams comes off detrimentally prim as Anna Roos, when something a bit more jarringly comic would help to lift Act 3.

Point-Du Jour and Grant inhabit their characters so easily they become key to how we feel about the play—they are off-hand, obtuse at times, at times quick, and generally fun to be around. The fun the cast has with the brief Much Ado segments tempts us to be transported, like Imogen, by stagecraft even as we are entertained by the backstage bickering. Kapil’s play and this production’s atmospheric set, lights, costumes and music are certainly capable of transporting us, but all the world is very much the stage in this crafty play.

 

Imogen Says Nothing
The Annotated Life of Imogen of Messina,
last sighted in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s
Much adoe about Nothing
By Aditi Brennan Kapil
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Scenic Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: David Weiner; Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Yana Birÿkova; Production Dramaturgs: Amy Boratko, Charles O’Malley; Technical Director: William Hartley; Dialect Coach: Stephne Gabis; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Benjamin Edward Cramer Pfister

Cast: Ashlie Atkinson; Ricardo Dávila; Christopher Geary; Christopher Ryan Grant; Ben Horner; Hubert Point-Du Jour; Thom Sesma; Daisuke Tsuji; Zenzi Williams

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 20-February 11, 2017

Inspired Silliness

Review of The Comedy of Errors, Hartford Stage

The Comedy of Errors, a farce involving two sets of twins and escalating mistaken identity, is probably Shakespeare’s silliest play. It’s also one of his earliest and finds the Bard adhering to the “unities” of time and place. As a play in which no one is exempt from being the butt of a joke—the main one is the plot itself—it has a very democratic sense of comedy. All are fools and appear foolish and the best aspect of the Hartford Stage production, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, is how relentlessly theatrical it is.

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There have been a series of productions at Hartford that take us back to the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Rear Window, the Italian Neo-realist design of Romeo and Juliet, and, here, the echoes of films like Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek, films that exploit the charm of Greece—the play is set in Ephesus—Hollywood style. The set is stunning in its symmetries and vibrant color scheme, creating the perfect multilayered space to play out this broadly physical farce. Tresnjak throws in some of the costuming and larger-than-life style of Bollywood comedy from India as well to arrive at a zany concoction that teases and pleases. The show is a lot of fun, a feast for eye and ear, and divertingly entertaining with a vengeance.

Errors is the kind of play that requires zestful ensemble work and the cast is very much up to the mark. Special mention must be made of Jolly Abraham as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanka); she’s a wild cartoon of a scheming and mistakenly jilted wife, using a voice that veers irrepressibly through a range of emotions, from shrieks to guttural threats. It’s a thrilling ride every time she speaks or moves. As her sister, Luciana, Mahira Kakkar plays meek second fiddle very well and the chemistry between the two is memorable.

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though they don’t get to spend time on stage together until the very end, the twin Antipholuses—Hatanka as our man in Ephesus and Tyler Lansing Weaks as the twin newly arrived from Syracuse—support each other well, with Hatanka the more frenetic and Weaks the more phlegmatic. Their twin servants, both named Dromio—Alan Schmuckler of Syracuse and Matthew Macca of Ephesus—recall put-upon clowns of many stripes, such as the Marx Brothers or the Stooges. Like many of the routines of such comedic masters, the servants manage to be both witless and quick-witted as occasion demands.

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

And that’s only scratching the surface. The supporting players here are all terrific, whether the fetchingly costumed prostitutes, the policemen in traditional Greek folk costumes, the striking lead courtesan, Paula Legget Chase, whose opening song brings back memories of Melina Mercouri, the twitchy Dr. Pinch (Michael Elich), the beleaguered Aegeon (Noble Shropshire), Merchant of Syracuse and father of the twin Antipholoi, or the strutting Solinus (Elich again), Duke of Ephesus, and, last but far from least, Tara Heal in a fat suit that makes Nell suitably “spherical” as described. Heal makes the most of her pneumatic curves so that when comedy is described as “broad,” it suits her in every sense of the word.

