On a Knife Edge

Review of Blood Wedding, Yale School of Drama

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding receives a gorgeous staging at the Yale School of Drama. The thesis show for third-year director Kevin Hourigan—and the first of the three thesis projects this season—Blood Wedding invites us to consider the elemental force of human passion. Lorca’s three act play is here staged as two acts, an intermission, and a short final act. The division of the material is made eminently sensible given the stark change in mood that follows the close of the play’s second act, here the first part curtain.

The first part has the feel of a folkloric exploration of the mores of an Andalusian village in rural Spain in the 1920s. Cole McCarty’s handsome costumes seem so authentic, we feel ourselves in a naturalistic depiction, while Choul Lee’s scenic design gestures toward the play’s more modernist elements that will come forward in the second part. The set combines a strikingly lit tree and tall, cathedral-like panes of glass, and, in the second part, dramatic lighting to suggest the influence of the moon.

Lorca eschews character names, and that lets us know that we’re in for something more stylized than naturalistic. Yet director Hourigan presents the mounting drama of the play’s first two acts with strongly delineated characters. Sebastian Arboleda plays The Groom as likeable, if none too exciting, something his Mother (Lauren E. Banks) realizes, trying to persuade him that his proposed marriage to The Bride (Sydney Lemmon) may not be in his best interests. The girl has been tainted by the reciprocal desire between herself and Leonardo (Barbaro Guzman), a horseman and the town’s resident heart-throb; his Wife (Stephanie Machado) is already pregnant with his second child, even as he has begun to suffer jealousy at the prospective marriage of a woman he wants for himself. It’s not a healthy situation, and we feel the entire village—suggested by number of ensemble parts played by Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Rebecca Hampe, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, and Jennifer Schmidt—looking on to see what develops.

In the early going, the play’s tone lets us hope all may work out well. Despite The Mother’s misgivings—and Banks seethes with barely contained emotion—and her mourning for men in her family who have died by the knife over quarrels, The Groom and his Mother pay the requisite visit to the Bride’s Father (Jake Ryan Lozano, benignly patriarchal) and events pass without quarrelsome words. The Groom is encouraged because the Bride seems eager for their coming nuptials, which is reassuring given the fact that she also finds it difficult to resist Leonardo’s importunate visit. These days, it’s easy to think ill of alpha males like Leonardo, but his headstrong passion, and his efforts at self-control, are well-rendered by Guzman in a very becoming outfit.

Lorca infuses the situation with a brooding sense of fate, as the passions presented seem elements of nature more than of individual character. The play gives rise to qualities that might make us think of a folktale, based in a collective mythos. Songs sung by the Wife and her Maid (Elizabeth Stahlmann), and the Wife’s Mother (McKenzie) create a sense of these women as a Chorus from Greek tragedy. They perceive the sorrow that the unfaithful husband adds to the Wife’s woe, but they also recognize—and this is perhaps the most telling element in Lorca’s play—the inevitability of the town’s most desirable man claiming the town’s most desirable woman. To stand between such necessary eros, Lorca’s play suggests, is to invite tragedy. Stahlmann’s just so manner as the Maid is particularly effective at conveying a knowing sense of the smoldering undercurrents here.

Key to what transpires in the second part is the unmooring of The Bride. Lemmon, regally tall in her sumptuous black costuming, seems a figure of almost uncanny power, totemic even. The hoofbeats that thunder past at one point—credit to Ian Scot’s original music and sound design—can double as her heart’s resolve overflowing its restraints. And on her wedding day, the Bride’s testiness undermines the fragile sense of unity the wedding was intended to create.

In the second part, three girls (Botha, Hampe, Schmidt) are presented in the image of the three Fates, complete with skein, visited by a mysterious enrobed figure (Banks) who dallies with them over the fait accompli of inevitable death. Banks’ doubling as The Mother and this more arcane figure suggests how much The Groom’s bride all along was death, to give the Mother another cause for mourning.

Also key to the more phantasmagoric elements of the second part is the monologue by The Moon, played with an affecting sense of lunacy by Lozano. The Moon’s part in all this we might understand as the mythic idea of the evil genius of a place. The Moon creates a situation where men must lose their heads, and violence inevitably results. In the end, Lorca gives us a world where moonlight is a knife, and the fact of knives leads to inevitable blood-letting. In the end, whatever sense of justice exists becomes the concern of the women—the Mother, the Wife, the Bride—bereft of their men.

With many subtle effects—not least from Erin Earle Fleming’s lighting—Blood Wedding is a stirring autumnal tale, a chronicle of deaths fore-ordained.


Blood Wedding
By Federico García Lorca
Translated by Nahuel Telleria
Directed by Kevin Hourigan

Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Original Music and Sound Design: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Alexandra Reynolds; Production Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda, Lauren E. Banks, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Barbaro Guzman, Rebecca Hampe, Sydney Lemmon, Jake Ryan Lozano, Stephanie Machado, Jennifer Schmidt, Elizabeth Stahlmann

Yale School of Drama
October 18-22, 2016

Meteor Shower, or Comedy Is Hard

Everyone old enough to have seen more than a couple of Steve Martin's movies or routines has a favorite joke of his. Mine are his line about being flabbergasted upon visiting France (“they have a different word for everything over there!”) and a line from L.A. Story, for which Martin wrote the script, that the lucky bastard Patrick Stewart gets to say as a beyond-snotty maître d’ at the ultra-exclusive restaurant L’Idiot, who thinks some of his clientele aren’t successful enough to order some of the items on the menu (“Ze duck? You can’t have ze duck. You can have ze chicken!”).

