Ariana Venturi

Cab 47 Recap

Season 47 of the Yale Cabaret has ended its run as of April 25th, which must mean it's time for a re-cap of the season. A re-cap wherein I try to recall and celebrate my favorite contributions to the magical basement that is the Yale Cabaret. Ready? Here are a baker's dozen of categories with my five exemplars in each (in chronological order, but for my fave pick), for a total of 65 citations: New Play: This year’s top five never-before-seen, new plays were: Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, in which Alice in Wonderland—or rather Liddy in Wonderland—meets “Little Miss” beauty pageants, written with verve for a cast of crazies by Emily Zemba; The Zero Scenario, in which every Cleveland in these United States is threatened by the Ticks of Death but for a special plucky band of heroes, written by Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, in which a collective of black male YSD’ers create self-portraits in the context of racial profiling, conceived and directed by Ato Blankson-Wood and created by the ensemble; Sister Sandman Please, in which three sisters put it out there for a cowboy, with varying degrees of passion, irony and intention, written by Jessica Rizzo; and ... 50:13, in which an incarcerated black man about to be freed tries to tell it like it is, with candor, wit and a variety of character sketches, to a young prison-mate, written by Jiréh Breon Holder.

Adapted Play: Impressive pre-existing plays adapted for Cab 47 included four translations and an English-language opera: Don’t Be Too Surprised, written by Geun-Hyung Park, translated and directed by Kee-Yoon Nahm, lets us know in no uncertain terms that familial dysfunction can still take surprising forms on stage; MuZeum, translated and directed by Ankur Sharma, tells stories from ancient sources and contemporary headlines, to dramatize powerfully the victimization of women; Quartet by Heinrich Müller, translated by Doug Langworthy, directed by David Bruin, revisits Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons as a wickedly entertaining pas de deux and psychologically fraught cat-and-mouse; The Medium, an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, directed by Ahn Lê, creates a world of mystery, loss, and deep feeling and gives further credence to the notion that opera is not just for opera houses; and ... Leonce and Lena by Georg Büchner, translated by Gavin Whitehead, directed by Gavin Whitehead and Elizabeth Dinkova, presents a play of aristocratic ennui that torches the well-made play, and this time with puppets!

Set Design: After all, the Cab is a basement with a kitchen, and convincing us we’re in a new space each week takes some doing. Here are some set designs that went beyond all expectation in their achieved artistry: Kurtis Boetcher’s set for Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time made a door where there’s a window and had the coloring and style of a child’s playhouse; Joey Moro’s versatile set for Hotel Nepenthe breathed a seedy charm, like we imagine Hotel Duncan does, or should; Chika Shimuzi and Izmir Ickbal’s stunning set for MuZeum lent aura aplenty and eye-catching beauty to its revue-style presentation; Christopher Thompson’s set for The Zero Scenario seemed to defy space itself in cramming so much busy-ness into the Cab, including a motelroom and a hidden headquarters, and ... Adrian Martinez Frausto’s moody set for The Medium was so fully achieved in its seedy gentility it might be a film set inviting a camera’s scrutiny.

Costumes: Dressing actors for their parts often goes beyond the norm, creating inspired additions to the visual flair of a show. Some of the tops in costumes were: Grier Coleman’s range of captivating dress for ancient characters of India and contemporary folks in MuZeum; Fabian Aguilar and Alexae Visel’s super cool get-ups for the agents protecting us from Tick Apocalypse in The Zero Scenario; Alexae Visel’s authentic mock-ups of the cartoonish costumes of the old Batman series “fit just like my glove” in Episode 21: Catfight; Haydee Zelideth had a field day with modernist Enlightenment-era costuming in Leonce and Lena; and ... Soule Golden and Montana Blanco rendered camp versions of the White Rabbit, Hatter, White Queen, and Tweedledum/dee we won’t soon forget in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time.

Lighting: It doesn’t just help us see, it also selects and shows and evokes, sometimes making for quite magical effects. Illuminating dancers with lights that added to both movement and music in Solo Bach: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; creating a wealth of visual effects that kept us entranced in MuZeum: Joey Moro; putting on a show and putting-on the trappings of a storybook world in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Joey Moro; using light to complement stories and to add drama in 50:13: Elizabeth Mak; and ... creating an Old World atmosphere both spooky and authentic in The Medium: Andrew Griffin.

Sound: It can be used in striking or surprising ways, or to create an aural texture to accompany the action. Creating a wintery world with bursts of music and broadcasts in Rose and the Rime: Jon Roberts, Joel Abbott; maintaining a sustained eerieness and B-movie aura in Hotel Nepenthe: Sinan Zafar; incorporating music and a range of emotional tones in MuZeum: Tyler Kieffer; bringing together recorded voice, spoken voice, and background music into a collage in The Untitled Project: Tyler Kieffer; and ... merging voices, sound effects, loops and his own music to create a shifting aural space in Sister Sandman Please: Chris Ross-Ewart.

Music and Movement: We don’t always get both, but it can make for entrancing theater when we do: MuZeum featured essential music by Anita Shastri, played on stage by a crew of musicians/actors and interacted with by the actors; The Untitled Project used recorded music tellingly and featured a show-stopping dance sequence by Ato Blankson-Wood; The Medium presented a stirring reduction of Menotti’s score into a solo piano tour de force by Jill Brunelle, expressive miming from José Ramón Sabín Lestayo, and impressive vocals from the cast; Sister Sandman Please benefited from Chris Ross-Ewart’s compositions amidst the aural textures, and delighted with a raucous “O Holy Night” from Ashley Chang; and ... Solo Bach showcased Zou Yu’s amazing solo violin performances, combined with the inventive, cryptic and dramatic choreography by Shayna Keller and her actor/dancers: Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris.

Special Effects: An ad hoc category that includes whatever doesn’t fit into other categories, such as: the combination of lights and star chart backdrop to create a sense of wonder in Touch: Joey Moro; the evocative projections-as-scenery in Solo Bach: Rasean Davonte Johnson; the B-movie monster ticks and blood and projections and other effects in The Zero Scenario: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Mike Paddock; the varied creepy puppets, hand-held and string-operated, in Leonce and Lena: Emily Baldasarra; and ... the use of projections and clips to tell stories and create context with images in The Untitled Project: Rasean Davonte Johnson.

Acting (ensemble): Ideally, the acting in a play is a group affair, in which everyone plays a part, of course. Still, it’s worth remarking on when a cast is more than the sum of its parts, as in these shows: Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, the big kick-off extravaganza of the season featured a gallery of colorful characters by Sarah Williams, Celeste Arias, Aubie Merrylees, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Libby Peterson; The Zero Scenario, the crowd-pleasing first semester closer, pulled out all the stops with Ariana Venturi, Tom Pecinka, Sara Holdren, Ankur Sharma, Aaron Profumo, Emily Zemba, Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, an ensemble-derived show that focused on the subtle distinctions and broad stereotypes of race, was created and enacted by Taylor Barfield, Ato Blankson-Wood, Cornelius Davidson, Leland Fowler, Jiréh Breon Holder, Phillip Howze, Galen Kane; Leonce and Lena, in which actors and puppet-handler/actors interacted to create a zany theatrical world of kingdoms and encounters, with Sebastian Arboleda, Juliana Canfield, David Clauson, Anna Crivelli, Ricardo Dávila, Edmund Donovan, Josh Goulding, Steven C. Koernig, Lynda A.H. Paul, Nahuel Telleria; and ... Hotel Nepenthe, a comic tour de force of changing roles, repeating characters, and linked situations that ran from the creepy to the farcical, all created with manic intensity by Bradley James Tejeda, Annelise Lawson, Emily Reeder, Galen Kane.

Acting (individual): For individual performances, I’m going with some standouts, whether in accomplished ensemble work, or showcased in two-handers, or in the unrelenting spotlight of the solo show. Ladies first: Celeste Arias, hilarious as an unhinged mommie dearest in Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time; Sydney Lemmon, riveting as Mme Merteuil but even more so as Mme Merteuil/Valmont in Quartet; Maura Hooper, chameleonic as a series of characters, including a disaffected nun and a happy hooker, in Shiny Objects; Zenzi Williams, demonstrating a range of attitudes in four characters, from spiritual to demur to quietly confident in Shiny Objects, and ... Tiffany Mack, unforgettable as a heart-wrenching victim of an acid attack in MuZeum.

