Ethan Heard

Heartfelt Opera

Erismena at Yale Baroque Opera Project; Opera Triple Bill at Yale School of Music

Last month, Heartbeat Opera staged its first full production at the Sheen Center in New York and was hailed by the Wall Street Journal for “reformatting the opera experience from the grand to the deliberately intimate.” The artistic directors of Heartbeat—Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, both graduates of the Yale School of Drama’s directing program—are, separately, back in New Haven to stage two programs of opera at Yale, this weekend and next, respectively.

Heard is back to direct for the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which began in 2007 with Heard, then a recent Yale grad, directing its first two productions. This time it’s Cavelli’s Erismena—the first YBOP production in English—for two performances at the University Theater, April 25 and 26 at 3 p.m., with Grant Herreid as musical director. Meanwhile, Proske is back in town to direct the Yale School of Music’s spring “Opera Triple Bill,” which will feature a program of three short operas: Lee Henry Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, Vaughn Williams’ Riders to the Sea, and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 2 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall, with musical direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin.

Heard’s work while at YSD featured much varied exploration of the possibilities of musical theater. His thesis show, Sunday in the Park with George, showed a masterful use of the University Theater, and his team for creating Erismena’s great production values includes many of the same YSD graduates he worked with then: Reid Thompson, Oliver Wason, Hunter Kaczorowski. In his work at Yale Cabaret, where he was the artistic director 2012-13, Heard explored, in Basement Hades, the intimate possibilities of chamber music and theater, and, in a striking production of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, of performance and voice. His piece for Heartbeat last month, György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments, Heard says, in a sense “completes the trilogy.” The brilliant integration of the violinist/actor Jacob Ashworth with the singer/actor Annie Rosen—as a duo dressed in costumes of Kafka’s Prague—created an interplay of music and theater that has become characteristic for Heard. Using cinematic projections, props, subtitles, and schematic vignettes, Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments presents a darkly romantic take on the existential phrases and aphorisms that Kurtág compiled to accompany his fascinatingly diverse score. Heartbeat was fortunate to find, in the Sheen Center’s black box theater, perfect accommodations for its opera on an intimate scale.

To minimize the size of Yale's University Theater for the sake of the intimacy he values, Heard is staging Erismena with a thrust stage, thanks to set designer Reid Thompson. And, though the musicians will not be actors as in Kafka-Fragments, they will be quite visible. Indeed, one of the attractions of baroque opera for Heard is that “it predates the huge orchestrations and spectacle of Wagnerian opera.” With fewer instruments, the musicians can be part of the show, on the stage instead of languishing in a pit. And that means Heard gets to show off the very beautiful instruments of the period, such as harpsichord and viola di gamba.

That Heard has been directing so much baroque opera, he says, is “simply coincidence.” He is just as much engaged by the Broadway musical, not only in his pull-out-all-the-stops thesis show but in work at the Berkshire Festival in Massachusetts—last year Heard directed A Little Night Music and this summer he’ll return for Bells Are Ringing—as well as a teaching/directing stint at Princeton where he worked with students to stage The Producers at the McCarter Theatre. The YBOP production also features strong student work, with more than 15 Yale students, both undergraduate and graduate, as actors and musicians. Heard believes that Cavelli’s music is generally accessible to student singers and Erismena, because it was transposed into English by an early admirer, is particularly accessible to a general audience.

Heard is quick to point out that he’s not just a music man; he continues to direct non-musicals and non-operatic works and hopes to take a crack at Shakespeare soon. Indeed, in his view, Erismena, with its complicated love plot combining comedy and drama, blends aspects of A Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, and Pericles. Bringing this lively work to the stage—with anachronistic touches such as a Cupid on roller-skates—combines many if not all of the skills Heard has been honing since his first post-graduate assignments with YBOP.

The show is free and open to the public; reservations are suggested but not required: ybop.yale.edu

Louisa Proske’s thesis for her MFA in directing was a very colorful and somewhat operatic version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and that same year she also staged a special project: Francis Poulenc’s one act opera La Voix Humaine featuring Jamilyn Manning-White of the Yale School of Music in a wonderful singing/acting tour de force. What attracts Proske to opera is the power that music and the singing voice adds to the dimensions of theater. Working, as she is again this spring, with singers in the Yale School of Music, Proske finds that singers, who are rarely schooled in dramatic presentation, are thrilled by the challenge of acting. The opera bill this year, though chosen by a process Proske was not involved in, has certain through-lines that make for thematic interest. In particular, Proske points out that all three pieces feature rather commanding roles for women.

Bon Appetit, by Menotti’s one-time student Lee Henry Hoiby, is based on Julia Child’s cooking program, and brings actual food preparation, and Child’s off-beat charm, to opera. Williams’ Riders to the Sea is adapted from J. M. Synge’s early twentieth-century tragic play set in the Aran Islands of Ireland, and focuses on Maurya, a woman who has lost her husband and five of six sons to the sea. Finally, in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, one of opera’s most popular arias, “O mio babbino caro,” is sung by Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter. The opérette, derived from a story implied in Dante’s Divine Comedy, tells how Schicchi—punished in the Inferno for fraud—impersonates a man recently deceased so he can alter the man’s will at the request of his greedy family. Schicchi tricks the tricksters, but insists he did so after his daughter’s fond aria—“Oh My Beloved Father”—convinced him he must provide her with a dowry. In Proske’s view, Lauretta’s famous aria is actually a consummate bit of play-acting aimed to wrap dear old dad around her finger.

Tickets are $5-$10 for students, $10-$15, standard, at music-tickets.yale.edu

For Proske, opera is all about the heartfelt emotion that the human voice manifests in singing. In Heartbeat Opera’s spring production, Proske tempered the stringent tensions of Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments with a bright and bawdy take on Offenbach’s Daphnis and Chloé. The production, with its naïve lovers, randy Pan, and lovesick bacchantes sporting costumes that seemed to combine every pop culture fad since glam, was a riot of color and sound, and even the very visible costumed musicians engaged in some clowning. In Proske’s hands, Offenbach’s opérette doesn’t undermine true love, but it does make sexual attraction a key feature of the proceedings: Pan seemed a seedy rocker on the scent of young stuff, while the bacchantes were all-too-eager to lead Daphnis off to an orgy. And there was considerable fun with the “pipes” of Pan. Indeed, the entire production seemed startlingly contemporary as was the unusually young audience.

Later this summer, Heartbeat Opera will go on a retreat to determine the projects for next year. In the meantime, this spring in New Haven offers excellent opportunities to see these two talented and creative directors present opera with a flair for the theatrical and a feel for voice over spectacle.

Yale Baroque Opera Project: Cavalli’s Erismena
Directed by Ethan Heard; Musical Direction by Grant Herreid
Yale University Theater, April 25 and April 26, 3 p.m.

Yale Opera Triple Bill:
Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Williams’ Riders to the Sea, Hoiby’s Bon Appetit
Directed by Louisa Proske; Musical Direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin

Morse Recital Hall, May 2, 8 p.m.; May 3, 2 p.m.

Walk on the Wild Side

For the third February in a row, the Yale Cabaret became, for one night only, the “Yale School of Drag.” The annual event lets Yale School of Drama students transform themselves from one gender to the other, or to somewhere in between. Most of the numbers, in the manner of many drag performances, are lip-synched to well-known songs, songs that help create interesting tensions between the actual performer of the song—on the recording—and the flamboyant appearance of the performer before us. “Us,” is an audience that, for the most part, are friends and familiars of the performers, shouting, hooting, stretching out yearning hands to proffer dollar bills at whichever figure most stirs our fancy. The show gets three performances—8 p.m, 10 p.m., midnight—with the final show, this year, occurring in the first hour of Valentine’s Day, which, perhaps, added a bit more eros to the proceedings. In any case, as one habitué put it, the midnight show is “always drunker and sloppier,” and that’s the one I attended.

More raucous too, maybe, which means that sometimes, even with the performers miked—which is not usually the case at the Cabaret—it was easy to miss some of the banter. Our hostesses, James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood, as “flawless” (Beyoncé), super hot “bad girls” (M.I.A.), sported a series of dazzling changes of costumes, wigs, make up, establishing a standard of glamour that spoke for itself and that future productions will be hard-pressed to match. The guys-as-girls were joined by two girls-as-guys: Emily Zemba and Kelly Kerwin sported male drag that resembled the cool, cute-guy regalia of doo-wop groups. The staging of the show boasted a low catwalk that, it was pointed out, resembled a phallus, and an overhead light array pulsed and shimmered and exploded in orgasmic arrays of color.

“Dragaret,” as it was dubbed, offers an opportunity for as many students as possible to strut their stuff as cross-dressers, but the point of the strutting is to try on a variety of “gender styles” abroad in our culture—and, as with a real drag show, to curry favor with the audience. In a sense, each new act is a come-on, an invitation to be caught up in the charms of a particularly effective self-styling. Some of the pop culture reference points were clearly chosen for maximum familiarity and fetishizing: Fabian Aguilar won many hearts as Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, complete with raised tentacles, putting it out there to April Smith’s “Terrible Things”; Sara Holdren strode out of many a childhood fantasy as David Bowie’s character in Labyrinth, rocking “Magic Dance.”

Sometimes the choices were deliberately laughable: The Cab’s Artistic Directors, Hugh, Tyler, Will, and Managing Director, Molly, as with any Cab show, welcomed the audience and presented the fire speech, but arrayed as queens of comedy, TV’s Golden Girls. In other cases, there were mixed emotions, as in a bearded and page-boyed Ben Fainstein vamping to Patsy Kline’s heartfelt “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” complete with giant-size ashtray and cigarettes, or Kristen Ferguson’s show-stopping striptease—denuding herself of an oversize beard, huge fright wig, falsies, gown, and boots—to Radiohead’s popular song “Creep,” with its grand heart-on-a-sleeve gestures, “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?” In its effective matching of music, visuals and emotion, Ferguson’s number was a highpoint of the show.

