Edward Albee

Cafe Rrrwha?

You know the drill: one age’s rebellion is another age’s nostalgia act. That’s in popular culture. In the fine arts, it tends to be: one age’s rebellion is another age’s academic assignment. In the pop world, nothing ages as fast as the parental generation’s youth; in the fine arts, it’s all a bit like the nefarious character played by John Huston in Chinatown (1974) says: “Politicians, old buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” In the fine arts, it’s academic study that confers respectability. Dada, pataphysics, cubists, Theater of the Absurd, Theatre of Cruelty, the Beats—they’re all in museums and on syllabi. And what gets lost, often, is what made it all so exciting in the first place. Enter The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, the show currently playing at the Yale Cabaret, conceived and directed by dramaturgy student David E. Bruin, an effort to stage early works by María Irene Fornés and Edward Albee—darlings of theater and drama coursework—as though Greenwich Village were still inhabited by bohemians and not pop culture elites. We’re not at the Yale Cab, we’re at Café Ubu (named after Alfred Jarry’s comic-absurdist-tragic figure) and, as the dated posters and portraits on the walls of Reid Thompson's set will tell you, it’s around 1962. JFK hasn’t been assassinated yet and the Beatles are still in Liverpool.

It’s to the credit of Bruin and his cast that they play the material—including the introductory bits that include some squabbling about a petition to stop that freeway extension Robert Moses is planning for the Village—straight, without any hint of ‘beatnik’ send-ups. The point is, one quickly gathers, the drama student of today might well be pining for the days before theatrical fellowships and “courses on X”—the days when the likes of Albee and Fornés hung out in collectivities that were already looking back to ad hoc artist congeries like dada and other manifesto-spouting “movements.” Remember when it wasn’t art if you got paid for it? And it wasn’t for a grade either. Hey, kinda like Yale Cabaret . . .

Crazy Shepherds is an instructive and entertaining evening. Plays like Fornés’ The Successful Life of 3 and Albee’s The Sandbox should resist even blackbox staging. These are plays for a cabaret, a café, a living room, almost. Maybe a playground’s actual sandbox (do those still exist?) for the latter. Bruin and company rightly grasp that to do such work justice you have to be willing to go back to its time to see it as it might have been. Historians of the arts have to do this; theater audiences much less, and it’s great to see knowing dramaturgs and others giving it a shot and taking us along with them.

And you certainly get your money’s worth: not only Successful Life and Sandbox, but also a romp through a truncated take on Jarry’s Ubu roi (with a very spirited Ubu from Brendan Pelsue) and a performance piece featuring bits from Part III of Howl. Annelise Lawson, reciting, is the star of the evening as she also plays a man (who imagines himself as Zorro at one point) in Successful Life, Ubu’s queen in Ubu roi, and, very effectively, the old woman in Sandbox, as well as going into electroshock convulsions for the Howl recital (Howl is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg’s fellow inmate at Columbia Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, who did receive electroshock treatment at Rockland State Hospital).

Elsewhere there’s tasteful violin accompaniment by Eli Epstein-Deutsch and atmospheric vocalizing by Jenelle Chu, who also plays the woman in Successful Life, a ditzy symbol of female emptiness—or is that an empty symbol of feminine ditziness—while Lawson and Pelsue (the latter in a mode reminiscent of Dick York on Bewitched) enact an absurdist’s take on “masculine rivalry” (yes, that was once a buzz term). Chu is also a patient “mommy” to Pelsue’s “daddy” as they wait for granny (Lawson) to give up the ghost in Sandbox. The plays by Fornés and Albee both demonstrate the phase of incipient genius, still. And the evening is best if you can forget you’re watching YSD students playing at their grandparents’ rebellion and imagine you’re watching amateur theatricals reinvent theater.

At the end of the evening, a hat is passed, but, rather than pitching in, the audience is asked to extract fortune-cookie-like one-liners. Many in the audience, no doubt, won’t realize the lines are taken from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (c. 1790, following the French Revolution); “everything old is new again,” as the song says. And some things are so innovative they can never become conventional.


