Inappropriate Behavior

Review of Appropriate, Westport Country Playhouse

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning play Appropriate lets viewers choose where to place the stress in the title, and it also leaves to viewers how many big dysfunctional family dramas are “appropriate” to name as “appropriated” material. The playbill trots out everything from the most obvious, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, to some a bit of a stretch—Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and even Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That kind of “spot the antecedent” game seems to me a bit counter-productive. The play not mentioned that at least would serve some purpose as a thematic comparison is Ibsen’s Ghosts where the true nature of a patriarch and what that means to his offspring is very much to the point.

The patriarch in this case is a once well-heeled Washington lawyer recently deceased after twenty years of decrepitude. His children are gathered to dispose of his plantation in Arkansas, spookily moldering with a hoarder’s trash inside and, outside, separate graveyards for family members and slaves. We watch as estranged son Frank, now Franz (Shawn Fagan)—missing from the family for ten years—climbs in through a window with his free-spirit vegan girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli). Their presence sets off the eldest sibling, Toni (Betsy Aidem), who, as executrix and chief caregiver during their father’s long decline, is quite vocal in her sense of propriety and grievance. The middle sibling is Bo (David Aaron Baker), a typical New York pater with a fussy Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), and two kids—Cassie (Allison Winn), a thirteen-year-old who claims stridently that she’s “almost an adult,” and a boy, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin), who seems content to be a child. Toni’s son, Rhys (Nick Selting), a twenty-something, is also on hand to feel generally put upon by all the middle-aged Sturm und Drang on display among his elders.

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is stunning, letting us experience the space with these visitors and giving director David Kennedy a fully realized world for Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, who are by terms abrasive, pathetic, amusing, and sympathetic, but never endearing.

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

Franz claims to be seeking reconciliation; Toni clings to Rhys and generally undermines everyone else; Bo plays middle-man as if it’s his natural calling. Every role is filled superlatively, with special mention for Aidem’s bull-at-a-garage sale of a domineering but vulnerable sister, and for Baker’s harried decency as Bo. Crivelli plays River as comic but not a caricature, which helps a lot, and Davis does well finding the heart of Rachael, a character who seems determined to be superficial. Fagan’s Franz is almost likeable, though we suspect, as the play goes on, that Toni is not simply spiteful in her view of her little brother’s failings; his character is rewardingly mercurial. And director Kennedy gets perfectly modulated performances of youthful disaffect and awkwardness from Selting's Rhys and Winn's Cassie.

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The clarity of exposition is much to the point here and makes staying in place with this family a drama of well-timed revelations. Family dramas owe some of their popularity, no doubt, to the fact that all families have skeletons in the closet and harbor family members who often bring out the worst in each other. We look on with a level of complicity that is determinate for how much we get out of the cast’s exchanges, which can be almost sweet at times, and, at other times, full-bore hostile.

Jacobs-Jenkins, however, has more on his mind that who said what to whom and who neglected whom and who has gone off the rails—there’s drug abuse, alcoholism, seduction of a minor, drug dealing, antisemitism, and divorce, in the past, and job loss and marriage and new parenthood in the prospective future. But that’s all, as it were, window dressing to the big question nagging everyone, perhaps more than would actually be the case: what’s with the photo albums of African-American lynching victims preserved on a book case, and what’s with the jars that contain what seem to be body parts?

Appropriate makes us ask what reaction is appropriate to such discoveries. Much as we might wonder how we ourselves might handle evidence of such virulent racism in a loved one, we also realize that this family is being made to shoulder a legacy it can ill sustain. The script cunningly lets us see each character navigate, badly, the minefield of these artifacts’ existence. And Kennedy, whose direction of The Invisible Hand last season at Westport showed a similar skill with ethical gray areas, keeps things tense and probing. Neither director nor author shy away from showing us how the family dynamic—any family dynamic—is a means to shelter and exclude. Here, the excoriation the characters level at each other serves to highlight a more general social dysfunction that festers where they can’t quite get at it.

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Engaging enough thanks to its wonderful cast, set, and direction, Appropriate’s structure can feel a little flabby at times, particularly in a second act that gives the younger cast members stage time and lets the elders take a bit of a rest, but is a bit too relaxed and sit-com-like to maintain the play’s edge. But that weakness is more than made up for by Act Three. With its teasing black-outs—punctuated by deafening cicadas—striking special effects, explosive fight, sustained speeches from all the principle characters, scene-stopping intrusion by Ainsley, and quirky sense of roiling crisis, Appropriate’s finale delivers appropriate theatrical thrills.

 

Appropriate
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Alixon Mantilla; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Cast: Betsy Aidem, David Aaron Baker, Christian Michael Camporin, Anna Crivelli, Diane Davis, Shawn Fagan, Nick Selting, Allison Winn

Westport Country Playhouse
August 15-September 2, 2017

Way Better Than OK

Review of Oklahoma!, Goodspeed Opera House

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is the big daddy of all musicals. Back in the 1940s it set the standard for what a musical could be—catchy songs, big dance numbers that are part of the narrative, recognizable character types that manage not to be clichés. In some ways, of course, the material has dated if only because so many of the tropes of the Broadway musical take their cues from this show. And yet. Even if you’re a longtime viewer fully familiar with every aspect of the show, the production at Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson with new choreography by Katie Spelman, and additional dance arrangements by David Chase, is bound to give you some fresh insights.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Laurey (Samantha Bruce) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The story, while in some ways a simple “boy gets girl after obstacles” plot, has enough tensions under the surface to keep a contemporary audience engaged. The Goodspeed production is particularly well cast and that’s all to the good. Our heroine, Laurey Williams is given a smart, sassy, pretty, and full-voiced incarnation by Samantha Bruce, and as our hero, Curly McLaine, Rhett Guter plays his agreeable swagger with a touch of Elvis while also registering the role’s insecurities without overplaying them. Curly knows he is the best match in town for Laurey, but he also knows she has enough mind of her own, and maybe petulance, to refuse him out of spite. Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) keeps an eye on everything with the kind of knowing wit and wisdom that we come to expect from Okies ever after.

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), Curly (Rhett Guter) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Villainy in the play is given a nuanced presentation by Matt Faucher as put-upon Jud Fry. The difference in class between Laurey, the owner, and Jud, the hired man, is key, but there’s also a sense in which Jud represents the more unsavory aspects of male dominance—he keeps pornographic pictures, and in his “Lonely Room,” plots how he will best Curly and carry the day. Their scene, “Pore Jud is Daid,” is comic but is also permitted to be a bit melancholic, with the kind of mixed signals that give the show more strength than some interpretations might. Jud, however, is not above fighting dirty and that spells his doom. Director Thompson’s effort to add nuance to Jud stops short of a reprise of “Pore Jud is Daid” at the close, but the song’s grim presentiment is allowed to add some questioning to the show’s happy ending.

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Curly (Rhett Guter), Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Comic performances in this production are stand-outs. As Ado Annie, the gal who “cain’t say no,” Gizel Jiménez is feisty and forthright, very nimble, and quite capable of stealing a scene. As peddler Ali Hakim, Matthew Curiano makes the most of a role that shows both a survivor’s wit and an outsider’s pathos. And as Will Parker, the most serious of Annie’s many suitors, Jake Swain gives the role lots of energy, and his rendering of “Kansas City” is one of the high-points as the first ensemble number in the early going.

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Ado Annie (Gizell Jimenez), Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

A key reason to see this production is the big ballet number that comes before the first act curtain. Here, it’s a rendering of Laurey’s ambivalence about becoming any man’s wife, with the sexual side of that relation and its implied ownership rendered by women being roped and cavorting in show girls’ lingerie. At the heart of this Oklahoma! are not only the expressed rivalries between the ranchers and the farmers, and between respect for law and the town’s favoritism, but between women who want to live their own lives and the men who want them wedded. It’s a compelling lesson about revisionism that sometimes simply stressing the full nuances of a major work is all that is necessary to see it anew.

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Will Parker (Jake Swain, front) and the cast of Oklahoma! (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Costumes, lighting, sets, arrangements—and the ensemble of limber and expressive dancers—all help to make this Oklahoma! an eye-catching and engaging triumph. Goodspeed again does a wonderful job of bringing the classics back in their best light. The cast keeps up the proper drawl and, for an added touch of authenticity, the ushers are costumed and accented as well.

If you want to get out of Connecticut for a few hours, why not go to Oklahoma!

 

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s
Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rogers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes de Mille

Directed by Jenn Thompson
Choreography by Katie Spelman
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Additional Dance Arrangements: David Chase; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Casting: Paul Hardt Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Kelly Berman, Samantha Bruce, Rebecca Brudner, Terry Burrell, Morgan Cowling, Aaron Patrick Craven, Lauren Csete, Matthew Curiano, Mark Deler, Matt Faucher, Tamrin Goldberg, Rhett Guter, Tripp Hampton, Olivia Nicole Hoffman, Gizel Jiménez, Kate Arrington Johnson, Howard Kaye, C. Mingo Long, Morgan McCann, Andrew Purcell, Alex Ringler, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alex Stewart, Jake Swain, Madison Turner

Goodspeed Musicals
July 14-September 17, 2017

Just Because

Review of Lear, Yale Summer Cabaret

In keeping with their practice of featuring revisions and revamps of canonical plays, Yale Summer Cabaret’s Canon Balle season ends with a bang and a ball. Young Jean Lee’s Lear is a fascinating and disarming take on Shakespeare’s King Lear poised, after a fashion, from the point of view of the younger generation.

People generally know that Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), Regan (Danielle Chaves), and Cordelia (Amandla Jahava) are the daughters of King Lear in Shakespeare’s most demanding play. And they should know that Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) and Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) are the two sons, legitimate and illegitimate, respectively, of Lear’s chief counselor Gloucester. The other key plot point is that Goneril, Regan and Edmund abuse the older generation and that the two good children are disowned: Cordelia goes off to France after displeasing her father and Edgar takes on a disguise to try to help his father in the dire circumstances. What Young Jean Lee’s Lear shows you that you may not know about these characters is abundantly amusing, disconcerting, and, in the end, touching.

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Directed by this very successful Summer Cabaret season’s co-artistic director Shadi Ghaheri, Lear intrigues even before anyone comes on stage. Stephanie Osin Cohen's diagonal set is established against one wall of the Cabaret space like a storefront window display in which we see what look to be the wares of a baroque SoHo boutique: a vanity, a dais with throne, a chair in the shape of a hand, all illuminated in a purplish pink that suggests a decadent and modernistic Louis Quatorze era. There’s also a giant flatscreen TV.

Regan (Danielle Chaves), Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Regan (Danielle Chaves), Goneril (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Then the characters arrive, clad in Sophia Choi's trippy baroque garb—complete with wigs like towers of intricate confection and a day-glo palette—to dance a little gavotte. Edmund and Edgar, though still not on the same page, seem to have joined the court of the sisters Regan and Goneril, and together they prey upon each other’s insecurities while trying to justify their acts, their tastes, their selfishness, and the kinds of things that would be at home in an existential play about how to cope with the boredom of being. Meanwhile, the brothers battle each other in a video game and each character gets a soliloquy to apprise us of the general anomie. They speak in a heightened and absurdist manner that abounds in non sequitur, odd asides, wry guts-spilling, and, at one point, dolphin-talk.

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Edgar (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), Edmund (Jake Ryan Lozano) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Eventually Cordelia returns to the fold, and shows herself to be steely enough to deal with her sisters. Meanwhile Edmund and Edgar battle each other in hilariously juvenile terms. Lee doesn’t seem to think much about the dignity and maturity of the generation she takes to task, but, oddly, the script doesn’t seem mean-spirited, which has much to do with the earnestness of the speakers. Each member of the cast adds to a spirited ensemble able to follow this mercurial play wherever it goes, whether to Cefalu’s nicely understated and deliberately awkward breaking of the play’s fiction for the reality of our viewing experience, or to Sesame Street and an appearance by a beloved TV personality, enacted with unironic panache by Lozano.

Cordelia (Amandla Jahava), Lear (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Cordelia (Amandla Jahava), Lear (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) (photo: Elsa Gibson Braden)

Particular mention as well of Francesca Fernandez McKenzie who plays up the mannequin-like perfection of the imperious Goneril in the early going, then transforms startlingly into a mimicry of her father at his most peremptory, and, after yet another transformation, undertakes the great final speech Shakespeare gave his more sinned against than sinning creation. It takes guts to drop towering pathos into a casual conversation and that’s what Lee’s text demands. Much as it demands a potentially mawkish scene late in the play and a final soliloquy from the actor playing Edmund—here Jake Ryan Lozano—that reads like a personal comment from the playwright herself.