This is a world light as air in its quick switches, sharp in its put-downs and abuse, and pointed in its hyper-aware glee of how the human race is somehow at its best when able to laugh at itself. Tresnjak’s staging makes the most of the set’s various areas and keeps the gags turning on a dime. And, amidst the hilarity, there are lyrical touches like the set’s vivid palette, and the top notch choreography (Peggy Hickey), lighting (Matthew Richards), sound (Jane Shaw) and, especially, costumes by Fabio Toblini. This Comedy of Errors is an embarrassment of riches.

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Comedy of Errors
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dakro Tresnjak

Choreography: Peggy Hickey; Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson; Makeup Design: Tommy Kurzman; Composer/Music Director/Arranger: Alexander Sovronsky; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Jolly Abraham; Brendan Averett; Lauren Bricca; Louis Butelli; Paula Leggett Chase; Michael Elich; Jamaal Fields-Green; Ryan-James Hatanaka; Tara Neal; Daisy Infantas; Mahira Kakkar; Matthew Macca; Kalob Martinez; Evan McReddle; Johanna Morrison; Monica Owen; Tyler Pisani; Alan Schmuckler; Noble Shropshire; Tyler Lansing Weaks

Musicians: Alexander Sovronsky; Louis Tucci

 

Hartford Stage
January 12-February 12, 2017

 

 

What good is sitting all alone in your room?

Preview, Yale Cabaret Season 49, Part II

Generally speaking, February—in New Haven at least—isn’t an easy month to like. The good news is that the Yale Cabaret will be back, as of the 2nd, and there won’t be a “dark week” the entire month. And that means you should schedule accordingly: every weekend from February 2nd through March 2nd there will be a new offering, then, in late March and into April, a final trio of shows, plus the celebrated annual Drag Show at the very end of March.

Only two shows will feature pre-existing plays, which means that the bulk of what’s coming has never been shown or seen before. It’s all new and it’s all happening now, this moment, this season, this town. If the fact that the game has changed hasn’t been visited upon you by circumstantial evidence in and around the country, check out the Cab’s new website and new lobby. Looking forward to the 50th anniversary season of the Yale Cabaret—which began in the 1967-68 school year—the new design incorporates elements of the original poster for the Cabaret coffeehouse back in the day. Meanwhile, Cab 49 is under the same management as in the fall—Artistic Directors, Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, Ashley Chang, and Managing Director Steven Koernig—but has got a new lease on life, and a new logo.

First up, Cab 11: The Meal: Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism, is a contemporary Brazilian play by Newton Moreno that recently appeared in Theater magazine in a translation by Elizabeth Jackson. Directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques, the play, say the Cab crew, is “weird and gorgeous and grotesque.” It features three tales of cannibalism, in a sense both “metaphorically and real,” with each of the three scenes—“all love stories, in a way”—giving a different spin to the question of appropriation. The fact of cannibalism as an aspect of certain cultures is involved, as well as the ways in which we feed upon one another emotionally and, perhaps, actually. Each segment twists the possible meanings of ingesting your own species, from the erotic to the exploitative, the transactional to the colonial. February 2-4

Cab 12 features the return of The Satellite Festival, a three-night bundling of various shows in a trio of locations that made its debut in Cabaret season 48. Making use of the Cabaret space, the studio space upstairs in the same building at 217 Park, and the African-American cultural center across the walk-space from the Cab, the Festival is an opportunity for short works and works that highlight unusual technical or musical components, such as virtual reality and live music, or dance and video, to have an audience. There will be two “main events” each night at 7:45 and 10:45, interspersed with other show times to make for 15 events in all, but all able to be viewed on a single pass. There will be participants from other graduate schools at Yale, such as Music and Art, and events like a story slam, a concert for bass drum, a one-act family drama, a take-off on reality TV, a cross between Bluebeard and The Bachelorette with audience participation, and a collage of one-woman shows, among many other events. February 9-11

With a certain timeliness, Cab 13 brings us tales of the French Resistance. Marion Aubert’s Débâcles, translated by Erik Butler and Kimberly Jannarone, is, in keeping with most of the productions directed by former Summer Cabaret Co-Artistic Director, Elizabeth Dinkova, a “dark farce.” The translation was given a staging at the Lark in New York, but this will be the play’s first full American premiere. “Fast-paced,” “absurd,” “intense,” the play takes on the French effort to resist fascism when the country had officially capitulated to Nazi Germany. Sometimes real patriotism is a form of treason, and hidden agendas rule the day. Which is worse, double-think or a double-cross? February 16-18

