Athol Fugard

Consider the Aloes of the Veld

Review of A Lesson from Aloes, Hartford Stage

Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes is a taut, fraught drama about weathering the storms of marriage and friendship as well as the storms of terrible social and political conditions. In other words, it might have a lot to say to us now, much as it did in the early 1980s when Fugard finally finished and produced a play he’d begun in the early 1960s. The original context for the play was a bus boycott by anti-apartheid workers and the massacres of protesters by police in South Africa, where the play is set. When the play was first produced, the fate of Stephen Biko created an immediate relevance, and it’s interesting to see how a play intended to intervene in its contemporaneous situation plays out half a world away and almost forty years later.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directed by Darko Tresjnak with a firm grasp of how to pace this play and make the most of its tensions, A Lesson from Aloes presents Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), a white couple attempting to talk normally while waiting for invited dinner guests. He’s of Dutch descent, she’s of British colonial stock. Steven, an old comrade of Piet’s from the protest movement, is supposed to call on them with his wife and three children. The discomfort between Piet and Gladys seems to be caused by the need to entertain, but gradually, as we learn more about the situation, we see that Gladys is trying to cope with the aftermath of a police raid in the couple’s home, and that Steve, who is identified under apartheid as “colored,” has recently been released from prison for alleged political crimes, and that Piet is under some suspicion for what part he may have played in the arrest.

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Randall Newsome, is a thoughtful man who likes to quote great British writers in his Afrikaners’ accent, and who has become obsessed with cultivating and cataloguing his collection of aloe plants. The plants, in their spiny oddity, line the rim of the stage, an outdoor deck on the couple’s home, and stand as metaphors for having the knack of flourishing and flowering in the harsh veld. How does one survive in a devastated environment? By a kind of steady osmosis of what nourishment can be found, Piet seems to think. The plants oppress and disturb Gladys, a sign of her vulnerability even before we know her story.

There’s a brooding power to the play’s first act, where every statement becomes a difficult negotiation with the past, as both political and personal affront. Gladys can’t get over the violation of having police agents reading her private diaries and has her doubts about Piet, whose efforts to make nice might be a glib avoidance of guilt. In the second act, when Steve (Ariyon Bakare) finally arrives, the play shifts into a more overtly emotional tone, if only because the social aspects of the visit—Steve and Piet are still affectionate chums—might all be theater to avoid recrimination and defense.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Both Steve and Gladys are given outbursts that go a long way to making their individual trials clear and convincing. As Gladys, Andrus Nichols is a great asset, able to move from withdrawn to confiding to a kind of stringent loathing that encompasses the country she can no longer tolerate, much as she can’t tolerate her husband and herself for remaining. Ariyon Bakare’s Steve arrives jesting, and then warmly takes the couple into his confidences about the problems of packing up and moving—he has decided to go into exile in England rather than live under a ban that refuses him a livelihood in his homeland. With the wine flowing, it’s only a matter of time before the questions lurking under the friendliness begin to surface.

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The choice of this play now is a deft move by Hartford Stage’s artistic director—for one more season—Darko Tresjnak. When Piet, early in the play, voices his unshaken faith that man-made laws can be changed and life can improve, we hear the hope that drives political commitment, a lesson an aloe can’t teach. And when, later in the play, Gladys speaks to her husband of her distress, with barely suppressed rage and despair, Piet sits in his chair, lit a bit like an icon, a figure for “white maleness” in its insular convictions, a kind of weed able to flourish even where it’s not indigenous. We’ve heard from his wife and from his colored comrade, and we see in Piet perhaps Fugard’s own struggle to get his audience beyond that bland acceptance of how things are—because they could always be worse—that we might as well call “privilege.” Or is it simply a mask to mimic the imperturbability of the aloe?

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Shaw’s sound design plays subtly with natural sounds and subdued percussion, while Matthew Richard’s flawless lighting design incorporates candlelight and atmospheric silhouetting. The set by Tim Mackabee has a rough-hewn beauty that looks, like it should, as an attempt to maintain familiar comforts in a wilderness where the harsh environment is matched by harsh policies.

Sharply written, well-acted, handsomely mounted, and tellingly presented by its director, A Lesson from Aloes is one of the best productions of the season of Connecticut theater it closes.


A Lesson from Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert

Cast: Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols, Randall Newsome

Hartford Stage
May 17-June 10, 2018

Library Event: Master Harold...and the Boys Film and Discussion

Mitchell Library, 37 Harrison Street, New Haven Saturday, April 12 @ 2pm


Join us for a film screening of Athold Fugard’s Master Harold… and the Boys, adapted from his play into a television movie in 1985. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani, Fugard’s play was produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982 prior to its Broadway premiere, where it ran for 344 performances.

Taking place in South Africa during apartheid era, Master Harold shows how institutionalized racism, bigotry or hatred affects those who live under it.

Discussion facilitated by Long Wharf Theater staff will follow screening.