And if all that isn’t enough to keep you laughing and wondering and guessing, and maybe even sniffling, there are Yaara Bar’s adventurous projections that feature holograms of the actresses’ faces, as well as appropriate footage, whether of computer-generated dolphins or race cars wiping out. Such touches—including garish lighting and a varied soundscape—constitute innovations on the part of this production, showing that Ghaheri and Canon Balle are not only in the business of revamping classics; they’re also quite willing to take liberties with contemporary works. The tech design is amazing but never overpowering.

Some might wonder how a play as powerfully achieved as King Lear benefits from passing through the eye of Ionesco, and if Lee were simply goofing on Shakespearean sublimity, I might wonder as well. Instead, she has the presence of mind to conflate a father agonizing that his child will never come again with a child learning that even people on TV die. The readiness is all.

 

Lear
Written by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Production Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Design: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Design: Sophia Choi; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Projections Design: Yaara Bar; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Associate Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Danielle Chaves, Amandla Jahava, Jake Ryan Lozano, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-13, 2017

On the Verge of an Enormous Breakthrough

Review of Mies Julie, Yale Summer Cabaret

August Strindberg’s nineteenth-century play Miss Julie is a gripping battle of the sexes situated as a class struggle as well. The possibilities of dominance by class—Miss Julie is the master’s daughter—come up against the social norm of male dominance—John is a very masculine groom who, by reason of his own knowledge of the world and of books, feels himself to be above his station. The play is a dynamic rendering of their struggle with their desires, their dissatisfaction with their roles, and their willingness to use, abuse, and maybe even—if it were possible—love one another. It has long been a staple of classic theater for its exploration of two people caught in an intense situation.

Yaël Farber has brilliantly adapted that situation to modern times, specifically South Africa on Freedom Day, almost a decade after apartheid’s end. The class division—Julie (Marié Botha) is still the master’s daughter grown up on a farm owned and run by her father, and John (James Udom) is still the master’s servant, who also grew up on the land—is now given further dimension by racial difference, and by the lingering, vexed question of reparations.

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The question of who actually owns the land the farm occupies is given a strong thematic element by the fact that John’s ancestors are buried beneath a tree whose roots are beneath the manor house’s kitchen, where all the action takes place. John’s mother, Christine (Kineta Kunutu) runs the kitchen and feels not only connected to the house she serves but also to the land where she wants to be buried with her forebears. As the play opens, John is clearly tired of his subservient role and believes the time is right to assert claims of independence and equality.

Julie becomes for John both a goad to overcoming any sense of social inferiority as well as a provocation to his manhood. And she plays to both urges, as well as exulting in the fact that he has had strong feelings for her ever since her mother—a distraught and neglectful woman who ultimately took her own life—brought the infant home. Julie sees Christine as a surrogate mother, so that the passion ignited between the boss’s daughter and the servant is further complicated by the fact that Christine, in essence, raised them both.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

A further dramatic element is the presence throughout the play of Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), an ancestor spirit who acts as a kind of silent Greek chorus. Her interactions with the action take many subtle forms, and her mere visual presence is enough to make us feel how haunted the relations between John and Julie will swiftly become. The sense of past injustice is significant, but there is also something perhaps mythic in the land as well (and Sophia Choi's costumes and Fufan Zhang's set create a compelling overlap of eras). Farber deliberately evokes a sense of ties that extend well beyond a particular historical eventuality.

And, of course, the force of love and lust extend well beyond social forces. To see Julie and John come together is to see not only a celebration of the fact that interracial coupling is no longer an illegal immorality in South Africa, but a long-awaited release of tensions of attraction and resentment that have bedeviled both character’s lives. Director Rory Pelsue boldly lets sexuality play the part it must, and Botha and Udom bring off the scenes of coupling, so necessary to the physical dimension of their struggle, with great finesse.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The presence of Ukhokho—in Jahava’s very expressive and at times almost sprite-like incarnation—stacks the deck against Julie. Her blonde whiteness seems the anomaly it has always been, but even more so in this context. Botha’s Julie, while displaying some of the wild mood swings of the original, is more vulnerable than Miss Julie is generally considered to be, and she plays the part with an almost childlike wonder at the effect she is able to generate in her father’s smitten servant. Her efforts to humiliate him when he takes liberties have a charge that seems to chasten her in the same instant. And her insistence on the clarity of violence keeps a knife’s edge between them, but for one blissful moment.

As John, James Udom is fierce and strongly intelligent. He is able to convey John’s hopeless feelings as well as his sense of his own dignity. He won’t be Julie’s pawn, but he’s more concerned about being the pawn of his own passion and where that might lead. When his mother at one point slaps his face and cries “what have you done,” we feel the degree to which any act of his can destroy a delicate status quo, though John is never unaware. He simply chooses to ignore his mother and his duty when it suits him.

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

As Christine, Kunutu delivers her second very fine performance this summer at the Cabaret. In her own way, Christine is as fierce as her son, though in her case the power comes through as a “I shall not be moved” tenacity that no amount of importuning can weaken. Her “children” are playing with fire and out to destroy the status quo or themselves. Christine sees what there is to preserve—the land and the duty to the ancestors.

The force of the future colliding with the past shapes the choices these characters confront. In Strindberg, there’s nowhere the couple can go to live free of their past—such is the power of class relations that has poisoned their lives. In Farber’s contemporary world, the pair might go anywhere, almost, but what overrules them is the unfinished business of race relations in South Africa, a future that Farber’s play figures as a tide of blood.  

Enthralling and fascinating and disturbing, the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Mies Julie adds more heat to a hot summer.

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Mies Julie
Retributions of Body & Soul
since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913
and the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927
Written by Yaël Farber
Based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Production Dramaturg: Charles O’Malley; Scenic Design: Fufan Zhang; Costume Design: Sophia Choi; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha, Amandla Jahava, Kineta Kunutu, James Udom

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 14-23, 2017

Eye in the Sky

Review of Grounded, Westport Country Playhouse

Technology determines the quality of our lives. That truism may seem rather obvious, but the question is: what are its implications? We may not want to imagine, or remember, a life before cellphones, or before television, or before telephones, or cars, or refrigeration. We may believe the world is better with those things in it. How about drones?

Grounded, by George Brant, directed as a slow-burn tour de force by Liz Diamond at Westport Country Playhouse, makes us not only imagine, but also confront, the increasing prevalence in our world of drones—or unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—and what their presence entails. In sum: we’re all sitting ducks.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann, in a smashing Connecticut debut as a professional after a fine run as a student actor at the Yale School of Drama) is our confidante. She tells us intimate details about her life, her loves, her hopes. She makes us exult with her as she professes her undying love of “the blue”—the endless stretches of sky she regards as her natural habitat when seated at the commands of her “Tiger,” or beloved fighter-plane. She has run missions in combat, gleefully bombing those minarets sticking up from the sand back into sand.

She also makes us feel how a smug “lone wolf” sensibility can be cracked by the right guy. A guy turned on by her manliness, and by the flight suit she wears as a badge of honor and which becomes at times a rhetorical device and an aphrodisiac. The guy seems to weep often, but that might just be how it seems to her (or it’s Brant’s way of making sure we don’t miss his efforts to circumvent gender “norms”).

Grounded is told entirely from the pilot’s point of view. We neither see nor hear any other characters, and, unlike some one-person narrative shows, the pilot doesn’t try to imitate or take on the manner of others. It’s the kind of one-sided world that one might conjure in a confession. Others are always somehow external to the speaker’s plight.

Not that the couple, soon joined by a baby girl called Sam, don’t have a real shared affection. But when, after giving birth, the pilot tries to resume her former chariot in the blue, she finds that, in the interim, technology has intervened. Manned flights to destroy what she likes to call “the guilty” (as opposed to “the enemy”) are passé. Warfare is now safer for our side and more lethal for the other side. The drones only risk their $11 million price-tag, not U.S. casualties.

The pilot wonders, rightfully, if assignment to the “chair-force” is her punishment for being so unmanly as to give birth to a child. Not so, she’s assured. This is the assignment that will show her to be upper echelon. And she tries to take it in that spirit, though not for a moment believing it to be true.

The vicissitudes of her, at first, useful acclimation to the reality of conducting armed combat in a safe trailer a short drive from her home, near Las Vegas, and then the alarming disconnect between those two spheres of her life, is the drama of the story. A drama that the pilot lives for us in a forthright, can-do, oh my god not this, manner.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

To work, the play needs a sympathetic and earnest teller for the tale. Director Liz Diamond is working with a godsend. Elizabeth Stahlmann, trim, angular, pretty but also what used to be called “boyish,” is the perfect type for the role. And her command of Brant’s language is mostly flawless. What’s more, she’s able to communicate with great presence the non-verbal “ah ha” moments, those moments when—whether posing for a photo with pregnant belly in an open flightsuit, or reacting to something she can see but we can’t, or turning on a dime from mom-face to air force major-face—the pilot becomes personality, not simply function.

And her performance makes manifest the real drama here: The human cost of our technological advances. Brant wants us to consider how the drone technology of surveillance impacts our collective lives (can anyone watch—projected as screens behind Stahlmann—the maneuvers of the car containing her target, the Prophet, and not think of all that footage of the white Bronco on the LA freeways, from way back in the 1990s?), and, in the strong if somewhat stagey climax, to see that “the enemy is us,” but what really comes across is how service to the machine makes us “drones” in the old sense: the expendable worker bee that has no life other than its task in the hive.

Against that unprepossessing life, and her nagging sense that this isn’t what she signed on for, the pilot has only a child and husband whose lives seem remote from her if only because not summed-up by military protocol. At least she has, maybe, the glory of a confirmed kill, until even that becomes personal to a fraught degree. There’s a deep reversal here of the once radical call to “bring the war back home” that Brant didn’t invent and doesn’t belabor. It’s simply there in the material and asks us to think about modern warfare as closer to our day-to-day lives than ever. It must make us uneasy.

The human story here will no doubt disappear in time: robots will drive drones. The other theme—that death from above is available at any moment—reminds me of an epitaph Thomas Pynchon engraves on a nineteenth-century tombstone in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): "Mark, reader, my cry / Keep thy thoughts on the sky / And in the midst of prosperity / Know’st thou may die."

We need no drone come from afar to tell us this.

 

Grounded
By George Brant
Directed by Liz Diamond

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Props Master: Karin White; Voice Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA

Westport Country Playhouse
July 11-29, 2017

Teen Tragedy

Review of West Side Story, Ivoryton Playhouse

As a musical, West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents from a conception by Jerome Robbins, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, has much to recommend it. Inspired in its plot by Romeo and Juliet, it’s got young love, tragedy, comic relief, numerous dance numbers and some lovely and lively songs. It’s about urban tensions between sparring gangs of different races, and, even at this remove from the “daddy-O”s of the 1950s, is able to express something of that perennial motivator, teen angst.

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The Jets (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The production at Ivoryton this summer, directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood, with musical direction by Michael Morris, with many young performers yet to break into Equity, offers a passable version of the show. What it does best is showcase Stephen Mir as Tony, whose voice has a purity that helps to render the character’s sincere idealism, and Mia Pinero as Maria, a soprano able to make Maria seem angelic. Their best scene, and one of the high-points of the show, is the “balcony” number, “Tonight,” and they do well with “One Hand, One Heart” in the bridal shop, though their chemistry as lovers isn’t all it might be.

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Maria (Mia Pinero), Tony (Stephen Mir) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

And that’s the main criticism I have for Underwood’s take on what should be a show of drama leavened by delight: the chemistry doesn’t quite jell. It’s missing in the comic number of Act One, “America,” and shines best in the ensemble reprise of “Tonight” just before the Act One close. The comic number of Act Two, “Gee, Officer Krupke” follows awkwardly on the lovely rendition of “Somewhere”—which features good vocals from Annelise Cepero as Francisca and Hillary Ekwall as Anybodys. The show’s flow seems impeded by the difficulty of making so many big dance numbers fit in a small space. The dancers, for the most part, keep the pace, with nice costumes to showcase their movements, but the success of each number seems to be based more on its logistics than on the performances per se.

In the supporting cast, Conor Robert Fallon as Riff is an asset whose loss for Act Two can only be mourned, and Natalie Madlon’s Anita helps carry the latter act with “A Boy Like That.” As Doc, George Lombardo adds a suitable maturity, and, among the Jets, Max Weinstein’s A-Rab and Colin Lee’s Action help maintain the intensity.

