International Festival of Arts & Ideas 2013

Strange Doings in the Scottish Borders

Preview of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Arts & Ideas Festival

Annie Grace, of the National Theatre of Scotland, has performed in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart more than 400 times, all over the place. The troupe and their signature play are back in New Haven this weekend to kick off the 21st annual Arts & Ideas Festival and to give New Haveners a newer taste of a play that first played here on its first world tour back in 2012.

There are two new cast members this time, filling the essential roles of Prudencia (now played by Jessica Hardwick) and her rival Colin Syme (now played by Paul McCole), and then there’s the supporting cast of three (Grace, Paul MacKay and music director Alasdair Macrae) who play a whirlwind variety of supporting roles and many authentic instruments—Grace plays Scottish Border pipes, whistles, ukulele and the bodhran (a drum), and sings. Her “musical husband” Macrae plays fiddle and guitar and they’ve been collaborators on many projects and performances.

There’s another member of the cast as well: the audience.

As conceived and written by David Grieg, with the original members of the cast and director Wils Wilson, the show is designed to take place in a pub and it’s meant to involve the audience in sundry ways. “The audience is in close contact to the spectacle and becomes part of the show, that’s essential,” says Grace. Last time, Prudencia played in June in the backroom of the Wicked Wolf. This time, it’s found a more suitable locale at Gryphon’s Pub, the hang-out of Yale grad students tucked away off York Street (officially it’s The Graduate and Professional Student Club—or GPSCY—at Yale). Prudencia’s tale of sparring and romancing academics at a winter conference in Kelso in the Scottish Borders region should feel right at home.

The music and story, Grace says, were inspired by border ballads, such as Tam Lin, a tale of metamorphosis at the hands of a fairie queen. There’s also a run-in with the devil and much enchantment, as well as a ribald romp of a bacchanal. As Grace says, Prudencia is a straight-laced, buttoned-up sort, who is “actually a wee bit naughty but doesn’t realize it.” Stuck in a blizzard in the Scottish Borders, she comes to learn that “hell is a bed-and-breakfast in Kelso.”

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Grace says Prudencia is a play “that keeps on giving,” an extended work “dear to our hearts because we helped create it.” Initially, Greig showed up with six pages of script and the basic idea. He had been working in site-specific theater for children and was eager to do the same thing for adults. And where do adults become most like children? Why, at a pub of course. The show has gone up in small halls and theaters as well but Grace says it’s not the same ambiance. In fact, a key comic scene takes place in a pub in the play—or a pub within a pub—where the cast gets to do knock-offs of the kind of folk scene one finds in Kelso. This time the tour will end in Kelso itself. One can only imagine the devilry the locals will get up to for that event—since the scenes set in the pub there were inspired by actual local performers that Greig encountered on his “fact-finding” visit to the town. So, instead of the kinds of ancient ballads Prudencia is keen to encounter, you get a laughable bollocks of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

No matter how many times they play their roles, Grace says, the troupe members are “always finding new things. David Greig is really a genius and the play is so very clever.” Most of the script is in verse and, Grace says, it sometimes takes a while for the audience to realize it. The devil, however, speaks prose and the scenes of satanic encounter strike a different note from the rest. There are also jokes about academia and popular culture and the once cutting-edge combination called “cultural studies.” “Colin is keen to bring folk studies into the twenty-first century,” Grace says, and Prudencia is less than amused by his fast and loose approach to their mutual discipline. Which makes for a lot of fun at the expense of both. Some of the references are starting to date a bit, Grace concedes, “iPods aren’t a new thing any more and are starting to be a bit passé.” Still, it’s not as if we didn’t all live through the early 21st century.

In looking for locales for the show, Grace says, the troupe needs a big room with good sight lines. “The play was conceived as a storytelling show—like 30 people sitting around a fire.” So it’s best with an audience of 120 max and tables and maybe a bit of drinking. In explaining the show and its setting, Grace refers to an old tradition: what it means “to have a song. Like a party piece, the thing you sing” that becomes your trademark, so to speak. Prudencia, she says, “has to find her song.”

