If the Corset Fits

Review of Intimate Apparel, Playhouse on Park

Intimate Apparel, by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a well-meaning play that's a bit unsatisfyingly stodgy. It plays to soap opera expectations about the tricky course of love, even as it strives to make more of the familiar types that inhabit its world. Its humor is low-key and its evocation of behaviors that might be deemed taboo rather tame. Nottage restricts her tone to the borderline gentility of a working African-American woman just after the turn of the century in lower Manhattan. The drama plays close to plausible reality, even as Nottage’s situations gesture, here and there, to more contemporary views of romance and empowerment.

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther, played by Darlene Hope with winning simplicity, is plain-spoken and plain-looking, with talented hands as a seamstress and designer of clothes, and a vision of herself as the future owner of a beauty parlor. Her tribulations stem from loneliness and the dream of a man to share her life. George Armstrong (Beethovan Oden) is a wild card from out of nowhere. A worker on the Panama Canal who hears of Esther through a fellow worker who had been a congregant at Esther’s church, George addresses himself to Esther through letters for the entire first Act. He seems a steady man looking for a church-going woman stateside, but is he sincere?

As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro at Playhouse on Park, the play’s episodic structure—the two Acts are comprised of scenes each named after an article of clothing—becomes more problematic due to the production’s drawn-out pacing. There’s a lot of putting on and off of clothes and that tends to slow things down, as does the spread-out staging. We follow Esther through a series of interactions with a small-town’s worth of acquaintances, moving from one setting to another: the room in the boarding-house that she rents from Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray); the boudoir of the upper-class white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who buys stylish corsets Esther custom-makes; the piano lounge of a prostitute, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), who also buys lingerie Esther designs; and the fabric shop of an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin). Esther, played with a shy savvy that makes her an interesting and interested interlocutor, brings a certain level of pining to each space and meets with persons who are generally more experienced, or refined, or opinionated, or established.

As with a Chekhov play, there’s a lot of time spent establishing the tone and outlook of each character, if only so that there can be a plot development on each front in Act Two, after George in the flesh ceases to be a romantic fantasy and Esther must cope with a role that gives her more grief than status or satisfaction. The play is better in Act Two if only because Esther starts to have misgivings and regrets and even finds herself to be a romantic interest on more than one front and in a triangle on another.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Nottage plays with the plotting of sentimental fiction, where any character introduced is either a romantic interest or a rival to the heroine, and there’s a certain amount of wry awareness to make that work. Yet Esther’s reactions tend to be all-too predictable, even if we share her viewpoint enough to accept them as—to use a word with a certain relevance, both as dated expression and thematic pun—“fitting.” We might find ourselves wishing that Esther would expressly not don a corset in an effort to spark the lukewarm ardor of her husband, or that she might step across lines of class, race, and hetero-normativity to fire it up with Mrs. Van Buren, but such acts would be even more unlikely than some of the things that do happen here. The facet of the play that must maintain our engagement is the meandering arc of Esther’s sentimental education.

We might like to imagine what a high caliber cast would do with these roles—which all call for a kind of consummate character-acting that isn’t so easily achieved. At Playhouse, certain key elements seem lacking. As Mr. Marks, Ben MacLaughlin seems more like a fond shop assistant rather than a man who might be of interest to Esther. There’s little to make us feel the gravitas of an attraction to or from Esther. Her interest in him seems to stem from the fact that Marks, who has a prospective arranged bride he has never seen, is the only sympathetic man in Esther’s environs (Manhattan is a rather sparsely populated area, apparently). As the other lonely character who might find a soul-mate in Esther, Mrs. Van Buren is a typical desperate housewife, wineglass in hand, and it’s unlikely anyone will find her very sympathetic.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray has a certain cheery, if nosy, wisdom, but her disbelief in the dream version of George falls, of course, on deaf ears. As the prostitute who could’ve been a pianist or at least a showgirl, Zuri Eshun plays well to type: she’s forthright, unromantic, genuinely fond of Esther and able to toss out lines about not being on speaking terms with God. Through no fault of her own—other than her beauty and availability—she comes between Esther and George.

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

In having to run a gamut from fantasy figure, to awkward reality, to surly heel, Beethovan Oden underplays the unpleasantness of George, which helps us accept one of the more subtle ambiguities of Nottage’s script. George might be a mean-spirited opportunist, but he might also simply be the kind of man of his time who sees a woman as a means to an end. It’s to the play’s credit that George’s failings, immense from Esther’s view, are not such a big deal in his view of his self-interest. And the tension between his world and our contemporary sensibility helps us find in Esther an inspiring resilience, even if the compromises and dreams and temptations she foregoes seem, as drama, a bit pro forma.

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Marcus Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang, Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Zuri Eshun, Xenia Gray, Darlene Hope, Ben MacLaughlin, Beethovan Oden, Anna Laura Strider

Playhouse on Park
February 14-March 4, 2018

Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.

All for Love

Review of Passion, Yale School of Drama

Third-year director Rory Pelsue’s thesis production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is an extraordinary success. The musical, which has been called “the ugly duckling” of the famed composer’s career, is Romantic to a fault, perhaps, but that’s actually a key strength of the show at the Yale School of Drama. Passion, with its deep commitment to love as an overmastering condition lovers suffer, would be a pointless exercise without sufficient depth of emotion. Pelsue’s three principals—Ben Anderson as the soldier, Giorigo Bachetti; Courtney Jamison as Clara, his lover; and Stephanie Machado as Fosca Ricci, a terminally ill woman who falls in love with Giorgio—are equal to their roles to an impressive degree.

The show belongs to the main trio, supported by a group of soldiers who are generally diverting, especially in their well-choreographed movements, if a little generic. There’s also a set-piece to dramatize some of Fosca’s troubled past, involving a bogus Austrian (Steven Lee Johnson) and Fosca’s naively trusting parents (Lynda Paul, Solon Snider). While in some ways a welcome change of pace, that segment is the least convincing part of the tale. Fosca, beleaguered by bad health, bad skin and a difficult temperament, doesn’t really need a story of being suckered by an evil rake (played by Johnson with sociopathic panache) to elicit our sympathy. And the parents! Less said the better (but for the effects Paul’s voice adds to the finale).

Of the supporting cast, Hudson Oznowicz does a creditable job as meddlesome Dr. Tambourri, a well-meaning dotard who plays unwitting match-maker between Giorgio and Fosca. As Fosca’s doting cousin, Patrick Foley shows conscience enough to pity Fosca, and anger with Giorgio when forced to suspect his favorite’s motives, but generally seems too kind to be a threat. Abubakr Ali distinguishes himself as Lt. Tasso, the most boisterous of the officers, while Patrick Madden and Stephen Cefalu, Jr., add welcome character turns as Private Augenti and Lt. Barri, respectively. John R. Colley is the put-upon cook, Sgt. Lombardi, a minor comic element, and Erron Crawford, as Major Rizzoli, gets a nice solo vocal moment, full of feeling.

Riw Rakkulchon's versatile set consists mostly of a large table, for the dinners that are the main social event of the garrison, that doubles as a bed, for trysts, and triples as a mountain a hiking party scales at one point, and is also a billiard table when needs be. The visuals are stripped down but for Clara’s rich wardrobe, a key expressive element of her character’s arc (Matthew R. Malone, costumes). We see her go from nude in silk sheets with her lover Giorgio, to beguiling undergarments and nightwear to increasingly prim get-ups, some of which boast hoop-skirts able to suggest an unattainable distance in the latter parts of the show. Without resorting to coy behavior or coquetry, Jamison puts across a married woman’s sense of the possibilities a dashing lover offers and of the proprieties by which she might lose him. Jamison’s singing voice is lovely and expressive, full of the sensual world Giorgio is losing as he draws closer to the romantic ruin that is Fosca.

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Ben Anderson gives the strongest performance of his student career, fully evincing Giorgio’s deep uncertainty as to where his heart lies. Anderson is able to play up some of the comic awkwardness of Giorgio’s position, but when his newfound convictions are on the line, we see a man driven by a force he himself doesn’t fully understand. There are a few moments where we may feel sorry for Giorgio, so fully controlled by feminine influences. Particularly when the trio are singing “Happiness” in Scene 5, we catch a sense of the burden of being someone’s “happiness.” What is remarkable is how equal Anderson’s Giorgio is to the task, realizing that Fosca’s towering passion, for all its weight, is unprecedented and must be honored. He believes and we believe him.

Stephanie Machado, coming fully into her own, makes Fosca a haunting figure, full of bitterness. The fragile lyricism in her labile eyes, we see, captivates Giorgio, despite her lack of the more comely virtues he found with Clara. We might see Fosca as an arch manipulator who uses pity to snare a lover—and there is a wonderfully testy scene between the two when that seems to be the way Giorgio reads her as well—but we keep coming back to what Fosca finds in Giorgio. He has no choice—such is the tug of the ultimate Romance—but to become the hero she sees in him.

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Sondheim’s score makes that happen for us as well, in its lush but restrained evocation by musical director Jill Brunelle. The use of dialogue in the midst of rhapsody ably heightens these characters, lifting them out of whatever mundane trappings would impede them. When Giorgio hears the “reasonable” love of Clara in a late letter from her, he is driven all the more to the vision Fosca offers: herself transfigured by love.

It is to Machado’s great credit that she is able to manifest the beauty of this dark-hearted heroine and express Fosca’s sad and fierce attachment to life. The role requires Machado to scream, writhe on the floor, burst out in invective and play up to love with a timid insistence. Fosca’s acceptance of death and love in one breath (“to die loved is to have lived”) recalls about two hundred years’ worth of Romantic longing for a gesture that answers the need to make of love a heroic achievement. And it’s still sentimental enough for a Broadway musical! For Giorgio, her love changes the nature of life and death, and that makes Sondheim and Lapine’s Fosca a heroine for the books.