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

Francisca (Annelise Cepero), Anita (Natalie Madlon), Consuela (Arianne Meneses) (photo: Jonathan Steele)

The staging of the rumbles is impressive, and the quick changes of set props—such as Doc’s store—are efficient. The set itself, comprised of tall, tenement-like backdrops, helps to create a sense of the oppressive inner-city aspects of the story, though the space is a bit lacking in real urban feel—but for that fire escape for the “balcony” scene. Indeed, a curtained doorway for quick on-and-offs of the dancers seems oddly out of place in a back alley.

West Side Story is a great musical and it is important to give young performers a chance to work with its demands—which are considerable. Ivoryton should be commended for giving it a try on their stage. And, while the story of gangs at each other’s throats may have dated for a time, the policing of ethnicities and the bad rap for immigrants continues as a part of the darker side of the American Dream. West Side Story—as a tragedy—plays upon the way that good intentions can go awry, and offers a sobering look at how loyalty to one group often entails vicious hostility toward another group. That’s key to the drama of this musical and needs a strong presentation for the show to register its full effect. At Ivoryton, the show seems to be searching for its dominant tone.

 

West Side Story
Based on a Conception by Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins

Directed and choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
Musical Director: Michael Morris

Scenic Designer: Daniel Nischan; Stage Manager: Laura Lynne Knowles; Costume Designer: Elizabeth Cipollina; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Sound Designer: Tate R. Burmeister; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Wilcox

Cast: Christian Álvarez, Victor Borjas, Annelise Cepero, Tom DiFeo, Hillary Ekwall, Conor Robert Fallon, Michael Hotkowski, Colin Lee, Taylor Lloyd, George Lombardo, Joey Lucherini, Amanda Lupacchino, Natalie Madlon, Rick Malone, Pierre Marais, Arianne Meneses, Daniel Miller, Stephen Mir, Mia Pinero, Alexa Racioppi, Jason Daniel Rath, Carolina Santos Read, Max Weinstein

Ivoryton Playhouse
July 5-July 30, 2017

Woman's Woe

Review of The Trojan Women, Yale Summer Cabaret

Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, originally aimed as a response to the Balkans war in the mid-nineties, is now given a riveting production at Yale Summer Cabaret, directed by co-artistic director Shadi Ghaheri. In Ghaheri’s version, we’re meant to think of the atrocities currently being perpetrated in Syria, with the production’s research into the war there and the situation of refugees and women sold into slavery acting as a catalyst to the passions and sorrows on view here. The set, by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, is an eloquent vision of a devastated domestic space, covered in rubble and the dust of destroyed buildings.

The situation: the great city of Troy has fallen, thanks to the ruse of the infamous Trojan horse. The heroes of the Greek army are dividing the captive Trojan women amongst themselves along with any other spoils before destroying the city forever. Onstage, we see only the women. In Euripides, Meneleus, Helen’s estranged husband, gets a scene, but is absent here, and the few male roles—Poseidon (Evelyn Giovine) and Talthybius (Rachel Kenney), a Greek envoy, are played by women. The cast is excellent, and Ghaheri’s direction lets the pacing of movement, speech, emotive song, and several striking tableaux involve us in a world where, with the war ended, time seems to have stopped in a limbo of grief and apprehensive horror.

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

The Trojan women (Danielle Chaves, Kineta Kunutu, Evelyn Giovine, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Sohina Sidhu, Rachel Kenney) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Indeed, even in Euripides day, nearly 2500 years ago, the play was a response to wartime atrocities and a call for the need to treat the vanquished humanely. The perspective of the women of Troy, once proud aristocrats now become “chattel” in the hands of the killers of their husbands, fathers, and sons, is presented by the Greek text in full tragic register. McLaughlin’s version amplifies the psychology of the women and creates a stunning scene between Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), widow of Priam, king of Troy, and Helen (Sohina Sidhu), the Argive captive whose status as concubine to Hecuba’s son Paris was the cause of the siege.

The primary women here are differentiated by their view of what comes next, and McLaughlin places much dramatic consequence on how the individual women view themselves as they look upon their fates. In her showdown with Hecuba, Helen says she will return to her husband’s kingdom as his recovered queen. And yet, she claims, she feels grief for Troy as, all along, she was divided in her allegiance. It’s a statement that goes a long way to humanizing Helen—generally vilified as a whore or praised as a paragon, with neither view accurate to her condition. Hers is a unique position, and Sidhu’s increasingly agitated rendering of her fall lends force to her claim: she was fated to be who she is by none of her doing. For the Trojan women to blame her—as Hecuba would like—is perversely to give agency to a woman where she in fact has none. In Euripides, the scene plays out as quibbling about Helen’s veracity, but McLaughlin gives her a speech worthy of a modern heroine, one who can see only a tragic view of her beauty.

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Hecuba (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), Cassandra (Danielle Chaves) (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

McLaughlin’s speech for Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra (Danielle Chaves), deemed mad but actually a prophetess, becomes a revelation of grief, spite, and a deranged glee that Chaves delivers with fine-tuned force. The widow of the great hero Hector, Andromache (Kineta Kunutu), at first puts all her faith in the fortune of her infant son, Astyanax. She even wonders if, somehow, she could find a way to love a man who had destroyed her home and husband. She represents a kind of survivalist hope that finds in life a reason to live. The blow the Greeks aim at her is wrenching and cruel, but the scene is handled with great tact by Kenney as the bringer of bad news and is made a tour de force for Kunutu to bare the raw nerves of the powerless facing the unbearable.

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

Andromache (Kineta Kunutu) with Astyanax (photo: Leandro A. Zaneti)

These days, it seems, theater may be entering an era of going for the jugular. The Public’s recent staging of Julius Caesar had protesters rushing on the stage to interfere with the action, and the new stage production of 1984, now in previews in New York, enacts scenes of torture with such fidelity that audience members, during the London run, asked actors to stop. Ghaheri’s production of The Trojan Women is in the spirit of such theatrical confrontation. Here, the misery of these women is made manifest with little in the way of mitigation or uplift. And yet the quality of McLaughlin’s text and its extremely effective staging—with praise for Elizabeth Green’s lighting, and Frederick Kennedy’s sound design and musical accompaniment, and Cole McCarty’s spare but lovely costumes—give us at last a vision of the strength of humanity in even the worst duress.

Much of the play’s ultimate effect lies with the majestic figure of Hecuba as played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. Hers is a bearing of great regal hauteur that, when it cracks into sorrow and lament, is all the more powerful. Her eyes seem always to be on something else—the greatness of the past, the favor of the gods—and even when she must ponder the disgrace of her likely condition in the home of Odysseus, she sees and speaks with a force of knowing that is anything but broken. Crowe-Legacy’s Hecuba makes us glimpse not a fallen monarch no longer a master of her fate, but a powerful presence still able to master herself.

The Trojan Women is a play for these days of hostility and hatred, showing that, even in the most vicious defeat, there is reason to live, and that war is always an affront to common humanity. In Ghaheri’s production, which has to be one of the best renderings of McLaughlin’s adaptation (judging by comments on other productions online), viewers will find what I feel sure is one of the most harrowing theatrical experiences in New Haven in some time and for some time.

 

The Trojan Women
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
From the play by Euripides
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Scenic Design: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Frederick C. Kennedy; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

Cast: Danielle Chaves, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Evelyn Giovine, Rachel Kenney, Kineta Kunutu, Sohina Sidhu

 

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 23-July 2, 2017

Which Way Is Up

Review of LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The show LEO, developed by director Daniel Brière and performer William Bonnet from the idea and original performance by Tobias Wegner, shows us twin rooms on stage. One is an actual space inhabited by Bonnet, in a stylish pants, vest and shirt ensemble; the other is a projection of Bonnet in the space. The actual Bonnet spends his time on his back with his feet against a wall painted to look like a floor, so that he appears to be leaning against a wall. The “ceiling” is an actual wall of the space while the open space above the performer seems to create an imaginary third wall where the back wall and the fake floor meet. The “fourth wall,” of course, is the empty space through which we look into the room.

To our left of this space is a screen showing Bonnet in the room, but turned so that the actual floor, upon which Bonnet lies, now appears to be an actual vertical wall, with the supposed floor of the other room now at the bottom, as a floor would be.

The cleverness of this illusion is that, no matter how long one watches, it’s hard to convince oneself that Bonnet is lying on the floor in either space, though he is, in both. We see him, on the screen, seem to levitate at times, so much so that you might be convinced, by visual evidence, that some kind of magnet or hoist is holding him aloft. Meanwhile, on the performer’s side, Bonnet’s unflagging ability to lean upon his arms with his legs lifted against the apparent floor that is an actual wall makes it seem that he is standing on a vertical upright when he is in fact standing or leaning on his hands.

The speed with which he moves about in the space is truly remarkable. There is never a missed beat. The transitions are fluid to the point of defying any sense of strain or wobble that would indicate the real direction of gravity. We feel at times we are truly watching weightless stunts because movement—often to music that emanates from a suitcase, the only actual prop on the set—appears to be governed by the dynamics of animation rather than actual physics.

But for the music, all is quiet. Bonnet is a silent clown, a figure much like a cartoon who seems to be trying to understand the space he finds himself in. He uses his hat and tie as bellwethers for gravitation, but it doesn’t work. He pours water into his mouth as if to convince us that he can’t possibly be lying on his back. There are many fun “tests” to convince us that what we know to be true isn’t.

And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, LEO moves in a new direction, whether via a very mood-changing soundtrack—including African drums, Beethoven, jaunty Italian music, and a swanky Sinatra tune—or via Bonnet’s chalk drawings on the back wall so as to create a chair and table and seemingly interactive radio. At a certain point, the animations on the screen start to overwhelm the projected space in sequences that distract from the point-by-point replication between room and screen. The animated objects and animals—and water—are “real” on the screen but invisible to the actual Bonnet in the playing space. It creates a further disjunction between right and left, as though one were no longer getting the same information from the eyes and ears on either side of one’s head.

The ending is charming and mysterious, and it’s very much to the show’s credit that it rarely lets any sequence of stunts or tricks go on too long. And, while it would be hard to say there is a compelling forward movement, we are aware that our growing impatience or unease is mirrored in Bonnet’s exploration of possibility, and vice versa. Neither he nor we want to be stuck in that room forever. So, eventually, we have to wonder: how will this end? Can he escape?

The Arts & Ideas Festival generally has at least one show a season that involves acrobatics, clowning, and surprising uses of props that seem to defy physics. LEO continues that tradition with the most poetic and concentrated program yet. It both fulfills a wish to defy gravity and at the same time makes us happy to return to the norms we’re used to observing.

 

LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show

Director: Daniel Brière; Perfomer: William Bonnet; Creative Producer: Gregg Parks; Original Performer/Idea: Tobias Wegner; Set and Lighting Designer: Flavia Hevia; Video Designer: Heiko Kalmbach; Animator: Ingo Panke

University Theatre
June 23, 8 p.m.; June 24, 12 p.m. & 3 p.m.

Participatory Theater

Review of We Are Citizens, Theatre of the Oppressed New York, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once said that systems of justice “embody systems of … oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanely valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy”—values which, he added, “I think are real.”

Theater of the Oppressed, New York, brings to performance spaces an effort to see how real such concepts or values are. With a residency in a location, the “Jokers” of TONYC work with volunteer residents to find a way to dramatize situations from their daily lives. The residents—or as the show at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas insists, citizens—have faced some type of the oppression that Chomsky seems to have in mind. Generally, in the show I saw on June 21st at the Bregamos theater space in Erector Square, the oppression comes at the hands of institutions—medical, government agency, law enforcement—that are intended to help but can also harm, mainly by ignoring the humane elements of interaction that Chomsky names.

After an enactment of situations of friction, tension, and dysfunction caused by indifferent or incompetent professionals—acted out by non-actors with largely improvised dialogue—a segment called “Forum Theatre” is held. In that segment, it’s up to the audience—also citizens—to get involved and suggest ways to improve the situations presented. Then, to put money where their mouths are, so to speak, members of the audience are invited to try to enact their version of how things could or should go.