Other memorable moments? I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention four male dramaturgs—Taylor Barfield, David Bruin, David Clauson, Nahuel Telleria—in stylish female drag, accompanied by a female dramaturg, Ashley Chang, as a giant plush penis, pulsing to “Lady Marmalade,” or Helen Jaksch’s very effective solo number, “Le Jazz Hot,” with half of her in male drag and half in female drag, or Jean Kim, accompanied by her posse, Rasean Davonte Johnson and Sean Walters, wowing the crowd with crisp Psy moves to the Korean YouTube hit “Gangnam Style.” The one song of the night actually sung, with Farrell in Joni Mitchell mode on acoustic guitar joining Kerwin and Zemba as “Kenni and the Z notes” on vocals, was Laura Marling’s “Night After Night,” a morose love song a bit lost amidst an audience at times more vocal than the performers. A spoken portion of the program, styled after the TV show Laugh-In, offered jokes that worked when risqué, but preferred to risk the corniness of Rowan and Martin (“Why couldn’t Mozart find his music teacher?” “He was hidin’.”)

The Yale School of Drag originated three years ago when Ethan Heard, the Artistic Director of Yale Cabaret for 2012-13, proposed a night of drag. That year the show happened to coincide with a record-breaking blizzard. The weather was kinder this year, merely bitingly cold. Since the School of Drama is a three-year program, this year marks the last appearance of some who were there at the start. Hosts Blankson-Wood, Cusati-Moyer, Kerwin, and Zemba—all third years—brought it on home for the class of 2015 in style.

As a night to show-off costumes, make up, and the considerable technical skill required for 15 different acts and at least 30 performers, Yale School of Drag continues to gain in extravagance. The guiding idea seems to be that gender is a question of appearance and effect, and, in some ways, always a performance. These spirited performers, some so very clearly at home in their guises, dismiss the notion of the sexes as “opposites” and create a very playful sense of the theatrical possibilities of the in-between.

Yale Cabaret February 13, 2015

Yale Cab Recap

The 45th Season of the Yale Cabaret closed last month, and before this month is out the latest version of the Yale Summer Cabaret—titled “A Summer of Giants”—will open. In the meantime, here is my recap of last season, picking my favorite shows and contributors in thirteen categories. In each, plays are listed in order of appearance, except for my top choice which comes last. Play (pre-existing work): Small casts—often only two actors—dominated the choices the Cab presented this year: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim Soleimanpour’s interrogation of freedom, artistic purpose, and the value of theater was one of the more challenging nights at the Cab; Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s riff on the agonistic love affair with rock’n’roll of two second-generation beat poets boasted great language and expressive movement; The Small Things, Enda Walsh’s speech-driven and static two-character play made almost all its bizarre and frightening action take place in the audience’s minds; Arnold Schoenberg and Alberg Giraud’s musical and poetic extravaganza, Pierrot Lunaire, was a feast for both eyes and ears, a dramatic achievement of the religion of art; and . . . The Island, Athol Fugard’s collaborative play with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, combined the intimate talk of two inmates in South Africa with their chosen roles as Antigone and Creon to create a powerful portrayal of the politics of art under repressive regimes.

Play (original): The plays originating with YSD students ran quite a gamut, the ones I liked best provoked visceral responses hard to ignore: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, Lauren Dubowski, and created by the Ensemble, presented entertaining songs and a stand-up routine about terminal illness early in life; Phillip Howze’s All of What You Love and None of What You Hate is a multi-character drama about teen pregnancy and coping, full of vibrant language and characterizations; Jackson Moran’s All This Noise offered one man’s take on a family tragedy and his personal outrage at mental health treatment in our country; The Bird Bath, created by the Ensemble, was an expressive and harrowing account of an artist’s mental dissolution told via expressive movement and voice-overs; and . . . This., script by Mary Laws, dramatized personal memories about moments of connection and disconnection in the New Haven and Yale communities to telling effect.

Sound: Sound can be a subtle category, sometimes a bit difficult to assess after the fact, and, when most effective, one tends not to notice it; my choices represent strong impressions that stayed with me: the busy soundscape of The Fatal Eggs (Matt Otto and Joel Abbott); the brash echoes on the voices of the poets in Cowboy Mouth (Palmer Hefferan); the aural mosaic of voice-overs, music, cell calls, and sound effects in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate (Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and Sang Ahm); the sound effects, voice-overs, use of music, all with a dated feel in Lindbergh’s Flight (Tyler Kieffer); and . . . the very effective interplay of sound, voice-over, and original music in The Bird Bath (Palmer Hefferan).

Music: Cab 45 was strong in shows involving original compositions, and for use of music as a major ingredient of the show: the songs of life, death, disease and defiance created and performed by the on-stage ensemble—Timothy Hassler, Hansol Jung, MJ Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield—in Ain’t Gonna Make It; the music created by Mickey Theis to accompany his character’s rock star posteuring in Cowboy Mouth; the tunefully Terpsichorean offerings—both in writing and playing—by Timothy Hassler and Paul Lieber in Cat Club; the moods of Palmer Hefferan’s original score for The Bird Bath; and . . . the first-rate performance of Schoenberg’s challenging score for Pierrot Lunaire, by Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Virginia Warnken, soprano.

Lighting: To enjoy a play, you have to be able to see it, of course—but often Lighting goes well beyond mere illumination to become an expressive part of the play; some instances I was particularly struck by: Meredith Reis’s diverse sources of illumination and fun lighting effects in The Fatal Eggs; Oliver Wason’s dramatic lighting of tableaux moments in This.; Masha Tsimring’s evocative illuminations of the tripartite action of The Bird Bath; Joey Moro’s nimble lighting of the wacky subversions of Lindbergh’s Flight; and . . . Oliver Wason’s highly effective visual enhancement of Pierrot Lunaire.

Puppets, projections, props, and special effects: More than a few shows this year indulged in puppetry—shadow puppets and actual puppets—as well as a fair share of projections, videos, and engagement with unusual props; here are some stand-outs: the use of projections and props in All This Noise, Nicholas Hussong, projection designer; the shadow puppet miniatures that illustrated the story of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, Lee O’Reilly, Technical Director; Joey Moro, Assistant Technical Director; Carmen Martinez, Puppetry Captain; the playful use of shadow puppets to tell one of the wild stories written by the twins in The Twins Would Like to Say, Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski, Co-Directors; the projections and special effects that punctuated the lurid tale of The Ugly One, Nicholas Hussong, Projection Designer, Alex Bergeron, Technical Director; and . . . the evocative projections (Solomon Weisbard and Michael F. Bergmann) and flying puppets (Dustin Wills, with Nicole Bromley and Dan Perez, Technical Directors) that enlivened The Fatal Eggs.

Scenic Design: One of the great joys of the Cab is seeing how, with each new production, the space changes to be made to be what it has to be; some remarkable transformations include: the busy set and shenanigans, like swinging doors, in The Fatal Eggs (Kate Noll and Carmen Martinez); the sprawling Chelsea bohemia of Cowboy Mouth (Meredith Ries); the cartoonish play space of Milk Milk Lemonade (Brian Dudkiewicz, and Samantha Lazar, Assistant Set Designer); the three spaces with three different personalities of The Bird Bath (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez); and . . . the conceptualized prison commissary space with raised stage of The Island (Kristen Robinson).

Costumes: When it comes to transforming a group of actors, the effects are sometimes subtle, sometimes outlandish: the colorful clothing—where the shetl meets vaudeville—of The Fatal Eggs (Nikki Delhomme); the spot-on pre-punkdom, plus lobster suit, of Cowboy Mouth (Jayoung Yoon); the Edwardian filigree of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda (Seth Bodie); the dowdy get-ups and clownish make-up of The Small Things (Nikki Delhomme); and . . . Milk Milk Lemonade (Soule Golden): I’ll never forget Lico in a chicken suit, and whenever penis-pajamas catch on, say you saw them here first.

Ensemble: Just as technical effects are often achieved by collaboration, so are dramatic effects—the Cab thrives on ensemble work and here are some special commendations: the entire cast of The Fatal Eggs—Chris Bannow, Sophie von Haselberg, Dan O’Brien, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Ilya Khodosh—presenting a bizarre collection of types; the entire cast of This.—Jabari Brisport, Merlin Huff, Ella Monte-Brown, Mariko Nakasone, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis—for superlative interactions and transformations, independent of gender considerations; the entire cast of Milk Milk Lemonade—Xaq Webb, Bonnie Antosh, Melissa Zimmerman, Lico Whitfield, Heidi Liedke—some of whom aren’t YSD students, for their game enactment of this colorful tale; our avatars and others in the audience-participation odyssey, Dilemma—Ben Fainstein, Hugh Farrell, Sarah Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, and Dan Perez—for taking us where we told them to go; and . . . Zie KollektiefKate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter—who broke down the Brechtian effort to break down “the walls,” with a vengeance, in Lindbergh’s Flight.

And special mention to the volunteers who bravely enacted, with audience members, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, script sight-unseen: Sara Holdren, Monique Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey, Brian Smallwood.

Actor: We’re always looking for a star, even in the midst of ensemble; for notable individual performances by a male actor: Timothy Hassler, as the terminally ill and memorably entertaining Eric in Ain’t Gonna Make It; Mickey Theis, as Slim, the guitar-wielding shit-kicker turned rocker in Cowboy Mouth; Paul Pryce, as John, the apartheid inmate with a vision of Antigone in The Island; Christopher Geary, as the self-questioning survivor in The Small Things; and . . . Jackson Moran, in All This Noise, for playing, more or less, himself in a one-man show that confronts the drama, sorrow and joys of real life and the realities of mental problems.

Actress: What moves us most in watching acting varies, but we know when an actress makes a part her own: Michelle McGregor, as the poet-groupie-Svengali called Canavale in Cowboy Mouth; Zenzi Willliams, as the teen, passive to the point of persecution in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate; Ceci Fernandez, as the innocent but pining for knowledge Esmeralda in Ermyntrude & Esmeralda; Emily Reilly, as the lonely woman with a tale to tell in The Small Things; and . . . Hannah Sorenson, as the schizophrenic Lenora Carrington—vomiting, bathing, withdrawing, and transcending—in The Bird Bath.

Direction: With so much going on that’s worth watching, who keeps it all together and makes sure it all comes off? The director, we assume; some special mentions: Dustin Wills, for the zany Soviet sci-fi extravaganza of The Fatal Eggs; Kate Attwell, for the gripping anti-apartheid drama of two prisoners learning what they represent in The Island; Monique Barbee, for the three-at-once manifestation of psychic distress and coping in The Bird Bath; Ethan Heard, for the creation of actions to illuminate rich compositions of poetry and music in Pierrot Lunaire; and . . . Margot Bordelon, for the subtle and sensitive enacting of the stories people tell (and don’t tell) about themselves in This.