 

Passion
Book by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on the film, Passione d’Amore, directed by Ettore Scola
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo; Stage Manager: Abigail Gandy

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Erika Anclade, Ben Anderson, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., John R. Colley, Erron Crawford, Patrick Foley, Courtney Jamison, Steven Lee Johnson, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Hudson Oznowicz, Lynda Paul, Solon Snider

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, piano, celeste; Kari Hustad, trumpet; Márta Hortobágyi Lambert, viola; Kay Nakazawa, violin; Jordan L. Ross, percussion; Jennifer Schmidt, cello; Noah Stevens-Stein, bass; Emily Duncan Wilson, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Leonardo Ziporyn, oboe, English horn

Yale School of Drama
February 3-9, 2018

Time-Tossed Lovers

Review of Constellations, TheaterWorks

What can be less remarkable than a love story as a two-hander play? The premise that, after a meeting in some context or other, two people will create a satisfying narrative arc as we follow the fortunes of their romance is on pretty solid ground. Mostly, the comedy and/or drama comes from the context, which might provide obstacles, or other incentives. “The course of true love never did run smooth” and therein lies the two-hours or less traffic of our stage. The trick, of course, is in making us care about the two, both separately and as a couple. And that can be easier said than done, sometimes.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

In Constellations, Nick Payne does something very clever with the context, yet not so clever as to be a mere gimmick. His lovers, Marianne (Allison Pistorius) and Roland (M. Scott McLean), live not only in the world, governed by linear temporality, of all biological beings, they also live (as do we all, somehow) in the world of subatomic particles where time is not linear and where the unity we find in the notion of “universe” becomes the multiplicity of the “multiverse.” “The game is the same it’s just up on a different level,” as our nation’s most recent Nobel laureate puts it.

But what a difference that makes! As depicted in Constellations, Marianne and Roland’s lives are patterned with non sequitur, where that necessary first meeting—guests at a rainy barbecue—could go any number of ways, and does. Each time, we jump back to the “medias res” of the same conversation. The start, stop, start again rhythm is something we’re all familiar with from instant replay. Here, the fun is seeing how easy it is to bollocks the badinage. One wrong word or a fake laugh or a dropped detail and either person might be on to the next appealing stranger. There is one path at least that will lead to a satisfying night together, but how soon, and on what terms? And, once that happens, there are various paths that fork from that event, including a cute re-meet at a ballroom dance class.

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

How momentous intimacy can be in certain lives, and how casual are most interactions is certainly the main social context here. Both Marianne and Roland are kind of “nerdy”—a word which has gone from a complete put-down (like “dork”) to denoting, in the age of technology über alles, a kind of sexy regard for things once thought abstruse. Here, it’s Roland’s status as a bee-keeper, and Marianne’s as a researcher in theoretical cosmology. It’s a cute meet, alright: biology and quantum physics. The man—biology—is the more romantic and takes his bearings from—and even proposes in the terms of—creatures that serve a “queen.” The woman—physics—is more elusive because too brainy for the tedium of linearity. Grand irony (and spoiler) alert: she will come to suffer from biology, soon enough.

Stated like that, it may seem a bit pat, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And Pistorius and McLean, directed—with a sure hand that trusts the audience and doesn’t overplay anything—by Rob Ruggiero, are a treat indeed. They play as Brits and that gives a breeziness to their interactions that helps greatly, particularly as their backgrounds don’t quite jell. It’s a romance that works—in the versions of it that do—because Roland likes being a bit out of his depth and because Marianne is always pleasantly surprised by his efforts. We see how easily either or both might go astray—each gets a jealous scene—and how hard it is to remain together for the long haul.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

The popularity of the play, one suspects, derives from its swiftly delineated scenes and for letting us enjoy the sensation of “let’s try that again” or “Take 2.” And the TheaterWorks production, held over to the 22nd, is handsomely mounted by Jean Kim in a surrounded stage that looks more than a little like a planetarium. In its circle, these two orbit while, in an alcove nearby, Billy Bivona plays live the music of the spheres, so to speak, and the lights overhead work within the rhythms the duo provide. It’s subtle and very satisfying, even when the play has to go for big emotion over romantic comedy.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

One of the things quantum physics tells us, of course, is that time is an illusion and, therefore, there is no real beginning or end. Nice to know, and yet the parts of us that become used to certain relatively stable, long-term molecular arrangements aren’t apt to be so nimble as equations would have us be. Marianne, played with glowing charm and a very deft grasp of several realities by Allison Pistorius, eventually must come to grips with a difficult condition, while Roland is always confronted with having to convince Marianne with his low-key but heartfelt attraction to her. M. Scott McClean makes the most of an average guy-ness that is anything but average. They are well-met as characters and support each other quite well as actors.

In the end, Constellations is a great “date play.” To see it, there’s no time like the present, illusory or not.

 

Constellations
By Nick Payne
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Jean Kim; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting: Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Sign Language Coach: Laurel Whitsett

Composer/Musician: Billy Bivona

Cast: M. Scott McLean, Allison Pistorius

 

TheaterWorks
January 18-February 18, 2018, extended to February 22

Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

Meet Gus (Erich Greene) and Ben (Trevor Williams), two guys hanging out in a basement room, bare but for two cots, that looks like a holding tank. There is a door to a kitchen, and sometimes Gus meanders down the hall to confront the not-quite-adequate range and the task of making tea. Meanwhile, Ben, rather truculent, reads the newspaper, his eye caught by any gory story he can share as an outrage to all good sense. They are waiting for their orders sort of the way that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Eventually we catch on: they are flunky hit-men and their next target should be arriving any time now.

Harold Pinter’s early career abounded in testy confrontations that are funny, in a deadpan, absurdist, almost realist way. Remember the chitchat of the hit-men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the kinds of critical praise it earned? That kind of thing is a page out of Pinter’s playbook. Except that, in The Dumb Waiter, directed by New Haven Theater Company’s John Watson, we’re not in a work of “pulp,” per se. Nor Pop. We’re in a theatrical tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the English music hall, pitting feckless Anymen, somewhat down but not out, against the affronts to dignity that every clown who ever trod the boards has had to endure (think: Laurel and Hardy). But Ben and Gus also inhabit a recent tradition—Godot was only two years old, in English, when The Dumb Waiter appeared—of dark absurdism and the sense that any system—even one that is violent and pointless and tedious and dumb—is better than nothing. Gus and Ben aren’t exactly “stiff upper lip” material, though they do take pride in their efficiency, and that’s something.

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With a playing time of under an hour, Pinter’s script lets its cast take its time. The pacing by Watson and company has a respect for the calculated pauses, drops, and musing boredom that comprises most of this duo’s time on the job. The junior partner though he appears older, Gus is played by Erich Greene as a kind of annoying little brother. Having him on hand means putting up with a ponderous case of the fidgets, emblematized by his first actions: putting on his shoes, laboriously, only to find, repeatedly, that something has gotten into one or the other and must be removed. The sequence sets the tone. These two aren’t too swift, but, after their fashion, they are thorough.

This becomes more and more oddly the case as we see them wrack their brains to deal with a series of messages—orders for food—that get delivered by the play’s titular device. The dumb waiter’s presence makes Ben—who likes to speak with authority whether or not he knows what he’s talking about—assert that this locale was once some sort of café and someone upstairs still thinks it is active. The range of foods requested—Greek dishes, noodles and water chestnuts, Scampi—could almost be seen as cryptic messages, but the pair simply offer what Gus has got in his sack. Their servile aim to please is endearing, and yet there’s a keen menace behind it all—at least, we’re not sure there’s not, and so tension mixes with the silliness.

And that’s the key note of the show. Laughs are always a little uneasy when there are guns on hand. Both Gus and Ben, we see early on, have revolvers and stand ready to use them. Meanwhile there’s the question of how to kill time and what to do with the food orders and, in a mysterious segment, how to react to an envelope of matches that gets slid under the door. The obvious meaning in the packet’s arrival is that it has been supplied by their unseen boss, Wilson, and that the matches are for lighting the range to make tea, but the fact that the gas isn’t working makes the gesture pointless if not a deliberate joke on the hapless duo.

The jokes we’re sure of here are like that, basking in a rich sense of how “things in general” play tricks on us, sometimes quite awful ones, like the newspaper story of a gent who took shelter under a lorry only to have it run over him. We might suspect that there’s a lurking lorry here somewhere, ready to take our heroes unawares—whether in the form of the target, or the boss, or the gas range, or, maybe, Ben’s temper as he berates Gus about the aptness of the expressions “light the gas” and “light the kettle.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Gus says at one point.

In any case, here is a nice kettle of fish to be pickled in. In Gus, Greene has a character that lets him exploit a sad-sack resilience; ill-kempt and beleaguered, his Gus might be more sympathetic if he weren’t so dim. Meanwhile, Williams’ Ben maintains a slow-burn testiness that always threatens to explode, like Abbott at Costello. It's good to see NHTC tackle something dialogue-driven but without the manic tempo of Mamet. The best thing about Pinter’s dialogue is how artfully artless it is, and Greene and Williams deliver it in an invented accent that fluctuates but keeps up the necessary estrangement. These two mates seem mated, for better or worse, and till death do they part.

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Margaret Mann; Lights: Peter Chenot; Sound: Drew Gray; Board Op: Ian Dunn

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street
February 1-3 & 8-10, 2018

 

 

Those Crazy Karamazovs

Review of Field Guide, Yale Repertory Theatre

Are you tired of plays that purport to enact a slice-of-life—a family gathering, two twenty-somethings finding love or not, the hi-jinx that ensue when a mix-matched foursome get together? If “yes,” treat yourself to a viewing of Field Guide by the Austin-based exploratory theater troupe Rude Mechs (short for “rude mechanicals”’—you know, Puck’s epithet for the crew that tries to put on a play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Rude Mechs, in their world premiere show at Yale Repertory Theatre, live up to their name: they deliberately eschew polish for the sake of provocation, creating their own theatrical world with its own rules and its own rewards.

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

And if you’re of a mind to see plays that purport to revisit classics with a contemporary sensibility, you might find Field Guide just your thing or a step beyond. Consider the entertaining hash that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” made of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and you’ll be prepared—somewhat—for what the Rude Mechs do to Dostoevsky’s duly celebrated quintessential Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov.

A classic page turner involving patricide, a father-son rivalry over a much admired coquette, a brother-brother rivalry over a rich, prim bourgeois woman, the jaundiced view of a bastard son, and the “spiritual yearning” of a son become religious acolyte, together with a troubled atheist’s parable about how a returned Jesus would be bad for the Church, The Brothers K. is a tour de force of existential quandaries before the “e word” was invented. Rude Mechs keep the unease of Dostoevsky’s work and contribute an off-hand humor by which most elements of the story become excuses for theatrical asides. We’re sort of in the story but also waiting for the story to start even if—as is always the case with novels—it already happened and never happened.