Also: Athol Fugard stars in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at Long Wharf Theater, March 26–April 27. Free tickets are available with your library card (first come, first served) at any New Haven Free Public Library branch

Program is made possible by a grant from the William Caspar Graustein Foundation.


Ecce Puer

Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, now in its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a short play that enacts a meditation on a number of things that matter: the nature of reality, the nature of the imagination, the ties that bind us to others across generations and the ties that bind us to ourselves across decades, and the “calling” of death.

Fugard, on stage throughout the entire play, plays an aged writer known as Oupa, as his only interlocutor is his ten-year-old grandson, Boba (played by the twins, Aidan and Dermot McMillan). Before Fugard’s play proper, we’re presented an introductory scene, created by Paula Fourie using extracts from Fugard’s unpublished notebooks, in which Oupa, much as does the figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, “replays” his past in his own words, as he searches for a passage about his shadow. The context for the interactions between Oupa and Boba, then, is very much the world as known and encountered by Fugard himself, including his regular attention to birds.

The play could be called a self-portrait, and also a dramatization of the final things, or final lessons. In other words, we are late in Oupa’s life and, while the scenes we witness between the grandfather and his grandson are like any other day, any other visit, there is a finality to them that impresses upon us the point of their interaction.

That point comes from the matter that Oupa discusses with Boba: the question of which is more delightful, the vision of an actual hummingbird, seen outside in the garden, or the vision of the shadow of the hummingbird, hovering on the wall in Oupa’s study. Boba, naturally, prefers the former, but Oupa begs to differ, with recourse to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic.

What Fugard and his director Gordon Edelstein stage, then, is not only the very affectionate banter and comic swordplay and rough-housing between a doting grandfather and his grandson, complete with shared cookies and looks askance at Boba’s father for whom Oupa seems to have scant affection, but also a lesson on reality and imagination in which imagination becomes the key figure.

In Plato’s allegory, persons who have lived their entire lives in shackles in a cave, staring at a wall, take the shadows thrown upon that wall—shadows of whatever passes between their backs and a great fire deep in the cave—for real things. They only see the shadows and never what causes the shadows. The question then becomes: what happens if one should escape the cave and get out into the real world of sunlit objects.

Oupa takes Boba along this line—inspired by his memory of Boba, as an infant, trying to pick up a shadow on the floor—to show that the actual hummingbird would be a glorious vision after only subsisting on its shadow. Boba finds the story “not very good,” which irritates the old man. So he has to try again to explain what his own allegorical message might be. With recourse to the words of William Blake, Oupa states his intention: to return to childish wonder, to be like Boba as a child, believing a shadow might be real, to see, as Blake stated the visionary’s gift, “eternity in a grain of sand.”

This is where Fugard would leave us, we might say, trying hard to rediscover “vision.” To see again as children—a prescription for entering “the kingdom of heaven,” in one formulation—but also to regain the sense of a world of mystery and enchantment, a world not “explained” by rationally arrived at properties and given long Latin terms of demarcation.

Oupa himself jokes that this might be a way of interpreting “senile dementia,” when, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “an old man is twice a child,” but by wishing for something else, a moment of belief in the shadow as real, Fugard’s Oupa becomes an apologist for theater and the arts in general, for he would return us to the time when we could believe in fictive things as if they were actual life, maybe more real than life itself, in our imaginations. It is a romantic notion, certainly, but the play, in giving us this disquisition as an elderly man sporting with his attentive grandson, lets us grasp as well how the important lessons of life occur in intimate exchanges, one-on-one.

The sense of the play’s intimacy is one of its strengths. In Eugene Lee’s handsome set, Oupa’s den or study is given a very definite presence, particularly as Oupa spends the introductory scene interacting with its many props—glasses, books, journals, eyeglasses—to create a sense of a man alone at home, performing his personal rituals. The effects of the hummingbird, in the vision that comes to Oupa late in the play, has both the sense of an actual event and of a longed-for fantasy. Such theatrical touches help to make the play live as an actual “day in the life” as well as “in the life of the mind.”

Add to that Fugard’s very natural and reassuring performance as Oupa—in the opening section, it’s as if he might invite us to a seat on the set or stroll into the audience to chat with us. It’s not so much a “breaking of the fourth wall,” as it is a suggestion that this writer feels himself to be always attended by an audience with whom he is on very cordial terms. The McMillan brothers, as Boba, have the grace of youth and clear, distinct voices able to register the kind of patient acceptance that children tend to extend to the very old. Boba, we suspect, is used to his grandfather saying quizzical things, sometimes amusing him, sometimes taking him to task—as here—for not grasping his meaning. What comes across best is the puzzle of existence as Oupa continues to ponder it, trying, late in the day, to impress his vision of it on the youngest mind he can find. Fugard rightly chooses the age of reason—10—to suggest that only the very youngest rational mind might accept without too much question an old man’s fancy.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is lyrical, wise, and deceptively simple. Not a bad way to go.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird By Athol Fugard Introductory Scene by Paula Fourie with extracts from Athol Fugard’s unpublished notebooks Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Jason Kaiser

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre March 26-April 27, 2014

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.


Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.


Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT


Yale Cab Recap

The 45th Season of the Yale Cabaret closed last month, and before this month is out the latest version of the Yale Summer Cabaret—titled “A Summer of Giants”—will open. In the meantime, here is my recap of last season, picking my favorite shows and contributors in thirteen categories. In each, plays are listed in order of appearance, except for my top choice which comes last. Play (pre-existing work): Small casts—often only two actors—dominated the choices the Cab presented this year: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim Soleimanpour’s interrogation of freedom, artistic purpose, and the value of theater was one of the more challenging nights at the Cab; Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s riff on the agonistic love affair with rock’n’roll of two second-generation beat poets boasted great language and expressive movement; The Small Things, Enda Walsh’s speech-driven and static two-character play made almost all its bizarre and frightening action take place in the audience’s minds; Arnold Schoenberg and Alberg Giraud’s musical and poetic extravaganza, Pierrot Lunaire, was a feast for both eyes and ears, a dramatic achievement of the religion of art; and . . . The Island, Athol Fugard’s collaborative play with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, combined the intimate talk of two inmates in South Africa with their chosen roles as Antigone and Creon to create a powerful portrayal of the politics of art under repressive regimes.

Play (original): The plays originating with YSD students ran quite a gamut, the ones I liked best provoked visceral responses hard to ignore: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, Lauren Dubowski, and created by the Ensemble, presented entertaining songs and a stand-up routine about terminal illness early in life; Phillip Howze’s All of What You Love and None of What You Hate is a multi-character drama about teen pregnancy and coping, full of vibrant language and characterizations; Jackson Moran’s All This Noise offered one man’s take on a family tragedy and his personal outrage at mental health treatment in our country; The Bird Bath, created by the Ensemble, was an expressive and harrowing account of an artist’s mental dissolution told via expressive movement and voice-overs; and . . . This., script by Mary Laws, dramatized personal memories about moments of connection and disconnection in the New Haven and Yale communities to telling effect.

Sound: Sound can be a subtle category, sometimes a bit difficult to assess after the fact, and, when most effective, one tends not to notice it; my choices represent strong impressions that stayed with me: the busy soundscape of The Fatal Eggs (Matt Otto and Joel Abbott); the brash echoes on the voices of the poets in Cowboy Mouth (Palmer Hefferan); the aural mosaic of voice-overs, music, cell calls, and sound effects in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate (Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and Sang Ahm); the sound effects, voice-overs, use of music, all with a dated feel in Lindbergh’s Flight (Tyler Kieffer); and . . . the very effective interplay of sound, voice-over, and original music in The Bird Bath (Palmer Hefferan).

Music: Cab 45 was strong in shows involving original compositions, and for use of music as a major ingredient of the show: the songs of life, death, disease and defiance created and performed by the on-stage ensemble—Timothy Hassler, Hansol Jung, MJ Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield—in Ain’t Gonna Make It; the music created by Mickey Theis to accompany his character’s rock star posteuring in Cowboy Mouth; the tunefully Terpsichorean offerings—both in writing and playing—by Timothy Hassler and Paul Lieber in Cat Club; the moods of Palmer Hefferan’s original score for The Bird Bath; and . . . the first-rate performance of Schoenberg’s challenging score for Pierrot Lunaire, by Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Virginia Warnken, soprano.

Lighting: To enjoy a play, you have to be able to see it, of course—but often Lighting goes well beyond mere illumination to become an expressive part of the play; some instances I was particularly struck by: Meredith Reis’s diverse sources of illumination and fun lighting effects in The Fatal Eggs; Oliver Wason’s dramatic lighting of tableaux moments in This.; Masha Tsimring’s evocative illuminations of the tripartite action of The Bird Bath; Joey Moro’s nimble lighting of the wacky subversions of Lindbergh’s Flight; and . . . Oliver Wason’s highly effective visual enhancement of Pierrot Lunaire.

Puppets, projections, props, and special effects: More than a few shows this year indulged in puppetry—shadow puppets and actual puppets—as well as a fair share of projections, videos, and engagement with unusual props; here are some stand-outs: the use of projections and props in All This Noise, Nicholas Hussong, projection designer; the shadow puppet miniatures that illustrated the story of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, Lee O’Reilly, Technical Director; Joey Moro, Assistant Technical Director; Carmen Martinez, Puppetry Captain; the playful use of shadow puppets to tell one of the wild stories written by the twins in The Twins Would Like to Say, Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski, Co-Directors; the projections and special effects that punctuated the lurid tale of The Ugly One, Nicholas Hussong, Projection Designer, Alex Bergeron, Technical Director; and . . . the evocative projections (Solomon Weisbard and Michael F. Bergmann) and flying puppets (Dustin Wills, with Nicole Bromley and Dan Perez, Technical Directors) that enlivened The Fatal Eggs.

