Devin Brain

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!

Summer Mummers

Late in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero, having dazzled Ferdinand, his daughter’s suitor, with a phantasmal pageant in which goddesses bless the couple’s imminent nuptials, insists that the spectacle was transitory as life itself and, the lines strongly suggest, as is theater, which all-too quickly “melts into air, into thin air.” But soft! All’s not lost.  For look you: The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has not yet wrung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.  There are two weeks yet—18 performances—in which to catch-as-catch-can the miraculous transformations of the basement space at 217 Park Street into Prospero’s isle, and into the Forest of Arden, and into a contentious arena for the bloody feuds of Britain’s royalty (yes, that’s three different sets and sometimes two shows a day—can ambition be made of sterner stuff?).

The three shows are The Tempest, As You Like It, and a right witty concentration of Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3, and Richard III into a blood-and-guts psycho drama called Rose Mark’d Queen.  And the shows boast a concentrated cast that have been playing their parts all summer, becoming one with their characters’ antic dispositions, their sighs and fleers and jests, their studied mummery, festive songs, passionate proclamations, yea, their wanton romps, clownish conceits, and vaulting ambitions.  And before each production there is most excellent meat in the form of short presentations, much to the point, on aspects of Shakespearean theater: on sets, pre-The Tempest; on the language, pre-As You Like It; on the use and abuse of history, pre-Rose Mark’d Queen.

Having seen all three shows twice, at opening and at a little past mid-point, I can observe that the vision of Shakespeare on view at the Cab is of malleable texts in service to the joys of playing.  While respectful of the poetry of the plays, these productions are not servile flatterers of the Bard’s big rep nor timid courters of the audience’s clemency.  Each show grabs for what it wants to wrest from the play, and each has the guts and gusto and gonads to make it work, mostly.

The Tempest (directed by Jack Tamburri) is largely played for laughs, suborning its romance elements and the tensions about legitimate and illegitimate power to a broader conception of general folly.  The part of Prospero is shared among the company and this adds a lively sense of make believe to the entire proceedings.  Off-putting, perhaps, if you’d rather have some fledgling McKellan imposing his magic on the hapless visitors to his island kingdom, but, as the play rolls along, the odd overlaps as each actor takes turns with the cloak and book begin to wield a life of their own.  As a device it’s nimble enough to invite reflections on who lords it over whom—even Miranda and Caliban get to “be” Prospero at times—and as theater it’s a challenge to our efforts to “enter into” the play, though a form of “magic” in its own right.  Some highpoints for me: the comic timing of the cast in the mutterings of the stranded aristocracy—King Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Duke Antonio, and Gonzalo (it’s rare to want to spend more time with these characters)—and Ariel’s songs as voiced by Adina Verson, in a get-up that put me in mind of a Dr. Seuss creation.

As You Like It (directed by Louisa Proske) presents a likeably fast-paced first act outside in the courtyard, complete with a wrestling contest and some agreeable love-at-first sight importunings between Adina Verson’s breathless Rosalind and Marcus Henderson’s open-book Orlando.  Inside, things get mellow with a sojourn in the forest of Arden that’s perhaps a bit too long on songs.  The cast plays and sings right well, but one begins to realize that the best parts of the play happen when Rosalind’s on stage, for its her native intelligence and wit, her skill at directing and counterfeiting (like The Beatles’ song says: “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway”), and her experience of all roles (pined for and pining after, male and female, fool and critic) that create the intellectual content of the play.  This production aims for and mostly achieves a feel for touching comedy spiced with the absurd spirit of contemporary Rom-Coms.  Highpoints: Rosalind’s dialogues with her confidante Celia/Aliena and her repartee with Orlando; the brothers Duke, both given a comic kick-in-the-pants by Brenda Meaney in wildly different tonsorial and sartorial style; Babak Tafti as the put-upon fool Touchstone burdened with his Lady’s luggage, and in his lust-above-love courtship of game Audrey (Jillian Taylor); Tim Brown’s lovesick swain and Tara Kayton’s fiery Phebe; Matt Biagini’s mercurial satire of melancholic Jaques.

