Danny Binstock

Eggs and Bones

Two former Cab shows to be re-staged in New York this fall. Listen! That sound you hear is the long, withdrawing roar of the summer. And that means the fall theater season is about to begin. Shortly, I’ll be posting a preview of the first three shows of the upcoming Yale Cabaret season, along with other announcements of interest for local theater here in New Haven. But right now, a few words about two shows opening soon in New York.

Fans and supporters of both the Yale Cabaret and Summer Cabaret may be interested to know that two former artistic directors of the Summer Cabaret, Devin Brain (*10) and Dustin Wills (*14), have further developed two shows that began life in the term-time Cabaret—Bones in the Basket and The Fatal Eggs, respectively—and this fall they will both be staged on back-to-back weekends at the Araca Project in New York. The Araca Project is an initiative to foster entrepreneurs from Yale, Syrcause, University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Florida State. Artists selected are enabled to produce their work in an Off-Broadway venue.

Both shows have online sites for fund-raising. The Fatal Eggs, which has support through a Princess Grace grant, recently met its goal, but there’s always room for more; Bones in the Basket has 3 days left to reach its goal and, last I looked, had just under 60% of goal pledged

About the shows:

Bones in the Basket Devin Brain was co-artistic director, with Chris Mirto, of the Cabaret in the 2009-10 season, which happened to be my first season of attendance at the Cab. And that means I missed the Cab production of Bones, though I did catch a workshop staging of it about a year ago in NY. Brain was also the artistic director of the Summer Cabaret in the 2011 season; titled The Yale Summer Shakespeare Festival, the program featured two Shakespeare plays and The Rose-Mark'd Queen, Brain’s own ambitious and entertaining condensation of four Shakespeare history plays into one gripping show. In addition to Bones, and working as assistant director on a version of the Tempest at La Mama, Brain has a production of Macbeth in the works that will go on tour—beginning at the Guthrie in Minneapolis—and return to NYC in the spring.

Drawn to works with, shall we say, darker-than-average themes, Brain has found in Bones a greatly simpatico project. The show originated when cast member Alexandra Henrikson (*11) brought around a book of folk tales translated from the Russian, stories she was raised with. As with Grimm “fairytales,” these folk tales—many of them animal fables as in Aesop—have elements of the bizarre, the magical, the eerie. But unlike the Grimm tales—particularly in what Brain calls their “cleaned-up versions” familiar from Disney films and the like—the tales in Russian were, Brain says, told in bars for drinks and to entertain the clientele. They were decidedly not conceived as bedtime stories for kiddies. And, in comparison to Aesop, the “morals”—if that’s what they are—of the stories accept a rather harsh universe in which, at best, cleverness is rewarded and stupidity punished. Brain and company found the stories “morbid and dark in a comic, laughing way.” They adapted a selection of the tales into a form well-suited to the experimental space of the Cabaret and produced one of “those shows”—the ones that its audience remembers and its cast hopes to have a chance to do again.

That chance has come—Brain thanks YSD Dean James Bundy for suggesting he apply to Araca—with more money than before, 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsal, and a 140-seat auditorium with proscenium stage. It will be “the fullest set” the company has worked with and, Brain says, the theater has a certain decrepitness that suits Bones’ destitute “on the run” troupe, cadging what they can from whatever audience they can find. A bit like off-off-off Broadway theater. Returning again to the troupe are YSD grads Danny Binstock (*11), Jillian Taylor (*11), Blake Segal (*11), Alex Henrikson (*11), and Stéphanie Hayes (*11)—who has been back to stages in CT twice since she graduated: February House at Long Wharf, and a play also inspired by Russian folktales, last seasons’ The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls at the Rep.

Since the iteration of Bones last year, a new tale has been added and the ending has changed yet again (none of the three versions has ended the same way). Another advantage this year over last year, besides locale and coffers, is the return of Michael McQuilken (*11) of Old Soundroom, as the onstage musician absent last time. He joins the cast of Ringmaster, two divas, and three “roadies” who, as a troupe fallen upon hard times, tell their tales as Russian expats representing, Brain says, “art in need, teaching lessons on loss and how to deal with it.”

