Andrew Kelsey

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on

A comic Tempest opens the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival The Yale Summer Cabaret’s ambitious Shakespeare Festival, brain-child of Devin Brain and Tara Kayton, has launched.  The first play in the series, which will run three plays in repertory with a dedicated company of ten actors through August 14, is The Tempest.  A late play, if not the last, in Shakespeare’s canon, it’s a fantastic and lively tale in which all’s well that ends well, but, along the way, it gives much food for thought about the arbitrary nature of power relations, of courtship, of claims to authority, and, in this production especially, some laughs.

There are two daring and potentially off-putting aspects to director Jack Tamburri’s production: the first has to do with design (Kristen Robinson and Andrew Freeberg are the Scenic Design team), and involves fixed stilts with foot- and hand-holds placed at strategic points across the playing space.  This is the airy province of that airy sprite Ariel (Adina Verson), who touches ground as rarely as possible, primarily at entrances and exits.  But no matter how gamely and gracefully Verson navigates the gym course, we don’t get an illusion of movement swift as thought (Ariel’s special quality) and tend to be distracted by the actions.  What’s more, the posts offer little in the way of scenery, even if, with the aid of some magical transformative power akin to Propsero’s, we imagine them as trees upon the island.  The benefit: Ariel hovers over the action and speaks to the other characters from slightly above, which creates some nice effects in dialogue with Prospero when his captive sprite speaks directly into his ear, or when “he” (Ariel is male; Verson is female, and plays the role in a shiny body suit with a noticeable jockstrap bulge) spooks the conspirators from somewhere in the air above them.

The other oddity here is that all the cast members play Prospero at some point.  This requires much shedding and donning of the sparkly cloak that denotes our magical majesty, and also increases potential confusion for viewers having enough trouble keeping, say, Antonio and Trinculo (both played by Paul Lieber) or Alonso and Stephano (both A. Z. Kelsey) straight.  In other words, go with some of the play under your belt or you may find yourself a bit at sea.  Some of the transformations are indeed swift as thought, especially in the denouement when the passing about of Prospero’s book began to resemble a game of hot potato.

The more problematic aspect of this innovation is that, to echo Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, there isn’t any there (or Prospero) there.  Rather, we get six actors in search of a character, which translates into Prospero-schtick most of the time.  This, I assume, is strategic—an effort to undermine this dominant figure, to make him as mercurial as possible, and to show that the trappings of power he wields can indeed be taken up and shed by turns.  He is a sometime Duke and a sometime magus, a sometime father, brother, and so on.  The point, as it should be in theater, is made, as it were, between the lines, but I couldn’t help feeling it was also made at the expense of some lines—as when an actor fully steeped in the role allows us to watch the character change, rather than watch a number of actors change into the character.

The strengths of this production:  First of all, the language.  Short of slowing things down into Shakespeare-ease, as Kenneth Branagh films sometimes do, the cast is quite adept at making Shakespearean speeches sound spoken as opposed to recited.  Second: the audience’s closeness to the action made for enlivening effects when the characters spoke directly to audience members in a conversational way.  Third: the clowns—and, as all are at times Prospero, all are at times clowns.  It’s to the audience’s benefit that these actors are so good at Shakespearean comedy, which can get tedious fast when a cast isn’t.  Kelsey, as Stephano, a butler, and Paul Lieber, as Trinculo, a jester, in particular, made the most of their scenes together, often involving drunken mood swings, but more modulation of tone would’ve helped us perceive their transformations into, respectively, Alonso, King of Naples, and Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, as they seemed a bit too broad for aristocracy.

Tim Brown, on the other hand, moved effectively between Sebastian, the rather dim-witted brother of the King, and romantic lead Ferdinand.

A female actor as Caliban is a move against type for it makes for a more refined “monster,” and Brenda Meaney’s performance, while active and comic, lacked the surly pathos the role can command.  Casting a female actor as Ariel is not unusual, and, apart from her headdress and costume, I loved everything about Verson’s Ariel, particularly the glowing sound of her vocals on the songs and her childish enthusiasm in playing all the roles, with Adam Rigg’s effective puppets, during the enchantment scene.  Her rendition, as Prospero, of the curtain speech was effective enough to make one willing, indeed, to “free all faults.”

All in all, a rough and ready Tempest on its way to becoming seaworthy.