Lowell Bartholomee

Lowell Bartholomee

The show starts when the troupe—clad in snow parkas—walk into the theater through an exit door. As the Mechs get into preparations behind a curtain, Hannah Kenah, as Hannah, entertains us with the first of several stand-up routines—a later one featured Lowell Bartholomee in a hell of a bear costume. The use of the device not only keeps us at a remove from the “action,” it also creates a loosely confessional atmosphere as the person at the mic indulges in those little moments of truth/fiction that drive the form: “I get my possessiveness and my lack of generosity from my mother. I have my father’s calves.” The themes of family, inheritance, and, particularly, fathers runs through the show.

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

The main lines of the book are there, snipped up to become routines in a general questioning of life. The sensualist, the intellectual, the religious, the resentful one, the unlovable father, all offer a perspective, and all, like Grushenka, hope they’re not as bad as they seem to be. As with a Chekhov play, everyone has something to add to the picture of dysfunction, though here the characters are apt to be very aware of their theatrical effects.

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

This is a Brothers K. in which Alyosha (Mari Akita), the would-be monk, levitates and does an interpretive dance that is spellbinding. This is a Brothers K., in which Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), the bastard, fondles a cat and offers his half-brother Ivan a glass of water, repeatedly. This is a Brothers K. where Ivan (Thomas Graves) hangs out in a hot tub and pontificates about humanity. A Brothers K. in which Dmitri (Lana Lesley), as the voice of Dostoevsky’s belief in the moral value of suffering, attains a surly conscience, and in which Katya (Kenah) is a joke and Grushenka (Kenah) too slight, in which the father, Fyodor (Bartholomee), lacks debauched grandeur and is more testy than overbearing. This is a Brothers K. in which a horned goat-man (Bartholomee) craps on the stage and an ironic bounce castle is an epic fulfillment of impossible longing.

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Hannah, back again at the mic late in the play, remarks, “the premise of this joke is that nobody is watching,” and proceeds to elicit the sense of how readers participate in the scenes of the novel in an intrinsic way. It’s an interesting moment that asks us to ask what our watching contributes. What “coming out tonight” to see the show means. In part, it means being witness to much lovely stage business, including choreographed boxes and a quietly evocative lighting design by Brian H. Scott, with rich costumes by Sarah Woodham, and striking tableaux.

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

But it also means joining the team for a kind of chastened comedy that at times felt a bit low energy, and musing about what we get from our parents and what we don’t get, and what we owe them and ourselves—keeping in mind that, for some, “our father” might be God. The play takes the condition of those crazy Karamazovs and makes it general, like how frightening the existential dread of the human condition would be if we couldn’t say stupid things about it. And sometimes, as in Hannah Kenah’s text, we get to say quite beautiful and poetic things about it. The universe may not care, but at least we got out of the house.

Dmitri: Maybe life is a long search for meaning that ends in a joke.
Grushenka: And we fall for it every time.

 

Field Guide
Created by Rude Mechs
Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Text: Hannah Kenah; Direction: Shawn Sides; Scenic Design: Eric Dyer: Sound Design: Robert S. Fisher; Original Music: Graham Reynolds; Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturgy: Amy Boratko; Stage Management: Bianca A. Hooi; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet; Technical Direction: Steph Waaser

Cast: Mari Akita, Lowell Barholomee, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 26-February 17, 2018

Teacher's Threat

Review of Office Hour, Long Wharf Theatre

With every new mass shooting in the U.S., the media explodes with rhetoric aimed at the problem: gun control, mental health initiatives, the anomie of the modern world, the glorification of violence and the fixation on “the lone gunman,” the purview of hatred toward certain groups or toward “the public” in general, the loss of some basic human decency that formerly kept all but the most psychotic under wraps. Clearly, there’s no single solution to apply in each case—and law works on a case-by-case basis—and legislation, whatever it may achieve as deterrent, can’t address the underlying sickness that, it seems, our culture is unable to cure.

In her brave and provocative play Office Hour, Julia Cho aims to put her audience in the crucible. We will spend an hour, or so, with a well-meaning writing adjunct Gina (Jackie Chung) and a troubled student, Dennis (Daniel Chung), who may be at a crisis point. Time was, we might assume little enough drama happens when a teacher calls a student in for a conference,  now, we may fear the worst.

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

In the Long Wharf production, directed by Lisa Peterson, the play’s initial tone—as a trio of adjuncts, Genevieve (Kerry Warren), David (Jeremy Kahn), and Gina, discuss Dennis—establishes a certain sympathy toward the student, if only because we hear two of the three ganging up on him. What’s more, one of the lines Dennis wrote in a poem, quoted by Genevieve, is a scurrilous parody of an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, far too often used in writing classes. We might suspect that Dennis is a darkly humored misfit his professors don’t appreciate. That view becomes a bit more problematic when David, who teaches screenwriting and is used to violent movie scenarios and who has worked with convicts in writing groups, insists that Dennis is scarier and less engaging than any prisoner he has ever met.

Thereafter comes our—and Gina’s—meeting with Dennis, a second-generation Asian-American in a hoodie with a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, and a stoical silence. Gina, appalled by the screeds of bitterness, violence, rape, and death that Dennis seems to pump out with little concern for his readers in the classes he takes, tries to fling verbal coins into the silence, hoping for an echo.

David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

After some dead-ends she finds a path, and we start off on what seems to be a journey through a minefield in search of rapprochement. Almost. Cho employs a theatrical device that keeps us from getting comfortable, maintaining the tension that any loaded firearm in a room should manifest. Here, the gun is in Dennis’ backpack, and that fact might mean the adjuncts’ worse fears could come true.

One of the strengths of this production is the lightning-fast nature of the blackouts and tableaux that escalate later in the play. We glimpse, with each new flash, the differing climaxes, all violent, of various scenarios, each a kind of remix of the ingredients in the crucible, but each tending to that moment when firearms become “the answer.” As theater, the brief “clips” demonstrate a tremendous shift to action and staging over dialogue. Elsewhere in the play, dialogue is all we get, and, it should be clear enough, it’s all we have to delay or deter the moment when swift and destructive action holds sway.

Another strength of this production is Jackie Chung’s Gina. She uses the full arsenal a teacher has at her disposal: empathy, imagination, challenge, sharing to elicit sharing, command, threat, and even an unforced vulnerability that Chung is able to display without seeming at all premeditated or manipulative. On the other side of spectrum, she tries to face her fears and the kind of knee-jerk biases that—displayed amply by David—only derail any hope of conversation with recalcitrant students.

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

As Dennis, Daniel Chung has a gripping slouch and pout. For quite a while Dennis maintains the terse tone of someone who is wary of any and all efforts to break his shell. Whether or not he’s a threat to himself or others, he has worked hard to create an antisocial persona, and Cho’s script is equal to the task of making the chip on Dennis’ shoulder feel tangible. Dennis is too smart to wallow in his misery, and, whether talented or not, he uses writing to “take it out” on the world. The gun, which he claims is for protection against the racists he fears (not without reason), speaks of his acceptance of scenarios of violence with which we are all-too-familiar. At times, Chung’s passionate outbursts feel a bit out of character, but it seems that Peterson and company want us to see Dennis as the type of person—an outsider through the happenstance of birth—set at white heat in our social crucible.

Office Hour treats with seriousness the kinds of topics that might come up in any writing course—the issues of racial and gender identity, the problems immigrant populations face, the conditions for which violence and depression and anger are the fraught symptoms, and of course the questions of how to reach an audience and what kind of language and depictions are appropriate or questionable. We might say that the faith implicit in American talk—in no matter what venue—is that seeing and hearing someone who sees it and says it like we would is the thread that keeps the social fabric together. Letting a democracy air its griefs in public is what makes the public forum worthwhile.

Perhaps we used to assume that homicidal sociopaths don’t sign up for writing courses or maintain a GPA in college. These days, there are no such certainties, but what Gina and Dennis also face in Julia Cho’s aware play is the great uncertainties that have always faced the writer: is anyone listening, does anyone care, and does anyone see things the way I do?

 

Office Hour
By Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Peterson

Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Maggie Morgan; Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski; Original Music and Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Production Stage Manager: Chris Waters; Fight Director: Thomas Schall

Cast: Daniel Chung, Jackie Chung, Jeremy Kahn, Kerry Warren

A Co-Production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre
January 17-February 11, 2018

By One's Lights

Review of the light is…, Yale Cabaret

Movement pieces often present a conundrum. We see bodies in a variety of choreographed routines, we hear music that finds itself embodied in those movements, with costumes, lighting and set contributing to our immersion in the event. How we interpret what we see is where the uncertainty lies.

In the case of the light is…, conceived and directed by third-year Yale School of Drama actor Jake Ryan Lozano, there are also words—words of unusual lyrical polish spoken with a trippy delight by Curtis Williams—that shape our attention more than they provide definite context.

26904266_10156114552499626_3906609687605881920_n.jpg

An atmospheric tree of lights stands at one end of the playing space, and the actors/dancers clad in black, with eyes ringed black, move like a group of bodies controlled by a shared impulse. To find the light? To overcome the darkness? Williams, in a boss coat, is a kind of controlling presence, a commentator, a poetic voice above the proceedings. His vocal rhythms and rhyming diction add to the aura.

The five figures—Seta Wainiqolo, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom—move sometimes robotically, sometimes with a kind of desperate yearning or pantomimed fear. It’s fascinating because there’s a distinct feel of a kind of limbo space and we’re wondering what will break them out of the trance. Meanwhile, the trance becomes contagious.

At some point, I have to admit, I stopped trying to piece together a prevailing direction for the show. I started to zone out and think about how great it was to see these six working together. Udom and Wainiqolo worked together in the hypnotic drama The Slow Sound of Snow and in the highly stylized Death of Yadzgerd, which also featured Williams, two shows directed by Ghaheri; Botha and Udom were paired as lovers/antagonists in last year’s Summer Cabaret in a scorching Mies Julie; Jacobson was recently seen as a loose bourgeois in Native Son at the Yale Rep, and a daughter with a mission in Re:Union at the Cab, and Wainiqolo as a stalwart captain in An Enemy of the People, at Yale Rep. The vagaries of the season at the Rep and YSD determines, often, who is available for shows at the Cab, and here six impressive performers (Ghaheri, a third-year director, has appeared in several challenging Cab shows, including Boris Yeltsin, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., and Adam Geist) work within arms’ reach, far gone in the throes of a shared crisis condition.

The willingness to explore areas that expand one’s repertoire is what keeps the Cabaret alive, and it’s also a key opportunity for YSDers to take on work that stretches our sense of their capabilities. Lozano, as an actor, has developed a unique command of movement—as seen notably in Titus Andronicus, directed by Ghaheri, and memorably featuring Wainiqolo, as Titus, and Botha, as Tamora. With the light is…, Lozano shows his unique command of poetic language, with touches of Shakespeare, rap, and a musing free association merging to form a mythic invocation of light and our desire for the clarity of paradise.

