Dylan Frederick

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in early March, conjectured that many in the so-called blue states have been “having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November,” specifically, fantasies about the president’s death, “natural or otherwise.” Without coming right out and saying it, Shatz was entertaining the notion that many otherwise law-abiding and non-violent Americans are fantasizing about political assassination. “These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over the imagination,” Shatz writes, but if we shift away from our specific moment to a more general view of our country’s history, we could substitute “the president” for “Trump” in that statement. We might wonder how it is that killing one man—a man not born to power nor claiming it as a birthright but simply holding an office, in essence, doing a job for a limited time—can come to seem the end-all of political action. Killing him, removing him violently from office, becomes, in such a view, a victory for the cause of freedom. Or at least a liberation of one’s burning resentment.

Because, as Shatz avers, such ideas are in the air, James Bundy’s revival of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, couldn’t be more timely. Proposed for the season over a year ago, the show was slated to open after the first 100 days of whoever won in November, and a very real strength of Assassins is that it is ambivalent enough to be relevant to any sitting president. Though, in 2016, one could assume that the hatred or the embrace of any winner of that year’s presidential race would be, in 2017, unprecedentedly—or unpresidentedly—passionate. Such is the case, and Assassins is a fanciful, tuneful, and entertaining look at one of the many dark sides of U.S. exceptionalism.

As Bundy notes in the playbill, “no fewer than thirteen of our misguided countrymen and women have taken it upon themselves to strike at presidents. This show reckons with nine of them….” As portrayed here, the question of what guides their misguided steps is different in every case, and the outcomes vary as well—from killing to wounding to failing utterly—but, in each case, the would-be assassin gets written into history, paired with the fortunes of the respective target.

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That pairing begins at once, with the Proprietor (Austin Durant), a boardwalk carny, offering a ragtag bunch of possible customers the chance to shoot a president. As Durant, in a sexier version of an Uncle Sam outfit, takes Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith) or John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) under his wing, huge projected images of that assassin’s target appear. Soon, eight—all but Oswald—have gathered, as a kind of ad hoc assassins convention, where nobodies will become somebodies. Of course, the biggest somebody of them all is also the last of the eight to arrive. John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) was a minor somebody, as an actor, and his bid for glory, as portrayed in “The Ballad of Booth” with Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, offers both an ironic commentary but also a surprisingly dignified account of his reasons from Booth. It helps greatly that Lenzi and Frederick are both well-cast in their roles, with Lenzi looking very much the part and singing with great authority.

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Assassins keeps right on cooking, with lively moments—“How I Saved Roosevelt” (about the failed attempt by Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek) to kill FDR)—and brooding moments, “The Gun Song,” a thoughtful ditty that takes off from the old “it takes a village” line to consider how much work goes into a gun and just how easy it is to move your little finger and change the world. For the most part, the would-be assassins are zanies and crazies, with some, like the two women who targeted President Ford, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina) and Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), played for laughs. Fromme’s duet with Reagan’s would-be assassin Hinckley, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a plaintive cry for significance, showing Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and Fromme’s with Charles Manson. The irony of such an earnest big number in service to these two—and Molina and Dixon are both very good as and look very much like their respective characters—points up what makes Assassins work so well: there’s a daytime soaps element to the self-conceptions of these killers, as if the purpose of life is to be immortal in the media.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That view is nowhere more apparent than in the show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau,” wherein Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), the assassin of President Garfield, gets to sell his particular brand. Guiteau is a jack of all delusions and DeRosa makes him an unforgettable presence, soft-shoeing up and down an impressive gallows, and inveighing lines from Guiteau’s odd paean to his own death, “I’m Going to the Lordy.” If you want to see a more striking, entertaining enactment of one of the true oddities of American history, you’re going to have to do some searching.

Indeed, the three successful assassins get their own ballads, and each is a high point. “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” like the one for Booth, gives Czolgosz the benefit of the doubt in suggesting the political nature of his despair—as an oppressed worker he sought out Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan) for inspiration and wanted to strike a blow for anarchy. Perhaps most plaintive—and unnerving of all—is Richard R. Henry’s inspired enactment of Samuel Byck, the man who—in the era of many a hijacked plane—decided he could get airplane pilots to crash a commercial flight into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Byck, who was killed before the plane got off the ground, is seen here venting his “mad as hell” musings on cassette tapes addressing Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Byck’s monologues let us hear an authentic voice of frustration coupled with a deranged view of how one man can make a difference.

