Baize Buzan

SILENCE = DEATH

Review of The Other World, Yale Cabaret

The Other World, written by Yale School of Drama playwright Charles O’Malley, returns us to the heart of the Aids crisis. A slice of the life of 1980s’ New York artist David Wojnarowicz, adapted from his memoir Close to the Knives, the play dramatizes key events in Wojnarowicz’s artistic life to reanimate the past in episodic scenes presented with a sure hand by first-time director Baize Buzan. Less is more in the spare set, complete with particle-board flooring, a sheet draped casually to serve as a screen for the artist’s overhead projections—a bit of authentic technology that does a Proustian madeleine number on aging memories—and a general feel of the open spaces of those unrenovated SoHo warehouses. In other words, the play is something of a time machine and I, for one, was glad to see a contemporary brought to life so well.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo:; Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa) (photo:; Elli Green)

The play’s David (José Espinosa) is an introspective figure whose musings have both great immediacy and fascinating detachment. The loss of David’s lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, to Aids is narrated rather than presented, with further details furnished by Marion (Louisa Jacobson), David’s friend and agent. It’s to the credit of all involved that Peter’s demise comes across with both poignancy and inevitability. Comments on a dying-man’s wish of a visit to the shore lets us intuit the frayed nerves, the sensitive psyches, and, more than anything, the unspeakable specter of death coming to the young and talented. By letting us hear how David copes, O’Malley keeps our focus both on the events and an artist’s access to them. Wojnarowicz, who worked in various media, took pictures and video of his lover’s corpse, an act very much in accord with their shared aesthetic. As David, Espinosa presents a serious artist whose art is very much a confrontation with existence, a battle for personal worth in a damaged world.

Friend (Michael Breslin),   David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

Friend (Michael Breslin), David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

A visit from a Friend (played with uneasy panache by Michael Breslin) lets us see how out of touch David can be, even while trying to get in touch with his own feelings. The chain-smoking, while a minor detail, speaks volumes for the era these street-based artists inhabit. The Friend’s grasp of his own doomed chances prefigures Wojnarowicz’s fate, but also re-enacts, in miniature, the risky collectivity of gays at the time. The “who can know and who can’t” aspect of their exchange is spot-on. Eventually we see David overcome his morose withdrawal and begin to take steps toward activism, his anger and heartbreak overtaking even his “must-get-away from New York” trip through the Southwest.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa) ,  Marion (Louisa Jacobson)  (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa), Marion (Louisa Jacobson) (photo: Elli Green)

That trip—in a segment called “on the road”—gives the play some of its best scenes, as David breaks out of his silence to confide an early sexual exploit in a movie theater and then to rail at Marion for being a confidante who doesn’t confide enough herself. As played with canny conviction by Louisa Jacobsen, Marion is an interesting character with her own conflicts. Her faith in David, after working with him for five years, is being tried by his state of mourning and his growing interest in the politics of the plague. Their exchanges do much to give us a sense of how they see themselves and each other, and provide a context of youth and exploration that, if not dated, is at least a reminder of how Aids changed so much and cost so many.

Without making heavy-handed parallels with the present, O’Malley’s play reanimates a specific era of repression to remind us of how hard-won rights were and admission to the status quo has been, and to indicate that getting a hearing in government is no easy matter. It’s not that a trip back in time is going to make Trump look better, but it does serve to highlight how shitty conservative governments can be to anyone outside their ideology. Marches and protest might make for good political theater but, as Marion exhorts David, an artist can make larger and perhaps more telling statements. And so is born an artist-activist, aghast at the horrors made normative by American indifference.

Born 100 years after his sometime artistic alter-ego Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz, like Rimbaud, died at 37. Both continue to live on because both have something to say to the “accursed” on the outside or margins of the mainstream. If “silence = death,” one of the slogans of Aids activism popularized by ACT UP, it’s also the case that death, for visionary artists like Wojnarowicz, doesn’t equal silence.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)   (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

 

The Other World
By Charles O’Malley
Adapted from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Directed by Baize Buzan

Production Dramaturg: Kari Olmon; Scenic Designer: Paul Rasmussen; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projections Designers: Yana Birÿkova, Michael Commendatore; Scenic Advisor: Ashley Flowers; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme

Cast: Michael Breslin, José Espinosa, Louisa Jacobson

 

Yale Cabaret
April 6-8, 2017

Only Collide!

