Jackson Gay

Child's Play

Review of Make Believe, Hartford Stage

Bess Wohl and Jackson Gay, the author and director, respectively, of Make Believe, the opening play of the 2018-19 season at Hartford Stage, worked together early in their careers, collaborating at the Yale Cabaret while students in the Yale School of Drama. That fact seemed significant to me while watching Make Believe, which might work best as a one act (such as one sees at the Cabaret). Here, the play is in two parts without intermission, and it’s the second part, which has to make believe it depicts the present day of the kids we meet in the first part, that suffers from cuteness and an uncertain tone. The first part, played by actors under age 12, is dynamite.

Four kids, ranging from the eldest, Chris (Roman Malenda), to Kate (Sloane Wolfe) to Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) to the youngest, Carl (RJ Vercellone), who is about five but doesn’t talk, occupy themselves in a huge playroom in a house where the adults are absent. Certainly, that’s meant to make the helicopter-parents among us feel freaked out, and it doesn’t help that we have to keep hearing Mom’s chipper voice on the answering machine (still a relatively novel device in the 1980s when the first part is set) as a series of callers leave messages about missed appointments and, from a distraught husband, a garble of bitterness. Mom’s MIA, in short, and the kids aren’t quite alright.

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

To amuse themselves, the kids—who, we expect, take care of themselves quite a lot—tend to play house, with Chris a funnily morbid pater who likes to let his family know that, eventually, we all get to either rot or get burnt up, we have no other choices. Kate, as the mom, is able to take a right to the jaw and get right back to work on whatever dinner might be. Addie, who has her own baby in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll, is apt to be off in her own world, and Carl is perfectly happy playing the dog, pantomimed pissing included.

The version of life the children get up to is darkly entertaining. We never forget (that damned phone won’t let us!) that they’re on their own for what starts to feel a distressing length of time. A letter Kate writes to the late Princess Grace (not knowing the celebrity has just died) lets us know not only that Kate may be the unknown offspring of the Princess of Monaco (compare the bone structure) but that the kids have eaten most of the food in the house, including the frozen stuff.

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Wohl’s dialogue is wonderfully sharp and zestfully foul-mouthed as only children—for whom each expletive is a gem—can be. As Chris, Roman Malenda gets several chances to shine: first in an under the sheet-tent tale about a boy he dislikes, then in a call to school—as a British nanny—to excuse the children from attending. At times he has an odd quirk of raising his voice mid-sentence for emphasis, as though a suppressed passion is ready to burst forth. As Kate, Sloane Wolfe is studiedly adult as precocious children often are, and she’s ready to defect. The younger kids are wonderfully physical in their ability to romp as if they aren’t in fact onstage. Playing a young girl at play is something Alexa Skye Swinton does remarkably well.

If the play ended when the child’s portion does, we would have to connect the dots and, who knows, might even have to allegorize a bit what the adults are doing to this insular world we’ve come to know and love. Instead, what a falling-off is there! Enter adult versions of the children, played with a kind of tense familiarity while speaking lines meant to connect things from then to now.

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

As Kate, Megan Byrne is still trying to cope with everything that doesn’t add up. As Addie, Molly Ward is a mom herself (remember that Cabbage Patch doll?) and still trying to be a free spirit. Brad Heberlee’s Carl is at first MIA himself, then arrives to give a speech he was meant to deliver earlier. His extended crying jag that morphs into the howl he exulted in as family pet is a good example of the earnestness of the dot-connecting and underlining going on. Chris (a different one) played by the always presentable Chris Ghaffari is on hand to earn jokes about Millennials, be the object of MILF desire, and, yes, even a lover in mourning. Ghaffari handles it all by being sweet, as his namesake would never be. Thus we lose much of the acid that the irrepressible playacting master of the house interjected into the proceedings. Pity. Meanwhile, there are jokes at the expense of Scandinavians, a demographic (I guess) it’s still okay to otherize.

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Wohl, not content with the dysfunction among the adults in this family, has to give us an explanatory moment that adds more distress, from other adults in the past. Kate objects to the way that bit of backstory gets dropped into the scene, and I have to agree with her.