As Martin has moved further into writing, he has found a place as a playwright, and something of a champion in the Long Wharf Theater, which has produced The Underpants, which I didn’t see, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which I did see and thought was pretty funny.

So what happened with Meteor Shower?

To be fair, plenty of people thought Meteor Shower is also pretty funny. The night my wife and I went, half of the audience laughed at almost all the jokes. But the other half didn’t, and my wife and I—who have pretty divergent tastes in humor—were among them. She was ready to leave after intermission. I convinced her to stay, and felt that the second half was stronger than the first. But still, I thought, what happened?

Meteor Shower tells the story of Norm (Patrick Breen) and Corky (Arden Myrin), a wife and husband who seem to be getting along through a mixture of genuine, though possibly waning, affection, as well as a series of routines they’ve picked up from therapy. Social climbers, they’re getting ready for a dinner party with acquaintances Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown), though a casual comment Corky drops about having to deal with your subconscious or it will deal with you suggests that possibly the guests aren’t quite what they seems.

In any case, Gerald and Laura turn out to be scenery chewers of the highest order—she’s so sexy it hurts, wriggling out of her dress with every casual move she makes, and he’s just the kind of leather jacket-clad New Age bro that gives Southern California a bad name. The new couple comes on to the old couple in a way that wants to seem like hip 1990s—the play is set in 1993—but comes across more douchey 1970s. That this couple is staggeringly unlikeable is intentional, of course, and the rest of the play involves Norm and Corky in some sense getting to do the whole party over in a couple different ways, first to figure out what is going on, and finally to get the upper hand of their dinner guests, and dodge an earthbound meteor in the process.

As usual, Long Wharf’s production of Meteor Shower is great. All four actors fully inhabit their characters, diving into them with gusto and working to make every joke count. The set is beautiful to look at and cleverly constructed, and the special effects are flawlessly executed.

Sounds fun, right? But here’s the problem, in a nutshell: The play doesn’t make much sense. If—spoilers ahead—Gerald and Laura are actually a real couple, then they’re kind of unbelievable as human beings, even in a sex farce like Meteor Shower is. If they’re instead subconscious manifestations of Norm and Corky—which, fine—then the rest of the play falls apart at the seams. If Norm and Corky aren’t having guests over, who did they put the hors d’oeuvres out for? And how is it that the catalyst for our protagonists getting the better of their subconscious selves is a phone call from the outside world? Meteor Shower doesn’t pass a test that plenty of writers get right (The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and, most recently, Mr. Robot come to mind): If you want audiences to realize late in the game that one or more of the characters aren’t there, or that things aren’t what they seem, then you have to make sure that your plot holds up when the deception is revealed, that an audience can reconstruct what really happened while it was being treated to the full monty of a character’s distorted vision of reality. Meteor Shower leaves us with very little to grab onto in the end.

And more important in a minute-by-minute way, the humor in Meteor Shower seems to try to draw its power mostly from being shocking—and at least from where I was sitting (in row C), I wasn’t shocked. I don’t think of myself as particularly worldly. My youth wasn’t that wild. I live in a house in the suburbs. And yet, while the woman next to me exploded with laughter at turn after turn, I wasn’t shocked into much more than a chuckle by the over-the-top come-ons, whether woman on woman, man on man, or man on vegetable dip. I felt some cheap schadenfreude at watching Norm and Corky conquer their guests, though I just giggled mildly at the even more over-the-top way they did it. And I left the play wondering what the play was really trying to say about much of anything, and got nothing.

Is it fair to ask a comedy to mean something? Can’t we just relax and have a good time? Well, sure. But I’d argue that the best comedies are a kind of philosophy in themselves. They offer ways of looking at life, of moving through the world, and of dealing with what’s thrown at you with humor and grace that are as deep to me as the most despairing tragedy. You laugh until you cry. You laugh until your stomach hurts. And you aren’t quite the same afterward. You’re better.

Martin is more than capable of producing that kind of comedy. I can’t wait to see it.



Suffer in Silence

Review of The Slow Sound of Snow, Yale Cabaret

A family huddled together in their home, fearing to make a sound. Are they in hiding from oppressive forces? Yes, but in The Slow Sound of Snow, adapted by Jaber Ramezani and Payam Saeedi from Turkish playwright Tuncer Cücenoğlu’s The Avalanche, directed by second-year director Shadi Ghaheri at Yale Cabaret, the force of oppression is the threat of avalanche for these mountain dwellers.

Yashar (Courtney Jamison), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Yashar (Courtney Jamison), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

As the play unfolds, almost in slow motion at times, in a silence so pervasive the breaths of the characters are quite audible in Tye Hunt Fitzgerald’s arresting sound design, its action is intense and hypnotic. Yashar (Courtney Jamison), a pregnant woman, lies on the floor in an abode shared with her husband Talaz (James Udom), her father-in-law, Eli Arkha (Seta Wainiqolo), and his mother Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy). The concern of the entire family is when her child will be born. In this country, births are only permitted in the non-winter months, which number at most two or three. The sound of giving birth and the cries of the baby, the folk here believe, will bring on an inevitable avalanche.