The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion Conceived and directed by David E. Bruin Featuring: Maria Irene Fornes’ The Successful Life of 3 and Edward Albee’s The Sandbox

Cast: David E. Bruin, Jenelle Chu, Eli Epstein-Deutsch, Annelise Lawson, Brendan Pelsue, Gretchen Wright; Dramaturg: Phillip Howze; Set: Reid Thompson; Lights: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer/Sound: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Costumes: Asa Benally; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Producer: Melissa Zimmerman


Yale Cabaret March 20-22, 2014

You're An Animal Too

A dog is a man’s best friend, they say.  But what do you do when a dog marks you as an enemy?  Here, Jonathan Kiefer ponders this problem with some help from Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story.  

My neighbor’s dog reminds me of Edward Albee. Not the man himself, but one of his plays, The Zoo Story, which happens to be the first play I ever saw and one I’ve always wanted to perform. Any experienced actor will tell you that the highlight of the play is its meaty 7-page monologue, aptly referred to by the character who delivers it as “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.”

“I still don’t know how to this day the other roomers manage it, but you know what I think: I think it had only to do with me,” says Jerry of his problem with a neighbor’s dog. “If you think about it, this dog had what amounted to an antipathy toward me; really.”

That’s what my neighbor’s dog reminds me of.  An antipathy?  The dog hates me. She barks violently and loudly whenever I come or go. Her name is Brownie, though she’s mostly black; she is middle-aged and middle-sized, and—it bears repeating—she hates me. I am sure I don’t deserve it.

Brownie can hear my doorknob, and even its faintest rattle will send her tearing across the yard, barking furiously. She runs up a wooden staircase on the side of my neighbor’s apartment and looks down over the fence at me, snarling and growling, baring her teeth, barking, barking, barking. She won’t stop until someone comes to get her or I go away. This has gone on “from the very beginning,” as Jerry so wearily puts it. The neighbors do scold Brownie for the racket she makes, and they even spank her, hard. I hate to see that, not least because I worry she will associate the pain with me and bark harder next time.

I believe Brownie is a German Hunt Terrier, which, according to the Internet, qualifies her as a “vigilant” and “cantankerous” guard dog, typically “suspicious of strangers” and “not suitable as a pet.” Your average Deutscher Jagdterrier is a solid hunter, among the best of the terriers for rooting out badgers and taking down boar. I have seen neither badgers nor boar in my neighborhood, so there you go. At night, however, I can hear Brownie doing battle with local skunks and raccoons; even they don’t push her buttons as I seem to. She, in turn, can hear me getting up to go to the bathroom, and sometimes she will bark once to inform me of this.

Brownie would do well in some allegorical 11th-century middle-European empire-kingdom, as the court hunter-hound of a king who wants to inspire fear or at least serious aggravation wherever he goes. She makes do instead in the garret of my neighbor’s outdoor staircase. I would say that I’d want her for my own guard dog, except I’ve never seen her display as much hostility toward a stranger as she has toward me, and therefore I would not feel very protected.

Like Albee’s Jerry, I tried at first to make peace. Reaching over the fence at my own risk, I once fed Brownie an entire package of Pepperidge Farm Chess Men cookies, which are difficult to share, even with people. She took them right from my hand, one at a time, and ever so delicately devoured them with obvious satisfaction, then quietly dismounted the steps and vanished into her yard. When next we met, she barked and huffed and snarled as usual. She had eaten my cookies and hated me the whole time, the bitch.

When Jerry’s efforts to kill the Dog with kindness failed, he tried to kill it with poison. But he quickly regretted that decision: “I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to,” he says. I know what he means. Once, while watering the garden to a soundtrack of Brownie barking, I had the idea to pull the hose out into the driveway and strangle her with it. Or at least to spray water in her face. I haven’t done anything yet, either because I’m afraid of getting caught or because I fear it will ruin our prospects for progress, if they exist. Yet my passive resistance clearly has failed; she has learned that I am a pushover, that I can be bullied.