In the show I saw, not only were the Forum Theatre segments better at working with the problem than the original scenarios, they were also more lively and entertaining. The initial segment, set in an out-patient medical facility—a banner on stage read “Yale”—three patients who needed help with meds or with being admitted or with “hearing voices and seeing clowns” faced unhelpful staff and lots of double-talk, to say nothing of long wait times. The oppressed—already distressed by the condition that drove them to the facility in the first place—were in no condition to negotiate for what they needed. In the Forum Theatre segment, an audience member with a plan immediately pressed for a Patient Advocate and that brought at least some decency and dignity to the proceedings, even allowing the disgruntled patients to acknowledge the pressures under which the staff were working.

A problem between two women in a shelter—one using a blow-dryer to prepare for an important interview in the morning, the other trying to sleep—shouldn’t be that big a deal (haven’t we all had to deal with roommates?), but when an authority gets involved that can penalize one over the other, things can escalate. The audience member found a way to keep it between the women, overcoming the would-be sleeper’s excessive hostility.

Misgivings about giving a PIN number to a halfway house for ex-cons trying to make their way back into normal life are understandable. The staff member gave the uneasy man little concession and tried to make him the problem. The audience member invented a “cousin who’s a lawyer” to reach out to for advice—which may seem a special case—but the important point was that some king of shout-out was necessary, to find out if what was being asked was on the up-and-up.

The situations were not really life-threatening—except, perhaps, for the guy who felt he had to admit to suicidal tendencies just to be admitted and have his meds administered—but they did show how a little kindness and putting oneself into the other person’s position can go a long way in defusing potentially abusive situations where the antipathy isn’t personal, just routine. Putting oneself into the place of actors also makes for a kind of DIY theater experience that is unusual, not only showing—judging from audience response—how seeing a scenario enacted can make one think through a situation but also how acting things out makes the malleability of situations visible, as the role of oppressor or victim gets shifted around.

The main difficulty with amateur staging of situations for dramatic effect is projection. The average person doesn’t know how to speak to be heard by a roomful of people without shouting, so that the cries of “louder!” from the audience became more than a little distracting.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC
We Are Citizens

John Leo, Liz Morgan, with: Vernette Bond, Kevin Creech, Robert (Bob Forlano), Alfred Gamble, Mark Griffin, Tammy Imre, Deborah Jackson, Joe Jackson, Diana Martinez, Mona Lisa Massallo, Robert Saunders, Shannon Smith, Betty Williams, Richard Youins (aka El Toro)

5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 21, 2017
Bregamos Theater

* * * * *

Review of Never Stand Still, Onnie Chan, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Yale-China Association fellow Onnie Chan’s Never Stand Still, an immersive theater project based on a game, tries to keep its participants moving, and that’s all to the good, and it also seems to fracture any coherence to the event as best it can. Then again: if you’re playing a game you understand, then you have some idea why you’re playing, and what the stakes are. You generally have some idea of your opponent(s) and some idea of your own skill. When you go to see theater you’re not naturally in a competitive frame of mind and, as in this case, may have little idea of what the Game-Master is asking of you. The game gets confusing and stays that way.

Audience participants are divided into four groups—North, South, East, West—and they are in competition, supposedly, in a game called "Battlejong." The goal has something to do with triples and doubles, which has to do with Mahjong, and the methodology has something to do with Battleship (i.e., call out coordinates and get a “hit” or a “miss”). The particulars, it seems, are more of a distraction than anything, giving us activities as we gradually become aware that Jason, the figure behind all this who speaks and sings in voice-over, sometimes in Cantonese, is working through some issues, having to do with the death of his beloved grandma who was helping him keep it together. Jason may now be on a course of suicide or maybe even engaging in some kind of staged mass-event—like, for instance, creating a theater-game and making something awful or amazing happen to its participants. Or not.

The real world intrudes into the game as well. On the home-base for each group is an iPad on which one of four friends of Jason in Hong Kong is skyping live. They seem to function as touchstones for Jason, recalling moments from his past to help him stay focused. The friends don’t play much part in helping the teams, though I suppose they might if a team took the time to consult them.

Time for teams to do anything strategic seems to be a key thing to disrupt. So there is plenty to distract from the game we’re ostensibly playing. Like a SARS outbreak that will quarantine some of the audience. Like something having to do with air-guns (I missed this part because I was quarantined. I’m fine now.). And some kind of mounting drama about Jason’s precarious mental state.

In the end, which seemed to arrive abruptly and arbitrarily in the version I attended, you are free to choose one of three methods of egress: dead end, happy ending, or “something else.” I went for something else (of course). I won’t tell you what I learned but I will say you’re all a part of it. (I can’t fathom why someone would choose “dead end”—simply to negate a “happy ending?”) In any case, I heard from others what those choices led to, on June 22, but I don’t know if those are fixed or change.

In the playbill, Onnie Chan states that theater-goers don’t want simply to sit and watch a story performed; they want to be participants. Arguable, at best. In my experience with participatory theater, the quality of the event has often to do with the quality of the audience. This is partly true of all theater, but not to the same extent.

And there’s an interesting risk participatory theater runs: the audience members may seem more compelling than the theatrical event being staged and of which they are—tangentially—a part. You might find yourself wanting to duck out of any theater event, if you’re bored or distracted. But when the distraction is part of the event, then it’s possible you may become more interested in the group dynamics than in any assigned task or dramatic development.

Never Stand Still never quite managed to make either its staged drama or its participant activities clear and forceful enough to keep me in the game or the story. If that was the intention—to make one dissatisfied with entertainment—then it succeeded.

 

Never Stand Still (Immersive Game Theatre)
Directed and written by Onnie Chan

Producer: Steven Koernig; Set Designer: John Bondi; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Video Designer: William Wheeler; Graphic Designer: Dustin Tong; Stage Manager: Margaret Gleberman

Performers: Evan Gambardella, Xiaoqing Guo, King Wong, Lk Lo, Jenny Yip, Isabella Leung

The Iseman Theater
June 22-24, 2017

A Heroic Reader Scored

Review of Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

In a work commissioned by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Martin Bresnick, a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, pays homage to a fellow Yale professor. Bresnick’s  oratorio, Passions of Bloom, was performed one night only, in a world premiere, at Morse recital hall, with the Yale Philharmonia and Yale choral artists. And it was a stunning event.

Harold Bloom, the eminent Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and a renowned literary critic with a popular readership, has long mused upon the unique contributions of a trio of singular figures who stand as the lights of 19th century American literature: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson. For Bloom, these three authors are not only superlatively gifted. They each represent a particular aspect of the American psyche that we all—as Americans—must understand to understand who we are. To ponder their words is to ponder what defines America, as a long, evolving myth that began on the eastern seaboard of this continent and which Bloom calls “the American Sublime.”

Bresnick’s libretto draws from the works of all four authors, Bloom included, to provide what Bloom himself might call an agon. Bloom, eighty-five at the time of composing The Daemon Knows (the text used by Bresnick), long ago posited a deep psychological struggle between a major poet and his predecessor poet. That agon, in Bloom’s account, did not include critics struggling with artists, but Bresnick’s selective quotations from Bloom suggest quite effectively that the “mode of memoir,” as a critical decision employed in Daemon, invites a rather lyrical conception of the critic’s relation to his objects of study. The fact that Bloom’s lines are set to music and sung lends credence to a certain bardic power common to both poet and critic. Though if Bloom is explicating his own consciousness he is doing so by means of the poets who take precedence in his mind and to whom his thoughts constantly return.

Consisting of twelve distinct sections, Passions of Bloom begins with an invocation to the sun before Bloom, sung by tenor James Taylor, takes the stage, and ends with a segment called “The Lesson is Done,” in which Bloom and his interlocutors—Whitman (Brian Giebler, tenor), Melville (Paul Tipton, bass-baritone), and Dickinson (Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano, and Sherezade Panthaki, soprano)—suggest wisdom dawns at last. Throughout, we are given glimpses of Bloom as a student of these authors who continues to teach their works well past the age at which many would retire, if only because he is not done with his imagined dialogue with them. While that dialogue might not seem dramatic to those indifferent to the authors and their critics, Bresnick’s composition finds a means to express the lasting gravitas of what Bloom likes to call “cognitive power.”

In the two central sections, characters from Melville’s Moby-Dick appear, with Ahab (Glenn Miller, bass) in interesting counter-point to his author in section 6, and Ishmael (Thomas McCargar, baritone) adding the distinctive tone of Melville’s narrator in section 7. Miller’s voice, with its deep notes, suits the grandiose mania of Ahab, while McCarger’s lighter tones suggest the wry eye of Melville as Ishmael. As Bloom queries, “Where is Melville the Man in Moby-Dick?”, we see Melville represented by his characters, and, as sung by Tipton, as a figure of dark doubts delivered with robust power.

The strength of the piece is in Bresnick’s way of working with the words, to give them musical settings that can complement Bloom’s changing tones—at times abstract, at times personable, and at times truly inspired—and, at the same time, support the lyrical power of the great writers’ words. Whitman’s lines, as sung by Giebler, particularly in “And I Say to Mankind,” have an almost homiletic quality, while Maroney’s solo as Dickinson in “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” is wonderfully effective as a setting for Dickinson’s lines, and the most satisfying rendering of a poet, independent of the critic or other characters. Maroney is then joined by Panthaki, and mezzo-soprano and soprano give a soaring other-worldliness to “I Reason, Earth is Short.”

For the penultimate section, “Bloom’s Daemon,” the two tenors, Taylor and Giebler, take up the main theme of Bloom’s book to let us see how Whitman, more than any other American figure, is the “Adam”—or originating figure—of what Bloom articulates as almost a religion of American literature. In the struggle to comprehend such original figures, Bloom suggests, his “daemon” has written the books and taught the classes. What keeps readers returning to Bloom’s work, for all its grand manner and sweeping generalities, is his heroic sense that reading literature with understanding is a mighty labor, one that not only determines the quality of one’s mind—or soul, as Whitman would have it—but also determines the kind of world in which one lives. Bloom’s daemon is informed by the critic’s need to make sense of what he reads, but it also informs us that how we make sense is who we are.

The concerns of such a work as Bresnick’s may seem rather specialized, but for anyone able to believe that poetry and literature are important to one’s sense of being, one could say that the Passions of Bloom exemplifies the mind’s intense attachment and attention to the written word in its most fervent and deeply American uses. While full enjoyment of Bresnick’s oratorio might presuppose some knowledge of Bloom’s work—which spans six decades—and a penchant for the writers Bloom reckons with, the quality of the lines incorporated, and the distinct tones and musical interplay of the different sections, makes for a riveting listening experience.

At one point, Bloom reflects that he cannot believe the world is best seen as an aesthetic experience, though he would like to. Bresnick’s Passions of Bloom flatters and perhaps fulfills that belief.

 

The International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson
Martin Bresnick, composer
Jeffrey Douma, conductor

Libretto drawn by the composer from the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Harold Bloom

Brian Giebler, tenor; Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano; Thomas McCarger, baritone; Glenn Miller, bass; Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Paul Tipton, bass-baritone

Yale Choral Artists: Sean Maher, chorus manager; Megan Chartrand, Madeline Heale, Sherezade Panthaki, Sarah Yanovitch, soprano; Eric Brenner, Rachel Colman, Kate Maroney, Megan Roth, alto; Colin Britt, Brian Giebler, Steven Soph, Gene Stenger, tenor; Thomas McCarger, Paul Tipton, Steven Hrycelak, Glenn Miller, bass

Yale Philharmonia: Elly Toyoda (Concertmaster), Elliot Lee, Yurie Mitshuhashi, Marie Oka, violin 1; Rachel Ostler-Abbott (principal), Dio Saraza, Stephen Tang, Laura Park, violin 2; Emily Brandenburg (principal), Isabella Mensz, Alexandra Simpson, viola; Eric Adamshick (principal), Jiyoung Choi, Jesse Christeson, cello; Will Robbins (principal), Kaden Henderson, bass; Felice Dovynov, Helen Park, flute; Graeme Johnson, Eric Braley, clarinet; Alexander Walden, trombone; Sam Um, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano

Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Hall, Yale
June 20, 2017

The Art of Rendering Real Life

Review of Manual Cinema: The End of TV, a World Premiere at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

To see theater mimic TV is to see, in a sense, a reversal of history. Early televised programs were mostly performed live on a soundstage, caught by cameras. Manual Cinema, using live actors, shadow puppets, props, video cameras to relay live action onto a screen, and rendering both built and animated backgrounds, creates something neither like typical theater nor TV. It’s a hybrid method that tells its story almost entirely through images, leaving dialogue to the mouths of facsimiles of the incessant hucksters of commercial TV. Using startling effects and a thoughtful pace, The End of TV tells a poignant story—its sadness leavened by hopefulness and resilience—and makes its most compelling points indirectly. The show is magical theater, a hypnotic rendering of events and relations where the medium is a message about the medium.