The Quonsets brings together two new plays by Yale School of Drama playwrights, Alex Lubischer and Majkin Holmquist, for Cab 14. Quonset huts are familiar in farming communities as low-cost, portable, temporary housing used during harvest time. Lubischer, a first-year at YSD, and Holmquist, a second-year, realizing they both hail from “flyover States” of the Midwest, decided that each would write a play that would go together with the other, beginning in Kansas and moving to Nebraska, following the harvest. The two plays share a character, a certain “hyper naturalism,” and, of course, the huts. First-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar brings us this unusual visit to a Red-State America “foreign” to many ensconced in embattled Blue States. February 23-25

The uninterrupted streak of weekly shows ends with Cab 15, Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, a new work by first-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by third-year director, and former Summer Cabaret Co-Artistic Director, Jesse Rasmussen. Xander is a porn star and “digital celebrity” obsessed with his identity on the internet, and on a first date with Michael, who he met on one of the online date-enabling sites; meanwhile, Xander’s brother Matt, a musician, is trying to find romance with Lena, a girl he just met. This “very contemporary” play, set in Los Angeles, explores the problems of love and intimacy in a world where virtual reality can be more compelling than face-to-face reality. March 2-4

After two dark weeks, the Cabaret returns with Cab 16: The Red Tent, a devised work proposed by first-year actress Sohina Sidhu, as a ritual performance investigating the cultural status of menstruation. Involving first-year actors and other women of color, the play’s title refers to the tradition in some cultures of isolating women during their menstrual period, a space the women mean to claim as their own. Using “poetry and music, movement and magic” the play, to use Audre Lorde’s words, shows “how to take our differences and make them strengths.” March 23-25

One night only, for three shows, the Yale School of Drama’s annual “School of Drag” show takes over the Cabaret. An increasingly hot ticket, the show features an unpredictable array of male and female cross-dressing, dance routines, lip-synching, and costumes to die for. Third-year actor Ricardo Dávila and third-year director Kevin Hourigan direct this fun and frolicsome affront to hetero-normativity. March 31

In April, the first show up is Cab 17, The Other World. Directed by third-year actor Baize Buzan, the play is an adaptation by playwright Charlie O’Malley of the memoir and artworks of queer artist/activist David Wojnarowicz who, in the Reagan era of rampant HIV/AIDS infections, deaths, and mourning, created art to raise awareness. Now, 25 years after his death, Wojnarowicz’s struggle to make art and life work together for social ends is again highly relevant. April 6-8

Cab 18, the final show of the season, is the rather balefully entitled Circling the Drain. Third-year costume designer Cole McCarty adapts the short story collection of that name by the late American author Amanda Davis, each focused on “women on the edge: falling out of love, falling into love, falling off a bridge,” and in many senses “dangling on a precipice.” A passion project, the show is, the Cab crew say, a “passionate and compelling” instance of “what we’re going for” in shaping the Cab’s season 49. April 20-22

Eighteen shows plus the Drag Show. Another packed season for stressful times. The welcoming ambiance of the Cab’s basement theater feels more important than ever, and the shows on offer will no doubt provoke, delight, consternate, and inspire. For info on season passes and individual tickets, consult the Cabaret’s website at cab49.org.

As ever, see you at the Cab!

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

 

Yale Cabaret 49, February-April, 2017

Nicely Put

Review of Endgame, Long Wharf Theatre

Writing my review of this grayest of plays on this grayest of days is deliberate. To have Samuel Beckett’s Endgame onstage at this point in time was a commendable choice on the part of Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of the Long Wharf and director of this production. Beckett, famously, was against seeing “symbols where none intended,” and would not welcome allegorizing his play into a commentary on any situation too topical, and yet. The play’s grim sense of how adaptable humans are to what are sometimes called “unthinkable” conditions strikes a certain tonic chord for us now.