I have often felt invisible in the world, but never when I’ve wanted to. I am not invisible to the more desperate and predatory homeless people, because they are invisible themselves—and I am never invisible to Brownie. To her, I am hyper-visible. Sometimes, in fact, I think that she can see straight into my soul, and that she recognizes something awful in there. It’s unsettling. Sometimes her barking has a tattletale quality, as if I’ve perpetrated some hideous moral offense of which only she is aware, and she won’t let me get away with it. She makes me feel guilty for something I don’t even understand. Faust had a bothersome black dog too, of course. Goethe described it as a poodle, which isn’t an exact match, and it's a harbinger of Mephistopheles, which might be. Just what kind of a deal is Brownie trying to broker with me?

She has a certain purity of expression that I must admire. There is a fine line between self-discipline and compulsion, but another way Brownie makes me feel guilty is by her dedication.  She’ll stop whatever she is doing at any time to come to the fence and bark at me. Thousands of times since I moved in. If I could do anything with as much regularity, vehemence, and unswerving duty as that, mine would be a focused, successful, and very visible life.

Jerry’s Dog does not die, but the play is still a tragedy. Jerry, who also feels invisible sometimes, does make a kind of progress with the Dog. “We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion,” he explains, “and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding. It’s very sad, but you’ll have to admit that it’s an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact, and we had failed.”

Brownie and I aren’t there yet, but I’m not so sure we should try to be. “We neither love nor hurt,” Jerry continues, “because we do not try to reach each other.”

I saw Brownie on the street once. She was loose, unleashed and out of context, her owners absent. I don’t know how she got out, but what a sight. She ran up and down the block, aimlessly, with the joy and terror of liberation, her tongue lolling like a Great Dane’s. She didn’t bark at me once, and I wondered if she even recognized me. I took a few steps toward her, but she ran away.

Unlike life, good drama solves its own problems, and that’s partly why it’s useful. Albee’s plays always solve the problems they pose, even when the solutions are unpleasant, as they usually are. “The Story of Jerry and the Dog” is really about Jerry and the Rest of Humanity, and this of course is Albee’s instructive gift. When I first saw the play, The Zoo Story initiated me into theater’s mysteries, and some of life’s. Although I’ve played other Albee characters—with, perhaps, the great nourishing satisfaction of some ungrateful Deutscher Jagdterrier eating Pepperidge Farm Chess Men—I’ve never had a go at Jerry. Perhaps I no longer need to.

Jonathan Kiefer

Fear's a Man's Best Friend

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance first appeared in 1966.   It’s now playing at the Yale Rep, directed by James Bundy. Going in, the main question on my mind was whether or not the play – which says it’s taking place NOW – would feel adequate to today or would seem as though it still had a foot in the pre-Nixon era of its origins. Some references – topless bathing suits, a marijuana cache busted nearby – certainly harken to the old days, but not necessarily. The marijuana reference, at least, has become timely again with a new movement afoot to legalize it. But the aspects of the play that do feel a bit dated are perhaps deceptively so. One is when Julia, daughter of Tobias and Agnes, well-to-do bourgeois of the type that immediately bring to mind the grand tradition of Ibsen and Chekhov, describes the (fourth) husband she has left as someone who is simply opposed to everything. We hear Albee’s lines describing a nascent radical of the Left, back in the day when the young were rife with such.  But, today, could he not be a radical of the Right more easily?

At one point Tobias, newspapers in hand, disparages the Republicans for being as brutal as ever.  It’s a line Albee updated in 1996 to reference Gingrich et al. (the plays seems to be produced only when Democrats are in office).  Tobias and Agnes are clearly meant to be “liberals,” and much of the play’s drama consists of them trying to decide what to do about another couple – their oldest friends, Harry and Edna – who simply turn up one night, claim they became frightened in their own home, and proceed to move in with Tobias and Agnes, while at the same time Julia, often shrill and sulky across the generation gap, has returned home as well.  It’s Julia (played with the requisite petulance by Keira Naughton) who claims her father’s “house is not in order,” and while we know that the Great Society was getting shaky in 1966, with the effort to accommodate everyone’s demands a strain on civility, how much more is that the case in 2010, as new movements attempt not only to undo Clinton and Johnson, but FDR as well?

