Danilo Gambini

Birds of a Feather

Review of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

Morning (Adrienne Wells) is lazy and doesn’t want to rise. Wind (Dario Ladani Sanchez) tries to persuade her that things can’t get going without her. So they make a deal: first, a love story; then she’ll get up (a bit of bargaining that should be readily familiar to parents and children alike).

In Wind’s story, a group of animals hangout in a playground complete with a white picket fence and a swing and a lovely green lawn (Elsa GibsonBraden, scenic design). Like any human collective, the animals have their “do’s and don’ts” about expected behavior, and they have a love of gossip about anything out of the ordinary. And what could be more out of the ordinary than a haughty Swallow (Zoe Mann) taking an interest in a Tomcat (Reed Northrup), generally considered the scourge of the playground, and vice versa?

In The Swallow and the Tomcat, a story Brazilian novelist and playwright Jorge Amado wrote for his infant son that was later published, playfulness abounds and, as with most stories for children, there is a moral. Here, it arises from the struggle between conservative social customs and headstrong youth which tends to take things as they come. And any child who has encountered playground or classroom dynamics will immediately recognize the way others’ voices often limit our choices.

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The play—translated from Amado’s Portuguese text and adapted by director Danilo Gambini, co-artistic director of this season’s Yale Summer Cabaret, and dramaturg Emily Sorensen—is made children-friendly by the colorful costumes (by Stephanie Bahniuk), the charming songs (by Solon Snider with Gambini and Sorensen), and, especially, the ensemble’s full immersion in the world Amado and his adaptors have created. And what makes the show worthwhile for adults are the very same qualities. It’s a joy.

In many ways, the show is a perfect example of what the Yale Cabaret does best: it depends on a concerted effort at make-believe, and, while that can have all kinds of different valence depending on the play, here it’s a question of storytelling as something inherently dramatic—and comic—and romantic—and even, perhaps, subversive. The cast interacts with the audience, drawing us in and making us judge for ourselves about the purpose of the tale they tell.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The animals all have distinct personalities and distinguishing voices—a total of 18 roles are handled by six actors—and they all have something to say about the forbidden love brewing in their midst. The joy comes from watching how quickly the actors can switch from one odd exchange to another, as for instance, the rather seedy Priest Parrot (Julian Sanchez) telling bad jokes to amuse Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez) only to stir Cow’s anxious sense of inadequacy, or the way Daddy Swallow (Anula Navlekar) and Mommy Swallow (Julian Sanchez) bill and coo relentlessly. There’s also much fun with the storytelling itself, with interruptions for backstory and various asides and, at one point, a critical dismissal by Toad (Anula Navlekar) of the Tomcat’s hapless effort at a love poem. Other fun bits come from Freud the Mole (Julian Sanchez), always ready to put teen psychology into a nutshell for us, and Owl (Adrienne Wells), a kind of self-important commentator who sees political potential in the unheard-of mating of a cat and bird.

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Key to the show’s success are its two titular characters, brought to life by Zoe Mann and Reed Northrup respectively. Mann gives the Swallow an early-teen sense of sophistication and a healthy curiosity about things she wants to know—like why she finds herself so fascinated by watching the Tomcat and takes such delight in dropping twigs on him. Northrup’s Tomcat put me in mind of a beloved cartoon character of my childhood—Top Cat—with his street-wise diction and a knack for self-reflection that comes as a surprise to himself. Their infatuation—which we certainly can’t call “puppy love”—is treated as a defining moment that might help both creatures learn things about themselves they wouldn’t otherwise. Both actors make this unlikely love seem both perfectly natural and perfectly unique—the way love is supposed to be.

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

There’s also a threat which the rather hypocritical critters are willing to let the brave Tomcat defeat for them, even as they treat him as something less than, well, human. The animals’ are adamant: “Dog with dog / Cat with cat / Bird with bird / And that is that.” Of course, a tale of star-crossed or cross-species love wouldn’t be complete without a beau favored by Swallow’s parents—here it’s a Nightingale (Navlekar) more adept at teaching singing than winning hearts. Will Swallow hold out for the lovelorn Tomcat, or will the forces of biological rectitude prevail?

