International Festival of Arts & Ideas 2014


Review of Traces Traces, the production by Les 7 Doigts de la Main at this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, presents an varied mix of incredible circus tricks, busy choreography and musical interludes, blending rougher street effects with elements that are more lighthearted. The troupe’s stated intention of incorporating harsher themes—as evidenced by the title’s reference to what we leave after we die or after our very civilization is gone—could be seen in bits like the drawing of chalk outlines around fallen bodies, a voice-over invoking fall-out from nuclear attack, and theatrics that seemed to involve edgier interactions such as playful punches, rough-housing, and taking aim at one another, together with inscriptions about memory.

The upshot of the show is that the kind of acrobatic theater the group specializes in can be adapted to different moods and occasions. Against the sense of fatality in the world at large, the troupe offers a banded-together sense of purpose, even as the show made considerable efforts to differentiate the players. Introduced by speaking individually into a hanging mike—like the kind familiar from the boxing ring—the members of the cast were also presented by typed fact sheets that, as projections, gave us the vital statistics of each member fleshed out by three adjectives to describe personality or attitude. There’s even a moment at the end where each member presents themselves as if contestants of a reality show, beseeching votes from the audience. The combined effect is to convince us of the reality of the “characters”—which is to say the presented personalities of the cast: Lucas Boutin, Mathieu Cloutier, Hou Kai, LJ Maries, Fletcher Sanchez, Renaldo Williams, Naomie Zimmerman-Pichon.

As contributors to the overall effect, each also has their specialty, though in the fast paced action it can be difficult to keep track of who does what. There is a blend of exhilarating, gravity-defying stunts in climbing poles and leaping between poles, with interludes such as a song Cloutier plays on guitar, and each member takes turns at a rough-hewn piano, treating it as a means to compete further. Some of the more lyrical aspects of the show fall to its only female member—her ballet-like movements suspended in space was a high point of tension and grace, and her solo turn with a settee and book—you’ve never seen anyone treat furniture that way though every child perhaps tries—is fun; she also engages in a charming pas de deux with Renaldo Williams early in the show. Other memorable escapades include the entire company working out a delightful routine with skateboards to a jazzy arrangements of “Paper Moon,”a stunning ride on a spinning hoop, or cyr wheel, intricate work on aerial straps, wild vaults from a teeterboard, and, my favorite segment, the endlessly satisfying and inventive leaps through rings in varied configurations and postures.

The troupe may feel that their kind of theater should be able to make more of a point, but to hear the gasps of delight of the audience and the glee of many of the children present is to see the point of such theater. The purpose of 7 Doigts de la Main is to inspire us with defiance of gravity, with amazing feats that most humans can only dream of doing, and to let us exult in what seems effortless precision, strength, agility and camaraderie.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

Traces Les 7 Doigts de la Main

Direction and choreography: Shana Carroll, Gypsy Snider; Assistant to the Artistic Director: Francisco Cruz; on stage: Lucas Boutin, Mathieu Cloutier, Hou Kai, LJ Maries, Fletcher Sanchez, Renaldo Williams, Naomie Zimmeran-Pichon; Touring Team: Tour Manager: Anna Cassel; Sound: Sébastien Marion; Lights: Olivier Rosa; Rigger: Stéphane Beauchet; Artistic Crew: Lights: Nol van Genuchten; Costumes: Manon Desmarais; Set & Porps Original Design: Flavia Hevia; Set & Props Adaptation, Music & Soundscape: Les 7 doigts de la main; Video: Paul Ahad; André Biron; Les 7 doigts de la main; Props Adaptation: Bruno Tassé; Head Coaches: Jérôme Le Baut and Francisco Cruz; Coach for Sofa and Aerial Strap Acts: Isabelle Chassé; Cyr Wheel Coach: Krin Haglund; Piano Coach: Sophie Houle et Francisco Cruz; Stage Manager: Patrick Loubert; Musics for Hand to Hand and Aerial Acts: Seth Stachowski