If you ever needed, in the course of one evening, evidence about how sad it is we grow up, find it here. Jackson Gay is to be commended on how seamlessly this show runs, and for having the guts and heart to direct this play on the big stage, with great help from a set both spacious and cluttered by Antje Ellerman, effective but unobtrusive lighting cues by Paul Whitaker, with music by Broken Chord and, no doubt, very vital stage managing by Rob Chikar and Kelly Hardy.

There’s much to think about here in terms of how we portray children, protect and neglect children, and project ourselves onto (and back to) children, as well as how children grow into the world as they find it. A fascinating evening of theater.

 

Make Believe
By Bess Wohl
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Original Music & Sound Design: Broken Chord; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast: Megan Byrne, Chris Ghaffari, Brad Heberlee, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone, Molly Ward, Sloane Wolfe

Hartford Stage
September 6-30, 2018

 

 

Method and Madness on the Moors

Review of The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre

Jen Silverman’s The Moors, directed by Jackson Gay, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is brilliant stuff. The play revisits the familiar tropes of Gothic fiction with a sharp sense of the absurd: the sweet and well-meaning governess summoned to a grand manor house on the desolate moors; the peremptory lady of the house, the mysterious master of the estate—her brother; another sister, who pines after literary fame; the surly menial who no doubt knows more than she says, and who may be “with child” or with typhus, or both. Into such a fraught setting, which might do well as the basis for campy comedy or a revisiting of melodrama, Silverman drops dialogue that feels bracingly contemporary, with traces of Beckett and Stoppard. Which is to say that the lines are acerbic, funny, and tend to ride the play’s quizzical rhythms like a moor-hen on a stiff breeze.

The cast of The Moors

The cast of The Moors

One of the most successful conceits here is a philosophical dog, a morose Mastiff (Jeff Biehl) who eventually becomes fixated on a charming but flighty Moor-Hen (Jessica Love). Pet of the late parson, the sisters’ father, the Mastiff wants to encounter God and takes the Moor-Hen to be an emissary from the supreme being. Their exchanges have a kind of elemental purity that makes us aware of how queasy speech is as a means to arrive at any kind of understanding.  As different species, the Mastiff and Moor-Hen cannot share a world view any more than they can mate. But Silverman makes them emblematic of the more alarming aspects of attachment, particularly the hopeless or domineering variety.

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

The attachments on display among the humans also depend upon negotiations with certain possibilities in language, and it is attention to language that makes The Moors such a well-crafted delight. Cold and rigorous Agatha (Kelly McAndrew) might be called “manly” in terms of the times, but she’s also a woman who knows her own mind; she tells the simpering governess, Emilie (Miriam Silverman), “you have been handed limitations, which you accepted.” As unlikely as she may be as a mentor, Agatha manages to seduce the governess in part by means of the letters that brought Emilie to the manor, written as though in the hand of master Branwell, Agatha's brother. The two enact a mistress/maid relationship that makes manifest the kind of sexual dynamic that tends to lurk more latent in typical Gothic fiction.

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

And once that note is sounded, the roles of the other two women become clearer as antagonists to Agatha’s erotic reign, which entails, in lurid Gothic fashion, a scheme of using Branwell as the means for an heir via Emilie, in a kind of incest by proxy. The other sister, Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), styles herself an author, and a famous one at that, because she keeps a journal full of her unimaginative unhappiness, and, in Agatha’s scheme of things, is decidedly de trop.  The maid, Marjory (Hannah Cabell), has other designs and finds Huldey an apt enough dunce for her plans. In essence, then, there are two strong-willed characters, Agatha and Marjory, both played with subtle shadings, and two weaker characters, Huldey, a fulsome comic role, and Emilie, more or less our heroine and avatar in this uncertain situation.

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Another nice touch is the character of Marjory. As parlor maid, she is called Mallory and is pregnant, due to the master’s inclinations we assume; as scullery maid, she is called Marjory and suffers from typhus. The blending of both in one, besides a recurring joke, is also a way of attesting to the slippery nature of roles—social, sexual, dramatic.  Eventually we hear Marjory’s voice in her own journalizing only to realize that she is the most interesting of the four.

And what is our heroine’s role? In a brief exchange between the sisters early on, Huldey asks why a governess is needed when “there is nothing to govern,” an assertion that Agatha gently mocks. Is Emilie to be Agatha’s creature, surrogate mother to the heir, a confidante for lonely Huldey, as the latter hopes, or the eventual mistress of the moors?