Acting (individual): And from the men: Jonathan Majors, finding himself in an unbearable situation and quietly going to pieces in Touch; Tom Pecinka as a highly verbal passenger monologuing his anxiety in The Zero Scenario; Edmund Donovan, riveting as Valmont but even more so as Valmont/Mme de Tourvel in Quartet; Ricardo Dávila as the slippery, caustic and fascinating Valerio in Leonce and Lena; and ... Leland Fowler as a stand-up guy feeling the longings of the jailed and acting out a quick lesson in family history and racism in 50:13.

Directing: For the vision behind the whole shebang that makes it all hang together, we celebrate directors: for the all-out campy and creepy charm of Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Ato Blankson-Wood; for keeping the hopscotch logic and many shifts in tone of Hotel Nepenthe on point: Rachel Carpman; for creating the interplay of stories, including humor, confrontation, and violence in MuZeum: Ankur Sharma; for showing a dramatic and thoughtful grasp of the resilience of a human spirit trapped in a cage in 50:13: Jonathan Majors; and ... for providing the comic highpoint of the season with wild charm, horror surprises and relentless verve in The Zero Scenario: Sara Holdren.

Production: From the above, it’s obvious which shows seemed tops to me, but to bring them all together for a final nod: Hotel Nepenthe, Sarah Williams, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Avery Trunko, stage manager, the kind of shifting and surprising show that keeps me coming back to theater; MuZeum, Anita Shastri, producer, Maria Ines Marques, dramaturg, Emily DeNardo, stage manager, a strong and cathartic import to our shores; The Zero Scenario, Ahn Lê, producer, Helen Jaksch and Nahuel Telleria, dramaturgs, Anita Shastri, stage manager, a crazy sci-fi ride that screams “sequel!”; 50:13, Jason Najjoum, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Lauren E. Banks, stage manager, an important and meaningful addition to the one-person play and the "black lives matter" movement; and ... Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, Kelly Kerwin, producer, Nahuel Telleria, dramaturg, Avery Trunko stage manager, “the gang’s all here” type of theater, presenting a lively riff on the rigors of growing up female in our media-ized Wonderland.

Thanks again to our hosts for 18 weekends—plus a Drag Show: Molly Hennighausen, Will Rucker, Tyler Kieffer, and Hugh Farrell. And ... see you next season, at the Cab!

The Yale Cabaret Season 47 September 18, 2014-April 25, 2015

Donned If You Do . . .

Review of Don Juan at Yale School of Drama In Don Juan, the life and times of a cad, Molière sought to skewer some of the pieties of his time, presenting Don Juan as a heartless seducer who doesn’t hide behind hypocrisy. He lies to women to lure them into bed, marrying and separating from his duped spouses with alarming alacrity, but he’s true to his principles. Life is a farce, so why not have some fun with it?

Molière’s Don Juan, the third Yale School of Drama thesis show this season, directed by Andrej Visky as an adaptation, with dramaturg Samantha Lazar and playwright Brian Pelsue, from Pelsue’s translation, benefits greatly from its transposition into a period much like ours. The comedy of the early going—up through its biggest laughs in Acts II and III—derives from a light comic touch that makes Don Juan, who enters with a towel around his waist and a turban towel atop his head, a laughable figure. As played by James Cusati-Moyer, Don Juan is a roguish libertine, more jaded than seductive. His servant Sganarelle (Aubie Merrylees) is a cartoonish accomplice who clues us in on his master’s proclivities while both envying him and looking on aghast.

The best idea here is the presentation of the “Jersey Shore” region where Don Juan, on a boat to lure a damsel into his clutches, gets capsized, nearly drowns, and is rescued by, literally, a clown. Pierrot (Bradley James Tejeda) wears a Ronald McDonald bozo wig, a red squeezie nose, and the motley of the carny clown. His vacillating girl, Charlotte (Ann Katherine Hägg), is clad in the red and white uniform of a burger-joint waitress and pants for a glimpse of the aristocratic bearing of Don Juan. Striding onstage in the black cloak and distressed black jeans of a rocker, thick locks aswirl, Don Juan seems a sex-drugs-and rock’n’roll fantasy in the flesh. Think of how a rock star like Freddie Mercury could milk a sensual androgyny that kept both males and females fascinated. As Sganarelle lets us know early on, the Don fucks anything that moves.

So when Don Juan saves the life of Don Carlos (Aaron Luis Profumo), the brother of Elvira (Jenelle Chu), the latest woman Don Juan has wronged, and Carlos hesitates about avenging his sister’s honor and his father’s death (the Don offed the General in a duel), Don Alonzo (Tejeda), his more vehement brother, accuses Carlos of being in love with Juan. It’s that kind of world. Don Juan wraps 'em all around his finger. The broad comedy of the play’s dealings with family honor and the Don’s efforts to court two girls at once—the wide-eyed Charlotte as well as tough-cookie Mathilde (Ariana Venturi, remarkably skanky)—opens the possibility that the play is peopled with clowns, so that themes like seduction, thwarted love, and vengeance can all be played for laughs. In such a world, no one can be deserving of any response but derision.

This Don Juan comes close to that vision, but a different tone comes into play in the later acts, after a high-spirited visit to a mausoleum, where the General is interred beneath a statue, leads to a date with destiny: the statue of the General will dine with Don Juan who must then, in turn, be the guest of the General. We move then to Juan’s palatial estate—made somber by, on its high walls, huge “paintings” that are actually ghostly videos of, it seems, some of the many women Don Juan has seduced and abandoned. Here we see Don Juan squirm his way out of a lawsuit, deride the good intentions of Elvira, and, in a visit from his pious father (Julian Elijah Martinez), face his dad’s wrath and disinheritance.

The darker shadings of the later acts reveal the extent to which Molière’s comic touch is not up to creating the requisite pathos we must feel for Don Juan to care what becomes of him. Our hero is given a notable speech in which he defends himself—“a fashionable vice is as good as a virtue”—in terms that might be agreeable enough to our own amoral age with its “Wolf of Wall Street” protagonists, but it’s not easy to put ourselves in Don Juan’s place. Flouncing about in a serpentine silk gown that shadows in gaudy eddies his every flamboyant gesture, Don Juan, clad otherwise in rather gladiatorial black briefs, with a torso even more so, is an epicene epigone of the philosophes, swilling cognac and spitting malevolent bon mots.

The play’s end seems to give us a question mark in place of a resolution. Is this a Don Juan who has taken upon himself the sins of our self-serving era? Is he a child again, returned to the darkness that precedes birth and follows death? We’re left to make sense of what we see, as the play is wordless after Don Juan, nothing loathe, follows the General’s statue, which has become a fetching sprite-like female (Venturi). One thing is certain: Don Juan isn’t so smug any more.

Along the way, there’s great support work, particularly from Merrylees as a grab-bag of reactions, second-thoughts, doubletakes, narrative asides, and, at one point, a speech of riotous “reasoning” that makes Daffy Duck seem a paragon of profundity. Profumo’s Don Carlos by way of a lower-order DeNiro is spot on, matched by Tejeda’s more Pescian brother, complete with meth beard, a Hell’s Angel to Juan’s sympathy for the devil; then there’s the already mentioned comic abilities of Hägg and Venturi as dim, richly imagined “babes” you wish would stay longer, and Chu’s Elvira, in her first appearance, all wild hair, bleeding mascara and virginal white gown matched with black leather jacket and boots, is a sight to be seen as she dresses down our hero in terms worthy of a steely heroine, only to show up far too much later in the nun-like apparel of a bleeding-heart doormat. Martinez, as a prayerful, pan-handling beggar, and a bike messenger, gets a lot of mileage out of minor bits and, as Juan’s overbearing father, has no choice but to play it straight. Indeed, the succession of “straight men” in the later going makes us long for more comical hi-jinx from Juan. Instead, we get a brief glimpse of a marked change of tact as Juan seems to repent, spooked by that talking statue at his table.

Memorably costumed, agreeably staged—with lots of open space for Cusati-Moyer’s stage-prowling stride—with a good grasp of how to keep things moving, Visky’s Don Juan benefits from Pelsue’s ear for comic speech, fleshed out with occasional taglines from movies, the lingua franca of our day that makes us all Don Juanna-bes.

