More Than Monkey Business

Preview of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

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

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

New Haven Theater Company
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street

Le Refus Absurde

Review of Débâcles, Yale Cabaret

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

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

Simon (Arturo Soria) (photo: Elli Green)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
February 16-18, 2017

Satellite of Love

Review of The Satellite Series Festival, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Satellite Series Festival of Performance

Featuring work created by:

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

Yale Cabaret
February 9-11, 2017

Take Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

Have a Bite

Review of The Meal, Yale Cabaret

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

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

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

Rachel Kenney, Arturo Soria

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

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

Arturo Soria, José Espinosa

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

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

Jake Lozano, Rachel Kenney

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
February 2-4, 2017

Grin and Bear It

Review of Imogen Says Nothing, Yale Repertory Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 20-February 11, 2017

Inspired Silliness

Review of The Comedy of Errors, Hartford Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Comedy of Errors
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dakro Tresnjak

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

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

Musicians: Alexander Sovronsky; Louis Tucci

 

Hartford Stage
January 12-February 12, 2017

 

 

What good is sitting all alone in your room?

Preview, Yale Cabaret Season 49, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, see you at the Cab!

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

 

Yale Cabaret 49, February-April, 2017

Nicely Put

Review of Endgame, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Endgame
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre
January 5-February 5, 2017

Excruciating Times

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

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

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

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

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Quest for Joy

Review of In the Red and Brown Water, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

Oya (Moses Ingram), Shango (Jonathan Higginbotham)

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Yale Cabaret
January 12-14, 2017

Radio Wonderment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
December 9-18, 2016

A Tale of Two Uprisings

Review of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the wildly imaginative thesis show by third-year Yale School of Drama director Elizabeth Dinkova and her co-creator, third-year playwright Miranda Rose Hall, parody might seem the dominant mode. Parody of the traditional musical, certainly, but also of the more avant-garde versions that have come along at various times, including the Brechtian, and, in that vein, parody of the committed political drama. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps us amused by a tale that traverses some unsavory aspects of 20th century history. In creating a musical that clearly favors the underdog—here the committed leftist poet Geo Milev, a casualty of a fascist regime, and his wife the actress Mila—Dinkova and Hall see clearly how difficult it would be to play the story with a straight face. Ours is a time best suited to burlesque.

And yet, it would be wrong to see the show as entirely parodic. Rather, Dinkova and Hall, with their composer and sound designer, Michael Costagliola, have concocted a musical that sustains its dramatic intentions while keeping its ironies in play. And that makes for a rather mercurial evening of theater, full of surprising turns and tones. The show incorporates the political history of Bulgaria, a deal with the devil, and the shameful working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing district in the 1920s. Ambitious? Yes, but that’s just another word for having a lot on its mind.

Ostensibly set in the 1920s, the story begins with its rather mild-mannered hero, the poet Geo (Leland Fowler), who is beside himself at the fact that his poem, September, about a recent brutally-suppressed peasant uprising, may cost him his life. His wife Mila (Juliana Canfield) sticks up for his poem’s value, but Geo wishes he could undo it. And, presto!, there to take advantage of his moment of weakness is the devil herself (Elizabeth Stahlmann), who casts them in her own version of a morality tale: As the poet Yanko, Geo will have the chance to undermine his own poem, meanwhile, as Miroslava, Mila will play the very soul of insurrection among the people.

The target of their revolt is now The Butcher (Dylan Frederick), a gleefully dissolute character who has his eye on Miroslava while imposing his whims on a gaggle of workers who seem as if they’ve stepped out of a Marx Brothers version of an Eisenstein classic: the Drunk (Ben Anderson), the Farmer (Sebastian Arboleda), an Old Witch (Marié Botha), the Historian (Anna Crivelli), an Old Priest (Jonathan Higginbotham), a Milkmaid (Courtney Jamison), the Tobacco Lady (Stephanie Machado), and a School Boy (Patrick Madden). Each is amusing in his or her own right while being forged into a collective by Miroslava’s spirited rebellion.

Canfield shines in her song of insurrection, like a rabble-rousing force of nature, and she’s matched by Crivelli’s dance of the many suppressions as the Historian reels off a chronology mind-boggling in its catalog of the many times hope for democratic freedoms has been beaten down in Bulgaria. And those are just some of the strengths of Act 1, which includes Frederick’s big number “The Butcher,” the comic highpoint. He’s attended by Stahlmann, who shape-shifts between brash devil and Toma, a fawning elder.

