Christian Shaboo

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Review of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

The bond between siblings gets an interesting and amusing rendering in John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, in a production by New Haven Theater Company, co-directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson. Beane (Christian Shaboo) seems bipolar, leading a lonely existence in a shabby room. His successful sister, Joan (Susan Kulp), likes sounding off to her husband Harry (George Kulp) about “nincompoops” and incompetent interns at the office, while swilling large wine pours. Harry has a detached complacency, playing devil’s advocate against his wife’s peremptory judgments because “that’s what conversation is.” Beane suddenly appears in their elegant living room and agrees to subject himself to some kind of psychological evaluation Harry pulled, Joan claims, from Cosmo or the like. Soon, the way Beane’s mind works becomes a source of considerable amusement for the audience and a matter of some consternation between the fractious couple.

Beane’s encounter with Molly (Jo Kulp) turns his world upside down. His manic side becomes very much evident as he nearly hyperventilates over a turkey sandwich while at lunch with Joan and engages his waiter (a bemused Erich Greene) with varied queries. The highpoint—a peak for both the play and Beane—arrives when Beane sings the praises of sex and Molly, inspiring a bout of amorous cooing between Joan and Harry. Shaboo—who once played a would-be cult leader in Drew Grey’s The Cult at NHTC—capably takes the energy up a notch and becomes almost rapturous. It’s here that Love Song lives up to its title, with Kolvenbach creating a truly lyrical language for Beane’s flight.

Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

We expect a crash and, sure enough, it comes, but not before we get a wonderful scene of middle-aged lovers rediscovering the spark through playing hooky, role-playing, and becoming enamored with being in love. The Kulps do a fine job of transforming Joan from a workaholic to a borderline alcoholic to a sex kitten, while Harry shows off his knack for fun while also retaining his essential Harryness. It’s a centerpiece matched by a scene between Molly and Beane that takes off in a somewhat different direction, a shared fantasy of meeting naked in the pond in a park, that—perhaps—tries a bit too hard to become poetic but which Shaboo and Kulp orchestrate with spellbinding rhythms.

A late scene between Beane and Joan lets us see what’s been at stake all along. Describing the scene would no doubt make it sound creepier than it is, but Joan’s monologue to Beane takes stock of the arc we’ve traveled. Joan and Beane—neither of whom might be fully wound—share a kind of symbiotic relation that works because Joan keeps Beane in reality just enough, while Beane helps Joan feel the thrill of what lies beyond the safe boundaries. As Molly said earlier, in a toast with Beane, “here’s to the end of literalisms.” A cup, in other words, isn’t just a cup.

Kolvenbach wants to imagine a world where love and passion can illuminate mundane lives with the feeling of flight and freedom. The catalyst might be a glimpse of someone different, or it may involve a sustained fantasy of the ideal soul mate who knows what you could never say. As Molly, Jo Kulp provides much of the spirit here; she’s as demanding in her way as Joan, but also full of an outsider’s sense of purpose, even at times dangerous. Her contempt for the sentimental closets where most people have squirreled away their keepsakes of identity and for the pretensions of minimalists are darkly pointed. When her vision infuses itself into Beane’s naïve outlook it remakes the world for him, and that in turn stretches his sister’s—and perhaps the viewer’s—sense of possibility.

With its set divided between Joan’s and Harry’s comfortable living room and Beane’s derelict room, Love Story even looks bipolar. The soundtrack of musical selections is apt and enjoyable, and the light/sound cue that creates a significant oppression in Beane’s room is handled quite effectively. All in all, there’s a lot to love about Love Song, not least the company’s way with the lyricism and bite of Kolvenbach’s script, the Kulp family’s engaging spirit, and Shaboo’s haunted disconnect from the normality we prize even as it kills us slowly with boredom.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

Cast: Erich Greene, George Kulp, Jo Kulp, Susan Kulp, Christian Shaboo

New Haven Theater Company
November 8-10 & 15-17, 2018

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

With David Auburn’s four character play, Proof, New Haven Theater Company once again proves that what they do best are plays driven by natural dialogue in a static location. In focusing on Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), the daughter of Robert (George Kulp), a ground-breaking mathematician, who is trying to cope with her father’s loss, while fielding intrusions from her dad’s one-time grad student, Hal (Christian Shaboo), and her take-charge sister, Claire (Deena Nicol-Blifford), Proof departs from most NHTC offerings by presenting a female main character. And that’s to the good as Chenot is one of the troupe’s most versatile actors. Here, she gets to be prickly and melancholic, romantic and distracted, all while keeping us in tune with what’s going on in Cathy’s interesting head.