 

Don Juan By Molière Translaed by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer and Sound Designer: Jing (Annie) Yin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Production Dramaturg: Samantha Lazar; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama January 27-31, 2015

Meet the New Don

The third and final Yale School of Drama thesis show opens this week. Andrej Visky, a third-year director from Romania, directs Molière’s Don Juan, a prose tragi-comedy that tells the famous story of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, a free-thinking libertine who believes that the pleasures of life—particularly women—are meant to be enjoyed, a view that leads ultimately to his downfall. Molière incorporates commedia dell’arte aspects into the play, so that there is a decidedly comic cast to the tale, and that is one of the qualities that attracted Visky to the project. “The play is a great intersection of tragedy and comedy,” he says, allowing him to “approach weighty thought through laughter.” Molière, as Visky sees it, is interested in an overview of society to create a comedy of manners that includes beggars and the high-born, and, as he says, “the supernatural makes an appearance” as well. When I pointed out that both Don Juan and the first thesis show this year, The Master and Margarita, feature the threat of damnation, Visky pointed out that his Don Juan “ends ambiguously,” leaving the audience to decide if Don Juan’s fate is “damnation or liberation.”

An atheist in a Catholic culture, Don Juan flaunts the moral edicts of his day—a factor that could make him seem, in a Romantic reading, akin to the kind of artist who lives only to express himself, or, as Visky sees him, a possible revolutionary figure, “a seeker of meaning.” The Don’s sidekick, the servant Sganarelle, is on hand to offer asides on his master’s self-serving proclivities; while attracted to his master’s lifestyle, Sganarelle also represents a deflationary, common-sense outlook. And there is, for Visky, an aspect of the play that is entirely relevant to our day and age: namely, the “cost of freedom.” Are we free to do as we please or do we have obligations to others, and to the future?

With a cast of eight players, Don Juan, like the other thesis shows this year, will feature many of the fine young actors in the Yale program, including Ariana Venturi, James Cusati-Moyer, and Aaron Profumo, all featured in Master and Margarita, and Bradley Tejeda, who appeared in the Yale Repertory's production of Arcadia last fall. Visky, who trained and worked as an actor himself in his homeland, feels that he “understands the actor’s process, the means, and what it takes” to create a character. For him, theater is a means “to touch the soul” and to break through the everyday numbness of life, but, at the same time, he recognizes that, in “the age of television,” compared to Molière’s day, it is much harder to keep the audience’s attention. “There are so many demands on our time.”

Don Juan is the only thesis show this year to use the full proscenium stage at the University Theater. Visky feels his show’s “operatic dimension” requires it. Central to his staging is “a huge box” that will support the play’s many transitions and scenic changes. Act II, for instance, recalls a “broken-down boardwalk culture” as one might find it on a seedy Jersey shore. Indeed, Visky knew from the start that he wanted his thesis project to be an adaptation. Working with third-year dramaturg Samantha Lazar and a new translation by Yale School of Drama second-year playwright Brendan Pelsue, Visky has aimed to bring Don Juan into our day, with “comedy surprises” that connect very much to our world.

Visky feels drawn to “comedy with a serious spin.” “I don’t believe in a theater that’s comfortable,” he says and likens the process of creating theater to giving birth—as opposed to, for instance, a factory. What comes out is intimately connected to all who take part, we might say, and for Visky the purpose is a “fight for ideas that will be important to others and that get people interested.” Part and parcel of that purpose is the notion that even a classic—as Romanian theater understood in the Stalinist period—can carry a social or political meaning relevant to a much later period. Born three years before the Romanian Revolution and the ousting of Ceauşescu in 1989, Visky still can draw on a cultural memory of theater that incorporated coded messages in classic works of earlier times and places. That tendency should serve him in good stead in creating, with his collaborators and cast, a “fresh feel for the sexual politics” of this tale of the most famous womanizer in literature, his name synonymous with anything from a playboy to a lecher to a kind of Faustian lover of the flesh, in defiance of spiritual or ethical concerns.

“We are all Don Juans,” Visky says, encouraged by consumer society to seek out new sensations, new products, as though our lives’ meaning depends on it. Perhaps live theater, in the era of screens and simulacra, might be a way of finding new meaning in old affinities.

Don Juan By Molière Translated by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Design: Alexander Woodward; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Design: Jing Yin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Dramaturgy: Samantha Lazar; Stage Management: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama University Theater January 27-31, 2015

 

Masterful

Review of The Master and Margarita at Yale School of Drama Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has to be one of the more mercurial plays I’ve ever seen. And why not? It’s really a novel—and a rather unique one at that—that was adapted for the stage by Edward Kemp. Directed by Sara Holdren, MFA candidate in Directing at YSD, the sprawling production at the Iseman Theater is amusing, sensual, metaphysical, magical, grotesque and beautiful—presenting us with a dark night of the soul in a writer’s life, a situation that involves Faustian parallels, including a bargain with the Devil, and becomes, in the hands of this visually stunning production, a meditation on the intersections of theater and reality.

A Soviet playwright known only as the Master (Ato Blankson-Wood) grapples with staging a work on the trial of Jesus—here called Yeshua (Chasten Harmon)—before Pilate (James Cusati-Moyer). He runs afoul of the Soviet authorities—it’s the era of Stalin—in the form of a smug committee-man named Berlioz (Aaron Bartz) and his lackey Ivan, a proletarian playwright (Christopher Geary), and faces the consequences of his metaphysical speculations. Meanwhile he has encountered a married femme fatale, Margarita (Ariana Venturi), who becomes his lover and muse and his advocate before the devil—who arrives disguised as a German magician called Woland (Aaron Luis Profumo) when he hears Margarita say she would give her soul to save the Master from being “vanished.”

The play’s present tense action occasionally includes the rehearsals of the play Pontius Pilate, but the scenes from the latter—even after the Master burns his manuscript—take on a life of their own, commenting on the action and intertwined with it. At times the Master becomes a double for Yeshua, with the obvious theme of persecution by the State uniting their ordeals. But Pilate also becomes a double for the Master as the Procurate’s efforts to master the situation and to understand the consequences of his acts—for history and for the ultimate meaning of existence—parallel the playwright’s struggles with his materials and with his time. To say nothing of struggling with love of his life and the forces of darkness. Blankson-Wood’s Master seems remarkably clear and self-contained in the midst of this play’s wildness.

As the forces of darkness, Woland and his retinue provide much of that spirit. If God is in the details, then we might say the devil is in the diversions. Everything that humans strive to control—whether it be the Master with his play or the authorities with all forms of interaction—the infernal troupe plays havoc with. As Woland, Profumo exudes “the man of wealth and taste” that Mick Jagger considers the Devil to be, and his chat on a park bench with Berlioz and Ivan is fraught with comic tension. Later, a series of pranks and tricks before a red curtain are played with the zest of a Faustian Walpurgisnacht. The supernatural extremes involve decapitations, an enormous cat called Behemoth (Zenzi Williams in a highly active performance) that terrorizes and pouts alternately, and a rakish chap Koroviev, played by Maura Hooper with perfected sangfroid. Azazello, the demon who attends Margarita, is played by Matt Raich as a sullen and sinister messenger, clad in black leather.

The wild card in all this, of course, is Woman. As the Master’s “Gretchen,” Margarita is no fallen woman sacrificed as in Goethe, but rather a fully cognizant catalyst. She takes “standing by her man” to the point of becoming a satanic consort. Venturi’s Margarita is adamant where the Master, nearly broken, would be swayed from his task. This is a tour de force performance by Venturi who displays the full range of Margarita’s investment in the Master, even to upbraid him late in the play. What’s more, Venturi acts in the nude whenever Margarita becomes “a witch” for the purpose of tempting the Master to the devil’s side, making “the flesh” a feature of this pageant in a very deliberate way. Margarita’s flight to Woland is breathtaking and then, in the company of his retinue, she presides over an eerie ball attended by the wonderfully costumed ghosts—think Day of the Dead—of major killers and evil-doers.

Eventually, the various levels of the play come to reside in the mind of poor Ivan who has been committed to an asylum after seeing Berlioz’s death at Behemoth’s paws, and who finally believes the play to have been hallucinations of which he has been cured. An element of autobiography presents itself as we may imagine Bulgakov both fantasizing an escape from Moscow, such as the Master and Margarita enjoy with the help of the devil, as well as the sad fate of a writer unable to claim his visions, like Ivan. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fun with telegraphs and trains and phones as Bulgakov explores the demonic aspects of technology.

This very ambitious production attempts to do justice to all the riches of this complex play, capturing its comic touches—such as theater-making with the foppish director Styopa (Cornelius Davidson) or Berlioz’s live head brought in on a platter—as well as the weighty emotions of Pilate’s struggle with his fate. As the almost-tragic hero of the Master’s play, Cusati-Moyer registers both Pilate’s hauteur and his helplessness. And as Ivan, Geary runs a gamut of manner, first as a comic treatment of the proponent of social realism who loses it completely when faced with the supernatural, then as a stand-in for the gospeller Matthew, the source of the Master’s play, and finally as the figure who stands for the writer, beset by the contrary demands of the spirit and the State, of the flesh and the fantastic.