Review of Collisions, Yale Cabaret

Collisions, a collaboration between music, theater and visual projections now playing at the Yale Cabaret, co-directed by Frederick Kennedy and Kevin Hourigan, is a multimedia extravaganza. No two shows will be exactly the same, as the projections and other effects by a team at a tech board in the center of the space respond to what is happening on stage, and the music played live by a four-man band is improvised. It’s the kind of show for which the Cab is uniquely suited, with a range of meanings and sensations happening almost spontaneously.

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

So, the performers are sometimes interpreting music, sometimes being supported by music, sometimes performing a song, and the music is sometimes the main focus, sometimes background, and the projections are sometimes extending or amplifying the stories and sometimes seem to have gone a bit rogue. It’s a wonderful mix of effects and routines and jazz workouts whose effect will be mostly in the eye and ear of the beholder.

The set is a mélange of actual instruments to be played and a kind of electronics dump of obsolete bric-a-brac—a dusty old VHS deck c. 1980 is a treasure. The band—Evan Smith, saxophone and woodwinds, Kevin Patton, guitar, stage right; Frederick Kennedy, drums and percussion, Matt Wigton, bass, stage left—are placed amidst the visual cacophony to create a variety of musical textures that can be at times a hypnotic groove, at other times, celestial sounds, and at times a hot jam.

Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The performers—Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon—are clad in different costumes of white. Buzan has the knit cap, England-Nelson, the baseball cap, Lemmon is hatless. At times they narrate what they’re doing, as in Buzan’s “bit at the podium,” a kind of Ted talk to open the piece. Other times, they wordlessly interact with the music—which can mean expressive slow-mo or very physical jousting with chairs, much of it designed to play with the various ways we might experience “collision”: something hitting something else, an idea meeting an obstruction.

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, Baize Buzan (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon, Baize Buzan (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Here and there, dialogues sprout up—one, particularly amusing, has Lemmon as a tensely serious art-maker talking about her collage deconstructions as England-Nelson skeptically quizzes their purpose. At one point, Lemmon sings a song and the others join in, breaking up the jazz score with simple melody and, yes, feelings. A favorite segment for me was England-Nelson leading a meditation class more apt to cause anxieties than allay them (“what’s that, is that the water level rising to engulf us all?”), and Lemmon sounding off in a kind of lecture that skewers some of the pretensions of our particular cultural moment (“how can we make violence safe again?”).

Brontë England-Nelson (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Brontë England-Nelson (photo: Elizabeth Green)

There are a lot of meta moves, where the three are commenting on what it is we’re all experiencing—at one point, as they consult their snapchats or tinders, the camera man at the tech board pans the audience to let us appear in a projected cellphone frame. The interaction between the trio never feels portentous, and they can be remarkably eloquent even when—or especially when—they aren’t saying anything.

Frederick Kennedy (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Frederick Kennedy (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The point of mixing media is in the mixing, generally. Here, one is often struck by the wherewithal to sculpt with sound and image and physical performer. Collisions can be a very immersive or contemplative experience, and, in the best tradition of live performance, it makes you glad you were there.

 

Collisions
Conceived and written by Frederick Kennedy
Developed in collaboration with the entire company
Co-directed by Kevin Hourigan and Frederick Kennedy
Additional text: Jeremy O. Harris
Additional music: Molly Joyce

Choreography: Jake Ryan Lozano, Emily Lutin, Gretchen Wright; Dramaturgy: Ashley Chang, Jeremy O. Harris; Set Design: Choul Lee, John Bondi-Ernoehazy; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green, Krista Smith; Sound Design: Christopher Ross-Ewart, Frederick Kennedy; Assistant Sound Design: Haley Wolfe; Projection Design: Yana Biryukova, Michael Commendatore; Technical Director: Rae Powell; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson; Producer: Rachel Shuey

Cast: Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon

Musicians: Frederick Kennedy, drums/percussion; Kevin Patton, guitar, custom interactive system design; Evan Smith, saxophone/woodwinds; Matt Wigton, bass

Yale Cabaret
November 17-19, 2016

Catch the Cab

Preview, Yale Cabaret: shows 7-10

No, it wasn’t a good week, last week. But this week will be better in at least one way: the Yale Cabaret returns, with the three shows before the winter break and the first show of the new year already named.