It’s not about “happily ever after,” it’s about the unhappy here and now and how to cope. Rather than stories of triumph, Bones showcases stories that give lessons in the mentality needed to survive, stories that in certain circles—such as the Russia of their day—might be considered, Brain says, “treasonous or blasphemous.” With contemporary Russia wading through another dark era, Bones tells us something about the kind of wit and wisdom Slavic culture derives from our existential predicament where a certain general malevolence—in nature, in humanity—is assumed.

And yet the show is not a downer. It’s about the stories humanity tells itself to keep despair at bay.

For more info, tickets, donation: here.

Bones in the Basket October 8-12, 2014 American Theatre of Actors 314 W. 54th Street, New York, NY


The Fatal Eggs Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a short story called “The Fatal Eggs” (1925) in order to satirize the political institutions of his day—and the work, as most of what Bulgakov wrote did, immediately ran afoul of authorities in Stalinist Russia. With its attitude toward the people as preyed upon by their government and toward science as sinister—especially when co-opted by the State—“The Fatal Eggs” managed to be a sci-fi tale with bite.

Director Dustin Wills says Bulgakov is “my jam,” and has turned to the writer before when stalled with a project. The first time, he turned to Black Snow which he had first seen in a high school theater competition (Wills' project was The Crucible). The Bulgakov play, about the rigors of the author’s relations with Stalin—who liked some of his work and then kept the writer on a short leash, with little opportunity for publication or staging—lit Wills’ interest. When he needed something to propose for a term-time Cab show his second year at YSD, Wills turned to Bulgakov again, and this time enlisted dramaturg Ilya Khodosh to translate. Their script of The Fatal Eggs is an original dramatic version in English.

As a director, Wills seems to like nothing better than a challenge, and one of the key aspects of the Eggs production at the Cab was how to stage its sci-fi effects—such as a monstrous snake caused by scientific tampering—and how to pack the numerous settings and the dizzying number of characters into the Cab’s minimal space. They did it, after a fashion. But now Eggs, with 7 actors—most former YSD students such as Chris Bannow (*14, co-artistic director of the Summer Cab, with Wills, in 2013), Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, and Khodosh (all YSD class of 2014 and all in the original production), joined this time by Josiah Bania (*13), Mickey Theis (*14), and two grads of NYU’s Tisch School, Jeanna Phillips and Sathya Sridharan—enacting 56 roles, will get a much fuller staging in a more expansive space. The auditorium for the Araca Project gives Wills a chance to go further into the sometimes extreme effects he’s been noted for in his work at YSD—such as the very physical comedy of Mary Laws’ Blueberry Toast, the outrageous comedy of Kate Tarker’s Thunderbodies, and the ingenious “improv” staging of his dark and endearing thesis show of Peter Pan. This time around, the space should help the narrative of Eggs so that it will be easier to keep the story straight through a use of more distinct settings, with inventive staging by the same creative team Wills worked with the first time around.

As the website describes it, The Fatal Eggs “skewers political incompetence and corruption, misguided faith in technology, a gullible and complacent populace, and a fear-mongering media.” In Bulgakov’s Russia, such skewering meant he would always be a kind of loose cannon whose work would not be staged; in today’s U.S., the play’s targets may seem at times broadly vaudevillian, but bringing together a popular genre like sci-fi with misgivings about the state of our world and of our future is by no means uncommon. Indeed, Bulgakov took his inspiration from H.G. Wells’ Food of the Gods, with its giant chickens and humans, and The War of the Worlds’ manner of disposing of a sci-fi threat. In Bulgakov’s hands, these incidents fuel doubts about the wisdom of “experimenting” with humanity—experiments which may include radical political solutions.

For more info, tickets, donation: here

The Fatal Eggs October 2-5, 2014 American Theatre of Actors 314 W 54th St, New York, NY

For those who have appreciated the student work of these directors, actors, and teams, this is a rare opportunity to see Cab shows expanded and developed further for an audience of New York theater folk and fans, and friends. And the shows complement each other well, though very different in tone: Two darkly comic tales with the macabre trappings of popular genres—the one of sci-fi, the other of folk tales. Both deriving their sense of the human comedy from acerbic Russian sources. Both featuring, in cast and crew, recent graduates of the Yale School of Drama program and directed, respectively, by two former artistic directors responsible for two very successful Summer Cabaret seasons, the one in 2010 and the other in 2013. Two weekends in October, when the thrill of fall should be in the air with the tang of dying leaves. Bones, eggs, so white, and so easily broken.