Yanko, shaken by the forces of violence aimed at The Butcher, takes the devil’s bait and decides to decamp for the U.S. Seemingly a victory for the devil, Act 1 ends with Mila insisting on another round, this time in Chicago, where everyone will be recast in a tale of her recounting.

The notion of America as the land of the free is swiftly given the lie when we’re introduced to a host of immigrants from various lands—Poland, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, Mexico, to name a few—who toil under distressing conditions in the meat factory of Frank’s Famous Franks. Frank (Frederick) is, of course, “The Butcher” under new auspices, aided by his assistant Patty (Stahlmann, as the moral equivalent of a concentration camp commandant). A harrowing situation in Act 2 almost strips aside all the comic burlesque in favor of the most abject horror, and it’s a great tribute to Dinkova’s resources as a director that the show can shift toward the bathetic and recover its humor. In fact, the situation Dinkova and Hall create is a sharp commentary on the dehumanization of capitalist production at its most callous. And the cast—particularly Madden and Arboleda—are emotionally convincing in their grisly discovery.

Act 2 also boasts the most lyrical moment as Geo/Yanko and Mila/Sally sing a touching duet to their love, despite all. Indeed, Act 2 serves to vindicate Mila enough to rally the show into something like an upbeat register.

The scenic design by Emona Stoykova places the show on a platform surrounded by seats, making the action accessible in many directions, with, at one end, a hard-working pickup band being put through its paces and, at the other, an incredibly imposing portal. Lights and costumes and wonderfully involved projections—at times surveillance-style taping of the proceedings—add many lively effects, including childlike paintings that capture the folkloric quality of this varied tale.

Standouts in the show are Fowler’s pleasant singing voice, Canfield’s inspired ardor, Frederick’s zany villain, Crivelli’s rhapsody of history, and Stahlmann’s striking shifts among three characters, but it’s also a great ensemble show, and I’d be remiss not to mention Higginbotham’s brief-exposing pratfalls as the Old Priest and Machado’s Tobacco Lady saddled with a bevy of babies in slings. It’s the sort of show that has so much going on you’re bound to miss some of it in a single viewing.

It's unusual for a thesis show at YSD to be an original work, though it sometimes happens. Michael McQuilken’s Jib, an original musical from 2011 I remember fondly, is currently onstage in Philadelphia. May Bulgaria! Revolt! also find legs for future productions.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Created by Elizabeth Dinkova and Miranda Rose Hall
Books and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Costagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Choreographer: Christian Probst; Music Director: Scott Etan Feiner; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Technical Director: Kelly Pursley; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Ben Anderson, Sebastian Arboleda, Marié Botha, Juliana Canfield, Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Dylan Frederick, Jonathan Higginbotham, Courtney Jamison, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The Band: Alexander Casimiro, percussion; Allen Chang, clarinet; Ginna Doyle, violin; Scott Etan Feiner, piano; Jiji Kim, guitar; Adam Matlock, accordian; Ian Scot, bass

“Three Chains a Slave” performed by the Yale Slavic Chorus

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016

It's Not Too Late

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This year, Hartford Stage’s beloved Scrooge will take his final bow and make his final “Bah, humbug!” Bill Raymond has been experiencing Charles Dickens’ seasonal reclamation project for 17 years, and if you haven’t caught his act, there’s no time like Christmas present. It’s a propitious time to see the annual favorite even if you already have, for this year the show is directed by Broken Umbrella’s own Rachel Alderman, which makes for a nice New Haven-Hartford bridge.

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the show I attended, Raymond was pulling out the stops, having a grand old time. His has always been a slyly comic take on Scrooge and now the old boy is getting a bit zany. Scrooge has often been played by actors who were better at the grasping “old screw” than the “giddy as a schoolboy” convert to Christmas cheer, but Raymond’s Scrooge is more curmudgeon than scourge. When he encounters the creditors who will later become the Christmas ghosts who haunt his uneasy sleep, he seems almost to be winking at them, since he knows—and we all know—what’s going to happen.

This Ebenezer is really in his element as the unseen guest and enthusiastic reveler at his nephew’s party, and when he has to face the final reckoning presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it’s easy to feel sorry for the old gent. Other than being irritable and not forgiving debts or forking over charity, the old skinflint doesn’t seem so bad. There are worse examples running around these days in dire need of some Christmas comeuppance. As the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds us, the worst ill besetting mankind is ignorance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The open stage at Hartford keeps everything nipping along smartly, so we move easily from Scrooge’s ponderous four-poster to Fezziwig’s premises, from the Cratchits’ frugal feast to the nephew’s sumptuous spread. The various levels of the stage add visual interest and each ghost gets a big entrance.

