Reviews

Incendiary Situations

Review of Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

“Behind every great man,” the saying goes, “there is a woman.” Donja R. Love’s Fireflies—at Yale Cabaret, directed by Christopher D. Betts, for two more shows tonight—might be said to alter that adage: “in front of every great woman is a man.” Love shows us a couple where the man, Charles (Manu Kumasi in a Cabaret debut), is an analog for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the woman, Olivia (Ciara Monique McMillian), his long-suffering wife.

Olivia cooks her husband’s food and waits patiently—or not so patiently—at home while he, “the face of the [Civil Rights] movement,” is on the road preaching and uplifting spirits. She’s also carrying his child, and, in fulsome reminiscence, he says he knew she would bear his child from way back when they were children themselves working in tobacco fields. When did she know? When she realized she was pregnant. Olivia rarely plays into her husband’s efforts to script her responses.

In the not-so-distance background of the difficulties faced by Olivia and Charles is the bombing of a church in Alabama that took innocent lives. Charles has been called upon to deliver a eulogy. Olivia is plagued by the sound of bombs—a premonition of some disaster still to come?

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On his return home, Charles is flirty and horny, using techniques that likely work with other women; he is met by a range of emotions from Olivia who, though not playing hard to get, is hard for her husband to understand. Ciara Monique McMillian’s Olivia is a delight, even in the portrayal’s darker moods and rousing speeches. McMillian gets out all the nuance there is in this strong role. Charles is far from one note as well, and Kumasi lets us see many sides of the man, not least as a minor tyrant trying to dictate how his wife should feel and the kind of life they should lead. Love writes their interactions well and Betts gets fully engaged performances from his actors.

Eventually we learn that Olivia not only writes the speeches that have earned Charles such a following, she also coaches his delivery of her words. And that’s not all. Olivia, we discover through letters she wrote and never sent, has a sweetheart: a woman named Ruby. This emerges after the FBI thoughtfully sends Olivia a package containing a tape recording, complete with tape player, of Charles getting it on with one of his women of the road. Charles, whom Olivia accuses of always playing tit for tat, uses the letters as a way of worming out of guilt about his infidelities. The story of her attachment to Ruby, plaintive as it may be, gives Olivia the backbone to assert her decision to leave Charles. The upshot is that Olivia—who resented being pregnant—is now determined to terminate the pregnancy.

As Claudius might say, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Love’s technique is to pile on racial injustice, spousal mistreatment, a sleazy doctor, dramatic foreboding, and not one but two speeches addressed to God as, seemingly, the author of the couple’s plight. There are also snatches of Charles’ way with Olivia’s speeches, and, in the end, a moving sermon by Olivia that brings into play the notion of fireflies as the spirits of the slain finding their way to heaven. The play could be said to pack a few too many complications into its 90 minute running time, so that the ultimate fate of Charles seems yet another dramatic shift.

At the Cabaret, the set by Anna Grigo packs verisimilitude aplenty, from the GE icebox to the Formica table to the range and sink, a true “kitchen-sink” style presentation. Mika H. Eubanks costumes—as ever—strike becoming and appropriate notes, greatly aided by Earon Nealey’s hair. Both actors look so much their parts we feel transported to another era at once. The straight-forward set is magically enhanced by Nicole E. Lang’s projection design, which combines the smoke of explosions with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and fire-streaked clouds that creep at times across the entire set. Riva Fairhall’s lighting helps cue us to the play’s many mood changes, not least the fireflies effect at the end, and the sound design by Kathy Ruvuna makes Olivia’s imaginary bombs viscerally real.

With Yale students and residents taking to the streets this past week to protest police shooting at two local African Americans charged with no crime, the lines in Fireflies that speak to the social straight-jacket imposed on nonwhite lives in America resonate, as intended, from the Jim Crow era of the play, set in 1963, to today. The conviction of the Yale Cabaret production is formidable and its skilled presentation convincingly apropos.

 

Fireflies
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Producer: Dani Barlow; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Projection Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Technical Directors: Chimmy Anne Gunn & Frnacesca DeCicco; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Fight Choreographer: Michael Rossmy; Hair: Earon Nealey

Cast: Manu Kumasi, Ciara Monique McMillian


Yale Cabaret
April 18-20, 2019

The Book of Mormon is Back

Review of The Book of Mormon, The Palace Theater, Waterbury

Seeing The Book of Mormon, the irreverent and gleefully foul-mouthed Tony-winning musical by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone in a touring production now at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14, is like going to a party—either a party where you know everyone and have fun, or a party where you don’t, and don’t.

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s much-praised The Book of Mormon, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury through April 14

If you do have fun, it’s as at the expense of goofy Mormons and their made-in-the-U.S.A. myth; cartoonish Ugandans, suffering from poverty, AIDS, and a warlord who wants to circumcise all women; a range of references to Disney and Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings; a big seduction moment that features a baptism; a big production number set in a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” that includes simulated sex with heinous inmates like Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer; and a lengthy fantasia of a foundation myth in which fucking a frog—as a cure for AIDS—is preferable to fucking a baby. The laughs depend on how much of a kick you get from things like the surprise of hearing a glowing Jesus, complete with blonde hair, call the main protagonist “a dick,” or watching a village of Lion King-like Africans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated as “Fuck You, God”) instead of “Hakuna Matata,” or seeing the same villagers sport incredibly long black phalloi.

Fans of the show—which has been around since 2011 and has passed through Connecticut before—will find the show given an appropriately discordant setting at the Palace. Looking like a temple of theater, the venue features the kinds of high-tone trappings that help this brash brat of a musical score its points. Those points, while allegedly aimed to outrage the sensitivities of the venerable theater-goer, actually play into all the old familiar territory—the schlemihl proves himself, the bad guys are routed, and the powers that be see that all is not lost. It’s not so much a spoof of Broadway musicals as simply the kind of musical most suitable to the 21st century’s loss of all proprieties.

While some of the bigger numbers can feel a bit perfunctory, there are some musical standouts here, including the aforementioned “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” as well as “Turn It Off,” the Mormon’s paean to keeping unwanted feelings at bay, and the numbers featuring Kayla Pecchioni as Nabulungi, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and “Baptize Me.” The latter also features Jordan Matthew Brown, as Elder Cunningham, the role played originally by Josh Gad, and Brown does well at being goofishly, nerdishly endearing. He becomes the hero due to his talent for “Making Things Up Again,” despite the efforts by his much better-prepared partner—Elder Price (Luke Monday, standing in for Liam Tobin)—to make it all about himself in “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

The stage is big and often filled with a lot of actors, and the backdrops, costume and props help to keep the show busy. The religious segments—which might put some in mind of the diorama display in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—are given the kind of gloss Hollywood tends to give to biblical epics, and the stories of Mormon (Tyler Leahy), Joseph Smith (Ron Bohmer), and the angel Moroni (Andy Huntington Jones) might be diverting enough even without the pop epics Elder Cunningham brings into play. Andy Huntington Jones does good work as Elder McKinley, as does Jacques C. Smith as Mafala and Corey Jones as the General.

To not have fun is to find this all more sophomoric than Parker and Stone’s famed adult cartoon South Park. The latter aims to offend and does so with absurdist brio, but what makes it work—when it does—is that the main characters are children, and the mishmash they make of the adult world, together with their joy in whatever is obscene or dirty, pays off. WithThe Book of Mormon, it helps to maintain the attitude toward religion, sex, bodily functions, and dirty words you might’ve had when you were about eight. In any case, this Broadway smash from the era of adult-sounding President Obama strikes the ear a bit differently in the era of trash-talking President Trump.

 

The Book of Mormon
Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Oremus

Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Ann Roth; Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman & Stephen Oremus

Cast: Jaron Barney, Ron Bohmer, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Jordan Matthew Brown, Andy Huntington Jones, Corey Jones, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Luke Monday, Monica L. Patton, Kayla Pecchioni, Jacques C. Smith, Teddy Trice

Ensemble: Jaron Barney, Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd, Zach Erhardt, Kenny Francoeur, Jeremy Gaston, Eric Geil, Patrick Graver, Kristen Jeter, Tyler Leahy, Will Lee-Williams, Josh Marin, Stoney B. Mootoo, Monica L. Patton, J Nycole Ralph, Connor Russell, Teddy Trice

The Palace Theater
Waterbury, CT
April 9-14, 2019

Short and Sweet

Review of Girlfriend, TheaterWorks

At 80some minutes, Girlfriend, the newish musical at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is short, and, with the music from Nebraska-born musical artist Matthew Sweet featured, it is certainly Sweet. The play, by Todd Almond, is indeed sweet as its boy meets boy story set in Alliance, Nebraska, 1993—while it has drama—is mostly easygoing. The two characters are Will (David Merino), a gay senior in high school, and Mike (CJ Pawlilowski), a still closeted senior. Mike’s opening overture to Will is the gesture of giving him a tape of Matthew Sweet’s LP, Girlfriend (released 1991). The duo’s story is set to Sweet songs mostly from that album.

If this sounds to you like a rather thin Book—take a bunch of songs and construct a story to accompany them—then you and I agree. Unlike some instances of rock we might imagine, Sweet’s songs have the strength of being unprovocative. They can be somewhat propulsive, like the title song, and somewhat lyrical, like “Your Sweet Voice,” and one or two—“Winona,” “Evangeline”—have interesting lyrics. The live band playing them at the back of the stage—Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums—can be as fun to watch as the play’s action.

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

The story is comprised of very static scenes: Will in his bedroom with his boombox; Mike in his with his more imposing all-in-one stereo; the friends sitting in Mike’s car at a drive-in, watching the same film—about a superhero alien whose alter-ego is a nun named Evangeline—night after night. Eventually (spoiler alert!) they do get to Mike’s bedroom while his somewhat domineering father is away (we never meet him, but he seems to be pressuring Mike into maintaining relations with his girlfriend, whom we also never see).

The play insists on being a two-hander so any schoolmates who might sneer at this budding romance never show up. Any threat to the status quo that this same-sex couple poses must be imagined (mostly rude stares from the other guys on the baseball team Mike plays on). All of which is deliberate. This romance isn’t about overcoming parental disapproval (which certainly factors in for all sorts of couples for all sorts of reasons) or about overcoming peer pressure (ditto), but about whether or not Mike really loves Will.

Will (David Merino)

Will (David Merino)

Will, who is played with disarming, outgoing cheer and charm by Merino, is clearly the girl in this relationship. He sits at home waiting to be asked out; when he is, he always goes. His passivity might be seen as comic, or pathetic. Here, it just is. The implication is that, as a gay boy in a predominantly hetero culture, he has to take what he can get. What he gets is Mike’s vacillations. Is giving music to someone a sexual overture? Depends. Is going to the drive-in together an invitation to make-out? Depends. What the play mostly explores is the gray area of that “depends.” Will lets us know he’s up for it but not enough to make a first move. As Mike, Pawlikowski plays obtuse well. The guy acts like leading Will on is the last thing on his mind, though of course it’s the first thing on Will’s. Whether or not Mike can admit that or not is really the only question here.

It’s all coy and almost-not-quite closeted. We’re waiting for a big breakup or big breakthrough. Things don’t get nasty, but they do get a little more complicated: Mike is off to college; Will, apparently, can’t think of anything better to do than stay in this Nebraskan town some 300 miles from the university in Lincoln. Was this all just an experiment for Mike before moving on?