Get your tickets now!

On the Trail of a Myth

Greg Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, the final show of the Yale Cabaret’s Fall 2010 semester, was a tour de force performance by Max Gordon Moore, directed by Blake Segal, of a monologue by turns comically amateurish, donnishly fussy, nervously awkward, passionately determined, and profoundly shaken. Moore plays “The Librarian,” a nebbishy Dutchman who works in a library in Holland and seems relatively content with his methodical life and work: his blustering pride in his date stamper—“it contains every date that ever was or will be”—gives a good indication of his fetishistic involvement with his trade. Thus when he comes across a Baedeker returned 113 years overdue, his professional curiosity is piqued.  Before long, he’s taking trips to London, then to Germany—while projecting slides of his travels, both generic and historically specific—and eventually to China, all in pursuit of a phantom who travels relentlessly, cannot sit, has lived an extremely long time, and is apparently Jewish.

The Wandering Jew, of course!  The Librarian, as librarians will, fills us in on the background of this mythic figure—traced back to Christ’s pre-crucifixion schlepping of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem when he paused to rest on the shopfront of a tradesman.  Provoked by soldiers, the latter tells the Savior to shove off, only to be told that he will never rest “till I come again.”  Thus is born a figure who cannot even recline—much to the dismay of the woman somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century who wrote a love letter to the man known only as “A.” (for Ahasuerus, our pedantic sleuth presumes—the name traditionally associated with this legendary figure).

The fascination of the play—besides the non-stop monologue that creates a character fleshed out by his particular mannerisms and asides—derives from the leaps of imaginative and deductive insight that the Librarian undertakes and relays with the enthused conviction of a discoverer of a “believe it or not” fact, possibly even of a new faith, since, as he tells us dramatically, if the Wandering Jew exists, then God exists.

The play almost strays a bit too far into metaphysics to be simply good fun (which it undoubtedly is), but there is an undercurrent of serious thought compelling its Stoppardian interplay of the kinds of jokes fate plays: in following the Librarian’s monologue we come to questions about the nature and purpose of our time on earth and whether the satisfactions of any walk of life can calm the existential uncertainty of what life is for.

Moore, whose father, Todd Jefferson Moore, played The Librarian in the Seattle premiere in 2003, was, as ever, eminently watchable and vastly entertaining, attacking the role with astounding energy and verve.  Starring in an actor’s play, Moore showed the command of an actor’s actor, directed by Segal and produced by Danny Binstock, both actors in the Drama School.  Praise goes as well to Set Designer Meredith Ries whose set of boxes, file cabinets, chalkboard, slide projector, and other ephemera gave the Cab’s stage the kind of musty, underused air that one can only find in the dimmest reaches of Sterling’s stacks.

Underneath the Lintel, written by Glen Berger, directed by Blake Segal

Yale Cabaret, November 18-20, 2010

So we beat on . . .

muse, the final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret 2010 season, is an original dance-theater piece, a two-character drama that presents the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald from the point of view of the afterlife. Brenna Palughi conceived the idea, scripted it in collaboration with her production team, Danny Binstock, Walter Chon, and Adina Verson, directs and choreographed the show, and stars as Zelda.  She finds in the story of these literary icons the kind of vivid fascination that, these days, attaches to the likes of Brangelina.  Scott and Zelda lived lives that were not only passionate and artistic, but were also emblems of their era, the Roaring Twenties, forever associated with them, both because of Scott's works, such as The Great Gatsby (1925), and the couple's lifestyle.

To present the reality of the couple, Palughi's script uses only the duo's actual words -- mainly from their considerably articulate correspondence.  But rather than try to recreate the events of the couple's life, Palughi cannily creates a retrospective fantasy, a kind of Satrean "no exit" space where the couple have to face eternity by trying to make sense of what they were to each other and why it went so wrong.