And what better place to find a song—that’s also a tall tale, a quest for personal fulfillment, a journey of discovery, a research expedition, a romance, an enchantment, and a deal with the devil—than in the Scottish Borders, in the snow? Or in New Haven, in a pub.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart plays tonight, April 1, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 2, at 3 & 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 3, at 3 p.m.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents:
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
From the National Theatre of Scotland

Created by David Greig and Wils Wilson

Festival 2016

March 30-April 3, 2016
The Gryphon's Pub
204 York Street
New Haven

Seeing is Believing

Like Circa, the acrobatic-dance-theater troupe that visited last year’s Arts & Ideas Festival, Sequence 8 is all about defying the limitations we normally expect the human body to obey. Unlike Circa, Sequence 8, by Les 7 doigts de la main ("seven fingers on one hand")  is more purely entertaining, much less interpretive. Indeed, with Colin Davis acting as comic MC, the show winks at symbolic significance and the interpretive buzz of on-the-air commentary, as when Davis “interviews” Eric Bates, a wonder of dexterity and timing, about his “new book.” Davis has great audience rapport and adds to the show a nice flair for deflating pretensions. The skills on display are truly astounding and there are many visceral thrills at seeing what this talented and rigorously trained group are able to do. The show begins with acrobatic dancing on a bare stage and, though relatively tame in terms of daring, the expressive power of seeing spot-on tumbling and flying leaps in the midst of choreographed movement provides an immense charge. The show starts in a joyous manner and proceeds to inspire and amaze.

Each viewer will walk away with a different favorite sequence, I expect. But there’s no way not to be awed by Devin Henderson. Like some comic-book film super-hero, he seems able to fly, swoop, leap and land with no sense of strain or even of weight. Watch him ascend a pole as though he had reversed the pull of gravity. Watch him leap through hoops in a variety of approaches and configurations—it’s hard to explain why seeing this done so fluidly and effectively is so damn satisfying. One might like to give it a symbolic meaning beyond its sheer skill and bravado, and I suppose it amounts to seeing the will and the body so fully one in such a split second of impressive precision.

Or check out the astounding Alexandra Royer who gets the gasps going early in the show with her stunts on the Russian bar, leaping high, higher, flipping, turning and landing at the exact spot she started. Much later in the show, she works with a hoop and rope way above the stage, lit dramatically. Her work, and the beautifully choreographed trapeze work by Maxim Laurin—which involves interaction with the rest of the troupe as a sea of hands and bodies—are the more poetic moments in the show, but most routines have a kind of subtext that makes them more than stunts. A good example is Laurin and Ugo Dario using a teeter-totter to send each other catapulting high above the stage. To step back from the sheer brilliance of their skill is to see an image of, as they say, the cause-and-effect, give-and-take action and reaction of any kind of human interaction.

Then there’s Bates and his boxes. Or as he says, his routine is inside the box you’ve got to think outside of. Working with precise movements and exact timing, his dance with gravity takes the form of juggling a trio of boxes, making them seem alive rather than inert, yet finding them always exactly where he wants them to be. As with a magic trick, one would like to see his routine replayed in slow motion to “get” fully what he’s doing. In real time, we watch a melding of mind and matter that is enthralling.

As well, every stunt demonstrates the necessity of working together and the great benefits of finding a supportive group. At various times in the show I found myself musing on how such unusual talents would be wasted without the right setting. Davis refers to this aspect in his amusing opening monologue: without an audience there’s no show, and without a show what would we get from looking at an empty stage. Sequence 8 gives the audience plenty to see, and there’s an engaging sense that the troupe is watching us too, to see how we react and to gauge what impresses us most.

There’s one more show this afternoon. Go see it, and be prepared to be made giddy with the high spirits of the high-flying and talent-flaunting troupe that is Les  7 Doigts de la Main.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

Sequence 8 Les 7 doigts de la main

Production and artistic direction: Shana Carroll, Isabelle Chassé, Patrick Léonard, Gypsy Snider, Sébastien Soldevilla, Samuel Tétreault

Direction: Shana Carroll & Sébastien Soldevilla

Cast: Eric Bates, Ugo Dario, Colin Davis, Devin Henderson, Alexander Royer, Maxim Laurin, Camille Legris, Tristan Nielsen