Scenic Design: One of the great joys of the Cab is seeing how, with each new production, the space changes to be made to be what it has to be; some remarkable transformations include: the busy set and shenanigans, like swinging doors, in The Fatal Eggs (Kate Noll and Carmen Martinez); the sprawling Chelsea bohemia of Cowboy Mouth (Meredith Ries); the cartoonish play space of Milk Milk Lemonade (Brian Dudkiewicz, and Samantha Lazar, Assistant Set Designer); the three spaces with three different personalities of The Bird Bath (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez); and . . . the conceptualized prison commissary space with raised stage of The Island (Kristen Robinson).

Costumes: When it comes to transforming a group of actors, the effects are sometimes subtle, sometimes outlandish: the colorful clothing—where the shetl meets vaudeville—of The Fatal Eggs (Nikki Delhomme); the spot-on pre-punkdom, plus lobster suit, of Cowboy Mouth (Jayoung Yoon); the Edwardian filigree of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda (Seth Bodie); the dowdy get-ups and clownish make-up of The Small Things (Nikki Delhomme); and . . . Milk Milk Lemonade (Soule Golden): I’ll never forget Lico in a chicken suit, and whenever penis-pajamas catch on, say you saw them here first.

Ensemble: Just as technical effects are often achieved by collaboration, so are dramatic effects—the Cab thrives on ensemble work and here are some special commendations: the entire cast of The Fatal Eggs—Chris Bannow, Sophie von Haselberg, Dan O’Brien, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Ilya Khodosh—presenting a bizarre collection of types; the entire cast of This.—Jabari Brisport, Merlin Huff, Ella Monte-Brown, Mariko Nakasone, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis—for superlative interactions and transformations, independent of gender considerations; the entire cast of Milk Milk Lemonade—Xaq Webb, Bonnie Antosh, Melissa Zimmerman, Lico Whitfield, Heidi Liedke—some of whom aren’t YSD students, for their game enactment of this colorful tale; our avatars and others in the audience-participation odyssey, Dilemma—Ben Fainstein, Hugh Farrell, Sarah Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, and Dan Perez—for taking us where we told them to go; and . . . Zie KollektiefKate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter—who broke down the Brechtian effort to break down “the walls,” with a vengeance, in Lindbergh’s Flight.

And special mention to the volunteers who bravely enacted, with audience members, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, script sight-unseen: Sara Holdren, Monique Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey, Brian Smallwood.

Actor: We’re always looking for a star, even in the midst of ensemble; for notable individual performances by a male actor: Timothy Hassler, as the terminally ill and memorably entertaining Eric in Ain’t Gonna Make It; Mickey Theis, as Slim, the guitar-wielding shit-kicker turned rocker in Cowboy Mouth; Paul Pryce, as John, the apartheid inmate with a vision of Antigone in The Island; Christopher Geary, as the self-questioning survivor in The Small Things; and . . . Jackson Moran, in All This Noise, for playing, more or less, himself in a one-man show that confronts the drama, sorrow and joys of real life and the realities of mental problems.

Actress: What moves us most in watching acting varies, but we know when an actress makes a part her own: Michelle McGregor, as the poet-groupie-Svengali called Canavale in Cowboy Mouth; Zenzi Willliams, as the teen, passive to the point of persecution in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate; Ceci Fernandez, as the innocent but pining for knowledge Esmeralda in Ermyntrude & Esmeralda; Emily Reilly, as the lonely woman with a tale to tell in The Small Things; and . . . Hannah Sorenson, as the schizophrenic Lenora Carrington—vomiting, bathing, withdrawing, and transcending—in The Bird Bath.

Direction: With so much going on that’s worth watching, who keeps it all together and makes sure it all comes off? The director, we assume; some special mentions: Dustin Wills, for the zany Soviet sci-fi extravaganza of The Fatal Eggs; Kate Attwell, for the gripping anti-apartheid drama of two prisoners learning what they represent in The Island; Monique Barbee, for the three-at-once manifestation of psychic distress and coping in The Bird Bath; Ethan Heard, for the creation of actions to illuminate rich compositions of poetry and music in Pierrot Lunaire; and . . . Margot Bordelon, for the subtle and sensitive enacting of the stories people tell (and don’t tell) about themselves in This.

Production: For overall production, it's no surprise that the favorites in other categories line up at the end; I've already acknowledged the directors of these shows, now it's time for the producers: This., produced by Whitney Dibo, with its strong ensemble work and vivid presentation, gave us insight into one another and ourselves; The Island, produced by Lico Whitfield, with its strong dialogue and innovative set, presented us with a visceral sense of theater’s power; The Bird Bath, produced by Emika Abe, with its mystery and misery, provided a sense of convulsive beauty (a surrealist mantra); Pierrot Lunaire, produced by Anh Le, showed us the sublime possibilities of musical theater; and . . . The Fatal Eggs, produced by Melissa Zimmerman, immersed us in the wild energy, complex staging, and surprise effects possible only at the Yale Cabaret.

