International Festival of Arts & Ideas 2015

Future Past in the Present

Review of Employee of the Year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

What are the limits of storytelling? How minimal can a story be and still be a story? How temporally episodic is memory?

Brought to you by 600 Highwaymen, a husband and wife team based in Brooklyn, Employee of the Year, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, is an unusual theater piece. Using young girls under the age of 10 as the show’s only actors would seem to indicate that the action takes place from the point of view of a minor. And, indeed, the method of the show is at its best while that is the case. It opens with J. (initially played by Rachel Dostal with forthright confidence) recalling disconnected scenes of early childhood that involve her mother. The point seems to be that, even for a nine year old, memories of early life have an unusual clarity and mystery.

Yet the story moves inexorably through time and soon our underage narrator is telling of a date, at age 17, with a boyfriend. Arriving home, she finds that her house has burned down and her mother has died. A couple, friends of her mother, take her in and eventually, in cat-out-of-the-bag fashion, they let her know that she was “adopted” (but not officially adopted) by the woman she thought was her mother, because her birth mother couldn’t keep her. Seeing a picture of a girl who looks like her in the couple’s home and discovering the inscription “Lynn, Boulder, CO” and overhearing the couple’s discussion, J. steals money and takes a bus to Boulder. But things don’t go as planned.

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

bckgrnd, l to r: Candela Cubria, Stella Lapidus, Rachel Dostal, Alice Levy; frgrnd: Violet Newman

Thereafter the story, as it passes from one childish voice to the next, takes on a rhythm reminiscent of the children’s story Are You My Mother? as J. journeys about, sporadically, over the course of the next 63 years, trying to find her mother. She almost gets close once or twice, perhaps. Along the way she gets taken in by another surrogate mother, her actual mother’s sister. Bits of information about the missing Lynn make us begin to think that her story is probably more interesting than the one we’re hearing about. And that seems to be the point. Though J. has people who love her and has a child of her own—who grows into an adult understandably tired of the “missing mother” syndrome—she only sees fit to tell us about her occasional search for the woman who gave birth to her, and that doesn’t make for much of a life.

The method of storytelling truncates continuity, oddly. Told in an eternal present, everything our young narrators tell us is happening “now,” though the movements of the four girls who take on the role of J. suggest “action” in only the most minimal manner. As a study in rote, affectless presentation, the show is compelling and all due praise to these youngsters, who also sing in crystalline voices a capella songs by David Cale that add lyrical interest to the proceedings. In particular, a song with the lines “I wished I loved you more” is quite lovely, as is the final song, sung by Candela Cubria in her own name as a reflection on the fact that, much as J.—in her 80s at the end of the show—can only recall bits and pieces of the story she’s trying to tell, so Candela may or may not remember being in this play, and will we recall, years from now, her face as she sang the song?

Intriguing as such questions about memory are, Employee of the Year seems contrived as a memory play, one in which anything that we might consider surface or anecdotal interest in a person’s life has been stripped away for a single idée fixe. And as a story of obsession about an undiscoverable past, it would benefit from some rooting interest in J.’s developing persona. For the sake of the purity of its prepubescent muses, the show’s method eschews “acting” in any sense of the term, so that, while we may find one girl more personable than another, we can only accept J. on her own limited terms. In closing, she tells us there “was a lot of blindness” in her life. One could say that putting the burden of such blindness on the audience is the show’s main feature: we only “see” what J. tells us, and that’s not much.

At first, one might assume that the young age of the cast of Employee of the Year has to do with the ultimate age J. reached before she learned the truth about her adoption, but she’s older than the cast is when she learns this. Had she been 8 or 9, we might find a motivation for her arrested development, but Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, aka 600 Highwaymen, seem to want to do away with any such realist conceits. And yet a certain reality does come through: Choices are arbitrary, events are random, a life—even a full, long life—may in fact be missing the one element, in this case the certainty of origin, that would make it meaningful or happy.

The show takes its title from one of the few things J. learns about her mother: that for a time she was “Employee of the Month” in a restaurant. J’s mother had wanted to be an actress and pursued a painter the way J. pursues her, though perhaps with more success. In any case, the specificity of the phrase—one particular employee, one particular month—is subsumed by its generic qualities, and its ephemerality. There will always be another month, another employee. But, J.’s relentless obsession seems to assume, there can be only one mother for one person, in a once upon a time that forever eludes discovery in the future because it already happened.

The cast of  Employee of the Year

The cast of Employee of the Year

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Employee of the Year
600 Highwaymen

Songs by David Cale Design by Jessica Pabst and Eric Southern

With: Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Levy, Violet Newman, Candela Cubria

Long Wharf Theatre: June 20 & 27, 2015, 3 p.m.; June 21 & 26, 8 p.m.

The Once and Future King

Review of Rodney King in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

For the moment, the racist slaying of black church members in Charleston, SC, by a young white man has eclipsed, in news cycles, the wealth of stories of the racist law enforcement tactics of police—some leading to death—in a number of states in the past year. While the events in SC are a horrendous blow, joining the many acts of social and often political violence perpetrated by “lone gunmen” in our national psychosis, the violence against citizens of color, some of them committing criminal acts, some of them not, by our public defenders points up the persistence of what used to be called “institutional racism.” And whenever you invoke the names of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, you might as well begin with Rodney King.

