International Festival of Arts & Ideas 2017

Which Way Is Up

Review of LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The show LEO, developed by director Daniel Brière and performer William Bonnet from the idea and original performance by Tobias Wegner, shows us twin rooms on stage. One is an actual space inhabited by Bonnet, in a stylish pants, vest and shirt ensemble; the other is a projection of Bonnet in the space. The actual Bonnet spends his time on his back with his feet against a wall painted to look like a floor, so that he appears to be leaning against a wall. The “ceiling” is an actual wall of the space while the open space above the performer seems to create an imaginary third wall where the back wall and the fake floor meet. The “fourth wall,” of course, is the empty space through which we look into the room.

To our left of this space is a screen showing Bonnet in the room, but turned so that the actual floor, upon which Bonnet lies, now appears to be an actual vertical wall, with the supposed floor of the other room now at the bottom, as a floor would be.

The cleverness of this illusion is that, no matter how long one watches, it’s hard to convince oneself that Bonnet is lying on the floor in either space, though he is, in both. We see him, on the screen, seem to levitate at times, so much so that you might be convinced, by visual evidence, that some kind of magnet or hoist is holding him aloft. Meanwhile, on the performer’s side, Bonnet’s unflagging ability to lean upon his arms with his legs lifted against the apparent floor that is an actual wall makes it seem that he is standing on a vertical upright when he is in fact standing or leaning on his hands.

The speed with which he moves about in the space is truly remarkable. There is never a missed beat. The transitions are fluid to the point of defying any sense of strain or wobble that would indicate the real direction of gravity. We feel at times we are truly watching weightless stunts because movement—often to music that emanates from a suitcase, the only actual prop on the set—appears to be governed by the dynamics of animation rather than actual physics.

But for the music, all is quiet. Bonnet is a silent clown, a figure much like a cartoon who seems to be trying to understand the space he finds himself in. He uses his hat and tie as bellwethers for gravitation, but it doesn’t work. He pours water into his mouth as if to convince us that he can’t possibly be lying on his back. There are many fun “tests” to convince us that what we know to be true isn’t.

And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, LEO moves in a new direction, whether via a very mood-changing soundtrack—including African drums, Beethoven, jaunty Italian music, and a swanky Sinatra tune—or via Bonnet’s chalk drawings on the back wall so as to create a chair and table and seemingly interactive radio. At a certain point, the animations on the screen start to overwhelm the projected space in sequences that distract from the point-by-point replication between room and screen. The animated objects and animals—and water—are “real” on the screen but invisible to the actual Bonnet in the playing space. It creates a further disjunction between right and left, as though one were no longer getting the same information from the eyes and ears on either side of one’s head.

The ending is charming and mysterious, and it’s very much to the show’s credit that it rarely lets any sequence of stunts or tricks go on too long. And, while it would be hard to say there is a compelling forward movement, we are aware that our growing impatience or unease is mirrored in Bonnet’s exploration of possibility, and vice versa. Neither he nor we want to be stuck in that room forever. So, eventually, we have to wonder: how will this end? Can he escape?

The Arts & Ideas Festival generally has at least one show a season that involves acrobatics, clowning, and surprising uses of props that seem to defy physics. LEO continues that tradition with the most poetic and concentrated program yet. It both fulfills a wish to defy gravity and at the same time makes us happy to return to the norms we’re used to observing.


LEO: The Anti-Gravity Show

Director: Daniel Brière; Perfomer: William Bonnet; Creative Producer: Gregg Parks; Original Performer/Idea: Tobias Wegner; Set and Lighting Designer: Flavia Hevia; Video Designer: Heiko Kalmbach; Animator: Ingo Panke

University Theatre
June 23, 8 p.m.; June 24, 12 p.m. & 3 p.m.

Participatory Theater

Review of We Are Citizens, Theatre of the Oppressed New York, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once said that systems of justice “embody systems of … oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanely valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy”—values which, he added, “I think are real.”

Theater of the Oppressed, New York, brings to performance spaces an effort to see how real such concepts or values are. With a residency in a location, the “Jokers” of TONYC work with volunteer residents to find a way to dramatize situations from their daily lives. The residents—or as the show at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas insists, citizens—have faced some type of the oppression that Chomsky seems to have in mind. Generally, in the show I saw on June 21st at the Bregamos theater space in Erector Square, the oppression comes at the hands of institutions—medical, government agency, law enforcement—that are intended to help but can also harm, mainly by ignoring the humane elements of interaction that Chomsky names.