The Yale Cabaret lets us see theater students early in their career, working on shows they are passionate about, working to give expression to the many complex themes of our current world, and letting us—the audience—participate in vibrant talent and creativity. This year’s Artistic Directors are Ashley Chang, Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, the Managing Director is Steven Koernig, and the Associate Managing Directors are Kathy Li and Sam Linden. Here’s a brief preview of the shows chosen for the next four slots.

First up: Cab 7: Collisions. Proposed by sound design student and free jazz percussionist Fred Kennedy, the show will include some elements seen in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s show, “Envy: the Concert,” namely jazz—featuring Kennedy and a group of musicians—as well as performance pieces, co-directed by  Kennedy and Cab co-artistic director Kevin Hourigan, who also worked with Kennedy in last year’s multidisciplinary performance piece “I’m With You in Rockland.” The notion of “collision” comes from trying to “collide” free jazz—which “abandons composition in favor of collective improvisation”—with narrative and theater performance. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris contributes as well, to provide a performance piece where theater, as developed by the entire company, structures the music. The musicians joining Kennedy are Kevin Patton, guitar and interactive systems design; Evan Smith, sax and woodwinds; Matt Wigton, bass; and they’ll be aided and abetted by a trio of actors: Baize Buzan, Brontë England-Nelson, Sydney Lemmon. The show purports to be a collision of music and performance, with a definite narrative aspect. November 17-19

The following week the Cab is dark as we all drift about trying to find something to be thankful for on our national holiday.

Returning, Cab 8 offers Matthew Ward’s translation of Peter Handke’s play Kaspar, which takes its inspiration from the young adult foundling Kaspar Hauser, subject of a well-received film by Werner Herzog in the 1980s. In this production, the Cab’s graphic designer, Ayham Ghraowi directs dramaturg Josh Goulding—who recently directed Current Location and acted in Styx Songs at the Cab—as Kaspar, a man who grew up without human company and suffers estrangement while being integrated into society. The show features elements of vaudeville, slapstick, physical humor, and—according to Ashley Chang, who has a “heavy hand” in the show—“linguistic torture.” The play will be divorced somewhat from its original context. Think “clown figure assaulted by language.” The doctor who studied the actual Kaspar Hauser remarked that he “seemed to hear without understanding, to see without perceiving . . .“ Sound like anyone you know? December 1-3

Cab 9, the last show of 2016, will be Mrs. Galveston, a new play by third-year playwright Sarah B. Mantell, whose play Tiny was produced in last year’s Langston Hughes Studio Series. In this play, Mantell re-works her earliest play, deliberately re-scripting for her actor-collaborators at the Cab, which include George Hampe and Sydney Lemmon. Mrs. Galveston is an aged woman who one day finds herself visited by Jim, a young man who has been assigned to evaluate her health care needs. At the interview, she determines that he should be her caregiver. The play, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, sounds like a bit of a Harold and Maude tale, as a comedy about an unlikely cross-generational relationship. The play entails themes of adult care and the autonomy of our aging Baby Boomer population, and involves a mysterious big white book. December 8-10

When we all return from seasonal holidays and welcoming in the new year in a January that looks to be joyous indeed, Cab 10 proffers a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, 2007 YSD graduate, 2013 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize winner. In the Red and Brown Water is the second-written play but first in chronology of the Brother/Sister trilogy that includes The Brothers Size (staged at the Cab at the close of the 2013-14 season). Oya is a young woman and a skilled track star under pressure to develop and cash in on her talent, an expectation at odds with her ties to her family and her own romantic interests. As with the others in the series, the play is based on Yoruba myths in which Oya is a goddess of wind and change. The play is directed by third-year playwright Tori Sampson, who co-authored Some Bodies Travel in last year’s Carlotta Festival and wrote This Land was Made for the Langston Hughes Studio Series last year. The production was proposed by Folks, the African-American theater artists collective at the Yale School of Drama. January 12-14

That takes us through Cab 10; the next eight shows will be posted early next year, along with the date of the annual Yale School of Drag show. For a few weeks more, see you at the Cab!