University Theatre, York Street June 24-27, 8pm; June 28, 1pm & 5pm

Coming to Grips

Review of The Events David Grieg’s The Events, brought to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas by Actors Touring Company, directed by Ramin Gray, is a play very much of our time. In the twenty-first century, so far, there seems to be no end to random acts of violence directed, most often, by a lone gunman against some more or less helpless community—school children, college students in class, movie-goers, office-workers, or, in Norway (the event that jump-started Grieg’s effort), campers. In The Events, “the events” refer to a young man opening fire on a community choir in an unnamed town. Claire, a clergyperson and the leader of the choir, survived, and has been trying to come to terms with the events.

One way to do that is by getting her choir-members to deal with it through various efforts—from the intrusions of shamanic exercises to, one supposes, consciousness-raising forays into multicultural music. That’s the humorous side of the play, which stems from the fact that Claire, played with very natural, real-person charm by Derbhle Crotty, is essentially an outgoing, positive person who finds herself trying desperately to fit the atrocity into a worldview that could make sense of it. The reality of Claire’s position as a choir-instructor is ably supported by the play’s use of actual choirs, local to wherever the play is staged. This adds not only actual members of the community to the drama, but also creates, for the viewer, a very telling sense of the random and fortuitous. You may know someone onstage, or not, but in either case, you are aware that those onstage might as easily be from the audience. Grieg’s view of what makes our experiences “common” takes its impetus from the way “we” all suffer from attacks upon random citizenry and translates it into a changing collection of persons who just happen to be there when you are. The night I saw the play, the Greater New Haven Community Choir took the stage and did a fine job, particularly in the soprano parts.

Claire, obsessed and still likely in shock and mourning, goes off to interview those who knew the young man—The Boy, and everyone else Claire interacts with, including her gamely supportive partner Catriona, is played by the same actor, in this case Clifford Samuel. The interest this affords is in letting the “others” to Claire’s search for answers morph at will between different persons. In a sense, Claire is always interrogating “The Boy,” so why not let him be everyone? The problem it creates has to do with characterization, where little effort is made to differentiate the people Claire comes into contact with. At one point, interviewing the man The Boy chose as political spokesperson—a racist whose views seem to jibe with those who, for instance, would drive all non-indigenous persons out of a once homogenous country--, as well as The Boy’s father, and another boy The Boy went to school with, the differences in person are mainly suggested by changing to a different chair. That’s not so troubling when these persons can be reduced to different speeches of denial—denial that they had much to do with The Boy and insistence that they cannot be implicated in his murderous actions—but it is a bit more bothersome when Catriona and The Boy himself take the stage.

These latter two roles aren’t simply ancillary to Claire and The Boy. Catriona takes on stature as the person whom Claire herself begins to abuse in her anxiety. Those events seem to suggest that trying to deal with violence—as a choice, as an act, as an aftermath—might make bullies of us all, but that level of the play would be aided by a different actor for the role. Similarly, using the members of a local choir to be, en masse, a character, or, in small ways, voices who read from scripts to ask questions or respond as audience members to The Boy’s fantasy of himself as a spokesman for a celebrated warrior ideal (or is that Claire’s fantasy of him?), undermines a sense of individuality. In other words: there really is no one else in this universe but Claire and The Boy, which may be true from Claire’s perspective, but certainly isn’t true from The Boy’s nor from that of anyone else who suffered loss from the events. Claire becomes a representative of an idée fixe. So, finally, much rides on her ultimate meeting with The Boy.

It should be said that the lead-up to that event is Claire’s “fame” as the woman who advocates forgiveness for The Boy. She, it seems, has understood the Christian injunction to forgive those who trespass against us, particularly those who strike us with the greatest enmity. That aspect of Grieg’s play draws upon the notion that someone who strikes against a community from within that community is still part of that community and can’t be relegated to “an enemy” or outsider status. The soul-searching that comes from such events is due to the fact that the killer not only killed some of us but is one of us. Claire’s position becomes the one that a Christian community should favor, and yet, that’s not how the general or legal community necessarily views it. And we have doubts as to how sincere Claire’s forgiveness is too.

