Evan Yionoulis

Owning Up

Caryl Churchill’s Owners, the second show of the Yale Repertory Theatre season, directed by Evan Yionoulis, is an insidious play. It’s so much fun to watch—with the fabulous scenic design by Carmen Martinez that shifts magically before our eyes—that we might be lulled into forgetting how barbed it is. In Yionoulis’ take on the show, the characters don’t seem to be really appalling—well, except for Marion—and so there is much entertainment value in watching how they cope with straitened circumstances and windfall offers, with marital melt-downs, new babies, and old flames, with skullduggery and borderline thuggery. Everyone keeps the comic timing skimming along, making us chuckle . . . until the ending brings home how lethal it all it is. How callous and shallow the world these characters inhabit . . . and perpetuate.

It’s Britain in the early seventies and the “owners” are taking over, a situation that we might say “resonates” with our times, though the more perceptive attitude, I think, is to see that Churchill is showing us how things began to change for the worse—all the way back then. Marion (Brenda Meaney) is the live-wire here, the rapacious woman Churchill shows us to remind us that, once in power, a woman can be as unreasoning, as blood-thirsty, as fascist as a man. It’s the other side of that great Equality demand the times were fraught with, and, in “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fashion, indicates that the real problems lie elsewhere.

Marion wears the pants, we might say, except that her husband, Clegg (Anthony Cochrane), a butcher going out of business—and chatting to her employee Worsely (Joby Earle) about how he might do Marion in—when we first meet him, considers himself quite manly. He delivers spot on comments, common enough in those days when the ERA was being bandied about in the States, about how a man controls a woman. His idea of revenge on Alec, Marion’s old flame who he believes is back on the job, is to have sex with Alec’s wife Lisa. It’s all about ownership, you see. “She’s mine; she’s yours,” and so on.

That other couple—Alec (Tommy Schrider) and Lisa (Sarah Manton)—have kids and another on the way. They also are living, with Alec’s mum, in a flat in a building that Marion is taking over. So that precipitates a visit from Worsely to buy them out. It’s the standard practice of taking over a property, ditching the undesired (with rent-controlled leases), and soliciting the interest of the upwardly mobile—like the Arlingtons who eventually move in below. The stakes of this game are pretty clear, but it gets more complicated when Marion and Clegg take on ownership of the other couple’s new baby. It’s not quite clear why Lisa gives her child up except that she’s very distraught and a bit dim. Further complications circle around whether or not Marion can somehow take on ownership of Alec as well. And a running gag is Worsely’s attempts to kill himself, to give up ownership of what he stands up in, as he puts it.

As Clegg, Anthony Cochrane is more or less “the main character” in the sense that his rapport with Marion, from his point of view, is the only business really to be decided—that, and whether or not there will be an heir for “Clegg and Son.” In the end he still loves Marion because of a decision she makes about doing-in Alec. Peachy. Cochrane reminds me a little of Bob Hoskins combined with Jack Warden, which is a way of saying he’s a very likeable guy, in his manner, and if he’s a bully, he’s also a man trying to make do in a Man-and-woman’s World. He was in the army too, so, there you have it. He’s adaptable. And maybe even a little sentimental toward Lisa and her new baby.

As Marion, Brenda Meaney has the toughest role of the play. It’s easy to dislike her and to read all kinds of Iron Lady associations into her, but, on the other hand, she seems really to have feelings about Alec. It’s just that, as she says at the close, “I might be capable of anything. I’m just beginning to find out what is possible.” Why should Lady Macbeth have to stand behind that conscience-stricken fool she married? So then you ask yourself: what would the tragedy of such a woman be? Meaney has the perfect stature and statuesque qualities for this role. She’s commanding and powerful and, chomping chocolate bars or offering to buy Clegg a stripper, she has the same off-hand grace that says, “yes, this is my world. I’ve accepted it, what’s your problem?”