Production: For overall production, it's no surprise that the favorites in other categories line up at the end; I've already acknowledged the directors of these shows, now it's time for the producers: This., produced by Whitney Dibo, with its strong ensemble work and vivid presentation, gave us insight into one another and ourselves; The Island, produced by Lico Whitfield, with its strong dialogue and innovative set, presented us with a visceral sense of theater’s power; The Bird Bath, produced by Emika Abe, with its mystery and misery, provided a sense of convulsive beauty (a surrealist mantra); Pierrot Lunaire, produced by Anh Le, showed us the sublime possibilities of musical theater; and . . . The Fatal Eggs, produced by Melissa Zimmerman, immersed us in the wild energy, complex staging, and surprise effects possible only at the Yale Cabaret.

That’s it for this year. Our thanks and best wishes to all who participated in the shows of the 45th season, and to all the staff, especially Artistic Director Ethan Heard, who chose the season, and Managing Director Jonathan Wemette, who kept it running so smoothly, and . . . see you next year for season 46: Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, and Kelly Kerwin, a trio of YSD dramaturgs will be, collectively, the Artistic Directors, and Shane D. Hudson will be the Managing Director, a post he filled in last year’s Summer Cabaret. Speaking of the Summer Cabaret, stay tuned for a preview with Artistic Director Dustin Wills of its offerings, which begin May 30th and end August 18th.

The Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season Artistic Director: Ethan Heard Managing Director: Jonathan Wemette Associate Artistic Director: Benjamin Fainstein Associate Artistic Director: Nicholas Hussong

Upcoming Carlotta Festival

Every year the graduating playwrights of the Yale School of Drama each have a final play produced, much as the graduating directors offer their thesis shows throughout the year.  For the playwrights, the occasion is called the Carlotta Festival of New Plays and it runs for two weeks in May, beginning a week from today.  Each play is directed by a graduating director and features, for the most part, first year acting students.

This year the line-up consists of Amelia Roper’s Lottie in the Late Afternoon, directed by Ethan Heard; Justin Taylor’s House Beast, directed by Jack Tamburri; MJ Kaufman’s Sagittarius Ponderosa, directed by Margot Bordelon.

Amelia Roper, a playwright from Australia, says she likes fiction of the modernist era and has devised a comedy that harkens to the comedies of manners of that period.  In Lottie in the Late Afternoon, the laughs derive from Lottie’s effort to create an ideal vacation for herself and her friends—a plan that goes awry, leading to tense and awkward situations that viewers may find hitting close to home.  In particular, Lottie is a play concentrating on a certain demographic now reaching their late thirties and coming to terms with the status of their relationships, their ambitions, and their pasts.

Taking place in the present during a weekend in the off season at a New England beach house, Roper’s play lets us into the intimate dynamics among a couple—Lottie and her husband Aaron—and two of Lottie’s best friends: Anne (married, but with a husband who chose not to come away for the weekend), and Clara, who has some history with Anne.  Roper says that in some ways the play is “all about the meals,” as the foursome have to sort out the usual tasks and tastes that make for a successful ménage—in the face of the kind of economic instabilities that may well be a defining context for this generation.  Add to that the fact that Lottie has packed a stack of books by the likes of E. M. Forster, Jane Bowles, and Iris Murdoch that purport to be vacation tales, but which help to cast over the proceedings a kind of nostalgia for a past that none of these characters has experienced, though they might like to wish they had.

Roper looks to plays by Will Eno, Sarah Ruhl, and Martin Crimp for inspiration, and sees in comedies such as hers a risk in registering “existential angst” as an aspect of otherwise vital friendships.  The drama in such situations is not found in major conflict, but in the characters’ struggles to get across feelings and insights amidst the disappointments of not connecting.  In other words, the play is as real as your next small social gathering—and maybe as desperate—but bound to be funnier.

Justin Taylor describes his play House Beast as a “comedy when trauma is possible.”  Fair enough, given that the play opens with a prologue set in 1992, during the early teens of two of the three characters—Chris and Matt—as they try to make a DIY horror film in an abandoned house in a fictional Californian suburb called Pleasant Valley.  Unexpectedly on the scene as well is Matt’s older brother Terry, as a wild afternoon ensues involving some creepy occurrences, a flying goat—and something dramatic between Terry and Chris that ends badly.

Skip ahead twenty years and we find Matt and Chris hooking up—or almost—via the “grinder app” that helps gays get together.  In the interim, Matt has moved to LA to be a Hollywood type (or so he hopes), Chris has led a peripatetic life with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and Terry, a married man with two daughters, is a well-liked firefighter with a closeted secret life.  House Beast looks at how past shame and trauma can haunt the present. We enter the dynamics of a triangle where the two possible love objects for Chris are brothers—and he has baggage with both.  The characters are amusing—with the two brothers playing to type and Chris something of a grandiose progressive idealist—though things can get ugly.

Taylor cites Caryl Churchill as a master of the dark comedy he aims for, and says the romantic aspects of the play engage with the timely question of whether happiness is sustainable.  His characters would all like to find a means to change the outcome of their pasts together.  Taylor gives the characters enough room in which to grow and enough rope with which to hang themselves.      

For MJ Kaufman in Sagittarius Ponderosa, the only thing that’s really sustainable is what he calls “the landscape of constant change.”  Set in central Oregon, Kaufman’s native state, in a landscape dominated by Ponderosa pines, the play depicts three generations of a family coming to grips with various kinds of transformation in the dark time of the year ruled by Sagittarius—late November.

For Archer, there are the changes that come with turning thirty on top of a gender transformation his family hasn’t quite accepted; for Archer’s dad, hitting sixty and terminally ill from diabetes, there’s that most permanent of transformations—from life into death; and for Archer’s grandmother, in her 80s, there is the possibility of a late-in-life love, though it’s Archer (Angela, to her) she’s trying to make a match for.  Landscape in the play is not only emotional and familial, it also partakes of the concerns of Oregon where research into controlled burning, as a technique of combating forest fires, brings a researcher named Owen into the family circle and gives resonance to the play’s location.

The play travels a year from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, allowing us to see change and development in the characters over time.  The naturalism of the play accommodates devices such as a love potion Grandmother wields, and a ghostly visitation from Archer’s late father as he merges with Peterson, a neighbor in the form of a puppet.  Kaufman’s play began as an assignment from Sarah Ruhl that encouraged him to work with Ovidian metamorphosis.  The work has allowed Kaufman to engage with the kind of archetypal naturalism found in Thornton Wilder, a favorite playwright of his, handling major themes of love and death and identity with a light touch.

Each playwright feels blessed by the director each is working with.  For Roper, Ethan Heard’s sensitivity to characters is perfect for her comedy of relationships; Taylor finds Jack Tamburri’s gutsy energy particularly helpful in creating the exaggerated memory of adolescence the prologue aims for; and Kaufman was inspired by the personal urgency and great visual sense Margot Bordelon has brought to the staging of his play.  All three pairings seem matches made in heaven and we can expect a trio of brave, thoughtful and entertaining plays at this year’s Carlotta Festival.

 

The Carlotta Festival of New Plays

The Yale School of Drama

May 6-14, 2013

1156 Chapel Street, New Haven

Moony Tunes

Verses are holy crosses / On which poets silently bleed to death.” The Yale Cabaret’s intense and effective production of Pierrot Lunaire—music by Arnold Schoenberg, poems by Alberg Giraud—combines a small chamber combo (Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet), a soprano (Virginia Warnken) and an actor (James Cusati-Moyer) in the role of Pierrot.  The show, directed by Ethan Heard with an admirable sense of the work’s theatrical dimensions, also used, atmospherically, handwritten titles projected on the walls to give us an aphoristic précis for each new segment.

While there is a narrative arc, of sorts, that leads through the three parts—seven sections each—the sections at times have a snapshot or tableau-like intensity, illustrating a certain moment in the rather symbolic and emotionally fraught life of the quintessential sad clown.  As Pierrot, Cusati-Moyer is phenomenal.  The part requires great resources in mime and movement and in the kinds of body language and facial clues that made for stars of the silent screen.  Cusati-Moyer has all the nuances firmly in hand.

Though antic, this Pierrot is not comic, exactly, nor is he ever campy.  And that alone is worthwhile.  While we should find something familiar in the figure of Pierrot, it’s important that his deep responses to things estrange us from him even as it invites us.  But then that’s exactly what Schoenberg’s music does as well.  In its refusal to use any easy, romantic flights to play upon our emotions, the score of Opus 21 is daunting and demanding, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear this music played with such dispatch.  Even more so when the musicians playing it wear half-masks and costumes that make them seem vaguely threatening escapees from a German music conservatory.  The mood of the piece is very much of a modernist Fasching party.

The lighting throughout the show is muted, moody, illuminating only what is necessary.  Pierrot often moves in a spotlight, as does the impressive Warnken.  Her interactions with Pierrot are intense: sometimes chiding him, or bedeviling him with “flecks” of moonlight, or playing a maternal figure, both stoic and longing—her sobbing singing at the end of the segment called “Madonna” is quite expressive.  The musicians get into the act at times as well—I particularly liked Clare Monfredo standing upon a box to create a rain of rose petals for “Columbine.”

I saw the show twice: the first time, Thursday night, in a seat better situated for the tableau-like effects of placement and staging—such as watching Pierrot, a dandy, powder his face and examine each feature in a handheld mirror; on Friday night, I was seated nearer Warnken’s section of the playing area, so I could catch the words more clearly and was perfectly placed, it seemed to me, to hear the interplay of the instruments.  Consequently, I paid less attention to the action.  I don’t mean to say the show demanded an “either/or” attention, but rather that it offered much to both sound and sight, in a spirit that seems to me true to the melancholy and oddity, the glimmerings of joy and sorrow of this richly conceived opus.

Given the highly wrought tension between the score and the action, Pierrot Lunaire is the kind of production that creates rather different responses in different viewers.  Poetic logic more than narrative logic abides, and to that end Giraud draws upon a repertoire of recognizable conceits—being “moondrunk” or “homesick”—and figures, such as Columbine, the Madonna, the Dandy.  Favorite segments for me were "Night," an almost surreal and discordant segment, and "Serenade," featuring very evocative cello.  Elsewhere there are the kind of sacrificial gestures that befit a paschal figure—so much so that staging this work on Easter weekend amounts to a religious solemnity, for those in the “religion of art” camp, that is.  And this is high art indeed.