For tickets, passes, donations, menus and show info: www.yalecabaret.org

Yale Cabaret 49
2016-17
217 Park Street

Beware, Doll, You're Bound to Fall

Review of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Yale Cabaret

Tired of fame, film icon Greta Garbo declared, “I vant to be alone.” Petra von Kant, the heroine of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, is the kind of self-involved diva who can’t bear to be alone. Directed by Leora Morris with Jesse Rasmussen, Fassbinder’s meditation on the vagaries of passionate love is also a character study that plays into considerations of how, for instance, all of a star’s or a director’s relationships are scripted with a central player and a supporting cast.

Played by Sydney Lemmon with a lithe sense of grand dame status, Petra is a successful fashion designer who lords it over her underling Marlene (Anna Crivelli, icily Germanic in a silent role) and holds court in her bedroom. The room, in Christopher Thompson and Claire DeLiso’s lush set, is essentially a large double bed framed by chairs and settees, a table with a typewriter, a turntable with LPs, and the ever-important house-phone on a pedestal. There are diaphanous red drapes that sometimes are drawn or opened by Marlene, who acts as both factotum and voyeur.

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

Sydney Lemmon as Petra von Kant

What Marlene gazes upon, as do we, is the social and erotic life of Petra. The two sides come together quickly when a visit from her well-set-up cousin Sidonie (Annelise Lawson)—in which the two women share details of happy and unhappy marriages (Petra has had one of each)—results in Petra’s meeting with Sidonie’s young friend Karin (Baize Buzan). For Petra, the meeting seems to be love at first sight, or at least it’s a really hot meet. The next scene, when Karin calls alone upon Petra, who insists she should become a model, is filled with the expectation of seduction. Petra may be changeable and peremptory, but her attachment to Karin while egotistical is also vulnerable. Karin, played with deer-in-the-headlights allure by Buzan, seems ready to become whatever Petra wants her to be.

Then comes the crash, by degrees. Fassbinder’s heart is in this one and Petra’s suffering for her ideal of love is a masochist’s delight. Having made Karin an arbiter of her happiness, she can only be made unhappy by the least sign of her object’s indifference. And Buzan is wonderful at rendering the kind of erotic self-possession that drives Petra wild. And she’s able to do so while also seeming to be much younger than Lemmon, whose probing questions and efforts to manage her lover’s life as she does her own career reminded me of the assured but apprehensive tone often struck by Judy Davis.

Eventually, as Karin’s background comes out—the working-class father who lost his job and killed Karin’s mother in a drunken rage then hanged himself; the estranged husband in Australia—we can see that Petra’s attempts to makeover Karin are going to have more lasting effects on herself than on her protégé. The fact that Karin has not given up men—the more casual, the better—becomes the source of the title’s bitter tears. And of the vicious abuse of the user by the used.

In the birthday scene that follows Karin’s departure to meet her errant husband’s return, we see Petra go to pieces by abusing those still close to her: her young daughter Gabrielle (Leyla Levi), Sidonie, who comes bearing a gift, and Petra’s mother Valerie (Shaunette Renée Wilson). In each case, there’s a sense of the cost of loving someone like Petra, but there’s also a sense—key to the notion of a central player—that all these females depend upon her to some degree. And all are quite able to act out in their subordinate roles: Sidonie with indignation; Gabrielle with earnest need for approval; Valerie with long-suffering attachment.

Masochism, then, is in the nature of love for one’s superiors, however we interpret the latter term, and Fassbinder lets that play out, while Morris and Rasmussen manage to find a tone between melodrama and camp. In the end, Petra’s relatives are used to her, and Karin has not, perhaps, disappeared for good (why abandon a powerful supplicant?), while Petra may learn to give Marlene her due, if not too late.