That’s it for this year. Our thanks and best wishes to all who participated in the shows of the 45th season, and to all the staff, especially Artistic Director Ethan Heard, who chose the season, and Managing Director Jonathan Wemette, who kept it running so smoothly, and . . . see you next year for season 46: Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, and Kelly Kerwin, a trio of YSD dramaturgs will be, collectively, the Artistic Directors, and Shane D. Hudson will be the Managing Director, a post he filled in last year’s Summer Cabaret. Speaking of the Summer Cabaret, stay tuned for a preview with Artistic Director Dustin Wills of its offerings, which begin May 30th and end August 18th.

The Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season Artistic Director: Ethan Heard Managing Director: Jonathan Wemette Associate Artistic Director: Benjamin Fainstein Associate Artistic Director: Nicholas Hussong

Prisoners' Pageant

The Island, the second show of the Yale Cabaret’s spring semester, is a powerful two-man play, directed by Kate Attwell and featuring Paul Pryce (John) and Winston Duke (Winston).  The play was written by Athol Fugard in collaboration with the actors—John Kani and Winston Ntshona—who initially played in it. As prisoners in a South African prison known as “the island,” the two men’s crimes, we can assume, are political, and thus their bond is based on the deprivations of their condition.  We meet them as they return to their cell, winded from running, injured, exhausted.  As unlikely as it might seem, much of their interaction will be about their plan to present a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone in a show for the other prisoners.

Staged with the actors on a platform flanked by comissary-style tables and with chairs at the head and foot, the space is intimate and the actors, as they loom above us, seem at times larger-than-life.  It’s an interesting means to create a heroicizing perspective on the two men as they work out their production, which entails Winston, as Antigone, having to don a wig of straw and a bra with tins for cups.  He rebels against the affront to his dignity and must be placated by John, who is determined that Antigone be presented, to lodge the theme of blood ties and honor against the dehumanizing demands of the State.

What carries the play and makes it riveting throughout is the interplay between Pryce and Duke.  Fully immersed in their parts, they establish the sense of familiarity between the men, due to intimate proximity, but also the degree to which they are quite different in their attitudes and expectations. That difference becomes paramount when John learns that he will be released in three months’ time.  Their shared elation swiftly becomes a deeply moving nostalgia for the time they shared together and then, gradually, a sense of dejection and even resentment on Winston’s part, even as John keeps insisting he doesn’t want to think about his release—that it might be all a trick.

What isn’t a trick is the extent to which playacting is a part of the prisoners getting through their ordeal.  Early on John acts out imaginary phone calls to friends back home and to the two men’s wives.  The scene quickly establishes the power and fascination of make believe—the power of suggestion comes out in the playacted phone call, in the reminiscences of the day they were incarcerated together, and in Winston’s projections of what life will be like for John when he returns home.  Fugard makes all this take place in dialogue between two half-naked men, with little in the way of props or theatrical tricks.  The Island demonstrates effectively that the best drama takes place in our heads while listening to characters talk.

The staging of Antigone is a significant change of scene: Pryce as John as King Creon and Duke as Winston as Antigone prowl the walk space behind the tables, moving about as if sizing each other up for a duel to the death.  The fact that John, who has been approved for release, should have the role of the State questioning Winston as the defiant Antigone—who insists on burying her brother, condemned as a traitor, though the law forbids it—makes the playacting reflect a struggle between the two men as well.  John, as the one who initially quizzes Winston on the parts they will play and who seems the more articulate and quick-witted, becomes, by means of the play, a further goad and even persecutor of his cellmate.  Winston, then, as Antigone—the gender roles also are relevant—must give voice to a defiance that stands for the enemies of the State of Apartheid, but also for those oppressed by the constructions placed upon them by others.

The play creates a subtle relation between the two men and Pryce and Duke bring home the passion, power and dignity of these men with great skill.  The show’s design, use of song—via “Singers from Shades”—and lighting combine to create one of those Cab shows that reinvents the space and the audience’s relation to the spectacle a bit as well.  The Island is a commanding production.


The  Island By Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona Directed by Kate Attwell

Assistant Director: Gabriel DeLeon; Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Stage Manager: Louisa Balch; Producer: Lico Whitfield; Singers from the Shades: Carol Crouch, Edwina Kisanga, Dianne Lake, Ian Miller, Naima Sakande

The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street January 24-26, 2013

The Cab will be dark for two weeks, then return on Valentine's Day weekend with Ermyntrude and Esmeralda, a naughty puppet-play by way of an Edwardian novella by Lytton Strachey.

Coming Up at The Cabaret

Yale’s spring semester starts this week, so that means not only are the kids back in town but so is the Cab.  The Yale Cabaret has announced its new line-up and the first show of the second half of the season—with ten shows rather than the traditional nine—should be getting ready to go up even as we speak. That show is All of What You Love and None of What You Hate, a play by Phillip Howze as recent as last year, about a teenage girl coming to a major decision about herself with what Artistic Director Ethan Heard describes as “a lot of noise” coming at her from her mother, her boyfriend and a friend.  The play is very fast-paced and contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that three of its four actors are First Years in the YSD program.  The play is directed by Kate Tarker, a 2nd-year Playwright, who worked in the fall on the Cab’s Cat Club.  January 17-19.