Endgame, originally written by Beckett in French then translated into English, dates from the late 1950s, drawing on a post-World War II world of scarcity, death, destruction, and, with the bombs dropped on Japan, a glimpse of what utter destitution might look like. But, more telling perhaps than that general context, the play originated from one of the most minimalist minds to ever emerge in English letters, and that as an Irishman writing in French. Beckett’s writing always keeps in mind the bare minimum of existence, while also imbuing its bleak and prickly situations with the humanity found in Shakespearean moments like Prince Hamlet talking to a skull, or blinded Gloucester recognizing “the trick of that voice,” or a Scots porter rambling on about drink and urine on the morning after a game-changing regicide.

In Endgame, Beckett creates a situation where Hamm (Brian Dennehy), a domineering but dependent, blind old man lords it over a kingdom reduced to a bare, gloomy room and a single factotum, Clov (Reg E. Cathy). Several paces away from Hamm’s chair upon casters and to his right, sit two trash-bins, one for Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and one for Nell (Lynn Cohen), Hamm’s straitened parents. On the wall behind Hamm’s chair are two windows high on the wall, and several paces away from Hamm, on his left, a door to a kitchen.

That set-up is all that Beckett’s play gives us, and the author was adamant about that, so one wonders what he would make of Eugene Lee’s busy set, which fascinates even before the actors appear. In columns towering on either side of the space are chairs upon chairs with books mixed in. They’re the kinds of chairs often found in libraries and seem to exude the weight of a lost, literate culture. On the stage, by the trashbins, is a clutter of detritus—more books, a computer, other bric-a-brac—and a grandly disemboweled and disintegrating chair. Then there’s that door: it’s not a bedroom door or the front door or even backdoor of a house. It’s a door, reinforced with a mesh of steel, such as might be found in a bunker or in a storage room abutting on a dark alley.

This Hamm and Clov exist amidst worthless crap in a final redoubt, and all they’ve got to get by on is their own frail wits and, for what it’s worth, routine. Routine, as in the rituals we each perform each day, of rising and taking stock—of the weather, our health, what we might undertake or not—but also routine as in theatrical routines, the expected shtick of telling stories, making speeches, moving about and using props.

Dennehy’s Hamm is a commanding presence, a great head with cheery white beard and dark glasses that make him seem cool and detached. His manner is rarely querulous or discomfited, as we might expect of the old and infirm, but rather bristles with the grandeur of a man of parts down to his last part. The attraction of the role is in its grasp of how even diminished resources can be milked for all their worth—an actor’s dream, one imagines—and Hamm is a showman very canny about what he’ll show and what he won’t. Impatience is his strongest response, but his enjoyment of a phrase or a reaction soon makes us share his aural space, so to speak. Hamm weighs everything that is said or occurs and wants constant reports on what he can’t see. He is omnivorous intelligence left with nothing to feed on but its own fading powers of discernment and elaboration. Dennehy’s Hamm is easily magisterial, and human and funny, and, in a very important way, utterly unknowable. I don’t think anyone will equal this bravura performance for quite some time.

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm’s story of the man who came to see him, on his belly, is, perhaps, the lurking origin story of Clov but is also a bit of theater to divert himself, by an imagined past, from the dark present. He coerces an audience from his father, Nagg, and earns the older man’s ire. Nagg’s memory of Hamm’s own childhood creates a sense of both reversed and perpetual dependencies. Much as the charmingly scattered exchanges between Nagg and Nell play with the dimmest recollections of courtship and the shared joys of a life together. Grifasi’s arch delivery of Nagg’s joke about the tailor easily breaks the fourth wall to enter our space, very tellingly.

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Beckett, of course, already allows for just such moments, as when Clov peers through a spyglass at the audience and professes to see “a multitude, in transports of joy.” While not quite the vaudevillian style of clown one associates with Beckett, Cathey, with his deep and convincing voice, brings an appealing dignity to the role. His manner adds a sly humor to many of Clov’s exchanges with Hamm that lets us see how the impatience of man with master and of grown child with parent become child again is a condition made bearable only by humor. The pair’s warmest exchange is an unscripted moment of contact that amplifies the strong bond between this antagonistic and mutually dependent duo. It’s indelible and evanescent, as the best theater moments are.