In the end, the wily Wind helps a dawning idea light up Morning.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

After plays about the harshness of fate, in Euripides’ Bakkahi, and the harshness of political and sexual abuse of power, in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano—with this, its third play of the season, reaches out to children with a lively story to inspire change.

 

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer/Music Director: Emily Duncan Wilson; Composer/Music Director: Solon Snider; Dramaturg/Adapter: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Ensemble: Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Reed Northrup, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells

Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

A Show For All Ages

Preview of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season continues this week with a show that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Adapted by Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini and dramaturg Emily Sorensen from a new translation of Jorge Amado’s children’s book, The Swallow and the Tomcat, the show is aimed for families, young adults, and audiences of all ages—six and up.

The grumpy Tomcat is seen as a horror and a threat by the animals in the garden, but for some reason the sassy Swallow isn’t afraid and tries to get to know him. Their affection is the talk of the garden and makes life difficult—especially as the Swallow’s parents are convinced she should marry the Nightingale. A story of identity and of the social strictures that make some forms of love “forbidden,” The Swallow and the Tomcat asks, Can enemies learn to love one another, and can that love find acceptance? Showtimes have been adjusted to allow for young audiences, with a Sunday 2 p.m. matinee show, and on both Fridays, special 11 a.m. performances. The show runs approximately 70 minutes.

To call the book upon which the play is based a children’s book is a little misleading, according to director and co-adapter Danilo Gambini. The book, in its original Portuguese, was written solely by Jorge Amado for his infant son and was never meant to be published. Amado is best known in the U.S. as the author of the play Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which was made in 1976 into a film that was a huge box office success in Brazil and in the States as well. Amado’s son, with his father’s blessing, chose to publish his childhood gift, and found an illustrator, Carybe, who helped create one of the seminal works for children in Brazil. The book “screams for adaptation,” Gambini said, and there have been two approaches that he is familiar with. One is “to play it strictly for children,” much as one would in a storybook session; the other is make it more avant-garde, with a definite allegorical emphasis.

For Gambini, who dislikes the earlier plays adapted from the book, creating a new adaptation was crucial. When Sorensen told him that she was translating a Spanish version of the book into English for a translation class, he knew he’d found his second show of the Verano season. As a director, Gambini is attracted by the levels of storytelling in the play he and his collaborators are creating. “The play lets us investigate which storytelling devices are theatrical, engaging, and fun.”

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

There are two layers, he said, to the presentation: a chorus of six animals is telling the story of a swallow and a tomcat who fall in love, and as they tell it, they take on and act out the parts of the story, which involves a host of comical roles, quite in the manner of Disney cartoons. For Gambini, “the theatricality of the play depends upon the virtuosity of the players.” And, of course, there are songs, all of which are original to this production and have been developed by Gambini and Sorensen with recent Yale College graduate Solon Snider, the show’s composer and music director.

The main cast consists of the Cat (Reed Northrup) a loner who finds himself intrigued by the Swallow (Zoe Mann); a Parrot (Julian Sanchez) who has definite ideas about decorum; a rather laconic Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a rather pretentious Toad (Anula Navlekar) and a busybody Owl (Adrienne Wells), with additional roles, such as Swallow’s parents, the Duck family, a Snake, as well as Wind and Morning, taken up by the ensemble as needed.

The attractions of the show, for its director, is that “it’s engaging to see actors play animals,” and that, as a family-oriented play, it will entertain children while also depicting social types and attitudes. It’s “about love and seeing how others react” to the choices we make. For Gambini, there is always the question of what he calls the “five daemons” in creating theater. The first is to have a “marvel” that children can enjoy—such as talking and singing animals; next is a “passion” that appeals to the teens in and among us, wanting theater to be intense and convincing; third is a civic or social or political element that addresses what the young adult finds compelling; for the fully adult, perhaps more detached, there must be intellectual satisfactions, such as artistic virtuosity; finally, for mature audiences, a feeling that the show “lives in the now,” providing something that hasn’t already been overdone. The challenge of a show that accents the first and second “daemon” is how well it can still satisfy the other three.