Turning 25 as the play opens, Cathy is a young woman who has inherited some of her dad’s math genius, but hasn’t really applied herself, it seems. Worried that mathematical minds tend to peak around 28, she opens the play in a funk, chatting with her already deceased father. It’s a nifty opening because it gets the relationship between Robert and Cathy on the table fast: he doted on her, but, in his last decade or so, he needed her as his companion and attendant because he was, as he puts it, “in the bug house.” From beyond the grave, as it were, Robert’s voice can be encouraging and consoling, but his very presence may suggest perhaps that Cathy might share both the capacity for mental breakthrough and breakdown.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Into the situation comes a possible love interest, Hal, who is dedicated to his mentor’s past greatness and hopes against hope that something worth publishing can be found in the reams and reams of notebooks Robert left behind. Robert, suffering from hypergraphia, tended to write gibberish as though straight from the Burning Bush, and so there’s a lot to slog through. Cathy is both dismissive of Hal’s efforts and a little bit conciliatory, though he may be trying too hard to draw her out. Shaboo seems always to play sympathetic guys, so we probably aren’t as distrustful of Hal’s intentions as Cathy is.

The one to be distrustful about is Claire who is not nearly so star-struck about the old man as Cathy is, and who believes the sisters erred in not turning him over to professional help. Claire has a much more practical mind than either her sister or father so tends to be the wet-blanket to their enthusiasms. It’s important that she be a not-so-sympathetic voice of reason and Nicol-Blifford gets her across as likable and even-tempered, if pushy.

Directed by Steven Scarpa with a good sense of pacing, the NHTC production is strengthened by its ability to make somewhat prosaic situations—bickering well-intentioned sisters, ingratiating but nerdy guy, overbearing has-been paterfamilias—come alive with forthright charm. The flashbacks to Robert while alive let us see both the manic side of his condition and his mellow months of remission. Kulp handles both with a sincerity that shows us Robert from Cathy’s point of view, as someone who was once something extraordinary and then, sadly, could only hope for being normal.

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

As a play, Proof works by short scenes of two or three characters and keeps its dialogue focused on the back and forth of exchange. Some of the best moments are in the timing between Chenot and Nicol-Blifford as Cathy is apt to verbally undercut her sister’s views, and vice versa. The hot and cold approach to romance between Cathy and Hal feels contemporary enough, though tinged with a romantic comedy tone.

The play’s main issue is whether or not a woman can be a math genius—a plot point that works both for the theme of what we inherit from our forebears and for the theme of the incalculable equation of love. There's also a neat play on proof, as mathematical solution and evidence. In the end, we see that the burden of proof can be too easily assumed by those who don’t know as much as they think they do, and that love is something that has to be proven again and again.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Margaret Mann and Erich Greene

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot; George Kulp; Deena Nicol-Blifford; Christian Shaboo;

New Haven Theater Company Stage
at English Markets Building
839 Chapel Street
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

The Proof is in the Play

Preview of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

Though the New Haven Theater Company has stretched themselves in a variety of directions over the years—including the musical Urinetown, the fantasy Shipwrecked!, and large cast American classics like Our Town and, this past winter, Bus Stop—their bread-and-butter shows are small cast, dialogue-driven plays by playwrights like David Mamet, Conor McPherson, or the company’s own resident playwright Drew Gray. Getting back to where they once belonged after the stretch of Bus Stop, NHTC opens David Auburn’s popular, Tony Award and Pulitzer-winning play Proof next week at their performance space at the English Building Markets.

Directed by Steve Scarpa, who last directed Our Town for the Company, Proof was first considered years ago as an apt NHTC vehicle but they weren’t able to secure the rights. Fittingly, with Scarpa as director and the cast comprised of Megan Keith Chenot, George Kulp, Christian Shaboo, and Deena Nicol-Blifford, the play could be called “classic NHTC”—all four were in Our Town and have been in numerous productions. This time around, Kulp—who directed Bus Stop and typically pulls down “the father figure” parts—will play Robert, a deceased math genius who had mental problems, with Chenot, last seen as the put-upon chanteuse in Bus Stop, playing his daughter Catherine, who inherited his math smarts and, possibly, his mental problems as well. Shaboo, who often gets the romantic leads and was last seen as the harried husband in Smudge last fall, plays Hal, Robert’s former student who is trying to sort out the great man’s papers, among which is a proof that could be game-changing. Nicol-Blifford, who directed Smudge and appeared in The Cult last spring, is the older daughter, Claire, distanced from both her father and sister.