What we’re left with, I suppose, is a hope that some mutually helpful caring can be reached in a reciprocal fashion, but is that possible when the ups and downs of emotional investment are here as volatile as an unstable stock market?

Mention as well for the excellent use of songs emanating from Petra’s turntable, particularly The Walker Brother’s highly apropos “In My Room,” with its grandiose melancholy. A perfect song for when you vant to be alone with your own bitter tears.

 

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
By Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Translated by Anthony Vivis
Directed by Leora Morris

Associate Director: Jesse Rasmussen; Dramaturg & Producer: Maria Inês Marques; Co-Scenic Designers: Christopher Thompson, Claire DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth Antunano; Co-Lighting Designers: Andrew F. Griffin Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer & Composition: Frederick Kennedy, Christopher Ross-Ewart; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Co-Technical Designers: Mike Best, Mitchell Crammond, Mitch Massaro, Sean Walters

Yale Cabaret, March 31-April 2, 2016

Not the Weakest Link

Review of The Commencement of William Tan at Yale Cabaret

For some, high school sucks. It’s the time of life when you can learn some pretty disheartening things, like maybe the girl of your dreams really isn’t the girl of your dreams, like maybe your best friend is a racist, and maybe you’ve been in denial all along about a big part of your own identity. Those are the sort of coming-of-age struggles facing William Tan (Eston Fung) in this likable comedy-drama from Don X. Nguyen, directed by Lauren E. Banks.

You don’t have to be a high school alum from the Eighties to appreciate the familiar sit-com elements that create the reassuring aspects of the play, but, if you are, William Tan will certainly jar you back to the heyday of teased hair and shoulder pads, on girls, and bad dance moves on guys. It’s the era of Ferris Bueller’s famous day off, and William Tan, as played by Fung, wears a suitable air of Matthew Broderick cluelessness and earnestness—particularly when trying to parse a poem for his English teacher.

Eston Fung as William Tan

Eston Fung as William Tan

Because he’s an ambitious gymnast for the Lincoln High Links in Nebraska, William hangs out with the jocks at the school, particularly Dutch (Jason de Beer), the BMOC who, it will emerge, has issues with the Vietnamese guys, not from Lincoln, who hang out at the convenience store near the school. Thanks to a bit of relevant historical context from Guidance Counselor Ms. Chadda (Libby Peterson), we’re reminded of the mid-Seventies, when U.S. racists could be virulent about Vietnamese-Americans, whom they saw as virtually indistinguishable from Viet Cong, the “enemy.” Those days are long gone c. 1989, we might think, but they remain personally relevant for Dutch, who lost his dad in Nam, and seethes with the put-upon gripes of those who feel affronted by other ethnic groups.

What’s this got to do with William? He’s Chinese, so by the murky logic of white racism, whereby all Asians are related, he should be, in Ms. Chadda’s view, the guy to step in when Dutch and his cronies scrawl hate speech in the locker room. Meanwhile, William just wants to concentrate on his parallel bars and figure out how to talk to Gretchen (Tori Keenan-Zelt), the cheerleader (or Pom-a-Link) who has caught his fancy. Of course, he’s got a female confidante, the plain-Jane Betsy (not Bette) Davis (Baize Buzan), his chum who could be so much more. Buzan nearly runs away with the show since Betsy is more aware, clever and concerned than William, but making slow guys think fast is something the long-suffering sex has been saddled with since time immemorial, and she’s willing to call William out to wake him up to reality.

Nguyen’s play gets the high school dynamic right—in part because the story is based on events from the playwright’s past—especially how insular students can be. In minding his own business, William is typical. But the racial dynamic at his school and the expectations of well-meaning females such as Ms. Chadda and Betsy force him to reconsider his friendship with Dutch and the extent to which he is implicated in slurs against Asians. There’s also a nicely laconic confrontation between William and Vinh (Jae Shin), the leader of the Vietnamese kids, where reminiscences of smoking weed in middle school, together with Dutch, are interlaced with threats of a fight armed with knives and guns.