Alec, her problem, is the part that requires the most work. If his lines aren’t spoken with the right kind of Brit diction, Alec could turn into a caricature. Tommy Schrider nails it. His Alec is someone who has opted out, quasi-Bartleby-like. Not only would he rather not, he doesn’t see much point in doing or not doing. If Marion wants him to go to bed with her, he will, but there’s not much behind it. “I don’t keep,” he says. He dispatches his mum, when she’s in a coma, and the play lets you decide if that’s mercy or not. In the second part of the play, he seems to begin to accept that his wife and kids are actually a part of his life. Better late than never, we might say. And then he does something extraordinary, in the end.

Sarah Manton’s Lisa has heart and a grasp of realities, eventually. No caricature either, she could be contemptible in her useableness, but. She comes across as “woman, old school.” She’s nice and gracious to Worsely even when he barges in on her and Alec after their home has been robbed; she’s pregnant, at first, then a mother who has to abandon her baby. She’s confused and apt to cry until Marion gives her one across the face. Lisa is blonde and lithe, willing to have sex with Clegg to further her cause. Women’s wiles, you see.

Joby Earle’s Worsely is as likeable as Eric Idle always is, with that kind of self-effacing sociability that seems passively winning, but then such social graces mask that there’s something deeply wrong with Worsely. He keeps telling us this, and we see the evidence as more and more bandages bedeck his person, but it’s just a macabre gag, isn’t it? That is until we see Churchill’s point that, for every grasping villain like Marion, there are those walking dead, those moral nullities, that will do any bidding, for lack of anything better to do.

To Alex Trow falls two small but important roles: as Mrs. Arlington, she’s the well-heeled and well-meaning forces that stand above Marion. Marion worked hard in a man’s world to get something. Mrs. Arlington’s already got it. And a baby she lets the neighbors look after as she rushes to the theater. Heh. Trow is sweet in the mannered way of betters to lessers. But as Alec’s Mum, she’s a surprise. At first, given the use of mannequins, you might thing she’s one too, sitting in a chair like a piece of furniture. Then she speaks from the depths of her dementia. Then, later, she gets up, gets the kettle, attempts to make tea, all in a tour de force of muscular memory continuing beyond conscious thought. It stays with you.

About Marion and those pants—fortunately she doesn’t really wear them. We might arrive in fear of pants suits, but Seth Bodie’s costumes go for the patterned midis of the times, back when working women wanted to look like women, not business-women, which meant seeming to be on a date with life, in bold colors and big hair. Lisa, meanwhile, looks pretty much like the hippy turned hausfrau that was the outcome of the sexual revolution by the time its style trickled down. The men’s attire is flared where necessary and printed, matching or not, and Worsely, in particular, has the requisite not-quite-placeable seediness that speaks tomes.

The scene changing, on spinning sets, is fun to watch, especially as it is led-up to by “freeze frames” that work with Benjamin Ehrenreich’s lighting to create tableaux, which adds to the fun. Martinez’s sets include a nondescript butcher shop and an upscale one with blazing neon. The difference between the two says it all, as we go from post-war to posh.

See Owners if you can. This one’s really something, I’ll own.


Owners By Caryl Churchill Directed by Evan Yiounoulis

Scenic Designer: Carmen Martinez; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Benjamin Ehrenreich; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Production Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson

Yale Repertory Theatre October 25-November 16, 2013

At the Rainbow's End

With a two-person cast that enacts over a dozen characters, Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, at the Yale Rep, directed by Evan Yionoulis, makes us think about the hierarchy of acting.  Typically, in any theatrical production, there are starring roles, minor roles, and extras, and there are character actors and caricatures.  Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton, between them, give us all the parts in the play—as presented by Jake Quinn (Arsenault) and Charlie Conlon (Morton), two likeable locals enlisted as extras on a big Hollywood movie being shot in picturesque County Kerry, Ireland.  There’s Caroline Giovanni (Morton), the campy American female lead; Clem (Morton), the dour British director; Mickey (Arsenault), the crusty veteran extra (he was in John Ford’s The Quiet Man), and other locals, including Sean (Arsenault), persona non grata on the set, and movie people, such as Aisling (Arsenault), the prancing assistant director in charge of the extras.