While it’s odd to sit before live theater watching a screen, the relation between the scenes projected and their staging is a fascinating sort of drama in and of itself. This unusual, involving multi-media drama, a world premiere commissioned for this year's International Festival of Arts & Ideas, plays through June 22 at Yale's University Theatre.

The cast and musicians of The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

The cast and musicians of The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Flo (Kara Davidson) is an aged woman living alone. Her only companionship is the programming on a TV station called QVC, which specializes in glib hucksterism, offering the usual panoply of items at what it claims are bargain prices: appliances, jewelry, chia pets. Flo is a compulsive buyer and at first our view of her is made comical by the tone of the QVC pitches. The facsimiles of hokey TV ads are amusing until they come to seem more malevolent. We realize that Flo is not simply lonely; she’s also getting a bit dotty, as she ignores alerts from her bank in favor of the latest item QVC offers. And she seems to believe TV is more real than reality.

Meanwhile, Louise is a young factory worker who loses her job when the plant closes. She takes a job with Meals on Wheels and, sure enough, encounters Flo as the last in a series of montages of the varied responses Louise receives. In Flo’s case, the visit becomes an intervention.

The main gist of the story is the coming together of two women who each has something to offer the other. Along the way, we get flashbacks that show a beloved daughter (Vanessa S. Valliere) for Flo and a beloved father (Jeffery Paschal) for Louise. There are also dream—or perhaps more properly dementia—sequences that show the kind of mental coping-mechanisms Flo’s imagination creates. The show’s title is relevant here, as the fantasies of those who found their lives’ greatest fascination in The Box are shown to be reflections of a bygone era, a sort of consumerist Golden Age where advertisements seemed benign and beloved, as in the Jolly Green Giant’s rosy ho-ho-ho.

The advent of the digital era is signaled by an entertaining sequence that not only creates the sights and sounds—and pace—of modem-driven internet access but also indicates the extent to which TV’s advertising has been surpassed by the shop and click of online buying.

There are other interesting subtexts as well, as for instance a flashback to Flo’s youth (including some very effective visuals) when the loss of man-power at home during World War II produced a rare early era of women in the workplace. And Louise’s story is told with a sureness of tone that is driven by the show’s almost alchemical mix of music and visuals. The musicians are onstage and the music they make creates a varied range of emotional resonances. The show’s creators—Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman—are also its composers and their vision is abetted by puppet designer Lizi Breit, director/storyboard artist Julia Miller, assistant director Sarah Fornace, and associate puppet designer/storyboard artist Drew Dir. All of the above are credited with adapting the show “for the screen,” which, in fact, they do. And it’s something to see.

Scenes and screens in The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Scenes and screens in The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Manual Cinema, as it were, takes back the notion of storytelling from the special-effects-laden spectacles of current films and creates its own special-effects version of how to tell stories live, as theater. It’s an interesting conceptual shift, playing both to contemporary audiences’ love of screens and to a certain childlike wonder at how we don’t really need words to tell and understand stories. The resources of mime and dumb-show are quite effectively mined by Manual Cinema to present a narrative that works its viewers’ imagination, intuition and empathy.

And these multi-tasking artists also provide, in their methods, a sustained consideration of how impersonal media depersonalize us and dilute rich histories. Somewhere along the way the kind of story-telling The End of TV seeks to sustain gave way to slick manipulations in the name of Product. In the sad but hopeful journey of Flo and Louise, Manual Cinema tries to restore a little faith in humanity, and in the art of rendering experience well.

 

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas
Manual Cinema: The End of TV

Story: Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; Adapted for the Screen by Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Kyle Vegter, Ben Kauffman; Director/Storyboard Artist: Julia Miller; Assistant Director: Sarah Fornace; Puppet Designer: Lizi Breit; Associate Puppet Designer/Storyboard Artist: Drew Dir; Lyrics and Music: Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; Sound Designer: Kyle Vegter; Costume Designer: Mieka van der Pleog; Masks: Julia Miller; Lighting Designer: Claire Chrzan; Company Stage Manager: Shelby Glasgow; Production Manager/Sound Engineer: Mike Usrey

Puppeteers: Kara Davidson, Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal, Vanessa Valliere

Musicians: Maren Celest, SFX, vocals; Deidre Huckabay, flutes, vocals; Ben Kauffman, guitar, keyboard, vocals; Lia Kohl, cello, vocals; Marques Toliver, violin, vocals

University Theatre
June 19-22, 2017

Living in the Past

Review of Lettice and Lovage, Westport Country Playhouse

Very British and very verbal, Peter Shaffer’s amusing Lettice and Lovage, directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse, takes aim at ugly architecture and the vicissitudes of history, and finds its warmer tones in the unexpected bonds that can lead to friendship. It’s a benign farce, irrepressibly genteel—and if that sounds a bit like a fun oxymoron, then this play might be just the thing for you.

Kandis Chappell undertakes the role of Lettice Douffet, a role written for Maggie Smith, and gives a likeable and sympathetic performance, though without the withering dryness that Dame Smith could affect so tellingly. A fanciful tour guide at a stately but not particularly significant historical site, Lettice dreams up all kinds of vivid hi-jinx for her charges to witness in their imaginations. The opening scenes between Lettice and her various tours—played by local, non-Equity actors—are charming and well-timed. We see her go from the plodding “stick to the script” tour through increasingly fabricated accounts. Eventually, her wanderings from the path of historical veracity are shut-down by Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a formidable functionary who is having none of it.

Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The scene between the two of them, in the latter’s office, is crisp and engaging, as we learn of Lettice’s theatrical background—an actress mother who had her own way with enacting Shakespeare in France—and begin to think that Shaffer has found an interesting occasion for the intersection of theater and history: the guided tour! Lettice, we see, is a misplaced thespian, someone who has to take such “roles” only to make ends meet. A historicist who tends to prefer earlier times to the present, her calling is clearly something higher than could be assigned by Ms. Schoen’s office.

The second act brings this idea closer to fruition when Charlotte, in hopes of helping Lettice, pays a visit to her rather medieval-looking but still modest flat. John Arnone’s scenic design makes much of the space, including an intricate backdrop to contrast the flamboyance of Lettice’s decorating with the drabness of her surroundings. Her purpose in life, we realize, is to battle “the meres”—those who are satisfied with mediocre tastes, middling intellects, and who find uplift in the incoherence of modern architecture. What’s surprising—and it ends Act II on a high note—is that she may have found, after a few “quaffs” of the ancient beverage called lovage, an accomplice in Ms. Schoen.

Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Act III, after intermission, purports to be a bit of a who-done-what as there is now a solicitor on the premises, played with mystified patience by the unflappable Paxton Whitehead, and acts of violence to be accounted for. Lettice, who flirts with the idea of being a terrorist against appalling buildings, may have done who knows what. There’s fun in watching her incessantly grand manner come up against the prosaic—and unflattering—sensibility with which the law and the press handle those who aspire to a more imaginative realm for judgment.

Mostly, Shaffer’s play is what Sterne’s Tristram Shandy would call riding a hobby-horse, and the script is such as to make that hobby-horse pirouette and prance and canter. It’s not a race horse and takes its time getting where it’s going. The play’s strength is the appeal of its roles for middle-aged female actors, able to command the stage through the grace of their speech, the layers of their characterization, and, for Lettice particularly, eye-pleasing costumes by Jane Greenwood. The play is never quite as bizarre or as satiric as it might be, but, like much successful British humor, it makes the most of its idiosyncrasy.

Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell)

Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell)

Revived in a post-Brexit era, Lettice and Lovage smacks of a certain kind of Tory-style “Britain above all” that, it’s well to be reminded, had, even in the late-Eighties when the play debuted, a certain priggish daftness. The best that can be said about would-be architecture terrorists in the current climate is that they could be called anything but quaint.

 

Lettice & Lovage
By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: John Arnone; Costume Design: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Kandis Chappell, Mia Dillon, Sarah Manton, Paxton Whitehead

Tourists: Travis James, Kara Hankard, Richard Mancini (Surly Man), Michele S. Mueller, Robert Peterpaul, Hermon Telyan, Danielle Anna White

Westport Country Playhouse
May 30-June 17, 2017

When in Rome

Review of Antony + Cleopatra, Yale Summer Cabaret

According to historical accounts, the Battle of Actium in 31 BC was a decisive contest at sea between the fleets of Octavian Caesar, representing the interests of the Roman Republic, and those of Marc Antony and his paramour and partner in political maneuvering, Cleopatra of Egypt. In Rory Pelsue’s raucous and energetically entertaining adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, the battle is staged as a dance routine. And that should tell you a lot about the conceptual liberties on view at the Yale Summer Cabaret through June 11.

Choreographed by Michael Breslin, the dance routine is not only theatrically appealing; in many ways it’s the culmination of the show’s drag club aesthetic, given full sway throughout the play by Cole McCarty’s genius for costumes. The dance routine is both martial and emotive, a kinetic emblem of the two sides at war, not only in the play, but in the “battle of the sexes” as an element of erotic identity. Though here the battle is in the dancers, collectively. One second, butch, the next, femme, and, we might say, the tragedy here is that the butch side keeps winning.

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Pelsue’s Antony + Cleopatra seizes on the central conceit of Shakespeare’s play—that the Romans are all about organization and power and probity and the Egyptians all about their own pleasures, which power abets with a sense of grandeur—and notches it up into a series of visual arias on the status of “straight” and “gay.” In this world it’s a given that masculinity is a kind of drag performance. So the Romans, in their tennis shorts with knotted sweaters or tighty-whities or sailor and navy officer regalia or football gear, are not only “butch” but also straight-men—in the comic sense—to Cleopatra’s hand-maids, who strut and emote with a vengeance in hot pants and fish-nets and heels and bare mid-drifts. All the actors here are male—including the lovely, lithe and every inch a lady, Erron Crawford as Cleopatra. His is a performance, at one point in gold lame shorts, that maintains the elegance of both ideals of “queen”—a self-absorbed female ruler, a self-styled performance of femininity.

At the heart of the show is the question of performativity itself. Hudson Oznowicz is a very boyish Antony, as if the influence of drag-court Egypt is sapping his manliness. But then, Shakespeare’s play does put its main dramatic stress on the consul’s emotions. As a Roman, he should do what suits the Republic; as an ambitious man, he’s vying for power against Octavian; and (which interests the playwright) as a lover he is having to adapt to the whims of his fascinating and insecure femme fatale. Add Pelsue’s gendered dynamic into the mix, and this Antony is beguiled by his willingness to walk on the Wilde side, so to speak. It will be his undoing, ultimately, in a scene that shows him to be the biggest drama queen here.

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Abetting such transformations in Egypt—and stealing as many scenes and masticating as much scenery as possible—are Cleo’s handmaids, Charmian (Arturo Soria), often spouting her lines in Spanish, and Iras (Jakeem Powell), the more stately of the two. They are nothing short of full-time provocations. Soria, often with a lollipop and in pigtails, also sports a moustache (that helps with his macho swagger as Agrippa, back in Rome). There’s never a dull moment with these two. And to demonstrate ancient superstition, there’s Steven Lee Johnson, in elaborate headgear, as a somewhat truculent soothsayer.

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Among the Romans, Johnson plays Octavius in a kind of deliberative pique. Johnson has a way with characters at least somewhat sociopathic, and his Octavian never seems so dangerous as when he is trying to seem likeable. At times, he and Antony, with their clean-cut sheen, look and act like two jocks competing to become captain of the team. As Enobarbus, Ben Anderson registers disbelief at Antony’s changed nature, while as Octavia, sister to Octavius and wife to Antony, he’s a hilariously skittish patrician dame.

Six actors play eleven named parts. With the many switches of location and costume, it can be a little tough at times to follow the intricacies of the plot, but the emotional registers come across loud and clear. Sometimes major speeches are delivered as songs, mike in hand. Actors leap atop a table, sit at tables shared by audience members, sprawl on divans, deliver orations at a mike-stand, and in general cavort with a reckless abandon that, to a heady and liberating extent, makes the Bard its bitch.