Gambini’s first show of the Verano season adapted Anne Carson’s recent translation of Euripides’ Bakkhai, a show which foregrounded, perhaps, the fourth daemon while fully engaging with the second and third. It also featured Dionysus, an androgynous god who considers himself a daemon—a daemon that oversees the creation of theater since ancient Greek times. While the emphasis, mood and nature of The Swallow and the Tomcat will be very different from the season’s first show, the need to please the theater-god remains. And that means, for Gambini, addressing, even in a children’s story, important themes such as “living with the consequences of how we live and what we do.”

What kind of consequences? Gambini ended the interview by citing a line from the play, spoken by Wind: “Every morning is a chance to make a little revolution.”

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Translated and Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

For more information about the cast and creatives, and for tickets and dining menu and reservations, go here.

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Sport for the Gods

Review of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

The first show of Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season has come and gone. The Summer Cab’s Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini, with a cast of six female actors, delivered a sexy and scary and funny and unsettling version of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Bakkhai as translated by preeminent poet Anne Carson. As a kickoff to the Summer Cab season one might say the play puts us on alert that theater’s seductions come at a peril. 

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

The play has the temerity to put the god—or is that pseudo-god?—Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) onstage and lets him get quizzed and dismissed by Thebes’ king Pentheus (Eli Pauley, in the getup of a military dictator) with the kind of disdain a police chief might aim at a local troublemaker. And Dionysus does make trouble. The women of Thebes—Malia West, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar and Zoe Mann as an aroused chorus in negligees—are only too ready to worship him and are clearly doing so in a tranced and decadent way. What’s a ruler burdened with maintaining order to do?

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

We might feel we are watching a comedy in which each side—law and order vs. libidinous license—is going to get a big comeuppance, especially when we see two old-timers, Kadmos (Mann) and Teiresias (Navlekar) jumping on the bandwagon, off to take part in the Bacchic rites in clownish drag. Kadmos is Dionysus’ grandfather. The story is that Semele, Kadmos’ daughter by the goddess Harmonia, was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt—which incinerated Semele, so that Zeus had to rescue the unborn child, sewing him into his own immortal thigh from which Dionysos was born. Born of Zeus via a female half-mortal and half-immortal, Dionysos has no doubts that he’s a true god. And yet. Carson’s translation maintains use of the term daimon or daemon (from which we get “demon”) for what Dionysos claims to be, and that invites all sorts of colorations—especially in our Christianized world—about half-man/half-god hybrids who shake up the status quo with secret rites.

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

In any case, demonic is exactly how Lyddan plays Dionysos, an androgynous figure with the eyes, ringed in black, of one who regularly imbibes hallucinogens and a voice of clearest diction that runs from guttural to angelic to searing. Her Dionysos is a trip and a treat and not to be trusted. And that’s where the tragic dimension comes in, in the midst of all the seductive humor and high spirits. Lyddan keeps so resolutely her eyes on the prize, so to speak, to let us know that Dionysos sees all our human hubbub as barely worth his notice. Love him, hate him—in any case, woe unto you. He’s malevolent to anyone who crosses him—which Pentheus’ mother, Agave (Semele’s older sister), did when she dismissed the claim that Zeus was her sister’s lover. So Pentheus has to follow suit—only to be beguiled by the idea of spying on those secret rites . . .

The songs the chorus sings—developed by the ensemble and sound designer/composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe—are ably abetted by the voices of Malia West, who also spellbinds as a Herdsman, and Zoe Mann. The set—by Lily Guerin—occupies a diagonal corner of the space, with grand pillars and black tiles and a section lit bloodred (Riva Fairhall, lighting) when Agave (a fierce Cordero Pino) arrives with her son’s head, which she herself tore from his body, thinking him—thanks to Dionysos—a lion-cub.

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

As with many Greek tragedies, there’s a somber “joke’s on you” quality to where we end up, if only because these plays were meant to demonstrate to the populace that the gods toy with us for their sport, so don’t get your hopes up about life ending well. A lesson that somewhere—in all the humanizing centuries since—we seem to have lost a clear sense of. Bakkhai is meant to put the fear back into theater.

And, ultimately, it does. Though I would’ve preferred a bit more breathless shock and awe in the Servant (Navlekar)’s delivery of what befell the hapless Pentheus, the image that stays with me is of Mann as grandfather Kadmos, bowed, rotund, particolored, with powdered face, tears streaming as he awakes from a dream, in which gods and mortals can be held to the same account, to the nightmare—called reality—in which only mortals suffer. Eventually, the ages would supply us with a god who suffers and dies for us . . . but that’s another story.