King was, in the words of Roger Guenveur Smith, “the first hero of reality TV” whose bludgeoning by the clubs of the LAPD in 1991 “went viral before viral was invented.” That’s worth saying because the status of King, in U.S. racial history, is due to hand-held personal video equipment and media dissemination. His treatment was not unusual, for uncooperative blacks facing the law in the U.S.; what was unusual was that the beating was filmed, shared, and seen.

Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith

Smith’s words are part of his solo performance piece Rodney King, which closed today at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Smith says he began working on the show when he heard the news of King’s death in 2012, a “second-generation death by drowning drunk” in King’s family (King drowned in his swimming pool; King’s father had drowned drunk in the bathtub). Smith wanted to reflect on why King’s death made him feel, though he had never met the man, like he had lost a brother.

Rodney King presents a dramatic apostrophe to King, addressing him familiarly and knowledgeably, often implicitly questioning King’s decisions and lifestyle—he had been convicted in the past of robbery and assault and battery—while working-in details recounted in his subject’s autobiography. Smith’s almost musical, partially improvised script creates an echo chamber of voices talking about and around and through King’s beating and its aftermath, the LA riots of 1992. In shorthand fashion we hear of the trial of his assailants (acquitted of use of excessive force), and of the destruction and slayings—at least 50 deaths—in the riots afterward, and of the lead-up to and content of King’s famous public statement during the riots, “can we all get along?”

We watch Smith’s emotive performance with fascination, never quite sure which buttons he will push, which taglines from our nation’s hysteria about racial difference and its unease about its racist assumptions will suddenly take on swift new resonance. Gripping as Rodney King is, Smith occasionally over-reaches, his delivery seeming to circle around events as on a loop and making more of some than they merit (such as King’s “incog-negro” visit to the scene where rioters killed someone); at other times he mimics more emotion than he inspires.

Smith’s King is an unassuming, Everyman hero, the kind of person who would never achieve a spotlight through his own efforts. He’s simply a not-so-hard-working guy, enthrall to “the four horsemen,” pot, PCP, coke, and booze. King, it seems, managed to attain his “modest house with swimming pool” by virtue of having survived the “most famous ass-kicking of all time.” Smith is fully aware of the irony of singing King’s praises in this light, and that fact lends a certain jocular affection toward King, and, lest we think that the offense to King was too slight (after all, such logic runs, he lived to tell of it and became famous and was paid millions in damages), Smith includes the story of Latasha Harlins, a minor gunned down after an altercation with a convenience-store owner who believed she was shoplifting a bottle of OJ. Thus, as Smith says emphatically more than once, “it’s not just about you, Rodney.”

Roger Guenveur Smith in  Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Which is to say that the riots weren’t “just about” King’s treatment, which occurred less than two weeks before Harlins’ killing, or about the outcomes of the trials of King’s assailants and of Harlins’ killer, but about generations who have endured violence due to race, from the inception of slavery through lynchings and beatings to acts of racist terrorism from the Civil Rights marches to today, nor is Rodney King just about one man and his story. Smith sticks to that story, but makes us feel the history that informs it and the timeliness of its presentation here. King, like some of the family members of those slain in South Carolina last week, seemed inclined to forgive—a Christlike gesture that earns from Smith the phrase “the gospel according to Rodney King”—a stance that met with derision in certain circles, where the incitement to arm and avenge in strong. Whether outraged rapper who wants “to fuck Rodney King in the ass” or shrewd lawyer who wants to make Smith’s appeal to America “huxtable,” Smith lets the voices pass through him, leaving us with a glimpse of King as a man who drowns in a pool, dreaming of surfing and, as he allegedly did before his arrest, giving the finger to the eyes above.

Given the persistence of racial violence in our country, and the widespread, “viral” outbreak of officers caught in the act of killing black persons—Smith gives Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” to King while drowning—Rodney King is searchingly timely. Our era can’t claim any moral high-ground that would let us look back at the events surrounding King from some alleged “post-racial” society. In fact, we might even look back in something like nostalgia for a time when white lawmen descended after a highspeed chase upon a car containing three black men and let them all get out of the car. They beat King senseless, true, but today, in some localities anyway, they would most likely have opened fire the minute the car stopped.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Rodney King
Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith

Sound Design: Marc Anthony Thompson; Lighting Design: José López; Production Management: Kirk Wilson

June 18-20, 2015, 8 pm June 21, 2 pm

Long Wharf Theatre

The Losin' Louisiana Blues

Review of Cry You One at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, 2015

Cry You One, an outdoors theatrical experience at Arts & Ideas, provided by a collaboration of Mondo Bizarro and Artspot Productions, runs for three hours and, by its end, one has been somewhere. As “a play” it is episodic and participatory, and as “a tour” it aims to be transformational, and for those open to theater as event more than spectacle it could well be.