Rose Mark’d Queen (directed by Devin Brain) serves up a fast-paced interpretation of a handful of Shakespeare’s histories, centered by strong characters—King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson, gaining in pathos and stature as the play proceeds) and his Queen Margaret (Jillian Taylor in a demanding role in which she is lover, chider, schemer, fiend and grief-stricken mother by turns)—with more than able support provided by Babak Tafti, as several figures in the House of York, providing now fierce, now more bemused opposition to the King and his supporters, Matt Biagini in a number of supporting roles pretty much destined for death, and Andrew Kelsey, who shines bright as Suffolk, the Queen’s power-hungry lover, and then, as Richard, becomes a lethal attack dog off the leash.  The first half is razor sharp, moving from a scene of kids playacting battle and martial pomp to acts of murderous treason; the second half dallies a bit more, with a comic courtship scene (of an inflated doll) presumably to lighten things up though it also seems to lengthen the proceedings more than is needful.  High-points: when a sword is held at the throat of an audience member to force a capitulation; when representatives of York and Lancaster go amongst the audience, trying to enlist supporters by drawing upon them either a white or red mark (even your selection of a wine for the evening might be a political gesture!—stick with beer and support Jack Cade); the use of light and sound and those big armoires at either end of the space.  It’s a play that keeps you guessing and, of the three, was the one that impressed me most, if only because Brain has somehow managed to underscore how these histories are proto-versions of many more familiar moments in Shakespearean tragedy.

What’s gratifying, for a returning spectator, is to watch the audience get caught up in the pressures of the plays, waiting to see the knots come undone—two of the plays do end happily—and to marvel at how inviting and interactive Shakespeare can be.  These aren’t pious productions stuffed with pretty pomp set up on a stage leagues away.  This is an in-your-face—maybe even on-your-lap—Festival, with characters beseeching their audience to take a side, share a dilemma, lend an ear.  If you think you know the plays, I guarantee you you don’t quite know them like you’ll find them here.

And that’s all to the good.  For what are plays anyway?  Certainly they are texts, but if you want a scholarly Shakespeare, stay at home and read a book.  If you want to hear Shakespeare alive and lived, given shape by young talent and shared as though a communal feast, then stay not, unresolved, unpregnant of your cause (to go or not to go) but exeunt omnes and severally and head for the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Shakespeare Festival.

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival August 2-14 Artistic Director, Devin Brain; Producer, Tara Kayton

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That Tragic History

The third and by far the most ambitious of the three plays offered by The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has now been added to the line-up.  Directed by Artistic Director Devin Brain, the play is called Rose Mark’d Queen, a condensation (and we do mean condensed!) of five plays: Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III, and provides the “blood” in the Festival’s tagline, “Blood, Love, and Fools.” As a director, Brain, who was the Co-Artistic Director of the challenging 2009-10 Yale Cabaret Season, knows the Cab space well and pitches his production to the qualities that can make Cab shows such involving—and at times alienating—experiences.  Brain’s grasp of the darker side of drama comes to the fore again.  Last summer, his show The Phoenix began as an adolescents’ fantasy world and ended in a devastating conflagration.  In the 2010-11 Season, he directed the ensemble piece Erebus and Terror in which we watched a shipful of plucky explorers succumb to madness and cannibalism.  Now he’s back with a play that illuminates the British monarchy of the Wars of the Roses period in the 15th century as a blood-boltered tale of bravery and betrayals, of back-stabbings and battles, of lusts and jests and thrusts at the vitals.  It’s stirring stuff.

And marvelously, memorably entertaining.

A lighter note is leant the proceedings by a brilliant conceit: we open with kids entertaining themselves with dolls and costumes and toy soldiers, playing dress-up as they take on the roles of the first wave, of many successive waves, of characters embroiled in dynastic succession—involving rival houses and wars with and for France.  It’s risky because we might want these kids to intrude upon the action to explain it for our benefit, or to make it silly for our amusement, and indeed they do throw a bit of foolery into the mix, but—and here the risk pays off—the unwavering force with which they speak the lines convinces the way a child lost in a fantasy convinces.  Gradually, the “play-acting” of the playing falls away and we’re launched into the clashing and contending personalities of the Histories.