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Almond’s approach to dialogue is to stick with the demotic. These guys need those songs because they have nothing much to say. The best dialogue is Will trying gently to suggest that the movie isn’t all that good. Indeed, we might easily believe Mike is actually straight since he has so little of interest to say. Will, whatever he may feel for Mike, is clearly slumming.

The opening weekend matinee I saw featured an audience comprised mostly of people who might well have grandchildren the ages of these characters. They seemed warmly touched by the romance. The play might strike with a bit more force played for an audience closer to the boys’ ages. In fact, that would be the perfect audience for this play—and, I suppose, fans of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. The band does the songs justice, Merino and Pawlikowski have suitable singing voices, and the sound design, by Joshua D. Reid, is perfectly adapted to the Wadsworth’s auditorium.

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

 

Girlfriend
Book by Todd Almond
Music & Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music Direction by Evan Zavada

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid; Hair: John McGarvey; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: David Merino; CJ Pawlikowski

Band: Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums

 

TheaterWorks
At the Wadsworth
March 22 to April 28, 2019

Inane Antics of the Idle Rich

Review of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Hartford Stage

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet Jeeves are beloved figures of British fiction. Brought to BBC television, they inspired a popular show in the 1990s that brought them to life via actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I must confess I had never sought out these incarnations.

Onstage at Hartford Stage in the Goodale Brothers’ adaptation, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, directed, as it was in London, by Sean Foley, the duo are indelibly enacted by Arnie Burton and Chandler Williams, respectively. And wonderful they are in the roles.

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in  Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense , at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

The conceit of the Goodale Brothers’ stage show is that Bertie has decided to make a play of the tangled story of the cow-creamer—as a one-man show. He soon realizes he’s helpless to tell the story much less dramatize it without Jeeves, who abruptly turns up and also enlists fellow servant Seppings (Eddie Korbich) to flesh out the cast. This means that all the subsidiary roles are played by Burton and Korbich, and that the staging of the varied elements of the story—involving several locations—involves a comic and inventive handling of the illusions of theater. And that means much credit is due Alice Power who handles both Scenic Design and Costume Design (indeed, they are inextricably entwined).

A fireplace is wheeled into place to indicate Wooster’s digs, then, when it becomes a room at the club, a different painting is cranked into place. The entrances and exits are as amusing as anything, involving every possible variety, from graceful to rushed to incorrectly costumed. A recurring gag is that the villain of the piece, a fascist named Strode (patterned on Oswald Mosley, Britain’s leader of the blackshirts--here, blackshorts, a boy’s club) increases in height each time he appears. Played by Korbich as a pint-size dictator, Strode becomes more preposterous with each new appearance—until he is both set and costume. Other characters, such as the newt-enthusiast Gussie Fink-Nottle (Burton), are memorably enacted as well, and there’s much fun with coming in and out of a bedroom by door and window, and, my favorite, a scene in an old roadster with Korbich enacting a man observed in passing. The gags are nonstop.

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Unfortunately, there is also plot aplenty as the play combines elements from two separate tales in The Code of the Woosters, the one involving a cow-creamer, which Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (Korbich) wants Bertie to “sneer at” to bring down the price, that then falls into the hands of Sir Watkyn Bassett (Burton), a rival collector, and must be pinched, and the other involving a dinner party and Fink-Nottle’s book of notes on Strode and Watkyn-Bassett. The plotting, ingenious as it may be, would seem much ado about little were it not for the diverting techniques of impromptu staging at which the cast is amazingly and breathlessly adroit. If you do want to settle in to follow the path of such MacGuffins as the cow-creamer, the notebook, and a policeman’s helmet you will find yourself checked at every turn by the outrageous and highly professional mocking of amateur theatricals.

When all’s said, I have to say that what I liked best was Chandler’s forthrightly clueless and feckless Bertie Wooster. His appeals to the audience have the brash charm of someone who knows you can’t possibly think too ill of him—privilege, m’boy. Wooster opens Act 2 sitting in a bubble bath and Chandler renders charmingly the sangfroid of someone able to field the impertinence of several hundred prying eyes suddenly present in his bathroom. His Wooster is always the life of the party and very much the guiding spirit of his “one-man show.”

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

The other great asset is Burton’s Jeeves. No doubt we’ve all seen some version of the stiff-upper-lip of the indefatigable English valet, but Jeeves is more—he’s apt to be psychic about what’s to come, encyclopedic about what has occurred, and never the least bit ruffled even when having to climb in or out windows. It’s all part of serving perfectly, with only the differing amounts of dryness in his tone to let us know his view of the situation.

That said, I wish there were more of the two titular characters interacting, which is really the heart of the thing. I am aware of how readily the Brits must guffaw at males in female wigs and feminine trappings affecting a falsetto—Monty Python did it, Benny Hill did it, and no doubt countless others—but such humor strikes me as a sepia-toned invocation of those glory days when theater was a boys only affair, letting us smirk at the drollery of the masquerade. Granted, a joke isn’t dated if it still makes an audience laugh, and Kobich’s fun with Aunt Dahlia, and Burton’s with Madeline Bassett, an ingenue of the old school, add their charms to the proceedings as well.

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Still, I was most amused at Bertie’s efforts to convey the intricacies of this perfect nonsense from his point of view, because ultimately, his is the view that matters—everything is on the verge of becoming a disastrous embarrassment that will never happen so long as Jeeves is on the job. With its penultimate show of the season, Hartford Stage offers perfectly silly escapist entertainment—but, as the saying goes, nothing’s perfect. You might find yourself wondering why a giggle at 1930s Britain, complete with fascists on the rise and a baffled upper-crust, should be such a timely target for spoofing.

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
A new play from the works of P.G. Wodehouse
By the Goodale Brothers
Directed by Sean Foley

Scenic Design: Alice Power; Costume Design: Alice Power; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Choreographer: Adam Cates; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Cast: Arnie Burton, Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
March 21-April 20, 2019

A Dark Cabaret in Norwalk

Review of Cabaret, Music Theatre of Connecticut

As a musical, Cabaret has much to recommend it. The songs by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) are catchy and full of the charm of the demimonde. Joe Masteroff’s book manages to provide romance while capturing the risks of bohemia and the shock of the rise of Nazism. The story unfolds as a bitter lesson on several fronts, and yet, like its showman of an emcee, it manages to be engaging until all is lost. Played again—in MTC’s second staging of Cabaret—by Eric Scott Kincaid, The Emcee seems less a Mephistophelean overseer of the fortunes of the other characters and more like the portrait of Dorian Gray, suffering more the uglier the situation in Berlin grows. Kincaid’s Emcee looks tortured and tired from the start, an emblem of the Kit Kat Klub’s seediness and its losing effort to deny its days are numbered.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s Cabaret, directed by Kevin Connors

The show has a small cast, so there aren’t quite the big dance numbers we might expect, which also gives a realness to a Kit Kat Klub that lacks the glitz and sparkle of Broadway versions. The opening “Willkommen” has plenty of energy, and the dancers are close enough to flirt with audience members or to upbraid them for not flirting enough. Two male dancers, Tony Conaty and Alex Drost, provide the requisite Fossean physicality, and Hillary Ekwall, who plays Fräulein Kost, does a mean split.

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

Fräulein Kost (Hillary Ekwall), The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid), Man 2 (Tony Conaty)

The droll numbers—like “Two Ladies”—have a tawdriness that showcases the unreality of the romance between pining British showgirl Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar) and straitlaced American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard). The romance between timid Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling) and pragmatic German landlady Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) has perhaps a better chance of enduring, but that’s where the menace of the rising Nazis becomes most keenly felt. As Ernst Ludwig, Cliff’s student of English lessons, Andrew Foote is disarmingly friendly, even after everyone notices his armband, but as the edicts against Jews escalate, we know there will be violence.

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

Sally Bowles (Desirée Davar)

As the irrepressible Sally Bowles, Desirée Davar sounds remarkably like Liza Minelli, the most famous Sally, in the big numbers “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” Davar is better in Act II, when emotions begin to take their toll, than she is as the bubbly, flirtatious Sally of Act I. As Cliff, Dromard is also best in Act II, when he begins to see what’s at stake. To Fräulein Schneider falls such great numbers as “So What?” in Act I and “What Would You Do?” in Act II, both trenchant expressions of a life with no illusions and not many choices, but their fatalism exposes the quietism that let the Nazis have their way. Kanengeiser plays the part perfectly, giving the aging fräulein a weary wit. Jim Schilling’s Herr Schultz is a nice match for her. He’s touching in his wooing, and their duet, “Married,” is a fragile, lyrical moment. His insistence that Nazism will pass because “I know the Germans and, after all, what am I? A German” acts as a sad reminder of how deluded even a Jewish merchant could be.

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Fräulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser), Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling)

Some of the popular songs featured in the film and in other iterations—such as “Money” and “Mein Herr”—are not here, as they weren’t in the initial version of the musical. Instead, “Sitting Pretty” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” both less jaunty, fill those spaces. This is a more chastened Cabaret, and its powerful ending stabs not only with the sorrow that no one gets what they want but with how horribly correct the Nazis were in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (here greatly helped by the singing voice of Andrew Foote, who played Jekyll/Hyde with such power earlier this season). Against the Nazis brutal will to power, the call to “come to the Cabaret” is desperate, and Sally’s insistence that she’s “going out like Elsie,” her roommate who ended her life rather than live in an uncaring world, is apropos to the fates we see visited upon Herr Schultz and The Emcee.

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

The Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid)

Somber in mood, Kevin Connors’ production of Cabaret is all-too appropriate to times when denial and dancing away a sense of doom are endemic. In that sense, one hopes life isn’t a Cabaret.

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic Design: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Prop Design: Merrie Deitch; Choreography: Simone DePaolo; Fight Staging: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Tony Conaty, Desirée Davar, Nicolas Dromard, Alex Drost, Hillary Ekwall, Andrew Foote, Anne Kanengeiser, Eric Scott Kincaid, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 29-April 14, 2019

The Cab of the Cab

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

Billed as “a weekend of new works across multiple venues and genres,” this year’s Satellite Festival at Yale Cabaret—the fourth—was a curated collection of musical performances, solo shows, looped electronics, and a play in a truck. What follows are impressions from attending five shows in quick succession on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, March 28.

Cab16-hero.jpg

The evening began in the Cabaret space at 8 p.m. with Exit Interview, featuring playwright Christopher Gabriel Núñez in his persona Anonymous (And.On.I.Must), a rapper with a very frenetic style and a warm intensity. Earning whoops and cheers from a rapt audience, and much encouragement from the YSD students working the kitchen, Núñez paced and swooped through a range of material, one hand holding a mic, the other vigorously beating the air. While most of the songs were fast and aggressive, giving off an angry urban vibe, a few were more lyrical, including one that Núñez introduced as a “love song for the ‘90s.”  Hooks were plentiful, and Núñez’s singing voice, those times when he vocalized, has a husky, soulful intensity. My favorite part was the final number when the artist was joined by an impromptu collection of students and audience members, including one old enough to be a grandfather to some of the others, who proceeded to groove with the most upbeat and infectious song of the night.