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

An endearing draw of the show are the child actors who fill out many scenes, reminding us that Christmas is for the kids, and also letting the youngsters in the audience exalt in seeing their own generation on the stage. And then there are the ghosts.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Hartford Stage version never lets us forget that A Christmas Carol is one of the most venerable ghost stories there is. The parade of skull-topped figures who open the show, some of whom fly about, make for a dramatic charge. Not only is Scrooge guided by spirits representing the Christmas season in the past, the present, and the future, but he also is haunted by people already gone—beginning with Marley, but including his sister Fanny, his old boss, and, eventually, himself, to say nothing of the sad possibility of Tiny Tim’s untimely end. A Christmas Carol isn’t about tying one on and feeling good about yourself; it’s about realizing that time is short and that you should do more for others while you have the chance. To that end, the Hartford Stage is hosting “Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive”* to benefit Hands on Hartford’s MANNA program.

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

My favorite version of Ebenezer’s journey to beneficence is the old British version from 1951 starring Alistair Sims. The Hartford Stage version retains the use of the lovely tune “Barbara Allen” used so effectively in the film as well as here. In the Hartford’s version, the songs and comedy—such as Scrooge knocking about with a huge dummy turkey, and Noble Shropshire as the irrepressible Mrs. Dilworth—and the handsome production values help to make the show bright.

-- A final talkback with Bill Raymond will take place after the 7:30 show on Wednesday, December 14, and, if you can’t make that but want to express your appreciation of his long tenure in the role as a part your Christmases past, postcards are provided in the lower lobby for “Letters to Bill.”--

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Staiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Music Director: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast (in order of appearance): Bill Raymond, Buzz Roddy, Noble Shropshire, Nate Healey, Robert Hannon Davis, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Flor De Liz Perez, Charlie Tirrell, Joey Heimbach, Daniel Shea, Johanna Morrison, Hannah Dalessio, Alan Rust, Michael Preston, Cara Rashkin, Vanessa R. Butler, Billy Saunders, Jr., Troyer Coultas, Spencer S. Lawson, Margaret Anne Murphy, Jillian Frankel, Madeleine Stevens, Greg Seage, Eve Rosenthal

The Children: Charlize Calcagno, Hunter Cruz, Emma Kindl, Julia Weston, Luciana Calcagno, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilley Harris, Timothy McGuire, Addison Pancoast, Tilden Wilder, Miguel Cardona, Jr., Ankit Roy, Ella Rain Bernaducci, Sophia Rose Tomko, Sophia Friedman, Lily Girard, Celine Cardona, Ava Lynn Vercellone, Atticus Burello, Jack Wenz, Fred Faulkner, Max McGowan, Norah Girard, Andrew Michaels, Ethan Pancoast, Fred Thornley IV, Aiden McMillan, Dermot McMillan

Hartford Stage
November 25-December 30, 2016

*Founded in 1969 as Center City Churches, Hands On Hartford’s programs focus on food, housing, economic security, engaging volunteers and connecting communities. MANNA provides direct relief to thousands of Hartford neighbors each month. Patrons may drop off non-perishable goods at Guest Services in the Geo & Laura Estes Lobby on performance days for A Christmas Carol or at the box office during regular business hours. Suggested food items include:

  • Boxed cereal
  • Canned fruit and vegetables
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, 100% juice)
  • White or brown rice
  • Pasta and sauce
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned soup
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Backpack-friendly snacks

For more information about Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive, contact tmacnaughton@hartfordstage.org or call 860-520-7114.

There Was an Old Woman Who...

Review of Mrs. Galveston, Yale Cabaret

The final play of the first half of Yale Cabaret’s 49th season is an entertaining look at the at- times fraught world of elder care. Mrs. Galveston, by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Sarah B. Mantell, enjoys some easy laughs at misunderstandings between an old woman and the young people assigned to impose some kind of regimen on her stubborn existence, then develops more interesting narrative devices. These include a big white pop-up book that Mrs. Galveston treats like a precious heirloom and an array of Post-It Notes that a young man’s grandmother berates him with.