The play’s folkloric quality is enhanced by the visitation of a young girl (Stefani Kuo) who flits in and speaks loudly about herself, rattling on into the other characters’ oppressed silence. Her manner is so different from theirs, her role in all this seems questionable. And Kuo doubles as an odd talismanic figure, with a wolf’s head, carrying a white suitcase that, we’re told, Eli Arkha’s wife took with her when she left. Leaving, in what are apparently the trackless wastes of winter in this locality, is deemed “madness.” What isn’t considered madness, in a kind of Shirley Jackson manner, is burying pregnant women alive or smothering them so they don’t give birth during winter. Like a “just so” story or myth or folktale, the situation, in Ramezani and Saeedi’s telling, must be accepted. The more remarkable aspect of the play isn’t in “the set up” per se, but in how it is conveyed.

The logic of the actions is left for us to intuit. It's the relations between the characters, even when almost wordless, that are vivid and persistent. The actors playing the family are uniformly excellent, keeping the situation close to its existential core. The weariness in Crowe-Legacy’s every move; the furtive guilt of Udom’s Talaz, who knows it's his fault his wife will give birth in the interdicted season; the intensity of Wainiqolo’s patriarch who seems so burdened by life, his every move and thought feels constricted; the deep, unspoken misery of Jamison’s Yashar, a woman who should be happy and who seems the most burdened of all. Late in the play, a struggle between the two men and a simultaneous suppression of the younger woman by the elder seem not only matters of life or death but a writhing battle of the life force against an unbearable repression (kudos to fight choreographer Jonathan Higginbotham).

Eli Arkha (Seta Waiiniqolo), Talaz (James Udom), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Yashar (Courtney Jamison) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Eli Arkha (Seta Waiiniqolo), Talaz (James Udom), Sayrash (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Yashar (Courtney Jamison) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

What audiences might find in this tale, beyond some vague notion of what it’s like to live in mountainous wastes, is left open-ended by the play’s rendering. Each character is oddly moving, an exhibit of humanity circumscribed by extremely limited bounds, and each is put across as an actual fact. A telling of the story could seem parable-like; Ghaheri’s staging of the tale, with actors fulling inhabiting these roles, is a spellbinding glimpse into that abyss where the living choose to preserve their own lives at whatever cost.

Talaz (James Udom) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Talaz (James Udom) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Lighting, sets, costumes, all help create a believable world. And many elements in the telling—the rumble of a possible avalanche, the sound of a baby crying, the musical instrument that Talaz threatens at one point to strum, the visiting girl’s ululation, the dripping of a carcass hung up to dry, the sweet cooing of Talaz and Yashar, Eli Arkha’s attempt to bond with his son by talking of the local circumciser, Sayrash’s long-suffering face, the surreal wolf in a skirt with a suitcase—add up to a fully wrought and fascinating night of theater, not soon forgotten.


The Slow Sound of Snow
By Jaber Ramezani and Payam Saeedi, adapted from The Avalanche by Tuncer Cücenoğlu
Directed and translated by Shadi Ghaheri

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Set Designers: An-Lin Dauber and Stephanie Cohen; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Higginbotham; Props Master: Michael Schermann; Stage Manager: Michael Schermann; Producers: Trent Anderson and Armando Huipe

Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Courtney Jamison, Stefani Kuo, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo

Yale Cabaret
October 13-15, 2016

The Cabaret is dark this week, then returns October 27-29, with Current Location, by Toshiki Okada, directed by Josh Goulding, inspired by Japan's attempts to deal with a nuclear disaster in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Lorca's Poetic Drama, Next Week

Preview of Blood Wedding, Yale School of Drama

The first Yale School of Drama thesis show of the 2016-17 season goes up next week, October 18-22, with third-year director Kevin Hourigan’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetic tragedy Blood Wedding, in a new translation by Nahuel Telleria. First performed in 1933, Blood Wedding is a central work in the Spanish author’s canon, mixing folk themes with a surrealist and symbolist sensibility for which Lorca’s drama and poetry are internationally celebrated.

Concerned with a young bride, the groom she jilts for her former lover, and a smoldering family feud, Blood Wedding, the YSD press release reads, “plunges us into a moonlit and mysterious dimension where passion—demonic and sublime—has the power to imprison or liberate.”

Hourigan characterizes the play as “exquisite” and one of the “richest works of poetry” in theater. It’s also, he admits, “a very difficult work” not often performed by professional U.S. companies. In part this may be because, as Hourigan has found in rehearsals, the play demands “total abandon” of its actors and “requires a sense of sacrifice” to render Lorca’s tragic vision. Hourigan sees the play as “transformative” and concerned with “the radical power of desire.” Halfway measures just won’t work.

The task for Hourigan and his cast of 12 is trying “to wrap their heads around” a language that is both poetic and dramatic, and the use of songs that, unlike more traditional musical theater, act as what Hourigan calls “exploded character moments.” Understanding what a song does to the narrative is key to understanding how to present it. There is a basic level of reality in the work, Hourigan points out, so the actors have “plenty of concrete things to do” in order to enact dramatic personae, but, he adds, “an amazing thing we’ve learned is that the poetry extends far beyond the words,” into the very logic of the play. And that means atmosphere dominates action to a degree that it doesn’t in most plays.