The Island is an early-ish play by Athol Fugard, developed with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in his Brechtian period, 1972, and set in a prison cell in Robben Island, the South African prison that held Nelson Mandela at the time.  The two men in the cell are rehearsing Antigone, Sophocles’ great play about a clash with the State in the name of mourning, ritual and blood ties.  The play, directed by native South African and 3rd-year dramaturg Kate Attwell, stars Winston Duke and Paul Pryce, both 3rd-Year Actors, recently shown to great effect in Iphigenia Among the Stars.  January 24-26.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, a “naughty puppet play” derived from the naughty epistolary novella by Lytton Strachey.  Directed by 2nd-year Costume Designer Hunter Kaczorowski (who recently did such an excellent job on the YSD’s production of Sunday in the Park with George), the play’s titular characters confide in each other about all sorts of things that, we imagine, young Edwardian ladies were not supposed to notice, much less comment upon.  It’s an intimate world of bow-wows and pussycats and whimsical euphemisms. February 14-16.

The first of the two shows this semester not derived from a pre-existing source, All This Noise* is the creation of 3rd-year Actor Jackson Moran, who directed last semester’s tour de force, Cowboy Mouth.  In this one-man show based upon interviews with persons who have had experience with mental illness—as professionals, patients, and relatives—Moran seeks to create some of that “conversation about mental health” that politicians in the media profess an earnest interest in, but which seems to never get started. February 21-23.

The second show originating with YSD students is The Bird Bath, a movement piece created by The Ensemble and directed by 3rd-year Actor Monique Barbee, who shone in last semester’s Sunday in the Park with George and last summer’s K of D, at the Summer Cabaret.  Inspired by the art of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington*—partner of Max Ernst—this piece uses text from the artist's account of her experiences in a mental institution. February 28-March 2.

Contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The Small Things is a chilling play for two actors, directed by 3rd-year dramaturg Emily Reilly.  The characters, a man and a woman, tell stories in a kind of dialect, both to explore the power of speech and to reconstruct occurrences from a devastating past. March 7-9.

Lindbergh’s Flight by Bertolt Brecht was written as a radio play with music by Kurt Weill.  As carried out by an Ensemble that includes Kate Attwell and 3rd-year Actors Brenda Meaney and Gabe Levey, the play, Heard says, is “mischievous fun” with potential for audience participation, and a political dimension to the hero worship of Lindbergh. March 14-16.

Heard’s own project this semester is a production of Arthur Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or Opus 21.  A moody musical piece involving 21 poems by Belgian poet Albert Giraud, the composition dates from 1913 and is an open-ended working through of Symbolist motifs, most notably the figure of “the sad clown” Pierrot.  The work calls for five instrumentalists and a soprano, but Heard is still deciding how much action will be expected from the musicians and how many actors will be involved.  In any case, the piece seems an even more ambitious combination of music and drama than Basement Hades, the show Heard directed in last year’s Cab.  March 28-30.

The Twins Would Like to Say, by collaborators Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, continues the “twinning” that seems a theme this semester.  And like E & E, it involves two girls looking on at their community, and, like The Small Things, it involves the rigors of a private, shared life.  Directed by a duo, Lauren Dubowski and Whitney Dibo, two 2nd-year Dramaturgs, the play is about twin sisters from the Caribbean trying to cope with life in Wales.  The play is usually presented “promenade” style, which means the audience moves around, spending time in one area or another as things happen simultaneously. April 4-6.

The final show of the season is Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One, directed by 2nd-year Director Cole Lewis, who directed the gripping and entertaining show “Ain’t Gonna Make It” in the fall semester.  This four-person play takes place in a slightly futuristic world in which a person who has been deemed the ugliest has undergone plastic surgery to become the most beautiful.  The play is about appearance and substance, we might say, but also about the worship of beauty in our looks-conscious culture. April 11-13.

And that’s that.  See you at the CAB.


The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

*Corrections: the original post used the working title Halfway House for the piece entitled All This Noise, and misidentified Leonora Carrington as Dora Carrington, a British artist in the Bloomsbury Group.


A Decade of Dedication

Gordon Edelstein’s ten years as Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater were celebrated last week with an outpouring of tributes, reminiscences, send-ups, and eloquent testimonies to one man’s inspiring journey in theater, from early days in acting classes to directing landmark productions of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and Uncle Vanya, to becoming, as the world-renowned playwright himself stated in the “Script for the Evening,” Athol Fugard’s “Zorba”—“because Gordon, like Kazantzakis’s magnificent Greek, is a man of appetites—for life, for love and most of all, for all the beautiful unmanageable paradoxes and ambiguities of the human heart.” The premieres of new plays by Fugard—such as last season’s The Train Driver—have become staples of Long Wharf’s reputation.