The Master and Margarita displays the finesse of its large cast and perhaps even more so the technical talent brought to bear on this lively phantasmagoria: Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s splendid costumes, Andrew F. Griffin’s artful lighting, Sinan Zafar’s effective score and work in sound, the projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the backdrop into various illustrative settings—Yalta complete with flying geese, or glimpses of Objectivist art become illustrative—and Christopher Thompson’s scenic design creates distinct spaces with both vertical and horizontal interest—such as a rotating stage matched with a hanging hoop—while the use of various points of entrance and exit from above, the sides, and at the back, makes the space team with energy.

The best proof of the method in the madness of Holdren’s faithful adaptation of Bulgakov’s challenging text—kudos as well to dramaturg Helen C. Jaksch—is that the show runs for three hours plus without losing its audience or dragging out its business. While some segments might have been trimmed without loss of effect, the staging of the work’s entirety makes this Master and Margarita a showcase of invention and talent, as it takes great resources of both to pull this off this well.

In a word, amazing.

 

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita Adapted by Edward Kemp Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composition and Sound Design: Sinan Zafar; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Cast: Aaron Bartz; Ato Blankson-Wood; James Cusati-Moyer; Cornelius Davidson; Christopher Geary; Chasten Harmon; Maura Hooper; Tiffany Mack; Aaron Luis Profumo; Matt Raich; Ariana Venturi; Zenzi Williams

Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater October 21-25, 2014

No Child Left Behind

Review of A Map of Virtue Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the second offering of the 40th Anniversary Yale Summer Cabaret this year, is certainly a curiosity. Structured by titled segments—virtues like “Honesty,” “Integrity,” “Love”—that form a symmetrical arrangement around a central section, the play, as directed by Co-Artistic Director Luke Harlan, keeps us guessing about its ultimate ends.

Along the way float much imagery and narrated events and lingering details, which might be red herrings or what Alfred Hitchcock liked to call “MacGuffins,” plot-driving elements that never get a full explanation because they are actually incidental to the story. Mention of Hitchcock and MacGuffins is all-too germane to Courtney’s play, which opens with two characters—Sarah (AnneLise Lawson), an artist and free-spirit, and Mark (Ato Blankson-Wood), an intrigued gay man—describing their first encounter, in a diner where a bird attack straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds takes place. And, as MacGuffins go, one of the prime examples is the bird statue in The Maltese Falcon. Oh, did I mention that A Map of Virtue is narrated by a little bird statue that Mark stole from the office of the headmaster who abused him and other boys? The statue—enacted by Ariana Venturi—gives us the titles of the segments and also reflects on the action from time to time.

Apart from whatever the play may be saying about the values of virtues, the plot itself has more to say about haphazard events, serendipitous meetings, personal obsessions, and, well, curiosity—which some may regard as a virtue and others if not exactly a vice then—a meaningful word for this play I’d say—a nemesis. Indeed, the multiplying instances of bird imagery and the history of the little statue itself could stand for that ancient concept, as a tendency of fate.

In Courtney’s play, the bird statue comes into Mark’s possession during a traumatic time as a child and he keeps it until, a grown man, he gives it to Sarah, in part because she has birds tattooed on her chest, and in part because of the bird attack and in part because he encounters her, by sheer “chance,” on a cliff in Ireland when he’s considering disposing of the little keepsake. The statue's ultimate fate occurs during a desperate weekend in the country where Mark, Sarah, and her husband Nate are held captive by a creepy couple, June and Ray (the latter often donning a bird mask that might put you in mind of the mask of human flesh in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if you’re into that kind of thing). The period in the one-room prison, complete with dirty mattress and odd headmistress-like commands from June, might give you the creeps—nothing occurs to lighten the tension—but it plays out like a nightmare that will be over at some point (or a rural “urban story”), and becomes a crucible for the tensions in the play.

The upshot of all this are the changes in the relationship between Mark and his boyfriend Victor and between Sarah and Nate, with Sarah possessed by a new obsession that there were children, or a child, present at the site of their captivity, children who needed to be rescued.

Harlan and company play to the strengths of the Cabaret in putting on this oddly dreamlike morality tale. The space’s intimacy makes us accept the character’s (including the statue’s) direct address easily, bringing us into the events they narrate even when they seem rather unrealistic or off-putting. As Sarah, Lawson gives us a woman who seems believable as an artist-type, driven by hunches and intuition (the latter is a named virtue), but who also seems capable of going off the deep end at some point. Blankson-Wood’s Mark, despite his penchant for encountering creepy headmaster/mistress types, seems much warmer and engaging, though he did slash Sarah’s painting of “his” statue, one of the many acts or statements in this play that seem fit for an airing on a psychiatric couch.

As the creepy couple, Celeste Arias plays June like a somewhat psychotic schoolteacher and Aaron Bartz makes Ray oddly soulful in his interludes of song (his banjo retaining its Deliverance-inspired status as creepy rural instrument par excellence), and his “I’ve Still Got the Goods” might well be a tagline for hen-pecked husbands everywhere. As husband Nate, Aubie Merrylees seems pretty much steadily bemused by life with Sarah and will be remembered for his joyous outburst, “thank God for GPS!” Victor, Mark’s boyfriend, is played as the godsend he is by Julian Elijah Martinez. Finally, as “bird statue,” Ariana Venturi’s flowing garment, regal profile, and air of warm regard for human frailty combine to make her the centerpiece of the play, a MacGuffin who, in my reading of the play, is the figure for Courtney’s sense of agency.

Kate Marvin’s Sound Design is great at making us jump or freaking us out, and the Scenic Design (Christopher Thompson) and Lighting Design (Andrew F. Griffin) make the most of the amorphous Cab space to let us imagine diverse settings, with that room far upstage the kind of space you might find in your darker dreams at some point. Played close to the chest, thus letting viewers make up their own minds about matters of “empathy” (another cited virtue) and identification with the characters, A Map of Virtue is a bit like trying to make sense of someone else’s dream. Elusive, imaginative, and ultimately a matter of one’s trust in patterns and perceptions, this is one you’ll have to talk about.

A Map of Virtue returns tonight and plays until its closing Sunday night.

A Map of Virtue By Erin Courtney Directed by Luke Harlan

Sarah: AnneLise Lawson; Mark: Ato Blankson-Wood; Nate: Aubie Merrylees; Victor: Julian Elijah Martinez; Bird Statue: Ariana Venturi; June: Celeste Arias; Ray: Aaron Bartz

Scenic Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Steven M. Rotramel; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Photography: Christopher Ash

Yale Summer Cabaret June 19-June 29, 2014

Dancing in the Dark

Review of Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them The first offering of the 2014—40th anniversary—Yale Summer Cabaret stages the work of former YSD student, founding member of the Summer Cabaret, and recent Tony-winning playwright Christopher Durang. Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them dates from 2009. Not long ago, or is it? What Durang risks, with topical reference points—like French toast being rechristened “Freedom toast”—is that, in a few years, or even now, the times he gleefully skewers will become “quaint” in their own way or even, God help us, the basis for nostalgic revisiting.

If you become misty with memory thinking back to Abu Ghraib, the John Yoo declaration, the heyday of girls go crazy—a Cosmo, anyone?—and hangouts for tacky middle-Americans (remember them?) like Hooters, to say nothing of the “what’s in a name” fun, post 9-11, of ragging on any vaguely Arab-sounding names, then let this play wrench you back to those less than stellar times, if only to laugh at them. Durang’s lively, giddy, and inventive play—directed with absurdist spirit by Co-Artistic Director Jessica Holt—hits its targets in a way that makes cartoonishness a positive aesthetic. U.S. history certainly has a sense of the absurd, and, in the immediate aftermath of W., we were all Looney Tunes. Here, one interrogator suffers from Mel Blanc Tourette syndrome and can’t get out two words without reverting to the voice of a Looney Tunes character (voiced, in their heyday, by Blanc), such as “I say, I say, waterboarding,” as Foghorn Leghorn would deliver the line.