Divided into groups by stickers adorned with an image—Boar, Coyote, Gator, Snake, Spider—the audience members become identified with a creature to be found in the Louisiana bayou country where the show originated. Indeed, Cry You One’s urgency comes in reaction to the encroaching sea that has—as was said in a telling image—nibbled away the toes and much of the sole of the “boot” that is Louisiana. This bodes not well for those who live there, and much of the early going—with staged annoyances among the troupe about who gets to hog the telling for our benefit—is about the ravages to the unique land and culture of Louisiana. The ensemble is a mix of natives and non-natives of the area and their staged group dynamic illustrates how, even among those who want to help Louisiana, there are different agendas and allegiances. Eventually, each group follows its leader, which means attending a presentation specific to each group and (I assume, based on the one I joined) confidences and oneupmanship concerning the other guides.

Transplanted to Maltby Lakes in West Haven, the show does not feel out of place, though I can only imagine how much more moving it is in its natural habitat. To help keep the Cajun flavor, the show boasts much use of music derived from bayou country by music director Sean Larocca, and features Zohar Israel as a Griot poet and musician who speaks for people who have already been driven off the land. One affecting moment comes on the banks of a lake where Zohar tells how there’s a day reserved for the ritual of swimming a lake in Louisiana where the homes of ancestors lie at the bottom—except now, after hurricanes this century, the young are swimming over their own homes.

The communal parts of the production involve dances, singalongs, trooping together through the picturesque landscape of the Lakes, and visiting spaces turned into encircled stages or devised museums—the artifacts and artworks collected in the latter have the rough beauty of the salvaged detritus of lost homes and lives. For all its beauty and camaraderie, there is a certain gloom that hangs over the show—the gloom of time and tide. The walk to the museum space is accompanied by an eerie song that says “the waves come in, the waves go out, sinking, sinking.” The people of the bayou country have long been acquainted with the blues, and no wonder.

The dramatic tension at the heart of the show’s themes is between what is “natural” and what is determined by humankind. So while there is fear and loathing for the depredations of gas companies, and hand-wringing over what has become of the Mississippi for the benefit of business, and gestures toward the kind of projects needed to re-sediment its banks, there are also nagging issues of how some solutions create new problems. There is also a strong sense of how ephemeral human intervention is. Those in it for greed take their money and run, those in it for the sake of the land try to stay in places become uninhabitable. Through it all, Cry You One is crying for those displaced, for those who loved the place and want to preserve its traditions. But it also implies how mysterious and difficult is “man’s place” anywhere on this globe, and how important it is to respect the environment we identify with.

Since any individual experience of the play depends largely on what group you get selected for, I can only speak about the segments of the show from the perspective of “a spider.” Our leader, “Dr. Dr.” Carol Karl (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), is an overly self-conscious scientist who proffered her diplomas for our edification and became upset that her comrades had added a piece of “hate mail” from a former coworker; the innocuous-seeming card served to remind her of a disgrace she endured due to alleged lack of empathy for the people who live where a needed waste station was set to be built. Much later, this theme gets worked out in an alarming and almost schizophrenic fashion to let us know that poor Dr. Karl is bedeviled by charges of racism and a haunting experience of having to flee her own home as a child. Dr. Karl is an oddly likeable, forlorn character, her spider persona a chilling creation, and the space set up for their struggle one of the most memorable in the show I saw.

The talents behind Cry You One—including director Kathy Randels, writers Raymond “Moose”Jackson and Joanna Russo—clearly have a shrewd sense of group dynamics as well as a varied grasp of theatrical presentation. Three hours may seem long, but it’s key to the feeling of having stepped away from one’s own life to become “settled” in another environment with other people. The experience is apt to set off all kinds of associations, from tours of historical sites to enactments at amusement parks to classroom protocols on class trips to awkward gatherings of strangers to pay tribute to some common cause. What it feels nothing like is the passive viewing of a play in a theater.

Interaction is key to one’s experience, while observation, for a critic, is key to commentary. Cry You One offers much opportunity for both. Conceived as “a grand procession for the land that is disappearing, “ by its originator Nick Slie, Cry You One asks you to think about what you’d take if you had to leave where you live. When it was over, I walked out alone, thinking about where I’d been, and feeling like I’d left some friends behind.

International Festival of Arts and Ideas presents
Cry You One
Mondo Bizarro & Artspot Productions

Directed by Kathy Randels

Ensemble: Jon Greene; Zohar Israel; Hannah Pepper-Cunningham; Rebecca Mwase; Lisa Moraschi Shattuck; Nick Slie

Additional performers: Kathy Randels and Sean Larocca; Designers: Jeff Becker and Melisa Cardona; Writers: Raymond “Moose” Jackson and Joanna Russo; Music Director: Sean Larocca; Choreographer: Millicent Johnnie; Costume Design: Bear Hebert and Laura Sirkin-Brown; Banner Photographs: Monique Verdin; Stage Manager: Nick Moser; Associate Producer: Tracy Boyles; Line Producer: Bear Hebert; Set Construction: Zachary Grace; Scenic Painting: Alexandria Bozeman

June 13, 14, 16, 20, 21 at 2 pm; June 17, 18, 19 at 4 pm

Maltby Lakes, West Haven