The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival Devin Brain,  Artistic Director; Tara Kayton, Producer June 23-August 14, 2011

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Directed by Jack Tamburri June 23-August 12, 2011

Photos by Ethan Heard, courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret

Life at the Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret 2010-11 Season ended in April, and today a cohort of talents graduated from the Yale School of Drama, where most Cab participants are students, so I’d like to take a moment to commend some highpoints of the Cab's recent season, citing the work of some who have taken their final bow there, and of others who might be back. For best overall productions, four original plays, relying on great ensemble work: Good Words, written by Meg Miroshnik, directed by Andrew Kelsey, a movingly musical valedictory treatment of a long life; Vaska Vaska, Glöm, written by Stéphanie Hayes, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an odd allegorical play, both endearing and unnerving; Erebus and Terror, developed by the ensemble from an idea by Alexandra Henrikson, directed by Devin Brain, a dark but lively play about doomed lives; and Trannequin!, conceived by the ensemble, with Book by Ethan Heard and Martha Jane Kaufman, directed by Ethan Heard, a clever and engaging gender-bending musical; and a notable ensemble production of an already existing work: Alex Mihail’s kick-ass, raucous version of Anton Chekhov’s The Wedding Reception.

For memorable performances, I have to start by citing Max Gordon Moore’s tour de force one-man show as the librarian with an idée fixe in Under the Lintel

Trai Byers’ affecting performance as an old man revisiting his life at his son’s funeral in Good Words




Babak Gharaeti-Tafti, as a passionate wedding guest in The Wedding Reception, and as a nonconformist in The Other Shore






Lucas Dixon as the hilarious special guest at The Wedding Reception, and Brett Dalton’s comic double roles in Debut Track One.

Of the ladies: Alexandra Henrikson’s edgy Harper in Far Away

Adina Verson for her comic flair in pleasureD, and, for sheer oddity, her performance in a barrel of water in Vaska Vaska, Glöm; Stéphanie Hayes for her frenetic part in pleasureD and as a young male Irish deckhand, in Erebus and Terror

Sarah Sokolovic, swaddled in rags, in Vaska Vaska, Glöm, and giddy and singing in The Wedding Reception; and Alexandra Trow, intelligent and naïve, as Pepper in Debut Track One.

And what about the ingenuity of transforming a basement into whatever the play demands?  Particularly effective work in Sets: Meredith Ries’ cluttered library backroom in Under the Lintel

Julia C. Lee’s doomed ship in Erebus and Terror, aided by Alan C. Edwards’ moody and evocative Lighting

Justin Elie’s visually rich radio studio in The Musicality Radio Hour; Adam Rigg’s dollhouse world for  pleasureD






and, especially, the combined talents of Kristen Robinson, Meredith Ries, Adam Rigg, with Lighting by Hannah Wasileksi and Masha Tsimring, for the fascinatingly ornate aesthetic of Dorian Gray’s puppetshow.

And for transforming students into what is required, some memorable work in Costumes: Aaron P. Mastin for the period sailors in Erebus and Terror; Maria Hooper for the Victorian dress of both people and puppets in Dorian Gray; Summer Lee Jack for the Brecht-meets-Beckett world of Vaska Vaska, Glöm


and for the truly awful threads sported by the ‘80s-era wedding guests in The Wedding Reception.






For Sound: Junghoon Pi for the aural embellishments of The Other Shore; Palmer for the different aural registers of Debut Track One, and Ken Goodwin’s Sound Design and Elizabeth Atkinson’s Foley work in The Musicality Radio Hour.

And for Music: the inspiring vocals provided by Taylor Vaughn-Lasley, Christina Anderson, Sunder Ganglani, and Nehemiah Luckett in Good Words Pierre Bourgeois’s lively shanties in Erebus and Terror; the inspired songs of Trannequin!, by Ethan Heard, Max Roll, Brian Valencia, and Tim Brown; the Zappa-esque musical work of The Elastic Notion Orchestra in The Musicality Radio Hour; and the performative percussionists, Yun-Chu Chiu, John Corkill, Michael McQuilken, Ian Rosenbaum, Adam Rosenblatt in The Perks.

That’s all for this year—stay tuned for info on The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival, starting next month!

Photos copyright Nick Thigpen, courtesy of Yale Cabaret

The Ship of Death

Oh build your ship of death, your little arkand furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine for the dark flight down oblivion.--D. H. Lawrence, “The Ship of Death"

How do they do it?  How does the Yale Cabaret take a story of utter desperation—the doomed expedition of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean in 1845—and make an entertaining evening of it?