June 27 & 28 at 8pm June 29 at 2pm Shubert Theater

A Bike of One's Own

Freewheelers, the new production by A Broken Umbrella Theatre featured in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, takes place in a renovated space at 300 State Street, a large room entered, via a subterranean passageway—and a grand old elevator—from Chapel Street, where Horowitz Brothers once stood. The work done simply to make the space available was considerable and the little trip to the playing space lets one reflect on the layers of history that ABUT projects tend to excavate. Since 2009, the diverse troupe has embraced the past of New Haven as inspiration for shows that create a sense of community while making entertaining use of facts about our city. The current show is not quite so grand as the Library Project last fall, but what it lacks in range it makes up for in focused story. The story of Anne (Lisa Daly), a factory worker with a yen to cycle on the exciting new invention the bicycle (patented in New Haven in 1866), is paralleled with the story of Elizabeth (Robin Levine), wife of Isaac the factory owner, who has some health issues that cause her to faint at times. What does the modern doctor (Lou Mangini) prescribe, to the consternation of conservative Isaac? Why, cycling! It does wonders for the constitution, of course, but…

But this is the 1800s and women mustn’t do anything unseemly—especially not in public! To make matters worse that factory Isaac runs happens to be rather new-fangled itself: it’s the first factory to manufacture woman’s most necessary accessory—the corset! Mr. Isaac Adler (played with measured if questionable authority by Ian Alderman) isn’t likely to embrace the idea of his wife cycling, nor is he amused when Anne shows up for work in male attire, the only way to cycle comfortably, you see. . .

As you might expect, the women may have to come to an understanding. Along the way, there are lovely songs to set the mood, factory routine that smacks of Metropolis, Levine’s dance routine with a chair—we all know Flashdance, sure, but here the pas de deux with a Chippendale actually serves a thematic purpose and is quite expressive—and some verbal fun via overlap when Isaac and Bigelow, his 2nd in Command (Mangini), plot how to make “boning” more flexible (no jokes, please, this is a kid-friendly production) while the women get flexible on their wheels. The men are referring, of course, to whalebone, the stiffening ingredient in the torso-confining strait jacket known as the corset.

As Anne, Daly is fresh-faced and earnest—not subversive, just common-sensical. As the more “vaporish” Elizabeth, Levine has the right waxen look for a wife being discussed in the third person by her husband and her doctor, and her reaction to Anne’s response to her inadvertent humor gets a big laugh. As Amelia, one of the children employable at a factory in this benighted time, Remsen Welsh is charmingly wise beyond her years. Mangini is deferential as the doctor, dedicated as Bigelow, and slightly conflicted as the bicycle store owner selling to a young woman a tool in her liberation. As the factory workers, Megan Black, Cynthia Miller, and Malenky Welsh do simulated sewing in synch and let their tongues wag with the resentment of exploited labor. Adler’s got a lot of headaches ahead of him…maybe there’s the possibility of a sequel as we follow the course of the corset from its heyday through its decline and onto the pages of Victoria’s Secrets.

Freewheelers, with its effective score and songs by Chrissy Gardner, does a fine job of combining the troupe’s historical interests with a contemporary vibe to arrive at a little machine as efficient as a well-oiled bike.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

Freewheelers Conceived and created by A Broken Umbrella Theatre

Story Development Team: Rachel Alderman, Ian Alderman, Dana Astmann, Jacy Barber, Lisa Daly, Brandon Fuller, Chrissy Gardner, Robin Levine, Jes Mack, Lou Mangini, Michelle Ortiz, Ruben Ortiz, Jason Wells

Director & Playwright: Rachel Alderman; Composer, Lyricist, Musical Director: Chrissy Gardner; Movement Director: Robin Levine; Set Designer: Brandon Fuller; Costume Designer: Jacy Barber; Lighting Designer: Trui Malten; Sound Designer: Dave Baker; Production Manager: Janie Alexander; Stage Manager: Katrina Lewonczyk

June 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 at 3pm June 16, 23 at 7pm June 15, 19, 22, 26, 29 at 8pm

No Exit

The idea that the story of a take-out Chinese delivery man trapped in an elevator in Brooklyn for 81 hours could be the basis of a play may not seem too big a stretch, but the basis of a quasi-operatic musical? Stuck Elevator—music by Byron Au Yong, libretto by Aaron Jafferis, directed by Chay Yew—is an inventive, amusing, affecting, and thoughtful show that takes us into a slice of life few of us may have first-hand knowledge of, but that anyone can enter imaginatively. Certainly, anyone would be interested in how someone would cope with such a situation, but what Stuck Elevator dramatizes is the entire context that would keep a man from summoning emergency help from the authorities, and that context, of course, is immigration issues in the U.S. Guang (Julius Ahn) speaks little English and is an illegal alien and knows that a police rescue would involve a pro forma request for an ID he doesn’t have.