One of the most unforgettable moments, as a glimpse into the abyss the public couple tried to skirt, derives from a transcript of a session at the Fitzgeralds' home with a  psychologist (voice of Joby Earle) in attendance to act as arbitrator.  Zelda, who had wanted to be a dancer, published a novel, thus treading on her husband's territory.  Worse, she was now working on a novel based on events Scott was trying for years to draft as material for what would eventually become Tender is the Night (1934).  To hear Scott baldly declare the conditions under which his wife must live, in order to continue being his wife, is rather appalling to anyone who expects something closer to mutuality in marriage.  On the other hand, the position Scott speaks from is not really one of bullying strength, no matter how his words sound.  He is in need of Zelda, hence the title of the piece: muse.  Without Zelda's participation in his life, Scott seems to fear a loss of his bearings, but at the same time, any act she might take in her own interest would be considered a complete betrayal.

As Scott, Binstock enacts vividly Scott's nature via dance and dialogue.  He displays graceful self-control in a lengthy dance piece with Palughi that narrates the couple's entire story with considerable economy and aplomb, but we see the pressures he faces take actual physical toll on his movements.  And in his spoken protests and pleas Binstock shows us a Scott verging on a loss of control that, if it were to occur, might have been a saving grace.  Instead, we always feel Scott's grasp of himself, so thoroughly buttoned up in his lovely suits, no less tenacious for being tentative and vulnerable.  Only when he dances do we see some of the "light fantastic" that makes the prose so golden, so self-assured.

In a segment where word and movement are particularly well matched and powerful, Zelda kneels on the stage reading a letter from Scott comprised of nothing but hurtful, insistent, resentful, relentless questions while behind her Scott performs a marionette's series of jerks, slaps, and contortions.  Here we see the perfect visual realization of something almost inhumanly mechanical -- the way his concept of himself as a writer controlled Scott just as fiercely as his need to control Zelda.

As Zelda, Palughi's dancing is able to express an openness and abandon that seems, from all accounts, to have been part of Zelda's fascination.  But it's also fascinating to hear how lucid she could be, even when threatened with an asylum.  Palughi's voice at times gets strident but never veers into the kind of hysteria we might expect.  Her Zelda is verbally in control, even if her expression at times becomes a doll-like fixity, the mournful gaze of a spirit trapped forever in her husband's vision of her.

For all the tensions and darkness of this marriage, Palughi's sense of the material highlights its romantic potential.  Elizabeth Groth's costumes are lovely; her set is a world literally papered with words; the music -- Gershwin for instance -- breathes with rapture and jaunty melancholy; Sarah Lasley's newsreel-like projections add the necessary touch of the mediated reality that encroached on these lives, making them famous and a part of our nation's permanent record.

In the afterlife, "hell is other people," but if the people were truly a couple -- overriding even "til death do us part" -- it may be possible to see that the feeling "to be young then was very heaven" might also override all-too-human failings with the heady thrill of being "beautiful and damned" for all time.

muse;  conceived and directed by Brenna Palughi

July 29-August 14, 8 p.m.; August 7, 2 p.m.

Yale Summer Cabaret: 203.432.1567; SummerCabaret.org

Nowhere Man

Randy Harrison as Andy Warhol, and the cast of Pop! Pop!, the new musical now playing in its world premiere at the Yale Rep, could have been a camp classic: staging a song-and-dance extravaganza on the shooting of famed pop artist, provocateur, and blasé icon Andy Warhol at the hands of a disaffected feminist revolutionary, Valerie Solanis, in 1968.  The silver Factory, Warhol’s headquarters at 231 East 47th street in NY, was famed for its stable of hangers-on, including “poor little rich girl” Edie Sedgwick, pre-op transexual Candy Darling, and other would-be geniuses.  From this remove, it would be possible to play these characters for laughs, as a collective disgorging of whatever is stored in the closet marked “NYC Underground c. 1967.”  Along the way, we might be amused (or not) by the fact that one of these “superstars” had the wherewithal to shoot and critically wound The Master.