An interesting conflict in the play comes from a somewhat surprising correspondence. Jim (George Hampe) visits the elderly Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon) because a Mr. Sanford has requested she be looked after (though she doesn’t welcome the intrusion), while, at home, Jim is not doing such a good job of taking care of his grandmother, though also refusing any care-givers from the organization both he and his cousin Liz (Aneesha Kudtarkar) work for. The highest-rated caregiver is Mark (Edmund Donovan), but neither Mrs. Galveston nor Jim have any interest in accepting his services. The frustrations Mark faces are expressed comically, and that helps to keep things light. And the irony of Jim’s situation—he’s failing with his own grandmother but succeeding with Mrs. Galveston—opens up the implied theme that, sometimes, families do need professionals, that the familiarity of blood ties can cause more tensions than they ease. While Mrs. Galveston is never quite comfortable with having a stranger in the house, she eventually is pacified by Jim’s ability to concoct a story that goes with the pop-up images in her big white book.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The book, and the scenic design by Claire Marie DeLiso, add elements of charm and visual cohesion to the story. The living room Mrs. Galveston resides in is situated in a charming little house that echoes the paper house in her book. A step down and across a connecting space of paneled floor sits the table festooned with Post-Its where Jim attempts to meet his grandmother’s demands. Both spaces are united with framing posts that situate the action within a homey interior that expands to join both houses.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

The play, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, is particularly nimble in its transitions and in dialogues that find characters mostly having to feel their way. Mantell’s script registers the caregiver’s ups and downs and confusions, the good intentions that go awry, and, in its sweetly realized conclusion, the comfort of the familiar. Along the way, there are the tensions of dealing with elders as though they were children, of trying to anticipate concerns, of trying to make time in one’s prime of life for a life past its prime, and, in a speech Liz directs at Jim, the fact that, in most families, the care of parents is left to female family members. Mrs. Galveston provides a touching corrective to that perception when we finally meet the mysterious Mr. Sanford (Edmund Donovan).

The neat doubling of the situations means there’s potential for confusion about who Jim really cares for. Playing the role with a kind of nervous distraction, Hampe’s Jim wants all to go well but seems to wish he could be doing something else. Donovan’s Mark is a bit unctuous and we don’t really fault Mrs. Galveston for preferring Jim. Kudtarkar’s Liz seems mostly at a loss—her scene with Mrs. Galveston is the funniest of the attempts to fathom the big white book because the least patient. And, as the chair-hugging Mrs. Galveston, Lemmon plays the title role as a mistress of her detachment, a woman defiantly herself and with a child’s sense of entitlement in deciding what works and what doesn’t.

As a family dramedy, Mrs. Galveston seems well positioned in the season as a reminder of the bonds of home and the allegiance owed the elderly as the holiday visits begin.

 

Mrs. Galveston
By Sarah B. Mantell
Directed by Rachel Carpman

Co-Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Co-Dramaturg: Molly Fitzmaurice; Set Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi; Sound Designer: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Production Manager: Scott Keith; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Calling Stage Manager: Paula Clarkson; Co-Producer: Jaime Totti; Co-Producer: Adam J. Frank

Cast: Edmund Donovan; George Hampe; Aneesha Kudtarkar; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Cabaret
December 8-10, 2016

That's Shoe Biz!

Review of Kinky Boots, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Harvey Fierstein’s and Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleasing tale of how difference saves the day. Or, rather, how difference-driven niche markets do. In any case, its message is progressive and its songs full of the moxie for which Lauper is well-known. The best thing about the show, though, are the drag queens—or “angels”—led by Lola, played with a winning understatement by J. Harrison Ghee who seems born to be charismatic and show-stopping.

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and the Angels

The story concerns Charlie (Adam Kaplan), the heir to his father’s show factory in Northampton, England, who has plans to live the life of a Yuppie in London with his svelte and fashion-shoe-struck fiancée Nicola (Charissa Hoagland). But, like a latter-day George Bailey, Charlie can’t give up on the little folks at home. If he doesn’t step in and find a workable solution to get the ailing factory—which has been eating its unsold inventory—solvent, then it’s the dole for all the workers so loyal to his late Da. A chance encounter in the street—where Charlie tries to come to the aid of Lola, a drag-damsel in distress otherwise known as Simon—leads to the idea to save the day by developing the glitzy thigh-high boots beloved of queens, thus inaugurating Lola’s career as a designer of kinky boots.

A strong suit in this tale of working lads and lasses putting their collective noses to the grindstone, for higher than high heels able to support a cross-dressing male, is how well-oiled the machinery is. The big production numbers have many moving bodies and moving parts—including conveyor belts on “Everybody Say Yeah”—and it all works wonderfully well on the Palace Theater’s old school stage. Many a Broadway house looks tawdry compared to the Palace’s well-kept sumptuousness, and Kinky Boots fills it with Broadway-style pizzazz. The orchestra is tight, and many songs have a familiar Eighties feel that really starts to work after a while.

