Christopher Mirto

Strange Love in NYC

When it debuted in Yale Cabaret's 2009/10 Season, Janyia Antrum's campy sci-fi musical Strange Love in Outer Space was the success story of The Dwight/Edgewood Project (see my review here).  Now its success continues with the play's debut in New York in the eclectic and exciting New York Fringe Festival, Aug. 14, 17, 19, 21, and 23, including a mention in the New York Times. The Dwight/Edgewood Project is held every July under the auspices of Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theater.  It's a four week program that introduces New Haven area kids to the elements of theater, from playwrighting and design to acting and directing, with classes staffed by Yale School of Drama students.  For the last two years, August Lewis Troup Middle School and Wexler-Grant Community School have been partners in the project.

Janyia wrote the first part of Strange Love in summer 2009, at the age of twelve.  When she got home after the project ended, she felt the urge to continue the story and wrote a second part.  The Yale Cabaret commissioned a third act and then produced the play.  Jorge Rodriguez, who has worked with Janyia as a producer from the beginning, comments: Janyia "wrote a play that was incredibly well structured, with outstanding character development and incredibly funny."  The play impressed her fellow students at D/EP and the staff "was stunned by her sense of comedic timing.  The zany, campy humor that distinguishes this play were of her own creation and a result, as she often joked about, of years of watching TV sitcoms like The Nanny."

Christopher Mirto, who directed the D/EP production and the Yale Cab production, is at the helm again for the Fringe production.  He also plays the memorable role of Mr. Grumis, a fish-like alien who courts the statuesque Splontusia.  For Mirto, the play works for a lot of reasons:

"Janyia's story is actually really moving and has a strong leading female character. It's campy fun but very serious and imaginative and comes from such a genuine place. It's surprisingly smart, has great comic timing, [and] the songs move the plot forward; the characters are crazy, but have very clear desires. The Fringe is a good fit because it's an unusual show in style, form, characters, design. It doesn't have a big or complicated design, so it's easy to transfer. Kind of like Pixar films, it appeals to adults and children."

The Fringe version features some of the same cast as the Cabaret version -- Mirto, and his longtime associate Brian Valencia, who also mentored Janyia in D/EP, as the dastardly Dr. Tuscanunin -- but also presents some changes, with Caitlin Clouthier, from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, in the central role of multi-eyed Splontusia, and recent YSD graduate Aja Naomi King as B'Quisha Star Jones, the dog/pirate queen.  The new production also boasts a new song.

The Fringe is a huge, sprawling drama festival that Mirto calls "a total crapshoot."  The sublime and the ridiculous rub shoulders and you go in not quite knowing what you're going to get.  Strange Love has already proven itself capable of mixing it up with the challenging and off-the-wall offerings of the Cab, and now it will run side-by-side with the off-off-Broadway shows of the West Village.

Mirto's excited by the challenge and comments, "There is this really nice non-jaded aspect of Janyia that is refreshing for me: she reminds me that it should be fun, it should entertain, and it should be simple; and that imagination goes a long way!"

It's an imagination that has created a play that's out of this world, a play that has already gone a long way from an afterschool project to a New York city debut.

Strange Love in Outer Space, A Musical Traumedy

Book and Lyrics by Janyia Antrum; Music by Nick Morgan; Directed by Christopher Mirto

The Cherry Pit (venue #14), 155 Bank Street, New York, NY (West & Washington Street)

Sat. Aug. 14, 2:15 p.m.; Tues. Aug. 17, 10:30 p.m.; Thurs. Aug. 19, 8 p.m.; Sat. Aug. 21, 5:30 p.m.; Mon. Aug. 23, 4 p.m; Tickets $15-$18; for tickets:

Presented by The New York International Fringe Festival; A Production of The Present Company

Connect at the Cabaret, Old Chum

It’s Valentine’s Day (aka VD).  Maybe you’ve got it covered with your favorite mating personage, your significant other(s), your steady, your squeeze, your spouse (or the person who would be that if the laws of the land permitted), but ... maybe not, maybe you’re looking to connect, somehow, someway. Maybe you turn to craigslist, home of the online hookup, or maybe you’re not quite ready to go virtual yet, so you look at “Missed Connections” hoping against hope that someone out there, someone whose path you’ve already crossed -- in line at Subway, at the bank, on that same path you walk every day to class, on the subway -- is desperately seeking you again, to get your digits, your screenname, the key to your city . . .

Chad Raines, of the local band The Simple Pleasure, has concocted the music, lyrics and book for Missed Connections, a guilty pleasure based on online personals, up for its final showing today at Yale Cabaret, and it’s a blast of sound, movement, and cagey, collective jeering at the pathetic losers we all risk being when we’re lookin’ for love, or, if not love exactly, then at least that special someone who will let you massage his or her feet ...

Pick your favorite moment: the phys ed girl, suffering from diarrhea, pining for the guy who will examine her stool (how much more intimate does it get?), or the guy at the Subway, intoning, in a hilarious Barry White take-off, how he noticed that girl in line with him, but was scared off when she ordered for two; or the gent with binoculars who likes to watch his neighbor take out her trash; or the pissed-off, stood-up woman who gives us a lesson in etiquette: if you’re married and seeking discreet connection on the side, it’s just not cool to be a no-show to someone else who’s married and seeking same ... there might even be a sitter’s fee involved!