 

Pierrot Lunaire Music by Arnold Schoenberg Poems by Albert Giraud; Translation by Otto Erich Hartleben Directed by Ethan Heard

Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Dramaturg: Helen Jaksch; Costume Designer: Maria Hooper; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Projection Designer: Shawn Boyle; Stage Manager and Producer: Anh Le; Music Coach: Michael Friedmann

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street March 28-30, 2013

Coping with Crisis

Jackson Moran’s All This Noise, a one-man show at the Yale Cabaret, is a courageous exploration of one family’s hardships, made more gripping by the fact that the family is Moran’s own.  Drawing a straight line on a wall with chalk, Moran proceeds to note key events in a linear series that is truly harrowing: From the early signs of mental instability in Moran’s younger brother Chris, who also suffers from seizures, to a tumor that ends their father’s life prematurely, to Moran’s and his brother’s alcoholism, to Chris’s suicidal tendencies, to a fateful surgical procedure that leaves Chris seriously impaired, to the indignities of cuts in mental healthcare that afflict New Jersey, where Chris is institutionalized. Along the way, Moran offers comments from mental health professionals—about Chris, specifically, from one very sympathetic care-giver at Hagedorn in New Jersey, and about the situation in NJ from someone involved in the politics of Governor Christie’s cuts.  Moran takes on Christie himself in a staged community talk-back in which Christie (Moran gets at the Jersey-swagger of the man) tries to dodge an outright attack from Moran, as the latter grows more insistent about the contradictions in the public stance that says, in the wake of national tragedies like Newtown, “we must do more about mental healthcare,” while yanking the plug on institutions like Hagedorn.  In other words, Moran has an ax to grind and the times we’re living through serve to whet it.

All This Noise is at its most appealing in showing Moran’s concern for his brother—who at one time had ambitions to be an actor—and the latter’s deterioration.  The play is at its most moving in suggesting the human costs of mental illness, both for the patient and those close to him, particularly the young men’s mother.  And Moran is at his most passionate in taking on the shallow political discourse that surrounds events like Newtown and the effort to address healthcare in the U.S.

The play is enlivened by moments such as Moran re-enacting his audition at YSD—a soliloquy from Hamlet, though perhaps the one about bearing “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” would be more apropos—and by jarring moments such as Chris’s breakdown at a Christmas party where a crescendo of voices apprizes us of how nightmarish even mundane social interactions can become.

All This Noise is certainly involving, and it poses many unresolved dramatic moments: in hearing of the trajectory of Chris’ condition, we only learn “the facts,” not much about how anyone, much less Chris himself, actually feels about what has occurred.  Chris, despite photos from his life, remains a mystery at the heart of the play, a collection of catastrophes.  We hear little about the decision to undergo an operation on his amygdala and why the procedure produced the outcome it did.  Moran is not interested in assigning blame for Chris’s state, but rather in drawing-out its dramatic potential and poignancy—at play’s end we hear Chris recite after his brother, line by line, a poem he wrote.  As a slice-of-life, the play is effective in making us sad that a life of potential has come to this pass.  As a statement, the play aims to make us angry that mental healthcare remains such a low priority for many state governments.

Moran is impressively nuanced as an actor, likeable as a narrator, and quite skilled at keeping our attention and at providing glimpses of his life with Chris.  The production is refreshingly free of caricatures and maintains a stripped-down intensity that aids its personal, confessional nature.  All This Noise is a brave and unsettling tightrope walk across the abysses that lurk in real life.

 

All This Noise Created by Jackson Moran With Ethan Heard, Kate Ivins, and Martha Jane Kaufman

Additional text by Christopher Moran Additional script development with Alyssa K. Howard, Jack Tamburri, and Masha Tsimring

Director: Ethan Heard; Dramaturg: Martha Jane Kaufman; Scenic Designer: Souri Yazdanjou; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard; Producer: Kate Ivins

Yale Cabaret February 21-23, 2013

Coming Up at The Cabaret

Yale’s spring semester starts this week, so that means not only are the kids back in town but so is the Cab.  The Yale Cabaret has announced its new line-up and the first show of the second half of the season—with ten shows rather than the traditional nine—should be getting ready to go up even as we speak. That show is All of What You Love and None of What You Hate, a play by Phillip Howze as recent as last year, about a teenage girl coming to a major decision about herself with what Artistic Director Ethan Heard describes as “a lot of noise” coming at her from her mother, her boyfriend and a friend.  The play is very fast-paced and contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that three of its four actors are First Years in the YSD program.  The play is directed by Kate Tarker, a 2nd-year Playwright, who worked in the fall on the Cab’s Cat Club.  January 17-19.

The Island is an early-ish play by Athol Fugard, developed with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in his Brechtian period, 1972, and set in a prison cell in Robben Island, the South African prison that held Nelson Mandela at the time.  The two men in the cell are rehearsing Antigone, Sophocles’ great play about a clash with the State in the name of mourning, ritual and blood ties.  The play, directed by native South African and 3rd-year dramaturg Kate Attwell, stars Winston Duke and Paul Pryce, both 3rd-Year Actors, recently shown to great effect in Iphigenia Among the Stars.  January 24-26.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, a “naughty puppet play” derived from the naughty epistolary novella by Lytton Strachey.  Directed by 2nd-year Costume Designer Hunter Kaczorowski (who recently did such an excellent job on the YSD’s production of Sunday in the Park with George), the play’s titular characters confide in each other about all sorts of things that, we imagine, young Edwardian ladies were not supposed to notice, much less comment upon.  It’s an intimate world of bow-wows and pussycats and whimsical euphemisms. February 14-16.

The first of the two shows this semester not derived from a pre-existing source, All This Noise* is the creation of 3rd-year Actor Jackson Moran, who directed last semester’s tour de force, Cowboy Mouth.  In this one-man show based upon interviews with persons who have had experience with mental illness—as professionals, patients, and relatives—Moran seeks to create some of that “conversation about mental health” that politicians in the media profess an earnest interest in, but which seems to never get started. February 21-23.

The second show originating with YSD students is The Bird Bath, a movement piece created by The Ensemble and directed by 3rd-year Actor Monique Barbee, who shone in last semester’s Sunday in the Park with George and last summer’s K of D, at the Summer Cabaret.  Inspired by the art of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington*—partner of Max Ernst—this piece uses text from the artist's account of her experiences in a mental institution. February 28-March 2.

Contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The Small Things is a chilling play for two actors, directed by 3rd-year dramaturg Emily Reilly.  The characters, a man and a woman, tell stories in a kind of dialect, both to explore the power of speech and to reconstruct occurrences from a devastating past. March 7-9.

Lindbergh’s Flight by Bertolt Brecht was written as a radio play with music by Kurt Weill.  As carried out by an Ensemble that includes Kate Attwell and 3rd-year Actors Brenda Meaney and Gabe Levey, the play, Heard says, is “mischievous fun” with potential for audience participation, and a political dimension to the hero worship of Lindbergh. March 14-16.

Heard’s own project this semester is a production of Arthur Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or Opus 21.  A moody musical piece involving 21 poems by Belgian poet Albert Giraud, the composition dates from 1913 and is an open-ended working through of Symbolist motifs, most notably the figure of “the sad clown” Pierrot.  The work calls for five instrumentalists and a soprano, but Heard is still deciding how much action will be expected from the musicians and how many actors will be involved.  In any case, the piece seems an even more ambitious combination of music and drama than Basement Hades, the show Heard directed in last year’s Cab.  March 28-30.

The Twins Would Like to Say, by collaborators Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, continues the “twinning” that seems a theme this semester.  And like E & E, it involves two girls looking on at their community, and, like The Small Things, it involves the rigors of a private, shared life.  Directed by a duo, Lauren Dubowski and Whitney Dibo, two 2nd-year Dramaturgs, the play is about twin sisters from the Caribbean trying to cope with life in Wales.  The play is usually presented “promenade” style, which means the audience moves around, spending time in one area or another as things happen simultaneously. April 4-6.

The final show of the season is Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One, directed by 2nd-year Director Cole Lewis, who directed the gripping and entertaining show “Ain’t Gonna Make It” in the fall semester.  This four-person play takes place in a slightly futuristic world in which a person who has been deemed the ugliest has undergone plastic surgery to become the most beautiful.  The play is about appearance and substance, we might say, but also about the worship of beauty in our looks-conscious culture. April 11-13.

And that’s that.  See you at the CAB.

 

The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

*Corrections: the original post used the working title Halfway House for the piece entitled All This Noise, and misidentified Leonora Carrington as Dora Carrington, a British artist in the Bloomsbury Group.

 

Broadway on York with George

Rarely does Broadway come to York Street, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the thesis show from YSD directing student Ethan Heard, brings to the University Theater a sense of the “big production.”  Heard’s approach, with Scenic Designer Reid Thompson, makes the most of the huge stage space at the UT, letting props rise and fall, letting the wings remain visible throughout, setting the orchestra at the back of the stage, using a raised, tilted platform as “la grande jatte”—the setting for French painter Georges Seurat’s neo-impressionist masterpiece—and staging the scenes in George’s studio at the footlights. Not only does Heard’s production use stage space in all its variety, it uses painterly space in interesting ways: there are empty canvas frames to let us see George (Mitchell Winter) at work, and hanging sketches to show us what he’s  so busily working on.  When one of the sketches explodes into color thanks to some wonderful work with projections (Nicholas Hussong), the visual panache of the show ratchets up a notch.  All in all, the show is a spectacular, from the care with which the costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) match the figures in Seurat’s painting, to the use of compositional space in arranging the figures, to the effects of color and light (Oliver Watson, Lighting Design) able to suggest the Neo-Impressionist’s approach, to—in Act Two, set in the Eighties—hanging TVs and subtly illuminated canvases, to say nothing of one helluva blue suit.

In the cast, the star of the show is Monique Bernadette Barbee as George’s girlfriend and reluctant model, Dot, and, in Act Two, as Marie, Dot’s daughter who claims George as her father.  Barbee seems simply born to be on a stage, able to find Dot’s roguish nature, her plaintive bid to be George’s main love—she loses out to painting—and her strength in “moving on.”  As Marie, Barbee's delivery of “Children and Art,” hunched in a wheel-chair, is the most affecting segment of Act Two, and her bravura opening song of Act One, “Sunday in the Park with George” is, frankly, a hard act to follow.  The play starts off with its best bit, in other words, and we have to wait awhile before anything as enthralling takes place again.