The action bits—such as the boxing bout between Simon and Don (Aaron Walpole), the manly bloke distressed about working for a cross-dresser—are well-staged and add some drama to a second act that otherwise doesn’t have much to do, except create some faux suspense over whether or not the boots will be ready for Milan. It’s Act One that really cooks, with standouts like the aforementioned “Everybody Say Yeah”—its big finish—“Sex is in the Heel,” a manifesto for the libidinal charge of accessories, “Not My Father’s Son,” a touching duet between Simon and Charlie, and “The History of Wrong Guys,” a snappy comic relief tune in which Lauren (Tiffany Engen), a factory worker with a crush on Charlie, puts out there a love-struck feminine view as only Lauper could, and which Engen puts across with show-stealing brio.

As the lead male dressed as a male, Kaplan’s Charlie is a little too timid to be interesting and a bit too earnest to be amusing. He’s got looks and a voice, but could open a bit more in his movement, particularly on his big Act 2 number “Soul of a Man.” As his intended, Nicola, Hoagland looks great in a thankless role that feels a tad unfair, as if it’s fine for the “angels” to be all about couture but we should see Nicola as shallow for harboring similar tastes. Meanwhile, no one seems to wonder why men and women alike, at the factory, are content with a rather unisex look of dungarees and pull-overs. Glamor, it seems, is for those who pursue it as an identity, though, in the end, everyone gets to sport a pair of kinky boots.

As a progressive tale about having the courage to be yourself in a hostile world, Kinky Boots still rings true and is a welcome reach-out to soften the heart of the glowering Dons of the world. Though it could also be said that the threat of violence or ostracization is rather anodyne here, and, by the same token, the kinkiness is rather mild. A plot in which Charlie ends by giving Lola/Simon a go would make for a kinkier show and a more surprising case of “the girl” getting the guy.

In any case, if—as the saying goes—you can’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, that goes double for taking a few steps in their kinky boots. Kinky Boots is at its best bringing home the camaraderie of people stirred by a common purpose, so that the design, production and marketing of Lola’s creations feel as rewarding as the creation of Lola herself, or of a show about her. In each case, it’s worth our time to see how it’s done and why that should matter to our general self-esteem.

 

Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus

Starring: J. Harrison Ghee, Adam Kaplan, Tiffany Engen, with Aaron Walpole, Charissa Hoagland, Jim J. Bullock

Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner: Sound Design: John Shivers; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Make-Up Design: Randy Houston Mercer; Associate Choreographer: Rusty Mowery; Associate Director: D. B. Bonds; Music Director: Roberto Sinha; Music Conductor: Michael Keller

The Angels: Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, Sam Rohloff

Cast: Meryn Beckett, E. Clayton Cornelious, Tami Dahbura, Alfred Dalpino, Madge Dietrich, Alex Dreschke, Annie Edgerton, Jhazz Fleming, Collin Jeffery, David Jennings, Ellen Marlow, Ciarán McCarthy, Ashley Moniz, Sebastian Maynard-Palmer, Casi Riegle, Andrew Scanlon, Tom Souhrada, Harrison Wright, Sam Zeller

The Palace Theater, Waterbury
December 6-11, 2016

A Dream Deferred

Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.

For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.

Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.

It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.

Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.

Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.

 

August Wilson’s
Seven Guitars
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller

Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016

Insurrection Songs

Preview of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

Bulgarian native and third-year director in the Yale School of Drama, Elizabeth Dinkova has long dreamed of dramatizing poet Geo Milev’s epic poem, September, about the suppression of a peasant uprising in her homeland in 1923, and this week her dream will be fulfilled. This semester, Dinkova and her collaborators Miranda Rose Hall, a third-year playwright, and Michael Constagliola, a second-year sound designer, have developed an original “tragicomic musical,” Bulgaria! Revolt!  that revisits the situation in which Milev wrote his most famous work, and also extends his vision to the U.S.

The play debuts this Friday at the Iseman Theater as the second thesis show of the season at the School of Drama, and runs through December 15.

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

Bulgaria! Revolt! derives from the story of Milev, a poet who wrote a poem about an armed insurgency against a new government, formed by a military coup, that deposed an Agrarian leader and placed a fascist, Alexander Tsankov, in power. The uprising was brutally suppressed, the Communist Party was outlawed, and, after a terrorist act at a military funeral stirred up further reprisals, Milev was killed along with 400-500 others and buried in a mass grave in 1925.

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the poet is tried and convicted as an enemy of the State and is forced to rescind his poem. His faith in art’s political use shaken, the poet makes a deal with the devil to have his poem “disappeared,” so that no memory of it will exist. The poet’s wife, Mila, protests, and the devil accepts her challenge to prove that poetry can still inspire revolutionary ideals, though this time, Mila insists, it will do so in the meat-packing district of 1920s Chicago, which is where Act II is set.

