The Yale Cabaret is back. And the new season began with a memorial service. At Good Words: A Memorial with Music for Paul Everett Tarsus, audience members found themselves sitting on folding chairs, eating from a catered buffet service, attending a memorial for a man who died in Hamden, a "local theater artist," according to his obituary, who requested that his memorial be held in a theater. Seems the Cab's black-walled basement digs was the best they could do.
The conceit of the staging meant that for the opening of the play, we were addressed as congregants at a service. Nehemiah Luckett welcomed us and filled in a bit of backstory, though very minimally. When he led an onstage chorus (Sunder Ganglani, Taylor Vaughn-Lasley, Christina Anderson) in "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah," and got the audience to join in, the ice was effectively broken and we were ready to hear the story.
The burden of the story was borne by Paul's father, Dr. Paul Caleb Tarsus (Trai Byers), a minister descended from a teacher who abandoned the small school in the south where his father taught to study at the Yale Divinity School. As that synopsis might suggest, we might expect a tale of generational tension and disappointed expectations, about how a minister raised a theater artist, but the story of Paul Jr.'s life and death was not the main focus. Instead, the drama focused on the old man's youth in New Canaan, Georgia, and his eventual flight to the north, where his son was born.
The power of the piece derived from the uplifting vocals of the chorus, and depended upon Byers' capable performance as the old man, doddering through his memories. As Dr. Tarsus told us, memory is like a cabinet with a lot of drawers in it, but lately the contents of his drawers have gotten mixed. And that meant he sometimes spoke as a son addressing his own father and sometimes as the father of the young man who died, a slippage heightened by the chorus which provoked him with voices that echoed and bedeviled his statements while also adding strikingly rhythmic and poetic effects to his monologue.
The chorus were in fine voice, particularly Ganglani's spirited lead on "Poor, Wayfaring Stranger" and Vaughn-Lasley's angry rendition (in the role of Eula, the girl Dr. Tarsus left behind) of "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior." The songs flitted in and out of the narrative, commenting on Dr. Tarsus' memories, and opening his monologues to areas of feeling that his effort to find only "good words" failed to acknowledge.
The most unsatisfying aspect of the play, written by Meg Miroshnik, with music (including two original songs) by Mark A. Miller, directed by Andrew Kelsey (Artistic Director for the Cab this season) was the uncertainty about the ultimate nature of the relation between Paul the father and Paul the son, a relation indicated by the son's choice of theater rather than the ministry, but that story wasn't presented. In its place was the theme of the overwhelming continuity of past and present, as Byers, recreating his courtship of Eula after she followed him to New Haven, enacted a forceful elliptical segue from his young start in life to an old man's present in which his son was gone.
It was great to be back at the Cab where each week provides a new experience, a new challenge, and, as the motto for the new season reads, "shifting perspectives on performance." Next up, Sept. 23-25, is Far Away, by British Brechtian playwright Caryl Churchill, directed by Flordelino Lagundino.