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

Chenot feels the play is particularly suited to NHTC because “it’s about family and we’re family.” Scarpa agrees: “It feeds into what we do best—shows with good parts and high stakes. Auburn said he could’ve used anything as the father’s special area; he wanted it to be a solitary undertaking in which one could be brilliant but that also has its burdens, so math here can also be, to some degree, what it takes to be an artist.” Kulp agrees, the play is “about having a certain gift and what it means, a legacy that can be passed on so that children, perhaps, do better than their parents.” Chenot has done some research into the math to sound like she knows what she’s talking about as Catherine, a brilliant woman, but she also takes seriously Catherine’s fears that genius and madness are related, “as they sometimes are for creative artists.”

It’s also helpful, in regard to NHTC’s resources, that the play has one setting: the backyard of a run-down home, where upkeep isn’t the strong point. In Bus Stop, which sold out its run, the setting was a public space where many personal interactions were taking place; this time, it’s a private space, so that the show, Scarpa says, is “even more intimate.” The whole cast is enamored of Auburn’s writing and that, they point out, is what the company looks for first and foremost: “great scripts with a lot of range.”

“We’re about the truth of the story,” Scarpa says, and Kulp adds out that the art of storytelling is ultimately what keeps the Company, who all have other jobs and pursuits, coming back to the back room at the English Building. Kulp, who is an Equity actor, gave up some professional jobs to be involved in Proof, but that’s the attraction of working with familiar friends on pet projects in their own space.

Scarpa, who sees himself as “the enabler of the process” as director, aims to be as supportive as possible of his cast. He knew from the start that Chenot was “perfect for the role” of Catherine, though it couldn’t be more different from the not-too-brainy singer she put across in Bus Stop. This time, Chenot, who has taught theater in high school, will be relying on some of that teacherly poise. As with Bus Stop, though, the drama and the humor comes from people being themselves, in the kinds of interactions that can be intense one moment and more lighthearted the next.

A play about family, genius, madness, fear, rivalry, and with a love story too. To the entire company, all of whom are involved in choosing the plays, it was “uniformly obvious” that Proof is a real New Haven Theater Company kind of play. Need proof? See the show.

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams.

The New Haven Theater Company
Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steve Scarpa

The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

For Cult's Sake

Review of The Cult by New Haven Theater Company

Drew Gray’s The Cult, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company at their home in The English Building Markets, is a play about making connections and the effects such connections can have. Anyone might want a wider circle of friends or maybe different friends, but few of us form or join a cult for the sake of company. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the play is that it makes doing so seem not so bizarre or absurd as one might have thought.

When the play starts, many of the characters in The Cult have already found belonging in a group—the members don’t call it “a cult” themselves—formed by Tyler (Christian Shaboo), an earnest young man who seems to believe he hears the words of an entity called “Albean.” As with any religious ritual, the reasons for what the members believe and the purposes of the acts they perform can be a bit vague—or even silly—to outsiders. While at times Gray, who also directs and designed the show, wants to explore the comic possibilities of the cult situation, most of the attempts at humor seem like pandering to a dumbed-down sit-com. The story, as it develops in Act Two, is stronger than that.

The uneven mix of comedy and drama keeps the tone of the initial going a bit undecided. We don’t laugh at sad or pathetic people, and that’s what the cult members seem to be. Jared (Rick Beebe) is an introvert, Sally (Lauren Young) is an airhead, Alan (Erich Greene) is after sex, and so forth. The new business is that Tyler’s co-worker, Roger (a fidgety J. Kevin Smith), whose get-ahead wife (a fun cameo from Mallory Pellegrino) just dumped him, is curious about what Tyler’s into. Rather than laugh it off as too weird, Roger is intrigued, and wants to wear a robe and join “the cult.” The other development for potential drama is that Tyler manages to score a date with Rachel (Katelyn Marie Marshall), a shy co-worker who stays at home with her cats while he’s home changing the lives of his followers. Then there’s the issue of the farm.

A cult must have a goal, one supposes, and the goal here is not to await the Rapture or a Second Coming of Albean, but to live together in peace and harmony on the farm Tyler lived on as a boy. It was there he first heard the voice of Albean and, he believes, a return there will be like a return to Mecca. But first they must raise the money to buy what isn’t for sale. The various plot points get furthered when Tyler takes Rachel on a drive to the farm, and we meet Will (Trevor Williams), the man in possession of the place who, it turns out, is Tyler’s brother. Meanwhile, Jared has some distressing news.