After an enactment of situations of friction, tension, and dysfunction caused by indifferent or incompetent professionals—acted out by non-actors with largely improvised dialogue—a segment called “Forum Theatre” is held. In that segment, it’s up to the audience—also citizens—to get involved and suggest ways to improve the situations presented. Then, to put money where their mouths are, so to speak, members of the audience are invited to try to enact their version of how things could or should go.

In the show I saw, not only were the Forum Theatre segments better at working with the problem than the original scenarios, they were also more lively and entertaining. The initial segment, set in an out-patient medical facility—a banner on stage read “Yale”—three patients who needed help with meds or with being admitted or with “hearing voices and seeing clowns” faced unhelpful staff and lots of double-talk, to say nothing of long wait times. The oppressed—already distressed by the condition that drove them to the facility in the first place—were in no condition to negotiate for what they needed. In the Forum Theatre segment, an audience member with a plan immediately pressed for a Patient Advocate and that brought at least some decency and dignity to the proceedings, even allowing the disgruntled patients to acknowledge the pressures under which the staff were working.

A problem between two women in a shelter—one using a blow-dryer to prepare for an important interview in the morning, the other trying to sleep—shouldn’t be that big a deal (haven’t we all had to deal with roommates?), but when an authority gets involved that can penalize one over the other, things can escalate. The audience member found a way to keep it between the women, overcoming the would-be sleeper’s excessive hostility.

Misgivings about giving a PIN number to a halfway house for ex-cons trying to make their way back into normal life are understandable. The staff member gave the uneasy man little concession and tried to make him the problem. The audience member invented a “cousin who’s a lawyer” to reach out to for advice—which may seem a special case—but the important point was that some king of shout-out was necessary, to find out if what was being asked was on the up-and-up.

The situations were not really life-threatening—except, perhaps, for the guy who felt he had to admit to suicidal tendencies just to be admitted and have his meds administered—but they did show how a little kindness and putting oneself into the other person’s position can go a long way in defusing potentially abusive situations where the antipathy isn’t personal, just routine. Putting oneself into the place of actors also makes for a kind of DIY theater experience that is unusual, not only showing—judging from audience response—how seeing a scenario enacted can make one think through a situation but also how acting things out makes the malleability of situations visible, as the role of oppressor or victim gets shifted around.

The main difficulty with amateur staging of situations for dramatic effect is projection. The average person doesn’t know how to speak to be heard by a roomful of people without shouting, so that the cries of “louder!” from the audience became more than a little distracting.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC
We Are Citizens

John Leo, Liz Morgan, with: Vernette Bond, Kevin Creech, Robert (Bob Forlano), Alfred Gamble, Mark Griffin, Tammy Imre, Deborah Jackson, Joe Jackson, Diana Martinez, Mona Lisa Massallo, Robert Saunders, Shannon Smith, Betty Williams, Richard Youins (aka El Toro)

5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 21, 2017
Bregamos Theater

* * * * *

Review of Never Stand Still, Onnie Chan, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Yale-China Association fellow Onnie Chan’s Never Stand Still, an immersive theater project based on a game, tries to keep its participants moving, and that’s all to the good, and it also seems to fracture any coherence to the event as best it can. Then again: if you’re playing a game you understand, then you have some idea why you’re playing, and what the stakes are. You generally have some idea of your opponent(s) and some idea of your own skill. When you go to see theater you’re not naturally in a competitive frame of mind and, as in this case, may have little idea of what the Game-Master is asking of you. The game gets confusing and stays that way.

Audience participants are divided into four groups—North, South, East, West—and they are in competition, supposedly, in a game called "Battlejong." The goal has something to do with triples and doubles, which has to do with Mahjong, and the methodology has something to do with Battleship (i.e., call out coordinates and get a “hit” or a “miss”). The particulars, it seems, are more of a distraction than anything, giving us activities as we gradually become aware that Jason, the figure behind all this who speaks and sings in voice-over, sometimes in Cantonese, is working through some issues, having to do with the death of his beloved grandma who was helping him keep it together. Jason may now be on a course of suicide or maybe even engaging in some kind of staged mass-event—like, for instance, creating a theater-game and making something awful or amazing happen to its participants. Or not.

The real world intrudes into the game as well. On the home-base for each group is an iPad on which one of four friends of Jason in Hong Kong is skyping live. They seem to function as touchstones for Jason, recalling moments from his past to help him stay focused. The friends don’t play much part in helping the teams, though I suppose they might if a team took the time to consult them.