But Maggie-Kate Coleman, author of the book and lyrics of Pop!, her collaborator, Anna K. Jacobs, composer, and director Mark Brokow are after something else: the play, staged as a kind of dream inquisition into the shooting, occuring in Andy’s mind moments afterwards, eventually becomes an inquisition on Andy himself, as both the shaman and charlatan who created the forces of resentment that would lead to the attempted murder.  Not so much: who shot Andy Warhol, and why?, but rather: who wouldn’t shoot Andy Warhol, and why not?

The humor of the piece is wry and ironic in its treatment of Warhol, a coolness that the artist himself might well have appreciated.  Randy Harrison is dead-on in his Andy-mimicry, recreating the artist as a likeable apotheosis of a dilettante, always ready to give an empty paper bag to anyone who really needs it.  And by giving voice to Andy’s underlings -- most notably in the powerful, engaging, crowd-pleasing performance of Leslie Kritzer as Valerie -- the songs, such as “Up Your Ass” and “Money” and “Big Gun,” chip away at or send up any sympathy we might have for Andy, converting these characters from the ciphers of grime-glam they were in real life, given status by their roles at the Factory and in Andy’s homemade arthouse B movies, into articulate spokespersons for the needs of the uncelebrated, the passed-over, the assistants and groupies, the would-bes of all stripes, and finally, of women as the formerly disenfranchised but now up-and-coming demographic for all things cultural.

Thus, we get the replacement of the Oedipal struggle with artistic "fathers," that the Abstract Expressionists understood, with the anti-partriarchal struggle of the likes of Valerie, whose S.C.U.M. manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) envisions a world rid of men in which women will finally achieve their greatness.  But as Andy sings at one point “I’m not your father,” and casting him in the role of the evil daddy, or even the fetish-loving gay daddy-substitute, sends out ripples of satire.

The play is entertainingly artful in its mocking of all sides: treating the Ab-Exs Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell as macho cowboys, much as Warhol and his crowd perceived them, but at the same time mocking Andy as the working-class mama’s boy from Pittsburgh who recreated himself as the holy avatar of making art the mirror in which consumerism can read its own features, fascinated and narcissistic (and Warhol would not see those as negative characteristics), but who, it seems, never really gave of himself.  That he attracted a crew of narcissists is another point the play sends up, by never letting us forget that the great talents supposedly possessed by the likes of Viva, Edie, Candy, and Valerie were largely wishful thinking.

It’s also the case that Warhol himself was fallible to just such wishful thinking.  He really wanted his movies to be appreciated by Hollywood, to earn him status and a real budget, so that he could really make stars of his “superstars.”  But it never happened, and the disappointment, as an aspect of Warhol’s own story -- as, eventually, the hanger-on of all hanger-ons, even to his own magazine and art production, and in his flattered attendance on the beautiful people -- is missing here.  Perhaps the play could use a poignant aria by Andy on the pressures of being famous, to offset the sentiments of “15 Minutes” in which the company seems to accept as a mantra Warhol’s observation that “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”  He didn’t say it as a promise, but rather as a prediction -- that the search for fame would become the driving feature of life.

The musical, which began life last summer in the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, is still finding its feet.  It’s a lot of fun and could become a hit in New York.  If it gets the Broadway treatment it could use some real dance routines to flesh out the Factory -- the cast of seven are all quite good as singers, but display rhythmic movement more than actual dance numbers.  The stage and cast are small, but if both expand, more could be done with some of the songs as production numbers.

Special mention should be made of Brian Charles Rooney as Candy, who sings at times like a woman, at times like a man, and at times like a man singing like a woman, depending on what is required; as our Mistress of Ceremonies, Candy’s role is pivotal and, it seems to me, could benefit from more play as a glamour queen -- the bridge between Judy Garland and David Bowie, as it were, a new Sally Bowles for a different time.

For me, the weak links are the guys -- Ondine (Doug Kreeger) and Gerard (Danny Binstock), two Factory workers who are given roles as stoned sleuths -- whose songs never quite come alive.  Unlike the girls, each of whom gets a song outlining her particular status.  But even there, Edie’s songs were largely lacking in the bite and wit given to Valerie and Viva (Emily Swallow); Edie (Cristen Paige), in the Factory mythology, was more than simply a victim of wealth or a would-be starlet looking to be cast in a major role -- her own life -- by Andy.  For a time she was a sort of androgynous double for Warhol in those early days when her name opened more doors than his did.