Along the way, there’s fun with two culture vultures, Jules (Max Roll) and Yvonne (Ashton Heyl), in “No Life,” movement and mood from the entire company in “Gossip” and “Day Off”—Robert Grant handles the physicality of Boatman well, and Marissa Neitling and Mariko Nakasone are chipper and silly as Celeste 1 and Celeste 2—and “Beautiful,” a thoughtful song delivered in a sparkling vocal by a reminiscing Old Lady (Carmen Zilles).  The professional and personal setbacks of George are paralleled to his increasing obsession with his method, and that’s enough to keep the wheels turning within a set that never stays still.

And Act One does deliver a great ending to match the great beginning: the entire Company—and all the tech assistance—is to be commended for making “Sunday” come together.  It’s the sequence in which the pieces of George’s great canvas finally fall into place, and it’s one of those theatrical moments often referred to as a “triumph of the human spirit,” except here it’s actually the triumph of artistic method.  Sunday on the Isle of La Grand Jatte is the painting that showed the full artistic possibilities of Seurat’s method, generally called “pointillism” (after the French word “point” or “dot”), and seeing the composition come together, as George, singing his mantra, moves the quarrelsome and busy-body characters into their defining places, in a burst of color and with the best melody in the play, gives one of those curtains that theater is all about.

The problem is that Sunday in the Park with George has little to offer by way of an Act Two.  Perhaps, in the Eighties, when the play debuted, seeing the Eighties artworld put on stage had a freshly satirical edge, but from our standpoint now, it’s just an excuse to dress up the characters in clothes of yet another “period” (I particularly liked the costumes for George (Winter, as Seurat’s alleged great-grandson), Naomi Elsen (Ashton Heyl, as a stagey video artist), Blair Daniels (Carmen Zilles, as a brittle art critic) Billy Webster (Matt McCollum, in quintessential art connoisseur duds), and Alex (Dan O’Brien, reeking of SoHo).  Indeed, looking the part is pretty much being the part in Act Two, as there is even less in the way of characterization available for these actors.  Again, it’s Barbee, as Marie and Dot, who gets the plum bits, and she delivers; Barbee's rascally Marie upstaging her grandson at his art expo makes her very much Dot's daughter.

As Act One George, Winter does intensity well, making us feel how driven and difficult George can be.  His best song segment is the playful mocking of his models and patrons in the voice of two dogs in “Day Off,” and in duet with Barbee for the quite affecting number “We Do Not Belong Together,” a song that spells out the romantic chasm between the lovers.  In Act Two, Winter and the Company put a lot of energy into “Putting It Together” but there’s something in his manner that makes this George not matter to us.  Ostensibly, the point is to bring present-day George into line with previous century George, but there’s not much pay-off in that happening because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

As entertainment, the play’s comedy is a bit wan, having to do mostly with hypocritical French bourgeois and stupid American tourists (Matt McCollum and Carly Zien—we could’ve used more of them) of the 19th century, and preening, pretentious art-world aficionados of the 20th.  Even with its clever opening song, “It’s Hot Up Here,” which matches the discomfort of actors forced to remain motionless with figures frozen on a canvas for all time, Act Two is mostly anti-climax.

The YSD production works as an ambitious staging of a bit of Broadway and its pleasures are not to be missed.  Sondheim and Lapine are best at characterizing that sequence of Sundays in the park, and Heard and company are best at putting all the pieces together.  As the song says, “There are worse things.”

 

Sunday in the Park with George Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine Directed by Ethan Heard

Musical Director, Conductor, Orchestrator: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Setting Up a Sunday in the Park

Opening December 14th on the University Theater stage is a revival of Sunday in the Park with George, the Pulitzer-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  The show will be the thesis production of Ethan Heard, third-year directing student at the Yale School of Drama and currently the Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret.  It’s by no means a regular thing for a YSD thesis show to be a big, popular Broadway musical, but, Heard says, he’s found there are many “closeted musical theater lovers” at the Drama School, and his fellow colleagues have rallied to the production, which has been in rehearsals since early November.

Heard says he favors “big-hearted shows that move me, nourish me, and teach me.”  Sondheim “is a genius, and Sunday is one of the most important pieces of theater in the last fifty years.”  Heard has seen three professional productions and sees the work as a fully satisfying, “wildy theatrical” project.  When he proposed the musical for his directing project, Heard found that Victoria Nolan, Deputy Dean of YSD, also loves Sondheim and that, as Acting Instructor Ron Van Lieu points out, it’s not uncommon for YSD alums to find themselves in musicals.  Indeed, Heard feels fortunate that the School currently boasts sufficient vocal talent to bring off the ambitious project, which features a cast of about fourteen, and that “pretty much every one has been in a musical.”

As Heard has learned in the rehearsals thus far, directing such a spectacle requires skills in “traffic control.”  At an early rehearsal I attended, there was considerable satisfaction in watching the finale of Act One find its pace: the complex composition that is La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat comes together to the tune of “Sunday.”  It’s a moment that is both lyrical and epic in establishing the relation between two kinds of composition: the painterly kind which yields the tableaux we see forming before our eyes, a bourgeois slice of life from late nineteenth-century Paris, and the writerly kind that consists of the words and music of Sondheim and Lapine, giving expression to the ambiance surrounding the painting.  Seeing students who are still discovering their parts find their places in the great oeuvre was fascinating.

The kind of acting Sunday requires is a departure from the kind of “kitchen-sink dramas” more common on the contemporary stage, Heard says.  Musicals are stylized and, unlike works in the public domain, there are few liberties that can be taken with the material.  The score makes its demands and finding room for interpretation might be said to be one of the challenges.  For Heard, much of the dramatic value of a musical is in the “thrill of singing,” with the songs producing “tour de force moments” that, like speeches in Shakespeare, create a poetry that interprets the characters’ feelings, allowing them to be larger than life.

Heard believes that, from our current perspective, what Sunday says about making art is instructive.  The play juxtaposes the artistic life in the 1880s—as emblematized by Georges Seurat, a loner who sacrificed love and a possible family for art—with the 1980s, where we see Seurat’s ficitional great-grandson, also called Georges, trying to cope with the demands of the self-contained art-world during one of its great “boom” periods.  Heard suggests that he and his contemporaries in the Drama School can find much to identify with: “Artists between 25 and 32, like the two Georges in the play, are trying to make a mark by creating a legacy that will realize their vision and voice in the world.  But there’s always the problem of balancing art and private life.”

Getting the balance right is not only a theme of the play, but a challenge of the production itself: balancing music and words, static tableaux with carefully choreographed action, the demands of art against the demands of romance, the obligations to personal vision and to collective concerns, and the desire to find an overarching aesthetic responsive and rigorous enough to celebrate the richness found in the twin demands of art and life.  Heard and his very talented and capable company, including his musical director, Daniel Schlosberg, of the Yale Music School, are working on it, by George.

The show will run from December 14-20 at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York Street.

Photographs by Nicholas Hussong

Passion and Purpose

After a brief week's hiatus, the Yale Cabaret resumes this week.  First up is a play about which not much can be said.  White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour presents a different actor each night who opens a sealed envelope containing the script and proceeds to enact what he or she finds.  The play, according to Artistic Director Ethan Heard, has taken the Fringe Festival circuit by storm but can’t be performed in the playwright’s native Iran.  Is the play incendiary toward the standards acceptable in Iran?  A blog has been set up to chronicle productions of the play, but don’t peek.  The best way to find out what it’s all about is to attend the show—more than once, as each performance will be different.  October 18-20. Playwright Sam Shepard has won 15 Obie Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize.  Patti Smith, poet and rock artist, has won the National Book Award.  But in the early Seventies they were both largely unknown and were living together as lovers.  During that time they wrote a play called Cowboy Mouth, which they also enacted.  Set in a hotel, the play involves Slim and Cavales, two artistic types trying to workout their differences.  Interestingly, the two actors in the show—Michelle McGregor and Mickey Theis—first undertook a long scene from the play in an acting workshop; meanwhile, designer Masha Tsimring worked on the play for a class assignment in a different class.  The stars aligned, obviously, and the trio united to propose the play, directed by Jack Moran, with Chris Bannow assisting, with aid from dramaturg (and Summer Cabaret Artistic Director) Tanya Dean as producer.  Oct. 25-27.

Cab #6 is a contemporary comedy: Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade tells the story of Emory, an 11 year-old boy growing up gay in a generic place called Malltown, U.S.A., where he lives on a farm and has, of course, a pet chicken.  Conkel’s play, which features a cast of six or seven, encourages transgendered casting in its account of the imaginative life of a kid who wants to be a star and get out of Malltown, while featuring some amazing ribbon dancing.  Xaq Webb, the Cab’s Associate Managing Director, stars, and the play is directed by second-year acting student Jabari Brisport.  Nov. 8-10.

The Chairs, by Eugene Ionesco, is the fourth (and final) show of the Cab’s fall semester that derives from a pre-existing play.  In this case, Ionesco’s absurdist play of social ceremony—an older male and female couple welcome unseen, but nonetheless characterized, guests to their gathering—has very definite requirements for staging.  YSD play-writing student Justin Taylor directs from his own new translation of the play, and part of the fun will be to see how Ionesco’s vision of the play can be made to work in the Cab’s protean but rather finite space. Nov. 15-17.

Paul Lieber and Tim Hassler have been working on songs together since they met in the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival in 2011,  while playing, with considerable aplomb, comic relief characters in the Tempest and As You Like It.  Drawing on their repertoire of original songs and their instincts as Cab performers, Lieber and Hassler bring us Cat Club, inspired (perhaps) by a YouTube video of a little girl wearing cat ears and intoning little ditties. Lieber works in projections; Hassler just gave a great musical performance in Cab #3; Ben Fainstein, who brought us last year’s final show Carnivale/Invisible, directs. What’s this show about?  What won’t it be about?  Nov.29-Dec. 1

The developers of Cab #9 have been working all semester to create the rules that will govern the show.  Dilemma is designed to involve the audience, requiring us to make choices—call them moral dilemmas—about how the actors enact the situations they meet with. Conceived by Michael Bateman with help from Reynaldi Lolong, Jack Tamburri, Cole Lewis, and The Ensemble, the show should be utterly unpredictable, depending on you, the audience.  Dec. 6-8.