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)


Bakkhai
By Euripides
A new translation by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer & Composer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Alexus Cone 

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Sarah Lyddan, Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Eli Pauley, Malia West

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

The opening of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s next show, María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, has been postponed from tonight, June 20, to tomorrow night, June 21. Shows at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

The Theater God is Present

Preview of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

Last summer, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Yale Summer Cabaret, took a trip to Greece, a longstanding goal from the time of his study of mythology in college and his reading of all the Greek tragedies in 2009. As he sat in the theater of Dionysus in Athens, he began “crying compulsively.” He also had a nosebleed, which may have had to do with the atmosphere and the physical exertion of hiking. In any case, the event was for Gambini an epiphany, which might be an actual manifestation of the god, Dionysus, the guiding spirit of ancient Greek drama, there “where the craft and art” Gambini practices “was born.” Gambini says he “made a pact with Dionysus” that day, a “renewal of vows” as a theater director, that “at the next opportunity I would do a Greek tragedy.”

That opportunity is the opening show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season. Euripides’ Bakkhai, in Anne Carson’s recent translation, opens June 6 and plays for sixteen performances through June 15.

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His choice of Bakkhai, Gambini said, comes from the fact that Euripides’ audacious play puts Dionysus himself on stage. The play has been getting a variety of revivals of late, including at Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, and Girls, a modern adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, will open the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next season. Gambini discussed the play’s message for our times with his cast and said the consensus was that “it was clear that the play is about women and female power and the suppressed voice of women finding a release.” He added that Pentheus, the king of Thebes in the play, says things that are “too familiar from Trump.” So, in a way we might say that the current attention to the play is the theatrical equivalent of the 2017 Women’s March in protest over Trump’s election. Gambini quoted a line in the play that describes the women “overjoyed by the sheer absence of men.” Gambini’s six-person cast is comprised of female actors.

For Gambini there’s a deliberate camp element in that choice, which he defines as “having fun with theater.” Pentheus and Dionysus, in Gambini’s staging, are played as “drag kings” by Eli Pauley and Sarah Lyddan respectively, a distancing effect that Gambini spoke of as a deliberate element of current theater’s approach to gender politics. The choice of gender in casting roles, he said, “explores how to tell the story from one side, or extreme, or the other.” He lets his actors have a lot of agency in how they choose to tell the story, including the music of the chorus which was worked out by the actors in ensemble with sound designer and composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe.

There is humor in the play and Gambini finds that Anne Carson’s contemporary language helps the comedy land. Gambini described Carson’s writing as “visual,” a form of “concrete poetry that talks to me and inspires me in seeing the play’s spatial construction.” She writes, he said, “the way I stage.” For Gambini, an attraction of the Cabaret is that its intimate setting, without the usual separation of actors from audience, allows him to explore the kind of theater that is most meaningful to him. In his view, “text is a pretext to create an event” and the “audience is always seeing what they are seeing.” Which means that the idea of theater as an illusion of action happening elsewhere is dropped in favor of treating theater as an event at which both the cast and the audience are concurrently present.

Gambini sees Bakkhai as a play that questions a society’s beliefs, which includes religious faith and the status of the occult. The play was first produced late in Euripides’ career, and is “fully mature,” Gambini says. But with that maturity comes a definite interest in “how to transgress” further. Putting the god on the stage and having him argue for the vanities of the gods indicates, for some, Euripides’ cynicism toward religion, but also shows him addressing the very powerful social force of religious belief.

Danilo Gambini

Danilo Gambini

Gambini says that, originally, tragedy for the ancient Greeks was an “outlet—it enabled them to live what they didn’t want to live.” And he sees the same purpose provided by theater today, as well as TV and film. He stated that the etymology of the word “tragedy” derives from “chant of the goat,” which means that the poetry of tragedy was conceived as the song of the dying animal—a goat—sacrificed in religious ritual. While tragedy, Gambini said, “can be dark and even heartbreaking,” he sees the form as “voluptuous,” celebrating “joy and pleasure” in the physical body.