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Upstairs in the rehearsal space, second-year sound designer Liam Bellman-Sharpe and dancer/choreographer Sarah Xiao collaborated in Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece, an atmospheric work that seemed to pit the musical direction of the piece against the physical component. At first, Bellman-Sharpe, with a prop forearm swaying, played guitar riffs with his back to Xiao. In a nude leotard wearing face-paint and a blonde wig, Xiao, in striking lighting, crept about the floor, holding poses and moving in slow motion. Later, Bellman-Sharpe, also wearing a nude leotard with face-paint and a head-wrap, faced Xiao and played arpeggios while counting aloud, at intervals, through a sequence of numbers. Eventually, the numbers seemed to meet with no response and went off on unpredictable sequences, with Xiao ignoring or interpreting the direction (if that’s what it was) as she chose. The guitar parts Bellman-Sharpe played had a crisply fluid sound, never too abrasive or strident, while breaking once or twice into a rhythmic number. Xiao’s movements were always spell-binding, executed with a flair for precision and contortion as when, early on, she bent over backwards while emitting a breathy flutter. As the piece wound down, Bellman-Sharpe produced a cellphone to Skype with his mother in Australia while Xiao arranged him in fetal position on the floor.

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Back downstairs in the Cab, first-year actor Malia West’s black girl burning: an open letter addressed white culture in general as “you,” giving you to understand the mix of defiance, grievance, and pride felt by a black girl growing up in a society that under-appreciates and stigmatizes her race. Citing black female cultural heroines such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntosake Shange, Maya Angelou and others, West gave her audience—many of whom snapped fingers in response to a particularly pithy line—a clear sense of the tradition empowering her. A funny and spirited set-piece, which might be called “no you can’t touch my hair,” worked through a series of possible responses to the off-putting request to touch a black person’s hair. West worked rhyme and sing-song rhythms into the piece, but generally kept to a measured spoken word cadence she has clearly mastered. The different voices of the piece—called “a poem, a plea, a panic attack, a prayer…and some praise”—took us through a variety of emotional states, from anger to love to doubt to inspiration, and finally to simple admiration of West’s strength of conviction.

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Upstairs again to hear second-year director Kat Yen, in This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian, give voice to her many frustrations with theater’s treatment of Asian Americans. Yen’s spoken piece was very much in her own person, telling of her experiences in a direct and disarming way. When she applied to the Yale School of Drama, Yen told us, she insisted that she was not interested in staging Asian American plays. Now, concluding her second year, her view has changed, but there aren’t enough actors of Asian descent to stage an Asian American play at YSD. The change in her view, it seemed, came from a heightened sense of individual cultural identity currently much in vogue in the School, which, in her view, caused her to be pulled off projects that required a certain ethnic authenticity, thus restricting her still more. The most telling grievance—at least as a set-piece—was Yen’s story of visiting the home of her white fiancé’s parents and being told by her future mother-in-law that her bedroom was decorated in the tropes of “Asian Ladies of the Night.” The story worked as an awkward and painful indication of how Asian women are perceived by a culture with a strong tendency to identify them with exotic sex workers. Yen also opened the question—as she read from author Frank Chin’s take-down of author David Henry Hwang—of how a fragmented and disparate Asian American culture can find a clear sense of political voice.

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

The evening ended—in the usual late night 11 p.m. time-slot—with third-year theater manager Sam Linden’s UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia adapted from an essay that was based on a true story about a play that was based on a true story—a work adapted from Alexandra Petri’s story, “We Are Not A Muse,” about having to attend a writing workshop where an ex-boyfriend, Dave, uses their breakup as material for a story. Taylor Hoffman played Alexandra as more perky than bitter, seeing the humor of her situation while mining it for laughs. A Greek Chorus added their takes on the dynamic, in which a “he said/she said” exchange escalates into “what he said about what she said” and vice versa. The songs are mostly light and jaunty with some ready wit in capturing the kinds of vanities that get ruffled whenever someone puts one’s business out there. In one song, Dave (Dario Ladani Sánchez) wandered a bit off-key, drawing shared looks from the Chorus. Whether deliberate or not, the effect created was along the lines of “he’s a guy, he’ll get by.” And that attitude did indeed underscore the resentment aimed at Dave, who, oblivious to any viewpoint not his own, sailed blithely along with his self-involved account. Linden’s play has the wherewithal to include a meta-moment in which Alexandra reflects that she made Dave the fodder for her presentation just as he had done to her. And that view gamely takes us back to the fact that, when it comes to breakups, even if we get both sides of the story, we never do get the whole story.

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

And, on Friday night only, in a workspace at 149 York Street, two Alexas, the voice-activated electronic assistant developed by Amazon, were locked into an exchange of lines from Samuel Beckett’s seminal play of absurdist situations and gnomic communications, Waiting for Godot. The play’s very repetitive structure was perfect for the robotic interactions between the two machines as created by Elliot G. Mitchell. Listening for about ten or fifteen minutes, I was tickled each time Alexa 1 and 2 reached this exchange: A1: “Let’s go” A2: “We can’t” A1: “Why not?” A2: “We’re waiting for Godot.” After that line, A1 might come back with different responses from different points in the play. But each time the “why not” was in the exact same inflection, as though the question were being asked for the very first time. At times, the “happy path” by which one Alexa responded to the other would produce a shorter loop, coming back to repeat the same material, as for instance the bit about the willow tree (“no more weeping”). The part about Gogo and Didi possibly hanging themselves was included as well—which could only make one sympathetic to the two poor machines with less means of accomplishing the task than Beckett’s characters. The series of insults was particularly amusing in the affectless voices of Alexa 1 and 2.

A range of experience, certainly, containing much anger and distress, but also mystery, poetry, and the celebration of creativity. The festival atmosphere, as opposed to the one show per weekend format, lets one encounter different audiences throughout the night which can become a factor in how one experiences a particular show. Co-Artistic Director Molly FitzMaurice called the Satellite Festival “the Cab of the Cab,” as a weekend of pieces in progress or not full-show length or simply less like plays and more like cabaret performances. As ever, the Satellite Festival is a various occasion to sample more of the talent passing through the Yale School of Drama.

The Festival’s creative teams:

Alexa, wait for Godot
Created by Elliot G. Mitchell
Projection Design: Camilla Tassi

black girl burning: an open letter
Written and performed by Malia West
Dramaturg: Gloria Majule; Lighting Design: Riva Fairhall; Sound Design: Bailey Trierweiler; Voiceover: Adrienne Wells

dot the jay
Performed by Robert Lee Hart and Dario Ladani Sánchez

Exit Interview
By Christopher Gabriel Núñez aka Anonymous (And.On.I.Must)
Beats by The Brainius

This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian
Written & performed by Kat Yen

Truck II
Written by Margaret E. Douglas
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Dramaturg: Madeline Charne; Truck Design: Sarah Karl; Sound Design: Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Technical Director: Alex McNamara

Cast: Margaret E. Douglas, Sarah Lyddan, Juliana Martínez

UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia…
Adapted from “We Are Not A Muse” from A Field Guide to Awkward Silences by Alexandra Petri
Book, Music & Lyrics by Sam Linden
Directed by Kat Yen
Music Director: Charlie Romano
Producer: Yuhan Zhang
Dramaturg: Henriëtte Rietveld

Cast: Taylor Hoffman, Ipsitaa Khullar, Edmund O’Neal, Zak Rosen, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Jessy Yates

Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece
Created and performed by Sarah Xiao and Liam Bellman-Sharpe
Costume Design: Alicia Austin

Satellite Festival
Yale Cabaret
March 28-30

The Yale Cabaret will be dark for the next two weekends, then returns April 18-20 with Fireflies by Donja R. Love, an Afro-queer playwright, poet and filmmaker from Philadelphia, directed by first-year director Christopher Betts, who directed School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play earlier this season.

Collective Consciousness Theatre Delivers a Knockout

Review of The Royale, Collective Consciousness Theatre

In certain contexts, “The Royale,” best-known perhaps from its memorable description in Ralph Ellison’s important and influential novel Invisible Man, was a humiliating contest that white men imposed upon black men—usually servants or simply people rounded up for the occasion. The black men—about half a dozen—were blindfolded and put in a ring to knock each other around to the spectators’ entertainment. The last man standing got to scoop up as much of the money thrown into the ring as he could carry.

When his trainer Wynton (Gregoire Mouning) tells Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) about his experience in “The Royale” in Marco Ramirez’s play of that name, it’s during the lead-up to Jackson’s heavyweight championship bout with Bixby, the white champ. Bixby has agreed to fight Jackson, a black man, on the condition that, win or lose, Bixby gets 90% of the take. Max (Ian Alderman), Jackson’s savvy manager, thinks Jackson can do better—if he bides his time and waits.

Jackson is through waiting. Convinced he truly is the best boxer living, Jackson knows that the sports press won’t acknowledge that fact so long as there’s an existing champ. And, since this is happening in the 1900s in the era of Jim Crow, the obstacles to a black man fighting a white man in the ring as an official championship bout are many. The fact that Bixby has agreed, even in such insulting terms, indicates the seriousness of Jackson’s challenge. Wynton tells Jackson he would “fight the son-of-a-bitch for free.”

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

In its production at Collective Consciousness Theatre, The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, is a knockout. The small playing space is dominated by a very convincing cast that put across the drama, the wry humor, the sheer physicality, and, at last, the incredible tension leading up to that final bout. It’s a winner.

It would be hard not to root for Jackson right from the start. Based on the charismatic boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, Jackson, as played by Bethune, does the original proud. He’s got great looks, a boyish smile, and the cockiness older viewers will remember from Muhammad Ali, a way of making every fight seem in the bag long before it happens.

When we first meet Jackson he’s in the ring with yet another pretender, called “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester), and the scene is played out with wonderfully precise timing. Rather than pretend to hit one another, the actors make arm movements and stamp their feet—which puts across a sense of the power of the punches, while the recipient reels. Mostly it’s Hawkins doing the reeling, but he manages to lend a few punches that impress Jackson—before the champ goes in for the kill. Which he does after toying with Hawkins in a credible, engaging manner.

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Jackson’s considerable charm is palpable as, after the fight, he gets past Hawkins’ resentment and guardedness and hires him as his sparring partner. Jackson, in his fine suits and expensive tastes, is a tough act to manage, and Alderman is a perfect fit in putting across Max’s carnival barker style, his dogged dedication, and his casual racism. At times, Wynton has to caution Jackson in his presumptions, and Mouning exudes canny wisdom. When Jackson hears there have been whites trying to get into arenas armed, he is more upset about the fact that Wynton and Max have teamed up to keep the fact from him than he is frightened by the threats. Jackson’s “you working for him or me?” to Wynton bites hard.

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

So compelling is this small cast in taking us into the manly world of prizefighting, we may tend to forget the prim, well-dressed woman seated at the back of the stage (Tamika Pettway). Eventually she will arrive—on the very eve of the championship fight—and throw shade upon all that Jackson has accomplished.

She’s not (as you might expect) a woman with a dirty secret from Jackson’s past, but rather his sister, Nina. And what she has to say is a heartfelt fear that, if Jackson wins, the sight of a black man rising above his station will bring down reprisals against innocent blacks and children, such as her sons, Jackson’s nephews. She sees Jackson, in his ambition and self-love, as concerned only with himself and his fame. But in Jackson’s view, the stakes are higher; he sees himself fighting as his sister’s champion, to strike a blow against cultural ideals restricted to white standards. In some ways, the fight between brother and sister eclipses the championship bout and The Royale dramatizes that quite well with Pettway giving Nina a single-minded purpose quite the match for her brother’s.

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

To the victor goes the spoils in a Battle Royale, and here the victims are the victor’s too.

 

The Royale
By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Jenny Nelson

Assistant Director/Choreographer: Michelle Burns; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emily Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda and Jamie Burnett; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Producer: Dexter J. Singleton

Cast: Ian Alderman, Christopher Bethune, Oliver Sai Lester, Gregoire Mouning, Tamika Pettway

Collective Consciousness Theatre
March 28-April 14, 2019

Oh, Avital!