Moments that stand out to me, in recollection: Udom standing right before my face with a look of deep, permeating sadness, during a sequence when the five, in a ring, seemed to have lost all hope; Wainiqolo leading the five into the ring, all in slow motion, and pantomiming being dragged against their will, his face a mask of fear; the five entering one by one the ring another time with each displaying a comical facial expression and a mechanical tremor as they cross the border; the five reaching up for the source of light, with Jacobsen’s face, in a mute longing, the best illuminated.

And through it all, there’s Williams, in his Cab debut, making us take in the spectacle as an allegory of a world in desperate need of illumination.

 

the light is…
By Jake Ryan Lozano

Set Design: Alex McNamara; Costume Design: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Design: Dakota Stipp; Projection Design: Erin Sullivan; Stage Manager: Zachary Rosen; Technical Director: Elsa Gibson Braden, Lily Guerin; Producer: Armando Huipe

Ensemble: Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Yale Cabaret
January 25-27, 2018

Yale Cabaret goes dark for the next two weekends, then returns February 15th-17th with its annual, not-to-be-missed Drag Show extravaganza.

Stories of Home

Review of Feeding the Dragon, Hartford Stage

Sharon Washington’s charming memoir, Feeding the Dragon, now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Maria Mileaf, features Washington, an actress, recounting stories of her upbringing. The truly distinctive element of her childhood, Washington tells us, is that her family lived inside a library, literally. Her father’s job was tending the furnace in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, and so the family—father, mother, Sharon, her grandmother, and their dog—lived in a custodial apartment within the library.

That fact might open upon a vista of imaginative possibility. For some, it would be like living in a castle, or in an infinite storyland, and Washington does play to the romance element, as her childhood might make the basis of a great children’s story or the setting for a tale as perennially interesting as books or movies about hiding out in museums or other places of childhood fascination. That shared thrill at access beyond the norm is our entrée into Washington’s tale, as she stands on a handsome set comprised of stairs that double as bookshelves, buttressed by card catalogs, and backed by an array of glass panes that change color magically.

Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

And the books aren’t only for décor, as Washington now and then plucks one up and reads a passage—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin—like an enthralling English teacher or a library’s “story lady.” And yet the power of books isn’t really the driving passion of Feeding the Dragon, whose title flirts with the kind of fable that a child’s mind makes of the beast in the basement her hardworking father must feed. The real passion here is a grown woman’s love for her family, now mostly gone.

Washington does well by the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Both appear in her account—as she changes into convincing portraits of both, along with several other characters, by altering her voice and manner—as vividly quirky. Her father, from South Carolina, liked to enact the ‘quitting-time’ scene from Gone with the Wind; her mother, a born New Yorker, speaks like one and has the kind of savvy generally associated with the type. The alterations in accent and manner—particularly when father and Sharon take a trip to the south to meet his folks—help tell the story, as Washington lets characterization aid our imagination.

Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

There are difficulties—like the father’s alcoholism, another kind of “dragon” to feed—and other interesting characters, such as a rather reclusive uncle who paints for his own sake, and there are glimpses of the times, such as the uneasy race relations of the 1970s, the neighborhood feel of a bygone Manhattan, and, in one of the more detailed sequences, an account of her grandmother’s “good hair,” and the ubiquitous claim among African Americans of having Native American blood.

Washington is a consummate story-teller, engaging, lively, warm and confiding. Her story, however, doesn’t always feel distinctive enough for a full-scale theatrical treatment, nor quite funny or dramatic enough as anecdote. Feeding the Dragon opens up the question of what we want from memoir—revelations or simply a compelling command of the teller’s story. Washington has all the command one could wish for, what’s less certain is if she has much to say.

As theater, the show becomes weakest as it searches for a note to end on. As Washington stands before us, there is clearly no “end” to her story yet, but one senses that how the story of a girl living in a library became a solo performance piece might be as interesting as the story of what the woman telling her life story remembers fondly of her forebears. Were Feeding the Dragon a book, we might simply call for another chapter, in which “the dragon” becomes the theater, and meeting its demands became this actress’s and playwright’s job.

Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

 

Feeding the Dragon
By Sharon Washington
Directed by Maria Mileaf

Scenic Designer: Tony Ferrieri; Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer: Ann G. Wrightson; Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones; Production Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn Zalewski

Cast: Sharon Washington

Hartford Stage
January 11-Feburary 4, 2018

When P.K. Met Glory

Review of Enter Your Sleep, Yale Cabaret

Some friendships are amorphous. In Christina Quintana’s Enter Your Sleep, directed by Rachel Shuey at Yale Cabaret, two friends play out configurations of their relationship within a dream-world, where coping with being apart becomes tinged with wish-fulfillment fantasy and brooding nightmare.

P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone), Glory "Z" Zico (Ciara McMillian) (photos: Brittany Bland)

P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone), Glory "Z" Zico (Ciara McMillian) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s well-known “getting to know you” film When Harry Met Sally… gets deliberately invoked when we hear the famous clip in which Billy Crystal, as Harry, opines that men and women can never be “just friends” because sexual desire inevitably makes itself felt. In the play, P.K. Whylde (JJ McGlone) is a man and Glory “Z” Zico (Ciara McMillian) is a woman who identifies as a lesbian. Does that change the dynamic of Harry’s truism? It’s hard to say for sure, and that’s the point of us seeing “what dreams may come” as the two negotiate a separation that may spell the end of their friendship.

P.K. (JJ McGlone), "Z" (Ciara McMillian)

P.K. (JJ McGlone), "Z" (Ciara McMillian)

Z. has made the break with Tulsa, the duo’s hometown, and gone off to seek a path to selfhood in New York. P.K. stays behind, but eventually moves to Austin. That signals that he’s not the homebody Z. took him for, and his decision not to go to New York with her is either a rejection of the Big Apple, or of her, or of both. In the mix of her present anxieties we see how the question of what the two actually are to each other (once they no longer need each other to endure Tulsa) plays out. Protagonists and antagonists in dreams are not fixed and that leads to sequences in which P.K. acts Z.’s mother or Z. plays a gruff father to P.K. Other episodes show how dreams embellish reality with fabulistic colorings, as for instance when P.K. becomes a rather sympathetic version of the gingerbread-housed witch of the Hansel and Gretel story, or when Z. interacts with a P.K. become alarmingly robotic.

For McMillian and McGlone, the play becomes a wonderland of character-actor turns, as they assume differing demeanors and voices and accents. At one point, in another Harry met Sally moment, they reminisce as an aging Jewish couple. The extent to which the play’s dream world is influenced by the film might be a little over-determined, except that one accepts that much of what our unconscious gets up to derives from roles we yearn for or wish would suit us. P.K. and Z. are a contemporary “odd couple,” with a level of co-dependent interaction that seems to fuel their fantasies of being a couple, which they are in a way that they have still to understand.

Much of the dialogue is sweetly childlike, such as recreating story-time in kindergarten or what seems to be the pair’s first playground encounter, but there is also a fun sequence where—again like the archetypal Harry and Sally—they “do it” against their better judgment. Director Shuey has the two actors run in place with a mounting fervor that speaks volumes about the nature of underage sex—all physical exertion with little emotional resonance.

"Z" (Ciara McMillian), P.K. (JJ McGlone)

"Z" (Ciara McMillian), P.K. (JJ McGlone)

In as much as they are supposedly in their mid-twenties, the characters’ self-conceptions seem at times anachronistically adolescent, but that also helps to sustain the Harry and Sally parallel. In the film, the couple know each other for years before they—ill-advisedly, seemingly—become lovers. For Z. and P.K., a similar stretch of time finds them each beginning an infatuated curiosity with one another as children. Thus the events of later years can be seen through the perspective of childhood, and vice versa. There’s also a convincing sense of how aping one another’s parents is a way of trying on the guise of maturity without committing to being “grown up.”

Two-handers can sometimes be a little too static, but that's not the case here. Quick-change artists throughout, McGlone and McMillian, both in Cab debuts, tour this actor’s dream of a show, letting us follow the twists and turns of coming-of-age for two characters who desperately want a certain someone along for the ride.

 

 

Enter Your Sleep
By Christina Quintana
Directed by Rachel Shuey

Dramaturg: Leandro A. Zaneti; Producer: Melissa Rose; Set Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano Batista; Technical Director: Jessica Hernandez

Cast: JJ McGlone, Ciara McMillian

Yale Cabaret
January 18-20, 2018

Town Talk

Review of Steel Magnolias, Playhouse on Park

Bonds form between people, sometimes, because of where they’re from, who they know, what they do for a living. And, of course, where they hang out. In Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Susan Haefner, Truvy Jones’ beauty shop brings together several women who treat the place almost as a social club, a getaway space where their husbands and families and the town’s demands can be kept at a distance. Camaraderie in a public space able to keep the world at bay sustains the play’s light comedy, while the shock of unpleasant reality, when it intrudes, is met with the ties of friendship. Because it doesn’t change, the beauty shop acts effectively as the stage upon which the day-to-day ups and downs of these women get aired and discussed and dealt with.

The play consists of four discrete scenes that take place over a span of just over two and a half years. In that time, much stays the same, but major changes take place for several characters, and minor but telling changes for others. The play’s dramatic arc follows the fortunes of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Susan Slotoroff), beginning on her wedding day, and introducing, early, the diabetic condition from which she suffers.

Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

We meet all the characters in medias res, fully involved in their individual interests. A new-comer, Annelle (Lisa Couser), a recent hire to the shop, is an excuse for introductions as the women arrive one by one. First, there’s Trudy (Jill Taylor Anthony), a nurturing, down-to-earth figure who tends to wear updated—it’s the 1980s—hippie-threads; then there’s Annelle, a teenaged girl who, the older women are surprised to learn, already has a bit of “a past,” and who evolves in different directions as the play goes on, finding a home among these women while also remaining a little separate; Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is the closest the town has to a grande dame—she was married to the late mayor—and she tends to enjoy getting up the bristles of her foil, Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the town’s prickly “character.” The mother-daughter duo, M’Lynn Eatenton (Jeannie Hines) and Shelby are distinctive if only because they represent two generations in the town.

Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

The action of the play aims for a verisimilitude toward work-place friendships. Truvy and Annelle are often engaged in hair-styling, while the real action is what the women choose to talk about. There are offstage events that are comic—such as M’Lynn’s husband firing guns to scare away birds—and others that are more tense, such as relations with other townies or Annelle’s marital status. Jill Taylor Anthony handles Truvy with the requisite self-effacing, accommodating manner, though her charm is more southern folksy than southern genteel. All the other women have more issues, or more pride, or more definite intentions. Truvy just keeps things rolling along.

As the sparring elders, Peggy Cosgrave and Dorothy Stanley add a few sparks, but many of the one-liners are just smart-alecky without much behind them. The cast has a lot of space to work with and the best parts are when all are present and moving about almost independently, creating rhythms in which some comments are more overheard than directed. Not all the southern accents are as flawless as a good permanent, and even when inflections are right, the diction can sometimes suffer, making lines fall by the wayside. Steel Magnolias could be called dialogue-driven but it’s more like chat-friendly. We get the main issues even when some of the asides get lost.

The main dramatic issue—the fate of Shelby—doesn’t hit as hard as it might, but Act II, in which revelations come to light somewhat casually, plays much better than the at-times discursive Act I. Harling has a knack for how people who know each other well can intrude humor or drama into a conversation with very little fuss, and that helps to keep things buzzing.

M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

As M’Lynn, Jeannie Hines is convincing as a worrying mother learning to back-off and, in her big outburst, she comes across as someone who can’t leave her feelings unsaid any longer. Watching her is often the most rewarding aspect of the show. As her daughter, Susan Slotoroff lets us see Shelby’s cheerful strength but we don’t ever seem to get at her heart, as niceness tends to be her only note.

As a play about inter-generational friendship, with enough nods to prayer and gay rights to make everyone feel welcome, Steel Magnolias is only as winning as its cast. At Playhouse on Park, the ladies are at their best after they’ve warmed to our presence a little.

 

Steel Magnolias
By Robert Harling
Directed by Susan Haefner

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Cosgrave, Liza Couser, Jeannie Hines, Susan Slotoroff, Dorothy Stanley

Playhouse on Park
January 10-28, 2018

Show and Tell

Review of For Your Eyes Only, Yale Cabaret

“What was great about the scene was that people’s curiosity seemed stronger than their fear.”—Legs McNeil

Legs McNeil was talking about the punk rock scene in the East Village around CBGB’s in the late 1970s, but his comment could be extended to the “scene” of theater in the late 2010s. As performed, presented and commented upon by Alex Vermillion, as Ladie Lilith, in For Your Eyes Only, a two-person theater piece with Chelsea Siren, sex-work comprises everything from burlesque to drag shows to sex-cams to strippers to porn to hookers. The concept aspect of Vermillion’s show has to do with the tension between theater and sex-work, in terms of their ends and means. But the piece also invites its audience to let its curiosity overcome its fear—of all those “judgmental eyes,” if nothing else.

Chelsea Siren, Ladie Lilith (photos: Johnny Moreno)

Chelsea Siren, Ladie Lilith (photos: Johnny Moreno)

Theater can simulate sex for the sake of storytelling; pornography performs sex as the whole story. Vermillion’s show trusts in theatricality as the glue that holds both theater and porn together. Both are about seeing, showing, performing, with most sex acts following a tried and true narrative arc. And therein lies analogy enough for a performance piece.

Forget the sleazy sex clubs of the old Times Square. Ladie Lilith, like a madam with a brand, is all about making happen whatever the client is comfortable with or curious about. Lilith, sometimes wearing only a G-string, is working a room rather than a one-on-one for hire situation—making the ‘your’ in the show’s title ironically plural. Thus, she risks arousing some, turning off others, and generally making her audience witness the sorts of things that sex-work might entail, depending on whose tastes it is catering to. That might mean a slink and pout routine (formerly bump and grind), or a charming Little Mermaid, à la Disney, singing of a panoply of sex toys and lingerie, or simulated copulation between a top and a bottom, or, in a very inventive staging, a “golden shower” routine in which audience members are asked to shoot squirt guns into Lilith’s mouth to the tune of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”—“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel.”

Ladie Lilith (Alex Vermillion)

Ladie Lilith (Alex Vermillion)

Through it all, Vermillion and Siren keep a firm grasp on (or is that labile tongue inserted in) their sense of burlesque. And yet, because this is Yale Cabaret, it isn’t real burlesque, and that adds a dimension to the proceedings that makes it analytic. That element becomes all too clear when, during a time-consuming onstage number that entails an intricate BDSM device, actors in voice-over speak the words of actual sex-workers interviewed as background. Acts of “bondage” and “submission” as elements of sexual fantasy and sex-work meet the fact of sex-work as a kind of sadomasochistic other of “straight” theater. Vermillion’s show never lets us forget that bodies are on the line in theater, no matter how we label it, but the voices let us know that there is still a fine line between “a show” and “a trick.”

Burlesque, of course, was the theatrical form that made a show of sexuality, lampooning the tropes of dress-up and role play and tease and release for the sake of entertainment. How comfortable an audience is with laughing about the sexual underside of daily life makes for burlesque's risqué element. The difference with sex-work is that working for actual arousal and orgasm can be many things—sordid, suggestive, salacious, stimulating—but what it can’t be is “just a show” (it’s not called a “money shot” for nothing). By Vermillion’s own admission—in the “talk back” portion of the show—one-on-one cam-work stymies her. She wants a live audience. Certainly, because that’s where burlesque and theater both thrive. The nature of cam-work, like phone-sex or cyber, is the promise of a fantasized intimacy that might make costuming and nudity incidental.

Ladie Lilith (Alex Vermillion)

Ladie Lilith (Alex Vermillion)

Here, the show aspects are key: the costumes, props, music, movement, lighting and stage management are there to be appreciated. The show feels at times like a classroom intro—“kinky sex 101”—and at other times feels like an empowerment seminar about being oneself, owning one’s body, and having fun with whatever you’ve got to work with. That’s the progressive element of the show, and it asks us to countenance a world in which “doing it for money” isn’t stigmatized and where degradation and humiliation are just a state of mind. There’s also, perhaps, a certain nagging question hovering: you can put sex in show-biz and show-biz in sex, but when having sex is a show, is it real?

At the end of the show, Lilith, on cam, asks the audience how it feels. It’s a good question, and she throws some possible answers at us, multiple-choice style. As a meta-moment, the question of affect become a survey topic. And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the show: however collective an audience may be, the eyes and ears and minds in attendance will be experiencing different aspects of that continuum between sex for show and show as sex as individuals. Ultimately, For Your Eyes Only is in service to what seems a very humane curiosity about what turns people on, what turns people off, what gets us off, what makes the show go on—and how all that plays into what “makes the world go ‘round.”

 

For Your Eyes Only
By Alex Vermilion
Directed by Alex Vermillion

Producers: Laurie Ortega-Murphy, Laura Cornwall; Dramaturg, Advisor: Evan Hill; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Lighting Designer: Daniela Fresard-Montero; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Set Designer: Amanda Creech; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Samantha Tirrell; Videographer: Amauta Marston-Firmino; Commissioned Choreographer & Movement Specialist: Yasin (Ya-Ya) Fairley; Projection Designer: Ben Jones

Performers: Chelsea Siren, Alex Vermillion

Yale Cabaret
January 11-13, 2018

When We Had Gone Astray

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

The Hartford Stage’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as adapted by Michael Wilson, gets a new wrapping this holiday season. With a new Scrooge and second-time director Rachel Alderman at the helm, the well-known story has a different feel. Nothing too drastic, mind you—this is still the story of how a miserly curmudgeon’s reclamation from a mean, grasping life helps to make the season bright. And yet I was struck by a different tone to the whole, and that makes for a bit of a new experience.

The venerable Bill Raymond played Ebenezer Scrooge for many a year, and his version aimed to tickle more than provoke. The play—despite some dark patches—ends happily for all, so there’s much to be said for keeping the spirits high throughout. This year, Michael Preston—formerly seen in the role of Mr. Marvel—gives Scrooge a decidedly more donnish air. Looking like an overweening professor not likely to give high marks to anyone, Preston is far less madcap than Raymond and more haunted.

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The story of a man who has to come to terms with his past before it’s too late has much to commend it dramatically. And that’s what Alderman’s version puts before us. What’s more, I found myself thinking, it doesn’t really have to be a Christmas story.

The Hartford Stage adaptation has always foregrounded the ghosts—with all those skeleton-headed apparitions—and they needn’t be tied to the virgin birth. They represent skeletons in the closet, so to speak, and the past that haunts us with its malevolent glee that we can’t do anything to change it.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

This year, the big clocks that spin as projections on the stage seemed all the more baleful. Preston’s Scrooge is a man full of remorse and the ghosts make him live through the pain of his past (even those who warmed it, like his sister, his fiancée and his old boss, are now gone), the heartlessness of his irritable present, and the dark forebodings of the future. His interplay with the shades of things that were, are, and may be is as full of psychological truth as it is of supernatural soliciting.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

The change in the tone of the central role made me think a bit more about this story than I tend to do, since I know it so well. Dickens came up with a double-whammy winner—Christmas and ghosts—and that has made the story so enduring. And it’s also a story that has the great novelist’s sense of caricature, and so all the characters are indelible.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

And that means there’s many a fine role for the cast. Two of the best fall to Noble Shropshire, fearsome as Marley’s ghost and winning as Scrooge’s servant Mrs. Dilber. John-Andrew Morrison, the new Mr. Marvel—a seller of novelties—is lively, as are the Fezziwigs (Kenneth De Abrew and Shauna Miles). Miles also doubles as a particularly strong Mrs. Cratchit, with Robert Hannon Davis her suitably chastened husband, Bob. Alan Rust returns as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Bert, a beverage purveyor, and is quite grand as both. And this year Rebekah Jones gives the Ghost of Christmas Past a bit more stately melancholy.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

The staging is fluid, with props more than sets, and, while that works fine for Scrooge’s bedroom—with its imposing fourposter—and his counting house, it’s less successful at suggesting the Cratchits’ cramped hovel. And so the party sequence hosted by Scrooge’s nephew (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and his wife (Vanessa R. Butler), with numerous guests and games, is a welcome set-piece in Act Two. The large, varied cast, the lighting, costumes—especially the ghostly apparitions from different historical eras—and special flying effects all add up to colorful and exciting spectacle.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The many children in the production add to the cheer, and seem all the more a reminder of how swiftly the world of youth passes away. In the end, of course, Scrooge recognizes the true meaning of Christmas—in its “do unto others” sense—but one could also say he realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to pay it forward for the future. A lesson our leaders would do well to consider, though the spirit of the unregenerate Scrooge seems more than ever apparent just now.