Highpoints of the evening, which began with a reception in the Long Wharf lobby with notable attendees such as seasoned actress Lois Smith, young actor Josh Charles of The Good Wife, James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, and Yale’s Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, as well as many other habituees of the New Haven theater scene, included a very knowing reminiscence by Paula Vogel; a dazzling oration by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies; a tribute to Edelstein’s keen sense of casting, by members of his production of The Glass Menagerie, who comically switched parts to show that, indeed, the best line-up was Judith Ivey as Amanda, Keira Keeley as Laura, and Patch Darragh as Tom; heartfelt thanks from the young playwright Judith Cho and lovely actress Karen Kandel, and a warmly resonant rendition of a song from the new musical Table by composer David Shire.

Edelstein, when he spoke at the evening’s end, presented himself as honored, humbled, and determined, despite the difficulties of the current economic climate, to continue bringing to the New Haven area quality theater with the dedication he has shown for the last decade. One such opportunity will be the premiere of Sophie’s Choice, a play directed by Edelstein and adapted from the well-known film, starring Meryl Streep, from 1982, and the novel by William Stryon, 1979. The challenging new production will cap the current season in April.

As a night celebrating the love and regard for one man’s role in keeping theater vital, a fine time was had by all. Cheers, Gordon!

This week at the Long Wharf ends the run, October 16, of Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s monologue-driven story of personal struggle, ambition and good intentions, boasting a trio of nuanced performances, led by Simone Kirby as the unflappable Molly.

And up next, beginning October 26, the Long Wharf welcomes a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the tuneful celebration of Fats Waller and the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance era, returning the Tony-winning musical to its cabaret-style roots, with the original 1978 production team.

Sudden Death

What if the job you perform daily caused someone else’s death?  A death someone chose, using your regular performance of your duty as the means to her deliberate end?  The relation of the killer to the killed in that equation is explored in renowned playwright Athol Fugard’s recent play, The Train Driver, now showing at the Long Wharf Theater Mainstage. The Train Driver is a two man play set in a makeshift graveyard in South Africa dedicated to those who die with no identities, with no one to claim their bodies after death.  The set by Eugene Lee is harsh, as are the spotlights simulating the glaring sun that shine in the audience’s faces during the daylight hours of the action.  Comprised of sandy soil, surrounded by barbed wire, the graveyard looks like a sight of devastation, boasting  discarded bits of automobiles and furniture that Simon, the caretaker/gravedigger, uses to differentiate one grave from another.  For shelter there is only a dilapidated shack open to the audience, its structure formed by a wall and a debris-strewn roof.

The set’s naturalism amplifies the story of the two men – Simon, the caretaker (Anthony Chisholm), and his distraught, maybe even somewhat deranged, visitor, Roelf (Harry Groener) – persons who inhabit a space that feels like the end of the line. As Simon, Chisholm gives us a brusk but thoughtful man used to being alone, working at his humble trade, but also used to being in control of the space he presides over.  No one cares about the people buried there so he has no need to interact much with his boss or any sort of public.  All he need be concerned about are wild dogs and Amaginsta, the roving gang members he avoids by never going out at night.  Simon tries at first to get at what it is Roelf wants – a white man visiting the grave of nameless blacks – then becomes a confidante, a confessor, and finally the one who gives Roelf the task that might help him move on, freed from his idée fixe.

For Roelf was a train driver, a man with a family, living a normal working life.  And then tragedy and heartbreak struck him – not personally but impersonally.  A woman wearing a red scarf (or doek), with a child on her back, deliberately stood in the path of the oncoming train in order to be killed instantly.  Her eyes and Roelf’s eyes locked for one horrible instant.  Since then Roelf has been tormented by her – his victim, his assailant – first he wants simply to curse her grave, but which one is it?  Unsure, he stays on, telling his story, serving a kind of penance, trying to “put right” what can never be made right.  Groner’s Roelf is high-strung, grasping at loose ends, not always making sense, but relentless in his pursuit, maybe for the first time in his life, of a conviction that comes from a sense of outrage and horror at humanity, himself included, and from a sense of communality with victims of the indifferent brutality of a merciless system.

Fugard has called this “the most important play I’ve written” because it is “in essence, a final statement for me” about his relation to South Africa and “the legacy of racial prejudice.”  Fugard sees himself in Roelf and, for the play to deliver its greatest force, so must the viewer.  The Train Driver, in its stark drama, asks us to feel for a moment as shattered as Roelf, as sympathetic as Simon, as at a loss to deal with the violence of the world except through words that find a voice for what no one ever says.

The Train Driver by Athol Fugard, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Long Wharf Theatre, October 27-November 21

Speak, I Will Listen

Have You Seen Us? at Long Wharf Theatre November 24-December 20

Have You Seen Us? is what one may call an "incident play," a story driven by a singular event. As its protagonist Henry Parsons (Sam Waterston) frames it in his prologue to this one hour-and-twenty minute meditation on racism, displacement, and addiction, sometimes it takes the nudging of one domino in the supposedly well-designed life to bring the rest falling down. The chaos of strewn dominoes that follows in the wake of that crash is Henry's story; the pattern that emerges from what has been tipped over is all playwright Athol Fugard's.