Kevin Hourigan (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kevin Hourigan (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For Hourigan, the urge to do Lorca’s play comes from its effort “to investigate the nature of passion,” a theme he finds relevant to those who pursue an art like theater and wonder why they do. Passion, he feels, “offers the most transcendent and awful motivation” for Lorca’s characters, and its true nature is, he says, “the central question of the play.” Clearly, there can be good and bad consequences of following one’s passion.

In mounting Blood Wedding, Hourigan “wanted control over the visual field, and wanted it to be flexible while also restricted to one perspective,” rather than use a thrust or staging in the round. The production will be housed in the Yale Repertory Theater and his technical team have considerable leeway in developing spaces and effects in response to Lorca’s somewhat fanciful stage directions—a room “white like a cathedral,” for instance. The “visual concept must denote the emotional tone,” so that set changes become part of the poetic vocabulary. Because YSD thesis shows have generous budgets and prep times, technical achievement is generally high. Intriguing and exciting, the play also clocks in under two hours, which is unusual for YSD thesis shows.

Hourigan adds that Blood Wedding, while focusing on a female protagonist played by always stellar third-year actress Sydney Lemmon, has been interpreted by some Lorca commentators as the first story the playwright chose to tell about his own sexual nature. A gay man well before that could be expressed openly in public or even in art, Lorca, Hourigan says, “finally gave up” trying to embody himself as a male protagonist and chose “the bride” as his alter-ego.

The play gains poignancy from the fact that Lorca was killed—assassinated for political or sexual reasons, the actual purpose is still contested—four years after writing the play. As someone much beloved and greatly talented who met an unfortunate and premature end, Lorca’s own ghost haunts the text to some extent. “In a world more and more scary” with escalating acts of violence, Blood Wedding, Hourigan feels, shows how human passion can be “inspired and holy.” He agrees that there is a cathartic aspect to the play but “won’t try to ease its mystery” by saying what that might entail. That’s for the audience to find out.


Blood Wedding
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated by Nahuel Telleria
Directed by Kevin Hourigan
The Yale School of Drama

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 18-22, 2016

A Fleeting Wisp of Glory

Review of Camelot, Westport Country Playhouse

I don’t think of myself as a sentimental type, but something about the story of King Arthur gets to me. That may be because it’s a story that almost defines “romance.” Set in the legendary kingdom that supposedly created chivalry, Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot shows us Arthur as the epitome of a principled leader. A boy who becomes king—in the version of the story made popular in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the novel that serves as the basis for the musical—because of his virtues and valor, as decided by the test of the sword in the stone.

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The story also contains the love affair between Arthur’s best knight, Lancelot du Lac, first introduced into the Arthurian tales by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, and Lady Guinevere, Arthur’s queen. That element of the story is what makes Camelot—if not a tragedy—a touching tale of rise and fall. Nostalgia for a Golden Age is perennial, and of old. Camelot, as conceived by modern treatments of Arthurian legend, seems a feudal utopia, a world led by a first among equals, of great hearts and good deeds. The point, of course, is that legendary Arthur is remembered because he was able, for a time, to curb the usual greed and viciousness of warriors, making their “might serve right” as dedicated knights of his Round Table. Lerner and Loewe brilliantly integrate this merry and melancholy tale into the modern musical, and Mark Lamos’ lyrical and rousing version at the Westport Country Playhouse does David Lee’s more spare adaptation of the work full justice.

Start with Robert Sean Leonard as Arthur. Some notable actors have assayed this role—Richard Burton, Richard Harris among them—so we can assume it has some attraction. Here, it’s easy to see why. Leonard shows us that acting can be, first and foremost, the task of finding a voice for a character. His rolls and dips, riding a tone that feels grand and humble at the same time. It’s a marvel. He portrays Arthur as affable and kind, a bit absent-minded like a retiring elder statesman, and cautious like a man of war unable to fathom what it’s like to win a queen—“I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight.” But Leonard’s boyish good looks, into his late 40s, make him an excellent choice for the role, and he handles “How to Handle a Woman” with requisite tenderness.

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Guenevere (Britney Coleman) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Guenevere (Britney Coleman) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur’s rapport with his Guenevere, Britney Coleman, seems one of mutual admiration, and his championing of the headstrong Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas), even after he has reasons to suspect the pair’s fidelity to him, adds a chastened air to Arthur that Leonard wears well. It’s an affecting grasp of a character who comes to us now as an even more legendary ideal in a time when pure and selfless leaders seem fewer than ever. Leonard’s rendering of the title song feels almost off-the-cuff, finding inspiration as he warms to the theme.

For all that, Arthur is not the prime singing role here. That falls to the lovely and graceful Guenevere, given a subtly modern rendering by Coleman, whose command of an array of moods scores throughout the show, with fun romps like “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Lusty Month of May,” as well as romantic ballads like “Before I Gaze at You Again,” and more musingly in “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and, with Leonard, “What Do the Simple Folk Do.” She’s a commanding First Lady indeed, and the affair with Lancelot, beginning with haughty taunting, grows by the end of Act I into mutual ardor. It all seems fated, and Coleman makes Guenevere not simply a prize between men but a full heart won by both.

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Stephen Mark Lukas delivers the prime part of Lancelot; he begins as a conceited newcomer with “C’est Moi”—and Lukas plays the comic aspect of the overzealous knight well—but he’s also clearly heart-throb material and shows off a fluid baritone for Act II’s high-romantic opener “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Lest we think the show is going to be all about a romantic triangle, a villain—Mordred, played with scheming brio by Patrick Andrews—arrives in Act II to bring about the events that end the dream of Camelot. He wins over Arthur’s knights (Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, Jon-Michael Reese) with “Seven Deadly Virtues,” a clever song that plays to the open cunning of political battle. A word too for charming Sana Sarr as the boy playing with his knight figurines and as Tom of Warwick, who, knighted, receives his king’s hopes for a future.