Once Jared’s medical condition comes to light, the play, for the most part, drops its half-hearted attempts to be funny. The other thing that happens is that the longer we’re in their company, the more we begin to believe in these people who believe in Albean. And that shift in perspective is worth sticking around for.

In addition to our growing acceptance of the cult members, the play’s pay-off comes in how the other people in Tyler’s life—Will and Rachel—react to his followers. The stress that memberships can cause one’s relationship with non-members plays out in well-acted scenes. What’s more, the fact that neither Will nor Rachel can stomach the implications of Tyler as a “prophet of Albean,” preferring to see him as emotionally disturbed (Will) or some kind of snake-oil salesman (Rachel), ratchets up the tensions of belonging and believing in the face of naysayers.

The Cult is at its best in one-on-one moments where characters can be revealed, such as the awkward dating between Tyler and Rachel, Tyler’s patient appraisal of Jared’s anxious revelations, or—a scene that suggests interesting back-story—the sibling rivalry of Tyler and his fed-up brother. The cult members themselves are at their best when reacting to Tyler—played by Shaboo without an ounce of guile or irony—though a surer hand with comic pacing and timing could have us laughing at them before we start taking them seriously.

 

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written, directed, and designed by Drew Gray

Produced by Peter Chenot; Original Music by Drew Gray; Stage Managed by Drew Gray; Audio Supervision by Ray Stephens; Props by Drew Gray, Margaret Mann, Trevor Williams

Cast: Rick Beebe (Jared); Erich Greene (Alan); Katelyn Marie Marshall (Rachel); Deena Nicol-Blifford (Jane); Mallory Pellegrino (Veronica/Samantha/Ellen); Sandra Rodriguez (Charlie); Christian Shaboo (Tyler), J. Kevin Smith (Roger); Tim Smith (Tommy); Trevor Williams (Will); Lauren Young (Sally)

New Haven Theater Company
The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven

May 28, 29, 30 and June 3, 4, 5, 6, 2015

Join The Cult

The Cult, the new play by Drew Gray, the resident playwright in the New Haven Theater Company, debuts next week at the troupe’s home theater at the back of the English Building Markets. Gray’s last play for NHTC was The Magician, a two-hander about a veteran magician and his manager. The Cult is much more ambitious with a cast of 11 playing 13 characters. What Gray calls “a comedy with serious elements” (he avoids using the term “dramedy”), The Cult began life as a prospective web series, which means it was conceived as taking place over 3 seasons of 6 episodes each. In creating a stand-alone play from the material, Gray wrote a new ending but follows the arc of the first series of episodes. The element of the play that perhaps owes most to its genesis as a web series is the fact that, as Gray says, “this is the most realistic, narrative-driven play” he’s written. Part of that comes from trying to “make it tangible” for the TV-viewing public, and also from the fact that the “sitcom format of 10-15 minute episodes” helped Gray to focus on “the structure of well-made scenes.”

The play concerns a young man working an office day-job who finds his real identity as the leader of a cult called Albean. Played by Christian Shaboo, who starred in Shipwrecked!, one of the other large-scale undertakings by NHTC, Tyler is a figure for the effort to find human connection apart from employment and family. Tyler’s job is “not expressly mentioned,” Gray says, but conceives of it as something suitably nondescript, such as head of a regional office for some national corporation.

A range of lonely souls from mid-twenties to mid-forties looking for a sense of connection is the focus of the play. While not questioning religious groups per se, Gray is interested in how “people find community in weird ways” and in the sort of grassroots organizations and spiritual possibilities that seem to have been much more common before everyone started living online. In fact, Gray says, there’s a very lo-tech aspect to the cult, which communicates with posted flyers and the like.

As is often his working method, Gray researched the play after he had already written a good portion of it, looking into the kinds of do-it-yourself cults there are in the world. Much of the fun in writing the play was in devising the rules and guidelines the members would follow and in determining the cult’s system of beliefs. “Basically,” Gray says, “the cult is a narrative device for creating this big, ridiculous family” of off-beat characters, and for inspiring “real laughs with goofy cultural humor.” Even the name “Albean” can have various interpretations: “all-being,” “I’ll-be-an . . .” or, to my mind, the name of a late night coffee shop for the worship of caffeine, “the All Bean.”