For me the transition moment was when Matt Biagini, as Duke Humphrey, rails against the injustice of seeding prime French territories—already won with the blood of British troops—back to France in exchange for Margaret (Jillian Taylor), the “rose-mark’d queen” who the conniving Suffolk (A. Z. Kelsey) has wooed for young King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson), so that he may manipulate the king through her.  The love scene between Suffolk and Margaret packs a lot of punch too, but at that point (end of Henry VI, pt. 1)—with the other members of the court (i.e., the other kids) seeming to be looking on—it was still possible to be “in a game.”  When Gloucester goes rogue, at the opening of Henry VI, pt. 2, the playground struggle—White Rose vs. Red as a kind of Shirts and Skins game—deftly shifts into history come alive.

Don’t expect me to explain the historical consequences of all the ups and downs of the characters this intense ensemble enacts.  The playbill offers a useful Who’s Who—grace à Dramaturg Elliot Quick—coded to the costumes of the various characters, for those who want to keep score.  What stays with the viewer are numerous events that dramatize the high-stakes power struggle: Margaret’s cruel taunting of York (Babak Tafti) in the “king on a molehill” speech; York’s controlled and defiant response, wiping his tears on a handkerchief stained with his murdered child’s blood, ragging on the Queen; the rebel Jack Cade (Biagini armed with a toy chainsaw) enumerating the changes he will make in England as king (“first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”); Henry’s wistful longing for a simple life, and his heartfelt denigration of Richard (Kelsey) moments before being murdered by him.

Indeed, the fixed stars of this pole are Henry VI, as more sinned against than sinning, and Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard Crookback, the vicious killer who will eventually become Richard III.  Whether Henry is too timid to swim in this pool of sharks or too noble to sully himself is a matter of interpretation—Henderson evokes noble caution, but Henry is simply never equal to the machinations going on around him. One reason for that is the unfaithfulness of his queen Margaret, who prefers Suffolk, and who wages fierce war against the forces of York, beyond what Henry would marshal on his own.  Taylor plays Margaret’s many moods with fire and ire, along the way creating a figure almost the equal of Lady Macbeth (who knew?), a woman with a naked lust for power who by the end seems distracted by the force of the enmity she has inspired.

As Suffolk, Kelsey is a lively and engaging conniver and it’s shrewd to bring him back, after Suffolk’s death, to play Richard—in a strait-jacket imprisoning his withered arm, a knife strapped to his back, and a length of chain for his lame foot—for then all the charisma of the Queen’s lover gets channeled into the Queen’s most bloody enemy.  Late in the play, a scene with Richard on a chair in the sandbox, upbraided roundly by Margaret at her wits’ end, quite wonderfully suggests the dark days, still to come, of Richard’s reign.

There are many fine effects in the production: dramatic shifts in lighting from raking to glaring (Alan C. Edwards); toy piano glissandos and rolling thunder throbs (Nathan A. Roberts); twin wardrobes, boasting white and red doors respectively, at either end of the space, that open for exits and entrances, but also become closets of shelves with props (Kristen Robinson); sumptuous robes (Mark Nagle) that help shape identity—with Margaret’s Superman cape an odd bit of humor, like the inflated doll, standing in for Widow Grey, that Edward (Tafti, unctuous at times as Vincent Price) woos with PG-13 levity.

To put it simply: you haven’t seen anything like Rose Mark’d Queen.  And once you have, you’ll want to see it again.

Rose Mark’d Queen adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III Directed by Devin Brain

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival July 7-August 13 Yale Cabaret

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on

A comic Tempest opens the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival The Yale Summer Cabaret’s ambitious Shakespeare Festival, brain-child of Devin Brain and Tara Kayton, has launched.  The first play in the series, which will run three plays in repertory with a dedicated company of ten actors through August 14, is The Tempest.  A late play, if not the last, in Shakespeare’s canon, it’s a fantastic and lively tale in which all’s well that ends well, but, along the way, it gives much food for thought about the arbitrary nature of power relations, of courtship, of claims to authority, and, in this production especially, some laughs.

There are two daring and potentially off-putting aspects to director Jack Tamburri’s production: the first has to do with design (Kristen Robinson and Andrew Freeberg are the Scenic Design team), and involves fixed stilts with foot- and hand-holds placed at strategic points across the playing space.  This is the airy province of that airy sprite Ariel (Adina Verson), who touches ground as rarely as possible, primarily at entrances and exits.  But no matter how gamely and gracefully Verson navigates the gym course, we don’t get an illusion of movement swift as thought (Ariel’s special quality) and tend to be distracted by the actions.  What’s more, the posts offer little in the way of scenery, even if, with the aid of some magical transformative power akin to Propsero’s, we imagine them as trees upon the island.  The benefit: Ariel hovers over the action and speaks to the other characters from slightly above, which creates some nice effects in dialogue with Prospero when his captive sprite speaks directly into his ear, or when “he” (Ariel is male; Verson is female, and plays the role in a shiny body suit with a noticeable jockstrap bulge) spooks the conspirators from somewhere in the air above them.