As is often the case with this level of broad playacting, most of the fun is in the set-up, or the First Act. That’s when we meet (almost) everyone who populates this domestic sit-com of the Terrorist Era: first, dubious daughter Felicity (Ariana Venturi, both dreamy and soulful), the barometer of decency here. Will she stop being the sort of generic single girl who objects to her parents without ever reasoning with them, or get involved in trying to do something for the good of all? Then, there’s Zamir (James Cusati-Moyer, hyper and faced with carrying the dual aspects of the play—try being funny and threatening at the same time), who claims he and Felicity were married during a drunken binge (at Hooters!) and expects her parents to support them—if only to stop him from his vaguely illegal activities and from giving his wife a “date-rape drug” to get what he wants when he wants it.

Then there’s Luella (Maura Hooper) and Leonard (Aaron Bartz), the mom and dad. Hooper’s performance is a hilarious barrage of ditzy mannerisms crossed with Kate Hepburn hauteur and Leave It To Beaver unflappable mom syndrome. It’s wildly, remarkably ridiculous, while also giving us some of the show’s bite. Durang wants us to see how the “life as usual” trappings of bourgeois indifference during the protracted obscenities of the Bush Years is simply a form of dementia. Luella’s constant commentaries on “the-ah-ter” are fun and, perhaps, a bit specific for a general audience, though Durang can generally assume that his audience is in the house. Durang bites the hand that feeds him, a bit, but that’s part of the fun of being an American: the ability to laugh at yourself. Dad is also an appealing caricature, an all-male, gun-toting Father Knows Best type, but likeable enough to have a beer with; he’s also up to vigilante “shadow government” undertakings undercover in a special room for “butterfly collecting.”

Rounding out the absurd cast we have Rev. Mike (Aubie Merrylees, sporting CA-inspired threads and speaking with the loud, grooving-on-life voice of a guy who has done too many raves), a porn-making reverend who may be Durang’s best inspiration: after all, Jesus said to love one’s neighbor, and that led the early church toward agape-fests . . . . Not least here is another bravura comic turn by Celeste Arias (if you saw her in Kate Tarker’s Thunderbodies at the Carlotta Festival, you know what I mean) as Hildegaarde, Leonard’s Gal Friday incapable of keeping her underpants up and devoted to the anti-terrorist skullduggery of her hero (though she does get all “weaker sex” when the torture actually starts). Andrew Burnap’s multiple roles include the “agent” suffering (succotash) from Looney Tourette, also the voices in Felicity’s head, and a suave Hooters waiter capable of crooning a sparkling “Dancing in the Dark.”

In the Second Act things turn darker—though with still the same glibness—with Zamir undergoing torture at Leonard's hands (in accord with Yoo’s dicta on legal torture) upstairs as wife and daughter wait, shut out of the blood-letting till bags of removed appendages are brought into the livingroom. At that point, Felicity takes us on a re-sequencing of events that would spare us, the cast, and the U.S. from a collective spin through a dark night of the soul, or at least a consideration of where the logic of “ends justify the means” takes us. Durang may, after all, be not so far removed from the desires of Luella, who goes to the theater to learn what is “normal,” as he ends with a comfortable and comforting idea we might express as “so long as we can still date, there’s hope.”

Holt and company’s Why Torture is Wrong gets it right, with perhaps a bit too much reverence for the recent. No one thinks twice of trimming Shakespeare or Chekhov, but it seems all of Durang's play is necessary for its effect though, by Cab standards, it takes rather long to get where it’s going. The Scenic Design repeats the proscenium-style arrangement of last year’s Summer Cab, and Alexander Woodward’s designs and scene changes are vivid and fun, particularly Dad’s special room. Steven Rotramel's costumes—like Luella’s same dress in many colors, Felicity’s night-out dress, and Hildegaarde’s Republican-red business suit (to say nothing of Rev. Mike’s ensemble)—all do the piece proud. There are enough interludes and changes in mood to give Sound Designer Kate Marvin and Lighting Designer Andrew F. Griffin opportunities to show off their talents, made easier by the fact that this is a play that never wants us to forget it’s a play.

The Yale Summer Cabaret is off to a great start with (in Sylvester’s voice) a slap-happy serving of silly skewerings of shibboleths and sacred cows, satirizing a self-serving and hardly short-lived era in a style that should inspire some soul-searching.

 

Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them By Christopher Durang Directed by Jessica Holt

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Steven Rotramel; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Photographs: Christopher Ash

 

The Yale Summer Cabaret June 5th-15th, 2014

Next up, opening June 19th and running till June 29th, is Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, described as “part interview, part comedy, part middle-of-the-night, middle-of the-forest horror story,” that is about “the ways we try to understand evil,” directed by Co-Artistic Director, Luke Harlan.

40 Years On: A Preview of Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yale Summer Cabaret, a theatrical entity separate from Yale Cabaret (or “term time Cabaret”), which began life in 1974.

In tribute to the four decades of its existence, the current Yale Summer Cabaret, led by Artistic Directors Jessica Holt and Luke Harlan, with Managing Director Gretchen Wright and Associate Managing Director Sooyoung Hwang, will be staging plays by living American authors, beginning with Christopher Durang, who was one of the founding members of the Summer Cabaret 40 years ago. Today, of course, he’s celebrated for plays such as his most recent, the Tony Award-winning “Best Play” of 2013, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which Summer Cab wanted to mount this year but Hartford Stage got there first), but, once upon a time, he was a YSD student working in the Summer Cabaret.

The decision to feature contemporary American playwrights follows nicely on last year’s program, which was a kind of syllabus of world theater, from the neoclassicism of Molière through naturalism, symbolism, and ending with the absurdist and pointed work of contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill. The note reached at the end of last year’s Summer Cab, with Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You looking askance at American dominance since WWII, sets up nicely this year’s program of “voices at the forefront of American theater,” works that encapsulate complex perspectives on our cultural heritage, our place in the world, our self-image, and our values, as a nation.

The shows will, like last year, open sequentially and play for about two weeks each. At midsummer, a break will give the company time to reconfigure the space so that, unlike last year, the seating arrangements will not remain fixed for the entire summer but will alter midway. This, Holt and Harlan feel, gives audiences the best of both worlds: the stage-like setup of last year’s Summer Cab, for two shows, and the more amorphous arrangements typical of term-time Cab for the next two shows. Capping off the two months of contemporary full-length plays will be a four-day program of very recent short plays, all by YSD alums, including the three playwrights currently featured at this year’s Carlotta Festival, Hansol Jung, Mary Laws, Kate Tarker.

The Program

First up, in June, is Christopher Durang’s 2009 absurdist comedy Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them which Holt, who will direct, describes as a “wildly funny, wacky, and zany” comedy about such laughing matters as torture, terrorism, gun violence, domestic dysfunction, male domination, and the fraught nature of interracial or cross-cultural marriage in America. In Holt’s view, the play is “grappling with what it means to be American,” and so, ultimately, fits the Summer program better than Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would have.

We meet Felicity (Ariana Venturi), a young woman who has apparently married the unsettling Zamir (James Custati-Moyer) while drunk, so that she seems to be meeting him when we do, as she has no previous recollection of him. Then, of course, we go home to meet the folks: father (Aaron Bartz) and mother (Maura Hooper), with support from Aubie Merrylees as the seedy Reverend Mike, Celeste Arias as Hildegarde, dad’s “colleague,” and Andrew Burnap providing the cartoonish voice over. The play takes on most of the things the news keeps Americans fretting about, as stories of violence and the threat of violence are as American as television. From 5 June to 15 June

Next, still in June, Luke Harlan will direct Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue (2012), a New England premiere. Harlan calls the play a “journey into darkness” that mixes genres—romantic comedy, horror story, mystery, docu-drama—to keep the audience guessing. Narrated by a bird statue, the play tweaks expectations at every turn, but is also structurally symmetrical, with 6 scenes leading to a major event and 6 scenes following that key moment. With a cast of 7, the play mainly focuses on Sarah and Nate, a stranger named Mark and a house in the woods. An “exploration of evil,” the play, Holt says, is also “charming, brilliant, and ebulliently written,” and addresses the effect on relationships of traumatic events. From 19 June to 29 June

After 11 days off, including the 4th of July weekend, the Summer Cabaret returns with Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915. Director Jessica Holt calls the play, which played at SoHo Rep in 2012, directed by Eric Ting of the Long Wharf, a “meta-theatrical inquiry into cultural anthropology” as we watch a theatrical troupe in the process of creating a play about the “first genocide of the twentieth century.” Germany, during the inclusive years in the play’s title, controlled what was then called Deutsch-Südwestafrika, which is today the nation of Namibia, and during that time found cause to destroy the Herero tribe. With a ruthless efficiency that seems the prototype for genocide against Jews and Poles in WWII, German soldiers were put in the position of executioners of a native population. But the only record of what took place can be found in the soldiers’ letters home. In Drury’s play, the actors’ difficulties with imagining and inhabiting the roles dictated by the extreme situations—particularly with gaps in knowledge and motivation—leads to obvious analogies to violence against native and slave populations in the U.S. Holt sees the play within the play as an ingenious device to bring the audience into the situation through the comic and seemingly improvised interactions of rehearsal, inviting the audience to consider the implications of their own presence in the room with the actors. From 11 July to 26 July