Helping to sell the comedy are occasional timely references and routines by the Pom-a-Links (Keenan-Zelt, Rebecca Hampe, and Cat Rodriguez) that feature radio hits of the day. How satisfied you are with the resolution of the drama may hinge on whether or not it seems fitting that William should have to make himself something of a sacrificial victim and how convincing his motivations are. Nguyen wisely stops short of a major soul-searching epiphany of racial consciousness on William’s part, but there’s a suitable moral in the fact that our hero does shed his assimilationist blinders and might even take an interest in China when he visits with his family after graduation. And that makes for enough of a commendable commencement.

 

The Commencement of William Tan
By Don X. Nguyen
Directed by Lauren E. Banks

Dramaturgs: Ashley Chang, Kee-Yoon Nahm; Scenic Designers: Dan Cogan, Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Edmund Donovan; Lighting Designer: Alex Zinovenko; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Technical Directors: Dan Cogan, Rae Powell; Choreographer: Matia Johnson; Fight Choreographer: Sean Patrick Higgins; Stage Manager: Steven Koernig; Producers: Sooyoung Hwang, Steven Koernig

Cast: Eston Fung; Baize Buzan; Libby Peterson; Jason de Beer; Jae Shin; Rebecca Hampe; Tori Keenan-Zelt; Cat Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
November 5-7, 2015

 

Long in the Tooth

Review of The Skin of Our Teeth, Yale School of Drama

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, like his better-known Pulitzer-winning Our Town, has its way with the conventions of theater, and both do so in the name of what Wilder views as a focus on the human condition sub specie aeternitatis. To help us understand our condition, it’s important that we get a handle on the many ways we let “play-acting,” at all levels, define us. Like Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth winks at us throughout. Suitable for a tale of life, marriage, death in Everytown, America, perhaps, the twinkle gets more than a bit long in the tooth in a tale that’s supposed to be taking on less “natural” matters such as human extinction, political chicanery, war, and global apocalypse.

In the Yale School of Drama thesis show directed by Luke Harlan, The Skin becomes a factory of creative approaches to theater and a showcase for how malleable and enduring certain conventions remain, perhaps eternally so.

The play begins, as many family-centered dramas do, in sit-com mode. Wilder’s writing style throughout the play recalls burlesque—the characters don’t speak to each other so much as proclaim at each other—and the tone easily adapts to a topsy-turvy “typical” middle-class home during the Ice Age, with dinosaurs as pets (cf. The Flintstones). Harlan’s cast keeps it cartoonish, with Andrew Burnap manic as pater familias George Antrobus, a kid-slapping, bossy caricature of the man-of-the-house c. 1940; he’s also inventing the alphabet and the wheel (though there’s a bicycle onstage at one point). His wife, Maggie (Baize Buzan, perfectly cast), is a can-do homemaker with more resources than we might expect; they have two children: Henry, aka Cain, (Aubie Merrylees) is the potentially violent psycho-in-the-bud with which we have become all-too-familiar in recent years, and Gladys (Juliana Canfield), a daddy’s girl, with all that might suggest, appropriate and otherwise. They had another child, but, thanks to Cain, there’s only the two now.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

In the midst of the family dynamic is the maid Lily Sabina (as in “rape of the Sabine women”), played by Melanie Field with permutations that deserve their own paragraph. She starts as a kind of “everywoman scullery maid” and swiftly becomes a working-girl voice of protest against the play (her soliloquy, ad-libbed into the text, as she smokes a theater cigarette at the Exit door, venting against YSD and New Haven, is the funniest speech in the whole play). Later, she’s a Betty-Booped caricature of a man-eating bombshell, and a Ethel Mermaning Statue of Liberty for the big Atlantic City production number. In the final act, she becomes a female soldier who helps the family pull through. Throughout she remains some version of Lily Sabina, intrepid underling, which is to say that Wilder knows the stage requires stereotypes the way the Unconscious requires archetypes. So reJoyce, for the Twain do meet.