Greek tragedy, Gambini said, “survived because the plays keep speaking to our times.” The battle between an oppressive government—Pentheus often seems more a bureaucrat than a king—and a wildly inspired populist cult, and the status of faith in capricious gods versus a more reasoned ideal of humanity are themes that, it’s easy to see, have never ceased clashing in human society. At the Yale Summer Cabaret that drama plays out once again—with the added attraction of watching director Danilo Gambini fulfill his pact with Dionysus.

 

Euripides’ Bakkhai
Translated by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

For information about the season, season passes, individual tickets, the menu and dining reservations, go here.

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This Sex Which is Not One

Review of Agreste (Drylands), Yale Cabaret

Brazilian author Newton Moreno’s Agreste (Drylands) features propulsive storytelling. As translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Danilo Gambini at Yale Cabaret, the play, a narrative about two characters and a community, is told by three actors who narrate and mime events in a rhythmic round.  By turns lyrical, funny, surprising, tragic, Agreste (Drylands) achieves folkloric power. This is the kind of tale that would live on in the minds of locals, a defining act of bloodletting that makes us confront the fate that outsiders and outliers too often find in communities that fearfully maintain a baleful conformity.

The three actors—Abubaker Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino—are abetted by the show’s careful design. They act inside what looks like a large sandbox to signify the drylands—or “agreste” region of Brazil—where two mostly inarticulate persons meet regularly at a fence that divides them, the way that wall divided Pyramus and Thisbe. Eventually, the woman, a fresh-faced innocent (most often enacted by Kenney), finds a hole through the fence. The hole is a widening spot of light, very effectively realized at key moments in the story. The two leave behind their own land and journey over the drylands to the ocean where they nearly lose themselves until a motherly woman takes them to a nearby community. There, the lovers build a shack and begin a life together.

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

This is a story of a fated love, a consuming passion that isn’t necessarily physical in its main emotion. The lovers gaze at one another and in that togetherness don’t need to do anything else or be anywhere else. Living together for decades, they are treated as husband and wife. They plan to marry officially and have finally gotten together all the trappings needed for the ceremony when the man (Abubakr Mohamed Ali) dies suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even more unexpected—but not unheard of by the parish priest (Ali) who comes to investigate the situation—is the fact that the old women of the community who come to help the widow lay out the body find no sign of “a willie” on the deceased. This scene, in which all three cast members enact a conclave of voices commenting on and joking about male genitalia, is both very funny and vicious. We see how, as beings of flesh, we are all vulnerable to a materialist reading. The widow tells how she and her husband coupled always in the dark, through a sheet, and that she has no knowledge of male anatomy. Her husband is, to her, the only man she has ever known and the loss of his dignity, as a naked body she has never seen, laid out on a table, is appalling enough. The loss of his status as a man and husband is devastating.

But that’s not devastating enough for this community. Thus the presence of the priest who chides her for “the commotion” she has created by letting the old gossips have access to her secret. Now there’s no way the priest can bury the body as a man, as he might’ve done otherwise. This aspect of the play is key to what unfolds. The authority here—the church—can turn a blind eye when it deems it best but it can’t risk its standing in the community by openly contradicting the ethos—such as it is—of the consensus. And the consensus is that the couple is an outrage and an abomination. It ends with the inevitability one finds in tales of the early Christians, a death for the sake of a persecuted love, an agape that, in promising paradise, asserts that its proper sphere is beyond this life on earth. Song—such as Paulino’s wholly captivating rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow”—helps this aspect of the tale find its emotional tone.

The cast performs with great precision the ins-and-outs of the round-robin style of presentation, each stepping forward to give shadings of feeling, whether through narrative or dialogue or singing. Kenney presents a young woman captured by what she believes to be male beauty, and Ali enacts well both the mystery of her husband and the sympathetic but ultimately callous priest. In her Cabaret debut, Paulino’s characterizations have a lightness that helps with the somewhat homespun elements of the tale while her room-filling a capella vocals express both rapture and agony. The songs chosen, like the southern U.S. drawl of the sheriff (Ali) and of the townsfolk at one point, take us out of the Brazilian setting, but that only makes the story more immediate to the deep social dysfunction of our own time and place in America.