The final full-length play is Will Eno’s Middletown, the author’s breakthrough play. Eno has been called, by Charles Isherwood, “the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation,” and, while I don’t know that many see themselves as defined generationally by watching Stewart, the notion of unsettling existentialism rubbing up against the self-aware ironies of the American media does strike a chord. Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, currently on Broadway, debuted at the Yale Rep in 2012 and was one of the best new plays to show up there in recent memory. Middletown dates from 2010 and is a kind of Our Town for an edgier era. In director Luke Harlan’s view the play asks, as does Our Town for an earlier time, “what does it mean to be alive right now?” Without romanticizing or dismissing everyday lives, but with real “humor and fear,” Harlan says, Eno’s play looks at normal people living normal lives in an “Anytown U.S.A.” but lets them say things no one says aloud. With a cast of 10 actors playing 20 characters, the show will be an opportunity to sample the excellent ensemble work of YSD and Cabaret shows. From 31 July to 10 August

Finally, the Summer Cabaret closes with Summer Shorts, a four-day festival of new short plays by six playwrights “whose work was first nurtured and developed at the Yale School of Drama.” Divided into Series A and Series B, there will be at least three plays in each Series (or evening), and on the last two days, Saturday and Sunday, August 16th and 17th, all the plays will be staged in two sequences, at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., respectively, both evenings. The line-up of plays will be previewed here during the Summer Cab’s July interim. This part of the program should be very interesting, seeing what can be done in a short compass by playwrights that Holt and Harlan regard as the future of theater. From 14 August to 17 August

The Team

Jessica Holt, rising third year directing candidate, and Luke Harlan, rising second year directing candidate, met at the meet-and-greet last spring when Harlan visited Yale as a prospective YSD student. They hit it off then, with their belief in new plays that had been fostered by their work in, respectively, the San Francisco and New York theater scenes. By the time Harlan was midway through his first year, the two had begun to plan a proposal for the Summer Cabaret, where Holt put in time working last summer. Their mission statement focused on the virtues of new and challenging works that had enjoyed successful and highly regarded first or, at most, second runs.

Very aware that they are presenting the 40th anniversary season of the beloved experiment that is the Summer Cabaret, the Co-Artistic Directors wanted to provide a provocative line-up of plays that tell stories. Both directed plays in last year’s term-time Cabaret: Holt directed Edward Bond’s darkly comic dystopian play Have I None, a U.S. premiere, and Harlan reached back to The Brothers Size, an early play by YSD alum Tarell Alvin McCraney that gave Yale Cabaret 46 a strong finish. Holt’s and Harlan’s choices showed the commitment to current plays and youngish playwrights demonstrated by the Summer Cab line-up.

For their Managing Director, Holt and Harlan asked around “and heard and observed good things” about Gretchen Wright, whose background in choreography may afford participation beyond the key role of keeping the Cabaret running smoothly. As regular patrons of the Summer Cabaret know, the summer is a different animal from the term-time Cabaret, becoming a welcome oasis in a college town whose median age ratchets up considerably in the summer months. Other entertainments of the “afterhours” variety may be added later.

With its first offering, the 40th anniversary Summer Cabaret will touch base with its origins before taking us on a journey that will demonstrate some of the contemporary values of theater—bending genres, looking at the problem of historical enactment, re-imagining the “domestic quotidian,” and demonstrating the resources of short but powerful recent pieces.

The key terms for the 40th Summer Cabaret, devised by Holt and Harlan, are Community. Excellence. Imagination. Innovation. Investigation. Wonder. Providing excellent theater to the New Haven community through innovative works that investigate our ways of life with a sense of imaginative wonder, the Summer Cabaret will up and running in three and a half weeks.

Prepare to be challenged.

The Yale Summer Cabaret 2014 Voices at the Forefront of American Theater

Photographs by Christopher Ash

Passes and single tickets are available online at summercabaret.org, by phone at (203) 432-1567, by email at summer.cabaret@yale.edu, and in person at the Yale Summer Cabaret box office (217 Park Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511).

Saints Alive!

Ryan Campbell, a second-year playwright in YSD, is a ballsy writer. A New Saint for a New World, now playing at the Yale Cabaret, begins with the premise of Joan of Arc returned to earth in 2010 to “have fun and hang out,” to make up for the bad shit that happened to her the first time, back in the 15th century, and it ends with a vision of God, in a cameo by the Big Man himself, confessing he’s a bit at loose ends. Campbell’s play, directed by second-year director Sara Holdren, is equal parts audacious comedy and earnest searching. The opening scene between Joan and her boyfriend, Bott (Aaron Bartz, suitably bemused), smacks of those sit-coms where “the wife” has to explain something, such as “I’m really a witch” (Bewitched) or a spy, or what-have-you. Here, the revelation that she’s really that Joan of Arc inspires comic understatement and characterizations of the French aristocracy and Churchmen that would feel natural in The Sopranos. As Joan, Maura Hooper has an appealing way of beseeching her boyfriend’s suspension of disbelief, in the character of her alias, while at the same time becoming more and more emphatically Joan. It’s a great tour de force of the off-hand casualness of today’s speech meeting the inspired dicta of the Age of Faith.

In some ways, the play never quite recovers from that outrageous opening gambit, but each of its scenes—black-out vignettes more than a continuous play, we might say—has something to offer that extends the story beyond that initial comic exploration. Joan, who got returned to earth on the condition that she not stir up any trouble, can’t help herself. Eventually she’s started another Civil War in these formerly United States. The actual terms of the battle go by a bit quickly, but the gist is that Joan, facing interrogation, has fought for the people against the kinds of power mongers who think they “represent God.” She’s being held in Arizona, so draw your own conclusions. Ariana Venturi does a great job as a chilling captor: it’s like facing capital charges at the hands of your Sunday School teacher. A steelier sense of self-righteousness, matched with meek “doing my duty” candor, would be hard to imagine.

That scene does go on a for a bit, but then there’s another explosion of comedy: Christopher Geary as a pissed-off Archangel forced to visit Joan in her holding cell, accompanied by his graphic-novel-reading sidekick (James Cusati-Moyer). Geary manages to spout exposition with the mounting ire of one who finds the situations he’s describing increasingly maddening, including the info that God has decided to go with a new start-up universe he’s just devised. Seems Earth won’t be his favorite toy for much longer.

Which leads to that new world, Kia, where Joan gets to pass some time in anything but bliss. Though we meet—in a very Dr. Who-ish vision and visitation—Okun (Annie Hägg and Elizabeth Mak), one of the oddly serene double-beings that inhabit this world, and who tries to placate Joan with offers of the goods on demand, once a warrior always a warrior, and our Joan is restless to be up to something more than “hanging out and having fun.”

Finally, looking like a coke-dusted film producer or some other Player, Jeremy Funke, in a special guest appearance, shows up to beseech Joan to play his game, offering intensity, sincerity, and a cosmic sense of detachment. It’s definitely a grand payoff.

Well-cast, well-played, with a versatile set (Jean Kim, Izmir Ickbal) that looks like bargain-basement Star Trek and costumes (Fabian Aguilar) of tacky splendor, New Saint is fun to look at as it jabs at our modern lack of belief and hope, giving us a gutsy heroine aching to achieve something in a universe that may be rather less hieratic than it was in the Middle Ages. And, like other after-worldly comedies we could mention, New Saint gets its laughs from the incongruity between our suppositions about the Grand Scheme and the way it actually tends to play out. More of that “we get the afterlife we deserve”—which now includes “after-earth” and other universes—which has been somewhere at the heart of the whole problem of how to live righteously, in principio.

An amusing, irreverent, and relevant little gem for the Easter season.