The songs are high volume and extremely active.  Jennifer Harrison Newman once again choreographs the impossibly small “stage”at the Cabaret -- including a line dance, led by Raines, that’s so close you might catch a spray of sweat.  Director Christopher Mirto keeps the show loose and juicy, but also cheerily inviting -- it feels at times like we’re at “dating camp” and the cast are our counselors, trying to get us out of our shells.

There’s never a dull moment because you never know what’s coming next -- erotic tableaux, condoms flung to the crowd, a get-up and boogie number with lyrics shouting “woman for woman, man for man” rather than “celebrate good times, c’mon!”

And who knows, when it’s over there might even be a line on craigslist for you: You were at Yale Cab last weekend with some bozo and/or bimbo you clearly weren’t that into. I was the ____ with the ______.  Hope to see you there in two weeks (Feb 25-27) when the Yale Cab will feature Radio Station, inspired by the work of Shogo Ohta and the Pacific Performance Project/East.   Come alone, if you dare...

Missed Connections a new musical by Chad Aaron Raines directed by Christopher Mirto

Special Valentine's Performance! Sunday Feb 14 @ 8pm

How you gonna meet your missed connection?


Love is a many-creatured thing

Strange Love in Outer Space, the final show by the Yale Cabaret this semester (two shows tonight; three on Sat, including an early show for kids), was written by Janyia Antrum, a twelve-year-old student who participated in the Dwight/Edgewood Project last summer.  The program gives local 6th and 7th graders from Augusta Lewis Troup and Wexler-Grant Community Schools an opportunity to work with Yale School of Drama theater people. Janyia was mentored by Brian Valencia, a dramaturg. The one-act that Janyia wrote in two days at the D/EP’s weekend retreat got a second act after she went home and dreamed about the characters’ further adventures.  The Yale Cab commissioned a third act to find out where the characters were going, and the full trilogy, produced by Jorge Rodriguez and directed by Christopher Mirto, has now had its debut.

What kind of characters?  The main figure is Splontusia (Alex Hendrikson), a four-eyed, one-armed creature who gets transformed into being mean and evil by an injection from the mean and evil Dr. Roswald Tuscanium (Dr. T, for short; Valencia), a worm-like creature with a slit for eyes, truncated arms, and a long trailing body.  By end of act one, however, these two would-be antagonists have admitted that, yes, there’s something charming about that slit and something bewitching about the gleam in that fourth eye...

Romantic complications ensue with the addition, in act two, of Grumis (Mirto), an aquatic creature with a rather dim-witted if likeable delivery who has always loved Splontusia, and, in act three, of the outrageously named Bonegettagettaquisha Star Jones (Dipika Guha), a pirate woman who happens to be part dog, and who has kinda had a crush on Dr T ever since science class back in high school.

And, yes, there are songs.  In fact, be prepared to get on your feet for the rousing “the way love moves in outer space” finale.

I don’t know if Janyia has ever seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I assume that her cast and mentors have, and they maintain a similiar level of zany engagement and campy silliness that made that film such a hit.  Dr T laughs diabolically and snivels pathetically; Grumis sings like an insecure kid on Sesame Street and then belts out his beloved’s name, “Splon-tuuu-syaaaaa,” like Stanley Kowalski with fins (and how he does those fish-hops I’ll never know).  And once Splontusia starts vacillating (Dr. T did chain her to a toilet, after all), B.S. J. arrives as a possible new match for Dr T; she growls and howls yet still manages to exude the charm of a funky Puss In Boots; and Splontusia herself, all in white, at a regal height, towering above the rest of the cast, veers in a mercurial manner from ditzy to heart-felt to aggressive to, finally, someone ready to be her own person.

See it to support young talent!  See it to meet creatures you won’t find anywhere else!  See it for the toilet bowl song!

Strange Love in Outer Space What does it take to make a relationship work? by Janyia Antrum (2009 Dwight/Edgewood Playwright) Directed by Christopher Mirto December 4 @ 8 and 11PM December 5 @ 4, 8 and 11PM Love just got a whole lot stranger. A trilogy of plays begun in the Dwight/Edgewood Project.