Along the way, there is the insipidity of Huldey for amusement, the oddly touching amour between Mastiff and Moor-Hen, sudden violence, and a show-stopping murder ballad. There’s also Alexander Woodward’s wonderful set that gives us both a creepy manor house, complete with secret door, and the moody moors, and eventually a half-and-half of the two that creates a visual commentary on how much the effect of the outside is coming inside. Lighting, costumes and sound design and excellent casting all contribute to making the show’s mix of the comic and the creepy work so well.

With its quizzical tone, The Moors establishes a world of shifting possibility—nothing is as it seems, and nothing will change, but everything will be different. Slyly fascinating, The Moors is first-rate entertainment.

 

The Moors
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer and Original Music: Daniel Kluger; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Cast: Jeff Biehl, Hannah Cabell, Birgit Huppuch, Jessica Love, Kelly McAndrew, Miriam Silverman

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 29-February 20, 2016

Tough Dance with Romance

Review of Elevada at Yale Repertory Theatre

“Romantic comedy” doesn’t usually spring to mind in connection with Yale Repertory Theatre. In addition to revivals of classic works, Yale Rep has typically committed itself to world premieres, experimental scripts, and works that defy genre typing. Sheila Callaghan’s Elevada, directed by Jackson Gay (who directed These! Paper! Bullets!, last year’s rollicking reinvention of Shakepeare) in fact fills the latter three categories. A new comedy about four lonely people who need to find love—the usual rom-com stakes—Elevada is, above all, hard to pin down.

Hence the title, which derives from the early history of the tango. As the program tells us, the tango originated on the Argentinean waterfront, and, as the dance became popular, high society folks came to “dingy dance parlors” to learn it, devising a high step (the elevada) to keep from soiling their hems with the grime underfoot. Callaghan is interested in how we, in the technologically insulated twenty-first century, perform our own versions of the elevada—how we avoid messy genuine feelings that can lead to the greater morass of disappointment and grief. And she proposes, and exposes, several familiar methods.

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Ramona (Laurel Casillo)

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Ramona (Laurel Casillo)

For instance, the play opens with a blind date between the agonizingly shy Khalil (the marvelous Alfredo Narciso) and Ramona, who appears to be an extreme extrovert (beautifully played by Laurel Casillo). Khalil has made millions in the dotcom world of social media at the expense of learning how to be social himself. Ramona is bubbly, quirky, talkative, frank about herself and, it seems, genuinely interested in Khalil. The fact that, on a first date, she casually brings up the subject of death should give us a jolt and clue us in: Ramona is not quite as open as she seems. Although we seem to be in a romantic comedy, our attractive and attracted opposites will go to some dark and unusual places before the play’s end.

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Owen (Greg Keller)

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Owen (Greg Keller)

Because a good deal of Elevada’s pleasure comes from surprise, I’ll resist discussing the sources of the darkness, and move on to the play’s two other characters: Khalil’s roommate, Owen, one of the most hilariously philosophical recovering addicts one is likely to meet, and Ramona’s sister, June, who is a crackerjack realtor and, beneath her armored exterior, a vulnerable mess. Owen, played by Greg Keller, gets some of the playwright’s weirdest and wittiest language, and he makes the absurd locutions sound perfectly natural.

June (Keira Naughton), Owen (Greg Keller)

June (Keira Naughton), Owen (Greg Keller)

Keira Naughton has by far the most difficult role: June is everyone’s straight woman, the overbearing older sister, the woman closed off from her own longings. Many actresses shy away from roles that run the risk of being disliked. Yet Naughton plays every note of this complex woman, so that when June’s longings break through, and—ultimately—when joy replaces her desperate need to be needed, we can fully rejoice in her transformation.

How Khalil, Ramona, Owen, and June metaphorically dance with one another in a series of mainly two-person scenes makes up the plot of Elevada. And though, scene-by-scene, this plot is satisfying, the play doesn’t always quite hold together, dramaturgically. In a minor example, early on Khalil and Ramona take an actual dance lesson together, but we see them learning to pole-dance, not the tango—why? In fact, the tango itself arrives too late in the action to make the metaphor of the play’s title resonate fully. More importantly, a penultimate revelation lowers, rather than heightens, the stakes of the entire story. Perhaps were the play closer to ninety minutes than its running time of two hours, the main revelation would feel more earned.