But The Cult doesn’t play the cult entirely for laughs, as the show, though “laughter-driven, is never a straight-up comedy.” Gray, who also directs, is interested in “the intricacy of relationships,” and some of the back-stories of the characters, as developed by the cast in rehearsals, are complex and not very upbeat. For some cult-members, there may be romantic possibilities, and for some, the overcoming of certain issues from their regular lives. And there are ceremonial aspects to the cult, involving ritual objects and regalia, which means there is a “bigger costume component” than in most NHTC shows.

In hearing Gray describe this latest project and the sense of belonging that, many attest, comes from meeting regularly to perform certain comforting rituals, I couldn’t help thinking of theater itself. NHTC, comprised of thespians with day-jobs, might be seen, without too big a stretch, as a cult. Gray laughed at the notion, but allowed that anything that brings people together might function as an analogy.

What is the cult trying to achieve? What is the purpose of their practices? Attend “a meeting” at the English Markets and find out.

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written and directed by Drew Gray

May 28-30 and June 3-6, 2015
English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

Keeping It Real

With their latest offering, Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventure of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), New Haven Theater Company have expanded their range yet again. While they are generally best with shows driven by dialogue and even—as with their entertaining take on Urinetown a few years ago—songs, one doesn’t usually associate them with special effects, and that’s what Shipwrecked! thrives on. The adventures of Rougemont (Christian Shaboo), directed by Peter Chenot, smack of the improbable world of coincidence of the 18th century novel, and, as a narrative, follow an arc of rise and fall very neatly. The story requires quite a number of small parts, lots of movement in different settings, and threats from storms, a giant octopus, Aborigines, and Australian prospectors, to say nothing of the frigid streets of London where immense condescension and adulation comes in waves. Driving all this is Rougemont, played by Shaboo with the earnest good humor of a narrator of fiction—indeed Rougemont speaks almost incessantly, interpreting for the viewer the elements of every scene as well as sharing his emotions and intentions as the story winds on. It’s an exhausting part—both verbally and physically (handstands, cartwheels and somersaults are featured)—and Shaboo keeps it all likeably interesting. We pull for Rougemont even as we suspect he’s pulling our leg.

The show is a theatrical production that never forgets it’s a theatrical production, and that suits NHTC where the means to bring off a piece are conditioned by a certain do-it-yourself ethic. In other words, Margulies’ play seems tailored for just such a company as NHTC. While a big budget production would no doubt be more effective in stimulating the suspension of disbelief that Rougemont’s story begs, it would also, I imagine, lose some of the feel of the “let’s pretend” aspect of the staging. Rougemont’s adventures feel more authentically presented when we see the puppet strings, as it were. And that’s because Rougemont never pretends that the staging is real, only that what he tells us actually happened.

Rougemont was a real person (Henri Louis Grin), his story cobbled together from the adventure stories he loved as a boy and facts about Australasia he found in libraries, but there is a certain mystery to it all as well. For while he was unable, in real life, to convince The Royal Geographic Society, his tale entertained and enthralled many. From those who want their epic adventures based in fact, there was an inevitable backlash. Indeed, Rougemont's fall from grace actually adds a certain believability to his story, so that its inclusion, while less “amazing” brings us back to reality.

Using a small proscenium as a backdrop—primarily as a space to project Drew Grey’s charming transparencies using the old magic lantern technique that would’ve been available to Rougemont—NHTC’s production gives us Rougemont’s story with the finesse of someone who can believe anything he wants his audience to believe. Doubtless seeing stagehands running about with banners to enact an octopus, he in fact sees an octopus. That, we might say, is the whole point of the story.

Shaboo is ably helped by NHTC members and some new recruits to round out the cast. Particularly welcome among the latter are the comic skills of Jesse Gabbard, as Captain Jensen, among other things, and welcome among the former is Mallory Pellegrino who plays an Aborigine maiden—who learns English surprisingly quickly—as charmingly as she played Emily in NHTC’s Our Town. Other highlights are Margaret Mann as Queen Victoria, quite intrigued by the fact that Rougemont rode a turtle, Erich Greene as Rougemont’s faithful hound—I can only imagine how tired his tongue must be after two shows in one day—Trevor Williams as an English prig, and Katelyn Marshall, as an Australian prospector. Everyone mentioned plays many other parts as well in the full meaning of ensemble.