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The one disappointment in the show comes from the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), the assassin of Kennedy. He doesn’t get a ballad, unfortunately, but gets instead a dialogue with Booth that largely falls flat because of Weidman’s inability to convey either the pathos of Oswald or his delusions (both of which figure so well in the case of Byck). Instead we get from the Bystanders (Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan), “Something Just Broke,” which trades on the old “where were you when it happened” motif of the JFK assassination (complete with a huge projection of the Zapruder film). The latter image, more than the song, does much to set up the harrowing sense of the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right”—“no one can be put in jail for their dreams”—that gives a voice to the assassin in us all that Adam Shatz has in mind.

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Yale Repertory Theatre revival of Assassins gives us a valuable musical with bite, a major entertainment about a very unentertaining aspect of American political life. Andrea Grody's orchestrations are tasteful and bright; the staging, but for somewhat pointless live camera feeds, is effective by being all to the service of the show, keeping our attention on the very good cast. Part cautionary tale, part ironic tribute to the little guy in history, Sondheim and Weidman’s show aims at the show-biz side of American history and kills it.

 

Assassins
Book by John Weidman
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy

Music Director: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Director: Daniel Schlosberg; Musical Staging: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designers: Charles Coes, Nathan A. Roberts; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturgs: Matthew Conway, Lynda A. H. Paul; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Stanley Bahorek, Stephen DeRosa, Lucas Dixon, Austin Durant, Dylan Frederick, P. J. Griffith, Richard R. Henry, Stephen Humes, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Robert Lenzi, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

A Tale of Two Uprisings

Review of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the wildly imaginative thesis show by third-year Yale School of Drama director Elizabeth Dinkova and her co-creator, third-year playwright Miranda Rose Hall, parody might seem the dominant mode. Parody of the traditional musical, certainly, but also of the more avant-garde versions that have come along at various times, including the Brechtian, and, in that vein, parody of the committed political drama. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps us amused by a tale that traverses some unsavory aspects of 20th century history. In creating a musical that clearly favors the underdog—here the committed leftist poet Geo Milev, a casualty of a fascist regime, and his wife the actress Mila—Dinkova and Hall see clearly how difficult it would be to play the story with a straight face. Ours is a time best suited to burlesque.

And yet, it would be wrong to see the show as entirely parodic. Rather, Dinkova and Hall, with their composer and sound designer, Michael Costagliola, have concocted a musical that sustains its dramatic intentions while keeping its ironies in play. And that makes for a rather mercurial evening of theater, full of surprising turns and tones. The show incorporates the political history of Bulgaria, a deal with the devil, and the shameful working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing district in the 1920s. Ambitious? Yes, but that’s just another word for having a lot on its mind.

Ostensibly set in the 1920s, the story begins with its rather mild-mannered hero, the poet Geo (Leland Fowler), who is beside himself at the fact that his poem, September, about a recent brutally-suppressed peasant uprising, may cost him his life. His wife Mila (Juliana Canfield) sticks up for his poem’s value, but Geo wishes he could undo it. And, presto!, there to take advantage of his moment of weakness is the devil herself (Elizabeth Stahlmann), who casts them in her own version of a morality tale: As the poet Yanko, Geo will have the chance to undermine his own poem, meanwhile, as Miroslava, Mila will play the very soul of insurrection among the people.

The target of their revolt is now The Butcher (Dylan Frederick), a gleefully dissolute character who has his eye on Miroslava while imposing his whims on a gaggle of workers who seem as if they’ve stepped out of a Marx Brothers version of an Eisenstein classic: the Drunk (Ben Anderson), the Farmer (Sebastian Arboleda), an Old Witch (Marié Botha), the Historian (Anna Crivelli), an Old Priest (Jonathan Higginbotham), a Milkmaid (Courtney Jamison), the Tobacco Lady (Stephanie Machado), and a School Boy (Patrick Madden). Each is amusing in his or her own right while being forged into a collective by Miroslava’s spirited rebellion.