Performed without intermission, Have You Seen Us? tells a seemingly straightforward story. Bookended by Henry's direct address to the audience, the chain of events is simple enough. Our protagonist is an expatriate South African professor of Old English living in his fifteenth year in the United States. The event he recollects from two years earlier is actually a pair of closely linked moments that, he asserts, would change his life. The setting for both is a sandwich shop in a Los Angeles mall run by Adela (Liza Colón-Zayas), a Mexican immigrant of unclear status. Serving as prelude to the second, main event, the first finds Henry exiting the shop after a verbal knockout punch rendered by the store's proprietress in—as Henry sees it—their regular contest of mutual insults.

The blow delivered is her spot-on tagging of him as un borracho perdido, "a hopeless drunk." This precipitates an anti-Semitic outburst outside the shop directed by Henry towards an elderly Jewish couple that had responded to his "Happy Christmas" greeting with a "Thank you, sir, but we're Jewish." What follows in the sandwich shop a month later is a delicate dance of anger, shame, confession, and repentance as the full quartet—South African expat, Mexican store-owner, and Jewish-European couple—come together to make Fugard's portrait of guilt and absolution come alive.

Bringing to bear the full weight of the role's studied South African accent, Sam Waterston’s muscular portrayal of Henry carries much of the show's weight. This is hardly a surprise since the third-person limited narrative suggested by prologue and epilogue makes this story first and foremost Henry's. In the actor talk back that followed the December 8 performance, Waterston admitted that to help him master the accent, Fugard recorded Henry's part, although there is no question that Waterston invests the role with his own distinct interpretation. Henry is, at times, gruff and combative; at others, defensive and plaintive. The overall effect works wonderfully well. In a role that could have tipped into melodrama, Waterston manages to keep the lid on. True, Henry is intemperate and aggressive—hardly unusual for an alcoholic who struggles to stay on the wagon but appears to fall off with an implied regularity—but he is not given to histrionics. It is certainly not what Fugard would have intended, and any such presentation would have been deadly for a play that depends heavily on the relative bathos—yes, bathos—of the climactic event, which amounts mainly to the calling out of an ethnic slur.

At the heart of Have You Seen Us? is its title, which is as these things should be. It refers to the missing persons postcard Henry uses as a bookmark and tries to make light of in his hostile banter with Adela. However, Liza Colón-Zayas' understated Adela will have none of it, humanizing for Henry those who have gone missing, substituting story for stereotype, stopping cold Henry's largely guilt-driven efforts at a type of humor marked—and marred—by contempt. Have You Seen Us? is fundamentally about, if you will, "clothing" the stranger in human garb, no small matter in a play where all of the characters are not only of foreign origin, but have arrived for different reasons. The elderly Jewish couple, Solly (Sol Frieder) and Rachel (Elaine Kussack), are suggested to be Jews who had escaped a war-torn Europe; Henry is an evictee of an apartheid-free South Africa that is no longer familiar to him; Adela is no more—and no less—than a recent arrival looking for work but not trouble. All are displaced persons struggling to bridge the gap of language and attitude: Henry is perturbed by Adela's Spanish and often insists on translations of it; Adela is flabbergasted by Henry's ignorance of Mexican soldaderas (women "soldiers" during the 1910 Mexican Revolution) and continually castigates him as a gringo, a jarring appellation considering how un-Yankee-like Henry really is; Solly is completely befuddled that he can't get a bowl of chicken soup from Adela and equally mystified why she would propose chili as a substitute.

The only link that bridges this chasm is music. Granted Have You Seen Us? is no musical, but music is its language: Henry is enamored with Adela's voice and repeatedly importunes her to sing for him in her native Spanish; to an amused Adela, he eagerly belts out a rugby club "fight song" in Afrikaans; and finally, Solly's soft croon to Rachel and, at Henry's request, to us offers in Yiddish a lost world's insight into matters religious. Solly's song—the last of these—is also the most pointed since only when he sings will the semi-catatonic Rachel eat. As Fugard is at pains to point out, music is, indeed, life, for without it we starve and die.

It is Solly, poignantly played by Sol Frieder—from slightly stiffened walk to painfully hushed tone—who offers absolution to Henry, who wrestles with the guilt of the simple sin we all harbor but dare not speak: prejudice, hard and cold, without mercy or thought. When Henry bends knee to Solly and begins his confession, it is the latter's simple response, "Speak, I will listen," that more than anything drives away this darkness that shadows our better selves. Is there hope in actually being heard? Is there anyone indeed who will listen? It is all, Fugard suggests, we can ask for. And yet, when someone does make that offer and it is accepted—speak, I will listen—a world can change. For me, this production spoke: I have, indeed, seen it, and, yes, I did listen.