Margulies’ play is an oddity. We could call it a celebration of theater and of make-believe, but it also seems to want Rougemont to be a hero, whether for adventures he didn’t have or for having the temerity of telling them as if he did—or perhaps for simply embodying the very principle of fiction: just because it didn’t happen that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Shipwrecked! is a fun family outing, and good time spent away from screens and computer-generated entertainment—for the sake of entertainment generated by shared imagination. Truly.

 

New Haven Theater Company presents Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot

Featuring: Christian Shaboo as Louis de Rougemont Cast: Jesse Gabbard, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, Katelyn Marshall, Margaret Mann, Mallory Pellegrino Trevor Williams; Projection Design: Drew Gray; Stage Manager: Allyson Kaechele; Light Board Op: Mary Tedford

Thurs, May 1 and Thurs, May 8: 8 pm Fri, May 2 and Fri, May 9: 8 pm Sat, May 3 and Sat, May 10: 5 pm and 8 pm New Haven Theater Company at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven $20, adults; $12, students, children

Note: The 8pm show on Saturday 5/10 will be a Pay What You Can performance. Secure your admission with a $5 online reservation, and then pay what you can at the door.

For tickets and information:new haven theater company

Shipwrecked! with New Haven Theater Company

Ensconced in their home at the back of the English Markets, the New Haven Theater Company now have the rights—and the right space—for their production of New Haven resident Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself). Margulies, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and a professor at Yale, first debuted the play in 2008, and there was a Long Wharf production that same year. Among the audience of the latter was Peter Chenot, who will be directing the NHTC production, which opens two weeks from today. For Chenot, the show accentuates the idea of the power of the imagination. With all the mechanics of the theater occurring onstage—including the sound effects of Foley art—the audience is not asked to suspend their disbelief in the usual fashion. Everything that Rougemont (Christian Shaboo) tells us, in his fantastic adventures involving, among other things, an attack by a giant octopus, is portrayed for the audience not as if it’s real but as if it’s an elaborate act of storytelling, happening before our very eyes.

Chenot was drawn to the play—which NHTC was initially slated to produce last spring at the Whitney Arts Center before the rights became unavailable—by the kinds of challenges and rewards it presents. It forces the troupe “to be more creative onstage” as well as “adding improv techniques” to their rehearsals—techniques that are part of the background of Chenot’s involvement with the group, as he’s a veteran of The Funny Stages, the improv comedy group that included Shaboo and Erich Greene, also a featured player in Shipwrecked! Also in the show is Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine in the winter and was in the cast of NHTC’s production of Our Town, as was Mallory Pellegrino, also in Shipwrecked! and Almost, Maine. The NHTC regulars are joined by three debuts with the company: Jesse Gabbard, Katelyn Marshall, and Trevor Williams.

NHTC’s work on Our Town is an appropriate reference point, as Margulies himself references Thornton Wilder’s great play in his intro to Shipwrecked! The concept of theater freed of the effort to replicate realism in favor of imaginative flight unites both. As Chenot says, the stagehands are part of the play and seeing Drew Gray’s projections from an old-time magic lantern, or puppets made from found objects in two big steamer trunks onstage lets us know that the show is partly a matter of a willful redirection of reality. That element is significant for the story of Rougemont, a real person of Victorian England whose memoir chronicling his adventures was celebrated in his day, only to find the public turn against him when doubts about the veracity of his tale began to circulate.

Chenot likens Rougemont’s tale to the Odyssey where, famously, Odysseus tells his own “sea story” of strange lands and fantastic creatures. Uniting both is a love of storytelling for its own sake and the ability of a sailor to spin a yarn for the sake of his own skill. “For the players,” Chenot says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s true.” The troupe becomes “a family of believers in Rougemont” who are interested in the value of a good story and not in duping a gullible public.

NHTC is aiming the show for ages 8 and up, and indeed Shipwrecked! is the kind of show that might be said to be aimed at the child in us all, the one who is willing to be awed by reality’s potential to be more than we expect it to be. Is Rougemont a charlatan? Only if he doesn’t deliver the kind of entertainment we expect of the fabulous and incredible.

As Chenot comments, Shaboo, onstage the entire time as Rougemont, has to keep us enthralled and willing to follow his lead. A bit perhaps like the main character in NHTC’s most recent production, The Magician, Rougemont is trying to convince us that magic is what happens in our own minds, and this time all the sleight-of-hand will be right before our eyes.