I’ve mentioned all this at such length because it seems to me that Albee’s play, in Bundy’s recreation of it, has triumphantly entered the 21st century with its nimble allegory intact – “as we get older we become allegorical,” Agnes tells her husband, at times seeming to speak for her author.  In our times, it’s easy enough to imagine the “terror” or “plague,” as Agnes calls it, sweeping over Harry and Edna as tied to seismic economic change instead of to the alterations in mores of the Sixties. Certainly the couple's fear could be existential, but Claire, who seems in many ways the most savvy – “the walking wounded” are often “the least susceptible” to “the plague,” Agnes allows – jibes “I was wondering when it would begin, when it would start.” The statement comes from a perspective balanced precariously above a deluge to come.

All of which is to say the delights of this play tend to be thoughtful ones. Though it’s not a light night of theater, Bundy’s direction does find the surprised laughs, the quick wit, the rueful chuckles in the material, perhaps intruding a bit too much comedy into Edna’s initial annoucement of the couple’s fear. For a second we might think that Edna (Kathleen Butler) is simply immensely silly, but that’s not right. Edna, who is elsewhere rather flinty, has sense enough to deliver at least one of the morals of the story: that social life is always a testing of boundaries, of what is permitted, of what may be requested.

Most of the laughs come by way of Ellen McLaughlin’s Claire – wry, spirited, often performing for her sister and brother-in-law to provoke them from their rather formidable settledness. Stretching out on the floor, upending orange juice on the carpet, tootling an accordian, yodeling, recounting her grim days as a “willful drunk,” sniping at Agnes, who sees her as a knowing observer, Claire first appears in a sort of retro-punk ensemble, with spikey Laurie Anderson-like hair, but later cleans up nicely in a designer outfit. She’s nothing if not mercurial and McLaughlin makes the most of this plum role.

Kathleen Chalfant’s Agnes is much drier in her humor, just as pointed in exchanges, but much more self-reflexive in her speechifying. She has immense dignity and character. Not really likeable, most of the time, her statement of her wifely position in Act Three humanizes her to a surprising degree, allowing her to assert her role as the one on whom nothing can be lost, so that we understand why she opens and closes the play wondering, in very reasonable tones, if she may one day go mad. Her least “liberal” moment is her statement that Harry and Edna’s fear is an infectious disease that may infect them all. Has it already, we wonder.

The great asset of this production is Edward Herrmann as Tobias. Tall, broad-shouldered, with fluent hair and a graying beard, he mutters, constantly makes drinks, and drifts around his well-appointed livingroom, a wonderful Yale-ish space with dark wood and cathedral-like verticality by Chien-Yu Peng. Whereas Agnes says she is the fulcrum upon which all balances, Tobias is the one for whom she balances things. The women of his life are a context of incessant voices but to Tobias are given two of the most memorable speeches, the one about a cat he killed because she no longer liked him, and the other an “aria” or passionate outburst to Harry on the question of whether or not he wants his friend and his wife to stay. Herrmann, so bulkily patrician (he has played FDR, after all), has a great knack for delivering Tobias’ lines so that we can hear Tobias listening to himself, considering the impression his own words make on him, and in the outburst we hear Tobias desperately trying to sound and be sincere, to demand of himself sacrifice, to say that, yes, there is room for all, even if he has to dredge up caring from some forgotten cupboard in his soul.

In the film of this play, directed by Tony Richardson in 1973 for American Film Theater, the two leads are played by Paul Scofield and Katherine Hepburn and, great as those actors are, neither felt quite right to me, Scofield too tragic, Hepburn too tremulous. I found Chalfant’s Elaine Stritch-like clarity much more effective, and, great as Scofield is, think that Herrmann’s Tobias, a tower crumbing, will be the one I remember whenever I read this play.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance; directed by James Bundy; Yale Repertory Theatre

October 22 to November 13, 2010