Artistic Director Ethan Heard said he’s “thrilled so far” at the work submitted for consideration for the Cab’s slots, and some that didn’t make the cut may, with a little work, have a chance for spring.  The key to the shows chosen, he said, are "the passion and purpose of the show and the strength of the team involved."  The line-up purports to showcase the inventiveness and oddity, the rawness and vision that the Cab is known for.  See you at the CAB!

The 45th Time Around

Yale Cabaret Logo

Look around.  School’s back in session.  That means it must be time for the new theater season to get up and running.  Since the close of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories, the space at 217 Park Street has been transformed into readiness for the launch, on September 20, of the 45th season of the Yale Cabaret. With 45 years under its belt, serving up a feast of great theatrical experiences, as well as literal feasts in the form of inventive food service, the Yale Cabaret should be well-known to New Haveners and, indeed, to anyone in the region interested in adventurous theater—and that should certainly include New Yorkers on the lookout for out-of-town talent.  The Cabaret is entirely run by grad students in the Yale School of Drama, and each season provides a satisfying element of surprise, as audiences get to find out first hand what the current YSDers find provocative, exciting, and challenging.  Each play plays for only three nights, five shows—Thursday, twice on Friday, and twice on Saturday—thus the change-overs are fast and furious and the offerings are as varied as possible, making each week a fresh discovery.

Ethan Heard, a third-year director in YSD, is the Artistic Director this year, aided by Managing Director Jonathan Wemette, and by two Associate Artistic Directors, Ben Fainstein and Nicholas Hussong, and Associate Managing Director Xaq Webb.  In the previous two years of the program, Heard was involved in two memorable shows—for 2010-11, he directed and contributed as a writer to the gender-bending comedy musical Trannequin!, and in 2011-12, he directed a rather more brooding music-based theater piece called Basement Hades.  Which is a way of saying that Heard has already paid his dues in showing his commitment to the possibilities of the Cab.

I asked Heard if he could elaborate on what, as the leader of the enterprise, he might consider his vision of the season to be (when we spoke, only three of the first semester’s plays had been chosen, with the process of determining the offerings of the other six weeks to take place shortly).  Heard said he and his team had developed five core values to the Cab as they see it.  Enumerating them should give you a fair idea of the kinds of things the Cab hopes to accomplish this year.

First, “presence”—the “essential component of live theater” as practiced at the Cab, which, in practice means, that whatever you’re watching doesn’t feel removed or remote—it feels like it’s part of the space and the world the audience inhabits.  Next comes “inclusivity” and that has to do with who the audience is.  Heard would like all manner of theater-goers to attend, and so the Cab has established “Ambassadors” appointed to spread the word, to bring together groups to attend, and generally to act as grease to the wheels of publicity—in particular, Heard and company are in hopes that Yalelies, both grad and undergrad, who have a tendency to withdraw into their own circles and fields of study, will want to find out more about this local treasure.  Then there’s “risk”—a key element of the entire enterprise and one that needs stressing: while outreach says everyone should feel welcome to attend, there’s the proviso that a certain amount of risk is involved.  The work the Cab aims at stresses an active audience whose presence is part of the show in subtle ways.  Which leads us to 4: transformation, the idea that a theatrical experience can change you, that you will not leave exactly as you came.  It’s an interesting and challenging idea, perhaps common to performers and audience alike, but how often do we really accept it?  Certainly, we go looking for “something different,” but when we find it do we let it make us be different?  And for the cast and crew to stress transformation, the show can’t be just a resumé-stuffer—it’s got to be the sort of thing where being a part of it matters.  Finally, then, the big one: purpose.  Without getting too meta, we can say that the purpose of theater is to make us think about the purpose of anything and everything.  Why, as social beings, do we do what we do, and what does it mean to gather together to see human behavior—in all its varieties—enacted?

So, what’s ahead?

First up is an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novella, The Fatal Eggs (1925), translated from the Russian by Ilya Khodosh, and directed by Dustin Wills.  Heard describes Bulgakov as a “slightly livelier Chekhov” and the plot of the play sounds like it would be at home in a Hollywood B-movie of the Fifties: zoologist discovers a means to speed up the development of animal life, and the method is seen as a must-have boon when a dire plague exterminates Russia’s chickens.  The Chicken That Ate Moscow?  Maybe not, but Bulgakov landed in hot water for seeming to send-up the foundational 1917 revolution that gave us so much.  The Cab’s version will feature live music, giant puppets and a cast of seven assaying 62 roles.  And, unless I miss my guess, in the Cab’s hands a satiric, frightening, comic treatment of manipulative media and mass hysteria is bound to feel much closer to home than the U.S.S.R. of the 1920s.

Next up is This., a project developed by director Margot Bordelon, playwright Mary Laws, and dramaturg Alex Ripp from interviews conducted with volunteers from the Yale and the New Haven communities; the 40+ interviews, together with solicited anonymous emails, provided the material of the play, an ensemble piece that pulls together the kinds of stories people don't usually tell about themselves.  Heard said that themes of loss and regret seemed to surface the most, as the participants took stock of their lives and looked back on important decisions and outcomes.  In performance, the play is bound to be a fascinating experience: some in the audience will be seeing their stories turned into drama, others will be seated near the source of some element in the play, and the intimate space of the Cab should make those aspects of the drama very much present and part of the show.  Whose story is it, anyway?

Third will be Ain’t Gonna Make It—ostensibly the phrase that corresponds to the baleful acronym AGMI, which, when inscribed by a doctor on a patient’s chart, spells “finis.”  In this show, developed by Lauren Dubowski, dramaturg, Nicholas Hussong, design, Cole Lewis, directing, and Masha Tsimring, lighting design, Tim Brown is the patient and his confrontation with mortality will involve filmed projections, a band, and sentiments about life delivered via rockabilly and a strong visual presence.

Certainly these shows feature presence and risk and have purpose—the transformative power will be determined by you, the audience, and the Cab would like to make that experience as inclusive as possible.  These are divisive times we live in.  We should welcome the Cab’s ambition to be something we can all experience differently—together.

Theater, 45, youthful, engagement-minded, seeks adventurous audience looking for something different…

The Yale Cabaret 45 Ethan Heard, Artistic Director Jonathan Wemette, Managing Director Ben Fainstein and Nicholas Hussong, Associate Artistic Directors Xaq Webb, Associate Managing Director

The Fatal Eggs, by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Ilya Khodosh and Dustin Wills; directed by Dustin Wills Sept. 20-22

This., conceived and created by Margot Bordelon, Mary Laws, Alex Ripp; script by Mary Laws, directed by Margot Bordelon Sept. 27-29

Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Lauren Dubowski, Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, and Masha Tsimring Oct. 4-6

217 Park Street, New Haven, CT (203) 432-1566 / ysd.cabaret@yale.edu

Tales from the Basement

According to Mary Zimmerman, author of The Secret in the Wings, the setting for the play is “some strange place balanced between a basement and a forest.”  The Yale Cabaret, in other words. The Secret in the Wings is now showing in repertory as part of The Yale Summer Cabaret’s 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories, and is the kind of show the intimate acting space thrives on.  The Cab’s basement space has been revamped, by Adam Rigg and Solomon Weisbard, as a cluttered and creepily-lit set looking like the kind of basement kids would enter on a dare, and, with chalk drawings of trees all about, it’s also the kind of forest kids playacting in a basement might create.  With the audience seated at tables hugging the periphery, a talented cast of six—three males and three females—conjure up a sequence of fairy tales told, in the best Grimm Brothers tradition, without sparing us their violence, grotesque oddities, and fantastic variants of the eternal “find a mate and please your parents” agenda that children have been tasked with since feudal times.

It all begins—well, “once upon a time” there was a little girl named Alex (Alex Trow) whose parents (Ethan Heard and Monique Barbee), being somewhat preening and capricious, chose to leave her for the evening in the care of creepy Mr. Fitzbania (Josiah Bania), a neighbor with a garden of roses, a surly demeanor, and, according to the anxious Alex, a tail!  Indeed he does have a tail, several tales, in fact, and the play consists of the stories he regales the girl with, preceded by his simple question, “will you marry me?”

Beauty and the Beast, right?  Yes, and all the tales have both beauty and beastliness, the latter generally attended with a certain sportive sense of the comical: sure, the unsuccessful suitors for “The Princess Who Would Not Laugh” (Hannah Sorenson, kind of channeling Winona Ryder in Heathers) are decapitated, but the basketballs that roll onto the set as their hapless heads are pretty amusing.  As is the little vaudeville routine the three fellas in "Three Blind Queens" enact with gusto as the everyday life of three princes.  When an evil Nursemaid (Sorenson again—she does evil well, if you saw her as Tamora you know what I mean) demands that the three queens the guys marry have their eyes gouged out (while the princes are away at war), we get a jar of marbles.

At times the props become more poetic—as for instance the little stacks of twigs for the blinded queens’ children—and the choreography even more so: the repetitive routine by which six sons transform into swans and back, due to their piqued father’s unthinking curse, is a bit like watching someone become a bird automaton.  Mickey Theis (as “the worst” son, according to his father), has to do this solo in a corner the way a bad child would, with a look of transfixed wonder and horror mixed.  And Bania does a nice turn as the dad, a simple man driven to his wit's end by his noisy sons.

Each tale Mr. Fitzbania reads is left unfinished as he moves on to another, letting these tales of dark doings hang suspended, until we get to The Swan Sons and a sort of entr’acte tale about a dinner party, a ghostly visitor (Trow—who has a flair for wide-eyed ingenue parts) and two coins.  Then we get, fairly rapidly, the outcomes of the tales.

The story I liked best is sung by the whole cast, and the lyric of the madrigal-like song—“where are you going my one true love, never go there without me”—suits perfectly this tale about the possibilities of love after death.  This time Trow gets to be not so nice, and Ethan Heard, as the lover who agrees to be entombed, alive, with his beloved goes through it all with stoic grace.