 

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot

Showtimes: Thurs, May 1 and Thurs, May 8: 8 pm Fri, May 2 and Fri, May 9: 8 pm Sat, May 3 and Sat, May 10: 5 pm and 8 pm

New Haven Theater Company At The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven

$20, adults; $12, students, children

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New Haven Maine-stays

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Almost, Maine makes a virtue of its minimalist set to create a kind of fantasy space where all the action takes place. That’s fitting because Almost, Maine almost takes place in a real place, but John Cariani’s script likes to interject little fabulistic touches that let characters be symptoms as much as people. Which is a way of saying that the point of each of the nine vignettes that comprise the play is that love makes everything different. We might think we’re normal people in normal situations, but when love gets involved, magical or bizarre or at least unusual things happen, and the way we talk about what we’re going through has to make use of metaphors and imagery. So if Glory (Jenny Schuck) is carrying a broken heart, or a man (Erich Greene) has been reduced by the loss of hope, well, Cariani’s play is going to treat such things literally. Which means you may be like Phil (Steve Scarpa) and Marci (Anna Klein), who have come to the end of their relationship—waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The NHTC has the knack of playing things with a straight-forward gusto that lets us in on the joke while also being as forthright as these characters need to be. It’s fun to watch pratfalls of emotion (fall in love, get it?) overtake two beer-drinking buddies, Randy (Peter Chenot) and Lendall (Christian Shaboo) because the guy-ness of these guys is so vivid. It’s fun to watch Steve, a guy who can’t feel pain (Scarpa) get hit with an ironing board by someone else’s wife (Deena Nicol) who has just the right air of annoyed woman doing laundry on a Friday night. Scarpa takes a page from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic fellow in Rain Man to make us feel both sympathy and amusement.

And that’s the key note of the evening. Every one of these characters is suffering in some way—I particularly liked Chenot as Jimmy, the sad sack behind a wall of downed Buds who cheerily confronts Sandrine (Anna Klein) who ditched him months ago and is now on the way back to her bachelorette party (ouch!)—and yet the comedy is always there too. So whether it’s a couple (Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo) whose bags full of love seem rather wildly disproportionate or two snow-sports friends (Jenny Schuck and Peter Chenot) who suddenly discover there are such things as indoors sports, there is usually an outcome that seems for the best.

Directors Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann should be happy with the pacing of their evening, and the Chenots’ incidental music adds very appropriate touches to backgrounds and transitions—I particularly liked the banjo that adds a jauntiness to the proceedings. Nothing goes on too long, though some scenes are more developed than others—Scarpa and Klein’s scene felt the most real—and not all the scenes end with love triumphant: Greene’s Man gets the most biting lines in the play about how leaving someone with just a little hope can be like stealing their oxygen bit by bit, and Deena Nichol dragging a wheelie suitcase away while saying “yes, yes” stabs as well.

NHTC have found another dialogue-driven entertainment that showcases their grasp of regular folks in irregular circumstances—a strength of their Our Town as well. Added to the regulars of the company are newcomers who add a lot, replacing some who have left our town for other horizons.

Almost, Maine plays again tonight at 8 p.m. and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the English Building Markets on Chapel Street.

Almost, Maine Written by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Anna Klein, Deena Nicol, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, Jenny Schuck

Original music written and performed by Megan and Peter Chenot Technical production: George Kulp and Drew Gray

New Haven Theater Company at English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

The Changing Same

Like more than a few of us, I suspect, I had never seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s one of those classic texts that it’s easy to be pretty sure we know all about without bothering to see it. I do recall reading it aloud, round-robin style, in English class in 11th grade. A budding literary sophisticate, I scorned much of it, and I can still remember my main objections: its normative assumptions about what makes for “regular folks” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. seemed to me not only dated but insufferably corny. If you went to school any time after 1964, it was simply too hard to accept a town that’s all-white, and where the “other” is signified by Polish Catholics across the train tracks. Sure, the actual setting of the play is the end of the 19th century to the eve of World War I (and it was first produced in the era of fascist sympathies pre-WWII), and Wilder is quite aware that the world he is depicting was already history. Still, for any child of the Sixties, the play was simply too retrograde, its fond evocation of how parents repeat themselves in offspring just, y’know, Squaresville, man. And that’s one of the things about Our Town—it tends to, and is intended to, inspire thoughts about how time passes and about the changes and the sames of ye olde status quo. There’s a priceless moment where the elderly presider over the local soda fountain reminisces about how it was once possible for a dog to take a nap in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, undisturbed. Ah, the good old days—now there’s horses and carriages everywhere and even those encroaching horseless carriages! While no one in a contemporary audience would remember anything like that, we all have similar recollections that date us. Who still remembers milk delivered to the door? Newspapers routes? Wilder wrote the play not to preserve the past, conservatively, but to show that whatever we know as “normal” is going to go the way of all flesh right into the graveyard, eventually.