Review of Avital, Yale Cabaret

When I got to graduate school in Princeton in 1989, there was a story going around about a gay male faculty member who, after a party for grad students at his home, had aggressively hit on a grad student he had gotten alone. The incident was traumatic for the student and irritating to the faculty member, who got suspended, briefly, I believe. In any case, I didn’t know anyone involved, but it indicated something about graduate studies.

That was ten years after Avital Ronell received her doctorate at Princeton, and she had recently become known for The Telephone Book, a super cool work of cultural criticism heavily laden with post-phenomenological philosophy. Ronell hung with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler, one of Ronell’s Berkeley cronies, released her highly influential Gender Trouble shortly after.

The story of the randy faculty member and the legacy of the glories of early ‘90s cultural criticism shared uneasy space in my mind when the story of Ronell’s treatment of a doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman, at NYU in the 2000s broke in 2018. Reitman added Ronell to the #MeToo mix when he accused her of sexual harassment and stalking and other actions generally reserved—in the popular consciousness at least—for predatory males in power. Judith Butler earned internet ire for her defense of Ronell, who was tried in various think-pieces, some rather captious. Both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay; all the more reason, one might suppose, for gender trouble and the difficulty of reading how power is inscribed into discourse relations to be relevant to whatever was going on between them.

In Avital, a performance piece by Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama, in collaboration with two actors, Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, the relation between Ronell and Reitman—with verbatim quotations from their published email exchanges played for lurid laughs—becomes the stuff of hilarious, irreverent, sad, surprising, creative and, finally, exhausting intervention. Apparently, Ronell began as a performance artist, and certainly her version of philosophical inquiry is highly performative, so this piece at the Yale Cabaret plays where she lives. Two more shows, tonight, at 8 and 11 p.m.

It begins before it begins. The set is an incredibly long conference table, complete with skirt and water carafe and microphone and chair. It’s the setting—if you’re in the academy—of “a talk,” “a presentation,” “a paper.” The three actors come in and mime energetically to a breathy ABBA tune and we’re off.

Michael Breslin in Avital

Michael Breslin in Avital

Breslin takes the lone chair and launches into a frenetic mimicry of Ronell giving a paper on Stupidity (the title of a later book). Breslin’s take-off is hilarious, a caustic injection of the carnivalesque into a domain generally too self-involved to note how ridiculous it can be. The mockery isn’t aimed at Ronell so much as the performativity of academia itself. Breslin, in his own voice, introduces the Ronell/Reitman story with a barrage of quick and funny clips, comedy-show style. I almost fell out of my chair from laughing a few times.

Soon Mann, in a distressed fright-wig and a black negligee, is giving a nicely controlled reading of Ronell’s verbal caresses and salient bon mots. Jahava, way off on the other end of the long table, with a helmet-like hairdo, puts Reitman through his paces. In emails to Ronell he’s rather ham-fisted at trying to play along with her flighty flirtations; in emails to others he vents about her unreasonable and distressing and disgusting demands.

Zoe Mann in Avital

Zoe Mann in Avital

To dramatize these exchanges simply to expose how pathetic they are—or, indeed, how private—would be worth a cheap laugh, doused in Schadenfreude. Breslin has more on his mind, and that’s indicated by how he presents the material. Eventually we get cartoon talking heads of the actors, muttering through their personal takes on the Ronell/Reitman repercussions like any internet savant. Mann takes Ronell’s side, attributing her poor choices to the loneliness of the international academic; Jahava opines that the story’s details are simply “too white.”

Eventually, Jahava enacts a comedy routine that compares the survival skills of black girls and white girls, but before she gets to that, she gives us a heart-to-heart on how she became possessed by the genius of Barbra Streisand, and, while Mann belts out “I’m the Greatest Star,” races back and forth and cavorts with manic glee. By then, we’ve strayed a bit from Ronell’s particular abuse of power, but, at the same time, we’re catching glimpses of certain contextual issues, having to do with representations of gender and with queer aesthetics, and that, for Avital, is all we need.

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Admittedly, some parts do drag a bit—or does it say something about me that watching cartoon faces talk tends to make me doze? But the musical numbers, including a rave up at the end, complete with mirror ball, bring in a devilish sense of the party ethic that plays into the human tendency to make other bodies do one’s bidding. At one point, Breslin, with Reitman wig, and Mann, as Ronell, lie upon each other as though in fulfillment of Ronell’s favorite bubble bath fantasy.

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Then there’s Breslin’s live typing of what might be a series of emails or private logs (happening publicly); these, in the self-consciously arch voice of text-message-confession, tell a story of date rape the most harrowing fact of which may have been the perpetrator’s “rainbow faux hawk.” Does the shade thrown return to plague the inventor, we might wonder, but the magic of performance is how well it exorcises demons while exercising those nimble skeletons in the closet.

What, we might ask, has Ronell been outed as, at last? And, whatever that is, would anyone ever hashtag it MeToo?

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital


 Avital

By Michael Breslin and the company
Directed by Michael Breslin

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Producers: Lisa D. Richardson & Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Projection Designers: Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann; Sound Designers: Daniela Hart & Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Julia Bates; Swing Stage Manager: Rory Pelsue

Cast: Michael Breslin, Amandla Jahava, Zoe Mann

Yale Cabaret
March 7-9, 2019

Prime Time

Review of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

“We have all the time in the world” is a phrase used by “primes,” synthetic humanoid entities that act as companions and consolations to humans in the, perhaps, not so distant future of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, playing through Saturday at New Haven Theater Company. In the play, the first prime we meet is a replica of Marjorie’s husband, Walter (Ryan Hendrickson). Marjorie (Margaret Mann) is in her ‘80s and her husband died some time ago, but his replica has a thirtyish appearance that makes him look younger than Tess (Susan Kulp), Marjorie’s only living child, a middle-aged woman married to Jon (Marty Tucker).

The disparate ages might make for the stuff of futuristic comedy, but that’s not what Harrison is going for. Though there is amusement here, it tends to come from a certain deadpan humor in the face of unpleasant truths. Marjorie is losing her memory and most of her interest in life, and she may be sliding toward dementia. Walter is an aid in trying to keep her focused on events in her life, to maintain the fragile sense of identity that memory gives us. In the care facility where Marjorie resides, conversation with Walter is encouraged. Primes store what they are told and can converse about a past they never lived, based solely on memories imported or inputted from others.

Tess finds it all off-putting. Not only that she’s faced with a father-replica younger than herself, but, worse, that Marjorie may be trusting and confiding in Walter Prime more than her own flesh-and-blood family. Much of the play has to do with the effort to find common ground in lived experience; the way, for instance, that Marjorie, when younger and more herself, disapproved of Jon as a husband for Tess, though now she has warmed to him; or the way the family dog and its replacement—Tony and Tony 2—are remembered; or the way that Tess still feels embattled by her view of her mother, even if that woman is no longer fully present.

MP-GW-marjorie-code-no-tag_edited.jpg

As the play goes on, there will be additional primes, each a bit more surprising than the last. And there’s a traumatic story about Damien, the son Marjorie and Walter lost, that comes up early and returns late in the play. The way little bits of information circulate is key to the effect here, letting us reflect on how we store up facts about others in our lives, and how we trot out stories of favors and slights we received as though they add up to a life. They don’t, and Tess is finding herself up against it: wondering if any of it matters, and what purpose sociability and chatter serve other than as distractions.

Watching her mother’s decline unmoors Tess more and more, and Susan Kulp plays her with grim and pinched features and an irritation that moves toward despair. Her transformation to a selfless serenity, late in the play, without benefit of makeup or costume change, is striking. Margaret Mann gives Marjorie a feisty charm that sets the tone we come to expect from the play, which is why the second act is so unsettling. We see how far a cry a prime is from the being it tries to replicate. In the third act, we might almost begin to believe in primes as substitutes for the troublesome humans we have lost. A factor that comments on the way we tend to sanitize our memories of the deceased.

Jon, played by Marty Tucker with a staunch affability that crumbles effectively in a story of a fateful visit to Madagascar, at one point says that, if he died before her, he would want Tess to find someone new. The possibility of new people never quite intrudes into this somewhat claustrophobic play where characters seem to want only what they’ve already known. Through interaction with humans, the primes strive to become more imbued with their assigned identity. Humans, on the other hand, can only look forward to loss of identity and death. Meant to be consolations and company, primes in Marjorie Prime come to seem an affable memento mori.

As Walter, Ryan Hendrickson has perhaps the toughest role. As the only character we see only as a prime, Hendrickson’s Ryan comes to seem the most “natural,” a way of being unfinished and full of potential that, while true of humans as well, makes the primes seem eternally hopeful beings. In the last scene, aided by significant lighting effects, we might feel that all we are, or were, is fated to end up in an animatronic display case for all time. Is that better or worse than a portrait gallery? Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime lets you make up your own mind about that, and Trevor Williams’ tight production at New Haven Theater Company doesn’t tip its hand, one way or another.

The primes have all the time in the world, to learn facts and to deepen their responses. Our time to determine who we are and achieve it is much more limited, and there’s no way to be sure what will survive, nor even what constitutes who we were in the minds of others. One thing’s for sure: living on as a memory in a mortal being is no way to achieve immortality. The primes may be just what we need as eternal witnesses of trivial existence, as if all our photos of pets and meals and travels and events could exist forever in a searchable database tagged with our individual DNA. Well, why not?

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Ryan Hendrickson, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Marty Tucker

Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo

New Haven Theater Company
February 28-March 2 & March 7-9, 2019

Reaching Out

Review of Detroit ’67, Hartford Stage

In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit exploded. There was looting and arson in black neighborhoods, where the racist treatment by the police incensed the residents into violence. The police, and eventually the National Guard and U.S. Army, retaliated. The rebellion played out over five days as the most destructive riot of the many that occurred that summer, and one of the worst in U.S. history.

Halfway through Dominque Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, playing through March 10 at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, the chaos in the streets starts and impinges on the story. At that point, the play, concerned with a drama of personalities, is set against a threatening background that will likely lead to death. If the role of the offstage violence in the play seems a bit convenient, its presence makes clear the kind of underground life these characters live, the risks they face, and the resentments below the surface.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Set entirely in the basement of the house Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey), short for Langston as in Hughes, grew up in, the action, initially, concerns the siblings’ efforts to earn money by hosting afterhours parties in the basement. To that end, Lank, contrary to his sister’s devotion to vinyl, has procured a new-fangled device: an 8-track player! Such details take us back to a different time, greatly aided by Dede M. Ayite’s period costumes and Leah J. Loukas’ hair and makeup design. The feeling of a bygone era is key to the play, recreating a world in which the greats of Motown—Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops—are at the top of their game. As a defining export from black Detroit also beloved of white America, Motown was an important cultural ambassador, a fact which makes the hostility in the streets all the more searing.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

The long shadow of that era in popular culture means we feel we know these characters and how they interact. They’re familiar, whether it’s the clash between the siblings over how to spend their inheritance from their deceased parents—Lank wants to invest in opening his own club, Chelle is skeptical—or Lank’s smooth-talking buddy and would-be business partner Sly (Will Cobbs), who may be sweet on Chelle, or Chelle’s sassy and brassy friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie) who has “a lot to go-around.” Into this mix, even before we get to the riots, enters Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white girl in a go-go outfit whom Lank can’t help helping when he finds her wandering dazed, bloodied, and bruised in traffic.