The other oddity here is that all the cast members play Prospero at some point.  This requires much shedding and donning of the sparkly cloak that denotes our magical majesty, and also increases potential confusion for viewers having enough trouble keeping, say, Antonio and Trinculo (both played by Paul Lieber) or Alonso and Stephano (both A. Z. Kelsey) straight.  In other words, go with some of the play under your belt or you may find yourself a bit at sea.  Some of the transformations are indeed swift as thought, especially in the denouement when the passing about of Prospero’s book began to resemble a game of hot potato.

The more problematic aspect of this innovation is that, to echo Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, there isn’t any there (or Prospero) there.  Rather, we get six actors in search of a character, which translates into Prospero-schtick most of the time.  This, I assume, is strategic—an effort to undermine this dominant figure, to make him as mercurial as possible, and to show that the trappings of power he wields can indeed be taken up and shed by turns.  He is a sometime Duke and a sometime magus, a sometime father, brother, and so on.  The point, as it should be in theater, is made, as it were, between the lines, but I couldn’t help feeling it was also made at the expense of some lines—as when an actor fully steeped in the role allows us to watch the character change, rather than watch a number of actors change into the character.

The strengths of this production:  First of all, the language.  Short of slowing things down into Shakespeare-ease, as Kenneth Branagh films sometimes do, the cast is quite adept at making Shakespearean speeches sound spoken as opposed to recited.  Second: the audience’s closeness to the action made for enlivening effects when the characters spoke directly to audience members in a conversational way.  Third: the clowns—and, as all are at times Prospero, all are at times clowns.  It’s to the audience’s benefit that these actors are so good at Shakespearean comedy, which can get tedious fast when a cast isn’t.  Kelsey, as Stephano, a butler, and Paul Lieber, as Trinculo, a jester, in particular, made the most of their scenes together, often involving drunken mood swings, but more modulation of tone would’ve helped us perceive their transformations into, respectively, Alonso, King of Naples, and Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, as they seemed a bit too broad for aristocracy.

Tim Brown, on the other hand, moved effectively between Sebastian, the rather dim-witted brother of the King, and romantic lead Ferdinand.

A female actor as Caliban is a move against type for it makes for a more refined “monster,” and Brenda Meaney’s performance, while active and comic, lacked the surly pathos the role can command.  Casting a female actor as Ariel is not unusual, and, apart from her headdress and costume, I loved everything about Verson’s Ariel, particularly the glowing sound of her vocals on the songs and her childish enthusiasm in playing all the roles, with Adam Rigg’s effective puppets, during the enchantment scene.  Her rendition, as Prospero, of the curtain speech was effective enough to make one willing, indeed, to “free all faults.”

All in all, a rough and ready Tempest on its way to becoming seaworthy.


The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival Devin Brain,  Artistic Director; Tara Kayton, Producer June 23-August 14, 2011

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Directed by Jack Tamburri June 23-August 12, 2011

Photos by Ethan Heard, courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret

Life at the Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret 2010-11 Season ended in April, and today a cohort of talents graduated from the Yale School of Drama, where most Cab participants are students, so I’d like to take a moment to commend some highpoints of the Cab's recent season, citing the work of some who have taken their final bow there, and of others who might be back. For best overall productions, four original plays, relying on great ensemble work: Good Words, written by Meg Miroshnik, directed by Andrew Kelsey, a movingly musical valedictory treatment of a long life; Vaska Vaska, Glöm, written by Stéphanie Hayes, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an odd allegorical play, both endearing and unnerving; Erebus and Terror, developed by the ensemble from an idea by Alexandra Henrikson, directed by Devin Brain, a dark but lively play about doomed lives; and Trannequin!, conceived by the ensemble, with Book by Ethan Heard and Martha Jane Kaufman, directed by Ethan Heard, a clever and engaging gender-bending musical; and a notable ensemble production of an already existing work: Alex Mihail’s kick-ass, raucous version of Anton Chekhov’s The Wedding Reception.