One has the sense that the musical could expand too in its cameo roles -- where’s Billy Name?  Why not a bit for Lou Reed (“I have some resentments that can never be unmade”) as potential assassin?  More, more, more.  As Andy himself said, “always leave them wanting less.”

POP! Book and lyrics by MAGGIE-KATE COLEMAN Music by ANNA K. JACOBS Directed by MARK BROKAW November 27-December 19, 2009 Yale Repertory Theatre

'How can we know the dancer from the dance?'

Yeats’ famous rhetorical question at the end of his poem, ‘Among School Children’ suggests that the dancer and the dance are fused into one, as an actor should be in his role, as a musician might be in the music she plays or sings.  The power of that symbiosis is always striking when it occurs, making the audience also lose a part of themselves in what is transpiring before their eyes and ears. Such, we are told, was the effect of seeing Vaslav Nijinsky dance.  Here was a being who seemed to live to dance, for whom performing was the only life.  The fact that the great, innovative, legendary dancer and choreographer succumbed to schizophrenia, a condition that ended his career, means that he has become not only a figure for greatness in performance, but also for madness in the arts.

Norman Allen’s play, Nijinsky’s Last Dance, which is ending its three night run tonight at the Yale Cabaret (shows at 8 and 11 p.m.), seizes on both aspects of Nijinsky -- the inspired genius, the struggling schizophrenic -- to present a monologue in which the dancer regales the audience with his view of his life and accomplishments.

It is a life that is now all in the past, except to the extent that every moment is still intensely alive in the character’s telling: his loss of his father in childhood; his meeting with and affair with the infamous impresario Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes; modelling nude for Rodin; the scandalous shows -- Le Sacre du printemps and L’après midi d’un faune; his marriage, the birth of his daughter; his sojourn in popular music hall entertainment in London; his tour of America; his final dance at the St. Moritz in Switzerland during World War I.

It’s a role that requires amazing physical stamina, notable comic and dramatic gifts, a dancer’s body, and a grab-you-by-the-lapels urgency.  Danny Binstock, in the Yale Cab production, has all that.  His Nijinsky is simply rivetting from first to last.  Taking us into his confidence from within his cell in an asylum, Binstock delivers Nijinsky’s lines with a feverish sense of need -- he must try to make his world intelligible because -- as he shouts, sighs, pleads, again and again -- ‘I am Nijinsky!’

Few sights can offer more gripping pathos than a major innovator, past his glory, having to insist upon his triumphs -- which only exist, now, as memories in the minds of those who saw them or participated in them.

And so we are presented with the mind of Nijinsky, the only place we can turn to try to grasp what this extraordinary life was like.  We hear at times the voices of people from Nijinsky’s life, to which Nijinsky reacts in various ways, sometimes mouthing their lines, sometimes seeming to argue back in distracted muttering, sometimes taking refuge in movement.  Director Charlotte Braithwaite departs from the script in these voice-overs, since they are written to be spoken by the actor playing Nijinsky, but the innovation works well.  Rather than watching Nijinksy become Diaghilev or his own wife, sister, or mother, we see instead the effect these voices in his head has upon the dancer.

Further, the play calls for quite a bit of physical movement.  Not abounding in space, the Yale Cab is a risky place to put on such a show -- if the actor goes a little off his mark, he could find himself in a spectator’s lap or amid the remnants of someone’s dinner.  So one can only marvel at how precisely Binstock uses the space available to him, while suggesting a whirlwind of movement.  Brathwaite, Binstock, and producer/choreographer Jennifer Harrison Newman very inventively mime the ballet routines that were part of Nijinsky’s repertoire.

When at one point Binstock sits upon a chair to eye his audience in a pause prolonged to become uncomfortable, we see how the director has adapted the play to its space with great bravura.  That moment, and the final segment in which Nijinsky upbraids the audience for allowing the war to happen, brings the play suddenly from the past, c. World War I, and the mind of a long-dead dancer, into our time-frame, where the voice of a genius -- who hears God say ‘enough!’ at the end of his last dance -- speaks to us fully in the moment.

The most intense and spirited production at Yale Cab so far this season.n177241561920_972