Time for teams to do anything strategic seems to be a key thing to disrupt. So there is plenty to distract from the game we’re ostensibly playing. Like a SARS outbreak that will quarantine some of the audience. Like something having to do with air-guns (I missed this part because I was quarantined. I’m fine now.). And some kind of mounting drama about Jason’s precarious mental state.

In the end, which seemed to arrive abruptly and arbitrarily in the version I attended, you are free to choose one of three methods of egress: dead end, happy ending, or “something else.” I went for something else (of course). I won’t tell you what I learned but I will say you’re all a part of it. (I can’t fathom why someone would choose “dead end”—simply to negate a “happy ending?”) In any case, I heard from others what those choices led to, on June 22, but I don’t know if those are fixed or change.

In the playbill, Onnie Chan states that theater-goers don’t want simply to sit and watch a story performed; they want to be participants. Arguable, at best. In my experience with participatory theater, the quality of the event has often to do with the quality of the audience. This is partly true of all theater, but not to the same extent.

And there’s an interesting risk participatory theater runs: the audience members may seem more compelling than the theatrical event being staged and of which they are—tangentially—a part. You might find yourself wanting to duck out of any theater event, if you’re bored or distracted. But when the distraction is part of the event, then it’s possible you may become more interested in the group dynamics than in any assigned task or dramatic development.

Never Stand Still never quite managed to make either its staged drama or its participant activities clear and forceful enough to keep me in the game or the story. If that was the intention—to make one dissatisfied with entertainment—then it succeeded.


Never Stand Still (Immersive Game Theatre)
Directed and written by Onnie Chan

Producer: Steven Koernig; Set Designer: John Bondi; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Video Designer: William Wheeler; Graphic Designer: Dustin Tong; Stage Manager: Margaret Gleberman

Performers: Evan Gambardella, Xiaoqing Guo, King Wong, Lk Lo, Jenny Yip, Isabella Leung

The Iseman Theater
June 22-24, 2017

A Heroic Reader Scored

Review of Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

In a work commissioned by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Martin Bresnick, a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, pays homage to a fellow Yale professor. Bresnick’s  oratorio, Passions of Bloom, was performed one night only, in a world premiere, at Morse recital hall, with the Yale Philharmonia and Yale choral artists. And it was a stunning event.

Harold Bloom, the eminent Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and a renowned literary critic with a popular readership, has long mused upon the unique contributions of a trio of singular figures who stand as the lights of 19th century American literature: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson. For Bloom, these three authors are not only superlatively gifted. They each represent a particular aspect of the American psyche that we all—as Americans—must understand to understand who we are. To ponder their words is to ponder what defines America, as a long, evolving myth that began on the eastern seaboard of this continent and which Bloom calls “the American Sublime.”

Bresnick’s libretto draws from the works of all four authors, Bloom included, to provide what Bloom himself might call an agon. Bloom, eighty-five at the time of composing The Daemon Knows (the text used by Bresnick), long ago posited a deep psychological struggle between a major poet and his predecessor poet. That agon, in Bloom’s account, did not include critics struggling with artists, but Bresnick’s selective quotations from Bloom suggest quite effectively that the “mode of memoir,” as a critical decision employed in Daemon, invites a rather lyrical conception of the critic’s relation to his objects of study. The fact that Bloom’s lines are set to music and sung lends credence to a certain bardic power common to both poet and critic. Though if Bloom is explicating his own consciousness he is doing so by means of the poets who take precedence in his mind and to whom his thoughts constantly return.

Consisting of twelve distinct sections, Passions of Bloom begins with an invocation to the sun before Bloom, sung by tenor James Taylor, takes the stage, and ends with a segment called “The Lesson is Done,” in which Bloom and his interlocutors—Whitman (Brian Giebler, tenor), Melville (Paul Tipton, bass-baritone), and Dickinson (Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano, and Sherezade Panthaki, soprano)—suggest wisdom dawns at last. Throughout, we are given glimpses of Bloom as a student of these authors who continues to teach their works well past the age at which many would retire, if only because he is not done with his imagined dialogue with them. While that dialogue might not seem dramatic to those indifferent to the authors and their critics, Bresnick’s composition finds a means to express the lasting gravitas of what Bloom likes to call “cognitive power.”

In the two central sections, characters from Melville’s Moby-Dick appear, with Ahab (Glenn Miller, bass) in interesting counter-point to his author in section 6, and Ishmael (Thomas McCargar, baritone) adding the distinctive tone of Melville’s narrator in section 7. Miller’s voice, with its deep notes, suits the grandiose mania of Ahab, while McCarger’s lighter tones suggest the wry eye of Melville as Ishmael. As Bloom queries, “Where is Melville the Man in Moby-Dick?”, we see Melville represented by his characters, and, as sung by Tipton, as a figure of dark doubts delivered with robust power.