Prospects for necrophilia not macabre enough for you?  How about incest in the tale of Allerleira, a beautiful blonde (Sorenson of course) whose dad (Theis) wants to wed her since no other woman in the kingdom can match the beauty of her deceased mom?  This story incorporates fun devices such as a hopscotch jingle that says it all, and a bit in which three kids (Heard, the leader, Trow, the minx, and Barbee, the flighty one) try to get the story straight.  It’s an entertaining glimpse of how children take in and make sense of the kinds of odd things adults tell them in books.

 

And what is Zimmerman telling us?  The upshot of it all seems to be something like Bruno Bettelheim’s “the uses of enchantment” argument: the tales we tell—and the odder the better—create our capacity for imagination and allow kids to work through the eternal mysteries of life, such as “what’s up with mom and dad?” and “how do I find love?”

Director Margot Bordelon shows that the great pleasure of Zimmerman’s piecemeal reworking of old themes is to be found in the rapid staging and each cast member’s seemingly impromptu changes, and that its value will be revealed in glimpses of beauty and mystery that surprise us.  The whole evening seems not too far removed from what gifted children might get up to in a basement, working through bewilderment and angst via the magic of make-believe.

The Secret in the Wings is that, no matter how happily ever after the story ends, something is always left hanging—and what you do with that, my child, is up to you.

 

Yale Summer Cabaret

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories

June 20-August 19, 2012

The Yale Cabaret

The Secret in the Wings by Mary Zimmerman

Directed by Margot Bordelon

Cast: Josiah Bania, Monique Barbee, Ethan Heard, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis, Alex Trow

Adam Rigg: Sets; Maria Hooper: Costumes; Solomon Weisbard: Lighting; Matt Otto: Sound

 

July: 21st, 8pm; 22nd, 8pm; 25th, 8pm; 28th, 2pm August: 3rd, 8pm; 4th, 2pm; 9th, 8pm; 11th, 8pm; 15th, 8pm; 19th, 8pm

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories:

Tanya Dean, Artistic Director; Reynaldi Lolong, Producer; Eric Gershman, Associate Producer; Shane Hudson, Associate Producer; Dana Tanner-Kennedy, Associate Artistic Director/Resident Dramaturg; Jacqueline Deniz Young, Production Manager/Technical Director; Alyssa K. Howard, Production Stage Manager; Rob Chikar, Stage Manager

A World of Its Own

Beautiful, mysterious, eerie, surprising, frustrating, poetic, comic, fascinating—Adam Rigg’s Of Ogres Retold, the second play in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories, is all these things and more.  Conceived by Rigg and devised by the Ensemble—Josiah Bania, Ethan Heard, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis, Alex Trow—the show offers a succession of vignettes, each a highly stylized use of mime, movement, music, puppets and props, to tell brief stories derived from Japanese folktales involving demons, spirits, and ogres. Without use of dialogue or narration, each story must emerge from repetitive, precisely choreographed actions and interactions.  The aura of the show is like a funhouse where transformational enactments are the order of the day.  The task for the audience is to derive the narrative thrust of these pieces, each a kind of ritual puzzle.  The tonalities of the action at times are hard to infer because Matt Otto’s music—often oddly robotic or processed, at other times ethereal and atmospheric—makes no effort to infuse the action with the kinds of tell-tale emotionalism one finds in film scores.

A perfect example of the fusion of music, movement, and tale is in the story of a woman trying to reach, apparently, a spouse who died.  The woman (Alex Trow) crawls nimbly across the floor toward four figures under shrouds, cloaked as well in shadow.  The foremost figure (Ethan Heard) is kneeling or crouching, and when the woman gets close enough to grasp the veil, she wrenches it off to reveal, in a sudden spike of bright light and jolting electric static sounds, a ghostly death-mask.  This happens three times, and on the fourth try—all to the exact same musical loop—there is a different result that is lovely and melancholic, before swiftly becoming something else.

Many of the stories thrive on repetition, with or without a difference.  In another repetitive scene, the entire cast kneels around a low table—two of the men (Josiah Bania and Mickey Theis) pass a bottle.  All are engaged in slapping the table at rhythmic intervals, while segments hewn earlier from the tail of a humanoid fish, or merman (Ethan Heard), are passed around; each participant, it seems, is either unwilling to consume or is prevented from consuming a morsel.  Eventually, one girl (Trow) takes a bite and enters at once into a kind of twilight world where she engages in repeated clutches involving each member of the company in turn.

Another fascinating ritualistic pas de deux occurs at the start with Mickey Theis and Hannah Sorenson as a couple engaged in some kind of love/hate courtship—after a somewhat erotic if theatrical embrace, Theis inevitably flings Sorenson to the floor and drags her the length of the playing space, then steps over her and continues on his way.  She pines; he returns and the same occurs, until . . . things end badly.

Elsewhere there are evocative presentations of a boat at sea, with undulating blue tapestry, of a merman swimming (a puppet moving gracefully behind a blue drape), of twin ogres (Bania and Sorenson) threatening a boat, and an amusing segment in which Heard, in a delightful fantasy of a cook’s outfit, attempts to prepare rice balls, only to be thwarted by one ball that becomes animated.  This segment has a kooky charm and is a welcome change from the intensity of the rest of the show.  Heard plays the cook with a feel for the exaggerated comedy of silent films (and a very funny slow motion lope), and Trow, as the animator of the rice ball, is superb at mute facial expressions.

Throughout the play, lights (Solomon Weisbard) tend to be muted, bathing the cast in blues and reds, and avoiding strong spots, keeping much of the action shadowy and dreamlike.  The costumes (Maria Howard) are wonderful, giving the actors freedom of movement while also creating some impressive effects—the merman costume, for instance, and the many masks.  The cast is fluent in their movements and are all lovely to watch.

Expect to be engaged by this unique production, but also to have your sense of what constitutes a story challenged.  Without a narrator to set the tone, or dialogue to create characters, the stories must rely on their visual elements in depictions that are dramatic, but also somewhat static, spectacles.  Thanks to Adam Rigg's fine flair for design,  Of Ogres Retold takes us into a world of dreamlike arabesques, filled with the ambivalent magic of legends, of cautionary tales, and of eerie occurrences.  It’s a world of its own making.

Yale Summer Cabaret presents

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories

June 20-August 19

Of Ogres Retold

Conceived and directed by Adam Rigg; devised by the Ensemble: Josiah Bania, Ethan Heard, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis, Alex Trow

July: 11th, 8 pm; 14th, 4:30 pm; 19th, 8 pm; 21st, 2 pm; 27th, 8 pm August: 2nd, 8 pm; 5th, 8 pm; 8th, 8 pm; 11th, 4 pm; 18th, 2 & 8 pm

Photographs courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret

 

Yale Cab Recap

The Yale Cabaret’s Season 44 ended last month and a number of its practitioners will be graduating from the Yale School of Drama this month.  The work the YSD students do at the Cab doesn’t count as part of their work toward graduation—it’s done for love of theater and for the joy of working together on pet projects. And for numerous Cab fans, the productions at the Cab—intimate, avant-garde, inspired, off-the-wall, experimental, outrageous, inviting—are the live wire of the YSD season.  And so it’s time for a “thanks for the memories” moment to take note of the more memorable productions, performances, and displays of artistry that took place in the 2011-12 season (the procedure here: four notables in each category, chronologically by production date, with the fifth-mentioned earning top billing, in my estimation) [note: dates after names indicate prospective year of graduation from YSD]: First, overall Production: the skilled staging of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, produced by Michael Bateman (*13); the comically outrageous first-semester ender, Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts, produced by Kate Ivins; the frenetic staging of Adrienne Kennedy’s The Funnyhouse of a Negro, produced by Alyssa Simmons (*14); the moody, musical trip to the underworld, Basement Hades, produced by Kate Ivins; and . . . the crowd-pleasing Victorian Gothic Camp of Mac Wellman’s Dracula, produced by Xaq Webb (*14).

Next comes attention to the technical accomplishments that are often so remarkable in transforming the tiny, unprepossessing space of the Cabaret:

In Set Design: Kristen Robinson (*13) for creating the distinct spaces of Persona; Adam Rigg (*13) and Kate Noll (*14) (aka Daniel Alderman and Olivia Higdon) for the gallery exhibit space of Rey Planta; Reid Thompson (*14) for the creepy and campy locations of Dracula; Brian Dudkiewicz (*14) for the historical and ethnic space of The Yiddish King Lear; and . . . Kate Noll (*14) for the Miss Havisham-like clutter of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For work in Costumes: Martin Schnellinger (*13), for the interplay of clothed and unclothed in A Thought in Three Parts; Elivia Bovenzi (*14), for helping create the theatrical layers of The Yiddish King Lear; Kristin Fiebig (*12), for the fantasia of whiteness in The Funnyhouse of a Negro; Nikki Delhomme (*13), for the lively get-ups of Carnival/Invisible; and . . . Seth Bodie (*14), for the uncanny outfitting in Dracula.

For memorable work in Sound Design: Palmer Heffernan (*13), for the roving speakers in Street Scenes; Ken Goodwin (*12), for the atmospheric aura of reWilding; Jacob Riley (*12), for the full scale presence of Dracula; Palmer Heffernan (*13) and Keri Klick (*13) for the soundscape of Basement Hades; and . . . Ken Goodwin (*12), for the wrenching sound effects of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For illuminating work in Lighting: Solomon Weisbard (*13), for the psychic landscapes of reWilding; Solomon Weisbard (*13), for the interplay of lights with movement in Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend; Masha Tsimring (*13), for the moody madhouse of The Funnyhouse of a Negro; Masha Tsimring (*13) and Yi Zhao (*12), for the Underworld of Basement Hades; and . . . Masha Tsimring (*13), for the stylish thrills of Dracula.

For striking use of Visuals: Paul Lieber (*13)’s projections and “home movies” in Persona; Christopher Ash (*14, aka Glenn Isaacs)’s ghostly projections in Rey Planta; Michael Bergman (*14)’s intimate use of visuals in Creation 2011; Michael Bergman (*14)’s atmospheric projections in Dracula; and . . . the rich use of projections in Basement Hades, by Hannah Wasileski (*13), and assistants Michael Bergman (*14), Nick Hussong (*14), and Paul Lieber (*13).

For striking use of Music: the ambiance of Sunder Ganglani (*12) and Ben Sharony’s music-scapes in Slaves; the mood-setting popular songs in Persona; the expressive tunes in Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend; the accompaniment and sound effects of The Yiddish King Lear, Dana Astman, Music Director; and . . . the beautifully evocative score and performances of Basement Hades, Daniel Schlosberg, Composer, and Schlosberg and company as the instrumentalist Orpheuses.