Maybe it’s because director Devin Brain heads to the dark side the way most kids go to their favorite playground, and because the ensemble cast are clearly having so much fun in this dire tale of dwindling hopes.  And maybe it’s because the many tunes in the show, sea shanties like “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” and jigs like “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” are so irrepressibly infectious.

Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson, who is luminous as Franklin’s indefatigable wife back home, resolutely refusing to consider herself his widow, Erebus and Terror is credited to the cast, and that could be why the parts seem so perfect for each actor: Max Gordon Moore, clipped and distinguished as Officer Downing; Ben Horner, swarthy and bawdy as Ferry (his eager pursuit of Lady Death is a high-point, to say nothing of dining upon the deceased Downing); Andrew Kelsey as Oxford, a sympathetic bloke who gives an effective delivery of the seductive speech of Titania to “translated” Bottom in the crew’s impromptu enactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Stéphanie Hayes, skittish and fearful as Paddy, a young Irish lad (her shrieks of joy from the crow’s nest have a “top of the world, ma” feel); Dipika Guha, wide-eyed and mesmerized as Fin, a mate going “off his tit,” and Irene Sofia Lucio, as Timmy, or Kid, the youngest and most comical of the swabbies.  Add Pierre Bourgeois’s songs, richly evocative of the world of these seamen, all bound—in a string of distinctive endings—for Davey Jones’ Locker, and you’ve got the main elements for a successfully gripping show, supported by Ken Goodwin’s watery sound effects, by Lighting Designer Alan C. Edwards’ dramatic variations of light and dark that, playing on Aaron P. Mastin’s authentic costumes, put me in mind of Rockwell Kent’s nautical drawings, and, through the exit door that was opened a few times as part of Julia C. Lee’s set, by mounds of snow provided by Nature, making the effort to imagine the frozen wastes surrounding the ship that much easier.

Have you built your ship of death, O have you? O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

Erebus and Terror, Songs of Ghosts and Dreams Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson; Written and Created by the Ensemble January 13-15, 2011; Thurs, 8 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m. & 11 p.m. The Yale Cabaret

Winter Alert

Yeah, I know, everyone’s having a collective snowgasm in the snowpocalypse, but, should you decide to put your head outside your cave, there are some theatrical events happening this weekend that should make the snowjob of digging out worth your while. First of all, Thursday night, Jan. 13th, the Yale Cabaret, led by Andrew Kelsey and Tara Kayton, resumes its 2010-11 season with a play entitled Erebus and Terror, directed by Devin Brain, last year’s co-artistic director of the Cab.  Brain’s anticipated return to the Cab also marks a return to a work, conceived by Yale School of Drama acting major Alexandra Henrikson and written and created by the cast, that was originally scheduled to end the Cab’s 2009-10 season.  The wait was worth it, we suspect, especially as the play dramatizes events in the Arctic.  The current conditions in New Haven couldn’t be more propitious.  The title refers to the names of the steamships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, commanded by Sir John Franklin on his doomed search for the Northwest Passage in 1845.  Among the 2,3999 books aboard ship was a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare—a fact that may be significant for how the play dramatizes the snowbound experience of the 128 men on the expedition.  The play, the Cab website tells us, “is a journey north in search of songs and stories frozen in ice”—but you need only journey through the wintery wastes to 217 Park Street in New Haven to hear them.  Shows at 8 p.m, Thurs., Fri., Sat., late shows Fri. and Sat. at 11 p.m. Call: 203-432-1566;

And on Sunday, Jan. 16th, a special event takes place at the Long Wharf Stage II.  A dramatic reading of an adaptation of Torture Team by Philippe Sands, directed by Gordon Edelstein, and featuring the star power of Vanessa Redgrave, Lili Taylor, Jeff McCarthy, Jay O. Sanders, and Harris Yulin.  Taking attorney Sands’ book Torture Team, described as “an All the President’s Men for the 21st century,” as its starting point, the play investigates the degree of complicity on the part of the Bush administration in the tortures of Guantámo Bay, using a variety of media—clips of Judgment at Nuremberg, presidential statements, interviews, Murat Kumaz’s memoir of his incarceration at the U.S. detention facility—to dramatize the events and their context.  Sands’ book has been praised as a formidable work of investigative journalism that lays the basis for a charge of war crimes against the Bush administration.  Redgrave, known almost as well for her activism as for her acting, and Sands will both participate in discussion of the controversial claims of the work after the performance. 7 p.m. For information:

Finding the Words

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.