Chicago, Dinkova points out, has the highest population of Bulgarians in the U.S. due to a popular Bulgarian travel novel, To Chicago and Back, that painted conditions in the country around the time of the 1890 World’s Fair for would-be emigrants back home. As an immigrant, Dinkova wanted to work on a project that could bring together both her home country and her current one, with continuity between the two settings provided by the question of the artist’s responsibility to the public, and to the political forces of a given time and place.

Adapting Milev’s poem required a collaborator and in that Dinkova has been blessed by her close working relationship with Miranda Rose Hall. The two worked together last year on Hall’s second-year play The Best Lesbian Erotica, 1995, and on a wildly satiric Yale Cabaret show about a viral health crisis, and, this past summer, on the lampoon Antarctica! at the Yale Summer Cabaret where Dinkova was Co-Artistic Director. Each of the works featured a decidedly satiric element, at least in part, and the latter was also an adaptation—of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. This time, the duo say, they felt the show had to be a musical, and that brought in the talents of Michael Constagliola to compose the score.

Why a musical? Hall speaks enthusiastically of a class on the musical that impressed upon her how the “genre has a lot of requirements,” and with so much in their play requiring imaginative leaps, she “took refuge in the given structures” of the form. It also helps that their plot fits well the requirements of standard musicals, such as “two opposing worlds,” a main character “with a counterpart,” and songs that provide exposition and also big “I am, I want” solos of motivation. The American musical “feels larger than life,” and that’s a quality the play is decidedly going for. Both Dinkova and Hall look to collaborators in musical theater like Brecht/Weill who “recognized the power of music to ask questions and change minds.” And, of course, most popular movements have their songs to inspire and to “galvanize the masses.”

The poem, September, is “romantic and epic,” Dinkova says, filled “with a naïve, idealistic vision,” trying to imagine “a world where earth will be a paradise with no lord or master.” It may have been a stretch for Milev, a modernist and expressionist, to encompass such themes, but the times demanded it. Even so, she says, “the protagonists are not ideological heroes but tragic figures.” For Hall and Dinkova, the effort has been to capture the tone while letting artistic freedom guide the choice of events and scenes. Hall says their earlier collaboration on Antarctica! was a “fertile proving ground” for learning how to adapt works of another time to our contemporary occasions. As with that play, Hall’s participation in Bulgaria! isn’t part of her own degree requirements at YSD, so there is a similar freedom, though, she says, with the budget and prep time of a thesis show, this production “is like the Cab on steroids.”

Dinkova and Hall say they have taken their inspiration this time out from the working relationship between playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, the co-creators of the Yale Rep’s Broadway-bound play Indecent. A bit like the latter work, Bulgaria! Revolt! seeks to find a contemporary meaning in an older text and to find poetic and dramatic significance in historical events. There the similarity probably ends, since Hall, when working with Dinkova, seems to be drawn to the absurd and to irreverent satire.

And why not? I spoke to the co-creators days after the election of 2016, and Dinkova spoke of how rehearsals had become a kind of “refuge” and a “fire pit” where one could burn up the energy of dismay and foreboding inspired by the unexpected turn of events. For Hall, though the script was finalized before the election’s outcome, there is a question for artists in “how to find hope” and, for herself, in discovering the meaning of a much-abused term like “revolution.”

A leftist poet suppressed after writing a poem celebrating a brave but failed insurrection against a fascist leader? A deal with the devil that lets the poet and his wife try again in “the land of the free”?  Bulgaria! Revolt! has the potential to needle the way a good political cartoon can, and with tunes to whistle while you work for the future.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Book and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Constagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016
Iseman Theater
1156 Chapel Street

Say What You Think

Review of Kaspar, Yale Cabaret

As a one-man show of a single character pitted against the problem of identity, Peter Handke’s early play Kaspar, translated from the German by Matthew Ward and directed at Yale Cabaret by Ayham Ghraowi, seems at times like a more than usually active Beckett monologue. There’s a similar disconnect from immediate context—no particular where or when but only an abyss lurking around and behind and beneath each statement. The drama is a lengthy grappling with verbalizing, as though repeating a phrase often enough will confer meaning. And as if words are an object to throw against the body’s cage until either the body breaks or the self breaks through.

Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Kaspar (Josh Goulding) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

On a stage that acts as a cell, Kaspar, played with amazing physical abandon by Josh Goulding, is trying his utmost to articulate a view of himself that would be authentic to his experience. But his main struggle is to make his own experience intelligible. He is tortured or taught—it comes to the same thing—by voices that speak dispassionately and provide instructions and cautions and even bits of wisdom. Kaspar can treat these speakers as oracular or as simply part of the environment, like air or light, or an object to be used or ignored, like a broom.