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The presence of sound in the play is also of interest: from the deafening fanfare, with a crescendo of heavy metal guitar and sirens and lord knows what else, that opens the play, to the loud blasts of Hamm’s whistle to summon Clov, to the huge clang of that slamming door. Edelstein and his team have conjured up an Endgame wonderfully cast, perfectly paced, and fraught with an edginess that asks us to think about the resources of theater in uneasy times, the way Beckett himself might imagine them for us.

And yet we know that Hamm, like Lear, is not a figure for what is wrong with the State. He’s a figure for what is never to be righted with the state of humanity. Hamm’s cry, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” is a reminder of how bleak being here can be. And yet Dennehy gets across the consolation that Beckett’s characters find in speech: nothing’s so bad that it can’t be made better or worse by speaking about it. That’s the only notable human contribution.

Endgame is the business of life reduced to the meanest of circumstances and the business of theater exulting in minimal riches. Mercy upon us, as my Irish ancestors would say.

 

Endgame
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Production Dramaturg: Christine Scarfuto; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Brian Dennehy; Reg E. Cathey; Joe Grifasi; Lynn Cohen

Long Wharf Theatre
January 5-February 5, 2017

Excruciating Times

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

Jesse Rasmussen likes to think of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 17th century play she will direct as her thesis production, as “the dirty little cousin of Romeo and Juliet.” As Rasmussen says, Ford “knows his Shakespeare” and would expect his audience to note the degree to which he is cribbing from the master: young “star-crossed lovers,” each with an adult confidante—a friar and a nurse, respectively. And a setting in Italy—though here it’s Parma, not Florence. And what might cause a bit more sensation—since baroque plays have a way of being rather provocative—than lovers who come from warring households? How about lovers who come from the same upper-middle-class household, who are, in fact, brother and sister?

The play was controversial in its day because of its sympathetic portrayal of incest—which might be one of the few romantic pairings that could be expected to inspire shock, even in our day. Rasmussen says the play “has a troubled production history” in modern times, with few commentators seeming to be pleased with what they’ve seen. Rasmussen saw one production in Australia, her native land, and read about two others. She found that the play “stuck in my craw” and if something sticks around like that, “you do it to get rid of it,” because that’s the only way.

Working through the text with her actors in rehearsal, Rasmussen has been considering two factors that have influenced her presentation of the play. On the one hand, the actors have found—to their surprise—how “juicy the language is to act. It’s cruder than Shakespeare, but it’s made to be played.” In other words, this is no closet drama text. The other factor Rasmussen has noted shares the view of Antonin Artaud who, is his famed manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty, mused that ‘Tis Pity might be staged without dialogue. What this means in practice is that Rasmussen has made many dramatic cuts to the script—which would otherwise play for upwards of three hours “at least”—in what she described as a choice of “bodies and physical action over text.” The show also adds music and the most fully developed use of projection design—including live feed—she has worked with thus far.

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

One of the aspects that made the play stay in Rasmussen’s mind, she said, is its “fascinating mystery,” as a provocation to audiences, and to players and directors. As director, her task is to “temper the experience” so that the audience does not feel itself “assaulted” by “the utterly brutal society” portrayed, which is “horrifyingly misogynist” and visits “excruciating trauma upon the women in the play.” In addition to Annabella, sister/lover of Giovanni, and the “whore” of the title, there is a revenge plot involving Hippolita’s hatred of her former lover Soranzo, the most likely candidate for Annabella’s hand.

The Church, which should be the absolute arbiter of vice and virtue, is shown as having no moral authority because it is corrupt, and “buyable.” The “loveliest thing in this culture,” according to Rasmussen, is the “beautiful poetry between Annabella and Giovanni” which is “gorgeous but poisonous.”

The play will be staged in contemporary clothing, though perhaps with baroque elements, and the audience will be seated on the stage of the University Theater. This variant, which I’ve seen done in two other thesis shows, adds a memorable intimacy to the production while also permitting the full use of the many stage-craft elements available at the UT.