The comedy of this lively and thoroughly entertaining show derives not only from the clash of locals and Hollywood, but also from poking fun at a certain type of silly film.  Part Two opens with a “gag reel” of attempts by Ms. Giovanni and her leading man (Arsenault) to get their delivery right, and the sequence helps distance the utterly fake world of film from the more realistic world of theater.  No mean feat, since any play in which two men change into a range of characters by changing their speech, accents, and body language, but, mostly, not their costumes, can be called anything but “realistic.”

And that’s the paradox.  The play manages to get at the realities behind the business of staging fake worlds, and it does it with a battery of a more or less stock characters, including that stereotypical “stage Irishman,” the irascible drunk.  Among the characters, then, there’s little you haven’t seen before, but, on the other hand, that very familiarity helps rope us in.  What Jones has in mind is the idea that the only way to intrude reality into predictable Hollywood fare is to focus on “the extras.”  And it’s the perspective of the extras that keeps things real.

Charlie, you see, has a script he wants to have made into a film, but, due to a tragic event that occurs during the making of  the film he's an extra for (Quiet Valley), he decides to shift the focus to a local lad brutalized by insensitive professionals and humiliated in his own town pub.  The scene in which the director tells the novices why Hollywood would never be interested in such a tale (“People don’t go to the movies to get depressed. That’s what the theatre’s for.”) puts the proper critical emphasis on the play we’re watching.  A suicide—drowned with stones in his pockets—is the basis of Charlie’s script.  And that script is our play, which is why it’s left to our two extras to enact the entire show.  Only Charlie and Jake belong to both worlds, so only they can act out the mannerisms of both.  And only a play with a limited cast, it seems, can afford to tell the truth.

Along the way, the fun is in the caricatures Morton and Arsenault put on and off as fast as gold can sheen, and in stage business, such as miming and a “Lord of the Dance” routine from out of nowhere, and in the clash of worlds and accents and expectations—and in an absurdist use of cows.  Arsenault and Morton are wonders of timing and mugging and swishing and falling about the place, and there’s great pleasure in watching them, at play’s end, take bows as each character.  The production also runs its credits on the big screen, and it’s fun to see the production crew and the Rep staff scroll by like names in a Big Budget Production.

Stones in His Pockets ribs the Film Industry as a Land of Cockaigne for otherwise strapped people, able to be bought as background authenticity for a world of fake emotions, fake nostalgia, fake laughs.  And the play mainly has sport with that—until something real happens.  At that point, the interest is in seeing which characters will cease to simply “play as cast” and which will cast the first stone.


Stones in His Pockets By Marie Jones Directed by Evan Yionoulis

Scenic and Projection Designer: Edward T. Morris; Costume Designer: Nikki Delhomme; Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Production Dramaturg: Sarah Krasnow; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Nicole Marconi

Photos by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre January 25-February 16, 2013

A Masterful "Master Builder"

The Master Builder at The Yale Rep Henrik Ibsen’s dramas are classics of the theater, and his best-known plays lay bare the stultifying social mores of the late 19th century: A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gabler.  The later Ibsen, while still based in the naturalism of his main period, moves toward drama that is more symbolic, perhaps even allegorical -- dramas where the astute student of theater might see possibilities opening up for a new age of stagecraft.

The Yale Repertory’s production of The Master Builder is gloriously evocative of the fresh face of contemporary theater.  If the name of Ibsen brings to mind over-stuffed drawing-rooms with imperious stage-directions where neurasthentic types pine with Norwegian yearning, banish those thoughts at once.  The set design by Timothy Brown is wide open, expressionistic -- the characters stand on a stage that seems to be the side of a house climbing into the heavens upstage -- and allows the actors to make full use of space as they ricochet off one another in an urgent ballet of feeling.

Given the theme of the rapturous climb to great heights -- both literal and figurative -- in the play, the set alerts us at once to the possibility for soaring above the quotidian that master builder Halvard Solness finds in Hilda Wangel, a young visitor from his past.  Swept off her feet as a girl of thirteen when the mighty master builder climbed to the top of a high tower he designed to plant a victory wreath, she also insists he kissed her ‘many times’ when he found her alone later, and claimed he would come carry her off ‘like a troll’ to a kingdom in ten years’ time.  The ten years are up, and Hilda wants her kingdom.