Canfield shines in her song of insurrection, like a rabble-rousing force of nature, and she’s matched by Crivelli’s dance of the many suppressions as the Historian reels off a chronology mind-boggling in its catalog of the many times hope for democratic freedoms has been beaten down in Bulgaria. And those are just some of the strengths of Act 1, which includes Frederick’s big number “The Butcher,” the comic highpoint. He’s attended by Stahlmann, who shape-shifts between brash devil and Toma, a fawning elder.

Yanko, shaken by the forces of violence aimed at The Butcher, takes the devil’s bait and decides to decamp for the U.S. Seemingly a victory for the devil, Act 1 ends with Mila insisting on another round, this time in Chicago, where everyone will be recast in a tale of her recounting.

The notion of America as the land of the free is swiftly given the lie when we’re introduced to a host of immigrants from various lands—Poland, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, Mexico, to name a few—who toil under distressing conditions in the meat factory of Frank’s Famous Franks. Frank (Frederick) is, of course, “The Butcher” under new auspices, aided by his assistant Patty (Stahlmann, as the moral equivalent of a concentration camp commandant). A harrowing situation in Act 2 almost strips aside all the comic burlesque in favor of the most abject horror, and it’s a great tribute to Dinkova’s resources as a director that the show can shift toward the bathetic and recover its humor. In fact, the situation Dinkova and Hall create is a sharp commentary on the dehumanization of capitalist production at its most callous. And the cast—particularly Madden and Arboleda—are emotionally convincing in their grisly discovery.

Act 2 also boasts the most lyrical moment as Geo/Yanko and Mila/Sally sing a touching duet to their love, despite all. Indeed, Act 2 serves to vindicate Mila enough to rally the show into something like an upbeat register.

The scenic design by Emona Stoykova places the show on a platform surrounded by seats, making the action accessible in many directions, with, at one end, a hard-working pickup band being put through its paces and, at the other, an incredibly imposing portal. Lights and costumes and wonderfully involved projections—at times surveillance-style taping of the proceedings—add many lively effects, including childlike paintings that capture the folkloric quality of this varied tale.

Standouts in the show are Fowler’s pleasant singing voice, Canfield’s inspired ardor, Frederick’s zany villain, Crivelli’s rhapsody of history, and Stahlmann’s striking shifts among three characters, but it’s also a great ensemble show, and I’d be remiss not to mention Higginbotham’s brief-exposing pratfalls as the Old Priest and Machado’s Tobacco Lady saddled with a bevy of babies in slings. It’s the sort of show that has so much going on you’re bound to miss some of it in a single viewing.

It's unusual for a thesis show at YSD to be an original work, though it sometimes happens. Michael McQuilken’s Jib, an original musical from 2011 I remember fondly, is currently onstage in Philadelphia. May Bulgaria! Revolt! also find legs for future productions.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Created by Elizabeth Dinkova and Miranda Rose Hall
Books and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Costagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Choreographer: Christian Probst; Music Director: Scott Etan Feiner; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Technical Director: Kelly Pursley; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Ben Anderson, Sebastian Arboleda, Marié Botha, Juliana Canfield, Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Dylan Frederick, Jonathan Higginbotham, Courtney Jamison, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The Band: Alexander Casimiro, percussion; Allen Chang, clarinet; Ginna Doyle, violin; Scott Etan Feiner, piano; Jiji Kim, guitar; Adam Matlock, accordian; Ian Scot, bass

“Three Chains a Slave” performed by the Yale Slavic Chorus

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Review of Lake Kelsey, Yale Cabaret

The very week that so many eyes turn to Minnesota with the shocking news of the death of one of the stellar musical artists of his generation, the Yale Cabaret takes us to Minnesota and the shores of the fictional Lake Kelsey. Perhaps the late Prince, whose film Purple Rain, in the mid-1980s, created an iconic myth of youth and creative struggle based on his own experiences in the Minneapolis music scene, might be said to be smiling benignly on fellow Minnesotan Dylan Frederick’s Lake Kelsey, a musical exploration of teen angst, gender confusion, and general confusion on the path to identity.

The world of Lake Kelsey, geographically, is dominated by its eponymous lake and by Route 63, the only major roadway in or out. There, a handful of teens do the things that teens stuck in a local rut—which might be Anywhere, U.S.—tend to do: drinking, reviling parents, engaging in furtive sex, working dead-end jobs that yet provide entry into the adult world, and dreaming of escape. Their longings, misgivings and clashes are set to very catchy tunes written by Frederick and played by a skilled pick-up band: Jenny Schmidt, keyboards; Ian Scot, bass and electronics; Frederick Kennedy, percussion, and sung well by all members of the cast.