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Now we’ve got the makings for interracial romance, and that might be enough of a vehicle for revisiting the way black and white cultures didn’t cross lines much during those times. That they might and did was part of the thrill and risk when the races mixed, and Le Vine and Ramey do a good job of playing with a fire set on a low heat. It could catch, but there are many complications, not least Chelle’s aversion to Caroline—though she lets her stay and help with serving in the basement club—and Lank’s unease about going behind his sister’s back to buy a real club that’s up for sale.

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Director Carroll is skilled with a play that has a lot of episodic encounters, its characters chatting and sometimes grooving to the tunes, while having little moments of discontent or disagreement. The pacing, for a play that runs to two and a half hours, is nearly flawless. And, while we can feel the plot like a net closing in, there are many nice touches that keep our disbelief suspended. Not least is what strikes me as the heart of what Morisseau is getting at: a plaintive grievance that Chelle sounds to Bunny about what she sees as a kind of betrayal in Lank’s interest in Caroline. And that means that Lank is apt to fail his sister where it counts.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

At the heart of the play, then, is Chelle, and Myxolydia Tyler lets us hear her, not least in a gripping moment when the seductive power of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” reaches catharsis. Cobbs, groomed to look perfectly the part, is suitably sly and sexy as Sly, and Allie’s Bunny offers both comic relief and canny appraisal of the others, the kind of friend you want on your side.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

The further plot elements—the vulnerability of the club during the disturbances, Caroline’s ties to corrupt cops, the doomed love aspects—begin to pile up as though Morisseau can’t resist reaching out, trying to bring in all the possible obstacles and upsets the time and place afford. If there were less story, there might be more time for the characters to complicate the roles they’ve been written into.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

An ambitious, at times meandering play, Detroit ’67 works at Hartford Stage in Carroll’s capable way with a capable cast, each contributing to an engaging ensemble. Like the five-part vocals of a song by The Temptations, Detroit ’67 gives each voice its space.

 

Detroit ‘67
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Hair & Makeup Design: Leah J. Loukas; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Production Stage Manager: Heather Klein; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Nyahale Allie, Will Cobbs, Ginna Le Vine, Johnny Ramey, Myxolydia Tyler

Hartford Stage
February 14-March 10, 2019

Equality! Sorority! Levity!

Review of The Revolutionists, Playhouse on Park

Google Lauren Gunderson and you’ll learn that she is the living playwright most often produced in our country. Whatever that translates into, in number of productions, the playwright’s work has been a strange rarity in Connecticut and that’s reason enough to head to Playhouse on Park, where Gunderson’s playful, satiric, and serious play The Revolutionists runs through March 10.

Gunderson’s play, from 2017, achieves a quality many plays aim for these days: a relevance to our times, even if that causes strained analogies and anachronistic misreading. Here, the anachronisms, the meta gestures, the tongue-in-cheek tone that renders historical figures in our terms are all deliberate and mostly fresh conceptions. Directed by Sarah Hartmann, it’s at times a fast-moving historical farce, and almost a cri de coeur about the challenge of making art in a time of political factions and intellectual chaos. Offering vivid feminist revisionism, The Revolutionists puts the exchanges of its four notable female characters at the heart of the action. Or rather at the heart of trying to decide what action to take in perilous times.

The play is set at the height of the Reign of Terror in the Paris of 1793 when leftist forces, having seized power in the Revolution, were putting to death anyone sympathetic to the ancien régime and, in many cases, anyone who contested Jacobin rule. It was a time for a particularly heinous mob-violence and for extremisms of all kinds, not least in the journaux of the day such as that of Jean-Paul Marat.

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Four of the play’s three women fell to the guillotine in actual life: Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), a feminist playwright and political activist, Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe), the deposed queen of France, and Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), the assassin of Marat; the fourth, Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) is a fictionalized composite figure who combines Marianne (the personification of the ideals of the French Republic) with abolitionists of color who hoped, in the new France, to end slavery in the French Caribbean. Marianne’s husband is a political prisoner in Haiti and Marianne comes to Olympe in hopes she will write pamphlets in protest.

She finds Olympe in the throes of a writer’s crisis, desperate to write a new play for the times, a play that might be amazingly like The Revolutionists, even as Olympe admits it’s never a good idea to write a play about writing a play. Ironies abound, and Gunderson’s play (with apologies to Marie-Antoinette) manages to have its cake and eat it too. It sends up the kind of play it is, or might be, and still makes the most of its central conceit: the creative crisis of the playwright, with her need to address inequality and tyranny, to uphold feminism and freedom, and to be profound, inspiring, entertaining, and playable in a couple hours or less. Does The Revolutionists succeed? Hell, yeah. It’s even under 90 minutes.

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Gunderson peppers the play with jokes at the expense of our contemporary sensitivities, even as she manages to wink at the hip and amuse the cynical. The situation is dire enough, and characters really do die. There’s a heightened sense of danger that can intrude at any moment, as with the dramatic sound effects and lighting that signal the reach of the Terror. Meanwhile, through much of the play, there is no lack of feminine vanity nor of the kind of ditziness that has been a stock-in-trade of screwball comedies since forever. The ladies are all likeable types, as if college dormmates trying to decide what to major in now the revolution’s here.

As Olympe, Rebecca Hart is earnest with the kind of out-loud thoughts familiar from just about any teen drama (especially ones that have Winona Ryder). She’s at times a straight-man, at times a foil to the three interlocutors who burst rather peremptorily into her creative reveries. First, there’s Marianne, with the two getting on like sisters of the revolution who know they may only have each other, in the end. Marianne is more of a realist than Olympe, preferring pamphlets to plays, and Erin Roché keeps her attitude toward the other characters sharp throughout. That includes would-be assassin Charlotte Corday (Marianne wants to know right away if Charlotte has been jilted recently). Charlotte is counting on her looks to get past Marat’s defenses and do the bastard in for the part he played in the executions. The others tease her with alternatives, but nothing will stop her fixed purpose, played by Olivia Jampol with a bit of Valerie Solanis-like mania. Finally, there’s Jennifer Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette, a giggling, preening, preppie with, as she notes, a surprisingly trenchant view at times.

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

David Lewis’s set has the advantage of being always a set, pointing out the play-within-the-mind elements over any effort to distinguish, say, a study from a prison. The four are trapped as soon as they walk onto the playing space and the only way out is through the door that leads to death—effectively enacted by blood-red ribbons. Kate Bunce’s costumes play-up the anachronistic cartoonishness of these caricatures while letting each look her part. Lampol’s Pre-Raphaelite tresses and Holcombe’s confectionary wig help with the visuals. As do the masks and outfits donned by Jampol and Roché as they play male mockers of the doomed, speaking for the mob. Such scenes up the tragic dimension of the show, while giving each a kind of “voted-off-the-island” send-off.

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

While there are some groaners that might put you mind of the “levity or death” desperation of less ambitious comedies, the speakers in The Revolutionists are too vivacious to let deflation be their fate. The play might feel at times like a work in progress, a rehearsal, a late-night panic session or even an SNL sketch—in a way it’s all that and more, because it’s also a pointed reminder of the fates that befell strong, inspirational women who, at least in their own lives, were on the wrong side of history. All the more reason to make them engaging emblems of herstory.

The Revolutionists
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Sarah Hartmann

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Rebecca Hart, Jennifer Holcombe, Olivia Jampol, Erin Roché

Playhouse on Park
February 20-March 10, 2019

 

Online Therapy Onstage

Review of Tiny Beautiful Things, Long Wharf Theatre

Plot and character are intrinsically linked. Often what keeps us watching (or reading) is the question “what will happen?” And what happens tells us something about the people involved. We learn something about them, and they learn something about themselves. Or not, at their peril.

Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at Long Wharf Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by Nia (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s  book of that name. The book is comprised of letters Strayed received, while writing as “Sugar,” the anonymous online advice columnist for The Rumpus, and her replies. The stage show of this material orchestrates the questions and the answers so that there is a flow of lighter and darker elements, and throughout there is the ongoing question of who “Sugar” is. Not simply in the sense of what her real name is (it’s no spoiler to say that it does get revealed onstage), but in the more important sense of who she is, as a dispenser of advice and moral support to the many anonymous authors who query her.

That question, then, is the only element of character revelation the play can offer as dramatic interest. All the writers asking their questions—played onstage by Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati—are presented as one-time-only correspondents. There is no follow-up, no sense of whether or not anyone heeds Sugar’s advice, or changes their minds or behavior, nor of what they might think of what she told them. The queries cover diverse situations, from extramarital crushes to when to tell a woman you love her, from whether or not to reconcile with parents who mishandled their child’s gender divergence to whether or not to tell one’s boyfriend about a rape one suffered long ago, from how to cope with a devastating miscarriage to how to cope with the devastating death of a grown son.

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

What you might think of what Sugar tells them, I suspect, has a lot to do with how you approach the question of giving advice, based on a one-sided letter, to people you have never met. The key to Sugar’s success is that she thrives at the task and that her many fans loved reading her responses. She sometimes dramatizes, in writing, her difficulty in replying but she always finds something in the well and seems pleased with whatever she comes up with. The queries, even when encapsulating complicated situations, are often impressively succinct. Sugar’s replies rarely are.

The responses are only occasionally advice, in the play. More often they are occasions for Sugar to divulge information about herself. And that aspect—what she confesses—gradually lets us build up a picture of her character, an effect more interesting as simply a voice on the screen, I imagine. Onstage, we see Cindy Cheung play Sugar as a writer and novelist who takes the gig due to some affinity for it, and, one supposes, the attraction of reaching people immediately in writing. As a character, Cheung maintains a certain reassuring stoicism, as her honest self-appraisal is key to how Sugar has endured the trials and errors of her own life. And that’s primarily what she tries to pass along.

At Long Wharf, Kimie Nishikawa’s set design places the action in a comfy, green backyard, outside the rear of a very realistic house. There’s a certain logic to it. Sugar exists for her readers only in words, online. She spends most of her time, as a character, sitting at a picnic table at a laptop, or talking earnestly to people who mime listening as she speaks. Here, she is given a very mundane setting, an image of normality that works, as does Cheung’s steady voice, as a way of holding all the chaos and turmoil of such messy lives at bay. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction highlights the hominess and the sense of the letter writers as neighbors who “drop by” in Sugar’s mind.

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

How happy Strayed’s readers will be with the Long Wharf production will likely have to do with how well they feel the show catches the call-and-response drama of the exchanges. The most successful, in that view, is Brian Sgambati’s rendering of “Living Dead Dad,” a father whose son was struck down by a drunk driver. Sgambati gives a carefully modulated reading of LDD’s list of how he tries to cope and can’t. The reply finds Sugar mimicking his list structure, trying to push him beyond his settled misery into some other light. There is a small but dramatic gesture at the end of Sugar’s list. The play doesn’t say what became of the real LDD, but lets us take this as a moment of implied catharsis. If only it were that easy.

Occasionally, for the sake of her audience, Sugar will make light of her correspondent’s plight in a good-humored way. Some of the writers seem at least a little tongue-in-cheek. But when she finally responds to “WTF,” whose query “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck” is asked “about everything, every day,” she chooses not to treat this as a chance to show her sense of humor (or to advise having one). Instead, she tells a story of her own abuse as a child that puts the burden of making sense on WTF (and everyone listening). Victimization of children is appalling, and Sugar speaks of the experience as somehow intrinsic to her sense of where she wound up (which includes a period as a heroin addict). As a reply to WTF, Sugar’s story might easily inspire a more vehement “what the fuck?” In making “the fuck” be about herself, Sugar says, she wants WTF to see how s/he is also the fuck. One supposes this stopped the query, but one still wonders what the fuck WTF was pissed off about.