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Riw Rakkulchon’s set decks the walls with gay subculture posters that seem to date from the heyday of pre-AIDS promiscuity and includes, of course, a movie poster of Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. The grand dames of Hollywood have long since become the stuff of drag, so it’s only fitting that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra gets the treatment. Crawford’s queen exudes seductive charm but she might also have a knack for wielding power that the Romans just don’t get, Antony included.

There are subtleties galore in Pelsue’s vision of the play, and several exposures might be required before one gets the full effect. “It’s a crash course for the ravers.”

 

Antony + Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue

Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Choreographer: Michael Breslin; Scenic Design: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Director: Shadi Ghaheri; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria

Cast: Ben Anderson; Erron Crawford; Hudson Oznowicz; Steven Lee Johnson; Jakeem Powell; Arturo Soria

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 2-11, 2017

On With the Shaw

Review of Heartbreak House, Hartford Stage

Bravo, Darko Tresnjak! The Artistic Director of Hartford Stage ends the 2016-17 season by directing George Bernard Shaw’s magisterial Heartbreak House, a play that lets the audience take stock of its own situation by gazing at the foibles of the generation that saw the outbreak of the First World War. Shaw, who subtitled the play, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” had in mind Chekhov’s great elegy for a clueless upper-class, The Cherry Orchard. Around the time of our most recent election, Broadway theater-goers saw a revival of that play that, in its revamped concept, missed the opportunity to be a trenchant commentary on our times. Audiences at Hartford Stage have a better offering for gauging how little we learn from past generations’ catastrophes.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In his 1919 preface to the play, Shaw is scathing in his view of the self-delusions of the educated, the indifference of the intelligentsia, and the idiocy of the popular press in the run-up to the Great War, which had just ended. Heartbreak House, which was not produced until the 1920s, was written during the war but is set just before the outbreak of German aggression. The people who inhabit the play are still, as in most drawing-room comedies, primarily concerned with who will marry whom and who is available for a fling. Shaw, though, is never one to miss an opportunity to hector us with sagacity, and here he puts the wisest asides into the mouth of Captain Shotover, a somewhat daft—or crazy like a fox—patriarch suffering an English country-houseful of bohemians, stuffed-shirts, and social climbers. As played by Miles Anderson, in a finely calibrated performance, Shotover is a lot like Shaw—irascible, pointed, and full of curmudgeonly brio. About him flit a host of moths in search of the light.

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) has arrived, as a less well-to-do friend invited by the Captain’s artsy daughter Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Perry) who lives in her father’s house with her gad-about husband Hector (Stephen Barker Turner). Hesione’s well-married sister, Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), shows up as well, having been absent from the family home for twenty-some years. She is pursued there by her husband’s brother, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), a lackluster aristocrat. Also on site are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), a figure for political probity contrasted with his employer and sometime creditor, “Boss” Mangan (Andrew Long), a boorish capitalist, complete with Trumpian comb-over. The only attendant servant is the Shotover girls’ old nurse, Guinness (Mary VanArsdel) who is apt to call everyone “ducky,” regardless of age or rank.

Just about everyone makes mention of how peculiar the house is, with its eccentric inhabitants, and Colin McGurk’s wonderful multi-tiered set fully captures Shaw’s conceit that the house should look like a ship, helmed by the old skipper who is fond of nautical metaphors and sea-going reminiscence. The ship of state is sailing for some perilous seas and Shaw would have us know that the generation charged with its safe conduct is all at sixes and sevens. Appealing as they are, there’s a gnawing lack of gravitas in these characters who are without even the Chekhovian delusion that they are profound. And that’s very much the point.

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tresnjak’s production is anchored by four strong portrayals. Anderson, as Shotover, is everything he should be, while De Waal’s Ellie moves from sweet naivete to a sharply registered youthful confidence. Her strategic sense of her position is one of the more engaging aspects of the characters on view here. She is abetted by her friend, who presumes to be a mentor, and Charlotte Perry’s Hesione, quite fetching in a costume with more than a hint of Bloomsbury, put me in mind of Eileen Atkins, and there’s not much higher praise than that. Then there’s the comic relief: Andrew Long’s Mangan looks Trump and acts a bit Sydney Greenstreet, a mix that makes him a rather put-upon villain of sorts who, like our current President, is both out of his element and in over his head.

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Other key roles are handled well here but it’s hard to warm to the characters. Tessa Auberjonois hits all the right notes as the “siren” Lady Utterwood, but the lady’s a pointless embellishment, and her current would-be lapdog, Randall, is even less necessary. Similarly, Hector Hushabye, supposedly a suave ladies’ man, pales beside the more compelling male roles. Here Shaw’s keen eye for the vanities of this set doesn’t make for enduring characters. It takes a Wilde to put them on and take them off at once.

The other interesting role is Mazzini Dunn—named for the Italian revolutionary—who might be more forceful if there were more for him to do. Keith Reddin gives him an air of distracted pleasantry but rises to the occasion of a diverting flirtation with Hesione. At another point he characterizes his high class betters as “very charming, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people.” He means it as a compliment, but his author looks over his shoulder to nudge us that such fine qualities can’t save their bearers from perdition. At the play’s close, the abyss is close to home indeed, and these fine people feel little more than curiosity and the thrill of something unprecedented in their jaded lives.

Heartbreak House’s inhabitants can wear on one a bit in the stretch, but the play is well-worth the attention, if only because Shaw knows how to work dialogue and Tresnjak knows how to work the Hartford Stage space to give us a feel for these lightweight leaves about to be swept into a deluge. Along the way, everyone learns something about the subterfuges of class and wealth and the need for deft navigation in troubling times.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Colin McGurk; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Consultant: Greg Webster

Cast: Miles Anderson; Tessa Auberjonois; Dani De Waal; Grant Goodman; Andrew Long; Charlotte Parry; Keith Reddin; Stephen Barker Turner; Mary VanArsdel

Hartford Stage
May 11-June 11, 2017

Millie's Winning Makeover

Review of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Goodspeed Musicals

Once a campy and very dated romantic comedy musical film, released in 1967 but set in 1922, Richard Morris’s familiar story of a young girl come to the big city with a dream to marry smart (i.e., for money) has a new lease on life. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a vehicle for Julie Andrews once upon a time, has been revamped and re-imagined and mostly rewritten by Dick Scanlan—who wrote the lyrics for 4 songs in the original film—and Jeanine “Fun Home” Tesori, music—to become a jazzy, fizzy send-up of the clichés the original nurtured. The transformation proves that old standards can speak to new times when handled with wit and imagination.

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie; Millie (Taylor Quick), center (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What hasn’t changed? The charm of the plucky though naïve and somewhat misguided heroine is very much key to how the show plays. Here, Taylor Quick, as Millie, looks great in her bobbed hairdo and period costumes and shows off the right mix of get-ahead smart cookie and hapless heroine. Millie gets most things wrong in the first act, but that’s part of the fun, and “Jimmy,” her stirring “I’m available” number right before the Act One curtain, bodes well for how much sharper she’ll be in Act Two as she knows who she really wants. This is a show with a learning curve and Act Two shifts into high gear to bring it all home, including a wonderful duet on a well-realized skyscraper ledge—“I Turned the Corner”—featuring Millie and Jimmy (Dan DeLuca, quite the able heart-throb). DeLuca plays well his self-possessed character’s joshing of the gal he can’t help falling for, and his “What Do I Need with Love?” is one of the high-points of Act One.

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Jimmy (Dan DeLuca), Millie (Taylor Quick) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The set, with lovely Art Deco features that look like they cost a bundle, is full of nimble changes—including a hotel corridor with elevator, a speakeasy, an upscale New York penthouse, the lobby and the laundryroom of the shady Hotel Priscilla, and, very efficiently effective, the offices of the Sincere Trust where Millie spends her day as a “stenog” and tries gamely to entrap her boss, Mr. Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts), an obtuse banker. His falling for slumming heiress Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm) is another high-point in Act Two as Watts and Sturm have voices that can pull heartstrings and a way with a song—the comic “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life”—that earns laughs. And the part of stern office manager Miss Flannery is more than ably handled by Lucia Spina.

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Bun Foo (Christopher Shin), Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre), Ching Ho (James Seol) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

What has changed? The show plays up the “perils of Pauline” sub-plot of a “white slavery ring” with great panache, and if the idea of lurking, nefarious Asians seems a bit retrograde to you, have no fear. First of all, Mrs. Meers, the mastermind of the kidnapping, is played with great comic grasp of evil-doing by the redoutable Loretta Ables Sayre (who seems out to steal the show in Act One); her delivery of the tagline “so sad to be all alone in the world” is a memorable sound-byte, and her playing up of the clichés of “the dragon lady” is full of good fun.

Mrs. Meers’ henchmen have evolved far beyond the lackluster jokes they are in the film and have become key to the plot. They are working for Meers because of her threats to them, and have hopes of making it on the Great White Way themselves—and have the song-and-dance capabilities to prove it. What’s more, James Seol, as Ching Ho, and Christopher Shin, as Bun Foo, get to sing in Chinese, with subtitles, thus further dignifying their viewpoints. It’s a great touch and lifts these secondary characters from slapstick to straightmen. In fact, Ching Ho has a passionate attachment for Dorothy that might inspire a rooting interest in his amours.

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Muzzy von Hossmere (Ramona Keller) and her boys (Darius Wright, PJ Palmer, Daniel May) (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

And that’s to the good, because, with the shifting romantic factors at work here, we’re not sure who will end up with whom by show’s end. The only “loss” from the film is the scene where James Fox, who plays Jimmy, dons drag to infiltrate Mrs. Meers’ establishment. Here, the task is assigned to Muzzy von Hossmere, to give Ramona Keller something more to do than the hot cabaret numbers she handles with such easy aplomb. Keller plays Muzzy very tongue-in-cheek, which is a welcome change from Carol Channing’s ditzy jazz baby in the original. And the new version means a treat of a scene between Sayre and Keller as dueling would-be wool-pullers.

All in all, with its fabulous costumes, fast-changing scenery, engaging cast, and new plot points, the show has been thoroughly re-modernized for an audience that still likes to see obstacles in the way of love and wants its musicals tuneful and snappy with plenty of spirit and sharp as a tack dance ensembles. Goodspeed’s revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie—directed and choreographed by Denis Jones—is the cat’s meow!

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie (photo: Diane Sobolewski)

 

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
From the original story and screenplay by Richard Morris

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Directed & Choreographed by Denis Jones

Scenic Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Gregory Gale; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Production Manager: R. Glen Grusmark; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Darien Crago, Caley Crawford, Dan DeLuca, Patrick Graver, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Ramona Keller, Emily Kelly, Daniel May, Evan Mayer, Elise Mestichelli, P.J. Palmer, Amelia Jo Parish, Taylor Quick, Loretta Ables Sayre, James Seol, Christopher Shin, Lucia Spina, Sherisse Springer, Samantha Sturm, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Amy Van Norstrand, Edward Watts, Darius Wright

Orchestra: Keyboard I/Conductor: Michael O’Flaherty; Keyboard II: William J. Thomas; Reeds: Liz Baker Smith; Violin: Karin Fagerburg; Trumpet: Peter Roe; Trombone: David Kayser; Percussion: Salvatore Ranniello. Alternates: Keyboard I/Conductor: William J. Thomas; Keyboard II: David Kidwell, Molly Sturges, Anthony Pandolfe; Reeds: Michael Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Violin; Diane Orson; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Matt Russo, Ben Griffin; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed Musicals
From April 21-July 2, 2017

Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Right at Home

Review of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

Will Eno opens Middletown with a speech of welcome delivered by a “Public Speaker.” As played by Megan Chenot, the speaker presents an earnest hope that we will all feel we belong, but her litany of who “we” might be, as audience members or townies, in seeking to be all-inclusive, begins to feel vaguely unreal, a kind of labelling without a sense of precise meanings. Eventually, it starts to sound like double-talk. And that’s how language works in Middletown: it’s ho-hum average, and yet. There’s something a little unsettling about how easily what gets said doesn’t quite equate with what’s intended.

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Everyone here is a job or role rather than a character. Everyone, that is, except Mary Swanson (Chrissy Gardner), a pregnant woman new to the town, whose absentee husband seems never to arrive, and John Dodge (Steve Scarpa), a local jack-of-all-trades, who reads up on gravity—“the silent killer”—and fixes things, and contemplates ending it all; whether from boredom or frustration or some more insidious malaise is hard to say. Together, these two almost put the town on the map, as it were, seeming to create a possible connection outside of assigned roles.