The strength of the piece is in Bresnick’s way of working with the words, to give them musical settings that can complement Bloom’s changing tones—at times abstract, at times personable, and at times truly inspired—and, at the same time, support the lyrical power of the great writers’ words. Whitman’s lines, as sung by Giebler, particularly in “And I Say to Mankind,” have an almost homiletic quality, while Maroney’s solo as Dickinson in “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” is wonderfully effective as a setting for Dickinson’s lines, and the most satisfying rendering of a poet, independent of the critic or other characters. Maroney is then joined by Panthaki, and mezzo-soprano and soprano give a soaring other-worldliness to “I Reason, Earth is Short.”

For the penultimate section, “Bloom’s Daemon,” the two tenors, Taylor and Giebler, take up the main theme of Bloom’s book to let us see how Whitman, more than any other American figure, is the “Adam”—or originating figure—of what Bloom articulates as almost a religion of American literature. In the struggle to comprehend such original figures, Bloom suggests, his “daemon” has written the books and taught the classes. What keeps readers returning to Bloom’s work, for all its grand manner and sweeping generalities, is his heroic sense that reading literature with understanding is a mighty labor, one that not only determines the quality of one’s mind—or soul, as Whitman would have it—but also determines the kind of world in which one lives. Bloom’s daemon is informed by the critic’s need to make sense of what he reads, but it also informs us that how we make sense is who we are.

The concerns of such a work as Bresnick’s may seem rather specialized, but for anyone able to believe that poetry and literature are important to one’s sense of being, one could say that the Passions of Bloom exemplifies the mind’s intense attachment and attention to the written word in its most fervent and deeply American uses. While full enjoyment of Bresnick’s oratorio might presuppose some knowledge of Bloom’s work—which spans six decades—and a penchant for the writers Bloom reckons with, the quality of the lines incorporated, and the distinct tones and musical interplay of the different sections, makes for a riveting listening experience.

At one point, Bloom reflects that he cannot believe the world is best seen as an aesthetic experience, though he would like to. Bresnick’s Passions of Bloom flatters and perhaps fulfills that belief.


The International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson
Martin Bresnick, composer
Jeffrey Douma, conductor

Libretto drawn by the composer from the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Harold Bloom

Brian Giebler, tenor; Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano; Thomas McCarger, baritone; Glenn Miller, bass; Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Paul Tipton, bass-baritone

Yale Choral Artists: Sean Maher, chorus manager; Megan Chartrand, Madeline Heale, Sherezade Panthaki, Sarah Yanovitch, soprano; Eric Brenner, Rachel Colman, Kate Maroney, Megan Roth, alto; Colin Britt, Brian Giebler, Steven Soph, Gene Stenger, tenor; Thomas McCarger, Paul Tipton, Steven Hrycelak, Glenn Miller, bass

Yale Philharmonia: Elly Toyoda (Concertmaster), Elliot Lee, Yurie Mitshuhashi, Marie Oka, violin 1; Rachel Ostler-Abbott (principal), Dio Saraza, Stephen Tang, Laura Park, violin 2; Emily Brandenburg (principal), Isabella Mensz, Alexandra Simpson, viola; Eric Adamshick (principal), Jiyoung Choi, Jesse Christeson, cello; Will Robbins (principal), Kaden Henderson, bass; Felice Dovynov, Helen Park, flute; Graeme Johnson, Eric Braley, clarinet; Alexander Walden, trombone; Sam Um, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano

Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Hall, Yale
June 20, 2017

The Art of Rendering Real Life

Review of Manual Cinema: The End of TV, a World Premiere at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

To see theater mimic TV is to see, in a sense, a reversal of history. Early televised programs were mostly performed live on a soundstage, caught by cameras. Manual Cinema, using live actors, shadow puppets, props, video cameras to relay live action onto a screen, and rendering both built and animated backgrounds, creates something neither like typical theater nor TV. It’s a hybrid method that tells its story almost entirely through images, leaving dialogue to the mouths of facsimiles of the incessant hucksters of commercial TV. Using startling effects and a thoughtful pace, The End of TV tells a poignant story—its sadness leavened by hopefulness and resilience—and makes its most compelling points indirectly. The show is magical theater, a hypnotic rendering of events and relations where the medium is a message about the medium.