Trial and Error

The Yale School of Drama has just completed its presentation of Phedre, penned by French master playwright Jean Racine in 1677. In this production, dramaturg Brian Valencia and director Christopher Mirto opted for the 1998 translation by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's widower, but in the end, there is no knowing if any other translation—such as those by John Cairncross or R.C. Knight or Robert Lowell—would have helped much in the mighty struggle that ensued to bring this tragedy to life. Back story is critical to grasping what's going on, and the playbill aids mightily in this regard. The tragic figure of this tale of lust and betrayal is not Phaedra (I'll be sticking to the anglicized spelling for this review), but her husband Theseus, famed slayer of the Cretan Minotaur. At this late stage in his career, his reputation lies largely in his womanizing, and by the time of the play's action, his reputation for selfish indulgence has begun to overtake that for heroics. Minotaur slaying notwithstanding, the play's cast of characters is already more than familiar with his abandonment of former lover and one-time savior, Ariadne, on the Greek isle of Naxos; his wooing and fathering of Hippolytus on the Amazon Antiope before his desertion of her; and finally his return to Crete, where, adding insult to injury, he takes Ariadne's sister, Phaedra, to wife. But poor Phaedra! In the noble tradition of ancient Greek bedroom drama, her heart belongs not to Theseus, but his son, Hippolytus, whom she persuades Theseus to banish, figuring out of sight, out of mind. Such reasoning works well enough until Theseus, Phaedra, and their two children are exiled in turn by Theseus' father, Aegeus, to Troezen, Hippolytus' current home. Poetic justice indeed!

Now Phaedra must confront the tabooed passion for her stepson, while, Hippolytus, frustrated by his years of exile, has fallen hard for another prisoner of Troezen, Aricia, descendant of Pallas and his line, the sworn enemies of Theseus, who originally placed her there. Who knew Troezen was such a hothouse of intemperate decisions and mad passions! Telenovelas clearly have nothing on Greek mythology, which renders all the more difficult the performative challenges of this particular play.

To put it bluntly, the drama school students simply bit off more than they could chew. This production illuminated only too well the hurdles presented to any modern theatre company by a play featuring an overwrought story of ancient Greece told by a 17th-century French playwright translated by a 20th-century literary patrician for a 21st-century audience. The connective tissue of problems in this production stems from variety of sources: set design, body language, line delivery, plotting. Untangling the web is no small matter, but it is, without doubt, educative.

Let's start with set design. It is notably at variance with the fairly traditional presentation. This version of Phaedra is not some gussied up modernization—although Racine's script could easily support, in artful hands, a campy soap opera. No, this is a straight shot, through and through, so why the set design effect of doors that open in all parts of the stage (lower story and, upper story doors, ceiling hatches and trap doors)? Perhaps the arrangement is intended to convey a certain lack of privacy—everybody seems to know everybody's business, or will eventually, which is the nature of tragedy. Perhaps it is to bring to the fore a certain dynamism that the play lacks because of its Racinian stiffness. One can't be sure, however, the net effect hurts the entire production for one very critical reason: the upper doors require stairways—in this case metal rail versions—that take up stage space, specifically back stage right and front stage left (the latter of which has the equally deleterious effect of "screening" off back stage left), and end up forcing the actors to crowd the corner of front stage right or work the stairs themselves, considerably limiting their ability to move about and gesture freely.

Consequently, too many characters stand block still during their recitations or when ostensibly listening, no doubt to avoid falling off the stairs. One notable exception stands out: Shannon Sullivan's Ismene, who quite literally writhes like a pole dancer during an exchange over her mistress Aricia's yearnings for the seemingly disdainful Hippolytus. Overplayed perhaps, it is still one of the few instances that the stairs as props aid instead of hinder the play's emotional dynamic. Otherwise, this "stairway" effect of tableau-like posing not only impedes much of the play's potential dynamism, but comes to infect the floor action as well. Too often body language is so minimal that there is sometimes none at all. In other instances, it's just too modern. Andrew Kelsey's Hippolytus' line work is not bad, but the military swagger is just a little too New York City. The military stiffness we expect of ancient Greek military bearing—even if that expectation is itself a modern fiction—was just not there.

The stiffening character of this stairway effect also enters too much of the dialogue itself. A great deal of this can be directly attributed to the difficulties of performing "high drama" of this sort. Our modern sensibilities, heavily shaped by dialogue as rapid-fire exchange and not as declamation or soliloquy, present one of the greatest challenges to the modern actor. How the hell does anyone today deliver Shakespeare or Racine, Corneille or Ben Jonson, and actually connect with their audiences instead of putting them to sleep or evoking laughter? I don't envy the actors who face this challenge. But as audience members, we know when actors pull it off, and we know when they don't. Indeed, when it works, we admire that much more the thespians who seem to make it seem so artless. So, yes, I have more respect for Emma Thompson than Julia Roberts because Thompson can do Shakespeare and do it well. Roberts? Your guess is as good as mine.

In this production, they don't pull it off. Far more attention and training needed to be given to line work, to beats and pauses, slow downs and speed ups, to muttered asides and changes in pitch and volume. Christina Maria Acosta's Aricia gives a rather good show at this level, but there was too much stillness of body for a character so potentially riven by passion. On the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt that the show belonged entirely to Austin Durant's Theseus. He growls and howls; speaks low only to erupt in shouted imprecations; he holds his arms up high to rain down curses upon his falsely accused son; he kneels, head in hands, to bemoan his foolish actions. Durant's Theseus moves, both verbally and physically, literally bestriding the stage like a giant. Cannily, Durant stays off the ladders, using what space is available liberally, letting gesture of body match, and then magnify, inflections of speech. It was easily a professional performance and ought be studied by fellow actors, dramaturg, and director alike for how period plays of this sort must be performed if they are to work at all in a day and age as jaded as our own.