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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.