Once we know that, we find there’s much more to learn—about his wife Míng (Marie-France Arcilla) and son, Wáng Yuè (Raymond Lee) back home, about his exploitative boss’s wife, about the chiding of his co-worker Marco (Joel Perez), about his fears—including the threat of pissing his pants after hours become days with no rescue—and even an elaborate fantasy involving a Pro Wrestling confrontation between Guang as Delivery Man vs. Elevator Monster (Francis Jue). And all this is presented in musical numbers that let us enter easily into the spirit of Guang’s trials and show us, in quick strokes, the characters who people his world.

The musical settings are many and varied and nothing stays too long to wear out its welcome. There are Guang’s melancholic “is this the end?” ruminations, charming turns from his family, fast-speed raps from Marco (very entertaining), and a host of threatening characters, including a mugger, guards, an agent of Homeland Security, and Snakehead (Lee), to whom Guang owes money. Jafferis’ libretto ranges through a battery of injuries added to the insult of being trapped in an elevator while also being trapped in the “no exit” space of an illegal alien. It’s to the show’s credit that its themes all arise naturally as the fever dreams of a man trapped with no means of communication with the outside world—Guang sold his cellphone to Marco. Feelings of guilt and shame surface as Guang finds he has no means to help himself and no one else he can turn to.

While it may sound like a somewhat polemical play, Chay Yew’s direction accentuates entertainment and the show’s actors/singers are all skilled with a comic touch—particularly Perez and Jue, whose parts in the ensemble tend toward comic relief. To Ahn, Arcilla and Lee fall the more affecting scenes, including the latter’s role of a nephew who died en route to America, smuggled in a cargo hold, and one of the more lifelike aspects of the play is the variety of turns Arcilla undergoes as Guang’s wife, a figure loved, feared, pitied and pined for.

At the heart of it all is Ahn’s Guang as a man able to burst into song about orange beef, hot sauce, and every aspect of his stranded anxieties, in a rich tenor. He is depicted as a man of resources, but simple in spirit, driven by the need to make money as quickly as possible for the sake of his family.

Stuck Elevator boasts a stripped-down, elegant set and lighting, and colorful and engaging costumes. It’s ready to go on tour (this is its second staging after a premiere in San Francisco) and it would be interesting to see how the show plays in parts of the country remote from big cities like NYC and SF, where the kind of subcultural associations that are simply givens of the situation might be a little opaque. And of course the show should be seen across the country as the question of immigrant rights and struggles are part of the social fabric at present. The show does a service in dramatizing a true story in terms that ring true as a look at the cartoon that is our contemporary, multicultural world.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

Stuck Elevator Presented in association with Long Wharf Theatre

Music: Byron Au Yong Libretto: Aaron Jafferis Director: Chay Yew

Cast: Julius Ahn, Marie-France Arcilla, Francis Jue, Raymond Lee, Joel Perez

Musicians: Byron Au Yong, piano; Lee Caron, percussion; Shenghua Hu, violin; Frederick Alden Terry, cello

Daniel Ostling, Scenic Designer; Mikhail Fiksel, Sound Designer; Myung Hee Cho, Costume Designer; Frederick Alden Terry, Music Director; Ted Boyce-Smith, Associate Lighting Designer; Alexandra Friedman, Associate Scenic Designer; Naya Chang, Assistant Director; Philip Rudy, Production Stage Manager; Victoria Nidweski, Assistant Stage Manager

Producers: ArKtype / Thomas O. Kriegsmann Associate Producer: Alexandra Rosenberg

June 20-22, 25-29, 8pm June 22-23, 26, 29, 2pm Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II