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Tom (Sana Sarr) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Tom (Sana Sarr) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The staging, with the oh-so-graceful scenic design by Michael Yeargan and sound design by Robert Wierzel, and Domonic Sack’s superb sound and Wade Laboissonniere’s sumptuous costumes (what can I say, I have a thing for capes), makes this Camelot a pleasure throughout. Granted, it’s very much a male-heavy cast and one could wish for a few more damsels to celebrate the lusty month of May, and a bit more skirmishing to give us a sense of the desperate rescue of Guenevere, but keeping the cast size and effects economical makes sense and makes for a swift and sure evening for celebrating tarnished ideals.

The cast of Camelot as Revelers (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The cast of Camelot as Revelers (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Throughout, the songs are the strength of this show, proving again that the team of Lerner and Loewe were for the ages, and Lee’s new book and Steve Orich’s new orchestrations make the show swift-moving and free of bombast.

See Westport’s Camelot if only to renew some of your faith in human ideals. God knows we need heroes now.


Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart
Based on The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Book adapted by David Lee
New orchestrations by Steve Orich
Directed by MarkLamos
Choreographed by Connor Gallagher

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Dialect Coach: Shane Ann Younts; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Music Director: Wayne Barker; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Frank Lombardi

Cast: Patrick Andrews, Britney Coleman, Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Robert Sean Leonard, Stephen Mark Lukas, Brian Owen, Jon-Michael Reese, Sana Sarr

Orchestra: Wayne Barker, piano; Angela Marroy Boerger, violin; Alan Brady, reeds; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Deane Prouty, percussion; Joseph Russo, string bass; Fred Rose, cello; Marshall Sealy, French horn

Westport Country Playhouse
October 4-30, 2016; extended to November 5


Review of Caught, Yale Cabaret

Playwright Christopher Chen’s Caught plays like a behind-the-scenes look at conceptual art, while at the same time positioning itself as an effort to “catch” the current political climate concerning race and art. In formulating that sentence I found myself cutting-off certain possible phrases, in the spirit of Wang Min, the artist played by Ashley Chang, who at one point launches into the rhetoric of calculated intellectual subterfuge: it’s not about “role” or “staging,” it’s not about “story,” and, yes, all stories are lies, or, if you like, possible versions of the truth. Why do we need a conceptual language of pre-digested terms? This isn’t Fox News.

What Caught does best is create what is often called “mise en abyme,” that tricky territory where an image mirrors itself, or a literary work reflects on its own composition, or, as here, scenes which seem to be “happening”—in some fictive version of our world—are actually happening in an actual version of the play we’re watching. Or, more properly, the play and the actors playing its characters are often playing with the level of reality we should engage with. The deliberate disorientation begins with turning—wonderfully successfully—the Cab space into an art gallery, complete with images that capture the alliance of art and commodity, commenting on art’s commercial, “productlike” existence, while also gesturing to one of the big topics of our time: China’s effect on the global economy and on the U.S. dominance of the latter. As such, the show is remarkably timely the very month that the yuan has joined the International Monetary Fund as a reserve currency.

Lin Bo (Eston Fung) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Lin Bo (Eston Fung) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

What’s that have to do with art and theater? Deep in the “process” of this play, we might say, is concern about the artist’s relation to capitalist and media “appropriation,” as well as to the semiotic system that treats racial distinctions as the basis for identity tagging. Lin Bo, the artist/brand enacted by Eston Fung, begins what is billed as a “gallery talk” by talking about his incarceration at the hands of the Chinese authorities. He speaks to us—Americans—as an example of a dissident artist finding, in the land of social and artistic freedom, a kind of new age vindication. He’s instantly a hero, his art a provocation that lets us feel good about ourselves.

No sooner do we accept the horrors of his imprisonment and his gratifying release into an art world eager to receive his conceptual performance pieces that involve the internet in virtual protest gatherings that never take place, then an editor (Steven Lee Johnson) and a writer (Anna Crivelli) at The New Yorker, once disposed to coddle Lin Bo, begin to question his facts, à la, on This American Life, Mike Daisey’s apology for distorted facts in his theater monologue about working conditions at Apple. Armed with the kind of fact check so prevalent in our digital age—for evidence of verbal imagery or details lifted from other sources—the interrogation becomes even more brutal than the questioning Lin Bo told us he received in China. In other words, be a dissident artist all you want and question political reality, racial identity, and conceptual cliché, but don’t fuck with the facts. The scene between Fung, Johnson, and Crivelli is very well-played and structured, and, with the gallery talk, creates an amusing and wry commentary on “the discourse” surrounding the liberal championing of art.