Indeed, the weakest part of Grieg’s play is in the scene between Claire and The Boy. In part, this has to do with the labels Claire brings to the meeting: either The Boy is or was insane, or he is or was evil. Neither tag does much to illuminate what, in fact, he is. And Grieg doesn’t seem to know either. What we get is a kid much like any kid—one who is now and for the foreseeable future a prisoner, a ward of the State, we might say, with a psychotherapist and many more people, than ever before, concerned about his well-being. What he isn’t is insane or evil. Perhaps the point is a lesson for Claire but, in dropping any of the racist rhetoric that seemed to motivate The Boy, the scene plays out with no great difference between Claire and The Boy, as if all that separates them is which side of the gun they were on, that day. I think we might reasonably expect a bit more consistency from racist ideologues and clergy both.

The staging of the play on the wide, mostly bare stage—but for a piano, risers, and chairs that Crotty arranges and removes at various times—at the Yale Rep has an air of rehearsal and demonstration, as though we—the audience—happened upon a choir class and got caught up in an enactment of recent events by its leader and another member. What draws us into the play is its vivid sense of Claire’s personality and her very real sense of not being adequate to what she must live with and make sense of.

In the end, the community she has striven to serve serves her as a place to enact her commitment to others and to the healing and communal aspects of song, offering if not answers about the recurring wounds to our social body, then at least a figure for the therapeutic loss of self in the embrace of the communal that seems to elude the haters, the attackers, and the dispossessed.

The Events plays for two more showings, today at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

The Events By David Greig Directed by Ramin Gray

Commissioned by Actors Touring Company and Drammatikkenshus, Oslo Co-produced by Actors Touring Company, Young Vic Theatre, Brageteatret and Schauspielhaus Wien

Composer: John Browne; Actors: Derbhle Crotty, Clifford Samuel; Pianist: Magnus Gilljam; Designer: Chole Lamford; Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour; Sound Designer: Alex Caplen; Associate Director: Polina Kalinina; Dramaturg: Oda Radoor; Dramaturg: Brigitte Auer; Casting Director: Julia Horan; Company Stage Manager: Jess Banks; Technical Stage Manager: Jon Jewett

Participating choirs: New Haven Chorale, Western Connecticut State University; Greater New Haven Community Chorus; The Wayfaring Choir; The New Growth & Friends Choir, The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Mass Choir; West Hartford Women’s Chorale

Yale Repertory Theatre June 24-27: 8 p.m.; June 28: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Habeas Corpus

Review of Arguendo Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo, directed by John Collins, is a gutsy idea: take a Supreme Court hearing and turn it into theater. But wait, Supreme Court hearings—like any courtroom proceedings—are already theater. Their sense of the theatrical nature of the “performance” of argument—which is what court proceedings are all about—is what gives ERS the wherewithal to get away with this.

You’d think listening to lawyers and justices, for the lay audience, would be pretty tedious, and, indeed, that would be the case if the case were contract law or something, but ERS judiciously chooses the kind of hearing that will get an audience interested. And few things get those who love art and theater more motivated than questions concerning the First Amendment right to free expression. The U.S., we all know, hasn’t actually been sterling in its attitudes toward censorship. There’s an old Puritan ethic deeply engraved on the books, so to speak, and that old “I know when I see it” attitude toward indecency, obscenity, and moral turpitude has made do-righters ban and outlaw and confiscate and fine for quite some time.

The case in Arguendo (Latin for “for the sake of argument”) is Barnes vs. Glen Theatre (1990-91) and has to do with whether or not the good people of Indiana are within their rights in insisting that erotic or exotic dancers wear pasties and a G-string while performing for their public (if you think “pasties and a G-string” is a silly phrase—as I do—you’ll be even more convinced after hearing it introduced into high-toned courtspeak, and any attempt to find synonyms fails comically), or whether said dancers are within their rights of free expression, under the First Amendment, to cavort as God intended—or, at least, as Nature created.