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

In the play, Sugar never connects the dots in her own life; she uses her experience as examples but not as events that contribute to a progressive narrative of how she became who she is. She tells us things that happened. Doubtless there were many other things as well. And many other letters. And more stories of fucked-up situations than there could ever be enough time for. Sugar maintained a connection through the site with the folks out there for two years. Then published a selection of the correspondence which became a best-selling book. Now, a smaller selection has been dramatized for the edification of audiences. What we learn, arguably, is how each querier is generally the same character, a voice trapped in a plot not of its own making and looking for a little clarifying input. As theater, the show strikes me as something like a punishment in Hades: to ask night after night the same question and get always the same reply.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design: Yuki Nakase; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati

Long Wharf Theatre
February 13-March 10, 2019

Kitchen Heat

Review of Novios: part one, Yale Cabaret

Arturo Luis Soria III, a third-year actor at the Yale School of Drama, steps up fully as a playwright with part one of his two part play, Novios (“boyfriends”), playing for two more shows tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., directed by third-year actors Sohina Sidhu and Amandla Jahava. Soria, besides being a graceful presence in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of El Huracan at the start of this season, played a theatricalized version of his mother last season at the Cabaret in his original play Ni Mi Madre. There, he mostly stuck to English; with Novios, he lets many of his characters speak in their native Spanish, with subtitles on screens in the corners. The effect can be a little awkward, since these characters speak very rapidly, often in four-way conversations, and yet even those whose Spanish is almost nonexistent (like me) shouldn’t have any trouble following the dialogue.

And the dialogue gains greatly by being heard in its native tongue. Four members of the kitchen staff at a Manhattan restaurant, though of different national origins, speak Spanish as a lingua franca closer to home than English—Gallo (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Dominicano (Raul Díaz), Micki (Christopher Gabriel Nuñez), and Luis (Jecamiah M. Ybañez). Then there’s a Russian, Vlad (Devin White), a white Chef (John Evans Reese), and the newcomer, Antoine (Gregory Saint Georges), a Haitian hired as dishwasher. The use of Spanish establishes a core bond among the four, even as they often argue and deal in putdowns and points of honor. In one scene, Gallo goes off into a fantasy addressed to an absent love, and her words are pure poetry. Cordero Pino also plays L’Azteka, a fierce spirit in a striking gown decorated with Aztec motifs. L’Azteka seems to exist primarily in the dream mind of Luis, who emerges as the main figure here.

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The play’s plot develops with a sense of inevitability, but, all the while, the liveliness of the characters, of their full engagement with the worlds they’ve left and the places their trying to get to, keeps us fully in the action, and keeps subplots percolating. There are impromptu dance routines to music the workers bicker over, there are shared blunts with smoke blown (for real) out the window, there is male coupling on top of a kitchen cart (to the cheers of the audience), and there’s Chef being condescending to his sous-chef Gallo, and short-tempered on the phone to his partner. And there’s Vlad, a character who plays as a bit of a loose cannon and who gets in a nice diatribe against “the home of the free” rhetoric that keeps bringing naïve immigrants to America.

The characters’ status in the country where they are making a home for themselves vary and that fact contributes to their general demeanor. Dominicano and Antoine seem the most easygoing; Micki has a short temper; Vlad is slightly sinister; Luis, put upon because he’s so often late (he may not have an actual home-base), is the one with attitude about why he deserves better than a job as kitchen help; Gallo at times plays at den mother to the boys, but clearly has a backstory of her own. Part 1’s main focus is showing a relationship develop between conflicted Luis (in a very affecting performance by Ybañez, a third-year director at YSD) and Gregory Saint Georges’ confident and likeable Antoine. The other characters, we sense, will move forward too, as the play moves into Part 2, and we’re left looking forward to when we’ll have the opportunity to watch the entire play.

Gerardo Díaz Sánchez’s set, a central kitchen space, is very effective, and Nic Vincent’s Lighting Design makes for a visually interesting show. The movement of so many bodies—dancing, cooking, pounding meat, and even creating an insistent percussion routine—is greatly facilitated by Jake Ryan Lozano’s choreography, including passionate physical outbursts and sexual expression.

While still a work in progress, Novios has passion aplenty, a strong sense of the people it represents, and the kind of mystery and poetry that makes for exciting and involved theater. Don’t miss a chance to see its first half early on, brought to life by the actorly empathy and instincts of directors Jahava and Sidhu in the Cab’s intimate and efficient space.

 

Novios: part one
By Arturo Luis Soria III
Directed by Amandla Jahava & Sohina Sidhu

Producer: Estefani Castro; Choreographer & Intimacy Coach: Jake Ryan Lozano; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone: Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent: Projection Designer: Sean Preston; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner: Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Raul Díaz, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, John Evans Reese, Gregory Saint Georges, Devin White, Jecamiah M. Ybañez

 

Yale Cabaret
February 21-23, 2019

Reworked "Working" Works at ACT

Review of Working, ACT, Ridgefield

There’s a new kid on the block. ACT, or A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, a new musical theater in Ridgefield, CT, has launched its first full season with a reworking of Stephen Schwartz’s Working. The original debuted in 1977, turning the stories collected by Chicago-radio personality Studs Terkel for his best-selling book on working lives into occasions for song and dance. A later version received an Off-Broadway production in 2012 and featured new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 2019 version at ACT,  revamped by Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, in consultation with Schwartz, updates elements of the show and, significantly, incorporates material from interviews Levine conducted with Ridgefield workers. The new version offers the best of both worlds: the Broadway polish of the original show together with home-grown local elements.

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

Schwartz in fact combines both aspects as well: a Ridgefield resident, he is a very successful Broadway composer, with shows like Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked to his credit. He is one of the inspirations behind ACT, and the first three seasons will each feature one of his works as part of the Presenting Stephen Schwartz series. But ACT isn’t only about classic musicals. The second slot of the debut season is taken by Austen’s Pride, a new musical about ever-beloved author Jane Austen that is on its way to Broadway, and the third show at ACT will be the popular musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, winner of the 2005 Tony for Best Book of a Musical.

The theater at ACT features seating higher than the stage, creating a very open playing space for this very energetic play, accessorized with scaffolds and screens as both backdrops and moveable scenery. The ladders and stairs and various props used to suggest different working areas are augmented by a wide variety of multimedia effects, including clips of local workers at work while their voices can be heard ruminating about their lives and their jobs (Scenic Design, Jack Mehler; Media Design, Caite Hevner). It all blends together seamlessly with the songs and speeches presented by the six-member cast. The intimacy of the staging is such that every member of the audience feels directly addressed by the performers, and that makes for a vibrant community feel.

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

In swift vignettes, we learn something about a range of occupations—tree-cutter, waitress, teacher, firefighter, trucker, mason, care-provider, office worker, fast food deliverer, housewife, housecleaner, millworker, drugstore clerk, tech support, receptionist, deli owner—and can let ourselves by cheered by the fact that there are people who perform these tasks, some of whom are deeply gratified by the nature of the work they do. The point of the show, not without its tensions, is that work is essential to one’s identity and to feeling part of a community, to say nothing of the capitalist system in general. Leisure may be a wonderful thing, but here it’s all about getting down to what needs to be done, for the sake of work itself.

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

The cast of three men—Brad Greer, André Jordan, Cooper Grodin—and three women—Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz—maintains familiar gender binaries of the working world: the cleaners are women, the truckers are men. There is a female millworker (Ramirez) and a male caregiver (Jordan), but a bit more mixing might add some new wrinkles. Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” given a soulful rendering by Washington, serves up the plaint of the stay-at-home mom, which may be pertinent again as it was back in the ‘70s. Stay-at-home dads—was that just an ‘80s thing? Another song with a nice sense of occupational anxiety is Woyasz’s believably ethnic teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How,” a sharp aside on how education is always inflected by its setting (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, music by Mary Rodgers).

From the guys, there’s an inspiring speech by Greer as a firefighter; he also, guitar in hand, serves up Carnelia’s “The Mason” as a celebration of folk endurance; in the staging of James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” the guys are serviced by the female cast members in sexy attire, to let us know that the road has its rewards as well as its regrets. Then there’s “Joe,” Carnelia’s ode to the retiree (Grodin) whose life without work is a struggle to maintain interest. The man’s failing health segues nicely into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” a song for caregivers and nannies which strikes a plaintive note about doing the work that family members shirk.

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

With such a range of musical collaborators, the songs are varied in their styles, but all land with a snap, and the unseen musicians pack a punch in Dan Pardo’s arrangements for what is essentially a rock band. Particularly memorable, as a blend of movement and song, are Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” a tribute to the finesse of waitressing led by Woyasz, and, incorporating significant media effects, “Brother Trucker” and Miranda’s “Delivery.” Other songs, such as Schwartz’s potentially mawkish “Fathers and Sons,” work well in context: here, we’ve just heard three Ridgefield students talking about their families, their studies, and their hopes for their own professional futures.

Formerly a two-act show, the current version plays under 90 minutes with no intermission. And so the two closers of the respective acts follow one another to form the finale. This means that the rueful sense of lost opportunities in Micki Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been” is immediately parried by Carnelia’s “Something to Point to.” The juxtaposition is telling. Whatever we become, in this world, there may be a sense, perhaps known to none but ourselves, of what we might have been or wanted to be; however that plays out, it’s the reality principle that ultimately triumphs in Working, where you are what you do.

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

It’s rare enough to find the workers of non-glamorous careers celebrated. In our era of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, learning how regular people live can be a worthwhile antidote. There ought to be school trips to see Working, if only to touch base with modern society’s bedrock. And the show isn’t only an occasion for admiring lives given over to workaday jobs, director Daniel C. Levine’s Working is a snappy example of musical theater that really works.

Working: A Musical
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg and Daniel C. Levine
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor
Directed by Daniel C. Levine

Choreography: Chip Abbott; Music Director: Dan Pardo; Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Costume Design: Brenda Phelps; Scenic and Lighting Design: Jack Mehler; Media Design: Caite Hevner; Sound Design: John Salutz; Wig Design and Hair Supervision: Liz Printz; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Michael Seelbach; Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz

Musicians: Dan Pardo, conductor/keyboard; Matt Hinckley, electric and acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric and acoustic bass; Dennis Arcano, drums and percussion

ACT of Connecticut
February 14-March 10, 2019

In So Many Words

Review of What Remains, Yale Repertory Theatre, No Boundaries Series

Claudia Rankine’s poetry is notably situated. In her books Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, the perspective is that of an African American woman, a writer, a teacher, a wife. Hers is a view that shapes itself, as writing, through the provocations of the times through which she lives. The political climate, the mainstream culture, the prevailing ideology en academe, all tinged with an awareness of the generally racist assumptions that mark our time. In interacting with her books to create the performance piece What Remains, choreographer Will Rawls has created a poetic visual and aural language that invokes that very situatedness without naming or describing it.