A key visual device is John and Mary each behind a separate window in separate houses, spied upon by the Cop (George Kulp) on his beat as if making sure they never inhabit the same place. They do, briefly, when John comes to fix the sink and their exchange is the stuff of a suburban Woody Allen where mixed signals are missed signals, and vice versa. It’s one of Scarpa’s best performances, and the promise of romance keeps us hoping, as it may for these two lonely people who would never admit their attraction.

Other characters align in ways that suggest parallel purposes. A librarian (Margaret Mann) is also a kind of welcomer, as is a tour guide (Alynne Miller), characters who have a sense of belonging and an elusive sense of what makes the place itself. A tourist couple (Chaz Carmon and Erich Greene) are played for laughs as the kind of people who are content so long as there’s something to take a picture of, but they're also a version of the unhappy couple, John and Mary. More problematic is Mechanic (Trevor Williams), a ne’er-do-well who loiters on park benches—to the Cop’s irritation—and sulks in the library where his non sequitur are amusing asides, and vice versa. He’s also, sort of, our bridge to the one “famous” person from Middletown, Greg “Something,” who, as an astronaut in space, muses about his hometown and the time he had to tell some kid—the Mechanic, as a child—that his coveted rock was not a meteorite. The dashed hopes of Mechanic are, as it were, the thorn in the side of this complacent town, an indication that beneath the tepid bonhomie there might lurk harsher realities. Or at least nagging disappointment.

Just before the break, we get shown a row of folks watching the play, musing about what things mean and where they may be heading, while also making small talk. A child, Sweetheart (Alynne Miller), repeats words she’s heard, verbatim, which suggests that little insight will be gained by, as more than one character puts it, “moving your mouth and making different sounds.”

In the second half, Middletown becomes less fanciful and the effects of the encounters seem more scattershot. The parallel between John and Mary continues, in a different register, and trees and rocks still remind us that nature is more than us; the Mechanic can be surprisingly soulful, while birth and death are shown to be just stuff that happens. The general tone becomes more quizzical than whimsical, but still holds back from big emotions.

Throughout, director Peter Chenot lets the laughs fall where they may, and the cast does great with the show’s off-beat humor. There are fewer laughs in the second half, and my sense is that Middletown’s first act runs like a dream, but the second act requires more effort. Punching one event or another might help overcome the show’s even, musing tone.

The best thing here is the way the regulars of New Haven Theater Company fit so easily into their roles in Middletown. Maybe too easily.

 

Middletown
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Megan Chenot, Chrissy Gardner, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Alynne Miller, Steven Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams

Sound Design and Original Score: Megan Chenot; Choreography: Jenny Schuck; Props Master: Trevor Williams; Light Board Operator: David Stagg

New Haven Theater Company
April 27-29; May 4-6, 2017

Re-Cap of Cab 49

The farewell party for Cab 49, and its Artistic Directors Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, Ashley Chang, and Managing Director Steven Koernig, has been held; and the team for Cab 50 has been named: Artistic Directors Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, a rising third-year actor, and Josh Wilder, a rising third-year playwright, with Associate Artistic Director Rory Pelsue, a rising third-year director (and co-artistic director of this year’s Summer Cabaret), and Managing Director Rachel Shuey.

 

And now, before we start talking about the summer and next year, it’s time for the annual re-cap of the past season, in which I pick my favorites in a host of categories, saving my top choice for last. The idea of picking or naming a “best” is highly suspect, to me; but one can pick what one liked best, where the criteria may be as idiosyncratic as some of the work we’re talking about. And with that caveat, let’s go:

New plays: Works, in some cases never seen before, by YSD students that deserve recognition: Styx Songs, a collage of texts and original words all having to do with negotiating death, led by Jeremy O. Harris as a testy Hades; written by playwrights Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson; Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, playwright Jeremy O. Harris’s merging of music, porn, Greek myths, and themes of sexual becoming; The Other World, dramaturg Charlie O’Malley’s tribute to the stylistic and soul-searching writings of artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Circling the Drain, costume designer Cole McCarty’s exploration of three women on the verge of confessional clarity, from short stories by Amanda Davis, and … Mrs. Galveston, playwright Sarah B. Mantell’s engaging and charming depiction of the delusions of age and the anxieties of youth and the bond of family.

Plays: Picking just five from this group is not easy, as the plays were many and varied; my choices are determined by what I found most provocative: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Alice Birch’s absurdist, anarchic vignettes on the possibilities of gender solidarity; Caught, Christopher Chen’s sharp and clever commentary on the role of the artist in our culture and across cultures; The Slow Sound of Snow, Jabeer Ramezani and Payam Saeedi’s play, translated by Shadi Ghaheri, a beautiful, almost mythic treatment of life under conditions of compelling threat; In The Red and Brown Water, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s involving play of a woman coming of age, in tune with the ageless Orishas of the Yoruban religion, and … Débâcles, by Marion Aubert, translated by Erik Butler and Kimberly Jannarone, an almost slapstick farce of atrocity and brutality during the Nazi occupation of France, kind of like goosing history and giving it the finger at the same time.

Set: The ones I remember best are the ones that included some architectural marvel or unbelievable transformation of that little basement space: for Styx Songs, Ao Li built a graveyard fountain that wasn’t just for show; for In The Red and Brown Water, Annie Dauber constructed a cabin and porch with the cast flanking it; for The Quonsets, Sarah Nietfeld’s constructions created the sense of functional, intimate spaces in the great outdoors; for The Red Tent, Annie Dauber reimagined the Cab as a special space of decorative drapes and personal transformation; and … for Mrs. Galveston, Claire Marie DeLiso built a house as setting and expressive device and work of art.

Sound: Perhaps the most intangible part of production, so choices here tend to those that made sound stand out: In The Slow Sound of Snow (Tye Hunt Fitzgerald), every sound counted, and modulation between loud and soft was crucial; in Débâcles (Frederick Kennedy), the action was all over the place and couldn’t get lost in the spaces; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1 (Michael Costagliola), the contrast between miked song and intimate chat at tables and in bedrooms was striking; in Circling the Drain (Frederick Kennedy), the sound effects of horses and trains were subtle abettors of the tales; and … in Collisions (Christopher Ross-Ewart, Frederick Kennedy) the dazzling soundscape was a part of the whole, a mix of jazz music and speaking voice and song and other effects.

Lighting: A way of controlling our access to what is happening, lighting is most striking as a feature when it helps create the world of the play or adds special effects: In Collisions (Elizabeth Green, Krista Smith), lighting was an essential part of the whole effect of sound and sight; in In The Red and Brown Water (Carolina Ortiz), lighting was a subtle aid to our visualization of the different levels of the characters’ interactions; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1 (Erin Earle Fleming), there were different palettes of light for the different worlds—including virtual—of the action; in Circling the Drain (Krista Smith), the use of the spotlights made for dramatic and deliberate effects; and … in Styx Songs (Krista Smith) lighting was both mood and essential to story, an other-worldly presence.

Costumes: Help us understand characters but can also be delightful in their own right, here are some I especially liked: in Styx Songs, Sarah Woodham dressed Hades and a host of spirits with great panache; in The Slow Sound of Snow, Sophia Choi created a vocabulary of dress; in Thunder Above, Deeps Below, Cole McCarty’s color sense was eye-catching and dynamic; in Débâcles, Annie Dauber & Matthew Malone had a field day with a range of identifiable types, and … In the Red and Brown Water, Mika Eubanks kept it all plausible but also fictive.

Projections: Not a key part of every production, but when present they can be much more than decorative: in Styx Songs, Erik Freer and Richard Green created an animation that was a major effect; in Collisions, Yana Birÿukova and Michael Commendatore made the action swim in projections to startling effect; in The Red Tent, Yaara Bar’s projections commented and provided context; in The Other World, Yana Birÿkova and Michael Commendatore shaped the background of the story; and … in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Yaara Bar pulled out all the stops in making a virtual environment more fulfilling than the everyday.

Music: Not just an effect, music is intrinsic to some productions; here are some where its presence was a major part of the show: in Styx Songs, Sam Suggs’s compositions were essential to making this a show of songs; in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Jiyeon Kim’s compositions provided subtle shifts in mood; in Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, Isabella Summers, and Jeremy O. Harris with Stevan Cablayan created songs that reveal feeling and character; in The Red Tent, songs and dance music made a participatory texture; and … in Collisions, Frederick Kennedy and his musicians made involving, improvised music that interacted with visuals and action to create an event.

The next three categories deal with acting, the element of theater that, when all’s said and done, is still the most charismatic, helping to create “stars” and all kinds of audience identifications. Using the increasingly retrograde division according to the “gender” of the role, I’ve come up with five each, divided by the traditional binary.  And, perhaps more importantly for Cab 49, five for “ensemble.” This year’s Cab was particularly strong in shows where “everyone” was in on the act, making for plays where the whole was more than the individual parts. Be that as it may, I’ve always got my eye out for the particular within the general.

Actors: James Udom as an anxious husband who might kill by procreating in The Slow Sound of Snow; Josh Goulding’s astounding one-man show as a foundling bedeviled by language in Kaspar; George Hampe’s comically beleaguered son and care-giver in Mrs. Galveston; José Espinosa as a maverick artist, at risk and on a quest in The Other World; and … Arturo Soria as a comical emotional contortionist and erring man-child in the world he never made of Débâcles.

Actresses: Moses Ingram as a young woman of spirit and skill facing a world of hurdles in In the Red and Brown Water; Danielle Chaves as a sister and daughter coming to grips with a painful past in North of Providence; Louisa Jacobson as an agent and confidante trying to be a friend in The Other World; Stephanie Machado as a young woman working through the affronts and assaults of a male-dominated world in Circling the Drain; and … Sydney Lemmon as an old woman alive with a compelling sense of what matters and what it means to get things right in Mrs. Galveston.

Ensemble: Ashley Chang, Anna Crivelli, Eston Fung, Elizabeth Harnett, Steven Lee Johnson bringing to life the slippery provocations of a situationist artist in Caught; Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, as acting instruments; Frederick Kennedy, Kevin Patton, Evan Smith, Matt Wigton, as musical instruments in the vibrant interactive environment of Collisions; Moses Ingram, Erron Crawford, Leland Fowler, Kineta Kunutu, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Amandla Jahava, Courtney Jamison, Jonathan Higginbotham, Kevin Hourigan, Jakeem Powell as a village’s worth of varied characters and archetypes in In the Red and Brown Water; José Espinosa, Rachel Kenney, Jake Lozano, Arturo Soria enacting the stringency of cannibalism as erotics, commodity, and ideology in The Meal; and … Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Courtney Jamison, Stefani Kuo, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo as unforgettable sufferers of existential dread, at war with and for their souls, in The Slow Sound of Snow.

Directors: In directing, I single-out the work that seemed to me to meet a challenge beyond the already considerable challenge of making compelling theater in a basement/restaurant: Lynda Paul for getting the tone of satire and seriousness with a varied cast, including non-actors, in Caught; Kevin Hourigan, with Frederick Kennedy for keeping the interplay of music and scene and speech so immediate and wonderful in Collisions; Tori Sampson for getting some of their best from everyone involved in In the Red and Brown Water, and for bringing a Folks production into the Cab; Elizabeth Dinkova for managing a wild ride of a play with more segments and themes than is conducive to mental health in Débâcles; and … Shadi Ghaheri for the incredible composure, pacing, and dramatic pay-offs of the haunting drama of The Slow Sound of Snow.

Production: They’re the shows that impress on many levels: technical realization, acting, directing, and, of course, what they express: Styx Songs, the season’s opener, an unforgettable dramatic experience that showed what the Cab is capable of (Producer: Trent Anderson; Dramaturg: Charlie O’Malley; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson); The Slow Sound of Snow, profound theater that showed what the Cab can demand of its audience (Producer: Trent Anderson and Armando Huipe; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Stage Manager: Michael Schermann); Collisions, an event, like a concert, but also more, as theater and multi-media exploration, different each night (Producer: Rachel Shuey; Dramaturgy: Ashley Chang, Jeremy O. Harris; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson); Débâcles, a challenging comedy, a dark night of the collective soul delivered with incredible brio (Producer: Flo Low; Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Stage Manager: Alexandra Cadena); and … In the Red and Brown Water, a bravura production, almost a Rep show in a basement, full of heart, a strong cast, and memorable dramatic features (Co-Producers: Lauren E. Banks, Al Heartley; Dramaturg: Lisa D. Richardson; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath)

Cab 49 has ended. All best to those who participated—many, week after week. For those who are graduating, go in peace. Everyone else: Get ready for Cab 50!