The culprit of consciousness, for Handke, is language itself as it normalizes the flow of time and being as an interplay between sentences and otherwise inchoate moments. Handke’s text, which makes a virtue of repetition, circles around a single sentence that Kaspar Hauser, the German misfit who inspired the play, was able to speak when he was first discovered, a teen who, he alleged, had lived for most of his life with no human interaction.

The background to Kaspar is germane to the play but not really necessary to viewing it because, in any case, we are forced to interpret how it is that Kaspar can seem to mean what he says and not understand it, simultaneously. Handke can trust to the theatrics of his creation’s mannered grasp of speech to sustain our fascination. Seemingly articulate though not coherent, Kaspar struggles to master his body, objects—such as a chair, a table heaped with printed pages, a broom—and, most naggingly, the relation between the presence in his head and the words he has learned to shape into intelligible if often cryptic sentences.

The repeated sentence, “I want to be a person the way someone else was once,” is Handke and Ward’s variation on the actual Hauser’s single sentence of introduction, "I want to be a calvaryman as my father was." The statement floats through the play like a mantra but also as a claim upon language itself. The speaker announces his condition as a claim based on feeling—“I want”—in which the object “a person” stands for a desired identity—“to be”: “I want to be a person,” but this simple and very complex statement is further modified by a perception of a past state—“the way . . . was once”—that suggests as well the non-identity we all have with earlier selves. The way we might say: “I want to be the person I once was,” though that’s not quite it. For Kaspar, there’s a “someone else” who was a person the way he would like to be, which carries with it a sense of succession, as though saying, “I want to be a man (or a person: both “Mann,” in German) the way, for instance, an ancestor or relation was.” In other words, there’s a number of differing but related intentions embedded in the statement, together with a kind of untranslatable disjunction born of the vagueness of its denotations: “a person,” “the way,” “someone,” “once.” And this array of uncertain objects is brought together by a desire for identity stated by someone for whom the statement is his only identifiable intellectual trait. It’s all he knows, whether or not it actually corresponds to anything he wants or believes. And that, as they say, is the rub.

Brought to us by a quire of dramaturgs—eight are listed in the playbill and includes everyone connected to the production but for its director—Kaspar is a play that drowns in text. Kaspar is almost always talking, whether or not he’s saying something, and the voices speak almost as much; then there are the pages full of writing sharing his cell, and the words cycling on a trio of teleprompters, often distracting the viewer from Goulding as he reads aloud what we can read as well. If we look on, the words of the text enter our consciousness both by vision and hearing, just as they do for Kaspar who hears himself read them. At some points, we may find ourselves trying to articulate to ourselves what it is we think we are hearing.

There are moments when Kaspar seems to be speaking only to himself and other moments when he is proclaiming to us all, and other times when he seems to want desperately to address us and be acknowledged. It’s a fascinating and tiring performance, as Goulding falls about the stage, knocks things over, topples, hurtles, strips, and occasionally performs quirky rhythmic movements as if to an inner tune. His expression is often puzzled or deeply concentrated, and a segment of inarticulate grunts and growls is as comical as a child’s effort to mimic other creatures, or even other humans, can be.

Indeed, Kaspar is, in some ways, a cosmic child, a kind of poetic Id at play in the fields of indeterminate psyche, where he has all of language before him. Though he is not in a joyous state, Kaspar does not seem to be despairing either. Rather, he seems caught up in the solving of an endless puzzle. Mostly frustrated, he seems to exist on the hope that something may become clear—if only he can get past the words in his way, or if only he can find the array of words that will illuminate, in an unprecedented way, what he has in mind.

 

Kaspar
By Peter Handke
Translated by Matthew Ward
Directed by Ayham Ghraowi

Composer: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Dramaturg: Abbey Burgess; Dramaturg: Erin Fleming; Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Dramaturg: Jiyeon Kim; Dramaturg: Chad Dexter Kinsman; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Dramaturg: Matthew Ward; Lighting Designer: Erin Fleming; Stage Manager: Abbey Burgess; Producer: Chad Dexter Kinsman

Cast: Josh Goulding

Yale Cabaret
December 1-3, 2016

 

 

 

 

Winner Take All

Review of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

The sign of a good play is that viewers can read different things into it at different times, and directors can find new relevance in it. Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, at Long Wharf, directed with sharp transitions by Marc Bruni, could easily seem a trip back to the late 1980s when business liquidators were an up-and-coming breed, “mergers and acquisition” became practically a household phrase, and old production standbys like automobile manufacture became ailing dinosaurs of the corporate world. While the period aspect of the play is still very much prevalent, it’s hard to watch the play in 2016 and not think of the recent election. Allegory may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think not.