 

A Christmas Carol
Adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens
Original Director and Adaptor: Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Scenic Designer Tony Straiges; Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti; Original Costume Designer: Zack Brown; Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Designer: John Gromada; Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Musical Director: Ken Clark; Assistant Choreographer: Derric Harris; Dance Captain: Sarah Killough; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Assistant Youth Director: Catherine Michaels; Assistant Director/ Dramaturg: William Steinberger

Cast: Vanessa R Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roddy, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

Cast members from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford: Laura Axelrod, Jake Blakeslee, Rebecca Chism, Brittany DeAngelis, Jamaal Fields-Green, Dan Macke, Alyssa Marino, Evan McReddie, Daniel Owens, Nicholas Rylands, Dawniella Sinder, Austin Tipograph, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Dominique Rose Waite

Youth Ensemble Cast: Isabella Corica, Hunter S. Cruz, Ethan DiNello, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Jaime Han, Brendan Reilly Harris, Emma Kindl, Amelia Lopa, Timothy McGuire, Andrew Michaels, Majesty-Alexis Moore, Princess-Larrine Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Addison Pancoast, Ethan Pancoast, Meghan Pratt, Tessa Rosenfield, Ankit Roy, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Taylor Santana, Jordyn Schmidt, Fred Thornley IV, Ava Vercellone, RJ Vercellone

Hartford Stage
November 24-December 30, 2017

'Tis the Season

Review: A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play, Music Theatre of Connecticut

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, all too familiar as it may be, always has something to tell us, which is one reason why it is the inescapable chestnut of every holiday season. Charles Dickens created a figure in his A Christmas Carol that has long been celebrated for its unflagging resonance. This year, two productions not too far from New Haven have re-imagined the story to achieve different effects.

The staples are the same—the humbugging miser, the spirits of Christmases past, present and future, the ghost of Marley, the poor, and the uplift of seeing a soul restored. The tale has had any number of updates and celebrity turns, much as every singer worthy of the name has assayed an album of Christmas tunes sooner or later. And yet there’s a seriousness to the tale that saves it from being yet another helping of seasonal schmaltz.

At Music Theater of Connecticut, Joe Landry has given Scrooge and company the same treatment he gave to the great and unavoidable American Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Life: namely, Landry has turned Dickens’ classic into a script for a radio broadcast. The conceit of the show is that, rather than watching a straight-forward play, we are watching actors “on the air,” so that we become a studio audience for a fictitious broadcast. Part of the fun of that set-up is that the actual actors in the play we’re watching are performing as radio personalities first, and Dickensian characters, second.

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Mike Boland plays Freddie Filmore, who enacts Scrooge; Elissa DeMaria plays Sally Applewhite, who voices Martha Cratchit, Scrooge’s fiancée, and the wife of Scrooge’s nephew; Matt Grasso plays Jake Laurents, who plays Scrooge’s nephew and Tiny Tim; Kaia Monroe plays Lana Sherwood, who performs Mrs. Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past; Jacob Sherburne plays Harry Heywood, who delivers Marley, Cratchit, and the Ghost of Christmas Present. There are many other incidental characters and sometimes those are the most rewarding for comic touches—such as the take-offs of Scrooge’s priggish business acquaintances by Grasso and Sherburne, and the lively scene when DeMaria, Monroe, Grasso and Sherburne enact the scrounging low-lives who pawn Scrooge’s meager possessions.

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

There are fewer outright comic elements in A Christmas Carol than in It’s a Wonderful Life, so the use of commercial breaks—for a fruitcake purveyor—are welcome additions. The story of Scrooge—as Hartford Stage’s current production shows—has an inherent drama that could be detached from the question of Christmas cheer and still be worthwhile. MTC’s production plays to the warm and fuzzy qualities that we would expect from a broadcast playing in living rooms. As with It’s a Wonderful Life, the era of the broadcast already supports a feeling of nostalgia for the bygone comforts of Christmases past. And that means the whole is pitched so as to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eye.

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

As Scrooge, Boland truly seems a man set in his ways, impervious to the needs of others and the charms of the season. His fear when confronted with the visions provided by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is convincing and helps to make the lesson of the spirits feel earned. The Ghost of the future has no lines but is instead signified by sound effects—and watching the cast perform sound effects, or Foley, is another aspect that makes the old-time radio show setting enjoyable. In terms of voice effects—important to making these characters alive for listeners—Sherburne’s Marley is chilling and his Ghost of Christmas Present warmly chiding; Grasso gets the most boisterous characters and keeps the show merry; DeMaria, who was a memorable Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, doesn’t get to be as sexy this time—except in one of the commercial spots—but she’s good at ingenue too; Monroe gets the arch tones of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the straightened Londoner of Mrs. Cratchit and shines as the blustery cockney, Mrs. Dilber.

As with It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama when one knows so well the story and the lines, and it’s a treat to see a faithful rendition that hits all the high points, while we imagine it all taking place in our minds just like those visions of sugar plums.

 

A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the Stage by Joe Landry with Music by Kevin Connors
Based on the novella by Charles Dickens
Directed by Tim Howard

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling; Musical Direction: Matt Johnson

Cast: Mike Boland, Elissa DeMaria, Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne

Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 1-17, 2017

Life-Saving Stories

Review of Death of Yazdgerd, Yale School of Drama

A corpse lies in state in a ruin of a mill in a desert town of the Sasanian empire. Discovered by troops in pursuit of their king, Shah Yazdgerd III, the body, arrayed in the habiliments of the shah, including his gleaming face-mask, with a bag of treasures nearby, has clearly been murdered. The miller (James Udom), his wife (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), and their teenage daughter (Sohina Sidhu) are accused of the shah’s assassination by a commander (Sean Boyce Johnson), a captain (Curtis Williams), and a priest (Setareki Wainiqolo). The three commoners plead for their lives, asserting their innocence, and regale their captors with numerous variations on a tale of how the man died. Meanwhile, a soldier (José Espinosa) prepares a gibbet upon which to hang the guilty miller.

Death of Yazdgerd by Bahram Beyzai, translated from Persian by Manuchehr Anvar, has been given a stunning thesis production by Shadi Ghaheri in the Yale School of Drama. The play is cunning in both its drama and its humor, involving the viewer in an exfoliating story that seems to have no end. By acting out stories, the miller and his family keep their punishment at bay while leading their questioners through a thicket of doubts and revelations.

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The production uses a variety of techniques to transport viewers into an ancient world that is full of portents and suggestion. Muralist Iman Raad has created, as backdrop, a tapestry-like drawing that depicts all the main events of the story, and projection designer Yaara Bar uses animation and projection and lighting to make elements of the mural come alive in response to narrative details. The effect, often ghostly or magical, conjures the ancient Iranian storytelling method in which a Naqqal (or storyteller) would act out his story in front of a tapestry, pointing to the relevant visuals as he went along.

Significant as well to the production’s aura is the way music accompanies much of the narrated drama. Live musicians Yahya Alkhasana and composer Mohsen Namjoo create textures of sound that enhance and punctuate the text and add an eerie overlay that makes the entire play feel mythic, even ritualistic.

And that’s key, too. We are watching a trial, at times, but we are also watching a funerary rite as the priest prays over the body, and we are watching oneiromancy, as the woman at one point enacts a dream of the shah’s that the priest is eager to interpret. At another point, the girl raises the shah from the dead by giving his corpse a voice. And all the while, as the stories become more and more revealing of the tensions among the miller’s family, and of issues such as whether or not the miller tried to protect his daughter’s chastity and whether the shah seduced the woman, the soldier keeps breaking in with updates on gibbet-building and prisoner-interrogating, and the three inquirers find themselves more and more befuddled.

They are unable to arrive at a clear story—as the play goes on, the miller, woman and girl move from denying they knew that the man, dressed as a beggar, was the shah, to nearly convincing their interrogators that the body is in fact not the shah, but the miller. Which gives the miller the role of being the shah in hiding. The switching of identity has to do not only with the fact that no one has dared to look upon the shah up close, but also with Beyzai’s insistence that class differences cannot be used to adjudicate truth in these matters. The miller and his family are so skilled in storytelling that they can make their listeners believe almost anything. Confusion among the family seems to flow from their own failure to decide what they believe and to stick to it. They enact a fascinating and theatrical sort of stream-of-consciousness where any interpretation immediately gains a voice and presentation.

The ensemble’s work with the play’s stylized speech and grand manners is thoroughly enthralling. Sean Boyce Johnson gives us a sober commander who knows too well his own failings of judgment and so wants to be fair. Setareki Wainiqolo’s priest is the most learned, but also the one most willing to accept, or even to expect, uncanny elements to play a part in the death of the shah. As a sort of foil, Curtis Williams is the captain who discovered the body and who wants to defer to the other two, if only their judgment makes sense. All three look their parts well thanks to Mika Eubank’s glorious costumes.

James Udom as the miller as shah

James Udom as the miller as shah

All three actors playing the miller’s family are superlative. Their roles call for quick-changes in voice, demeanor and emotional tone, sometimes even interrupting a key moment in the narrating monologue with an aside out of character to one of the others. Sohina Sidhu plays the girl as, initially, giddy and childlike, but as the play goes on she becomes a strong force, accusing her mother and mourning her father. James Udom’s miller has the sturdy gravitas of a man facing a death sentence and trying to be convincing. He is able to enact his murder of the shah and deny it in the next breath. It’s in many ways an unfathomable role and Udom masters it.

Then there’s Francesca Fernandez McKenzie as the woman, a role that comes to dominate, not only because the woman is fierce in upbraiding her husband and daughter and the interrogators, but because she enacts a kind of sorcery of storytelling. McKenzie’s intensity is unflagging as she turns the tables several times, speaking with the authority of mercurial emotions, and, during one particularly balletic enactment, behind the shah’s gold mask.

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

Aided by John Bondi-Ernoehazy’s impressive circular set, with atmospheric lighting effects by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan, director Ghaheri has created a memorable production of an enigmatic play—both gripping and entertaining—that might be considered an elaborate shaggy dog story about an era-changing historical event. We get any number of possibilities about how the dead man met his fate, and a few possibilities about his identity. In a sense, the entire play is only a diversion to delay or defeat the verdict of death for the miller and his family: an exercise in storytelling as a matter of life and death. In the end, the enemy army—which Yazdgerd was apparently fleeing—overruns the shah’s troops, and to the victors go the spoils.