Ramona (Laurel Casillo), June (Keira Naughton)

Ramona (Laurel Casillo), June (Keira Naughton)

However, these missteps don’t come close to ruining the evening’s pleasures. The greatest of these pleasures lie in Callaghan’s brilliant yet believable language and in Gay’s sure direction and pacing. Many of the scenes are wonderfully silly, but even these have their own wisdom. And the sheer fun of such scenes deepens the darker scenes.

Gay is helped in the production’s theatrical power by a tremendous group of designers. Kurtis Boetcher’s sets are spare and evocative; Shawn Boyle’s projections are haunting; and Steven M. Rotramel’s costumes communicate every layer of these multi-dimensional characters. In addition, Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau and Sound Designer Kate Marvin make the set changes a crucial part of the evening: these are choreographed dances in themselves.

Laurel Casillo as Ramona

Laurel Casillo as Ramona

A romantic comedy that leaves one with much to think about, long after the curtain closes, is rare indeed. Elevada, with its uniquely witty and poetic language, its suspense, its complicated sadness, its warmth, and—finally!—its dancing, just possibly creates a new genre for our seemingly unromantic, and often superficial, era.

Elevada By Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Jackson Gay

Dancers: Frankie Alicea, Luis Antonio, Evan Gambardella, Melissa Kaufman, Rebecca Maddy; Choreography: Kyle Abraham and Kevin Williamson; Set Design: Kurtis Boetcher; Projection Design: Shawn Boyle; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Costume Design: Steven M. Rotramel; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Dramaturg: Catherine Sheehy; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Photos: Carol Rosegg

Yale Repertory Theatre
New Haven, April 24-May 16, 2015

Hey Claude

Much Ado About Nothing, the comedy by Shakespeare that is the source for These! Paper! Bullets!, a new adaptation—or, in its terms, “modish ripoff”—by playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gray, is somewhat silly, somewhat foolish, somewhat witty, and way too busy. The original play suffers from a surfeit of plots that don’t really add up to much—which is a way of saying their only purpose is to divert—and TPB takes that feature and runs away with it.

What makes TPB bigger than our Will’s conception is the driving force of this lively, tuneful, and sprawling production: pop culture in the form of the Fab Four—The Beatles. TPB takes us back to the days when the boys from Liverpool—not to mention numerous copies, clones, and wannabes—first assailed these shores. 1964, the key year of Beatlemania, found the Beatles riding as high as they would ever ride. “Bigger than Jesus,” John Lennon quipped (to considerable backlash), as does his likeness here: Ben (the firmly tongue-in-cheek David Wilson Barnes), the wittiest of the Quartos, aka Benedict in Much Ado. He wrangles, rom-com fashion, with Bea, otherwise Beatrice (Jeanine Serralles), a fashion maven á la Mary Quant. Meanwhile his mate Claude (Bryan Fenkart, the “cute one”) is speechless with his fancy for Higgy, née Hero (Ariana Venturi), a model whose skill, it seems, is to make questionable couture look desirable.

What Jones and company do so cleverly is mash the familiar tropes of Beatlemania—Liverpool accents, matching suits, moptops, screaming girls, fab gear, media circus, hummable numbers—with the giddy courtship shenanigans of Much Ado. And guess what? The Beatles biz beats the Bard.

Fans of the Beatles—and the Rutles—will find moments that recall some of the best banter of the former and some of the parodic tweaking of the latter. The gag album titles, the pastiche for pastiche’s sake in the projections (Nicholas Hussong) and costumes (Jessica Ford) and tunes (Billie Joe Armstrong) and stagings, including a “Hey Jude” rave-up and a “Get Back” rooftop shutdown, will keep those in the know on their toes. Jones even manages to include the one line that appears in both a Shakespeare play and a Beatles tune (indeed, it’s cribbed from a BBC Shakespeare production in the Beatles song). A good extra credit question for classes attending the show—and no fair Googling it. Even the name of the band—the Quartos—manages to combine the Beatles’ original name—the Quarrymen—with a Shakespearean association.