Four black bodies in flowing, shiny wraps expressive as drapes upon a body can be, moving through a wide open space, dotted here and there, and from time to time, with accoutrements of performance: microphones, a piano disguised as a slab, folding chairs, a mirror ball, light-stands and an umbrella. Here, everything is movement, voice, and sound. Intelligible words, when enunciated, draw attention by their rarity, and by their matter-of-fact address. A statement about late night ads for anti-depressants, a reiteration of what seems a doctor’s advice, phrases—“in so many words”—and quotations from song lyrics. A story about walking behind two men when one tells the other that if he dies, he’s OK with what his life has been. Nothing orients us toward a speaker or a deliberate persona.

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Three of the dancers, female, create moving tableaux that might set off a variety of echoes—three fates, three graces, three sisters, a trio of backup singers, and at times they play off those associations deliberately, as when they form a line that moves through space, each figure experiencing and expressing the movement differently. One (Tara Aisha Willis) might give utterance to a particularly guttural voice, able to twist away from intelligible sounds in a provocative way. Another (Leslie Cuyjet) is more likely to pitch her voice in a melodic way. At one point, late, Jessica Pretty struggles with pitch and we’re suddenly in an impromptu jam session. Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, sound designer, composer and pianist, creates a soundscape that commands our attention, quiet enough to let us feel the force of each different inflection of the reiterated word “you,” loud enough to make chests rattle with the volume of bass, or making us succumb to a loop of sound that sits in space like a physical presence.

As the first time this piece has appeared in a traditional black box, What Remains, at the Iseman Theatre under the auspices of Yale Repertory Theatre, makes the most of the open theatrical space. The lack of visual interest means that the lighting, abetted at times by the players moving the light-stand about, plays a key role in how we read the choreography. The moments that captivated me most were those instances when all four spread out to create kinetic sculpture, each figure an embodied attitude, a marker, a fluid gesture.

The show keeps us awash in stimuli, as we watch the tone and manner change without ever quite being sure of the continuity or the context. The four players are distinct in appearance, making the most of differences in stature or a close-cropped head compared to a torrent of hair. We might want to read associations of place and background in how they shape themselves, but they remain mostly enigmatic. By extrapolation we glimpse how the negotiation of social space is a performance, enabled by a tension between the individual and the collective, with each trying to find a rhythm that gets through.

Fascinating even when somewhat opaque, What Remains is a vibrant ensemble piece that plays out like a sequence of musical tracks, some solemn, some funky, some harsh, some sweet, but always inflected by the richly articulated presence of beauty.

 

What Remains
Direction and Choreography by Will Rawls
Text by Claudia Rankine

Creative Consultant: John Lucas; Production Designer: David Szlasa; Costume Designer: Eleanor O’Connell; Sound Designer: Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste; Music by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste with Will Rawls

Created in collaboration with and performed by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, and Tara Aisha Willis

Yale Repertory Theatre
2018-19 No Boundaries Series
February 14-16, 2019

Heroes of Happy Meals

Review of Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang, Yale Cabaret

This weekend at Yale Cabaret, it’s the new kids in town, or, more properly, in the Yale School of Drama. The high spirits of first-year playwright Angie Bridgette Jones’ Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang is matched by the high spirits of its cast, all first-year actors at the School, and is directed by first-year director Alex Keegan. Most of the tech team marks Cab debuts as well.

The play lends itself to youth—though maybe youth that’s beginning to feel its oats. Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang were, in their day, a pack of pubescents working with zest and commercial zeal in a televised version of a fast-food restaurant. Not exactly Reality TV, the show offered a recipe for diversity, and was the kind of sitcom that forever marks those who watched it in their younger and more impressionable years. Of course, being on the show marked the cast for life, to some extent, and the mix of nostalgia, bitter memory, and theatrical cheer that attends one’s best-remembered role is served up with seasonings that have marinated over the years.

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We’re generally predisposed to see our past as more innocent than the present—not just because we were but because the world was too, or at least that’s how it seems. So, if the beaming face of Bush II on the wall brings back a flurry of fond memories, then you already share a world with the Kids Gang. Likewise, your frame of reference for the kind of kids’ show Lenny’s FFKG was in its day will date you. Let’s just leave it at “Nickelodeon,” with Lenny, who was played by Kaleb (in a feisty portrayal by Bre Northrup), supposedly the leader. It’s due to Kaleb that this reunion is taking place, after fifteen years, as though he can’t quite get over the time when he was the focus of all that attention.

The others—Jason (Daniel Liu), Jessica (Malia West), Daniella (Madeline Seidman), Walter (Holiday), and Bam Bam (Julian Sanchez), the talking dog—have all moved on, more or less, but some have hopes that a reunion, with press and possibly agents, will revive interest in the show. But let’s not worry overmuch about the plot. What makes Jones’ play work is how the cast navigate their former roles and their current status. It all lands as both tribute and inquest, each wondering how they endured the show and who they are without it.

Bam Bam, for instance, has been a substance-abuser for quite some time. Once you’ve been a talking dog on TV, what’s life got to offer? Walter has a tale of woe as well. On the show, his tag was his endless consumption of burgers. Now he’s got diabetes and his health is in decline. Then there’s the way the Asian-American boy and African-American girl played by Jason and Jessica respectively were simply token parts with no lines or silly ones. And Daniella, though she educated herself beyond her eye-candy white girl role, still feels marked by it. And that leaves Kaleb, the white male of the group, as the only one still uplifted by the show’s part in his life.

Further tensions come to light with a gun, an emergency signal that produces a lockdown, and an anxious wait for some kind of intervention. Along the way, there are various send-ups, put-downs, and very amusing occasions to vent about what was what. Liu and West come across memorably as real life characters that put to shame their televised caricatures. Sanchez’s strung-out dog pouts and whines and rolls about like a live-action cartoon, Seidman gives Daniella a wide-eyed intensity and Holiday’s Walter delivers the tones of the sad sack trying to overcome a minor part. The possibility of an impending moment of truth keeps the action moving with a frenetic sense of incident. Lenny, ever the autocrat, often standing on a chair, gets a comeuppance that would probably have made a good episode of the show.

The set is a reasonable facsimile of a fast-food restaurant, complete with plate-glass windows and doors, little tables for two, a bathroom (where Bam Bam does lines and hides out), and—for a touch of aging nostalgia—a payphone. Liu and Northrup open the show as cheerleaders for Lenny’s Burgers, a  restaurant in Orlando, Florida, as they work the crowd with questions and mimicry and quick, versatile patter. The opening sets the tone of hyperbolic “fun” that nothing apart from actors on a children’s show could possibly live up to. From the start we’re in the world of hyper simulacrum, and the gaps between role and actor sell the Cab show. Kids grow up and learn the world really isn’t fun, while those beloved figures from childhood who helped sell the idea that it is are apt to be sadder than sad to our grownup eyes.

 

Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang
By Angie Bridgette Jones
Directed by Alex Keegan

Producers: Emma Perrin & Madeline Carey; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Technical Director: Laura Copenhaver; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Holiday, Daniel Liu, Bre Northrup, Julian Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
February 14-16, 2019

But in these cases we still have judgment here

Review of Good Faith, Yale Repertory Theatre

The case: Ricci vs. DeStefano was a lawsuit brought by twenty New Haven firefighters against the city for not following through on the results of a promotion exam, administered in 2003. The city, dismayed that so few firefighters of color scored in the top ranks, chose to throw out the results, claiming the test was biased. The city’s decision was twice upheld but then, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was decided for the firefighters in 2009, in a 5-4 decision. The suit’s victory seems to indicate that even whites can be discriminated against, since the case involved Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act aims to prevent any employer from using race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as a factor in hiring, promoting, or dispensing other work-related benefits. While generally seen as a means of fighting against discrimination arising from factors irrelevant to a given job, the article can also make a judgment call—like throwing out the results of a test deemed unfair—an act of prejudicial discrimination, rather than of a more neutral “discrimination,” i.e., determining whether a test serves its proper function. The ambiguous space between discriminating between applicants based on accomplishment (e.g., scoring high in a test) and discrimination as upholding social inequity or bias might be the realm of philosophy. In the U.S., it’s the realm of the legal profession.

Fine, but is it the stuff of drama? Certainly, tempers flare at such topics, and voices get raised, there may even be threats of violence or of additional lawsuits, but is that reason enough for theater to get involved? Apparently, yes. Yale Repertory Theatre, with the Binger Center for New Theatre, commissioned playwright Karen Hartman, a Yale School of Drama alum, to create a play about the case and its effects. A task that entailed many interviews with principal figures in the events and with many other New Haven citizens. The result, Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and The New Haven Fire Department, is playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 23, directed by Tony-Award-winning director Kenny Leon with an engaging cast.

The play: The subtitle is important because the play is not about the case directly; the “chats” are meant to emulate and stimulate a collective sense of unease about how often race is generally made all-too-relevant in our society. On a spare stage graced by Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set design, a stylized firehouse, and featuring the welcome visual interest of Zachary Borovay’s projections, Writer (Karen Heisler) interacts with, mainly, Frank (Ian Bedford), based on the white man whose name appears in the case as plaintiff, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), based on Mike Briscoe, Tyrone (Rob Demery), based on Tyrone Ewing, both African Americans who took the contested test but did not score high enough for immediate promotion, and Karen (René Augesen), based on Karen Torre, the attorney who took the case to the Supreme Court and won. Each actor, but for Heisler, plays ancillary roles as well. Frank and Tyrone both eventually made Battalion Chief; Mike became director of the 911 communication center.

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

We get to hear their voices as they speak up for their views in cordial arguments, friendly diatribes, and assertive lectures. Strategy becomes a factor in every interaction, as we see lawyers before judges, friends bickering over opinions, colleagues differing over ends and means, and, in some educational vignettes, the way firefighters deal with fires. The fire, we might think with the stretch of a metaphor, is the conflagration that can easily ensue should the spark of injustice fall upon the always flammable body politic. Hearing each other out, as a social good, is part of the good faith underlying Good Faith.

The play’s main weakness is Writer: egregiously passive, overtly “cute,” she is a thin interlocutor for everyone she interviews. The best she can manage is a pleasant smile, a cringe, or a look aside. Her viewpoint, as a narrator or as the one who must pull all these scenes together into a story, is almost nonexistent. This is deliberate, as though the facts speak for themselves, or, at least, that all these speakers running off at the mouth will generate enough interest to coast us through the shallows.

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

An early interview scene between the Writer and Mike and Tyrone—set in a restaurant—establishes the technique. This is not a narrator who will break in for our benefit to move things along. This is much closer to a verbatim presentation of real voices—handled extremely well by Jones and Demery—given free rein no matter where the steed of thought runs. The purpose is to get liberal views (Mike) and conservative views (Tyrone) on the table to show that we can disagree and remain friends, but if you were drinking with these guys, you might buy a round, say ‘I see your point,’ and be on your way. But this is a play, so we have no choice but to let each speaker hold the floor for however long the script allows. At times, in a very realistic manner, Briscoe and Ewing talk over each other. They know they’re being taped by the Writer and they want their views on the record. And in such cases, it’s generally more important to be heard than to listen. And that’s the way it goes.

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

While it is interesting to have a theater full of “blue state” citizens, most affiliated with Yale and/or the greater New Haven area, sit and listen to the pro-Republican diatribe of a caustic ex-liberal (from Connecticut), the dramatic interest in Karen Torre’s prickly harangue occurs between spectacle and audience, not in the play itself. We are often all-too-aware of how the play wants to situate its audience—as “community,” which is to say, people who perforce share the common ground the play engages. By throwing around the names of our presidents, current and recent, it makes us feel how implicated we—collectively, not individually—are in any miscarriage of justice, in any disservice, so to speak, to the least of our number, or, indeed, the most. And yet, the dramatic force of that indictment plays out as a wishy-washy pride in our courts and judges, our cops and firemen, the people to whom we cede the power to tell us what to do when something goes wrong, or that some wrong has occurred.