Which is a way of saying: Don’t judge a play by its first Act. Sure, Our Town starts homey enough to fit squarely in some kind of Will Rogers-type recollection about what life was like when everyone in town knew everyone else’s ancestors, but by the end it has let in the space of the beyond. Back before outer space was the answer to our striving beyond the quotidian earth, it was possible to let “eternity” be the common Unknown looming over us all, and Wilder does a good job of bringing the time beyond time into the play—by making it just as homely and familiar, but with a key difference. The dead know what we don’t know, and what they know reveals at last what has been implicit all along: the perspective of the Stage Manager is “from beyond the grave”—like poets and saints, seeing the length of an individual human life as the speck in the span of the ages that it is.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production, directed by Steven Scarpa, in a spare playing space in a big, high-ceiling room at the English Building Market, its set consisting of two groups of three chairs and a quartet of black monoliths that look like pillars holding up the sky and like monuments to the dead, gives us a straight-forward rendering of Wilder’s script that lets us appreciate how much specificity there is in the play’s seemingly generic approach. Grover’s Mill is a town with an identity, and it's great the way the NHTC production lets us imagine the town the way the play wants us to.

Helping greatly with that task is our Stage Manager (Megan Chenot). Rather than the usual benign old codger who is supposed to keep us apprized of the whos and whats of the town, Chenot has the fresh forthrightness of those tour guides you might see leading a bunch of prospectives, their families, and random shutterbugs around Yale’s campus. She’s got the skinny on everything and delivers it all with the kind of amused forbearance we expect from grade school teachers. It’s like the whole town is her “class” (us too) and she wants to lead them along the path to greater knowledge, no matter how painful it may be. Chenot creates a very warming, reassuring effect, and that helps, particularly as there’s likely to be much sniffling and wiping of eyes by the time Act Three ends.

Other reflection on this well-cast show—special mention of the perfect match of Mallory Pellegrino for the role of Emily Webb. The heart of the play comes in Act Two when Emily and George Gibbs, the boy next-door, finally realize what their lives have been leading to. Pellegrino shows just the right mix of bashfulness and smart-girl knowingness not only to win over George—the town’s top athlete, bound for agricultural college—but everyone else as well. It’s a moment that seems so sincere and intimate it justifies everything the Stage Manager is trying to show us.

Other fine touches from this familiar ensemble: Margaret Mann’s comic turns as a professor eager to take us back to the Pleistocene in explaining the town’s interest, and as everyone’s maiden aunt in the wedding scene, gushing with the kind of fulsomeness that makes cliché both comical and real; Christian Shaboo, as George, seems young enough to be as unselfconscious as George is; George Kulp and Susan Kulp play the Webbs with a familiarity that seems as if we’re actually in their home, and the awkward, prenuptial visit of George to his future father-in-law is comic, and almost lets in lots of things best left unsaid; as Doc Gibbs and his wife, J. Kevin Smith and Deena Nicol have a more weary hominess than the Webbs—with the Doctor having to make housecalls (who remembers that ancient custom?), and his wife fantasizing about a trip to Paris as though it were on the other side of the earth; the families’ breakdown at the graveyard feels genuine rather than stagey, a big plus; Peter Chenot, as deliveryman-about-town Howie Newsome, is as real as the imaginary (to us) carthorse he leads around.

Perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of Wilder’s play is when George and Emily, in their respective bedrooms in their respective parents’ next-door houses, try to set up a means of surreptitious communication, if only to study together. Do we need look any further for an early version of the urge to text and share files? And when the Stage Manager comments on the fact that most people end their lives married, it’s a rather obvious reflection that—in these parts, anyway—more people than ever, even those who eschew heterosexual coupling, have that opportunity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.

 

Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Steven Scarpa Produced by George Kulp Production Design by Drew Gray Stage Management by Mary Tedford

Cast (in order of appearance): Megan Chenot; J. Kevin Smith; Sam Taubl; Peter Chenot; Deena Nicol; Susan Kulp; Christian Shaboo; Josie Kulp; Spenser Long; Mallory Pellegrino: Margaret Mann; George Kulp; Donna E. Glen; Erich Greene; Jim Lones; Rick Beebe; Jesse Jo Toth

English Building Market 839 Chapel Street

2013, September 19, 20, 21; 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.