Editor (Steven Lee Johnson), Author (Anna Crivelli), Artist (Eston Fung) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Editor (Steven Lee Johnson), Author (Anna Crivelli), Artist (Eston Fung) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

But Chen’s play—directed with skilled pacing by Lynda Paul—doesn’t stop there. We next enter into a televised talk between an art critic played by Elizabeth Harnett and Wang Min (Ashley Chang). In their increasingly tense discussion, Wang Min, ostensibly the author of the play we just saw, attempts to disabuse her interlocutor of every dearly held expectation about what her art is trying to say and how it should be received. Lots of terms get tossed around in this very funny scene, but one thing Wang Min (and, behind her, Christopher Chen) never gets into is the reason for the focus on facts in the interrogation of Daisey and Lin Bo and other such artist provocateurs: our legal system is based on case histories, and every case has to maintain a strictly conceived regard for the facts, even if we don’t really believe it’s possible to ever “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” “Artistic license” is just a figure of speech; there is no authority capable of issuing or revoking such a license. Here and there, Min’s naivete becomes its own mise en abyme, a mirroring of the role media—and all art is a medium, theater as well—plays in trying to construct plausible versions of things that happened or might happen or could have happened. Mostly to see what it can get away with, in my view.

Interviewer (Elizabeth Harnett), Wang Min (Ashley Chang) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Interviewer (Elizabeth Harnett), Wang Min (Ashley Chang) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Eventually we get what might be called a reflection on “process” itself as the practitioners of conceptual art—or theater—might experience it, particularly when the creative partners played here by Fung and Chang were simultaneously—unbeknownst to both—lovers to the same master/mentor. The wryness of this segment opens up the slippery nature of not only emotional relationships, but also the vacillating commitment to one method or another that every artistic career undergoes. The point, for such, is to “capture” what’s happening when it’s happening.

Art partners (Eston Fung, Ashley Chang) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Art partners (Eston Fung, Ashley Chang) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Chen’s play catches its audience up in what is often called “the problematic” of art itself in its double jeopardy of being “tried” simultaneously in the not dissimilar but not identical courts of fact and fiction, or art and actuality. As a stimulating and entertaining treatment of the conflation, Caught, in this sharp enactment at the Yale Cabaret, catches its moment off-guard.


By Christopher Chen
Directed by Lynda Paul

Assistant Director: Francesca Fernandez McKenzie; Set Designer: Joo Kim; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth Antunano and Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Caroline Ortiz; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Projections Designer: Adam O’Brien; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson; Technical Directors: Harry Beauregard and Michael Hsu; Producer: Kathy Li

Cast: Ashley Chang, Anna Crivelli, Eston Fung, Elizabeth Harnett, Steven Lee Johnson

Yale Cabaret
October 6-8, 2016

Going Green

Review of Little Shop of Horrors, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park once again finds a musical that matches well to its thrust stage and open space. Little Shop of Horrors, by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, directed by Susan Haefner, has plenty of room to sprawl, giving its story a fluid sense of space. Brian Dudkiewicz’s set uses a central open shop area, marked by a tall glass door and metal displays, flanked by a Skid Row alley, made arty and dramatic by comic book style art with a touch of Lichtenstein, and a perimeter useful for the comings and goings of the girl group of urchins, a spirited Greek chorus by way of the Supremes—Crystal (Cherise Clarke), Chiffon (Brandi Porter), Ronette (Famecia Ward). Well-known from many regional revivals and a film version, Little Shop is a darkly absurdist musical that plays up to its source material: a B movie horror/comedy film from Roger Corman’s production company in the 1960s.

Crystal (Cherise Clarke), Ronette (Famecia Ward), Chiffon (Brandi Porter); foreground: Audrey (Emily Kron) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Crystal (Cherise Clarke), Ronette (Famecia Ward), Chiffon (Brandi Porter); foreground: Audrey (Emily Kron) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

The story of a plant from outer space that colonizes the planet by using humans for food is a typical ‘60s sci-fi plot; it could be given a straight treatment as in Corman’s It Conquered the Earth, but instead, the story is played for laughs with an odd conglomeration of elements: Jewish paternalism, a nebbishy orphan, a battered woman, media-based fame, the suburbs as a paradise dreamed of by unfortunates stuck in Skid Row, and even the kind of bonding that can take place between a lonely boy and a charismatic pet.

A particular attraction of POP’s production is Emily Kron as battered, not-too-bright shopgirl Audrey. Her rendering of “Somewhere That’s Green” is both funny and touching, and “Suddenly Seymour,” her duet with smitten shopboy Seymour (Steven Mooney), who discovers the unusual plant he names Audrey II, is surprisingly romantic. She’s got star power not showcased enough.

Audrey (Emily Kron) (photo: Rich Wagner)

Audrey (Emily Kron) (photo: Rich Wagner)

And that’s because the story is really about Seymour and his efforts to please his abrasive but basically decent boss, Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio, looking very much the part in Kate Bunce’s suits), while also acting as hapless keeper of the increasingly demanding Audrey II. Steven Mooney’s Seymour has the right mix of timidity and earnest can-do practicality. Their number together, “Mushnik and Son” is another high-point.

Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio) (photo: Rich Wagner)

Mr. Mushnik (Damian Buzzerio) (photo: Rich Wagner)

The production at Playhouse keeps the emphasis on entertaining over disturbing, even though, here and there, certain factors are downright macabre, such as the sadism of dentist Orin (Aidan Eastwood) and his grisly end. In Orin ‘s big number, “Dentist!”, Eastwood seems not quite as campy as required, but his rendering of “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” has a giddy creepiness that ends Act One on a note of suitable horror. I’m never going to forget his demented laugh in that number.