With its ensemble presentation, the play is simply fascinating to watch, its story seeming to be spun from the air around us. Use of the material of the “sandbox” is effective too, and Yaara Bar’s always magical projections create here a key manifestation of beauty. The costumes, by April M. Hickman, are lovely, suggesting a desert culture with great aesthetic sense. We feel the culture’s presence behind the story, a collectivity that must somehow atone for the wrong done but which also—as with other stories of tragic endings at communal hands—finds a shared identity in the sacrifice of a scapegoat.

 

Agreste (Drylands)
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime F. Totti; Set Designers: Alexander McCargar and Sarah Karl; Costume Designers: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
October 25-27, 2018

Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.

Face Time

Review of The Ugly One, Yale Cabaret

Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is an extended absurdist sketch about the cult of appearance, or, it could be said, an illustration of the notion “the face makes the man.” So, what if you could wear a face the way you choose to wear certain clothes or cosmetics or hairdos? How good-looking would you have to be? Enough to inspire a following of devoted fans?

The play’s satire is only skin deep, as it gestures to how supply and demand might work in the world of cosmetic surgery, and how a certain brand—one particular physiognomy—might come to dominate. There’s also a few random pokes at psychology, if only to make the case that appearance trumps interiority every time.

In the Yale Cabaret’s current version of the play, directed by Lucie Dawkins, a crackerjack cast keeps the proceedings wacky and disconcerting, aided by Liam Bellman-Sharpe’s slightly offstage sound and Foley art, and Christopher Evans’ projection design. The special effects help create a surgery scene that is a hilarious send up of the “vid it while it’s happening” world we know so well.

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

The play’s dark comedy plays out with wonderfully funny performances from the entire cast: Patrick Madden, one of the most consistently subtle actors in the School of Drama, is Lette, a man who discovers, suddenly, that he’s too ugly to hawk his new invention to the public; Steven Johnson plays an underling who gets the PR spot; Danilo Gambini enacts the flippant boss; and Emily Reeder seems sweet and supportive as Lette’s wife. Then—in sometimes quite quick variations—Gambini doubles as the surgeon consulted to replace Lette’s ugliness with something better; Reeder plays as an aged but re-worked chief executive enamored of Lette’s post-surgery looks, and Johnson enacts the executive’s tortured son, a sexual plaything of his “domineering mother.” And Madden doubles as Lette, now an icon of irresistible looks.

As the boss, Gambini spends much of the time peeling and eating various kinds of fruit while also bossing his underlings with manic glee. Then, as the surgeon, he treats Lette’s misgivings with a blithe, offhand indifference that is oddly charming. In both roles, his looniness is infectious.

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

Madden gives Lette the kind of stoical common sense that works well as a foil to everyone else’s preposterousness. His frenetic debate with his reflection in an elevator late in the play pits borderline hysterics against savvy sangfroid.

Reeder, as Lette’s wife, is agreeable until she realizes, faced with his sudden good looks, that she has desires too—especially when her husband, now a magnet of female attention, tries to convince her to accept him sharing himself with 25 different women, particularly that oversexed executive. Both women become amorous amazons eager to have sex with beautiful men.

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

Johnson gets the darker roles, as usual. Kalmann, the assistant, is full of thwarted ambition, while the son is a puerile mess who eventually makes his own play for Lette, once they share the same irresistible looks.

One might say the switches between characters could be better maintained, but the amorphousness of this fast-paced comedy is what makes it work. By the end, it’s hard for the characters themselves to know who they’re dealing with, as more and more people sport Lette’s new face. And Lette wonders what exactly makes him himself.

The projections, cameras, and other effects help create a world of distortions where normative behavior is lacking. The set—a desk/operating table/bed with a much abused angle-poise lamp, surrounded by a low wall on which cast members sit and look on when offstage—makes the action feel improvised and self-enclosed. It’s an anodyne space for a tempest of actions and reactions, of ambitions and envies and lusts and sorrows.

The Ugly One lets us know that, while beauty may be only skin deep, ugliness can be all-encompassing. After seeing the Yale Cabaret production, you may not look at yourself, others, or fruit the same way as before.

 

The Ugly One
By Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Lucie Dawkins

Producer: Markie Gray; Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Set Designer: Jessie Chen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer & Foley Artist: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projection Designer: Christopher Evans; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Chad Kinsman

Cast: Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
December 7-9, 2017

And that’s it for the first half of Yale Cabaret’s Season 50. The season recommences January 11-13 with For Your Eyes Only.