The Halvard Hilda finds is a driven man, but one who is also desperate -- worried about ‘the young’ who will make him step aside (particularly in the form of Ragnar Brovnik, an apprentice architect who Halvard ‘keeps down’ by not giving him any projects of his own), and preying upon youth by beguiling Brovnik’s fiancée, Kaia, so that she will remain in Halvard’s employ, thus giving Ragnar reason to stay.  It’s an untenable situation that is beginning to fray and Halvard knows it, not least because Ragnar’s father, once Halvard’s superior, is near death and wants to see his son amount to something on his own before he dies.

Into this dense situation, Hilda arrives with the force of visionary destiny, suddenly inspiring Halvard with her muse-like presence and youthful attachment to his former grand figure, but also sharing in the confidences of past tragedy and loss in the Solness marriage, as well as learning of Halvard’s great burden of guilt.  Can the master builder put all this aside and rise again to the glory he finds in her eyes?

As Halvard, David Chandler is as mercurial as the part demands -- at times, forthright and earnest, at times cold, unyielding and almost diabolical.  He is tender about his wife, in her absence, but uncomfortable in her presence.  He is direct with the doctor who tries to sound him out on his relation to Kaia, but is also arrogantly superstitious about his ability to control others through his own mind.  Coiled with the exasperation of the man of talent beset by the demands of others, Mr. Chandler flings his expressive body all about the stage with the passion that Hilda brings to the surface.  We see a man struggling, in almost every movement, to determine if his desires can overcome his misgivings.

And as Hilda, Susan Heyward is a thrilling delight.  Girlish, willful, and remarkably quick on the uptake, Hilda, as written, could easily seem more sprite than person, a creature of Halvard’s Id suddenly incarnated in the flesh.  As incorporated in Ms. Heyward, Hilda is nearly ecstatic with the force of her effect on her revered master builder, and plays with him through an intuitive grasp of what they might mean for each other.  And though, as Ibsen not doubt intended, Hilda’s actual psychology remains a mystery, Ms. Heyward gives us every reason to believe in the spell that Halvard falls under in her presence -- a spell predicated on her unshakeable conviction of his greatness.

In the supporting cast, Felicity Jones’ Aline Solness is regal in a gorgeous black gown, displaying, with her mere presence, the sad memories that cling to the marriage, but also giving the dialogue a comic edge as the long-suffering wife all-too-knowing about her husband’s need for young, female devotees.  And Slate Holmgren, as Ragnar, does much with a part that’s easy to overlook, particularly in his scene late in the play with Hilda, where, though she mocks him as a mere upstart, we can see in his self-possession possibly another master builder in the making.

Credit for this version’s success rests most securely, no doubt, on director Evan Yionoulis.  In the “Talk Back” with the audience after the Saturday matinee performance, several in the cast spoke of her ability to ‘calibrate’ their performances to the right nuance -- and much of that nuance itself depends on the translation by Paul Walsh.  The dialogue seems unforced and direct -- even when Solness and Hilda extemporize on Vikings and trolls (figures of baleful power Ibsen felt himself at times to be in league with) -- and sounds modern without straying into contemporary locutions.

And what does the play say to us now, more than a century and a decade after it was written?  Ibsen’s strong presentations -- of a man of power abusing that power, of a man of talent seeking some new inspiration, of a man of years trying to revitalize himself, of a marriage that persists without ever freeing itself of its past, where tragedy, rather than ending the couple, made them what they are, and of a young woman’s seeming power to see the future and be the future -- never become dated.  So, what do you see when the still striving, but slipping, figure climbs that tower in the end -- hubris? inspiration? despair? need?  A struggle against time, against mediocrity, against God?  Or a deluded effort to assert something whose day is done?  Then ask yourself: what does Hilda see?

The Master Builder, by Henrik Ibsen. Translated by PAUL WALSH. Directed by EVAN YIONOULIS. Yale Repertory Theatre: September 18-October 10, 2009. Set design by Timothy Brown, costume design by Katherine Akiko Day, lighting design by Paul Whitaker, with sound design and original music by Scott L. Nielsen.  Photograph© T Charles Erickson