In considering what it might mean to put her own stamp on the play, Rasmussen spoke of wanting to “flesh the text out into a fully inhabited, textured world.” She spoke of “chasing terror and violence to find beauty” and, while calling the play “ugly and dark,” Rasmussen, a “film buff,” likened its power to Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Raging Bull, which is both a harsh and violent film but also a beautiful one. Her task is to register the beauty and the violence of Ford’s play, while also creating “more focus” on the role of Annabella, who is “anything but a classical whore” and is in fact “a complex, fascinating heroine,” as a scapegoat (“lock her up!”) of this vicious society. Annabella hopes to find in love with her brother Giovanni a sort of narcissistic withdrawal from the dark and debased world they live in. Incest, in Rasmussen’s view, makes the insular nature of their love—and its flaunting of one of the few mores the play’s appalling world recognizes—all the more doomed.

Rasmussen, who staged very tellingly Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love at last year’s Summer Cabaret, seems drawn to incestuous dysfunction among ruling or upper-class families, and, certainly to violence and cruelty as elements of theater, elements that are perhaps alarmingly suitable to our time of histrionic hyperbole, wild invective, and shamefully debased public discourse. When the codes are broken, go for baroque.

 

'Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen
Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

A Quest for Joy

Review of In the Red and Brown Water, Yale Cabaret

The cycle of life as a journey under the influences of various gods is an idea common to many religions. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mythopoetic play, In the Red and Brown Water, directed by YSD playwright Tori Sampson at Yale Cabaret, puts on the stage orishas from the Yoruba religion to enact a drama centered on a young girl’s coming of age and arrival at a moment of sacrifice or surrender. The play’s grasp of the folkloric quality of these characters, dramatized by the engaging performances of the actors, holds viewers in a world that is both natural and mythic.

Annie Dauber’s impressive set—a porch of a rustic dwelling—imposes a sense of place but also, with the actors seated along the sides of the stage, creates an arena-like space where ritual might be enacted. Sampson’s direction communicates the feel of a folktale enacted by a troupe of actors who play the show for the sake of its communal meaning. McCraney’s device of having actors include stage narrative in their lines adds an element of story-telling that further deepens the air of time-honored actions, as in a myth where events follow a set pattern.

Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

Rear: Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell, Erron Crawford; Foreground: Courtney Jamison, Mose Ingram. Amanda Jahava

As both archetypes of elemental qualities, like thunder or air, and personal attributes, like “tireless loyalty,” the orishas are personified in characters in a specific milieu surrounding a Louisianan family. Oya (Moses Ingram), an orisha of the air, is here a teen girl who might become a great track athlete. Her Mamma Moja (Kineta Kunutu), a maternal orisha, hinders her dreams in a traditional way: she expects her daughter to find a man and be fertile. And there are interested local males—boys at first who become men in the course of the tale: Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham) is a kind of walking representation of masculinity, while Ogun (Leland Fowler), a more intellectual version of the masculine, has a stutter and is therefore timid in showing his passion.

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya’s own passion—as a runner—gets sidetracked despite a place for her at the state college. That, and the loss of Mamma Moja, precipitates most of the play’s drama, its succession of scenes playing out as the signposts of Oya’s journey. Tied up closely with her story is that of Elegba (Erron Crawford), who we see first as a whining child too fond of candy and watch become something like a wise and androgynous father figure. Comedy in the tale comes from Aunt Elegua, Ogun’s aunt and Oya’s god-mother, played with a campy liveliness by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, who gives Elegua a knowingness that escapes caricature. Also on hand to be teasing goads to Oya are overtly slinky local females Nia (Amandla Jahava) and Shun (Courtney Jamison), the latter a temptation to Shango while still Oya’s lover. The Egunegun (Jakeem Powell) is a party-loving mixer and O Li Roon (Kevin Hourigan) a ridiculous curmudgeon as store owner.

In the Red and Brown Water resonates as a story about determining the proper course in life to pursue, in hopes of attaining a pure joy. Oya’s strengths make her an engaging heroine, but her passivity opens up possibilities with others in her life as we watch to see who will dominate the tale. The highly sexual dance sequence might lead us to think of the play as a fertility rite in which the struggle to escape biological—and perhaps elemental and spiritual—determinants must be both dramatized and exorcised. In the end, orishas, no doubt, must be true to their essential natures, but humans, as imperfect enactments of divine intentions, suffer from having more than one nature.