My Mother, My Self

Review of Ni Mi Madre, Yale Cabaret

Arturo Soria’s one-man show Ni Mi Madre is in fact a one-woman show, and the woman is Soria’s mother. The idea of conveying the manner and perspective of one’s own mother may seem a tall order to most of us, but Soria’s transformation into his mother enables him to take us on a tour of his mother’s life in her own words. Brazilian, married three times, with nicknames for her husbands and her children—Arturo is the son of her second husband—“Madre” holds court with fascinating panache, her monologue a freewheeling diatribe of reminiscence and self-promotion. She sees herself as comparable to Madonna and Angelina Jolie and, her special hero, Meryl Streep. For Madre, acting is essential to life. A lesson her son seems to have learned at her breast, or even in the womb.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre (photos: Brittany Bland)

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre (photos: Brittany Bland)

Are we really meeting Soria’s mother? Are the stories she tells true? We can’t know for sure, but the character behind the tales is forceful, funny, domineering and able to play upon pathos for effect. An “every-mother” in a sense, but there is nothing generic in the stories she tells. Soria’s play, directed by Danilo Gambini, puts the actor's own relationship to his mother under scrutiny as we hear her view of him—her gay artist son—and of anyone and anything her roving attention fixes upon. Being in the audience is a little like eavesdropping on a private conversation between Soria and his mother, but it’s also like being a voiceless interviewer, with Madre volunteering answers to questions we didn’t ask, or didn’t know to ask.

Abetted by strategic lighting and music and sound effects of the sea, Madre keeps us riveted in a way that would please anyone who loves attention. She shares her stories to convince us of her suffering but also of her resilience. She is never defeated. She makes mistakes—such as beating Arturo for a childhood infraction without knowing all the details—and she can turn on a dime from demanding sympathy to displaying scant sympathy for others.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Madre flings herself about a box filled with sand meant to be a beach, with plants, mementos and photographs arranged in one wing, and, at the other, a chair beneath a life-size painting of a woman who invites comparisons to a Madonna, an angel, a Vogue model. A subtext of the show is the question of how we relate to our mothers—as individuals and within a culture that “worships” motherhood but treats women and mothers as less than fully valued adults. A cult of the mother is also a cult of the child, the two are essentially linked and women are often judged for not being mothers or for being bad mothers, according to some slippery standard.

Madre knows all this. She believes her children are part of her, always. She insists upon herself as their origin but also, in a complex sense, their identity. Arturo—who she calls her heart—is looked upon as the one who will repay her by becoming famous and making her famous. Some version of “my son the star” floats through her fantasies, as a pay back for the slights she suffered from her own mother.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Soria complicates his portrait of his mother with the fact that she has lost her own mother, and her mourning calls up deep resentments and a stronger insistence upon her own virtues. In evoking, quite tellingly, a humiliating story about her mother, Soria lets us see both his mother’s pity for her mother and her power over her. There’s a sense in which the worship of the mother becomes something close to religious and, for that reason, she can be made into an idol that must be profaned (something artists such as Proust understood well).

Against what an artist son might make of her, Madre gives voice to her own voluble passion and personality. Whether or not Ni Mi Madre (“not my mother”) is true to life of Soria’s own mother, an image of Soria the artist comes through in what Madre says of her Arturo: manic, talented, good-looking, more feminine than his sister, he becomes an image of what Madre would be if she could.

Frustrated with the lack of sexual attention her husband gives her, she flirts with the idea of sleeping with a lesbian, though she says she doesn’t desire women. Would she be happier as a gay man? Perhaps, except for the fact that who she is has been determined by what she has produced with her vagina. We know her because she is Arturo’s mother, but, even without him, she is a mother.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria is a born performer, and in Ni Mi Madre he performs the person from whom he was born. It’s a striking symbiosis indeed, and makes for a wonderfully vibrant portrayal of an inseparable duo.