 

Death of Yazdgerd
By Bahram Beyzai
Translated by Manuchehr Anvar
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Music Director and Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Composer: Mohsen Namjoo; Scenic Designer: John Bondi-Ernoehazy; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Visual Artist and Muralist: Iman Raad; Production Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher; Stage Manager: John Carlin

Cast: José Espinosa, Sean Boyce Johnson, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Sohina Sidhu, James Udom, Setareki Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Musicians: Yahya Alkhasana, Mohsen Namjoo

Yale School of Drama
December 5-9, 2017

Face Time

Review of The Ugly One, Yale Cabaret

Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is an extended absurdist sketch about the cult of appearance, or, it could be said, an illustration of the notion “the face makes the man.” So, what if you could wear a face the way you choose to wear certain clothes or cosmetics or hairdos? How good-looking would you have to be? Enough to inspire a following of devoted fans?

The play’s satire is only skin deep, as it gestures to how supply and demand might work in the world of cosmetic surgery, and how a certain brand—one particular physiognomy—might come to dominate. There’s also a few random pokes at psychology, if only to make the case that appearance trumps interiority every time.

In the Yale Cabaret’s current version of the play, directed by Lucie Dawkins, a crackerjack cast keeps the proceedings wacky and disconcerting, aided by Liam Bellman-Sharpe’s slightly offstage sound and Foley art, and Christopher Evans’ projection design. The special effects help create a surgery scene that is a hilarious send up of the “vid it while it’s happening” world we know so well.

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

The play’s dark comedy plays out with wonderfully funny performances from the entire cast: Patrick Madden, one of the most consistently subtle actors in the School of Drama, is Lette, a man who discovers, suddenly, that he’s too ugly to hawk his new invention to the public; Steven Johnson plays an underling who gets the PR spot; Danilo Gambini enacts the flippant boss; and Emily Reeder seems sweet and supportive as Lette’s wife. Then—in sometimes quite quick variations—Gambini doubles as the surgeon consulted to replace Lette’s ugliness with something better; Reeder plays as an aged but re-worked chief executive enamored of Lette’s post-surgery looks, and Johnson enacts the executive’s tortured son, a sexual plaything of his “domineering mother.” And Madden doubles as Lette, now an icon of irresistible looks.

As the boss, Gambini spends much of the time peeling and eating various kinds of fruit while also bossing his underlings with manic glee. Then, as the surgeon, he treats Lette’s misgivings with a blithe, offhand indifference that is oddly charming. In both roles, his looniness is infectious.

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

Madden gives Lette the kind of stoical common sense that works well as a foil to everyone else’s preposterousness. His frenetic debate with his reflection in an elevator late in the play pits borderline hysterics against savvy sangfroid.

Reeder, as Lette’s wife, is agreeable until she realizes, faced with his sudden good looks, that she has desires too—especially when her husband, now a magnet of female attention, tries to convince her to accept him sharing himself with 25 different women, particularly that oversexed executive. Both women become amorous amazons eager to have sex with beautiful men.

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

Johnson gets the darker roles, as usual. Kalmann, the assistant, is full of thwarted ambition, while the son is a puerile mess who eventually makes his own play for Lette, once they share the same irresistible looks.

One might say the switches between characters could be better maintained, but the amorphousness of this fast-paced comedy is what makes it work. By the end, it’s hard for the characters themselves to know who they’re dealing with, as more and more people sport Lette’s new face. And Lette wonders what exactly makes him himself.

The projections, cameras, and other effects help create a world of distortions where normative behavior is lacking. The set—a desk/operating table/bed with a much abused angle-poise lamp, surrounded by a low wall on which cast members sit and look on when offstage—makes the action feel improvised and self-enclosed. It’s an anodyne space for a tempest of actions and reactions, of ambitions and envies and lusts and sorrows.

The Ugly One lets us know that, while beauty may be only skin deep, ugliness can be all-encompassing. After seeing the Yale Cabaret production, you may not look at yourself, others, or fruit the same way as before.

 

The Ugly One
By Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Lucie Dawkins

Producer: Markie Gray; Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Set Designer: Jessie Chen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer & Foley Artist: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projection Designer: Christopher Evans; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Chad Kinsman

Cast: Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
December 7-9, 2017

And that’s it for the first half of Yale Cabaret’s Season 50. The season recommences January 11-13 with For Your Eyes Only.

Chicago Blues

Review of Native Son, Yale Repertory Theatre

If he were white, Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, would be called a classic anti-hero. He makes bad decisions, and he kills women, both accidentally and deliberately. In the hard scrabble streets of 1930s Chicago, Bigger schemes a heist he’s unable to pull off and, for much of the novel, runs from the law and then, arrested, finds a defender. But in making this character an African-American struggling with the harsh conditions furnished by endemic racism and the perpetuation of a hapless underclass, Wright’s great contribution to American literature was finding a way to make such a person become a figure for cathartic portrayal. Bigger’s struggle, while still making us uneasy as anti-heroes do, is a heroic confrontation with a criminal status quo.

Adapted for the stage by Nambi E. Kelley, first at Chicago’s Court Theatre and now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Native Son presents Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes, reprising the role he has played in two previous productions) as a man rather passively accosted by harsh fate. Things start badly—we see him unwittingly kill his employer’s daughter out of fear of discovery before we even grasp the situation—and then get worse in a wrenching downward spiral that Kelley and director Seret Scott, who has helmed all three productions, make us ride with Bigger in a swift 90 minutes to an inevitable end.

The play’s most marked feature is its compression. The action on stage recreates the non-linearity of Bigger’s recollections and fantasies interleaved with the inexorable events that overtake him. Kelley’s text depends on lightning-fast changes, where a phrase ending one scene might be the start of the next, and where action overlaps and reactions can stretch between scenes. It’s incredibly compelling and mostly flawless in its execution by a cast that works hard to keep the different trains running.

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

Striking features of the show include Ryan Emen’s set, comprised of towering tenement buildings with fire escapes; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, a carefully calibrated mix of film noir, naturalism, and expressionism; and sound designer/composer Frederick Kennedy’s moody use of jazz music together with crucial sound effects—pool balls, car doors, a crunching skull. It’s a dark play and the Yale Rep production skillfully renders this particular hell.

The visual and aural features are key as the play’s action seems to inhabit a kind of internal theatrical space in Bigger’s mind. Bigger’s actions and memories are commented on by a double/foil called The Black Rat (Jason Bowen). The character takes his name from the scene of “how Bigger was born”: still a teen, Bigger has to kill a large black rat in the family’s substandard dwelling. The event, we might say, impresses on Bigger his abject conditions and a strong survivalist core, an “it’s them or me” outlook that returns, most drastically, when he faces a decision about his sometime lover Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes, the play’s most sympathetic character)—“Can’t leave her, can’t take her with.”

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The interplay of Bigger, who Haynes plays as a strong, brooding type, with The Black Rat, a cynical pragmatist, sustains the play’s development, as most of the other interactions are more emblematic than deliberated. For instance, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman, another veteran of the play), is a blind rich lady who employs Bigger as a chauffeur. She tries to appear sympathetic to Bigger despite the fact that she’s complicit, through real estate holdings, with the harsh conditions of the Thomas family and their neighbors. She’s blind both literally and figuratively.

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Scott and Kelley let characters be the types Bigger sees them as. An awkward flashback shows Bigger driving Mary (Louisa Jacobson), flapper-ish heiress of the Daltons, and her well-intentioned but condescending Communist beau Jan (Joby Earle, earnest). The couple’s effort to affect camaraderie with their servant makes Bigger uncomfortable and earns the Black Rat’s scorn. Other characters are mostly used for stock antagonisms: Michael Pemberton plays Britten, a detective whose casual racism makes him assume that Bigger, even if guilty, must have had a white accomplice for such a complex crime, and also a police officer who visits a more violent racism upon the Thomas family. The scene’s brutality is echoed in many of Bigger’s actions, such as bullying his brother Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens), and in his treatment of hapless Bessie, a woman who sees through his lies at her own peril.

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The fantasy scenes, which might give us access to the world Bigger either feels himself to be a part of or would like to be a part of, can be arrestingly odd. In one, Jan importunes Bigger, trying to understand his crime, and invites him for a beer; in another, Bigger’s mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), grovels at the feet of a steely Mrs. Dalton; and, in the most satiric, which almost suggests a different direction for the play, the white folks sing a vicious spiritual that urges Bigger “to surrender to white Jesus.”

Such scenes seem to function as asides; the main tensions of the play are contained in Bigger’s guilt and flight. The scene in which Bigger tries to rid himself of Mary’s body is harrowing in its stark necessity but also grimly comic. Haynes, who generally maintains a tone of barely mastered panic, tries to brazen it out and we find ourselves wishing that, just once, things would go his way and let Bigger outsmart someone.

As a “native son,” Bigger is born to a condition that deprives him of much in the way of interiority and aspiration, leaving him to depend on whatever street smarts he’s able to muster. The Black Rat is a figment of that way of life, telling Bigger at the outset: “How they see you take over on the inside.  And when you look in the mirror – You only see what they tell you you is.  A black rat sonofabitch.”

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

Theatrically varied and energetic in its approach, Native Son demands and repays the attention of audiences serious about theater and the need to tell difficult stories.

 

Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Designer: Ryan Emens; Costume Designer: Katie Touart; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Jen Seleznow; Vocal Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Jason Bowen, Jasai Chase-Owens, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Joby Earle, Jerod Haynes, Louisa Jacobson, Michael Pemberton, Carmen Roman

 

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 24-December 16, 2017

Against Interpretation

Review of the feels… (kms), Yale Cabaret

In the feels… (kms), second-year Yale School of Drama playwright Jeremy O. Harris takes us on a tour of what might be his own psyche. Or maybe it’s just a series of vignettes on what he considers to be the inevitable tropes of theater about identity: love stories, family stories, stories from education, stories about race, about sex, and about the elective affinities in the world of art and music and online and what-have-you.

On stage, five actors play-out various fantasies, all ending with a “kms” (“Kill myself”) moment. Now one, now another holds a microphone and narrates the perspective of “the playwright.” Meta-comments abound. So much so, that we are never anywhere but in the space of (self-)conception. The “kms” moment arrives at the disjunction between one’s desired self and the self one is stuck with.

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Harris has a restless imagination, the kind that lends itself well to theater in a basement. This play, from his first year in the school, was proposed by second-year actor Amandla Jahava, and she leads the cast of five in very vigorous enactments of the figments of Harris’ imaginative engagement with what it means to be black, gay, and a playwright—not necessarily in that order and mostly all at once.