While it’s odd to sit before live theater watching a screen, the relation between the scenes projected and their staging is a fascinating sort of drama in and of itself. This unusual, involving multi-media drama, a world premiere commissioned for this year's International Festival of Arts & Ideas, plays through June 22 at Yale's University Theatre.

The cast and musicians of The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

The cast and musicians of The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Flo (Kara Davidson) is an aged woman living alone. Her only companionship is the programming on a TV station called QVC, which specializes in glib hucksterism, offering the usual panoply of items at what it claims are bargain prices: appliances, jewelry, chia pets. Flo is a compulsive buyer and at first our view of her is made comical by the tone of the QVC pitches. The facsimiles of hokey TV ads are amusing until they come to seem more malevolent. We realize that Flo is not simply lonely; she’s also getting a bit dotty, as she ignores alerts from her bank in favor of the latest item QVC offers. And she seems to believe TV is more real than reality.

Meanwhile, Louise is a young factory worker who loses her job when the plant closes. She takes a job with Meals on Wheels and, sure enough, encounters Flo as the last in a series of montages of the varied responses Louise receives. In Flo’s case, the visit becomes an intervention.

The main gist of the story is the coming together of two women who each has something to offer the other. Along the way, we get flashbacks that show a beloved daughter (Vanessa S. Valliere) for Flo and a beloved father (Jeffery Paschal) for Louise. There are also dream—or perhaps more properly dementia—sequences that show the kind of mental coping-mechanisms Flo’s imagination creates. The show’s title is relevant here, as the fantasies of those who found their lives’ greatest fascination in The Box are shown to be reflections of a bygone era, a sort of consumerist Golden Age where advertisements seemed benign and beloved, as in the Jolly Green Giant’s rosy ho-ho-ho.

The advent of the digital era is signaled by an entertaining sequence that not only creates the sights and sounds—and pace—of modem-driven internet access but also indicates the extent to which TV’s advertising has been surpassed by the shop and click of online buying.

There are other interesting subtexts as well, as for instance a flashback to Flo’s youth (including some very effective visuals) when the loss of man-power at home during World War II produced a rare early era of women in the workplace. And Louise’s story is told with a sureness of tone that is driven by the show’s almost alchemical mix of music and visuals. The musicians are onstage and the music they make creates a varied range of emotional resonances. The show’s creators—Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman—are also its composers and their vision is abetted by puppet designer Lizi Breit, director/storyboard artist Julia Miller, assistant director Sarah Fornace, and associate puppet designer/storyboard artist Drew Dir. All of the above are credited with adapting the show “for the screen,” which, in fact, they do. And it’s something to see.

Scenes and screens in The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Scenes and screens in The End of TV (photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

Manual Cinema, as it were, takes back the notion of storytelling from the special-effects-laden spectacles of current films and creates its own special-effects version of how to tell stories live, as theater. It’s an interesting conceptual shift, playing both to contemporary audiences’ love of screens and to a certain childlike wonder at how we don’t really need words to tell and understand stories. The resources of mime and dumb-show are quite effectively mined by Manual Cinema to present a narrative that works its viewers’ imagination, intuition and empathy.

And these multi-tasking artists also provide, in their methods, a sustained consideration of how impersonal media depersonalize us and dilute rich histories. Somewhere along the way the kind of story-telling The End of TV seeks to sustain gave way to slick manipulations in the name of Product. In the sad but hopeful journey of Flo and Louise, Manual Cinema tries to restore a little faith in humanity, and in the art of rendering experience well.


The International Festival of Arts & Ideas
Manual Cinema: The End of TV

Story: Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; Adapted for the Screen by Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Kyle Vegter, Ben Kauffman; Director/Storyboard Artist: Julia Miller; Assistant Director: Sarah Fornace; Puppet Designer: Lizi Breit; Associate Puppet Designer/Storyboard Artist: Drew Dir; Lyrics and Music: Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman; Sound Designer: Kyle Vegter; Costume Designer: Mieka van der Pleog; Masks: Julia Miller; Lighting Designer: Claire Chrzan; Company Stage Manager: Shelby Glasgow; Production Manager/Sound Engineer: Mike Usrey

Puppeteers: Kara Davidson, Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal, Vanessa Valliere

Musicians: Maren Celest, SFX, vocals; Deidre Huckabay, flutes, vocals; Ben Kauffman, guitar, keyboard, vocals; Lia Kohl, cello, vocals; Marques Toliver, violin, vocals

University Theatre
June 19-22, 2017