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

From anxious sit-com we go to Broadway glitz and the show-biz of politics, as Antrobus seeks public office—with the ever-recurring leer at marital infidelity the thorn in the side of the upstanding leader—to the bombed-out aftermath of war that recalls Beckett and Brecht and the theater of scarcity, kept light by an intrusion, early in Act III, by the Theater Manager (Harlan) as he tries to deal with cast members fallen ill due to food poisoning (extra credit to Harlan for playing “himself” as distracted director).

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Whatever you make of the play, the production values here are top notch. There’s a big musical number via Christopher Ross-Ewart that plays well after the intermission, while we’re still being entertained, and a haunting song sung by the refugees. Harlan and Scenic Designer Choul Lee use below-stage at the Rep to create an Atlantic City boardwalk effect, and the bombed-out house of Act III has, oddly, more reality than the homey house of Act I. There are numerous cast members that barely get a moment to register in roles as refugees and chair-pushers; it’s as if Wilder wants bodies onstage but doesn’t want to bother with them as characters. At least Harlan and choreographer Gretchen Wright give some—Anna Crivelli, Annelise Lawson, Dylan Frederick, Ricardo Dávila—as dancers something to do, and that helps. An exception to the under-scripting is Paul Stillman Cooper, almost unrecognizable as the prognosticating coin-operated psychic in a box, once a staple on boardwalks on the Eastern shore. Cooper makes an interesting speech about not being able to predict the past that gets under the skin of The Skin of Our Teeth.

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Still more profound is the final showdown between George and Henry or the eternal battle between Father and Son. Before anyone had coined the term “generation gap,” the Oedipal drama had become archetypal by way of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Freud, to name a few; Harlan’s production lets us see the struggle—as I read it anyway—as very much a part of the post WW2 world so many things we know date from—like the Bomb, rock’n’roll, and the TV ads Rasean Davonte Johnson’s wonderful wartime ad projections remind us of. Merrylees’s Henry, who is supposed to sound evil and nihilistic (in Wilder’s conception), like Cain, a blow against all the good Wilder, in the midst of the war, wants to believe in, sounds to me like a frantic child born into the Atomic Age and given a gun to play with, like all those daddies had in the war. In other words, Wilder wants us to consider personal resentments and the existential battle against God’s big plan, but times change, even for a play that plays forever, and the YSD show lets us consider Wilder in his time, foretelling our past.

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

With references to extinction via a flood, the senseless killing of a black worker, and the needs of refugees at the door of our collective comfortable domicile, The Skin of Our Teeth could bite harder at our current state of the world,  but Wilder wants us to find succor, as George does, in Spinoza, Plato and Genesis, and that, in our era, feels quaint. Rather than the light of humanism shining on, George seems a fuddy-dud who will never get around to reading Maggie’s missive in a bottle.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

 

 

Yale School of Drama presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Luke Harlan

Choreographer: Gretchen Wright; Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz-Herrera; Sound Designer/Original Music: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: David Clauson; Stage Manager: Paula Renee Clarkson

Cast: Andrew Burnap; Baize Buzan; Alex Cadena; Juliana Canfield; Paul Stillman Cooper; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Melanie Field; Dylan Fredercick; Rebecca Hampe; Luke Harlan; Annelise Lawson; Jonathan Majors; Aubie Merrylees; Jennifer Schmidt; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 20-24, 2015

Hear the Angels' Voices

Review of Sister Sandman Please at Yale Cabaret

With Jessica Rizzo’s Sister Sandman Please, the Yale Cabaret showcases the kind of experimental work that, in many ways, the basement theater does best. While it’s always worthwhile to see small-scale productions of new or lesser known plays, or devised pieces that bring together various aspects of community to tell stories of our times, a play like Sister Sandman uses the space to present a wholly theatrical and relational work. We’re watching a form of playing that plays with how plays—and audiences—are played.

Baize Buzan, Ashley Chang, Sydney Lemmon

Baize Buzan, Ashley Chang, Sydney Lemmon

The most definite aspect of Sister Sandman Please is how Rizzo and her crew remind us that “setting” and “stage” in a play is not simply the visual, physical space, but is also the aural. And while last week’s show, The Medium, an opera, demonstrated how well music and singing can enhance and expand acting, this week’s show makes a further point: what we hear not only interacts with what we see, but can, through recordings, create alternative features, other presences.