Much of what gets said amounts to a meditation on the act of playwriting—which might include reflections on writing or on the status of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka when he wrote Dutchman in 1964. The Booth/Lincoln scene from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog shows up as a mutually supportive moment of assassination. There’s also a passage about the interplay of autobiography and fiction. The boundary between the two has been “blurred” so often we can say we live in a perpetual blur. Harris seems to embrace the possibilities suggested by a word used for a panel I was on a couple years ago: “autobiografiction.” Things may be “true” to life or/and they might be “true” to fantasy. And isn’t fiction a kind of “true” fantasy anyway?

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

The cast, all of whom have worked with Harris before, are complicit with his vision to a striking degree, delivering inspired turns. These are not simply players enacting roles but interpreters who find unique ways to register what is demanded of them. It’s the kind of performance piece that makes the most of the Cabaret’s intimacy and the sense that something unprecedented, if not unrehearsed, could happen at any moment. Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell, each has a dominant tone and a unique manner of death, but each is also able to play archly with the audience and with the notion of both being in a play and commenting on its staging.

Breslin does an amazingly limber enactment of joy at the phrase “I love you,” and proceeds to imitate an inflatable doll. Powell performs an array of calisthenics while carrying on with his monologue, beating himself up about his body. Fa’asua dances hyperkinetically to a song we can’t hear. Ali strides about like an unsettling master of ceremonies, and Jahava plays out the final vignette with a striking mix of tragi-comedy, a clown of fatalism.

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

One of the most memorable aspects of the performance is how physical it is—appropriate for a play where words can be traps, and explanations and interpretations are not to be trusted. We’re told “don’t interpret this” at one point; at another, a microphone is aimed at random audience members as they are asked to interpret dreams written in and read from a notebook.

Harris likes flirting with psychoanalyzing himself though he seems to resist what he thinks that discipline will tell him. In a sense, the actors are his avatars, playing out ideas—a mother who drinks bleach, a father who uses a belt on his wailing son, a visit to a counselor (“am I a sociopath?”). At some point, each actor takes a prop from one of the open-frame boxes hanging from the ceiling and uses it for the “kms” conclusion of the enacted monologue. The ends are all bad, reminiscent of the litany of ways to end it all in Dorothy Parker’s wry “Resumé.”

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

And, if you’re going to live anyway, you might as well write.

Jakeem Powell

Jakeem Powell

 

 

the feels… (kms)
By Jeremy O. Harris

Facilitators: Amandla Jahava & Ari Rodriguez; Producer: Dani Barlow; Set Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designers: Megumi Katayuma & Kathy Ruvuna; Technical Director: William Neuman; Stage Manager: Julia Bates

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 2, 2017

A Story of Fathers and Sons: The Chosen Comes to Long Wharf

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

Novelist Chaim Potok is best-known for stories about the clash of values between fathers and sons, particularly within the codes that govern conduct among modern Jews. His novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner, centered on a young Hasidic man trying to follow his creative inclinations as an artist within a religious tradition that forbids figural representation. Directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, the show was a strong close to the 2011-12 Long Wharf Theatre season and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play at New York’s Westside Theater.

The Chosen, in a new revival at the Long Wharf, may be following a similar path. The play is based on Potok’s best-known novel; in fact it made his name upon its publication in 1967. Adapted into a film and a short-lived musical, The Chosen, as a play, was first produced in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, much as Asher Lev received its first production there. The current show repeats the teaming of Aaron Posner’s text and Gordon Edelstein’s direction, but The Chosen is less about the restrictions of remaining faithful to Judaic tradition and more about how paternal expectations find or miss their fruition in the sons of willful men.

The focus of the play is on two young men, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, who begin as rivals on the baseball field and then become friends as they grow. Their fathers, Reb Saunders and David Malter, represent two opposing value systems. Reb Saunders wants Danny to become a religious leader, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. David, a Zionist, wants his son to become a mathematician, but Reuven has interest in becoming a rabbi. Director Edelstein sees the play as “a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows.” The tensions between the Saunders and Malter households illustrate how we sometimes “seek our fathers in places other than our own homes.”

Steven Skybell plays David Malter. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 1988, Skybell has been nominated by the Connecticut Critics Circle for recent performances in the area, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse, where he gave a very nuanced performance as Phillip Gellberg, and in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Yale Repertory Theatre, where he was the Narrator and Azdak, a comical judge with perhaps a touch of Groucho. Though he has acted in the state several times, this is his debut on the Long Wharf stage.

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

While growing up Jewish in a small town in Texas, Skybell “knew of” the novel The Chosen without being familiar with it, but when he read the part he immediately wanted to do it. Gordon Edelstein, Skybell said, “was delighted to find out that I’m Jewish,” because it means less work in trying to explain the context of the play. And yet, Skybell added, “it’s not simply a play about Jewish issues, it’s a story about a father and a son. A moving drama about distance and closeness between generations.”

The challenge of David Malter, as a part, Skybell said, is that he’s very likeable—“almost the perfect father” who wants everything to be “beautiful and right for his son.” The script, he said, “is detailed in reality,” so that Malter, as a character, is “fully written” and not simply a foil to Reb Saunders.

Malter, through a chance meeting with Danny Saunders, becomes “almost a surrogate father” to the boy. It’s not an effort to undermine Danny’s father but rather to support Danny’s own interests. “It’s the age-old question in families. You want to like what your parents’ like but you also want to do what you want with your life.”

“Each son, in a way, desires what the other’s father wants.” A situation that Skybell sees as having great significance for the intolerant times we live in now. “The play shows the positions of two different types of Jewishness, within Judaism. And it shows that someone can be quite diametrically opposed to someone else and that there can be truth in both views. It’s not necessary to obliterate the other view.”

Previews begin this Wednesday, November 22, with the press opening on the 29th.

Long Wharf Theatre

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, directed by Gordon Edelstein, with Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz

The Baby Maker

Review of Fuck Her, Yale Cabaret

The premise of Fuck Her, a comic take on the politics of procreation by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Genne Murphy, is that, in the not-so-distant future, once genetically-designed babies are the norm, a clientele will form for reproducing “the old-fashioned way.” You know, like your parents most likely did.

To provide that exclusive sexual service is The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a grand dame of an entrepreneur selling a specialized brand: whatever her client wants her to be. And that means that Costume Designer Beatrice Vena gets to create a dizzying array of looks for Crowe-Legacy, who plays each to type with mercurial savvy. Those more versed in the iconography of music videos will no doubt spot some deliberate allusions.

The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photos by Brittany Bland)

The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photos by Brittany Bland)

Or perhaps the reference point should be cheesy sci-fi movies because that’s how the cast plays it. I couldn’t help thinking of Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous sub-B movie by Ed Wood, because of the numerous times someone or something is called “stupid.”

The Surrogate is aided in her birthing business by two children she genetically engineered to serve her—Sky (Chris Puglisi), the elder, and acting often like a demented maître d’, and Star (Moses Ingram), a suitably attired minion who tends to pout and whine. These kids should be at the infancy stage, but—such are the powers of future technology—they’ve been fast-tracked to teen years. The kids get into sibling rivalry (I suppose the gene for that attribute is beyond science) and, eventually, Star sets about sabotaging what she realizes is a con. Sky is more apt to play along, no matter what, clearly engineered to do well in corporate. Star is into oedipal drama, the female version.

The comedy with the kids is cheeky and quirky because Puglisi and Ingram are having so much fun. The clients are a more mixed bag, if only because one would like to see more ingredients in their theatrical DNA (or, is it fair to expect depth in broad caricature?). For my money, Patrick Young comes off best as an insufferable German artiste called Milo, while Laurie OM gets the best costume as Helen, then there’s Carl Holvick as Chip, who, as the name suggests, is just your basic whitebread, me-first, alpha male.

foreground: The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy); background: Helen (Laurie OM), Milo (Patrick Young), Chip (Carl Holvick)

foreground: The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy); background: Helen (Laurie OM), Milo (Patrick Young), Chip (Carl Holvick)

But wait, you ask, how can one woman be a sex-partner/surrogate mother to produce the child of more than one man or male-identifying person at once? Ha ha, fools! Now you see the dastardly plan. While these self-serving egotists think they’re buying exclusive bragging rights, they are in fact allowing The Surrogate to “pollute” their progeny with her genes of choice, thus “undermining” the eugenics of those who might like to do away with undesirable traits. There may be a bit of “power to the people” ethics in the Surrogate’s imperious “fuck them” to these sleazy elitists, but it’s hard to be on the side of someone who makes Joan Crawford look like Mother of the Year. It is fun to see a pregnancy suit deployed though.

In case we miss how abstruse the science behind social and racial manipulation by biological means is, we have Cody Whetstone, who also directs, on hand as a professor in our day to provide an intro and a Q&A session. During the latter, Whetstone, while downing a banana cream dessert, enacts well the intellectually-superior insouciance of those for whom such matters are mostly an academic question.

The humor is very stagey, with the kind of over-the-top readings one tends to find in zany skit comedy, which may or may not provoke the laughs it intends. During the performance I saw, the raucous laughs of a particular audience member, who also provided a planted question during the Q&A, made me wonder if I was experiencing a “live laugh-track.”

Amidst the laughs is the uneasy question of what happens when those for whom “self-determination” is a sign of freedom from what were once assumed to be biological and cultural norms find they can design the people of tomorrow to realize their wildest fantasies. Kind of like reproducing as your favorite computer avatar. But since, by then, we’ll all mostly be living in virtual reality anyway—freed of the declining world of biodegradable, i.e. mortal, beings and things—it probably won’t matter much. O brave new world that lacks such creatures in it!

It all reminds me of that old radio song in my childhood, “In the Year 2525”: “won’t need no husband, won’t need no wife/you’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too/from the bottom of a long glass tube, whoa whoa.”

Fuck Her
By Genne Murphy
Directed by Cody Whetstone

Co-Producers: Al Heartley & Laurie OM; Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Projection Designer: Christopher Evans; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Technical Director: Valerie Tu; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Assistant Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; S.E.X. Commercial by Erin Sullivan and Brittany Bland

Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; Carl Holvick; Moses Ingram; Laurie OM; Chris Puglisi; Cody Whetstone; Patrick Young

Yale Cabaret
November 16-18, 2017

 

The Yale Cabaret is dark this coming week—Thanksgiving weekend—but returns November 30-December 2 with (the feels)…kms by second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Ari Rodriguez. “KMS” is acronym-speak for “kill myself,” as in: if I don’t make it to the next Cab show, kms.