For memorable performances, I have to start by citing Max Gordon Moore’s tour de force one-man show as the librarian with an idée fixe in Under the Lintel

Trai Byers’ affecting performance as an old man revisiting his life at his son’s funeral in Good Words




Babak Gharaeti-Tafti, as a passionate wedding guest in The Wedding Reception, and as a nonconformist in The Other Shore






Lucas Dixon as the hilarious special guest at The Wedding Reception, and Brett Dalton’s comic double roles in Debut Track One.

Of the ladies: Alexandra Henrikson’s edgy Harper in Far Away

Adina Verson for her comic flair in pleasureD, and, for sheer oddity, her performance in a barrel of water in Vaska Vaska, Glöm; Stéphanie Hayes for her frenetic part in pleasureD and as a young male Irish deckhand, in Erebus and Terror

Sarah Sokolovic, swaddled in rags, in Vaska Vaska, Glöm, and giddy and singing in The Wedding Reception; and Alexandra Trow, intelligent and naïve, as Pepper in Debut Track One.

And what about the ingenuity of transforming a basement into whatever the play demands?  Particularly effective work in Sets: Meredith Ries’ cluttered library backroom in Under the Lintel

Julia C. Lee’s doomed ship in Erebus and Terror, aided by Alan C. Edwards’ moody and evocative Lighting

Justin Elie’s visually rich radio studio in The Musicality Radio Hour; Adam Rigg’s dollhouse world for  pleasureD






and, especially, the combined talents of Kristen Robinson, Meredith Ries, Adam Rigg, with Lighting by Hannah Wasileksi and Masha Tsimring, for the fascinatingly ornate aesthetic of Dorian Gray’s puppetshow.

And for transforming students into what is required, some memorable work in Costumes: Aaron P. Mastin for the period sailors in Erebus and Terror; Maria Hooper for the Victorian dress of both people and puppets in Dorian Gray; Summer Lee Jack for the Brecht-meets-Beckett world of Vaska Vaska, Glöm


and for the truly awful threads sported by the ‘80s-era wedding guests in The Wedding Reception.






For Sound: Junghoon Pi for the aural embellishments of The Other Shore; Palmer for the different aural registers of Debut Track One, and Ken Goodwin’s Sound Design and Elizabeth Atkinson’s Foley work in The Musicality Radio Hour.

And for Music: the inspiring vocals provided by Taylor Vaughn-Lasley, Christina Anderson, Sunder Ganglani, and Nehemiah Luckett in Good Words Pierre Bourgeois’s lively shanties in Erebus and Terror; the inspired songs of Trannequin!, by Ethan Heard, Max Roll, Brian Valencia, and Tim Brown; the Zappa-esque musical work of The Elastic Notion Orchestra in The Musicality Radio Hour; and the performative percussionists, Yun-Chu Chiu, John Corkill, Michael McQuilken, Ian Rosenbaum, Adam Rosenblatt in The Perks.

That’s all for this year—stay tuned for info on The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival, starting next month!

Photos copyright Nick Thigpen, courtesy of Yale Cabaret

The Ship of Death

Oh build your ship of death, your little arkand furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine for the dark flight down oblivion.--D. H. Lawrence, “The Ship of Death"

How do they do it?  How does the Yale Cabaret take a story of utter desperation—the doomed expedition of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean in 1845—and make an entertaining evening of it?

Maybe it’s because director Devin Brain heads to the dark side the way most kids go to their favorite playground, and because the ensemble cast are clearly having so much fun in this dire tale of dwindling hopes.  And maybe it’s because the many tunes in the show, sea shanties like “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” and jigs like “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” are so irrepressibly infectious.

Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson, who is luminous as Franklin’s indefatigable wife back home, resolutely refusing to consider herself his widow, Erebus and Terror is credited to the cast, and that could be why the parts seem so perfect for each actor: Max Gordon Moore, clipped and distinguished as Officer Downing; Ben Horner, swarthy and bawdy as Ferry (his eager pursuit of Lady Death is a high-point, to say nothing of dining upon the deceased Downing); Andrew Kelsey as Oxford, a sympathetic bloke who gives an effective delivery of the seductive speech of Titania to “translated” Bottom in the crew’s impromptu enactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Stéphanie Hayes, skittish and fearful as Paddy, a young Irish lad (her shrieks of joy from the crow’s nest have a “top of the world, ma” feel); Dipika Guha, wide-eyed and mesmerized as Fin, a mate going “off his tit,” and Irene Sofia Lucio, as Timmy, or Kid, the youngest and most comical of the swabbies.  Add Pierre Bourgeois’s songs, richly evocative of the world of these seamen, all bound—in a string of distinctive endings—for Davey Jones’ Locker, and you’ve got the main elements for a successfully gripping show, supported by Ken Goodwin’s watery sound effects, by Lighting Designer Alan C. Edwards’ dramatic variations of light and dark that, playing on Aaron P. Mastin’s authentic costumes, put me in mind of Rockwell Kent’s nautical drawings, and, through the exit door that was opened a few times as part of Julia C. Lee’s set, by mounds of snow provided by Nature, making the effort to imagine the frozen wastes surrounding the ship that much easier.

Have you built your ship of death, O have you? O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

Erebus and Terror, Songs of Ghosts and Dreams Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson; Written and Created by the Ensemble January 13-15, 2011; Thurs, 8 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m. & 11 p.m. The Yale Cabaret

Do You Believe in Magic?

Director Devin Brain and the cast of the current Yale Summer Cabaret show, The Phoenix, have given themselves quite a task: to render a situation that could be either fantasy or reality, when either is potentially alienating.  Based on a haunting story by best-selling Australian author Isobelle Carmody, the play has been derived by the cast via an improvisational process of discovery, which means that the presentation is not scripted so much as agreed upon through trial and error during a long period of gestation.

If that sounds daunting, it should.  But it also may be the best way to approach a story like this which relies so much on shared fantasy among its characters.  The logic seems to be: if the actors are making things up together to make the play exist in the first place, they'll be all the more convincing as the fantasizing characters they portray.

William (Ben Horner), we're told, is the "local feral child" -- an amusing appellation, but one that means his character will be hard to read.  He addresses Ragnar (Shannon Sullivan) as a princess -- and not figuratively.  He actually seems to believe they are foundlings from another world, left to wander a beach deserted but for a wounded gull Ragnar names Greedy.  In addition to using a bird puppet, the play fleshes out the bird via William Demeritt, complete with feathers at his temples, a brace, and a crutch, appearing at times like a guardian spirit fallen on hard times as he manipulates dolls that emulate the scenes the actors play out.

Though the dark backstories of Ragnar and William are a bit sketchily thrown at us before we have much idea of what's going on, Horner and Sullivan fascinate us with the strange mix of desperation, denial, and happy inspirations that unite the duo.  One device I particularly liked was Sullivan showing us, mutely, a series of photographs while looking at us with facial expressions that telegraphed exactly how Ragnar felt about each image and how we should read them.  That didn't mean we necessarily grasped the narrative, but the effort to communicate it was palpable.

But when Torvald (Joby Earle), a charismatic boy from a different class and school, enters the scene, things really begin to click.  Before that we're just trying to follow the logic of a folie à deux that seems harmless if unsettling; once the third character is introduced we have a conflict.  Will he enter -- as he seems to -- the rather grand, Dungeons and Dragons-like world the other two mentally inhabit, or repudiate it?  And if he does enter it, is he sincere or after something?

At this point in the story, the three principals act out their interactions via the dolls, and suddenly a feeling of truly being transported to those fabled lands of childhood playtime comes to life.  And once Brain and company has us entertaining how wonderfully trusting and expressive and vulnerable that world of shared make believe can be, they've got us primed for where they want to take us.  It becomes an uncompromising and tragic play about the unwritten laws we intuit and then either respect or betray when entering into private, personal bonds with one another.

As ever at the Cabaret, it's the unexpected touches that impress us as theater: the song William makes up, seemingly on the spot; Ragnar's bike helmet; Torvald's inspired use of an overhead projector; moody musical tones, particularly an expressive acoustic guitar part, that surrounds the action, provided by musical director Nathan Roberts; and, finally, that frail craft -- a boat upon a boat -- that gives us poetry as closure.