Perchance to Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that rarely works its magic on me. It’s hard not to find the lovers insipid, the gods arbitrary and vain, and the mechanicals—Bottom, Quince, and the rest—grossly condescended to. Any production that disabuses me of these views is all to the good. The best way is to make the lovers actually funny, but that rarely happens. And as for the humor of the mechanicals-as-thespians, well . . . can it ever be too broad? The production by the Bristol Old Vic, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, brought to New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has the distinction of creating a workshop atmosphere in which the mechanicals dominate. Before the play even begins, Titania (Saskia Portway) stands on stage hammering away.  The stage set (Fred Stacey, Andy Scrivens, Cliff Thorne) has great openness but also a dusty backstage feel that suits the production. We feel like we’re in the props room of a modern version of Athenian drama and that adds dimension to the play-within-a-play of Piramus and Thisbe that Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael) and company put on.

That aspect of the play—a farcical performance that nearly gets out of control—is quite inventive, with “Moonshine” (Jon Trenchard) perched on a ladder with a lit candle on his hat, and “Wall” (David Emmings) careening about the stage due to the top-heavy bricks affixed to his.

The intention of the Old Vic/Handspring production is to make puppetry intrinsic to the vision of the play. At times, this makes for striking effects—as when wood planks become musical instruments or a living forest or a walkway in space—and adds to liveliness when Quince starts handing out roles for the mechanicals’ play and Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) disports with a large wooden beam, moving it about with a fluidity that is almost a special effect. And when he is “translated” into an ass, well…no spoilers from me, but it must be seen to be believed and, once seen, will always be remembered. Suffice to say he helms an amazing device that is both funny and grotesque.

Other puppetry moments produce more confusion than wonder. Why are the lovers puppets at times and at other times not? If that’s a too literal question, so be it. The program invites the audience to “suspend their disbelief”—something we do anyway when faced with a play featuring gods, Athenians, fairies, and nincompoops putting on a play, but when we also have to allow for puppets gripped like mini-me’s to this or that pining lover, it’s not so much a question of disbelief as of the meaning of the staging.

Such moments don’t intrude too much, and it’s easier to experience the enlivening aspect of puppetry when we see the fairies as an interesting collection of toys, found objects and moveable parts. Or when the gods disport giant heads and that fascinating big hand Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce) wields.

Among the lovers, Alex Felton as Lysander is the most amusing in his drastic change from adoring Hermia (Akiya Henry) to adoring Helena (Naomi Cranston), though Henry gets to bristle and make the most of her smaller stature (called for in the play) in lively physical comedy. Cranston’s Helena adopts the breathless delivery that is often the preferred manner of Brits doing the Bard. I would’ve appreciated more diction, less effusion in her speech to Hermia about their girlhood.

The best actor in the show is Yerolemou, who, besides hamming broadly as Bottom ("ham" and "bottom" being the key terms here), also gives greatly appreciated clarity to Egeus, Hermia’s fuming father. The disruption between Oberon and Titania (Saskia Portway) never felt particularly dramatic, but the interaction between the same two actors as Theseus and Hippolyta had much more feeling to recommend it.

The best aspect of the show are the visuals—set, lighting (Philip Gladwell) and the attention to movement (Andrew Dawson, Movement Director)—as well as the fascinating puppetry that could use a little tweaking to blend more seamlessly with Shakespeare’s somewhat hodgepodge play.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream A Bristol Old Vic production In associations with Handspring Puppet Company

Directed by Tom Morris Puppet Design, Fabrication, and Direction: Handspring Pupptet Company

Vicki Mortimer: Designer; Philip Gladwell: Lighting Designer; Dave Price: Composer; Christopher Shutt: Sound Designer; Andrew Dawson: Movement Director; Laurel Swift: Choreographer; James Bonas: Associate Director; Molly Einchcomb: Associate Designer; Katerina Hicken: Costume Supervisor; Joseph Wallace: Puppetry Associate

Performers; Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Naomi Cranston, David Emmings, Alex Felton, Fionn Gill, Akiya Henry, Kyle Lima, Saskia Portway, David Ricardo Pearce, Jon Trenchard, Miltos Yerolemou

June 15 & 18-22 at 8pm June 15, 16, 19, 22 & 23 at 2pm University Theatre Yale University