Wiley McDrew (Ben Graham) and A (Ashley Chang)

Wiley McDrew (Ben Graham) and A (Ashley Chang)

The “story” centers on three sisters—A (Ashley Chang), B, or Minnie (Sydney Lemmon), C, or Ada (Baize Buzan)—who sit at a breakfast table, passing around different sections of the New York Times. The soundtrack, initially, is a loop of crunching sounds occasionally broken up by comments and mutterings. There is a tension here as of persons who know one another only too well and can “hear” the unspoken things in each others’ minds. At times there are verbal outbursts between the three, and eventually a veritable Marlboro man of a cowboy, Wiley McDrew (Ben Graham), arrives to spark rivalries. “A” immediately flies to his arms and makes out with him passionately, but that, we assume, is just a fantasy. He’s really more interested in C, who he courts in a more laconic fashion, while her sisters wrestle on the floor and Minnie makes goo-goo eyes at him.

Wiley McDrew (Ben Graham) and Ada (Baize Buzan)

Wiley McDrew (Ben Graham) and Ada (Baize Buzan)

The action is accompanied by aural overlays that create textures and moods that are difficult to describe. Sometimes it’s a monologue, as when a voice (Anna Crivelli) starts talking about her tumbleweed business on the internet. Tumbleweeds are used to create a Christmas tree of sorts and “A” dons Christmas lights, answered by a string of lights on Wiley. And yet the match doesn't come off, so she convulses on the floor, and Ada, who walks about stirring a big pot, eventually becomes the sister who is “expecting.” “A” proceeds to drown her sorrows at some length, drinking from a bottle of whiskey while prone on the floor.

Ashley Chang as A

Ashley Chang as A

Indeed, Chang nearly runs away with the play as her show-stopping, unhinged belting of “O Holy Night,” while perched on the table top, is funny, visceral, and oddly charming, a Christmas carol as torch song. The others hold their own—Lemmon seems to be the oldest sister, the kind of heroine one might find in a frontier story or in some naturalistic drama set in the Midwest: her prop is a clipboard and a managerial air. Buzan plays up the country lass manner, all-too-ready to be the new mom left behind by that rolling tumbleweed of a man. She wants to know what color crayon she should give their son to color with. Clad in a vampire cape and fangs, Wiley McDrew is given his send-off as though by a trio of moms sending him off to school.

Christopher Ross-Ewart

Christopher Ross-Ewart

Accompanying the live action and the recordings is Christopher Ross-Ewart on electric guitar and vocals. His contribution is subtle at first, but by play’s end the swirling sustain of his guitar begins to override the action. The trio sits again at the table, now with suitcases full of newspapers, and the tone is elegiac but also uplifting. What has happened, what have they learned? We might think of three fates or furies or of sisters who always dreamed of Moscow, but, however we regard the return with a difference, the close feels open-ended. At the most basic level, their lives have been changed irrevocably, because a child is on the way, but they are also the same as they were before, living out the repetitive figments of their own existences.

Sydney Lemmon as C

Sydney Lemmon as C

The setting—a country-kitchen table, a floor of linoleum—is spare, the tumbleweed Christmas tree is comical but also an art sculpture, the costumes are “country gal.” Elizabeth Green’s lighting directs our visual attention while loops of sound effects, voices, and other textures create a more impressionistic aura. Sister Sandman Please may sound rather enigmatic when described, but while watching it, one is struck again and again by surprising and intriguing shifts in tone and implication.

Coherence is mannerism; the inchoate occurs.

Baize Buzan as Ada

Baize Buzan as Ada

Sister Sandman Please
Written and directed by Jessica Rizzo

Dramaturg: Ilinca Todorut; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Set Design: Samantha Lazar; Costume Design: Sylvia Zhang; Composiiton/Sound Design: Chris Ross-Ewart; Stage Manager: Sally Shen; Production Manager: Kat Wepler; Producer: Sally Shen; Photos: Joey Moro

Yale Cabaret, April 2-4, 2015