The Phoenix, from the story by Isobelle Carmody; adapted by Devin Brain and the cast; directed by Devin Brain

July 1-17, 8 p.m.; additional 2 p.m. show on the 10th; Yale Summer Cabaret, 203.432.1567

An Arresting "Orestes"

The Yale Cabaret states its mission to be “a gauntlet thrown in the face of our future, a scar in the memory of our audience, a ballerina dancing with a stick of dynamite.”  If this sounds a bit in your face, can that be a bad thing?  Theater can’t cuddle its audience, that’s what TV is for.  And unlike an audience watching a film in a moviehouse, a theater-going audience shouldn’t be allowed to hide in their darkened seats, secure in the fact that whatever they’re watching is already in the past. At Yale Cabaret, the audience sits at tables at the same level as the performers.  There’s nowhere to hide.  And for the first show of the 2009-10 Season, the audience had to sit or stand outside along two of the four sides of a courtyard in the middle of which Euripedes’ blood-thirsty and manic Orestes was enacted by a small ensemble cast of seven players.  In fact, we were gestured to a few times as an ugly mob, and Elektra even demanded we keep alert and pay attention.

The play is a good choice for the Cab’s stated goal.  For if any classical author lives up to that mission statement, it’s Euripedes.  Brechtian “alienation effect,” Artaudian “theater of cruelty,” Beckettian “theater of the absurd” -- none of them have anything on Euripedes.  Reading his plays, one is never sure whose side we’re supposed to be on.  It’s not that everyone is equally bad, it’s just that no one is really good, or noble, or virtuous, or even tragically misunderstood.  It’s as if his characters suffer from the hubris of believing the gods give a shit; worse, they sometimes think they understand what the gods want and try to act accordingly.

Orestes, in Devin Brain’s production, was even more than usual denuded of the voice of reason.  By cutting the figure of Tyndareos, who counsels his young grandson to give into what the polis decides, and by removing a speech which describes the arguments in the agora, this Orestes knocked away the prop supporting the contention that the play is about the need to replace blood-vengeance with civil proceeding -- which should have been used against Orestes’ husband-murdering mother and her paramour in the first place.

Instead of such city-state thematics, we have a tale of two siblings, Orestes and Elektra, wrapped together in a rather sensual folie à deux: they plotted the killing of their mother and now are pariahs who have only each other.  The pair becomes a trio with the introduction of Pylades, a stalwart friend of Orestes to whom Elektra is promised, should they live.  But one can’t help feeling, after the trio exchange full kisses with one another, that, if they live, they should all live together happily ever after in a ménage à trois.  Does that make us less sympathetic to them or more?

Hard to say, but when they try to murder Helen (whom they hate and whom Euripedes seems really to enjoy pillorying), and grab her unsuspecting daughter Hermione as hostage, running up a fire escape above the courtyard  to hurl taunts at Menelaos while insisting on negotiating a way out of their death sentence, they become gleeful would-be killers, a kind of mini Baader Meinhof cell, asserting their rights, but more than anything their detestation of the likes of Menelaos and Helen, the bourgeois beginners of battles that others must die to fight (Elektra -- played with suitable heart-wrenched woe by Emily Trask -- even gives a very affecting speech to that effect, mourning all those fallen Greek heroes at Troy).

Indeed, with Elektra so distraught, and Orestes, as played by Babak Gharaei-Tafti as somewhat of a maunderer, so clearly in need of her (and so happy he can call her a man in a woman’s body), and Helen so vain, and Menelaus so bureaucratic, it’s hard not taking the side of the kids, blood-lust, sex-lust, and all.

Then Apollo steps in.  As played by Kevin Daniels -- hairless bare chest, hairless bare head, black, in white flannel -- he steps in like the guy from upper management who has to put the peons in their place.  He’s scathing, indifferent, and incontestable.  Hermione and Orestes will marry!  We can imagine the wonderful get-togethers they’ll have at Menelaos’ place, or maybe Hermione will one day complain that her hubby never holds a knife to her throat any more like when they first met.  It matters not to Apollo -- or to Euripedes either.  We get the gods we deserve, and seeing the imperious shrug of the Sun god as he doled out just deserts put a big smile on my face.

It’s hard to say who Euripedes has more contempt for: these mythic figures whose messy lives have to be rehearsed again and again, or the audience that expects theater somehow to make sense of what makes no sense.  For a modern audience, that level of absurdity is always to some extent comforting, for it shows us that someone else has noted, and determined how to enact, mirth in passion, doubt in belief, randomness in justice, death in sex.

A great start to the season!