The comic potential of this face-off should be obvious at once. When is movement actually “dance” (which is expressive) as opposed to “conduct” (which isn’t?); when is nudity allowed—in high-brow pursuits like theater (where we don’t expressly pay to see it) and not in salacious arenas of sleaze (where we do), apparently; when is a prohibition on “manner” permitted without invoking censorship—whether or not rock music is music or has “a message,” you can legally set a volume limit for public performances without fear of circumventing free speech. All the briefs and decisions that fuel these sorts of absurd abstruosities are wonderfully presented as projections behind the action and in an interactive manner, so that the lawyers and the justices can fling them about or jump to the relevant passage.

Indeed, Arguendo is more visually stimulating than one might expect. In addition to the fast-moving projections of text, there are projections of austere columns to create a courtroom air of rectitude; there are heavy red drapes to suggest solemnity but also, perhaps, something a bit hush-hush behind the scenes. A cast of two women and three men enact all the justices, the two lawyers, the press, and an outgoing dancer from Michigan concerned about the case, and there is lively use of movement as the justices fling themselves about on wheeled office chairs, strike poses, form huddles, and slump and fidget with a great sense of body language and the dignity (and comic potential) of their office. At a certain point, the sheer absurdity of hypotheticals and nick-picking explodes in an avalanche of paper and the nudity of the counsel for Glen Theatre.

And the nudity on stage speaks brilliantly to the matter the court must decide (and how they rule on the case may surprise you): if a person is nude in public by free will (as opposed to, say, by theft of clothes) does that nudity have a message or is it simply gratuitous, having no meaning, no merit, etc.?

Those of us in the arts know, of course, that the nude always has meaning and merit because it is nude. The justices are not likely to be halted by aesthetic niceties and press on to find the means to support a statute (which Glen Theatre, et al., is fighting) to stop nudity simply intended to make money from those who pay to see nudity. Though never stated as such, that becomes the contention. The ideal that the good people of Indiana staunchly support is that paying to see nudity much less being paid to reveal nudity should be “beneath” the behavioral norms of their citizenry and, if it isn’t, the law will enforce that ideal. To this the majority of the court can concur, though there were, in the Decision, three separate statements as to why they reached that decision.

The flagrant nudity in Arguendo, though, supports an interesting point: none of us paid to see that nudity; we paid to see a play containing it. We might well have preferred to do without it, and yet it is part of the play and so is acceptable and not to be regarded in terms of comeliness. The message of such nudity is that it can occur, that it manifests something about the nature of theater. It makes a worthwhile comment, particularly when set against the clever little coda at the end of the play—as with all of the play, all words come verbatim from previous sources—in which Chief Justice Rehnquist puts chevrons on his judicial robe to avoid being “upstaged” (his term) by the women on the bench who have taken to wearing finely wrought collars.

In the end, Arguendo gives fresh insight into that ancient notion that “all the world’s a stage” and, by re-enacting this well-chosen, though minor case, they stage one of the great assets of live performance over any other representation of action, whether as words or on film. The justices may be loathe to reflect on the performative nature of the law but the very word “arguendo” implies sophistry, or argument simply for its own sake or for its rhetorical finesse. At that point, we’re well launched on the arc that theater makes explicit: nothing intentional, such as courtroom conduct or decoration or disrobing in public, is without “meaning,” and only the nicety of choosing which messages we value creates the hierarchy the law—always provisional and revisable—will uphold in the social arena.

We all go about our business in the midst of a grand work in progress.


Arguendo appears as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo Directed by John Collins

Cast: Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams

Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service Media Software by The Office of Creative Research Set Designer: David Zinn; Lighting Designer: Mark Barton; Costume Designer: Jacob A. Climer; Sound Designer: Matt Tierney; Video Designer: Ben Rubin; Producer: Ariana Smart Truman

June 18-20: 8 p.m.; June 21: 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; June 22: 1 p.m.

Yale Repertory Theatre