 

A New Saint for a New World By Ryan Campbell Directed by Sara Holdren

Dramaturg: Helen Jaksch; Set: Jean Kim, Izmir Ickbal; Lights: Oliver Wason, Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound: Sinan Zafar; Costumes: Fabian Aguilar; Projections: Joe Moro; Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Sally Shen; Producer: Sally Shen

Yale Cabaret April 17-19, 2014

Hey Claude

Much Ado About Nothing, the comedy by Shakespeare that is the source for These! Paper! Bullets!, a new adaptation—or, in its terms, “modish ripoff”—by playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gray, is somewhat silly, somewhat foolish, somewhat witty, and way too busy. The original play suffers from a surfeit of plots that don’t really add up to much—which is a way of saying their only purpose is to divert—and TPB takes that feature and runs away with it.

What makes TPB bigger than our Will’s conception is the driving force of this lively, tuneful, and sprawling production: pop culture in the form of the Fab Four—The Beatles. TPB takes us back to the days when the boys from Liverpool—not to mention numerous copies, clones, and wannabes—first assailed these shores. 1964, the key year of Beatlemania, found the Beatles riding as high as they would ever ride. “Bigger than Jesus,” John Lennon quipped (to considerable backlash), as does his likeness here: Ben (the firmly tongue-in-cheek David Wilson Barnes), the wittiest of the Quartos, aka Benedict in Much Ado. He wrangles, rom-com fashion, with Bea, otherwise Beatrice (Jeanine Serralles), a fashion maven á la Mary Quant. Meanwhile his mate Claude (Bryan Fenkart, the “cute one”) is speechless with his fancy for Higgy, née Hero (Ariana Venturi), a model whose skill, it seems, is to make questionable couture look desirable.

What Jones and company do so cleverly is mash the familiar tropes of Beatlemania—Liverpool accents, matching suits, moptops, screaming girls, fab gear, media circus, hummable numbers—with the giddy courtship shenanigans of Much Ado. And guess what? The Beatles biz beats the Bard.

Fans of the Beatles—and the Rutles—will find moments that recall some of the best banter of the former and some of the parodic tweaking of the latter. The gag album titles, the pastiche for pastiche’s sake in the projections (Nicholas Hussong) and costumes (Jessica Ford) and tunes (Billie Joe Armstrong) and stagings, including a “Hey Jude” rave-up and a “Get Back” rooftop shutdown, will keep those in the know on their toes. Jones even manages to include the one line that appears in both a Shakespeare play and a Beatles tune (indeed, it’s cribbed from a BBC Shakespeare production in the Beatles song). A good extra credit question for classes attending the show—and no fair Googling it. Even the name of the band—the Quartos—manages to combine the Beatles’ original name—the Quarrymen—with a Shakespearean association.

Indeed, TPB improves on Much Ado, but not quite enough. The Don John subplot—never very compelling—becomes funnier with ribs at Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the early Quartos drummer who was dumped and bears a grudge, and the best parts of Much Ado—the eavesdropping scenes—are not surprisingly the best parts of the play here. But Much Ado’s Dogberry, here Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), still manages to dispense his tedium, opening the play, opening the second act, and getting into an interminable physical bout with his second in command, Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee), and with the malefactors, Boris the journalist (Andrew Musselman) and Colin, a paparazzo (Brian McManamon), who are generally tedious company in their own right. I doubt even Monty Python could make these clods as comical as they need to be to justify their time onstage. Their only purpose, as ever, is to give the principals a breather. Me, I’d rather be backstage with the band.

Along the way, adaptation-wise, there are some happy inspirations: Jones cheekily (heh) adapts the mistaken identity plot by way of doctored photographs occasioning, quite rightly, a tabloid frenzy about the most eligible Quarto, while “all the world”—in the form of breathless TV reporter Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) and her cameraman (Brad Heberlee), and even the Queen (Chris Geary, a welcome royal)—looks on. The Quartos themselves are reminiscent of the ersatz Beatles of the Saturday morning cartoon, with Lucas Papaelias nailing perfectly the deadpan adroitness of the George avatar. Meanwhile, Frida (Ceci Fernandez) and Ulcie (Keira Naughton) provide much of the amusement on the ladies’ side. Then there’s Jabari Brisport in Dionne Warwick drag because he can. Unlike The Rutles, Jones doesn’t go near the homosexual undercurrents in The Beatles entourage, as Brian Epstein (and Leggy Mountbatten) has been excised, and a dutiful George Martin type, Anton (James Lloyd Reynolds), runs the show.

Others have commented on how Jones and Gay improve on the sexual politics of Much Ado, with the Foursome getting a comeuppance for their double standard (yawn), but, oddly, the girls don’t fare so well here. Higgy is pretty much incoherent as a character, with the winsomeness of Much Ado’s Hero dropped in favor of party girl dimness—an improvement?—and Serralles’s Bea I could not warm to at all, as something of the role’s soul disappears as Bea is more apt to stuff wedding cake in her gob than appeal to anything more winning. You may find yourself waiting for Yoko. Or maybe Jones should take a cue from that other band of the era and work in someone a bit more Faithfull to the scene.

There’s so much going on in the show, you may easily breeze through without thinking about anything so Old School as character development, and the songs certainly help. There are knock-offs like “I’ll Give It All to You,” and big, rousing numbers like “Regretfully Yours,” that uses Fenkart to good effect, and even Ben trying to lay down a “Hide Your Love Away”-style soul-search, and mustn’t forget Stephen DeRosa’s infectious sing-along to “My Wild Irish Rose” as “impromptu” mugging to mask some scenery shifting. It’s a moment warm with the music hall repertoire that was a ready source for the Lads, and it serves here to reach out to the audience—as do moments like Wisan spotting celebrities in the seats (on opening night Athol Fugard was identified as Winston Churchill and graciously smoked an imaginary cigar on camera).

Full of a little something for anyone with fondness for British humour, or for humoring the Brits, These! Paper! Bullets! mostly hits what it aims at, though somewhere in the whirligig is a romantic-comedy about sex and celebrity in the Sixties—with the Fabs as the feckless flag-bearers—trying to “shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit.”

 

These! Paper! Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Adapted by Rolin Jones Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong Directed by Jackson Gay

Choreographer: Monica Bill Barnes; Music Director: Julie McBride; Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Jessica Ford; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Sound Designer and Incidental Music: Broken Chord; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Orchestrator and Arranger: Tom Kitt; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturgs: Ilya Khodosh, Catherine Sheehy; Casting Directors: Tara Rubin, Lindsay Levine; Stage Manager: Robert Chikar

Cast: David Wilson Barnes; Bryan Fenkart; James Barry; Lucas Papaelias; James Lloyd Reynolds; Adam O’Byrne; Jeanine Serralles; Ariana Venturi; Keira Naughton; Ceci Fernandez; Stephen DeRosa; Andrew Musselman; Brian McManamon; Jabari Brisport; Christopher Geary; Brad Heberlee; Liz Wisan; Greg Stuhr; Anthony Manna

Yale Repertory Theatre March 14-April 5, 2014

Unhappy Hedda

The third Yale School of Drama thesis show opens tonight, directed by Katherine McGerr. Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen, is a masterpiece, a character study that is one of theater’s most fascinating roles. As the playbill by the show’s dramaturg, Jennifer Schmidt, suggests, the play, unlike some of Ibsen’s other famous plays, does not take aim at social problems so as to give meaning to the play’s action. In Hedda Gabler, the problem lies with Hedda herself; her manipulation of others and her ultimate fate would seem to set a moral, though audiences are left to determine what that might be. Is she tragic or does she get what she deserves, is she mean-spirited or high-spirited, is she idealistic or nihilistic?

For McGerr, Hedda Gabler is a play that is meant to shock its audience. “There’s nothing old about it, the play is alive today,” McGerr says, and hopes the audience will be “shocked, but understand it and be shocked by what it means.” One question the production faced was how to remove the play from its period setting—the 1890s—without “updating it” to the present. The show’s striking design (Adrian Martinez Frausto), with the audience literally looking through the glass walls of the home of Jørgen and Hedda Tesman, is somewhat modernist, without being of a definite era. Costumes (Soule Golden) as well are modern, with some of the elegance of art deco, while furnishings show a mixture of modern shapes together with the older mode of life that the Tesmans are trying to move up from. The house is one of the finest in the neighborhood and is the place where Jørgen (Daniel Reece) expects to begin his career as a professor with a young wife and possibly a family—particularly if his doting Aunt Julia (Elia Monte-Brown) has her way.

McGerr says that, in working with her cast, the question they have been asking is “who is [Hedda]?” They see both her cruelty and her frailty. McGerr thinks of her heroine as “ahead of her time and smarter than the others around her, but also frustrated.” It’s that frustration that fuels many of her actions, we might say, and Hedda’s complexity has always fascinated audiences. What interests McGerr and her company is the very question of what draws others to Hedda, what makes them love and trust her. We—the audience—might understand the attraction if we admit we love her too. Much may rely upon whether or not we identify with her.