 

Ni Mi Madre
A play written and performed by Arturo Soria
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime Francisco Totti; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Dramaturg: Madeline Charne; Technical Director: Bryanna Kim; Stage Manager: Madeline Charne; Associate Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Live music performed by Ariel Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
October 26-28, 2017

One and Only Love

Review of The Apple Tree, Yale Cabaret

The second show of Cab 50 is sheer delight. With music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, both of Fiddler on the Roof fame, and book by both, the story of Adam and Eve, as filtered through Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” is retold as a tuneful, funny, rueful, and wise consideration of gender roles. Associate Artistic Director Rory Pelsue directs The Apple Tree with a loving grasp of the material and fulfills his passion-project dream of having third-year actor Courtney Jamison play the role of Eve.

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Jamison, last seen locally as Juliet in Elm Shakespeare’s summer production of Romeo and Juliet in Egerton Park, was also a stirring voice in the ensemble of last season’s Assassins at Yale Rep. She has the voice, the grace, and the comic gifts to render a charming version of our archetypal mother. She’s a wonder in a crowd-pleaser like “Feelings,” and tugs at the heartstrings in “What Makes Me Love Him.” It’s great to see a talent this big in a theater so small.

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The first couple are rendered as a kind of heightened Blondie and Dagwood with Eve’s clear instincts for how to manage life in Eden moving swiftly beyond Adam’s more plodding grasp of things. Tasked with naming the animals—which he regards as a wearisome chore—Adam calls flying creatures “flyers,” swimming creatures “swimmers,” and so forth. Eve, excited by the panoply of life forms, immediately designates creatures by their specific names. She also invents fire and undertakes the first efforts in home improvement and fashion statements, all without earning much respect from her skeptical partner.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Danilo Gambini, a first-year director, takes on the comic role of Adam—played in the original production, directed by Mike Nichols in 1966, by Alan Alda. That should give you an idea of the kind of fussy, WASPy egotist our first father is portrayed as. Gambini gives Adam the intense self-centeredness that mostly any man is capable of, but which might be a bit understandable for the first, “sole and single man” on Earth. His efforts to keep us on his side are nicely tongue-in-cheek, as is his hapless attempts to impress with his new invention, humor. His big song, “Eve,” is delivered with the growing sense of maturity of a stricken man-child.

Initially, the duo are clad all in spanking white to signify nakedness—she like she’s going to a formal, he in boyish shorts as if he hasn’t grown into long pants yet. Later, after eating an apple, they wrap themselves in more pedestrian costumes, with red the dominant theme. The snake—Eve’s tempter—is played by a natty Erron Crawford wearing a fanciful snakeskin suit for a number that is the high point of the show. Witty, and crafty, the snake turns poor Eve’s head only to increase her capacity for cognition. Eden, and its innocence, is lost, of course, but the couple gains from the introduction of more purpose into their lives, including the arrival of a being Adam assumes is a fish or possibly a miniature bear. Later, he admits to a certain pride in his offspring, though that Cain is certainly a hellion.

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The story skimps a bit on the difficulties of raising Cain and Abel, and ends with a sentimental tribute to the joys of long marriage. It all works thanks to the show’s charismatic leads and the way Bock and Harnick keep an entertaining focus on the compromises each partner makes with the other for the sake of their mutual bond. No marriage is perfect, but the couple understand each other much better after leaving paradise.

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Subtle lighting effects and projections, such as close-ups of flowers, add atmosphere. The sparse set helps the show maintain the feel of improvised theater, particularly when Adam often feels the urge to draw the curtain on his irksome helpmate. The musicians—the estimable Jill Brunelle, music director and piano, Jenny Schmidt, cello, and Emily Sorenson, flute—are visible accompanists off to one side of the long stage space with the audience spread out before it. Before the show starts the curtain acts as a screen for footage from The Judy Garland Show, featuring Judy’s guests Lena Horne and Terry Thomas. And, indeed, Jamison recalls some of Judy’s gift for nonplussed intelligence faced with that most endearing of obstacles: a well-intentioned man.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

The Apple Tree offers treats to savor.

 

The Apple Tree
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Additional book material by Jerome Coppersmith
Based on a story by Mark Twain

Producer: Gwyneth Muller; Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Scenic Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Assistant Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Sound Consultant: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Stage Manager: Abby Gandy; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo

Cast: Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, music director, piano; Jenny Schmidt, cello; Emily Sorenson, flute

Yale Cabaret
September 21-23, 2017