We’ve got Wire and Cable, an all-American company that cares about its employees and their families, owned by Mr. Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), a conscientious and somewhat loquacious elder who admires Harry Truman and treats the business like family. He’s got a very loyal assistant, Bea (Karen Ziemba), who sees no divide between work and her personal life. Both are dedicated to “the American Dream” as a solvent business that makes a good product and provides decent lives for all involved, debt-free. They don’t even have any outstanding fines with Environmental Protection. The manager, Coles (Steve Routman), is a canny heir apparent, serving his time until the old man steps down and he can take over and modernize a bit.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into their cozy little world comes crass, big league player Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), a self-satisfied man of business who exists to make money, legally. He’s rapacious, avaricious, and even charming in a cold-blooded way. He’s buying up shares not because he wants Wire and Cable to make him money as a satisfied stockholder, but because he wants to gut the still breathing carcass and make his money off its dismemberment. The only person who might figure out a way to stop him is a blonde female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), Bea’s daughter, who dresses sharply and is tough-as-nails, and who is more than equal to any “grab ‘em by the pussy” innuendo that might come her way. In an amusing sequence, she gets Garfinkle to grab his own crotch and give it a stern talking to.

What’s at stake? Well, if you’ve been wondering what it means to put the fox in the henhouse, by democratic consent, then this play might be the kind of entertainment to light your day. It shows us how vulnerable are core values—like loyalty and dedication—in the face of the almighty buck and the historical inevitability. A world where naked self-interest makes the wheels go round, and the devil take the hindmost. And, though Wire and Cable is in Rhode Island, we’re watching the predatory tactics that helped destroy jobs in the dissatisfied Rust Belt.

In Bruni’s taut direction, the play is even better than the script, and that’s because his crackerjack cast has a sense of the pace of TV drama, say, The Good Wife. There are still speeches that fall a little short of crisp, and the second act has too many scenes and way too much speechifying, but this cast does all it can to sell it. And the set by Lee Savage makes it all feel real.

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Garfinkle, Lage is no doubt way better-looking than Sterner envisioned—the script seems to call for a bit of a donut-popping schlub, maybe even with a bad toupe—but he plays the part with a kind of greased ease that recalls, at times, Pacino as Roy Cohn. Garfinkle is never quite that foul, but he tries. And he gets to comment, in a winning, “get a load of this” way, on the other team’s efforts to undermine his intentions (it’s almost like he’s hacking their strategy). Lage plays large, but there are lots of nice touches, as when he first takes in and sums up in a glance the proud but unpretty site and Jorgenson’s sentimental grasp of business.

Hyland is quite good as Jorgenson, giving the head man a very lived-in feel. He seems sort of doddering but can lead when his back’s to the wall. It’s clear that Sterner wants us to feel something more is at stake than a “seen better days” business, and Hyland makes us feel the heat of the man who watches what little legacy he had go under.

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Best of all may be Rooth, who acts the hell out of Kate. It’s a role that requires considerable presence of mind as Kate plays the pressured go-between, trying to outsmart Garfinkle, while shamelessly flirting with him, and trying to get Jorgenson to fight for his life with strategy, even if it means going low when the other side goes low.

The scene where Kate gives the other three the what’s-what on how to survive—with “shark repellent” and “poison”—is a masterful riff on how the system can be worked to advantage. Typically, the good guys think of themselves as too good to think of even playing at bad. And then there’s the possibility that, good or not, some will sink the ship to save themselves.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Coles gets the first and last word, and Routman plays it with the clear sense of a man who never takes his eye off the balance sheet, managing to humanize the pro who supports a thing not because it’s right or better than another thing, but because he’s paid to. Ziemba’s Bea is the other side of the coin; she supports Jorgenson, not because he’s right, nor because she’s paid to, but because she loves him, giving a venerable veneer to the office romance.

Sterner draws the lines of attack and retaliate very carefully for all the characters and it’s a treat to see them treated to such well-crafted performances. Sure, it’s fun to spend other people’s money, and it’s also fun to spend time with Other People’s Money.

So, what d’ya think of that payoff?

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Anita Yavich; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Assistant Director/Drama League Directing Fellow: Jesca Prudencio

Cast: Edward James Hyland; Jordan Lage; Liv Rooth; Steve Routman; Karen Ziemba

Long Wharf Theatre
November 23-December 18, 2016