 

In the Red and Brown Water
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tori Sampson

Assistant Director: Leland Fowler; Dramaturg: Lisa D. Richardson; Set Designer: Annie Dauber; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Technical Director: LT Guorzong; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Co-Producers: Lauren E. Banks, Al Heartley

Cast: Erron Crawford, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Jonathan Higginbotham, Kevin Hourigan, Moses Ingram, Amandla Jahava, Courtney Jamison, Kineta Kunutu

 

Yale Cabaret
January 12-14, 2017

Radio Wonderment

Review of It’s a Wonderful Life, Music Theatre of Connecticut

It’s a Wonderful Life, the story of American Everyman George Bailey, has become, in the 70 years since its release, a holiday favorite, a Christmas classic. It wasn’t always so, but that hardly matters now. The tale of how a struggling Building and Loan manager in Bedford Falls manages to best Old Man Potter, the grasping Scrooge of the community, and survive a Christmas Eve’s dark night of the soul worthy of Dickens’ infamous hero, feels like the stuff of American folklore. It weaves its spell even without the fine cast of character actors, beginning with James Stewart and including Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, and Henry Travers, that grace Frank Capra’s film of 1946. As a kind of welcome back to small-town America for all those returning G.I.s, the script has its heart in the right place.

Transformed by Joe Landry into a “live radio play” set in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life at MTC, directed by Kevin Connors, adds the charm of old-time entertainment to the well-known script. The melodramatic aspects of the story are gently winked at by such devices as using commercial breaks and voice-over announcers. We enter not only the bygone era of the story itself but also the way in which such a story would have been framed for its listeners in the golden age of radio. And since the audience is present for the dramatization—though you might be forgiven if you close your eyes and let images from the film play through your head in response to the lively voices of the cast—we get to watch the performance of sound effects and the delightful business of how five actors at microphone stands become the inhabitants of a small town with over a dozen named roles.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller)

The pleasures of the enactment come from how the familiar types of the original become comic turns in the hands of five radio actors, Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Jim Schilling). Each has a certain kind of showbiz attitude that plays into the parts they bring to life “on the air” (the audience at the show gets to double as the studio audience, with an Applause sign that lights up to let us know when we should be heard).

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Harry Heywood (Jim Schilling)

Begin with earnest George (Jon-Michael Miller), a well-meaning type whose life we trace from moments of past presence of mind to present despair to bewilderment and eventual redemption. Miller’s Laurents plays George as a bit of a would-be matinee idol, not quite what Jimmy Stewart aimed for. He’s abetted by DeMaria’s Lana Sherwood who also aims to get as much sex appeal into her portrayal of the somewhat wayward Violet Bick as she can. As George’s ever loyal wife Mary, Sally Applewhite looks a bit more elegant than she would on film, and Donnelly gets some mileage out of the remove between a Manhattan radio celebrity and the can-do smalltown girl. As grasping Potter, Zeller’s Freddie Filmore brings to bear the kind of overbearing style he uses to lord it over the airwaves as one of those inescapable announcer voices. And Jim Schilling’s “Jazzbo” Heywood, complete with bowtie, is the kind of easy-going, laidback entertainer just perfect for the gently ditzy angel Clarence and for the gee-whiz voices of little kids.

Landry’s adapted script plays it close to the original, with a host of other familiar voices—the druggist Gower, Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Uncle Billy, Mrs. Bailey, Mr. Martini—to let the actors show off their range of voices and, sometimes, a single actor enacts a conversation between two roles. The folks at home with their ears attending the box would never know. What we see that they don’t is part of the fun of this form of presentation.

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly)

The original film runs for over two hours. Landry’s script makes some judicious cuts, so as not to bog down the set-up that gets us to George’s time of trial, and the show also doesn’t have to draw out scenes for the sake of “screen time,” and that makes for a swifter if less expansive telling.

It’s a Wonderful Life, in any format, does its moral of the importance of friends and community proud. Maybe a more telling moral now than for many a year.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life
A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the stage by Joe Landry
Based on the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Kevin Connors

Music: Kevin Connors; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Manager: PJ Letersky

Cast: Elisa DeMaria, Elizabeth Donnelly, Jon-Michael Miller; Jim Schilling; Allan Zeller

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
December 9-18, 2016