Indeed, TPB improves on Much Ado, but not quite enough. The Don John subplot—never very compelling—becomes funnier with ribs at Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the early Quartos drummer who was dumped and bears a grudge, and the best parts of Much Ado—the eavesdropping scenes—are not surprisingly the best parts of the play here. But Much Ado’s Dogberry, here Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), still manages to dispense his tedium, opening the play, opening the second act, and getting into an interminable physical bout with his second in command, Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee), and with the malefactors, Boris the journalist (Andrew Musselman) and Colin, a paparazzo (Brian McManamon), who are generally tedious company in their own right. I doubt even Monty Python could make these clods as comical as they need to be to justify their time onstage. Their only purpose, as ever, is to give the principals a breather. Me, I’d rather be backstage with the band.

Along the way, adaptation-wise, there are some happy inspirations: Jones cheekily (heh) adapts the mistaken identity plot by way of doctored photographs occasioning, quite rightly, a tabloid frenzy about the most eligible Quarto, while “all the world”—in the form of breathless TV reporter Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) and her cameraman (Brad Heberlee), and even the Queen (Chris Geary, a welcome royal)—looks on. The Quartos themselves are reminiscent of the ersatz Beatles of the Saturday morning cartoon, with Lucas Papaelias nailing perfectly the deadpan adroitness of the George avatar. Meanwhile, Frida (Ceci Fernandez) and Ulcie (Keira Naughton) provide much of the amusement on the ladies’ side. Then there’s Jabari Brisport in Dionne Warwick drag because he can. Unlike The Rutles, Jones doesn’t go near the homosexual undercurrents in The Beatles entourage, as Brian Epstein (and Leggy Mountbatten) has been excised, and a dutiful George Martin type, Anton (James Lloyd Reynolds), runs the show.

Others have commented on how Jones and Gay improve on the sexual politics of Much Ado, with the Foursome getting a comeuppance for their double standard (yawn), but, oddly, the girls don’t fare so well here. Higgy is pretty much incoherent as a character, with the winsomeness of Much Ado’s Hero dropped in favor of party girl dimness—an improvement?—and Serralles’s Bea I could not warm to at all, as something of the role’s soul disappears as Bea is more apt to stuff wedding cake in her gob than appeal to anything more winning. You may find yourself waiting for Yoko. Or maybe Jones should take a cue from that other band of the era and work in someone a bit more Faithfull to the scene.

There’s so much going on in the show, you may easily breeze through without thinking about anything so Old School as character development, and the songs certainly help. There are knock-offs like “I’ll Give It All to You,” and big, rousing numbers like “Regretfully Yours,” that uses Fenkart to good effect, and even Ben trying to lay down a “Hide Your Love Away”-style soul-search, and mustn’t forget Stephen DeRosa’s infectious sing-along to “My Wild Irish Rose” as “impromptu” mugging to mask some scenery shifting. It’s a moment warm with the music hall repertoire that was a ready source for the Lads, and it serves here to reach out to the audience—as do moments like Wisan spotting celebrities in the seats (on opening night Athol Fugard was identified as Winston Churchill and graciously smoked an imaginary cigar on camera).

Full of a little something for anyone with fondness for British humour, or for humoring the Brits, These! Paper! Bullets! mostly hits what it aims at, though somewhere in the whirligig is a romantic-comedy about sex and celebrity in the Sixties—with the Fabs as the feckless flag-bearers—trying to “shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit.”

 

These! Paper! Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Adapted by Rolin Jones Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong Directed by Jackson Gay

Choreographer: Monica Bill Barnes; Music Director: Julie McBride; Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Jessica Ford; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Sound Designer and Incidental Music: Broken Chord; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Orchestrator and Arranger: Tom Kitt; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturgs: Ilya Khodosh, Catherine Sheehy; Casting Directors: Tara Rubin, Lindsay Levine; Stage Manager: Robert Chikar

Cast: David Wilson Barnes; Bryan Fenkart; James Barry; Lucas Papaelias; James Lloyd Reynolds; Adam O’Byrne; Jeanine Serralles; Ariana Venturi; Keira Naughton; Ceci Fernandez; Stephen DeRosa; Andrew Musselman; Brian McManamon; Jabari Brisport; Christopher Geary; Brad Heberlee; Liz Wisan; Greg Stuhr; Anthony Manna

Yale Repertory Theatre March 14-April 5, 2014