As Hedda, Ashton Heyl is lively and accommodating, with finely chiseled features and blonde hair bound tightly to her head. Her costumes accentuate the graceful lines of her figure and she indeed looks very much the prize catch of the area that Tesman—and others—take her for. “Others” include Commissioner Brack (Mitchell Winter), a close friend of the Tesmans—Jørgen is literally in his debt—who wants to get closer. The sparring flirtation between Brack and Hedda is one of the show’s strengths, allowing us to see how Hedda handles herself when confronted with another’s machinations. Both seem wary of each other’s strengths while looking for an opening that will be useful. Winter’s Brack seems to be a man forever testing the water, just waiting til it gets comfy.

Reece’s Tesman is so absorbed in his hopes for his career and his elation at winning Hedda, he’s unaware of Brack’s overtures to Hedda, and rather welcomes his friend’s attentions to his wife. Tesman is the comic figure in the cast, to a large extent, and perhaps some of our sympathy for Hedda may come from our growing sense of the obtuseness of the man she married. Even so, Reece’s Tesman is likeable and aims to please. We might expect Hedda to wrap him around her finger, but not so. We’re looking at a domestic unit where the man—especially with the moral and even the financial support of his aunt—sets the tone and Hedda is expected to content herself in the home he has gone into considerable debt to buy for her.

The more dire threat to that contentment, for Tesman, is the sudden reappearance in town of the brilliant but dissolute scholar Eilert Lövborg (Mamoudou Athie). Suddenly Tesman again faces professional competition and, what’s more, we learn that Lövborg had some scenes with Hedda when she was single and living with her father. There’s a back-story there and Lövborg’s recent “reclamation” by the sweetly supportive Thea Elvsted (Tiffany Mack), an earlier flame of Tesman’s, sets up a possible game of mixed couples to offset Brack’s desired threesome. Ibsen was nothing if not canny about the possibilities of romantic affairs in small towns—your basic soap opera learned well from his tendency to hint at desires below the surface that may flare into reality at any moment. The cast is rounded out by Ariana Venturi as long-suffering servant Berte—suffering not only because she’s the only servant the Tesmans can afford, but because her long ears pick up some of the dirt on her mistress. This minor role is amplified a bit to give hints of the kind of “upstairs/downstairs” view in which a servant stands in as witness.

As Lövborg, Athie gives us a vivid sense of instability, but also of the kind of passion that threatens at any moment to overrun the pacing of Hedda’s cat-and-mouse game. Athie’s loose cannon in the midst of a world of bland formalities adds an odd force to the play that other characters seem unable to cope with. As Thea, Mack is lovely and very sensible, perhaps too sympathetic. Hedda’s maliciousness toward her can seem motiveless if we like Thea too much.

Hedda, we see, toys with the possibility of romance but doesn’t truly desire it, so that much of her motivation comes from her attitude toward Thea, who, unhappily married in a manner worse than Hedda, has been Lövborg’s salvation, as well as placing her chaste romantic hopes in him. Backing the now ascendant Lövborg, Thea may actually “win,” you see . . . .

Plot-wise, the over-riding interest is in who will get the upper-hand on whom, and with what consequence. Props—such as Hedda’s old piano, her father’s pistols, Lövborg’s new book and, even more, his brilliant unpublished manuscript, dictated to Thea, written with her in weeks of comradely intimacy—serve well as tangible reference points in a world where dialogue can be a duel, a seduction, and almost always the imposition of one will upon another. Paul Walsh’s translation, in shedding some of the Old World gentility, seems at times to lose some of the finer nuances of motivation as well.

Ibsen was a great playwright. Hedda Gabler is one of his greatest plays. McGerr and company have created a deliciously dark modern comedy in which Heyl’s Hedda—steely, desperate, winning, manipulative, and fine—pits her wits against obtuseness. To what end?

 

Hedda Gabler By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh Directed by Katherine McGerr

Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Composer and Sound Designer: Steven Brush; Production Dramaturg: Jennifer Schmidt; Stage Manager: Shannon L. Gaughf

Yale School of Drama University Theater February 1-7, 2014

We Three

The Bird Bath, the latest show at the Yale Cabaret, like the show the previous week, was developed entirely by YSD students and treats the theme of mental illness.  Directed by Monique Barbee and created by an ensemble of three women—Chasten Harmon, Hannah Leigh Sorenson, Ariana Venturi—who enact three different aspects of the British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, the play is set, more or less, in an asylum.  The drama is in how the three actresses pantomime the artist’s states of psychic duress. For Carrington, apparently, the trinity explained everything, so the set consists of three separate areas: the one to our left seems neat and methodical, somewhat like a lab, somewhat like a writer’s workroom; the central space consists primarily of a very graceful bathtub and curtain; the area to our right contains a bed with an old metal frame.  Each space is decorated with interesting objets d’art.  White is the predominant non-color.

At left and right, respectively, Venturi and Harmon enter through the windows, climbing in to take up residence shortly after Sorenson, in the center, ceases vomiting into a large bucket.  This opening tableau—a woman crouched on the side of a tub attempting to spit up by drinking quantities of orange blossom water—goes on for a bit, while the actress’s voice-over speaks lines derived from Carrington’s book about her treatment in a mental institution after a breakdown.

In other words, the show establishes early its intent to give us a visceral experience of physical distress, but such discomfort is offset by an enthralling series of tableaux vivants that work because of the rigorous physicality of the actresses and the wonderful set design (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez) and lighting (Masha Tsimring) and music/sound (Palmer).  Each actress is mostly contained in a setting that becomes her entire world, a space, we might suppose, that is an external manifestation of Carrington’s internal state.  The three aspects are distinct enough, if somewhat obvious.

Simply, we can see the left-side figure (Venturi) as Carrington attempting to maintain her intellectual and artistic bearings, often clutching a lab jacket to her throat or at times crushing an egg while the other figures convulse; the right-side figure (Harmon) presents the more animal, bodily passions—Harmon moves often in a crouch and at one point enacts an animal defecating, then nosing its feces, while at other times, with a lemon in her mouth, she grips the bed and shakes like someone undergoing shock treatment; the central figure (Sorenson) bathes and primps, convinced she is Queen Elizabeth, and at other times writhes on the floor.  This figure, we might suppose, is the spirit, or at least the spirit as manifested in the artist’s creativity in combat with her own delusions.  Sorenson does a quite spectacular job of both embodying the kind of feminine principle that a male artist might use to represent beauty or spirit, while also giving us the frantic, quivering flesh of a female artist grappling with her demons.  It’s stunning physical theater.

Carrington, the notes by Dramaturg Sheria Irving, tell us, “was treated with Cardiazol, a drug . . . that induced convulsions and hallucinations.”  Just the thing for a surrealist, we might suppose.  And one of the tensions The Bird Bath seems to want to explore, as did Jackson’s All This Noise last week, to some extent, is the relation between artistic self-conceptions and mental illness.  The idea that madness is a form of creativity is very old, and the idea that truly creative spirits, in their innovation, might be taken for insane is also prevalent at times.  Carrington herself seems to have shared some of those notions—as did other surrealists—and so the play might be said to culminate with each of the three women creating an effigy or bust that might be a way of externalizing her anxieties.

Venturi and Harmon create constructions that could be entered as found objects in a Duchampian display. But Sorenson’s Carrington becomes an effigy herself.  In the best sequence in the play, she puts a latex mask over her head, powders it white and draws a red mouth on the powdered mask over her lips.  “Eyeless in Gaza,” so to speak, she becomes an image of the surrealist muse, perhaps, a figure out of Man Ray, that is also the artist as abject heroine of her own life.

Three, of course, is the number of the Graces, the Fates, and the Furies, in Greek myth.  These three women, together with their director, set-up a tripartite tableau of the mind and soul of a figure sorely tried by her own mind and by a drug that invades her body and causes terrors and trauma.  In the end there’s a glimpse of expressive grace—Sorenson, wet and half naked, leaning out three sets of windows, successively, as though gulping the air of freedom and relief—before the fury resumes again.

We might suppose that’s the best we can hope for.

 

The Bird Bath Created by Ensemble Directed by Monique Barbee

Dramaturg: Sheria Irving; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Design & Original Music: Palmer; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard; Producer: Emika Abe

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street

February 28-March 2, 2013