One of the strengths of the Cabaret is its mix of pre-existing plays with new, often conceptual creations by students in YSD or in other disciplines at Yale.  First, among the published plays offered, the ones I was most pleased to make the acquaintance of: Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing exploration of the self; Rey Planta (translated by Alexandra Ripp, *13), Manuela Infante’s caustic exploration of manic consciousness; Dracula, Mac Wellman’s comic exploration of vampirism and Victorian mores; The Funnyhouse of a Negro, Adrienne Kennedy’s haunting exploration of racial identity; and . . . Church, Young Jean Lee’s arch and affecting exploration of religious community.

Among the concept pieces this year—and Season 44 was strong in such offerings—the ones I liked best were: Slaves, an enigmatic investigation of theater by Sunder Ganglani (*12)  and the ensemble; Creation 2011, a celebration of awkward theatricality by Sarah Krasnow (*14) and the ensemble; Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend, a celebration of theatrical movement by the ensemble; Carnivale/Invisible, a questioning of American entertainment by Ben Fainstein (*13) and the ensemble; and . . . the deft interweaving of myth and music in Justin A. Taylor (*13) and the ensemble’s Basement Hades.

And, because most of the shows at the Cab feature strong ensemble work, let’s recognize special merit in ensemble: the entire lubricious cast of A Thought in Three Parts; the large cast of seekers in reWilding; the mad women at the table, and their attendants, in Chamber Music; the actors in the play, in the Purim play within the play, and in the audience in The Yiddish King Lear; and . . . the demonically entertaining cast of Dracula.

With so much concept and ensemble work, it becomes trickier to pick out individual performances, but I’ll follow the industry practice of dividing performances by gender and proceeding as if these actors/actresses can somehow be subtracted from the wholes of which they provided memorable parts, ladies first:

For her expressive, uninhibited performances in Slaves, A Thought in Three Parts, and Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend, Jillian Taylor (*12); for her roles as the silent actress in Persona, the voice in Rey Planta, and the stridently “sane” Amelia Earhart in Chamber Music, Monique Bernadette Barbee (*13); for her riveting portrayal of the conflicted nurse in Persona, Laura Gragtmans (*12); for her awkward Joan of Arc in Chamber Music, and her deliciously demur and brazen Lucy in Dracula, Marissa Neitling (*13); and . . . for the stand-out performance of Season 44: Miriam Hyman (*12) in The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For his roles as the blinking, speechless king in Rey Planta, and as the badgering inspector in Christie in Love, Robert Grant (*13); for his intensely realistic character studies in reWilding, Dan O’Brien (*14); for his scene-stealing Van Helsing in Dracula, Brian Wiles (*12); for his kvetching patriarch in The Yiddish King Lear, William DeMeritt (*12); and . . . for his play-as-cast gusto in such roles as the confused husband in Persona, the appalled constable in Christie in Love, the babbling, spider-eating Jonathan Harker in Dracula, and the unforgettable Chicken Man in reWilding, Lucas Dixon (*12)

And for great work in directing: Alex Mihail (*12), for exploring the psychic tensions of Persona; Dustin Wills (*14), for orchestrating the varied misfits in reWilding; Jack Tamburri (*13), for finding the perfect pitch for the vaudevillian creepshow of Dracula; Ethan Heard (*13), for conducting the interplay of music, miming, and monologue in Basement Hades; and . . . Lileana Blain-Cruz (*12), for the inspired tour de force mania of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

Deep appreciation for all the work and all the fun, and . . . see you next year!

 

Impious Grief

In Hamlet, the prince is overcome by grief for his dead father.  Everyone in the court, especially his mother, the Queen, and his uncle, the new King, tells him to get a grip.  His grief is called “impious” and “unmanly.”  In Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld, now playing at the Yale Cabaret, Hades (Dustin Wills) shares this point of view.  Appalled by humanity’s tendency to have issues with death, Hades lectures us in wildly flamboyant fashion about the pointlessness of our grief.  He’s all about people getting on with life—the province of the living—and leaving the dead to him.  We want to hold onto the dead because we’re selfish and unreasonable.  Let them be dead.  We’ll be with them soon enough anyway.  “What’s dead is dead is dead,” he intones.

It would be hard to argue with Hades even if he weren’t so imperious, boasting most of the lines in the play, even those given to his wife Persephone (a hand puppet) who still bemoans an attachment to life.  Though Hades rehearses for us the five stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—ticking them off as leading inevitably to the latter, Persephone isn’t buying it.  And so, here comes legendary “grief junkie” Orpheus to attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice and lead her back to life.  Everyone who has lost someone can easily relate.

But Orpheus, in an interesting twist, is not a character in this show—written by Justin A. Taylor, developed by the Ensemble, and directed by Ethan Heard—but rather a gathering of musicians assigned the task of playing the music that speaks for Orpheus, and that enables him to bypass threats like the boatman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus.  The latter encounter, in which the dog is represented by three cast members behind drum-masks that Orpheus soon manages to play to his tune, is striking.  Percussionist Michael Compitello is a stand-out of the evening, able to give aural expression to the Anger phase of things.

And that’s the way the evening goes—Hades belittling Orpheus’ efforts, until the latter begins to overwhelm the voiced objections through music, mime, movement, sing-along, and, now and then, plainspoken narratives of loss addressed to the audience by the collective Orpheus.  Eurydice is visualized quite effectively as a silhouetted projection of a woman (Katie McGerr) dancing, swinging and so forth on double screens (Hannah Wasileski, Projection Designer; Nick Hussong, Paul Lieber, William Gardiner, Assistant Designers; kudos as well to the Lighting Designers—Masha Tsmiring and Yi Zhao—and to Set Designer Edward T. Morris’ fascinating set).

The part at which Orpheus looks back and loses his wife a second time was a little murky to me, though perhaps I missed something (it became increasingly easy to overlook action in favor of concentrating on the music, which features pieces by Gluck, Shostakovich, and Philip Glass).  In any case, the after-effect was stunningly moving: as Hannah Collins played a cello live, in concert with herself playing a viola de gamba in a beautifully filmed projection, the collective Orpheus (Compitello; Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Daniel Schlosberg, keyboard and composer for the piece; and Annie Rosen, voice) poured libations in a large metal bucket to the somber tones of Marin Marais’ “Les Voix Humaines,” which includes the sound of what feels like disembodied voices—led by Rosen’s lovely vocals—mourning.

The simple activity accompanied by Marais’ aching and stately piece said all that needed to be said about the sixth stage of grief, the one that Hades can’t understand: commemoration, the ritual of remembering.  An enactment of those in life recalling those in death, the scene felt to me more profound “than the profoundest pit of hell.”

Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld Created by the Ensemble Text by Justin A. Taylor Original Music by Daniel Schlosberg Directed by Ethan Heard

Photos by Ethan Heard

The Yale Cabaret March 23-25, 2010

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

Getting Through the Door

The Yale Cabaret keeps you guessing.  When you enter the downstairs space at 217 Park Street, you never know what to expect.  Last week was no exception, and the show I saw was sold out.  There’s nothing quite like experiencing odd theater with a full house.  It means reactions are everywhere, a situation the Cab thrives on. The feature was a series of one acts given the collective title Future Oprah Lovesong, but consisting of three plays written by Justin Taylor: “The Future, Gone Out of Business,” directed by Ethan Heard, featured a young boy and his doting dad, dismayed to learn that the portal to the future is closed because it’s “out of business”; “Oprah-Ganesh,” directed by Jack Tamburri, in which a young woman wants to pass through a different portal (this time a door decorated with a huge replica of a human vagina), only to discover that she first has to get in touch with her inner Oprah, or maybe her inner Ganesh (the Indian elephant-headed god) – masks/wigs provided – to do so; and “Lovesong,” directed by Heard, a two-person play in which the same lines are delivered in a variety of contexts – lovers in love, lovers fighting, mother and son, and, my favorite, woman and her dog.

The main fun of a night at the Cab – not knowing where it’s going – was entertainingly sustained by the production.  The first play seemed like it might be a bittersweet coming-of-age comedy/drama – especially with the child’s (Martha Jane Kaufman) tricycle, balloon, cap and gleeful expletives, and the father’s bond with his child, both amusing and touching.  But when the father (Will Cobbs) ends up dead for refusing to cease and desist in his insistence that the future be opened back up, and the child takes matters into his own hands, the play has suddenly veered into areas more unsettling.

And that’s where we stayed, with “Oprah-Ganesh.”  Though played for laughs, a play in which a burly Mask Technician (Ryan Hales) sports at his crotch a phallic squirt bottle that dispenses a milky fluid – which the Playwright (Hannah Rae Montgomery) is encouraged, by prompts to the audience, to drink – is bound to be a bit off-putting to some.  Or maybe not.  Certainly the need to get through the portal became more allegorical as we went – initiation into sex, birth canal, recognition of feminine power as Oprah herself might encourage?  Perhaps a vagina sculpture can be all things to all people.  Seeing Montgomery, a small white woman, imitate, in Ganesh mask and Oprah wig, Oprah’s gushy manner was certainly amusing, and the trio of uncredited participants, called upon to interact lasciviously with the pudendal portal, was also diverting.

In “Lovesong,” the portal remained, sans its distinctive decoration, and allowed one or the other of the duo (Miriam Hyman and Will Cobbs) to come and go, each time setting off a new riff on the interchange, involving words of apology, desire, forgiveness and love, that, come to think of it, are pretty much the standard tropes of any love song you’d care to name.  This inventive piece, with immense talent displayed by Hyman and Cobbs, got the biggest hand of the night.

As sometimes happens with theater that pushes in various directions at once, the star of the evening could be said to be the audience that gathered to help the Cab do its thing.

Next up, a re-invention of Chekhov’s one-act The Wedding Reception, transposed to an Eastern European disco of the 1980s.

Future Oprah Lovesong; written by Justin A. Taylor; directed by Ethan Heard and Jack Tamburri; October 14-15, 2010

Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven.  203.432.1566. www.yalecabaret.org

Starting Thursday at 8 p.m.: The Wedding Reception; written by Anton Chekhov; translated by Paul Schmidt; directed by Alex Mihail; October 21-23.