Yale Cabaret 49
Artistic Directors: Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss

Managing Director: Steven Koernig
2016-17

The Singing Cure

Review of Next to Normal, TheaterWorks

A family—mother, father, son, daughter—going through the motions of their suburban, middle-class existence and singing about it. At first, the low-key comedy of this family, all centered on the stay-at-home mom, might seem a gentle send-up of patriarchy. Then we notice something’s not quite right with mom—about the time she starts making sandwiches assembly-style on the floor—and realize this isn’t an installment of “desperate housewives.” There’s a shadow lurking from the past, and it has managed to eclipse real, day-to-day life for Diana (Christiane Noll), so much so that she lives her life heavily medicated.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

The toll this takes on her family—husband Dan (David Harris), daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher)—is the story here, as Diana has to live with the loss of the son (John Cardoza) she never knew, though in her mind he’s a teen capable of being more real than her long-suffering husband and sulky daughter. Sure, it’s the kind of situation that a Freudian might have a field-day with, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey have different fish to fry. We’re in the era of medications, and even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, which someone thinks sounds better then “electroshock,” apparently) is prescribed for suicidal housewives who go off their meds. It all would be grimmer than it is but for the fact that Diana, for all her unresolved issues, is an entertaining sufferer of bipolar disorder. As played by Christiane Noll, she’s a strong woman who just can’t deal with certain facts, such as how her own mind and spirit can betray her despite her best efforts. Her saving grace is the forthright self she pours out in song, and Noll's performance is indeed electrifying. The other great saving grace, for the show, is that her daughter, who has more than enough of her own to kvetch about, is played with tons of charm by newcomer Maya Keleher.

I shouldn’t neglect mentioning the males, even if they seem rather ancillary to the wild mood swings of their female counterparts. As Dan, David Harris does a lot with a role that mainly comes down to being patient and understanding, until, perhaps, his façade of repression also begins to crack. As the son who won’t say die, John Cardoza is a dreamboat with a big voice, though it wouldn’t hurt for him to unstiffen a little while insisting “I’m Alive”—though his dance with mom on the verge of a major breakdown is as fluid and magical as is called for. Henry, a sort of hipster kid who woos Natalie, is fine, if overly self-effacing. While the Drs. Fine—the drug pusher—and Madden, the hot-shot ECT salesman—are both assayed by J. D. Daw with the kind of professional obtuseness that, if not part of the problem, doesn’t do much to get at the problem’s root.

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Director Rob Ruggerio has done a wonderful job making this domestic and medical musical, with its requisite and recurring blasts of bathos, work at TheaterWorks where the intimacy of the staging makes the action feel all the more personal. We’re looking on at a family trying to cope and the fact that they can make a first-rate show of their suffering is all to the good. The set, complete with a turntable for moving things about in place swiftly, upper-level wings, and a backdrop that looks like a store-display of lamps and knickknacks, is never obtrusive and, with a range of color and lighting effects, a part of the quick-switching moods of the music by Tom Kitt. And a very tight band, invisible and just loud enough but not too loud—particularly effective are the drums—make the most of the score, under Adam Souza’s able direction, and Ed Chapman’s Sound Design is incredibly precise. Everyone sounds great and the casting has arrived at six voices that harmonize well and make the vocals—almost everything is sung—the show’s best feature.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

In the end, I find myself, for all the talent and skill on display here, somewhat unmoved by this Pulitzer-winning musical. Time was, I suppose, it showed the way in clueing us in, not only about the lives of quiet desperation in many a dream-home, but about the resources of the musical for making music from the everyday. There are many effective numbers that lay out the levels of trauma here—“He’s Not Here,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, “Song of Forgetting,” “Why Stay?”, “A Promise”—but much of it serves to remind that we have seen this movie, or some version of it. Melodrama in the service of mourning and melancholia seems to be a big staple of tear-jerk show-biz.

What puts Next to Normal a cut above what the screens might provide is that its Tony-winning score sets us in a pop-rock universe and won’t let us stray into the weepy strings that many a soundtrack would bathe us in. The musical numbers stay sharp and focused, for the most part, and that’s to be appreciated. Still, who knew that what all the characters most deeply desire is a non-traumatized version of the perfect little family paradise that, it seemed for a minute, the show was seeking to send up. Living “next to normal”—for theater—can also be next-door to boring.

 

Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music direction by Adam Souza

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Casting: McCorkle Casting, Ltd., Associate Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, David Harris, Maya Keleher, Christiane Noll, Nick Sacks

TheaterWorks
March 24-April 30, extended to May 14

The Carlotta is Coming Soon

Preview of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, Yale School of Drama

A West African folktale with a Brechtian treatment; a story of inter-generational intimacy set in the great wide open of Alaska; a revisiting of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice from the view of Shylock’s daughter—these are the new offerings to be seen at the 12th annual Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a theatrical tradition of presenting new work from Yale School of Drama students at the end of their three-year stint in the playwriting program. The three playwrights—Tori Sampson, Miranda Rose Hall, Sarah B. Mantell—are paired with graduating directors—Elizabeth Dinkova, Kevin Hourigan, Jesse Rasmussen, respectively—to bring their plays to the stage at the Iseman Theater, featuring casts drawn primarily from first and second-year actors in the program.

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson’s play, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, subtitled “an understanding of a West African folktale,” draws on a story Sampson was first told as a child by an uncle, “The Beautiful Girl and Her Seven Jealous Friends.” The story treats beauty as a determining factor of social standing. Sampson, who was a student of sociology before becoming a playwright, sees the story as a way to speak to women today when some standards may have changed, to some extent, but not for all.

The play could be said to come out of a frustration with double-standards, not only about who can be beautiful in a racist world, but also about what stories get told by the dominant culture. Sampson said she was “frustrated early on” in her studies at the School of Drama because the canonical playwrights were all white and male. One such writer was Bertolt Brecht and Sampson gradually decided to “investigate what I was not drawn to,” finding a certain common currency in the way Brecht’s work incorporated folk tales and what he found useful in other sources. For Sampson, the task of recreating other’s material “leads to a shared knowledge” and a way of interrogating what is known. As artists, Sampson said, drama students have “to allow ourselves to criticize what we study.”

The setting of Sampson’s play is a fictional place, Affreakah-Amirrorkah, a name that suggests a “freaky mirror” of Africa-America, and uses what might be called an Americanized dialect. It’s a poetic language relying on rhythm and sound more than everyday speech does. Last year, Sampson co-authored a Carlotta play with Jiréh Breon Holder, Some Bodies Travel, a very entertaining challenge to black cultural stereotypes, and in the Yale Cabaret season she directed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s reworking of Yoruba folk material, In the Red and Brown Water.

Plays, Sampson said, “are not about solving issues.” The issue of beauty, which our culture treats so seriously, she said “intrigued” her and she sees her play as “adding to the conversation” about what our standards say about us as a culture.

In choosing a play for this year’s Carlotta, Sampson was asked: “What is going to make you most happy?” One thing that gives her joy is making people laugh, and hers is a comic play, with jokes that may be “in your face,” but which should connect with a contemporary audience. Laughter and meaningful themes go hand-in-hand, for Sampson, and working with dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodriguez and director Elizabeth Dinkova, whose work has been marked by both, has been a positive experience for all.

Miranda Rose Hall

Miranda Rose Hall

The plays by Miranda Rose Hall that have been seen at YSD have tended to be comic, with decidedly satiric elements. But there’s another side to her work—more than two, in fact. Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy allows her to move into domestic drama, in this case set in remote, rural Alaska, and to examine a key theme for her: “the nature and limits of love”

The play is based on a setting where Hall lived for a time, working in a care-giving facility she was assigned to through “a kind of domestic Peace Corps.” Her task was providing company and solace to people near the end of their lives. Her play allows Hall to look back at a place that, she said, is with her always, with its mix of “sublime environment and human dysfunction,” a combination she just had to write about. Hall’s play creates a situation to examine questions that loom large at the end of life, like “forgiveness, and the ways in which we love each other and suffer with another’s suffering.”

The story occurs five years after a tragic event in the community of Bethlehem, Alaska, where Ed, a Jesuit priest in late middle-age, returns to reconcile with his estranged brother and finds himself falling in love unexpectedly in the isolated wastes. For Hall, the play is “irreducibly Alaskan” because her time there, in which she drank up many stories from the locals, most having to do with “a wild cast of characters in spartan conditions,” caused her to reflect on questions of “survival and the ethos of mortality.” The landscape, she said, made her feel “in the presence of something greater” that was “impossible to ignore.”

Choosing a Jesuit as hero for her play is a testament to the Jesuits who ran the volunteer corps Hall joined, and it also was a way to work with Catholic themes. Though raised Presbyterian, Hall is descended from Italian immigrants, and said she feels “culturally Catholic.” Georgetown, where she received her undergraduate degree, was founded by Jesuits and their stated values of “service, education, and justice” are important to Hall. It’s also important that the play be set during the papacy of a former Jesuit priest: Pope Benedict, who denounced gay marriage.

Though ultimately fictional, the play draws on Hall’s real love for Alaska and the people she met there. Though no one who knew her could quite understand why she was going with a small team of total strangers into one of the remotest and wildest states in the nation, her experience has made her more confident about her ability to find the themes she wants to explore in her art. The characters in The Hour of Great Mercy are not Alaskan natives but have lived there a long time, and reflect for Hall “the heart, humor, and tough defiance” of the people she came to know there. Kevin Hourigan and Gavin Whitehead, Hall’s director and dramaturg, were her first collaborators in her first year project at YSD, so, in a way, she’s come full circle.

Sarah B. Mantell

Sarah B. Mantell

Kevin Hourigan’s second-year studio show, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, figures as a major catalyst for the third Carlotta play. In viewing that production, Sarah B. Mantell finally saw a play she had always avoided, not wanting to experience a Jewish villain given canonical weight by the greatest writer in the English language. Mantell began writing Everything That Never Happened last summer, making this “the shortest possible process” in bringing a play to the stage. The play, she said, “could only be born at the Yale School of Drama” because she would not have encountered Merchant anywhere else. What’s more, Hourigan’s production, which featured Elizabeth Stahlmann in the key role of Shylock, staged the humiliating conversion scene that the Jewish merchant is condemned to undergo.

And yet Merchant is considered a comedy and Mantell sees the relation of humor to tragedy in the play as “very Jewish,” and that has motivated her to write with Jewish speaking voices, to create, in fact, “everything that never happened” in The Merchant of Venice. Particularly, Mantell’s play dramatizes the story of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, in love with Lorenzo, who realizes she must run away. A key plot point is that she is ethnically ambiguous and can pass as something she’s not—a gentile.

In pursuing her process of “taking Shakespeare’s characters and making them my own,” Mantell had conversations with playwright Sara Ruhl who has adapted classic texts, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in her work. Mantell cites as well Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a reworking of Othello with a very different emphasis. Mantell has also been working on a play called “Fight Call”—the term for working through all of a play’s fights in sequence for rehearsal—that would be a walk-through of the deaths of many of Shakespeare’s female characters. The key element uniting such reinventions of Shakespeare is considering how the sexist assumptions of his plays can be overturned or dramatized.

Everything That Never Happened wants to take such revisionism a step further. Not only is Jessica a female hero for this reworking of Merchant, but she is also ethnically other than the dominant culture. Working with Jesse Rasmussen, who staged the violent misogyny of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis show, has “been tremendous” for Mantell, as “Jesse can do a lot with little,” and her dramaturg, Chad Kinsman, and others she consulted have been incredibly helpful in keeping straight details of the time period and other factors relevant to the adaptation.

Mantell, whose early play, Mrs. Galveston, was one of the most engaging plays at this season’s Yale Cabaret, may find at last the heart of Shakespeare’s always somewhat problematic Merchant.

Three graduating playwrights, three new plays with heart, humor, and new perspectives.

 

The Carlotta Festival of New Plays
Yale School of Drama

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka: an understanding of a West African folktale
By Tori Sampson, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
May 5, 8 pm; May 9, 8 pm; May 11, 2 pm; May 12, 8 pm

The Hour of Great Mercy
By Miranda Rose Hall, directed by Kevin Hourigan
May 6, 8 pm; May 10, 2 pm; May 11, 8 pm; May 13, 2 pm

Everything That Never Happened
By Sarah B. Mantell, directed by Jesse Rasmussen
May 7, 8 pm; May 10, 8 pm; May 12, 2 pm; May 13, 8 pm