The main drama here is teens negotiating the predatory landscape that their own hormones lead them into. Elijah Evans (Michael Costagliola) is the kind of laconic bad boy that turns on a dime from easy-going to cruel or from accommodating to pushing his own relentless libido. Apparently, young girls and girly boys of all stripes find themselves helpless to resist. Except for Boygirl (Anna Crivelli), so called because of a bad haircut she had as a kid and the name, as they say, “stuck.” She’s bent upon escape from the region and, possibly, exposure of Elijah’s reign of erotic bullying.

The play we’re shown ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but those who have been raised on the concept of sequels will accept that they’ll have to wait “till next time” to find out what becomes of Boygirl—played with an earnest, “I have that within which passeth show” manner by Crivelli, looking a bit like a female Kurt Cobain.

Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Annie Middleton, Rebecca Hampe (photo: Christopher Thompson)

Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Annie Middleton, Rebecca Hampe (photo: Christopher Thompson)

There’s a trio of girl singers: Annie Middleton as Virginia Virginia, the svelte blonde of the bunch with some distinct daddy issues stemming from his embarrassing tendency to want to be one of the kids—her “Daddy Dead” song is one of those numbers that could be a breakout for a musical like this; Rebecca Hampe as Sarah Sarah, a camp follower we’re introduced to at the start with her cloying “Star of the Class” presentation about herself; Leland Fowler as Sachi Sachi, a black girl whose racial difference seems to put her outside the reach of Elijah’s lechery, but “she” can really sing.

Anna Crivelli (Boygirl), Patrick Foley (Thousand); photo: Christopher Thompson

Anna Crivelli (Boygirl), Patrick Foley (Thousand); photo: Christopher Thompson

Then there’s Thousand (Patrick Foley) who seems to be Boygirl’s only real friend and possible accomplice on her escape plan, except he’s found out how popular a boy who gives blowjobs can be among working guys, and being popular, as several songs make clear, is what life is all about hereabouts. Frederick’s book and music manages to maintain both an affectionate clarity about the cluelessness of the age group, as well as a certain aggrieved sense of how, for many teens, nothing exists beyond the shared world of the kids they’ve grown up with.

The set by Alexander Woodward is an inspired mash-up of spaces: the heap of detritus that looks like the collective sweepings of a housing development’s worth of rec rooms; the mic stands that belong in a talent show or karaoke night; the desks for the school scenes; the couch for the inevitable trip to Elijah’s basement; and don’t forget the trampoline, an almost magical space that evokes memories of free pre-teen innocence in the midst of guilty teen scenes.

A work in progress, Lake Kelsey, if given a more extended treatment, might benefit from a parental cameo or two and from some onstage exploration of the woods we keep hearing about. The show as it currently stands is primarily about character depiction, with the songs as tuneful exposition, rather than plot, but that could change with more development. Not to be confused with Lake Wobegon “where all children are above average,” Lake Kelsey gives us the kinds of kids whose averageness is their best asset, even as they strive to see what possibilities exist for fun and status before the inevitable descent into adulthood. As someone once said, “whatever, whatever, nevermind.”

Lake Kelsey marks the last show of the Yale Cabaret’s Season 48. Next up, Season 49 (2016-17) to be helmed by Co-Artistic Directors Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, with Managing Director Steven Koernig. A fond adieu to the Cab 48 team—David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, and Annie Middleton—and a warm welcome to the new team. Fittingly, the last show of Cab 48 was directed by one of the incoming co-artistic directors, with members of the departing team working as dramaturg and a performer, respectively. How’s that for team work?

 

Lake Kelsey
Music, Book, and Lyrics by Dylan Frederick
Directed by Kevin Hourigan

Music Director and Arrangements: Samuel Suggs; Dramaturg: Leora Morris; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Sound Mixer: Ien DeNio; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Producer: Rachel Shuey

Musicians: Keyboard: Jenny Schmidt; Bass and Electronics: Ian Scot; Percussion: Frederick Kennedy

Cast: Michael Costagliola; Anna Crivelli; Patrick Foley; Leland Fowler; Rebecca Hampe; Annie Middleton

Yale Cabaret
April 21-13, 2016