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

When Mike and Frank meet up in the latter’s office to hash-out the impact of the case and the way both have prospered since, it’s the best scene in terms of relevance to the social reality behind the Ricci case. Both men, knowing each other’s blindness and choosing not to bicker any more than is necessary, come out not only with their own dignity but with respect for each other. As they say, as firemen they risked their lives for each other and for helpless people. They aren’t beholden—until lawsuits get involved—to hired sophistry nor political expediency. They can simply agree to disagree. And the play can leave it to us which we side with.

Choosing between candidates, like reviewing applicants or lawyers’ briefs, is always an act of discrimination (i.e., the ability to understand the difference between one thing and another). And who the choice excludes, inevitably, is the other team, the other side, often the other, period. The logic of that act of choosing is built into every institution America has ever created. It’s what maintains its borders and its laws and its largesse, it drives its wars and its deals and its treaties and its aid. The spectacle of how the existing system benefits some and not all, and how an argument can be made for x over y, may be endlessly interesting, on the pages of our dailies and in a lawyer’s casebook and in a history lesson. As theater, Good Faith depends on how well it can dramatize its situatedness, a situatedness that might better entertain the “mauvaise foi” behind all our good faith.

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

 

Good Faith
Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department
By Karen Hartman
Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Zachary Borovay; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher: Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: John A. Carlin

Cast: René Augesen, Ian Bedford, Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones

 Yale Repertory Theatre
February 1-23, 2019

Whitewash Backlash

Review of Trouble in Mind, Yale School of Drama

The third thesis show at the Yale School of Drama for the 2018-19 season is a powerful play not often produced. In 1957, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its author the first African American playwright to win an Obie, and she would have been the first African American author on Broadway until she balked at changes she was expected to make to the play. Consequently, the play is much less-known than it deserves to be. Aneesha Kudtarkar, a third-year director at YSD, performs a considerable public service in staging Childress’ play. One can’t help wondering why it hasn’t shown up on Connecticut stages before now, while hoping that it will soon. To say nothing of New York, where the play has yet to receive a mainstream production.

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s not surprising that the Off-Broadway version of the play would be seen as not commercially viable, in 1957. It’s an ensemble piece but the play’s heart and soul is an African American actress, Wiletta Mayer, played here by second-year actor Ciara Monique McMillian in a commanding, charismatic performance. The main white male role is a posturing and mostly unsympathetic director, Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), seconded by an even less prepossessing main actor, Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz). These are good roles—and Cefalu and Oz do great work showing us the dominant viewpoint as seen from a different perspective—but the parts might not attract actors who want to be liked. The rest of the cast are the actors, some of them rather fledgling, who have been gathered for a production of a liberal race play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and two other white men, one Manners’ put-upon assistant, Eddie Fenton (Devin White), and the other the theater’s factotum, a doting and doddering elderly Irish gent, Henry (John Evans Reese).

Why did I say “public service”? Perhaps I should amend that: a service for the white viewing-public, rather. Since white folks can’t be in a room without white folks in it, Trouble in Mind provides a rather striking view of what it’s like when we’re not around. Sure, there are many plays—not least A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African American on Broadway—that show life among non-whites. But Childress’ play—quite often comically but always knowingly—shows us blacks who move back and forth between their normal manner and their manner when whites are present. Add to this mix how the play they are rehearsing makes them act—think Gone with the Wind—and you’ve got a play about race that is acute, astute and, now and then, revelatory.

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

The first act mainly provides the comic aspects of this situation: the dissembling, the false bonhomie, the earnest entreaty by Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), the white ingenue, that the cast come to her daddy’s house in Bridgeport for some barbeque, the pointed jousts between the two would-be theater divas, Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava) and Wiletta, and Wiletta’s advice to cub actor John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges) about how to succeed in a white man’s world. As the rehearsal goes on, we hit snags, whether Manners’ hissy fit over not getting Danish in the breakfast delivery, or Judy’s uncertainty about where exactly “downstage” is. The point is that the company is all on tenterhooks, with no one sure of how secure their careers are. So, regardless of provenance, all are in thrall to a monster we call “the theater.”

In the second act, the play being rehearsed becomes the problem: Wiletta cannot abide what she is called upon to perform. The play is supposed to–in Manners’ view—milk the white audience’s tears at the atrocity of the senseless killing of an innocent black youth, thus creating an awareness of injustice. And yet, in Wiletta’s view, that point could be made equally well or better by black characters who aren’t stereotypes and whose actions have the ring of truth. The passion behind her position becomes a major catalyst for dissatisfaction in the company.

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

It’s the question of what is most “true” (and what that has to do with a manifest fiction like theater) that eats away at the company’s resolve. At one point, Manners, trying to speak for everyone, asserts that none of them have ever seen a lynching, thank God. That’s when the elder of the company, Sheldon (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), has to speak up.

Up until that point, Sheldon has been willing to play a familiar stereotype, the genial, elder black man, able to speak frankly to white folk because capable of couching his views in a humorous presentation. It’s a wonderful portrayal by Kumasi, full of appropriate mannerism, but when called upon to tell what he saw, Sheldon becomes dramatically relevant to the play-within-the-play and a source of knowledge and of pain that outweighs anyone else in the room. After that, there’s no easy way to recover the balance of power that the process requires. What’s more, despite Manners’ diatribe, vividly delivered by Cefalu, about how brave “Chaos in Belleville” is, and how no one is ready to see blacks as they really are, the whites can only feel inadequate and the blacks feel even more pointedly the silliness of what the play asks of them. It’s not only a travesty of the story “Chaos” is supposed to be telling but a much more sobering travesty of events like those Sheldon witnessed.

Childress’ play, in Kudtarkar’s production, is sharp too in its eye for the other kinds of subservience on hand. A character who might be gay—Eddie—is often the target of Manners’ caustic ire, and Henry, in a conversation with Wiletta, reveals his own sense of the wrongs of history, the kinds of scars that genial “blarney” is meant to hide. Even Manners has his vulnerability—as a put-upon breadwinner paying alimony, and as the man answerable to the money backing this risky, well-meant, but ultimately vain endeavor. And speaking of vain, there’s Millie, a woman who, unlike the others, doesn’t really need the acting job, she just likes to show off (not least a diamond bracelet). Childress manages to play with types as comic material while interrogating how and why we all playact. It’s a bracing theatrical experience, and Kudtarkar’s cast handles well the moves between broad comedy, more subtle satire, and the serious confrontation of difficult truths.

Alexander McCargar’s scenic design makes the University Theater feel like the venerable space it is, filling the stage with the odds and ends of theatrical rehearsal and eventually removing a wall for a dramatic sense of the real people behind the play. Lighting, costumes and sound—including a recording of applause—all are topnotch and serve to create a sense of the real 1950s, and of the theater of that time. And downstairs during intermission and after the show, “For Your Consideration,” a film installation by Erin Sullivan, makes wry comment on the whole question of breakthrough African American artists in a field seen as normatively white: as years flash by, we see white woman after white woman gripping the Best Actress Oscar and emoting (soundlessly), until the sole nonwhite winner—Halle Berry—can be heard, thanking a history of all those who got passed over. It’s quite striking. After Berry, everyone who is shown seems part of a self-congratulatory “business as usual,” a cultural matrix that sustains itself by replicating itself, without apology. The film comments on Wiletta’s struggle—believing in the theater even as she must face how relentlessly it fails to deliver what it seems to promise.

 

Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Scenic Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Gregory Saint Georges, Amandla Jahava, Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi, Zoe Mann, Ciara Monique McMillian, Hudson Oz, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale School of Drama
February 2-8, 2019

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance: as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character.

There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction. The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

Mirthful Birthday Murder

Review of Murder for Two, Playhouse on Park

In Murder for Two, playing through this weekend at Playhouse on Park, the laughs come from the improbable situation, exploited as much for its silliness as for its show-biz potential: his own murder as a birthday surprise for Arthur Whitney, a murder novelist, and a cop, with an unseen partner, Lou, who has to play detective among a roomful of suspects. One actor (Trevor Dorner) plays all the suspects, the other (John Grieco) plays the policeman, Marcus Moscowicz. Sent in to vamp by the local police department, Marcus wants to solve the crime before the real detective gets there, hoping to make detective himself.

Together and separately, Dorner and Grieco play the piano as both a prop and accompaniment, keeping up vaudevillian repartee and trading off gags. Both actors have experience playing the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet and their showmanship at the piano is a great asset of the show here.

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

The set by scenic designer David Lewis is a sprawling room crammed with books and the kind of genteel trappings common in detective novels. An alcove up a few steps from the stage floor will be an ideal spot for certain dramatic and musical moments—not least a somewhat gratuitous film noir death from the creepy backstory of our haunted flatfoot.

Anyone willing to show up for the novelist’s birthday has already been used by the voracious writer as material for one of his score-settling fictions. And that means anyone could be guilty of the murder, not least because one of the suspects present, the gruff psychiatrist Dr. Griff, has seen pretty much the entire town professionally—including Marcus—and so apprised the author to the sorts of things the others told in confidence. Why was he so close to Whitney? Well, let Griff enlighten us with a song about the importance of friendship . . .

One of the features of the show that lands best is the notion that everyone present is a kind of performer—whether in the past or in the making—each ready for a big number. It might be ditzy Southern belle Dahlia—who, she says, was forced to give up her successful stage career after marriage—waiting for her showstopper, or her niece, Steph, an eager criminologist in training, wanting to pant musically about being smitten with Marcus. The songs can be witty, are always jaunty, and help to make the most of the whirligig of Dorner’s performance as he launches into one improbable Broadway-style number after another. And there’s good fun with an audience member—as the victim of a second murder—that capitalizes on the close-to-the-action setup of Playhouse on Park.

Not all the characters are as keenly drawn as we might hope—a sparring couple are thinly characterized and their put-downs tend to fall flat—and making the aloof ballerina, Ms. Lewis, a love interest for Marcus feels very much a sitcom element. In fact, the Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (also music and lyrics respectively)—a Drama Desk nominee in 2014—tends to mix together the tropes of detective fiction, musicals, sitcoms, cartoons, and vaudeville without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. A good example of the verbal style on show here are the titles of Whitney’s books, which are so literal as to be clues in themselves, almost. The one he was working on at his death, All of Them Bananas, might point easily to the entire cast, including three members of a boys’ choir (whom Dorner enacts on his knees—and then proceeds to Charleston!).

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

Not quite as sharp as 39 Steps, where the Hitchcockian elements help with suspense, nor as inspired as A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which won the Drama Desk’s Award for Best Book in 2014, Murder for Two makes the most of its featured players’ talents. Grieco presents a very earnest and unassuming Marcus, his frequent references to detective protocol a good ongoing gag, and Dorner is as manic as necessary, though the introduction of each new character might work better if not off to the side on a thrust stage. Directed by Kyle Metzger, the play isn’t always as slapdash and swift as it needs to be. All in all, every bit of the show is food for whipped-up fun, a kind of murder meringue, without much flavor for thought, so it can’t afford to less us ruminate.

 

Murder for Two
Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair
Music by Joe Kinosian, Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Kyle Metzger

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Chris Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master: Judi Manfre

Cast: Trevor Dorner, John Grieco

Playhouse on Park
January 16-February 3, 2019