Menken’s music nimbly recreates the Motown sound in the opening numbers, and later stretches into the melodic pastiche employed so well in his popular animated Disney musicals. The cartoonish elements of the show make it fun for kids, as the possibility of being devoured by a man-eating plant is an entertaining proposition, particularly a plant as tuneful as this one. Rasheem Ford, as the voice of Audrey II, is a great asset, a hip and primal voice that makes feeding time fun.

Ronette (Famecia Ward), voice of Audrey II (Rasheem Ford), Seymour (Steven Mooney), Audrey (Emily Kron), Orin (Aidan Eastwood) (photo: Rich Wagner)

Ronette (Famecia Ward), voice of Audrey II (Rasheem Ford), Seymour (Steven Mooney), Audrey (Emily Kron), Orin (Aidan Eastwood) (photo: Rich Wagner)

In the end, though we’re exhorted “Don’t Feed the Plants,” the celebratory quality of the show may suggest the earth might be better off with fewer humans and more vengeful vegetables.


Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Directed and choreographed by Susan Haefner

Music Director: Penny Brandt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties: Pamela Lang; Assistant Lighting Designer: Ashley Braga

Cast: Damian Buzzerio, Cherise Clarke, Aidan Eastwood, Rasheem Ford, Emily Kron, Steven Mooney, Brandi Porter, Susan Slotoroff, Famecia Ward

Musicians: Michael Blancaflor, drums/percussion; Penny Brandt, keyboard; Nick Cutroneo, guitar; Sean Rubin, bass

Playhouse on Park
September 14-October 16, 2016

A Timely Incident

Preview of Incident at Vichy, New Haven Theater Company

This week the New Haven Theater Company tries something a little different. This is the first time they’ve held a staged reading as part of their season. According to NHTC member J. Kevin Smith, who directs the reading of Arthur Miller’s unduly neglected play Incident at Vichy this weekend, the “idea [of staged readings] has been kicked around” by NHTC for some time, but until now it hasn’t happened.

The reason, Smith says, is that the shows NHTC does produce are always “passion projects” proposed by one of the members who then gets the others on board. Though the idea of staged readings of plays that might be new or overlooked may be a good one, no one had come up with a particular play that was a clear choice.

It so happened that Smith saw a PBS broadcast of Signature Theater’s production of Vichy, and that got him thinking about how he would want to do this particular play, “how it should look and be played.” Smith, who hasn’t directed a play since a Yeats one act in college, said his fellow NHTCers were very supportive of his idea, especially as they could all see the relevance of doing the play now, in this fall’s run-up to a very key national election. So much so that The League of Women Voters of New Haven—a non-partisan group, Smith points out—will be on-hand to register voters before and after the show.

The play will be given “an enhanced staged reading,” Smith says, which means there will be some limited use of lights and sound, as well as entrances and exits of characters. The cast, which numbers 16, will comprise all the male actors in the company, supplemented by other local actors. As part of his pitch, Smith “wanted everyone [in NHTC] to be involved.” The difficulty of coordinating the entire company for the usual 8 weeks of rehearsal for a full show would have been enormous. Which is one benefit of the staged reading approach. Mainly, though, for Smith, the main benefit is about timeliness.

Watching the PBS broadcast, he said, “sent shivers up my spine: the references to the power of the 1%; the wonder at the raw power of cults of personality; the demonization of ‘The Other’—the language is amazingly current.” Indeed, the play “is the ultimate collaborator story,” showing how fear and despair can undermine political courage. For Smith, the play’s main message is one of “vigilance.” “It reminds us we have to be firm in knowing what we’re willing to do to confront oppression.”

While not one of what Smith calls “the trifecta” of staggeringly great plays Miller wrote—The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Death of a SalesmanIncident at Vichy is a commanding work. Smith also notes that NHTC has held off from doing the great playwrights of the American canon—Miller, O’Neill, Williams—so that this short three-day run is kind of “testing the waters.” The company has done very well by such classics as Inge’s Bus Stop, Wilder’s Our Town, and Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, so maybe a full production of one of the major American dramatists will happen in the future.

For now, this Thursday through Saturday—days after the first of the three presidential debates—NHTC offers a chance to consider the implications of a chilling work about the effects of evil in power and about the moral test of resisting corruption and oppression.

Like Zappa’s old Mothers of Invention tune sez, with knowing irony, “it can’t happen here.”

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

The New Haven Theater Company presents a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, directed by J. Kevin Smith, running for one weekend only; Thursday, September 29 – Saturday, October 1. Performances are at 8pm at the NHTC Stage at the English Building Markets, located at 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. Tickets are $15, at www.NewHavenTheaterCompany.com

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, and Trevor Williams.

You Say You Want a Revolution

Review of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Yale Cabaret

Billed as a play not “well behaved,” Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. at Yale Cabaret, as directed by Jessica Rizzo with a cast of 12, behaves like a series of skits upon a theme: to revolutionize use of language and situational expectations. Each skit features a confrontation, in which characters—all, whether male or female, played here by women (with one exception)—address, more or less indirectly, a free-floating concept. The concept, we might say, is the unnamed elephant in the room, hovering like the array of pneumatic animals and toys that makes up the set. The elephant can be variously named—sexism, feminism, gender bias—but none of the terms do the amorphous creature full justice. And therein lies both frustration and courage.

The cast of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

The cast of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

It takes courage to articulate what’s at stake in one’s dissatisfaction, and the problem of trying to compel understanding in others invites frustration. Birch’s dialogues run along lines that could be painfully raw if not for a certain manic undertone that most of the performers share. That’s not to say that all strike the same note, but rather than an overall tone of baring and sharing drives the show forward until it more or less explodes, then subsides in a kind of post-orgasmic clarity and depression.

The tone of a suppressed hilarity rising to the surface begins with the show’s amazing opening dialogue in which Nientara Anderson as, ostensibly, a man, and Mara Valderrama Guerra attempt to articulate the better-left-unspoken language of sex. And therein lies their problem. How do males and females think about sex, what vocabulary is accepted, permitted, arousing, disgusting, and so on? Like good sex, one assumes, it’s all a matter of intuition. Yeah, but. The dialogue plays out with increasing fervor until Anderson is cowering and broken and Guerra blissful in her self-absorption. You can only hope the pair work it out somehow.

Asu Erden, Flo Low (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

Asu Erden, Flo Low (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

In the scenes that follow, two or three speakers try to find some common ground for the sake of communication, and Birch is very keen at showing how people having trouble communicating communicates in a big way. There’s Ariel Sibert who is trying to graciously—and anxiously—articulate her problems with Franci Virgili asking her to be his wife (she’ll become “chattel” or a means to lower his income tax), using a very wry analogy; there’s Asu Erden trying, not so graciously and not at all anxiously, to articulate to her supervisor, Flo Low, why she just doesn’t want to work on Mondays and can’t see a “work bar” as a “real thing”; there’s Ashley Chang and Emily Reeder as vigilant supermarket employees who try to be understanding while nearly going postal at Shadi Ghaheri as a woman who seems to have been masturbating with watermelons in an aisle of the store (Birch likes to keep references to watermelons, potatoes, bluebells, and cheese circulating through the text); and there’s Aneesha Kudtarkar as a mother and grandmother who denies she gave birth or has any descendants while Anderson, as her increasingly distraught offspring, tries to get inside her head while dealing with a daughter (Jiyeon Kim) who can’t seem to function. The open-ended terms in which these scenes can be played and interpreted is much the point. Here, the series begins comical and gets increasingly tense and dysfunctional as we go.

Nientara Anderson (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

Nientara Anderson (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

The explosion of the entire cast beating on the inflatables while various mini scenarios get sounded—beginning with Guerra stating both proudly and plaintively that porn never arouses her—plays like a psychiatric session that encourages abusing toys as some kind of compensation or release. It’s a satisfying anarchic free-for-all, well choreographed though not well behaved.

Jiyeon Kim, Ariel Sibert (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

Jiyeon Kim, Ariel Sibert (Photo: Elizabeth Green)

At various times in the show, projections of Mao-like slogans blare across the background to exhort changing the terms of work or sex or procreation. Between some of the scenes, composer Kim adds some vocalizing and, during the supermarket scene, a musical track accompanies the prone woman’s rant about trying to be wet and open so as not to be “invaded,” about reducing the border between her body and the world. The music becomes a striking presence, then subsides, leaving Chang to venture “I don’t know what happens now.”

Chang gets the last word at the end of the play as well, speaking up as at least four of the other women begin to plan a feminine utopia. Her comment sounds a deeply pessimistic note that seems to follow on Sibert’s musing that “the thought”—revolution, one supposes—is not enough. Which may be a way of anticipating the criticism that sounding off in plays may not really change anything, whether in the relations between the sexes or in the relations of production or of reproduction, or of viewer to viewed.

The play’s title seems to suggest as much with those definite full-stops. Revolt, followed by revolt again. Repeat as needed.


Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
By Alice Birch
Directed by Jessica Rizzo

Composer: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Ilinca Todorut; Set Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi; Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projections Designer: Asad Pervaiz; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena; Producers: Rachel Shuey and Caitlin Crombleholme

Cast: Nientara Anderson, Ashley Chang, Asu Erden, Shadi Ghaheri, Mara Valderrama Guerra, Jeremy O. Harris, Jiyeon Kim, Aneesha Kudtarkar, Flo Low, Emily Reeder, Ariel Sibert, Franci Virgili

Yale Cabaret
September 22-24, 2016

Man of Imagination

Review of Man of La Mancha, Ivoryton Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ivoryton Playhouse
September 7-October 2, 2016

Rotten in the Corps

Review of Queens for a Year, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Hartford Stage
September 8-October 2, 2016

Mother Knows Best

Review of Gypsy, Music Theater of Connecticut

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

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

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

Kirsti Carnahan as Rose (photo: Joe Landry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Matters of Life and Death

Review of Styx Songs, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
September 15-17, 2016

Hailing the Cab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styx Songs, September 15-17

Styx Songs, September 15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashley Chang, Steven Koernig, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

Ashley Chang, Steven Koernig, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

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

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


Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street
New Haven

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

Amazing Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

New Plays Showcased Next Weekend

Preview of Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information: Long Wharf Theatre

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

Psychiatric Shenanigans

Review of What the Butler Saw, Westport Country Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Directed by John Tillinger

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

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

Westport Country Playhouse
August 23-September 10, 2016

All's Fair in Love and War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

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

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


Troilus and Cressida
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

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

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

The Public Theater
Free Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater

July 19-August 14, 2016

A Royal Pain

Review of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

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

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

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

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

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

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016

Raising Kane

Preview of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

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

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

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen


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

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

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

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

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

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

phaedra poster.jpg

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

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

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


Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016